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Don Draper Still Has His Sweet Tooth

Michael Ellis

Matthew Weiner
Mad Men Season Five
Wiener Bros
Season Six Premier: 7 April 2013 (UK)

There is a poem by Emily Dickinson that affirms the existence of a world beyond the everyday, beyond death: “This World is not Conclusion,” it begins. “Invisible as Music– / But positive as Sound– / It beckons . . .” Despite all the doubt instilled by mundane experience, the writer’s ever-present sense of the eternal cannot be denied. The poem ends: “Narcotics cannot still the Tooth / That nibbles at the soul–”.

The final episode of Man Men: Season 5 includes a similarly enigmatic image, which sticks in the mind: Don Draper’s bottom-left molar, extracted by a dentist and with its tender roots intact, lying sideways on a sterile silver pan. The tooth had to be removed because the ad executive, as anyone familiar with the series will know, is uncharacteristically squeamish about visiting doctors, so he has left his dentist appointment to the last possible minute. Besides, he says, his recurring toothache “always goes away.”

But, of course, the ache for a world beyond this one never leaves. Season 5, unlike the ones that came before it, brings Don Draper tantalisingly close to the paradise of which he dreams: a world in which he is listened to as the man he wants to be. In that world, his daughter and two sons visit regularly—but not too often—and are protected. His wife, Megan (fourteen years his junior, beautiful, talented, and stunning), takes him as he is and is absolutely reliant on the financial means that he provides. His ex-wife lives comfortably far away, and in the end she gets what she deserves.

At this point in the series, it is easy to idolise Don Draper; but, the truth is, he’s a manipulative and self-serving prick. He spends most of his time either distancing himself from others or bringing them under his control, and if one were to meet him in real life, this would be obvious. Yet, in the context of fiction, he somehow retains his moral integrity. In fact, over the course of Season 5, he garners ever more admiration for the powerful life he leads. Those who are distant from him want to be him, and those under his control believe themselves to be free.

Fans of Mad Men may or may not be surprised to learn that they, too, fall into only one of these categories or the other. And that is perhaps the problem with the show: it is too complicit with its main character. The writers admit of no perspective on Don beyond what he himself would allow others to see. This makes it easy to admire him for his decisive actions, for his power. Yet, when it comes to Don’s motivations, his inner sense of himself, the writers expose only the rough surface of things.

Instead, Season 5 affords an ample emotional journey with the constellation of personalities forever in Don’s orbit. Peggy Olson, his long-time copywriter, grows increasingly dissatisfied with life at work and at home, and, ultimately, she manages to bring both to a higher level. Joan Harris, the agency’s ever-loyal office manager, wrestles with an ignominious opportunity finally to get something for herself, and she reveals a deep truth about herself in the process. Even Pete Campbell, the agency’s shameless but effective salesman, merits compassion in his commitment to building the business and to the possibility that he might fall in love.

Don, on the other hand, spends most of Season 5 avoiding the influence of the complicated lives that surround him. The show manages to entertain and even to surprise, but it leaves one—as it must be designed to do—desiring to watch more and wanting to see less. As happiness slowly escapes Don’s grasp, he grows insensitive to the nibbling at the soul about which Emily Dickinson speaks.

Nothing is revealed about why Don’s tooth aches. It is simply treated with painkillers and then removed. Phantoms from the past haunt him everywhere, but the writers of Mad Men demur at the prospect of exploring his past without his permission. Instead, they veil his inner life with distractions that work their magic upon us, just as Don manages to swaddle the imaginations of clients with his advertising genius.

This is not to say that the writers of Mad Men refuse to give away anything at all. On the contrary, Season 5 indulges viewers of every episode with the fine performances of those who would please Mr. Draper. Indeed, the Season begins with his new wife’s sexy rendition of the 1962 French classic, ‘Zou bisou bisou’, which she performs with infectious verve in front of the ad agency’s entire staff at Don’s birthday party. Megan has her predecessor’s sense of immaculate style, but she brings a warmth into Don’s life that Betty never had. Like Betty, she is a natural beauty, fit for the ad-laden pages of Vogue, but Megan also has the brazen unselfconsciousness of a child. She brims with a certain positivity that Don has never felt before. And she’s sexy to boot. A very promising beginning. At this early stage of the Season, it is no wonder Don has not felt his tooth ache in a while.

Over the course of the remaining eleven episodes, though, Don’s soreness at the world begins to set in again. As the Season moves forward, the people that surround him increasingly assert their independence. Work, and all the ugly, boring people within it, invade his privacy. His ex-wife attempts revenge. His daughter gets her period. Megan dreams, as he once did, of a life beyond mundane reality. She attempts to escape.

Despite all this, almost to the very end of the final episode, when he returns from the dentist’s office, he appears to have mastered his desires. He teeters, smiling in the numbness of seeming happiness. But we know this narcotic cannot last.

Michael Ellis is an online media entrepreneur based in Oxford. He earned his MA at the University of York, where he studied Renaissance love poetry and the theatre of revenge.