For six seasons it’s seemed that Mad Men’s lead character Don Draper has been crafted to exist as a mystery. To me, however, his character was designed to be an answer to one of the great mysteries of the 1970s — the answer to the question, “What makes someone do something like that?”
In 1971 one of the most bizarre and fascinating cases of air piracy in American aviation history — and currently the only unsolved one — was carried out by a man with an alias, wearing a perfectly pressed dark suit and dark sunglasses, with a cigarette in one hand and a bourbon and soda in the other. No one was killed. No one was hurt. No chaos or terror was caused. It was a hijacking conducted without a known motive, by a wellspoken man who then disappeared and was never identified, found, or heard from again. It was as though he never happened.
“People tell you who they are, but we ignore it — because we want them to be who we want them to be.”
There’s always been something in the air with Mad Men, quite literally. From Mohawk to American, North American Aviation, and Ted’s own little two seater, airlines and aviation are about as prevalent on the show as aliases and fake identities. Even when Joan was upset after being served divorce papers from Dr. Harris, it was a model airplane she grabbed and threw at the unassuming receptionist as Don stood in the doorway. Mad Men has been telling us how the story ends from the very beginning. It ends on an airplane.
What’s more salient to this theory is that the current season of Mad Men is a mirror image of the first. Creator Matthew Weiner is interweaving the skeletons of scenes we’ve seen and scenarios we’ve lived before, and even recycling lines from the inaugural season. His characters have been placed back at their starting points, before they had changed form or identity through the years:
- Don is cheating on his young wife, who is growing restless with his behavior.
- Peggy is in love with a married man and fighting for relevance at work.
- Joan is the most powerful person in the office but has no real power.
- Pete Campbell angrily uncovers someone’s true identity (his shotgun is back too).
- Betty is thin, blonde, and beautiful again.
- Duck Phillips is suddenly around.
- Perhaps most tellingly, the agency is once again Sterling Cooper.
After Season One’s storyline of fake identity, Season Two’s started with airplanes: the crash of American Airlines Flight 1 that killed Pete’s father, the agency’s clash over Mohawk and American, the trans-continental flights to the West Coast where, in Los Angeles, the camera panned on Don’s dark sunglasses each time he put them on.
The series has never shied away from taking on historical moments that captured the public’s attention, and it would appear that Weiner is not done.
The man who hijacked Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305 on November 24, 1971 was in his mid-forties. He bought a one-way ticket at the Portland International Airport counter under the alias Dan Cooper and became widely known as D.B. Cooper due to media miscommunication. When he boarded the plane, he took a seat in the rear. He lit a cigarette and ordered a bourbon and soda. He carried with him an attaché case and a note written in neat, all capital letters, which he passed to the flight attendant. Thinking the slip of paper was nothing more than a phone number, the attendant dropped the note in her purse, prompting the well-dressed man to lean over to her and say politely, “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.”
She did as instructed and looked at the note, which read: “I have a bomb in my briefcase. I will use it if necessary. I want you to sit next to me. You are being hijacked.”
The line that always stuck out to me was “I want you to sit next to me.” There’s something oddly human about it, despite the cruelty of the task being carried out. A calling card of Don Draper’s character when he’s at his most desperate.
The hijacker’s demand? According to Wikipedia,“$200,000 in ‘negotiable American currency’; four parachutes (two primary and two reserve); and a fuel truck standing by in Seattle to refuel the aircraft upon arrival.”
“Where are you going?”
The highjacker’s chosen flight attendant went to the cockpit to inform the pilot. When she returned to her post, the hijacker was wearing dark sunglasses. Throughout the ordeal, Cooper kept up conversation with the flight attendants, who later described him as “nice, thoughtful, polite, calm and well spoken.” They noted that he was in no way nervous, and he even pointed out landmarks on the ground to them. When he ordered a second bourbon and soda, he paid his tab, insisting the flight attendant keep the change.
Once his demands had been met, Cooper allowed all the passengers to de-plane in Seattle. He took off again with just the captain and the crew, instructing them all to stay in the cockpit and leave the door closed. He demanded particular speeds and altitudes. When the plane finally landed again at Seattle Tacoma Airport, police and FBI came on board to discover that Cooper was gone, and the back aft airstair of the plane deployed. The crime was never explained. It remains unsolved. And Cooper remains at large and unidentified.
“Happiness is freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing, it’s OK. You are OK.”
I’ve studied both Don Draper and Dan Cooper closely over the years and have found many clues throughout the series that point to their potential connection. Beyond their names, demeanors, the timing of the hijacking, and the sketches of Cooper that look eerily similar to Don Draper, they share an emptiness of motive and morals, wrapped in an odd, isolating kindness, and the need to do something drastic to feel alive. They both appear to live on a wavelength of “no particular reason.”
But mostly it is Don’s behavioral patterns and slow unraveling that give the connection away. Even his proposed ad for the Royal Hawaiian Resort in the season six premiere shows a man shedding his suit and disappearing, unseen, into the ocean.
Don Draper has been shedding Don Draper ever since the death of Anna Draper in Season Four brought him to tears over the loss of “the only person who really knew me.” From that point on Don Draper had no more reason to exist, so Dick Whitman went back to trying on other skins: dedicated husband, team player, mentor. As nothing fit, he began to go backwards: back to cheating and being absent at home and heartless at work. When he puts a dead soldier’s dog tags around his neck to get out of a life he can no longer stand, he’s gone as close back to the beginning as we’ve ever seen him in the series.
As Don sinks deeper and deeper in Season Six — and the show approaches the 1970s — he is preparing himself for a new identity. (Indeed, the sixties were the golden age of Madison Avenue while the seventies were the same for hijackings.) If you need any further clues, the season’s billboard shows two Don Drapers. The Don Draper we know faces us while looking over his shoulder at a different Don Draper, who is standing beneath an arrow that prominently states “One Way.” The Don facing us holds the hand of a woman; the one walking away carries an attaché case as police stand around looking in different directions, perhaps trying to find a man who has disappeared.
In the full version of the season six poster, there is in fact, an airplane flying near the upper right hand corner.
Whether the series ends with Don Draper at the airport requesting a one-way ticket, answering the question “May I have your name, please?” and pausing, only to respond, “Dan Cooper,” or the series ends in another fashion, one thing seems certain: Don Draper will be gone without a trace.