Character Study: Don Draper and Walter White

I’ve heard a lot of bellyaching (and accusations) that America has no culture. Sure we do! We’ve got Disney and Pixar, the American Revolution, the Gettysburg Address, McDonalds and Wal-Mart, and absolutely everyone no matter from whence they are extracted has

The American Dream



What is it? Well you’re gonna pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get a job sweeping floors or frying potatoes and in a decade or so that hard work will pay off and you’ll move up and up into middle management where you can afford to buy your own house and keep your own spouse. There will be kids. There might even be a dog.

If you’re a real success, you just might get rich. You might become a legend. You’d be the best American Dreamer of all.

Let’s put aside all of the ways this dream might not be as attainable for some as for others, and look at the tall tales of two white men with more privilege than they can bear who are suffering at the hands of their American Dreams.

Don Draper and Walter White.


Don Draper, main character of Mad Men, was lacking privilege in only one way. He was a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant with good looks to spare, but he was also a dirt-poor orphan. To erase this blemish, this class-based scar that could prevent his attainment of the dream, he stole someone’s identity. Like you do. No big deal. Then he worked pretty darn hard, for awhile. Schemed his way into a flashy job with serious possibilities for upward mobility. He had learned of the dream and all its trappings at the altar of American advertising, so he scooped up the Cola-ad-wife and had two children with names approved by committee. He became Creative Director, he bought a Cadillac. He had everything, and so much of it.

And yet.


The poster boy for American Dreamers spent most of his time trying to run away from the picture-perfect life he’d created. Mistresses in the city, a drinking problem, flirting with the idea of becoming a kept man for a eurotrash princess years after having his offer to escape together spurned by Rachel Mencken. He lit match after match and watched his carefully crafted Dream incinerate until he lost the wife and the kids, burned through a second wife, became an embarrassment to his company, and began to see even his physical appeal fade. Don Draper thought he was too big to fail, but he was his own undoing.


As Don Draper‘s fulfilled but unfulfilling dreams crumbled to wreckage there rose another, the Baby Boomer Walter White. The white, middle-class man had a promising start, his first shot at glory in the form of a start-up in which he was partial owner. He had the benefit of starting halfway up the ladder, higher than Draper by far. While the start-up grew to fulfill all its potential, Walter opted out in a fit of pique on the ground floor. Instead he became a Chemistry teacher, growing bitter and small over the years nursing the feeling that he had been cheated. Until cancer hit and he was galvanized into action of his own behalf, taking another stab at the American Dream as a drug dealer, rationalized by his need for treatment and his family’s need for support should he pass.

heisenbergWalter White didn’t seem to see, or maybe value, that he had already attained the 1950s version of the dream: he had a comfortable house in the suburbs, a wife and son and a daughter on the way, a stable career, and the love and respect of his friends and family. He had it all, even if many would say he could have had more. He wanted more, like Don Draper, wanted it all. To be a legend. As America grew more hyperbolic and loud, Xtreme with exhortations to follow your passion and Just Do It, so had the Dream grown from stability to excess. So he went from drug dealer to drug lord, crafting a new identity much as Draper stole one from a dead engineer in a ditch. He killed, manipulated, poisoned, he called upon people to kill for him whom he did not fully understand.  Everyone he met suffered for their willingness to believe him, to show him compassion, to show him mercy. He had none.

The American Dream has turned ugly for these men, who found it within such easy reach. It is no longer the squeaky-clean promise of a chicken in every pot in exchange for a life of work and dedication. It is now the monkey on their backs, driving them to accumulate and advance. Do better than the other guy, no matter the cost. Have more. Be more. Crush all who would stand in your way and use their fallen bodies to lift yourself higher. King of the mountain. Top of the heap.

Thing is, as Walter and Don could tell you, it gets pretty lonely up there.

What say you?

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