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This column contains spoilers from the first episode of season six of Mad Men.
Cable has a long history of playing stories through the anti-hero – mostly because that’s a vastly more interesting way of looking at the human condition and partly because the network ideal of not alienating a single viewer had led to decades of clearly delineated white hats and black hats.
There was no room for ambiguity — no gray hats.
But from Tony Soprano (The Sopranos) to Vick Mackey (The Shield) to Walter White (Breaking Bad), cable is littered with these complicated types. Hell, there are anti-heroes — broadly defined — who are minor characters spread throughout vast ensembles on any number of cable series, making viewers check and double-check their moral compass to see if it’s actually acceptable to like them. Everybody seemed to love Omar on The Wire. And viewers were certainly supposed to like McNulty, too, even in season five when he went off the rails.
I remember David Chase complaining during one Television Critics Association press tour that too many people were in love with Tony Soprano. He was going to ratchet up Tony’s more unspeakable traits and see what the reaction would be.
It must be fascinating for intelligent series creators to tinker with the characters they create. The most difficult trick in television is to keep a show interesting every year (and in some ways, every episode). One season of greatness will never be enough if you muck it up the next season. More pressure-filled is the idea that you could make three seasons of brilliance and then get knocked off your perch by a perceived bad fourth season. It’s an impossible bar. But if you’re creative, you don’t stand pat. People change in real life, and they must change as characters.
No one in the history of television has pushed this notion further than Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, has done with Walter White. His proclamation that he wanted to “take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface” has been the most harrowing, ambitious and daring character evolution ever.
But what are we to make of Don Draper on Mad Men?
Since season six just started and the two-hour premiere ended with the revelation that Don is having an affair with his downstairs married neighbor, Sylvia Rosen, it brings up an important question about Mad Men.
Is Don likable?
Maybe a better question would be, “Is that even important?” But let’s stick with the simple one first. Is he?
He’s a cowardly deserter who took over another man’s life. But he also befriended that man’s wife and they found a meaningful connection with one another that was beneficial to both of them. Anna Draper was Don’s strongest female connection (followed closely by Peggy — and it’s relevant that he didn’t sleep with either of them, although he did try to put the moves on Anna’s niece).
We know he was cheating on Betty at the end of the pilot. Don will eventually cheat on Betty six times before they get a divorce. He then goes through six other women, some more cruelly than others, before marrying Megan.
And now he’s started the cycle again, this time with Sylvia.
We know that Don can be cold when he’s protecting his past. He shut out his half-brother in season one, and his brother hangs himself because of the rejection. Don’s own mother, a prostitute, died in childbirth. He hated his cruel father and at least hated his stepmother to the same degree (saying “good” when his half-brother says she died of stomach cancer).
He’s distant and demanding, particularly at work. Is that a bad trait? Because it works for him and it worked for Sterling Cooper.
On the other hand, we know Don loves his children very much (in many ways, far more than Betty does). Granted, motivated by fear and confusion in season one, he wanted to run away with Rachel Menken, which would have necessitated leaving his kids, likely with no way to reach him ever again. (Rachel alone, however, moved Don from the “I’m not going to let a woman speak to me like that” phase to a more enlightened sense of her power, drive and passion, which from that point on I think changed his view of women in a more positive, healthy way.)
After imploding in season four, Don seemed to have finally settled down a little bit in season five and, dare we even mention it, attained a bit of happiness with Megan, even though their relationship hit some odd, rough patches — none worse than when Don left her at a Howard Johnson’s.
You could make an argument that Don actually learned from that and learned how to give and take – not just dictate – in a relationship. And throughout the season, he solidified himself as a father.
So, that question, again: Is Don Draper likable? Should viewers be rooting against him, feel conflicted about him (as we do many people we love) or merely be in the final stages of grief for a character they used to like?
I would contend that Matt Weiner is indeed asking us to feel some kind of affinity for Don. And from the start, I certainly have. The glossy stuff of his life is easy enough to be alluring and thus make him likable: He’s a survivor who reinvented himself and in so doing found what he was really good at and excelled in it. He’s impossibly good-looking and charming when he wants to be. He has no problem with the ladies. He’s cool and aloof in a magnetic way that men approve of. He doesn’t suffer fools at all — see his interactions with Pete Campbell, particularly in season one, for a master class in how to never blink or say “don’t worry about it” when you don’t mean it.
As for his faults, what is it that has haunted and driven him simultaneously? Certainly a need to be loved or at least wanted, even on the most base level. His marriage to Betty played out like the farm boy with no mother and mean parents was trying to paint over those memories with the perfect Grace Kelly wife, a house in the suburbs and two kids who could reap the benefits of a moneyed existence with a mother who doted on them.
But that didn’t work out because Betty was never what he thought she’d be. In both Midge and Rachel, he was seeking independent, intelligent women, though we later learned with Faye that parity would never be an option if an independent, intelligent woman pushed him to do what he could never do – be himself, admit the albatross of his lie. Ultimately, he took the easy way out with Megan (and strangely confirmed, finally, that he could never have a meaningful relationship with a blonde woman who wasn’t Anna Draper).
Don clearly has complicated issues with women. His sex drive has driven him to bad behavior — some worse than others, but it’s not like he’s a misogynist, given his protection of Joan (and disappointment at her choices last season) and tough-love grooming of Peggy to not only survive but thrive in what through this stage has been a man’s world.
He’s got demons that he drinks and screws away. He seems incapable of finding happiness but at least he’s looking for it, not content to soak in his own bitterness. If you subscribe to the nobody’s perfect rule and Don’s many contradictions, it’s easy like him, particularly if you can understand what drove him to make bad decisions and fail, and especially so if you can glimpse a bit of yourself in him. But I’m not sure that would be an entirely popular stance. And his latest dalliance in season six has all the makings of ending very, very badly for a man who can’t seem to overcome himself. And yet, without Don there is no Mad Men. I would love to see a spinoff following Peggy, but in the show we have right now, a very flawed man makes it go.
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