Mad Men season finale tonight: Is this end of the beginning for TV's antiheroes?
Is there a character on television more broken down at this cultural moment than Mad Men’s troubled advertising executive Don Draper?
Last week, we saw his prized protégé, Peggy Olson, turn her back on him after he humiliated a married coworker she not-so-secretly loves. The week before, Draper’s daughter Sally saw him cheating with a neighbor’s wife – the mother of a boy she liked -- neatly mirroring a moment in his own childhood when he saw his pregnant stepmother forced to trade sex for their room and board.
Curled up in a fetal position in last Sunday’s episode, Draper was isolated from friends, neighbors, wife and the rest of his family, shorn of any quality that might make a viewer sympathize with him, beyond a seemingly boundless ability to alienate everyone in his life.
The question looms: How ugly can producers make this guy before viewers stop caring about him?
And that, according to author Brett Martin, is probably the point.
“That’s the game in some ways,” says Martin, author of the upcoming book Difficult Men, about the creative revolution behind what he calls the Third Golden Age of Television; groundbreaking series such as The Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield, Breaking Bad and, of course, Mad Men.
“What these shows have done is continually test viewers,” he added. “They’ll say ‘You like Tony Soprano? Well, what if he does this?’ Walter White (Breaking Bad’s lead character), the entire story has been a process of stripping away the stuff that makes you care about him…That’s what (Sopranos creator) David Chase always did with Tony; every time you began to forget Tony is a psychopath or sociopath, he would do something to remind you he is a killer.”
This was bound to happen in The Age of the Antihero.
As scores of obituaries for Sopranos star James Gandolfini pointed out last week, that show ushered in a Renaissance of quality for television, inspiring producers to make heroes out of conflicted, awful (mostly) men previously only seen as villains.
The result has been a long line of landmark drama series: Six Feet Under, Deadwood, The Wire, Oz, The Shield, Nip/Tuck, Weeds, Rescue Me, True Blood, Sons of Anarchy, Nurse Jackie, The Walking Dead and many more.
Three important shows starring antiheroes are now closing in on their final days; Breaking Bad’s story of a high school teacher-turned meth dealing drug kingpin ends on AMC this summer. Showtime’s Dexter begins its last season next Sunday, as its hero – a serial killer who mostly kills other murderers – fears his sister may turn him in to police.
And Mad Men, which airs the last episode in its penultimate season at 10 tonight on AMC, gets one more season to run out its story on Draper, a selfish, emotionally closed-off philanderer.
As they wind down, each series is making their lead characters more unlikeable, testing just how bad the good guy can get and still keep our attention.
This, along with the death last week of Gandolfini -- the man who played modern TV’s first great antihero -- lends the sense of a page turned. An era is ending as these classic characters become more despicable than ever.
But what does it say about us all that we can root for such awful people, no matter what they do onscreen?
TVs bad boys have no limits
Shawn Ryan thought he had come up with the ultimate viewer challenge.
As executive producer and creator of FX’s explicit cop drama The Shield, he had an idea to turn audiences on their ears, casting likable actor Forest Whitaker as an internal affairs investigator determined to bring down the show’s central character, Michael Chiklis’ unethical, murderous cop, Vic Mackey.
“I really felt like, wow, we’re going to give the audience a really tough choice here,” said Ryan. “The episodes hit the air, and people hated (Whitaker’s) character; thought he was the biggest dick in the world. But all he was, was an internal affairs guy investigating a dirty cop.”
The lesson for Ryan: Once an audience buys into an antihero, he can get away with almost anything.
“On The Shield I always described it as, ‘The theory of perspective,’” said Ryan, creator of short-lived but critically acclaimed shows such as FX’s Terriers and ABC’s Last Resort. “People begin to associate with the people they watch; they become attached to these characters. I got a lot of emails and comments after (the show ended) from fans who said ‘He really showed his true colors…I can’t believe I was behind (Mackey) for so long.”
In the early days of TV antiheroes, these characters felt like a breath a fresh realism – they struggled with the same ambiguous problems viewers did.
“Television is rich with flawed characters who demand more than the audience’s affection; these antiheroes demand that audience stop, listen and reflect on their own moral judgments,” wrote Tom Fontana, creator of HBO’s explicit, brutal prison drama OZ and producer of landmark shows such as St. Elsewhere and Homicide: Life on the Street, in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.
Fontana’s latest show, the BBC America series Copper, returns to new episodes at 10 tonight wih its story of an Irish immigrant cop working New York’s notorious Five Points slum just after the Civil War.
“The antihero lives by a code of ethics that is wholly his own, to which he remains absolutely true, regardless of the norms and pressures of society,” Fontana added. “The world in which he lives is more corrupt than he is, but there are still people he encounters who deserve a better life.”
In Difficult Men, Martin quotes Sopranos creator Chase, who learned writing for the ‘70s private eye drama The Rockford Files that an antihero only needs to be two things: Good at his job and the smartest guy in the room.
Producers also hedge their bets in other ways. Antiheroes are often surrounded by characters worse than they are; on AMC’s Hell on Wheels, for example, the antihero is a former Confederate soldier who once owned slaves but isn’t racist, while most of the show’s villains are.
And the series often hides the worst impact of their actions, as on Breaking Bad, where you rarely see the lives destroyed by the meth Walter White makes.
Six years after The Sopranos ended, producers are pushing the form more than ever. Netflix’s first original series, House of Cards, featured a flip, turning Kevin Spacey’s antiheroic lead character into a villain by having him kill an innocent person to protect himself.
On Dexter, Michael C. Hall’s killer of murderers Dexter Morgan watched his police detective sister kill a fellow officer to protect his secret. Last year, Breaking Bad’s Walter White let an associate murder a child to cover up a crime.
And on Mad Men, advertising hotshot Draper hasn’t had a superior idea all season, stumbling on the job in ways that threaten to remove the one good quality he has left.
On The Shield, Ryan saved such stuff for the final episodes, wary of testing his audience too much.
“You’re really endangering your show if you make the audience feel that way about the character (too soon)…which is kind of what Mad Men is going through right now,” he said. “It makes you feel a little queasy about enjoying next week. Do I want to watch a scene next week between (Draper) and his daughter? If they don’t show me a scene do I feel disappointed?”
The thin line between hero and heel
His character has been dismissive to an attentive wife, casually sexist and an overbearing know it all for much of his time onscreen.
Still, Dean Norris sees his character on Breaking Bad, drug enforcement agent Hank Schrader, as the show’s real hero.
“It’s great to play the only guy on the show who didn’t break bad,” Norris said, noting that most every other character on the show is morally compromised. “All he wanted was a clean soul. He wanted to be the guy who gets the bad guy.”
As his Breaking Bad character becomes more heroic, facing a showdown this summer with his methmaking brother-in-law Walter White, Norris plays straight-up villain “Big Jim” Rennie in CBS’ miniseries of Stephen King’s novel Under the Dome.
Norris says his character on Dome, a local politician who goes power mad when a bizarre impenetrable dome surrounds a small town in Maine, has his own antiheroic tendencies – acting to save the town at times before acting brutally.
What’s the difference between hero and villain? Norris credits a meld of great writing and great acting, exemplified in the work of Breaking Bad’s creator Vince Gilligan and star Bryan Cranston.
“Any other incarnation of this character, people would just hate,” he said. “But somehow, Cranston’s able to make you like that character, or at least continue watching him. Even somebody like Tony Soprano was conflicted about some things; Walter White has no problems with what he’s doing. Certainly, from my limited knowledge of TV, it’s the first time you’ve rooted for such a bad guy for so long.”
But James Remar, the character actor who plays Dexter Morgan’s adopted father on Dexter, sees the issue much simpler. Audiences, he says, know immediately who is the story’s protagonist – the character trying to overcome a problem – and antagonist who is the problem.
“Even little kids know the protagonist is the guy the audience is supposed to have on their side,” he said. “Walter White is a horrible character, horrible character but (Cranston) is such a wonderful actor he can manipulate the audience. It’s all perspective; if you’re rooting for the Yankees, the Red Sox are always scumbags.”
And what may be most thrilling about TV’s love for the antihero, is that no one knows where the next chapter may take the industry or viewers.
“There was something specifically tuned to the zeitgeist of the early 2000s in these shows, connected to our President and our political situation, that lent itself to TV about male power and when it’s okay to use it or not,” said Martin, referencing George W. Bush, the 9/11 attacks and the war on terror in one swoop.
“The end of the beginning is here; that first wave of shows that intensely focused on the antihero,” he said. “TV is now good and we know it. I’m just wondering what comes next.”
Below is one of my favoite scenes from a past season; when Draper learns the only woman who really knows him for what he is -- the son of a prostitute who assumed the identity of another man named Don Draper -- has died. Enjoy.