TV JUNE 24, 2013
Dear Television is Jane Hu, Evan Kindley, Lili Loofbourow, and Phillip Maciak. This season, they'll be posting weekly letters about AMC's "Mad Men." While this is not a full recap, there are still plenty of spoilers. Read the last installment here.
Dear TV, My favorite thing about this season of “Mad Men” has been watching Don Draper go slack. Many fans of the show have—understandably—lamented that Don’s inability to change is boring. One senses a hunger for Don’s redemption. The implication is that Don’s patterns are identical to the show’s and that Don’s progress is identical to the show’s progress: He hasn’t changed, therefore the show hasn’t changed.
We haven’t been among these critics. For me, it’s only at this point when we start to really experience what it’s like to be a Betty living with a Don—when we start occupying the subject position of wife (fan) instead of would-be mistress (potential viewer)—that the show becomes truly interesting. This is one of the few thought-provoking experiments American television—with its sprawling multi-year seasons—can conduct, and it’s not an experiment in entertainment: Rather, it’s a study of boredom and the perils of long-term arrangements like addiction, work, or marriage. The point of a damaged, chronically depressed character whose tragic relation to his past consigns him to sameness isn’t a fix or a happy ending; it’s the awful boredom of the compulsive. More compelling than a documentary portrait of 1960s white America is “Mad Men”’s true protagonist: the tedium that turns people into monsters.
In that sense, “Mad Men” is a show about our own time, no more about the past than “Star Trek” was about the future. We (the “we” whose peculiarly white American history “Mad Men” presumes to tell, anyway) Gatsby-ed our way to an expensive, sexy, monstrous prosperity, and we’re more depressed than we’ve ever been. Self-help today is less about happiness than it is about the willpower to curb our compulsions, and “Mad Men” unifies a cluster of especially ornate tics we anxiously pretend to control: sex, work, television. The complaint that Don has become repetitive after six years of cheating and self-delusion (in some televisual variant on the seven-year itch) overlooks that the tyranny of habit constitutes a legitimate and indeed urgent subject and mistakes the source of our creeping disinvestment in the show. Especially since the show has changed by highlighting that Don hasn’t; it has changed dramatically this season by decoupling itself from Don and peeling its progress away from his stasis.
We’ve come to a consensus that a show’s complexity is identical to its protag- onist's.
For too long (and for too many), “Mad Men”’s appeal has been linked to Don’s. It’s nobody’s fault; this peculiar age of Serious TV Dramas Featuring White Male Antiheroes caught us unprepared. We’ve come to a wrongheaded consensus that a show’s complexity is identical to its protagonist's. Predictably, since we have a thousand years of tragedy as precedent, we’ve taken the sly cousin of the hero story—a genre whose subversive project is forcing us to identify with someone we know to be evil or wrong or mistaken—and responded to this complicated narrative experiment by being, for the most part, stunningly sincere. Our reactions and loyalties are more or less the same as they would be if the antihero were a hero. Yes, there’s a veneer of knowingness; everyone understands that Don’s an asshole. But he’s awesome at his job, and look at the women he gets! There is (or was) a plague of men who want to be Donald Draper and women who want to sleep with him.
That’s weird, and it’s a symptom of just how oddly our sympathies have skewed. It’s been happening for awhile—I’m struck every time someone describes an insufferable and pushy woman as a Tracy Flick because it so clearly illustrates this affective loophole. Jim McAllister, Matthew Broderick’s character in Election, was a psychopath intent on stopping a girl from a “broken home” (to use Betty Draper’s phrase) from being class president. Everyone knew it was satire, but Tracy Flick remains the monster in our memory, not McAllister. We’re in an age when “it’s satire!” has become a facile defense of narrative strategies that so sincerely engage our sentiments that they (or we) forget their satirical goals.
Though not satire, “Mad Men” suffers from this affliction. When watching any particular scene, the experience splits pretty neatly into two basic categories. The first category is so context-rich and unpredictable that we forget we’re obsessed decoders and relish the odd dialogue. These are the Bob Benson conversations, the Roger Sterling-and-Jane-Divorcing sequences, the telephone conversations between Peggy and Stan, or any storyline involving Pete’s mother. Those had the virtuosic quality of seeming like weird things that happened—they lacked the thudding expository quality that sometimes flattens “Mad Men” into a series of symbolic flash cards.
The second category boils down to a quasi-schematic shorthand that informs us so loudly of the scene’s function that we never sink into the scene at all. Back in “Mad Men”’s early days, if Betty and the kids were onscreen, the point was to show us that Betty was an unfeeling and selfish mother. If Don and the kids were onscreen, in contrast, that scene’s work was to portray a complex person who, despite his faults, saw his children as feeling creatures and tried in his limited way to tend to their small, frightened subjectivities. This was a tiresome double-standard, and it became progressively more constricting. (Now that Don and Bets are reconciled, the scenes between Betty and Sally are newly rich; they breathe.) The Don and Sylvia scenes were also of the second type, as were the scenes between Don and Ted which registered Competition! But even those flash-cards served the show well so long as they registered its growing narrative distance from Don.
The finale was sensational and absorbing, but I was stunned to see Don actually get the come-to-Jesus moment . I never would have guessed that the season-long corrective to our five-year habit of falling for Don would devolve into the clichés of hitting bottom and redemption. Don’s not the only recidivist; Matthew Weiner has reverted to Don-centrism. How good it was to see the show acknowledge that Don couldn’t anchor the show anymore—much better than seeing Don Confess to His Past or Punished For His Excesses was seeing him deglamorized and sometimes shuffled aside. To the extent that one can hope for the demise of a charming character, I had hoped Roger’s death would justify the references sprinkled throughout the season—Roger’s many allusions, the Inferno-reading, Vietnam, the assassinations, near-shootings, etc. He seemed like the logical candidate, and for Don’s midlife crisis not to culminate in any death directly related to him would have cemented the show’s new commitment to other characters and plots.
But the season concluded with the symbolic “death” of Don the liar and a full-throated return to Dick-centric catharsis. It seems we have a resurrection to look forward to. Don’t get me wrong: It’s nice to see him come clean to Sally, but Don isn’t a tragic hero nor should he be saved—those traditions belong to another time. Ours is smaller, sharper, and full of clicks. Don’s office isn’t where everything is. Where’s Ginsberg’s dad? What happened to Peggy’s secretary? Oh Joan and your bid for Avon, where did you go?
It's not the way I wanted it,