After five new episodes of Mad Men, I'm convinced this season may come down to a simple question.
How anti can a hero get before he becomes a villain?
Or put a simpler way, how badly can Don Draper behave before we all start treating him like just another jerk?
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The question first surfaced for me two Sundays ago, when Draper initiated a petulant argument over his wife Megan's love scene during her job as a soap opera actress, only to head home and commit actual adultery with his neighbor's wife.
This week, it was watching him react to the shooting death of Martin Luther King Jr. not by worrying if his black secretary was safe amid the rioting in Harlem, but by fretting over his mistress, who had accompanied her husband to Washington D.C.
He also skipped accompanying his wife and daughters to a vigil for Dr. King, instead taking his son to a movie (Planet of Apes, in a jarring move). When his wife Megan confronts him about being emotionally unavailable to his children, he admits how much he was faking being a parent when married to their mother, Betty.
"You want to love them, but you don't," he says, just before admitting that his son finally did something which made him genuinely proud. And instead of reacting in horror that her husband just admitted he hasn't really loved his kids since they were born, Megan hugs her drunk, emotionally abusive spouse like he just won a father of the year award.
Creator Matt Weiner has said this season will put Draper through hell, but it feels as if we're really just seeing him for what he is – a pretender with an open hole of need inside that he is afraid to barely acknowledge for fear it will swallow him whole. And because only those who are truly close to him can see it, he winds up hurting those most who draw nearest, blinded by the lie of a man who is far too scared to simply be himself.
Other oddities surfaced this week, most prominently the characters' almost uniformly emotional reaction to the death of Martin Luther King Jr.
The great debate over civil rights was a discussion which mostly happened off camera for Mad Men's 60s-era characters. But when MLK was shot, even greedy patrician Pete Campbell was upset enough to pronounce it a "shameful, shameful day." (it's worth remembering that Pete did try, quite a while ago, to get one of the firm's clients to buy ads in black magazines.)
It's as if most of the staff at Draper's firm suddenly got religion on the civil rights movement without really discussing or dealing with it in their office or home life. What are they telling their children about this? How do they feel among themselves? How will this affect business (besides prompting an odd client to suggest a fightening ad based on a message he says Dr. King delivered him in a dream)?
What surprised me most in Sunday's episode – besides seeing L.A. Law alum Harry Hamlin pop up for a five-second, odd cameo – was the fact that these people still aren't talking about civil rights or black people or the struggle for racial equality, even as they consider closing up their business early the day after MLK's death.
And, as if to remind us that Draper is still a jerk, Weiner buttons up the episode with an exchange where his son can't sleep amid fears his politician stepfather might be killed by a sniper just like MLK.
Draper's response: "(Stepfather) Henry's not that important."
It's then you realize, stuck between a cold-hearted mother scrambling for an identity and a father who mostly pretends to care about them, that Draper's children will be lucky if they don't become serial killers themselves.
And our anti-hero slips that much closer to being just another jerk in a well-tailored suit.