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When Mad Men’s Don Draper Reads Philip Roth

The fallen ad man turned to Portnoy’s Complaint on last night’s episode

Rachel Shukert
May 05, 2014
Don Draper in 'Mad Men.'(Lionsgate Publicity. )
Don Draper in 'Mad Men.'(Lionsgate Publicity. )

Well, well, well, ring them bells. Last night on Mad Men, a semi-penitent Don Draper, hemmed in by the draconian rules his reproachful partners made as a condition of his returning to work (no new business, no private client meetings, and—horror of horrors—no drinking in the office, which for Don is sort of the normal person equivalent of being forbidden from using the toilet on the job) was forced to find new, creative, SC&P sanctioned ways of playing hooky from work. Out go the daytime benders and lunchtime trysts with a variety of dark-haired mistresses; in come the passive-aggressive catnaps, the games of solitaire, and last but certainly not least, the reading of novels.

“Which novels?” I hear you cry. Why, none other than the smash bestseller of 1969, Portnoy’s Complaint, by none other than Phillip Roth, who, as the fine writer Daphne Merkin once told me at a party with only half her tongue in her cheek, “speaks for all men.”

It’s not the first time we’ve seen a character reading an of-the-moment book—Betty Draper with The Feminine Mystique in the bathtub being a favorite on-the-nose example. It’s not even the first time we’ve seen Don reading a Great Jewish Book—remember him absorbed in Exodus during his season 1 courtship of the Israeli Tourism Board and the department store heiress Rachel Menken? But on a show in which seemingly every prop and costume choice is deliberately chosen for maximum symbolism, What Could It Mean that Don is reading the ur-text of postwar Jewish neurotica? Has his mojo finally left him? In this moment of his disgrace, when for the first time in the history of Mad Men he appears to have no women in his life, little respect from his colleagues, and is essentially working his way back up from the bottom, has the Draper swagger finally fallen away, leaving the insecure, vacillating mess we all know was there under the surface? Can we expect an upcoming scene in the men’s room where Don furtively masturbates as Bert Cooper struggles mightily for a bowel movement in the next stall?

I doubt it, but it’s further evidence of my thesis of how the C-plot of Mad Men is the way minority cultures—particularly Jewish culture—became American. Before you know it, we will be seeing Roger Sterling reading Humboldt’s Gift and Peggy Olsen chuckling away at Joan Rivers on the Tonight Show. And if anyone’s going to do something unspeakable with a piece of meat, it’s obviously Pete Campbell. He’s as Portnoy as the WASP he always wanted to be.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.