The concepts of “alpha” and “beta” often inspire significant debate, but it’s clear that Mad Men’s main character Don Draper is one of the great alpha television characters of today, and perhaps of all time. It is telling that the show’s producers have to set a drama in the 1960s to depict male characters whose unabashed interests include making money, laying women, and competing for status. Among these, Don is the King Alpha. Here are a few things I have learned from watching this character develop throughout five seasons of the show:
Don barely talks about anything outside of business. Nobody knows about his past, his personal life, his love affairs, his likes and dislikes, nothing. Don understands that the more someone knows about you, the more they can use the information against you. Sometimes you are valuable enough that it doesn’t matter (as Pete Campbell found out in season one), but it’s best to give your competitors as little ammunition as possible. The idea of opening up and allowing people to know you as a means of building trust is largely Sensitive New Age Guy psychobabble designed to identify and subjugate lesser males.
Never show outward emotion besides anger
Don is human — he’s prone to the occasional depressive episode of laying in bed for hours and contemplating what it all means, but nobody is privy to this save for his wife and the TV audience. At the office he is always composed, an unshakeable paragon of efficiency with perfectly slicked back hair and a well-tailored suit. Don doesn’t talk about his “feelings” because he knows that, ultimately, men are alone in the world and nobody cares about his problems. The only thing besides his dry sarcasm is the occasional well-timed rebuke when someone royally screws up. Don uses anger surgically, providing a counterpoint to his normally aloof nature. A man who is always sad, angry, or jealous cheapens these emotions and makes them essentially meaningless.
Hide the effort of your successes
This is a crossover from Law 30 of the 48 Laws of Power, which Don exemplifies. Don is regarded as a genius whose often-spontaneous brilliance has kept his company afloat on multiple occasions. At the office, he is the top player who is sought after by other firms and envied by his coworkers. Few will cross him because of the value he brings and the mystique of being able to come up with the perfect idea in the nick of time. Only the viewer is treated to scenes of him in his undershirt, getting drunk as he struggles to brainstorm another revolutionary idea. Don is a genius to be sure, but he also works tirelessly (and secretly) at his craft.
Happiness is transient
Don is a millionaire with a high-powered successful career in a big city, a gorgeous wife, and two kids he doesn’t have to see very often. Yet he is never happy for more than an episode or two at a time. He is overcome with a sense of emptiness, often trying to escape his feelings with spontaneous trips, alcohol, or sex outside of his marriage. Don understands at a basic level that all happiness is impermanent.
The employees at the ad firm know that their work is not selling products, but rather selling the feeling of happiness that people associate with their products. Like someone with autism who has to learn facial expressions by rote memorization, Don excels at this manipulation because he operates outside of a normal consumerist mindset and can understand it objectively. However, he is just as prone to the fleeting nature of contentment as the people he manipulates.
I normally advise against watching TV, but Mad Men is one of the two shows on television I make time for each week. In a whitewashed, PC entertainment world with few male role models, Mad Men subtly gives men a blueprint of how to act in the workplace, at home, and in the bedroom.
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