In Don Draper We Trust
Don Draper and Jack Bauer are two alpha male characters who seem to have little in common, beyond that they’re both incredibly sexy.
Their similarities exceed that, though, because they both represent recent moments in American culture.
Macho, merciless, willing to do anything to get the job done: Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer was exactly the man America wanted as we entered wartime in 2001.
Fresh off of the September 11 attacks, many Americans realized for the first time that our country is vulnerable. Bush’s fear politics amplified the nation’s growing paranoia and made the invasion of Iraq seem acceptable.
The television-viewing public, eager to find in television what real life can’t provide, embraced “24” when it aired in November 2001 and welcomed the opportunity to watch Bauer capture terrorists and save innocent lives. By simulating the resolution of the conflicts we feared, it satisfied us in ways our government couldn’t and restored our sense of justice.
As the decade went on, however, that justice started to ring false. We tired of what began to seem like a never-ending presence in the Middle East and the reasoning behind it seemed progressively fuzzier.
AMC’s “Mad Men,” first airing in July of 2007, presented a more fitting icon for an era in which seeing someone other than a white male occupy the White House was a distinct possibility.
At first glance, some might underestimate Jon Hamm’s portrayal of a smooth-talking, womanizing advertising executive. But Don Draper is more than a sex symbol. We’re lured in by his careful gaze, well-tailored suits, commanding presence and impressive ability to casually toss back glass after glass of whiskey. Intoxicated by his deep cajole, we are seduced into his world, which turns out to be more complex than his suave exterior indicates.
Both Bauer and Draper seem confident, but while Bauer is buoyed by hubris, Draper is actually in emotional turmoil. By season four, the man whom we all thought could get any woman out of her skivvies just by looking at her has been rejected on multiple occasions and has stooped to paying for sex.
Every season of “24” followed the same trope: Jack Bauer was confronted with a terrorist threat, which became increasingly complicated until, in the last of the 24 hours, with some help from other government agents, plot lines were tied up and America was safe again.
On “24,” right and wrong were oversimplified. “Evil” was externalized, represented by terrorists and criminals. Along the way to restoring peace and order, Bauer used torture tactics, employing everything from mysterious painful injections to shoving wet towels down suspects’ throats — or just giving a good old fashioned beating.
Bauer’s actions were justified as a means to an end because these graphic displays of violence always led to suspects volunteering information that ultimately saved Americans from threats — nuclear, biological and otherwise.
Watching Draper muddle his way through life is less moralistic and more thought-provoking than an onslaught of car chases, bomb diffusions and stressful phone calls.
Seeing into Draper’s world is better for the American public because it encourages us to confront today’s issues rather than retreat to the myth that everything will be okay. Where Bauer made us feel more secure, Draper makes us think more deeply about our insecurities.