Don Draper Only Knows One Move: All In

• May 6, 2013 10:28 am

Relatively significant spoilers for last night's Mad Men and Game of Thrones. The post probably won't make any sense if you haven't seen Mad Men. You can get by without having seen Game of Thrones, I think. You are warned!

It occurred to me at some point last night that Don Draper really only has one "move": going all in. Poker players are familiar with the type: They lack subtlety or nuance, opting instead to push all their chips in the middle of the pot in the hope of either forcing other players out of the pot (that is to say, using force to bend them to their will) or winning big by gambling big (that is to say, stumbling into luck). They are an especially frustrating sort; fortunately, they tend to lose big more often than they win big.

But not Don Draper. Don Draper goes all in with a sneer time after time. "Oh, you want to tell me how to do my job, Jaguar-douche? Fine, go get another agency." "Chevy's looking for a big agency? Screw it, let's you and me merge, my mortal enemy!" "Cigarette company dumps us? Just wait 'til you see this full page ad, dicks." "Putnam wants to merge us into part of their unfeeling ad machine? Cooper, Pryce, Sterling grab your stuff: We're Audi 5000!"

And, of course, there's the biggest all in of all: "I'm wounded, you think I'm Don Draper and that Dick Whitman is dead, and I can get out of Korea? Um…okay!"

The thing that is kind of maddening about all of this to the average viewer is that there are never any consequences for Don Draper. Like the poker player who shoves in with nothing better than an inside straight draw and time and again keeps hitting the draw, Draper floats along, above it all, getting by on charm and hair and glare. Meanwhile, the people around him—Peggy, who is essentially demoted as a result of last night's merger and is seen banging away at her typewriter like the secretary she started the show as; Joan, who sees her million bucks in a potential initial public offering vanish after Draper's fit of vanity; Pete, who…well, Pete probably had it coming for being a little weasel—are like the poker players who get sucked out on time and again. They just sit there, stunned and angry and numb as this magnificent bastard keeps winning.

Don Draper is, at this point, essentially unlikable. But he's not unlikable because he's a cheater or a bad father or a bad friend. He's unlikable because the universe refuses to take him down a notch. He's never punished for pushing all his chips into the middle with a bad hand.

Game of Thrones, meanwhile, is filled with a universe of people who suffer the exact opposite fate. Push your chips in and you will be punished for it. And harshly. Think of Ros, the prostitute who has been with the show since the beginning and has carved out a nice little space for herself on the show: she's smart, she can read, and she made a bid to become a power broker by feeding information to Lord Varys. And, at the end of the day, she's still nothing but a whore, sold to the king so he can get off by murdering her. She doesn't even get a goodbye speech; we simply see her corpse, riddled with arrows, dangling there as her pimp speechifies on life's various cruelties.

It's not as if Ros was disposed of so easily because she was a relatively minor character. Eddard Stark made his play to protect the Iron Throne and had his head cut off for his troubles. Tyrion Lannister put it all on the line to protect the city from being sacked and saw his treacherous lout of a nephew try to murder him for his trouble. Theon Greyjoy sacks Winterfell only to have his men turn on him and turn him over to some sick dungeon master who does unspeakably awful things to his pinkie finger. Put a sword to your sister's belly and threaten the unborn child of a warlord and you'll get molten gold dumped on your head. You get the idea. Stick your neck out in Westeros and someone's going to chop off your head.

In a weird, almost perverse, way, the world of Game of Thrones is more realistic than the world of Mad Men as a result (fire-breathing dragons aside). It's world where there are consequences for your actions. Fortune does not favor the bold. Don Draper wouldn't last half a season in Westeros—and we, the audience, would probably be fine with that.