Every once in a while, a television character seems to slide effortlessly off the screen to take up residence in the Zeitgeist.
Such a creation is Don Draper.
He's the smooth-talking, sharp dressing, serial adulterating, archetypal 1960s ad man who is the central character of "Mad Men," the Emmy-laden modern-period drama just finishing its third season on cable (AMC). Jon Hamm, the Golden-Globe award-winning actor stars in the series.
The Don Draper phenomenon is making the rounds in popular culture:
Don Draper was voted as the No. 1 Most Influential Man of 2009 in a poll conducted by AskMen.com. And Don's not even a real person.
Don was recently the subject of a spoof on "Saturday Night Live." Jon Hamm souped up the role and comedienne Amy Poehler played an office worker attracted to him because his name just happens to be Don Draper.
Don is definitely having his day. But the moral confusion surrounding his character poses a significant problem, especially for women.
Viewers have come to know Don as a nice guy (he befriends the one rising female executive in the office), a creative guy (Don is a master of clever ad campaigns), and, much of the time, a loving husband and father, '60s style.
However, there is a dark side to Don, which to some makes him all the more intriguing, but also makes Don an ambiguous character, to say the least.
In theory, the show's creators may intend that ambiguity. They could argue that it makes Don more of a complex, modern individual. In practice, this persistent ambiguity in the central character of a widely viewed drama is ultimately a cop-out and it turns Don Draper's lifestyle into a primer on questionable behavior toward women.
Don has lied about his past – or at least disguised the truth about it. He chain smokes – in that old-fashioned way that used to be regarded as compellingly cool. Too often, he is seen holding a quintessentially 1960s cocktail, though he seldom exhibits the negative effects of alcohol.
But what makes Don Don, and is the characteristic that has propelled him front and center of the American popular imagination, is Don's attitude toward, and success with, women.
Women find him irresistible. And though Don doesn't really want to be unfaithful to his wife, he is, with an average one liaison per episode. For the most part, he gets away with it. Don kind of knows his behavior is wrong; and he feels bad about it – every once in a while.
There's a "boys will be boys" attitude surrounding Don's escapades in the show that tends to make the audience somewhat forgiving of him.
But what effect is such a character meant to have on an audience? Is Don a hero and therefore a role model because he's so handsome, suave, clever, and upwardly mobile even though he cheats on his wife in serial fashion? Or is he being held up as the model of a villain due to his adulterous, duplicitous, sexist behavior?
Unfortunately, almost three seasons on, the program has yet to provide any clear indication of a functioning moral compass to help the viewer evaluate Don.
To be sure, that is often the game successful TV writers play in order to hook audiences and keep them coming back. The popular TV series "Lost" is one example. However, the difference here is that "Mad Men" at least pretends to be realistic; and given the amount of attention being bestowed on him as a leading man, Don Draper functions as a compelling role model for masculine behavior. The issues raised by his attitudes carry reverberations for the American family.
When AskMen.com interviewed men about Don Draper, the allure of being able to drink and smoke with abandon, womanize with impunity, and be in charge won out over the fact that Don is also an alcoholic, smoker, and depressive introvert; "They all said pretty much the same thing," when AskMen.com pointed out the darker side to Don Draper, "I know. I don't care. I still want to be him."
And that is a problem.
As the season comes to a close, there are indications that Don may be beginning to face the possibility of consequences for his actions.
But unless there is some kind of resolution, "Mad Men" will end up, ironically, as merely an ad campaign, a slick advertisement for moral confusion.
Katherine Stephen is a freelance writer.