(This post was written after finishing Season 3 of Mad Men)
AMC’s Mad Men has won its fair share of awards and for good reason. The 60′s based drama revolving around the lives of Madison Avenue based Admen (hence “MAD Men) displays extensive character development, while managing to maintain an assorted cast of some 20 stable mains and a slew of supports all intertwining into a fascinating web of business, intrigue and infidelity- So much infidelity.
Mad Men itself falls prey to a divide in quality at times. Its cast of carefully crafted characters, each as varied and unique as pieces on a chess board, are fashioned to withstand even the toughest of narrative situations. But instead what we end up watching week after week is the same general events plaguing the same characters between the spurts of side character focus in which the show really has a chance to shine. Infidelity is key within these bridging episodes, with some characters meeting, romancing and sleeping with multiple women in a single episode. This all plays into the culture of the early 60’s wealthy business men, but would grow tired if not for the strength of the show’s character depth. Cheating aside, these characters act out of reason. They are human beings, governed by a set of individual laws, ethics and ideals which display themselves beautifully at every opportunity. The cheating, it seems, is the only shallow point.
While Mad Men boasts a Firefly-esque score of cast members (that is, a wide variety of starkly different individuals that function as parts of a whole unit, both distinct and cohesive), focus generally shifts upon one central character: Don Draper. He is much more than simply the embodiment of alliteration. Throughout the course of the show we see him through many lenses. At home Draper is a shadow, hiding under the protective blanket of the American Dream his deep sociopathic tendencies. At work he is the picture of control and reason, the face of Sterling Cooper Ad Agency. It is as though, at times, Draper is two men in one, and the writers did it on purpose.
Or at least, they must have.
Draper’s character development comes to a clear divide when split between home and work. And moreso then just simple writing style, it is as though we the viewer are meant to cheer him at one moment and scorn him the next. Whether this is the result of a ploy to develop dichotomy within the narrative or simply the result of writing a flawed and real character, I am impressed. It works.
At home, I hate Draper, or more so, am disappointed with him. He has, as stated, achieved the American dream. Through an accident while serving in the military, Draper escaped the life of a farmer by stealing a killed GI’s identity. His lifestyle change gave him the opportunity to afford some of life’s finer things. The white picket fence and then some. He has an attractive wife and 2-3 children (depending on the season) but none of this is enough. Don Draper consistently cheats on his wife. Not content to the commitment of a single mistress, Draper prefers to choose a new (and often random) woman each episode. He spends most nights away from home and has little interest in his children while away from them. When at home, at times we see what Draper could be: attentive father, loving husband, but with each grasp at normalcy he falls again into deviancy. His sociopathic tendencies are obvious. He doesn’t think what he is doing is wrong. After leaving his wife and children, having seemingly realized the fruitlessness of his outside endeavors and vowing to be a better husband, he immediately goes out and repeats his crimes verbatim. The viewer is disappointed, frustrated and angered. Here we see Draper’s wife Betty as the victim, even hoping for the time that she will begin an affair, an event which almost never comes.
As jarring as it sounds, in an instant we are transported from Draper’s home life into his working life. He fills several roles throughout the show’s course at Sterling Cooper, from the face of the company to trusted leader to eventual business partner and shareholder. At times we cheer for his ability to bring out the best in his employees, either through flat encouragement or outright fear. We watch him schmooze with clients and dinner parties. In one of the show’s most compelling episodes, Draper embodies the underdog as the slimey subordinate gunning for his job threatens to reveal his clandestine past. We cheer for him as he laughs off the allegations in the presence of the owners who laugh right along with him. This is a Don Draper that we want to win, which is why it is so difficult to cope with the Don Draper whom we wish to fail.