In the past few weeks, TV viewers bade farewell to two famous, and in some ways archetypal, Americans--David Letterman, a real person (albeit one highly stylized for TV), and Don Draper, a/k/a/ Dick Whitman, a fictional character disguised within a fictional character.
Some commentators have insisted on calling Letterman a "loser," because he never achieved his ambition to become host of "The Tonight Show." I disagree. Though I was never a regular viewer of "Late Night with David Letterman," I admired the imaginative and edgy wit he brought to late-night television. The nightly "Top Ten" lists were marvels of ever-renewing comic invention, and Dave's revolving group of sidekicks--most famously Paul Shaffer, Chris Elliott and Calvert De Forest, a/k/a/ Larry "Bud" Melman--kept viewers delightfully off-balance during the nearly 35 years of the show's run.
In the end, however, and as it had to be, Letterman himself was the show's real draw.
The smirking, ironic persona he created--it was anyone's guess to what extent the persona was the real man--kept us laughing and beguiled both within the show and outside it, adding spice to the sometimes bizarre events in Letterman's real life--i.e. the stalker who pretended to be Mrs. Letterman.
However, the final show showed us much that was unironically likable about David Letterman. From the parade of celebrities who came to present the final "Top Ten" list to Letterman's obviously heartfelt expressions of appreciation for Shaffer and the rest of the "Late Night" staff, Letterman's farewell represented just how much esteem his colleagues and his viewers had for him. David Letterman didn't need "The Tonight Show" to succeed; he was--and is--David Letterman. That is something rare and glorious indeed.
As for Don Draper--the character a tribute to both the creative genius of Matthew Weiner and the interpretive genius of Jon Hamm--he was the linchpin for the most complex and fascinating group of characters ever to appear on American television. It was the hallmark of "Mad Men" that our perceptions of the characters shifted from episode to episode; none was always likable, none always hateful, and all had the power to startle us, but never in a way that triggered our disbelief. That was especially true of the enigmatic Don. During the "Mad Men" marathon that led up to the series' finale. AMC ran a commercial that showed all of the show's major characters--Betty, Megan, Sally, Peggy, Joan, Roger, Peter, Bert--telling off Don at various points, and in no uncertain terms. Don deserved it every time, and yet I always felt badly for Don each time it happened. As a viewer privy to secrets and nuances could not be expected to know, I always felt that if they could see the lonely, mistreated boy underneath the smug, chain-smoking exterior, they wouldn't be so harsh.
Of course, Don misprized them as much as they misprized him. That was another aspects of the genius of "Mad Men:" its awareness of the impossibility of completely knowing another human being, and of divining someone else's motives. There are so many instances of this throughout the show's history that it is impossible to enumerate them in an article of less than book length. One, however, stands out for me at this moment: the story arc in which Don, meeting Conrad Hilton, thinks he has hooked Hilton both as a client and a buddy, only to lose him at the crucial moment. Roger, of course, is incensed: himself a tycoon, Roger knows how to cater to a tycoon, and would have avoided the imperceptible errors Don made. Don, the dreamer and parvenu, thought talent and bonhomie were enough to clinch the deal with Hilton. "Your work is good," Hilton tells a dumbfounded Don at the end. "But when I say I want the moon, I expect the moon."
At least for us humble viewers, when Don Draper and his circle were on screen, the moon was ours. "Mad Men," though it sometimes puzzled us as to where it was headed, always left us with characters and situations that fascinated and beguiled us. I don't think it was an accident on Matthew Weiner's part that Don Draper's real surname was the same as that of the greatest dreamer and self-mythologizer of American literature. Like his namesake, Dick Whitman/Don Draper was large, and contained multitudes. In his fictional story, he created his own myth, just as David Letterman, in his factual but highly joked-up story, created his. There is a great American tradition of self-creation; Huck Finn and Jay Gatsby exemplify it, as do their authors. To that list we may add David Letterman and Don Draper--both legends, and both quintessentially American.