“Nostalgia—it’s delicate, but potent,” says an inspired Don Draper. “In Greek, ‘nostalgia’ literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards… it takes us to a place where we ache to go again.”
Mad Men’s brilliant ad man is of course hawking Kodak’s “The Wheel,” but he was also describing the celebrated AMC television series, which provided a portal to martini-stirring 1960s New York—an intoxicated epoch rife with sociopolitical upheaval and enough cigarette smoking to make Bloomberg’s head explode. And at the center of this stylish trip down memory lane is Don Draper, a stoic, haunted man who is the very definition of tall, dark, and handsome. Since July 2007, he’s been played by Jon Hamm—a journeyman actor whom the network famously deemed “not sexy enough” for the part before getting Lasik and giving in. The role of Don made the struggling Hamm an immediate household name, earning him a Golden Globe.
But the end is nigh. On April 5, the final seven episodes of Mad Men will begin to unravel, and the saga of Don will come to an end. I’m seated with Hamm on a hotel room sofa in Midtown Manhattan, and the 44-year-old seems a bit somber about saying goodbye to Don. “Watching somebody constantly struggling with which way to go, or which way the pendulum is going to fall on that precipice, is very dramatically compelling, and you get invested in it,” he says.
Mere days after our interview, Hamm would admit to spending 30 days in rehab for alcohol abuse, but he still managed to commit to an entire day packed with press obligations like this one. Hamm’s longtime partner, Jennifer Westfeldt, recently revealed that “the darkness of Don has weighed heavily on Jon,” and it’s easy to see why.
Don was raised Dick Whitman, and grew up in a brothel. During the Korean War, he assumed the identity of Lieutenant Don Draper, a fellow soldier killed by a mortar, and began a new life—marrying a young model by the name of Betty Hofstadt (January Jones), and moving to New York City, where he sells fur coats. “He literally is not who he says he is. He is the definition of ‘playing a part,’” says Hamm, “and I’ve always understood that. To assume a different person’s name and person’s life is a whole other level of craziness that’s hard to imagine.”
One day, he comes upon ad exec Roger Sterling (John Slattery) in his fur coat shop, and eventually sells Sterling on the idea of giving him a job at his Madison Avenue agency, Sterling Cooper. Because of his unique understanding of what consumers want, Don soon becomes the agency’s golden goose.
“They’re friends, but Don is ultimately the guy,” Slattery tells me. “Without Don Draper, there is no Sterling Cooper. So that’s why Roger has his back—Don’s brilliant, and he’s the guy that makes it happen.”
Despite his picture-perfect life—great job, beautiful wife, two cute kids, house in the ’burbs—Don finds himself tormented by his troubled past, which leads to all matter of self-destructive behavior, including excessive boozing and womanizing.
“I think he’s fundamentally a very broken person,” Hamm says. “He keeps trying to rebuild his house—his life—on a foundation that’s cracked, and not suitable, so he keeps running into the same problems. Is he a douchebag? No. He’s not the most irredeemable person in the world; he’s just confounding sometimes. You want to go, ‘Come on, man! Get it together! Do the right thing!’ but you realize that for some people, doing the right thing is really, really hard, and it takes a lot of active soul-searching. And often, these people have been rewarded for doing the wrong thing.”
No one really knows who the “real” Don is, and he even confounds his coworkers at Sterling Cooper. “Draper? Who knows anything about that guy?” says Harry Crane in the series’ third episode. “No one’s ever lifted that rock. He could be Batman for all we know.”
Like Don, Hamm has a dark past, having lost both his parents by the time he was 20, and struggling for years waiting tables and even working as a set designer for Cinemax softcore porn flicks while flunking auditions for things like Dawson’s Creek. Once his age caught up to his looks, he began landing minor film and TV roles, before Mad Men changed his life. But Hamm says he and Don are not very similar.
“Don is a very measured guy,” says Hamm. “He’s a very different person from Roger, or Matt Weiner, or Jon Hamm. He’s got a lot of things that he doesn’t want to share for very good reasons, and he wisely shuts up about it, lets people think what they want to think, and realizes that a lot of his power comes from his sense of mystery.” Once people get to know him, however, that façade begins to crack. “As he gets older, he realizes that the mystery doesn’t necessarily hold as much power as it used to. He is getting older, people like his children are figuring out more about life and about him. His ex-wife doesn’t think he’s fun anymore, his protégé doesn’t buy his bullshit anymore, so it becomes more about, ‘When your secrets are all laid out, now what?’”
And during the first half of Mad Men’s final season, Don was a veritable pariah. He’s been given “six months leave” by the ad firm he helped build, his actress-wife Megan wants nothing to do with him, and he’s trying to regain his mojo. “Don’s always had a lot of tricky issues with his personal life, but he’s always had the ability, wherewithal, and safety in his professional life,” says Hamm, “but his chickens have come home to roost.”
After some serious groveling, he’s finally allowed to rejoin the company—albeit in a reduced role as a low-level member of the creative team who needs his every move signed off on by the partners. “He’s being publicly shamed and humiliated by everyone in the office, including Stan, Peggy, Ginsberg, all of them,” says Hamm. “They were all waiting for this moment to say, ‘Ha ha, fuck you.’ He knows that, and deals with it.”
When we last left Don in the midseason finale “Waterloo,” he’d finally gained his standing back thanks to the wheeling-and-dealing of Roger, who executed an 11th-hour deal in selling a 51 percent stake in Sterling Cooper & Partners to rival firm McCann-Erickson—under the stipulations that it remains an independent subsidiary, and that Roger, Don, and Ted each ink five-year deals. With that great news, however, comes the passing of Bert Cooper, one of the founding fathers of SC&P, which may—or may not—send Don down another dark path.
“He’s had his wings clipped in every way, shape, or form, and one of his big professional touchstones dies, and that signifies not only a shift in the power dynamic, but also a shift in Don’s life,” Hamm says. “This person, this titan whose name is on the building, is gone forever. It hits Don particularly hard, and Bert’s swan song is very emotional for Don. That’s where he is.” He adds, “He’s just said goodbye to this person and is very, very curious what the next step is going to be. We’ve seen it happen before, and they’ve once again wiggled their way out of a financial conundrum, but everyone is older now, and everyone is more or less comfortable. This is a very different beast.”
When asked what Mad Men scenes were the hardest for him to execute, Hamm takes a long pause—before diving into Don’s tumultuous storyline in Season 4, where his AWOL past and false identity are exposed, and he’s confronted about it by Betty.
“There was a lot of darkness in Don’s life that we really explored in-depth, and it’s been unrelenting in that respect. There’s been a lot of hardship and sadness,” says Hamm.
“The show doesn’t shy away from the darkness,” he continues. “It comes across as a very real examination of people dealing with the real shit in their lives. We all lose people, we all go through stuff, bad stuff happens, jobs aren’t satisfying, and there’s so much to process. Life is tricky.”