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For Don Draper's Backstory, 'Mad Men' Creator Weiner Researched Captains of Industry

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood June 21, 2013 at 3:45PM

The latest episode of "Mad Men" ("The Quality of Mercy") is all about alpha males protecting their territory--in this case, the ad execs in the newly merged agency Sterling Cooper & Partners. Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is undermining and challenging new partner Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm), who is clearly infatuated with Draper's blossoming one-time protege Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), while Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) is trying to dominate upstart Bob Benson (James Wolk).
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Jon Hamm as Don Draper in 'Mad Men'
Jon Hamm as Don Draper in 'Mad Men'

The latest episode of "Mad Men" ("The Quality of Mercy") is all about alpha males protecting their territory--in this case, the ad execs in the newly merged agency Sterling Cooper & Partners. Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is undermining and challenging new partner Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm), who is clearly infatuated with Draper's blossoming one-time protege Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), while Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) is trying to dominate upstart Bob Benson (James Wolk). 

It's fascinating to watch these men jockey for power and to see how Draper is threatened by the women in his life, from rising creative executive Peggy to his wife Megan (Jessica Pare), who was supposed to help him create the perfect marriage but decided to have her own independent career instead. 

I was fascinated by a recent Vulture post in which a shrink tried to analyze the psychology of Draper. What I have always loved about "Mad Men" is watching these smart men stumble around without much consciousness: until Roger Sterling hit the couch, they were pre-therapy. When episode three offered up literal flashback explanations for Don's behavior --when he was a pre-adolescent kid his broke and pregnant Depression era single mother had to seek shelter in a whorehouse--it fell with a thud. All of these men are womanizing--they feel entitled to do so--no one more than Don. Does his particular sex addiction all come down to some past trauma? What a let down!

Matthew Weiner
Matthew Weiner

When I ran into "Mad Men' creator and showrunner Matthew Weiner at a Telluride Film Festival party at the London Hotel during his Emmy season rounds last week, I asked him about the melodramatic backstory he had devised for Draper. Did he have to load all this on Don to make him such an ardent adulterer? Many Manhattan professionals during the 60s were hard-drinking womanizers, including my own charismatic Navy veteran father, without such a psychotraumatic past.

Weiner responded that most of the questions he gets like this are more about the questioner than the characters he's creating. He added that he had done much research, when writing the show, into the backgrounds of the titans of industry, and was struck by how many of them, from John D. Rockefeller to Andrew Carnegie, had overcome hardscrabble, often neglectful and abusive upbringings in their rise to wealth and power. Well, okay then.

Weiner talks more about "Mad Men" Season 6 here

This article is related to: Mad Men, Mad Men, Jon Hamm, Matthew Weiner, Television, TV, TV News


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.