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Don Draper (Jon Hamm) exits a plane in a still from the seventh season of 'Mad Men.' Photo © Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

The double life

Characters with secret identities are flooding serial TV dramas. What does that say about a ‘normal’ existence?

By David Wilson

The final seven episodes of Mad Men began on Easter Sunday. On a holy day steeped in the mystery of resurrection, millions of viewers gathered before their TVs, hoping for an answer to the question that has driven the series since it began in 2007: Is Don Draper doomed to eternal free fall?

Don Draper is a liar on a grand scale, a man who steals someone else’s identity and fashions a stellar career in an industry that specializes in duping people. He cheats on his wives, betrays his colleagues and elevates self-deception to an art. When he seals his second divorce by writing his ex a $1-million cheque, she tells him, “I know it’s not real. Nothing about you is.”

Mad Men is one of the reasons we can say we live in a golden age of television, an era that began with The Sopranos in 1999 and has flowered into an embarrassment of cable TV riches. Like countless others, I’ve become a TV series addict. But it wasn’t until I got hooked on The Americans, a series about a pair of KGB spies masquerading as a white-picket-fence couple in Ronald Reagan’s Washington, D.C., that it dawned on me: the cable universe is full of Don Drapers — characters leading double lives fraught with inner tension and moral ambiguity.

The double life has been a cable motif ever since Tony Soprano first shambled into our cultural consciousness: in one life he’s an emotionally vulnerable husband and father, in another the sociopathic head of a New Jersey crime family. Think of the serials that followed. In Weeds (2005–2012), a widowed suburban mother becomes a big-time pot dealer. Dexter (2006–2013) featured a Miami forensics cop moonlighting as a serial killer. Homeland, set to launch its fifth season this fall, boasts a pair of central characters with double selves: a brilliant CIA agent who’s secretly bipolar, and an Iraq war hero who’s actually a radicalized terrorist.

The writers of the wildly popular Breaking Bad built six seasons around the character of Walter White, a methamphetamine kingpin who launches a career in crime while he’s a high school chemistry teacher. Walt speaks for a lot of characters on cable these days when he asks his wife in season four, “Who are you talking to right now? Who is it you think you see?”

You could view the surge of cable characters leading double lives in purely narrative terms: the intrinsic push and pull of their duelling identities spawns great storylines. But the huge popularity of these series suggests a connection with viewers that’s deeper, more visceral.

The last time popular culture was colonized by characters leading double lives, the West was locked in an ideological struggle with the Soviet Union, and communist infiltrators lurked under every lonely streetlamp. Risible B-movies from the 1950s like My Son John, Big Jim McLain, I Was a Communist for the FBI and the paranoid sci-fi allegory Invasion of the Body Snatchers taught us to fear the man or woman leading a double life. The outwardly normal person sitting beside you on the bus or at the PTA meeting could be plotting to destroy the things you cherish.

Undercurrents of paranoia lurk on cable today — Nicholas Brody, the war hero turned terrorist in Homeland, is an obvious example. But compared to their one-dimensional predecessors in the ’50s, today’s double-life characters are more of a threat to themselves than anything else. Don Draper is incapable of genuine relationships because he himself is not genuine; he descends deeper and deeper into loneliness and self-destruction. Maternal instincts drive Weeds mom Nancy Botwin into pot-dealing, but inevitably the demands of her new persona make her a lesser mother. Even characters like Brody aren’t as threatening as they could be because inner conflict dulls their edges.

In the anti-communist movies of the ’50s, the call to action was urgent and blunt: the infiltrators must be exposed and expelled. The promise of America — the middle class way of life — hung in the balance. There’s no such urgency today. If anything, the modern cable anti-hero lives a double life to escape the middle class and its conventions. A sense of dissatisfaction gnaws through the genre: the straight and narrow so prized half a century ago now seems deficient, its conventions a yoke rather than a collective ideal. Don Draper’s failures as a husband and father are as much a rejection of middle-class requisites as they are symptoms of his flawed self. Walter White descends into crime because living within the law denies him the means to provide for his family. Nicholas Brody’s transformation into a terrorist is only partly a result of brainwashing; another part of him understands that preserving a way of life in America causes terrible collateral damage elsewhere.

Unlike their B-movie predecessors, we’re neither told to love nor fear nor loathe these characters. Instead, it’s assumed that we understand them — we get them. And clearly we do. Perhaps this moral ambivalence reflects a touch of jealousy. Most of us accept the constraints of middle-class life as the price we pay for the material certainties and peace of mind it promises. But I suspect a lot of us are closet rebels — we fantasize about living a different, less convention-bound existence. Characters like Don Draper are a vehicle for those subversive fantasies: they’re the rebels we wish we could be, and a channel for our anger when the middle-class promise fails us, as it has for millions in recent years. How can we disapprove of them?

As Mad Men wound down to the finale last month, Don was losing his edge. He gave disastrous advice to a colleague. His attempt to finesse his way out of a corporate takeover crashed and burned. He spent a lot of time brooding on his office couch. It’s as if his invented self had developed a slow leak. The message seems clear: invented identities are mortal, fantasies fleeting. In the end, we have to learn to live with ourselves.  

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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