The characters on network television–and I’m not denying they can’t be compelling–tend to have just two contrasting facets. And these two facets tend to have an ironic twist: Jack Bauer hunts terrorists, but he acts like one; House is a narcissistic asshole, but he saves more lives than anyone else. With that in mind, I started thinking about Don Draper and I came upon a familiar quote from William James:
…we may practically say that he has as many different social selves as there are distinct groups of persons about whose opinions he cares. He generally shows a different side of himself to each of these different groups. Many a youth who is demure enough before his parents and teachers, swears and swaggers like a pirate among his ‘tough’ young friends…it may be a perfectly harmonious division of labor, as where one tender to his children is stern to the soldiers or prisoners under his command.
The ironic contrast is definitely at work in cable television. Dexter is a killer, yet he seems nicer than the characters around him. His justified killing is made more palatable since he’s surrounded by the crude, the power-hungry, the grasping, the weak, the stupid. The writers of Mad Men situate Don Draper similarly. The times are racist, homophobic, sexist, and chauvinistic, and Don certainly partakes in his share of these vices, but his manifests itself in more palatable doses when compared to the other workers at Sterling Cooper, especially in comparison to Pete Campbell or Roger Sterling. But back to William James. I think part of Don’s depth comes from the different worlds we see him in. He is not the same man at home with Betty as he is when he’s negotiating office politics at Sterling Cooper. Likewise, he seems to be someone else entirely different when he’s gained intimacy in an affair. But who is the real Don Draper?
I think the real Don comes out only for a brief moment during the classic pitch scenes. Don in the office is not Don delivering a pitch. During that brief glimpse, he is the artist, the master psychologist. And he can’t be that way in any other facet of his life.
I’m not entirely sure, but it sure as hell felt like the show ended ten minutes early. Worse yet, during the last ten minutes of the hour, AMC showed highlights from the Mad Men closing party. As Cooper said to Pete Campbell in season 1, “Who cares?”
After the triumph of the first season, the show glided into a sophomore slump. I have to say it. The last episode confirmed it. I’m still trying to put my finger exactly on what’s responsible for this trend. All I have is a few thoughts. First, the show has drifted away from its premise: we need continuously smoking, racist-chauvinist, adulterous, alcoholic–and yes, glamorous and charming–men creating advertising in the early 60s and we need the women who live lives of quiet desperation under them. We need characters struggling for fulfillment within this crucible. Much in that way, the first season was electrified by the uneasy relationship between Don’s creativity and his role at home as the man in the gray flannel suit. His dalliances fueled his genius and underscored his hypocrisy: where Betty was staid, controlled, and proper, Midge was free and dionysian; where Betty was domesticated, Rachel Menken was authoritative, decisive and defiant. The poignant moments came when it became clear Betty wanted to be this kind of woman, particularly in bed with Don, but his straight jacket conservative side wouldn’t allow it. All this was lost in season 2. Bobbie Barrett was an obstacle and the detonator to blow up the Draper household. That is all. It was much more interesting when Betty discovered Don and her shrink had been sharing information. Rather than confront him, she used this to her advantage as a feedback channel–subtle and better, alluringly devious.
And this is supposed to be a show about advertising! We need the pitch meetings. We need Don, the master psychologist, the artist. After watching the SNL skit this last weekend, it occurred to me that because parodies of Don’s pitches were so obvious, perhaps Matthew Weiner feared they had to fight imitating themselves. But they can’t runway from this challenge. Don’s monologue for “The Wheel” in season 1 is unforgettable. It reaches so deep, operates on so many levels, that it haunts. I can’t think of one moment like that in season 2.
The main point is that Don strayed off the reservation, figuratively and literally. Those episodes where he joined the Lotus eaters in Palm Springs were such a waste. There were glimmers of a return in the last episode. The cliffhanger involving Don leaving the firm sparks my interest. But with no contract in sight, and talk of taking a break, Weiner may leave us without anything for a long time. Sad to say.