Don Draper is the walking caricature of early 1960s America.
He drinks, smokes and covets any woman he sees — and that is all just part of his job.
As the central character on the television show Mad Men, Don (Jon Hamm) is as much an era-defining persona as he is a valediction of times on the verge of drastic change — change that no one could have seen coming.
For three seasons, Mad Men has captivated critics and audiences with its daring recreation of a time in America’s history when everything seemed right. The white working man was an unstoppable force with two wars behind him, a wealthy country to do nothing but prosper in and a loving family always waiting for him at home.
The ’60s social norms have been the focal point of the series so far, but with the end of the third season Sunday, the lavish American Dream that Don has based his existence on is finally starting to come apart.
The beauty about a show like Mad Men is that the audience knows exactly what is going to happen as the 1960s progress, but all of the characters do not.
So for Don and his co-workers at the Sterling Cooper advertising agency, life is filled with endless cigarettes, booze and promiscuity without a single thought to the dire consequences that lie ahead.
At first, it was just the societal conventions of the time that stood out as red flags to an audience fully aware of the dangers of cigarettes, but now the show has enhanced the inevitable.
On the second to last episode of the third season, one of the first major attacks on the American Dream occurred when Don and company experienced the assassination of former President John F. Kennedy.
This heavy blow to perfection was felt by all of the characters and, thankfully, was handled with exceptional precision. Everyone knew this horrible day was coming, but creator Matthew Weiner made sure to recreate the event and showcase it with the same amount of grief and confusion that occurred in reality.
The event, along with the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald, was a timely shock for the cast of Mad Men, representing the grim and desperate acknowledgement of an altering shift in lifestyle that could not have exploded more gracefully.
The season’s end also saw a divorce, which only adds to what will come in season four.
Season four will take place in 1964, and the Civil Rights Act and ongoing escalation of the Vietnam War are just a few of the events waiting to redefine society for the characters of Mad Men. The assassination of JFK simply opened the floodgates, and life as Don knows it will never be the same.
But it is not as though Mad Men hasn’t prepared its audience for such a dramatic shift. The show has presented two characters, right from the beginning, that always emphasized the constantly evolving 1960s, whether it was blatant or not.
The first, of course, would be Don, but the other would be his female counterpart, Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss). The first female copywriter at Sterling Cooper with her own office who works right alongside the men happens to be just as troubled as Don.
She has had her own string of affairs, as well as an illegitimate child with one of her co-workers. She eventually gave up the child; Peggy puts her career first, not a man.
Although Peggy certainly exemplifies the growing advancement of women during the 1960s, it is Don that sets the defining tone.
Mad Men is incredibly sharp because it captures the decay of the 1950s postwar mentality through a character who literally incorporates every bit of drastic change in the acts in which he participate. Don is calm on the surface, but his perfect suits, whiskey and replenishing supply of Lucky Strike cigarettes will not help him fight what is coming.
But Don, like the era he so eloquently defines, is on the verge of a serious breakdown. His mysterious past, along with the endless extramarital affairs add up to the unhappiness plaguing the supposedly perfect male.
And with the departure of his wife Betty at the end of the third season, it is just a matter of time until Don, like his country, falls desperately apart and severely requires redefinition.
As an audience, we have watched Don prosper; as the show continues, we will witness his downward spiral into chaos — a spiral that has certainly begun.