Mad Men's big gamble: Can we stay invested in TV's biggest dirtbag?
We’re one episode away from the end of Mad Men’s penultimate season, and creator Matt Weiner has trounced his hero Don Draper in ways few showrunners would dare.
Forget about whether someone is a killer, a thief or drug dealer; in the world of modern television, such labels tell you little about whether a character is a hero for the audience.
I’ve noticed a few things, though. Even the unlikeliest of antiheroes has a set of values – codes of behavior that govern how they act. They have people in their lives who they value and try to love. They have goals with which most people can readily identify.
In a forthcoming book about TV antiheroes and the messed-up men who have created them, called Difficult Men, author Brett Martin quotes The Sopranos executive producer David Chase saying such modern characters really only need two qualities: They need to be good at their jobs, and they need to be the smartest guys in the room.
So leave it to Weiner and Mad Men to push that envelope as much as you might think possible, even in a TV world where mobsters, serial killers and drug dealers lead the most successful shows.
In Sunday’s episode, “The Quality of Mercy,” we saw hero Don Draper (Jon Hamm) still dealing with the aftermath of the previous week’s episode, where daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) stumbled on him having sex with his mistress not long after he had saved the woman’s son from service in Vietnam.
That scene, from the episode “Favors,” resonated for all kinds of reasons. It mirrored a scene we had observed earlier in the season, in which Draper recalled seeing his stepmom forced to sexually service the man who ran the whorehouse where they wound up living. (Don, born Dick Whitman, was raised in that whorehouse after his brutal father died, eventually taking the identity of a superior killed in Korea to start anew).
Watching Draper’s earliest sexual experiences shrouded in the atmosphere of sordid transaction, it’s no wonder the character has trouble enjoying a simple, loving relationship in adulthood.
On Sunday, we saw Sally recoil from her father and grow even more cynical about life in general. Once repelled by her mother’s meanness and insecurity in the wake of her parents’ divorce, Sally Draper on Sunday roped old, creepy childhood pal Glenn to bring over a friend, some liquor and weed to a boarding school she hopes to attend during a sleepover, manipulating the situation to impress the girls already there and win freedom from both parents.
But riding home in the car, Sally bums a cigarette from her mom, joining her in an unspoken disdain for the man who looms in their lives, turning mother and daughter into a mirror image of each other without knowing (and let’s note that Betty Draper, after sleeping with her ex-husband a few episodes ago, now lets her teen daughter smoke, qualifying for mother of the year).
Speaking of mirroring, we also learn new character Bob Benson (James Wolk) is a self-made man in the Draper mold, lying about his schooling and work experience to get ahead. The twist here: once Pete Campbell figures out his charade, he doesn’t even bother unmasking him, well aware of how little top partner Bert Cooper cared about Draper’s lies years ago.
Some Mad Men characters, it seems, can learn from experience.
Meanwhile, Draper solves a work problem in the most brutal way, explaining new partner Ted Chaough’s devotion for an expensive ad campaign to a client by saying the notion was the last idea from a colleague who had just died of cancer. The move saves the account but alienates Draper from his former protégé Peggy Olson (Elizabth Moss), who actually came up with the idea.
After Peggy pronounces him “a monster,” Draper curls up on his office couch in a fetal position, isolated from everyone in his life.
Draper can’t accept his young wife’s success as a budding TV actor. He destroyed his relationship with both his mistress and his daughter by getting caught in the act. His new partner hates him for highlighting unrealistic devotion to an expensive idea (the unspoken reason; because Ted loves Peggy and it was her concept). Peggy hates him for manipulating their situation to humiliate Ted. And he’s resumed the kind of drinking which sent him down a black hole after his divorce.
Sure, other TV characters have hurt people and made drugs and stolen and lied. But at the end of Sunday’s episode, Draper is exposed and alone in a way few producers would allow for their most prized character.
There is no noble reason for why Draper has landed in this circumstance. He’s not protecting his family, recovering from an illness or ridding the world of murderers. He’s just pursuing his own selfish goals like a wounded animal; even his one altruistic act, saving his mistress’s son, is poisoned by the way Draper uses it to finagle one more encounter with a woman who had tried to end their relationship.
Draper’s situation echoes another truism about Mad Men; characters rarely change, no matter how much they want or need to.
Already, some fans have dropped away from the show; The Atlantic writer Ta-Nehesi Coates wrote that Mad Men had “become a bad comic book,” pronouncing Don a “dirtbag.” Coates referenced an essay from New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum complaining that Draper has “begun to feel suspiciously like a symbol,” written to convey meaning rather than serve as a fully-fleshed character.
Both these writers are far smarter than I am. But I wonder if their reaction isn’t just a response to seeing one of TV’s greatest characters stripped of almost any redeeming quality, closed-off and alone in a way that it is hard to imagine a man smart as Draper allowing to occur.
Weiner’s challenge now: Making us care enough to spend one more season with a man who seems an unredeemable dirtbag.
That may be the only mystery Mad Men has left to share.