Don Draper is one of the few characters on TV that was fully realized from the first episode. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner wrote the pilot script in 2000 and spent years fine tuning it and making sure it was perfect.
By the time the show hit the air, Weiner knew exactly what he wanted out of his main character. And it shows.
The world of advertising in the 1960s had never been tackled by episodic TV before, and it was fertile ground to explore both the morally grey genius of the field and the historic events that left indelible marks on all Americans. That is what made viewers originally tune in to the show, but Draper is what kept them coming back.
Weiner and his team of writers spent much of the first season building up Don Draper as the perfect man. He is good-looking, charming, well-liked and is excellent at his job. He is the kind of man women want and other men want to be.
They even showed that more directly with Draper’s extramarital affairs. Everywhere he went, women seemed to flock to him. Every character has to have a vice, and Draper’s – and every other male’s on the show – seemed to be sex.
But slowly, the writers began to reveal other things about Draper’s seemingly wonderful life and slowly chipped away at his perfect veneer. What to the world seemed like an ideal marriage was anything but. His wife continued to mourn the loss of her mother and had become depressed, leaving her emotionally distant.
Don’s series of infidelities continued, but with each one it started to become clear that he was not doing it for sex. He was a deeply troubled man desperately searching for and failing to find any kind of emotional connection.
And finally, the reason he was starved for that connection became clear as his dark past came to light. His mother was a prostitute who died giving birth to him, his father physically abused him and his stepmother verbally and emotionally abused him. All of that led him to steal a dead man’s identity to escape a life he hated.
All of this character development is done through flashbacks, so the audience knows about Draper’s past but the other characters don’t. This dramatic irony causes the viewer to feel like they’ve been invited into Draper’s inner circle, and makes it even more effective when his entire world comes crashing down.
Draper’s emotional breakdown at the end of Season 3 is one of my favorite moments in recent television. It was the culmination of years of buildup, and the payoff was splendid. Small cracks in his carefully crafted life had been showing up little by little, until they finally got big enough that everything collapsed.
And while the writing of that entire plotline was spectacular, Mad Men needed an engaging and believable lead to sell it. Luckily, they had that man in Jon Hamm.
Hamm is naturally charming and charismatic, so his portrayal of Draper’s business side was always spot-on. But he deserves special credit for his perfect performance of Don’s downfall.
As mentioned, Draper’s collapse happened gradually. We needed to see without being told that he was beginning to falter and lose his edge, and Hamm played it masterfully. He steadily grew more out of control as his emotions bubbled up inside him. You could tell he was starting to fall apart, yet it was never over the top.
Hamm has been nominated for a total of 17 awards for his portrayal of Don Draper and was part of four other nominations for the entire ensemble cast of Mad Men. He won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama Series in 2008 and the cast won Best Ensemble in both 2009 and 2010.
Mad Men remains one of the best-written shows currently on TV. The plotlines are interesting, but it is Draper’s character that keeps the show grounded and emotionally impactful. He is the perfect example that people are not always what they appear.
Programming Note: Mad Men season 4 ended on Oct. 17, 2010. Due to financial squabbling between the show’s creators and AMC, production for Season 5 has been pushed back and the show may not air again until 2012.
TV’s Top 10 Characters
10 – Stewie Griffin
9 – Sterling Archer
8 – Chuck Bartowski
7 – Manny Delgado
6 – Dexter Morgan
5 – Barney Stinson
4 – Don Draper
3 – Abed Nadir
2 – Phil Dunphy
1 – Ron Swanson
Honorable Mention – March 31