After last Sunday’s painful Mad Men episode (and this whole season has really been a long, bitter exercise in chewing glass), the fragile mystique of Don Draper suffered a few more cracks. Don’s persona has been decaying ever since the first season, and if you’re especially cynical about the peculiarly American urge to invent one’s own self, you might say that Mad Men is just a long process of Don Draper entropy, like watching time-lapse footage of an orange molding and being devoured by hordes of ravenous ants and fruit flies. At this stage in Season 6 (and with only one more season to go), we’re probably somewhere in the early stages of moldiness with Don. He’s rotting at the core and his skin’s just starting to wither. He’s smelly and probably a little squishy to the touch. If you threw him at someone, you’d be making a mortal enemy forever. Don Draper is, in other words, a pretty gross organic entity, but he’s not, as some people have recently suggested, a sociopathic monster.
That’s the line of criticism video game and sometime TV blogger Hoopleton decides to take in light of the most recent installment of Mad Men in which we learn that Don Draper is a really, really shitty father. That shouldn’t come as much of surprise, since young Dick Whitman watched his dad make a mess of Depression-era fatherhood right before a spooked horse kicked him in the head, leaving Dick to come of age in a brothel. The hints certainly haven’t been subtle — showrunner Matthew Weiner seems intent on letting us know that the Don we see before us is a fragile persona, a gigolo, as Bing Crosby croons so obviously over Episode 3’s credit sequence. Yeah, we get it — there is no such person as “Don Draper.” There really isn’t a “Dick Whitman,” either, since in America, one makes one’s own identity. Don Draper is whoever he wants to be, and by pawning off the burden of his Dick Whitman secret onto Megan, he’s made a real muddle of himself, caught between the Don he wants to be and the Dick that growing up during the Depression turned him into.
Hoopleton has had it with Mad Men, a show that, to his mind, has devolved into a parade of male depravity. Watching Mad Men is like watching a movie that glamorizes bad behavior (so, basically every movie) — sure, these characters are horrible, deeply flawed people, but, goddamn, they do dress well, don’t they?
I don’t like Mad Men because at some point in the show’s lifecycle the series went from being a commentary on misogyny to a proponent of it. For me I think that moment came when Betty went from beautiful victim to ugly bitch-queen ex wife.
Yes, there are a couple other significant female leads, but they’ve either taken on the mantle of Betty’s victimhood (Joan, Megan) or devolved into a sort of patriarchal comic relief (Peggy).
The focus of Mad Men is the men. And although they may be presented as flawed, deeply so, there’s a sort of celebration of their ugliness. The women on the show are largely decoration. This isn’t about their journey, they’re tourists. This is about the men. One man in particular: a psychopath named Don Draper.
Hoopleton’s point about Betty is well-taken — her development has been a little disappointing, although she has remained one of the most consistently strange and unpredictable characters on the show (the rape joke she made in the two-hour season premiere was off-the-wall crazy). The Wall Street Journal’s Dorothy Rabinowitz also picked up on the show’s willingness to punish its female characters for becoming, as she put it, too glamorous or superficial:
There is something intriguing in the show's tendency to portray beautiful women as lacking in depth. What passes for substance in females is strictly limited to workaday types, women distinctly unstylish, sweet looking enough, perhaps, but no head-turners. Women, in short, like the talented and ambitious Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss). The moral of this story—or, more precisely, of this kind of casting—is perfectly in keeping with the clichés of every age as regards women, not just the era "Mad Men" has taken up.
As for Don Draper being a “psychopath,” all the show’s evidence points to the contrary. Psychopaths, by definition, are amoral, and Don Draper, like any other Western protagonist, lives by a very specific moral code. That’s an important point to make, since Hoopleton later alludes to the fact that, in American pop culture, “the cowboy is king.” Don is a cowboy — you could set him up with a tin star, a few days’ growth of stubble, and a Colt Peacemaker and drop him right in the middle of a prospecting town. He’d fit right in as The Man With No Name, or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance — deeply flawed, deeply misogynistic, but nevertheless, in his own peculiar way, obdurately moral.
You might even go so far to say that Don is one of only two moral characters on the show, as long as you define morality as a doctrine or system that someone lives by, that is, not necessarily universal, but rigid. Don’s behavior is, in that case, more consistently moral than anyone else’s, a character trait that was challenged last season when he left Ginsberg’s notebook in the cab, and reasserted when he tried to stop Joan from sleeping with the sleazeball from the Jaguar dealership association, and when he pulled (spoilery spoiler) Lane down from his noose. This isn’t to say Don’s a swell guy — he isn’t, and even his adherence to his moral code proves that he’s too stubborn and inflexible to adjust his behavior in a changing world. If anything, Don Draper is a deconstruction of the Western hero — the Gunslinger, the White Knight, etc. — because, just like the Western hero, “Don Draper” is a complete fiction.
The only other deeply principled character is Joan, and one of the biggest criticisms to be hurled at Season 6 is that the promising friendship that was developing between Joan and Don at the end of Season 5 has barely been mentioned. These characters are the moral fulcrums on which the show’s other characters pivot. None of the show’s other characters adhere so closely to privately-defined sense of morality. Even Peggy hedges in a way that makes it unclear what her principles are. She has a new gig, sure, but she still has a toe dipped into her old agency, whispering gossip across the phone line to Stan. Does she have a serious problem betraying her old gang to win a nice piece of ketchup business, or is that the sort of behavior that Peggy Olson is amenable to, in the right circumstances?
Mad Men’s female characters aren’t simply “window-dressing,” at least not anymore than the male characters, and dismissing them as such reveals more about the dismisser’s attitude towards women than Matthew Weiner’s. The show may center around Don, and Don may be an asshole who ignores his long-lost brother or leaves his second wife at a Howard Johnson’s because she won’t eat orange sherbert, but that isn’t why Hoopleton despises him. It’s not Don Draper, the shitbag dad, the philandering husband that we should hate — it’s Don Draper the icon of masculinity:
Praise be to Jon Hamm for a great performance, but Don Draper is a monster. A monster with the personality of a briefcase latch.
Of course that in itself isn’t the problem. There are plenty of despicable characters on television. The problem is that the monster that is Don Draper is presented with an overabundance of sympathy. He’s cool, suave, sexy, and what’s worse is that an entire generation of men respond to him as such.
And that’s the real crux of affective criticism like this. Don Draper inspires people to tweet messages of affirmation when Don returns to his philandering habits, or he encourages young professionals to slick their hair back, wear black suits, and order old fashioneds at happy hour. Don’s tumble down into the Inferno is so smoke-filled and glamorous, that it makes people (specifically, a certain kind of misogynistic male viewer) long to hurl themselves into oblivion. Is that really any different than, say, the glamor we read into a struggling writer’s Bohemian life in Paris, or an alcoholic’s complete dissolution over the course of a movie? Leaving Las Vegas exists as an acknowledgement of and rebuttal to the allure of ruin, and if you want to get really Big Picture, the story of Western civilization is a repeating pattern of the same society reaching a zenith, getting really boozed up on how awesome it is, and then totally imploding, overburdened with the weight of its own achievements.
Personal decay is fascinating, and, in Mad Men, we’re not just witnessing the decay of one solitary ad man who can’t stop unfurling his penis whenever a woman offers him a charmingly worn paperback classic. We’re witnessing the decay of an American archetype — the man who undertakes the impossible task of building a monument to the identity he creates for himself on the grave of the identity the world had created for him.
Monster Chic [Hoopleton]
Image via AP, Michael Yarish