The XX Factor

A Theory of Don Draper’s Pledge to Be a Better Man

As Frank Rich pointed out in the Sunday New York Times , this season of Mad Men has a new tagline-no longer “Where the truth lies,” but rather, “The World’s Gone Mad.” Things seem relatively normal in the early 1963 moment with which the season begins-though by year’s end, we know that history alone, not to speak of the tangled lives of Mad Men ‘s ensemble cast, will make a sense of cultural and political vertigo inevitable.

And, through all this, Don Draper is trying to reclaim his place as the ever stable ubermensch -not just a dashing salesman, and the kind of guy spoken about in hushed whispers by his younger colleagues (“Baltimore? With Don Draper ?”), but a good father and a good husband. I rather like his brand of parenting-he usually backs up wife Betty when the kids come ‘a-whining about various acts of discipline, and his one-liner about daughter Sally’s status as a dependent seemed fresh out of the 21st century daddy playbook. But as a husband, he’s been atrocious-the missing piece of a man otherwise crying out for idolization.

Actor Jon Hamm, who plays Draper, has suggested that Don will start to atone for his wayward homemaking in this season. And indeed, the episode opens with a birth scene, showing the broken home(s) into which he was born. Don seems distinctly bothered by this imperfect genesis, and making a silent pledge to be “good at this,” as Betty notes shortly thereafter.

So why is Don still cheating on Betty? And with such an obviously idiotic young, blond stewardess? The group of friends with whom I watched the premiere noted that Don’s banter with this vaguely southern belle was distinctly stupid compared with his usually zippy seduction protocol. And that Don’s dalliances from seasons past (bohemian Midge of the West Village, staid Rachel of Menken’s department store, the mysterious Californian heiress, and brash Bobby of the entertainment scene) have been brunettes-and spitfires in their own right. Our theory: Don couldn’t help being emotionally invested in women who were his intellectual equals, or close, and fun in bed to boot.

But if we take it as an icky matter of 1960s-era fact that men will cheat on their wives, isn’t Don doing his best by picking the least plausible (true) love interest around? It’s cold logic, but that’s the kind of man Don is.

Photograph of Jon Hamm as Don Draper copyright 2009 American Movie Classics Company LLC. All rights reserved.