When I first started watching Mad Men, I hated it. The way that sexism in the late 1950s and early 1960s was portrayed was so real and so relatable to modern issues women face and our history of the workplace, I couldn't separate the rawness from the masterfulness of it. The show tackles these issues in a fictional world set in 1960s Madison Avenue that no one had seen portrayed before. Once I was able to set myself apart from it, I realized how brilliant the show is, and my hatred soon began filtering in on one person: Don Draper.
I hate Don Draper, but it's a complicated hatred. I’ll use “hatred” in a broad, vague way. We’re talking about a fictional character so I don’t mind using such a strong term. He's a boozin', cheatin', ego-maniac. But if you remember, he's the only man in the show who's been consistently supportive of women, in his own, complicated way.
His marriage to Betty is a 1950s facade--he has the perfect life, with the (seemingly) sweet blond who does whatever he says, a woman locked inside a prison she can't get out of without Don talking to her therapist and not allowing her to follow her modeling dreams. Yet, every woman he has had an affair with (which is a lot, we'll be here for days if we go over the entire list) have all been independent, strong, intelligent women.
Let's take a stroll down Don Draper Lane:
These women are anomalies of the time--or at least within the Mad Men "universe." There were others as well (the flight stewardess who he had a one-night stand with, Candace the prostitute, Bethany the young actress, Allison his secretary and Sylvia Rosen), but these accomplished women were the ones he had to try the hardest to seduce. The dichotomy of Don being attracted to and appreciating the beauty of a strong, independent woman and yet being the biggest womanizer east of the Mississippi makes me want to scream at the TV "You're disgusting!" and then "But thanks for valuing intelligence!" Is he trying to take power away from these women by seducing them and then destroying and sabotaging his relationships with them? Is it a reflection of the time? Or, outside of his marriage, is he searching for his female equal within a social constraint that doesn't allow them to be his equals? Enter: Peggy Olson.
Peggy is Don's protege, and for many seasons, his only true friend. When he wasn't being an alcohol-abusing jerk, that is.
Don sees himself in Peggy, and it's no secret--he's told her this. The narrative of Don and Peggy throughout the series is, for me, a central story. The central story. It's two generations clashing together, 1950s man and progressive 1960s woman, it's two incredibly creative people with nothing else in their lives but their work, and therefore, each other. In many ways, they are representative of the same person, or a ying and yang. The season I felt was the least engaging for me was season 6 when Peggy and Don barely spoke to each other or were even in physical proximity to each other. The episode The Suitcase (which I previously wrote about) was a masterpiece of TV and film--just Don and Peggy trying to work out an ad for a suitcase, while really working out their own relationship. Last week's episode, The Strategy, brought them together again.
Peggy seems to be the only one, up until recently, who challenged Don not only about work but about himself. In this season (season 7), to be able to work at the agency again, he had to work UNDER Peggy. He finally accepted it, and although we saw Peggy go from disdain to swelling with sweet revenge over her mentor who hadn't treated her well in the last few seasons, she wasn't entirely comfortable with this arrangement. When they finally meet one-on-one, the friendship and that bond we have watched from the beginning, was reclaimed. Once again, it's Don who believes in her. He tells her to do it her way, as Frank Sinatra's "My Way" plays in the background. Not even Ted, one of the nicer guys in the show (until they have an affair), has said something so direct and empowering to her.
It's not quite paternal with Peggy, but it is interesting too that Don's oldest child is a daughter.
Sally Draper has been witness to some of the most horrifying secrets a child could be exposed to, and she always seems to have a front-row seat to her father's indiscretions. Sally's defiance has always been chided by her mother Betty, but when it comes to Don, he takes a different approach: he tells the truth. But the truth doesn't come easy. Sally challenges her father. There's something about Sally that sees through his bullshit and I think that's a relief to him. When it comes to Peggy, Sally and even Anna and her niece Stephanie, Don can become a completely different person. And perhaps that's because he is a completely different person than we were led to believe.
Perhaps Don's biggest secret in the series, is that he isn't even Don Draper at all. He's Dick Whitman. He became Don Draper after Don died in the Korean War, and Dick assumed his identity. With this new identity, he goes from being a poor orphaned kid who grew up in a "whorehouse" to the slick, smooth, creative genius that tells lies and stories for large amounts of money on Madison Avenue. He became good friends with Anna, the wife of the real Don Draper, until she died. Her niece, Stephanie came to know Don's secret as well. When Stephanie calls Don for help, Megan doesn't want her around. It seems as though Megan fears Stephanie will lure Don away but Megan's got it all wrong, and I think the underlying fear is that Stephanie knows things about Don that Megan still doesn't. This realization for Megan drives her to try desperate things to save their marriage, but in the end, she gives up.
Don lies to women like it's part of his job. He's a genius Ad Man---a creative soul who could've been a free-roaming hippie from a younger generation if it wasn't for his incredible drive to be the best and to take "Don Draper" to limits I don't think he even knows about. His lies, his drunken trysts, his scheming and poor decision-making led him to lose his wife and his job. This past season I enjoyed watching him suffer--he deserved it. But, as I saw him try to not cheat on Megan (and succeed!) and put his ego aside and do the grunt work under Peggy's leadership, I felt like he might be able to redeem himself. Can the world forgive him? Will his efforts make any difference? At the end of the last episode of this half-season finale, he chooses his job and money over anything else, and we see him in the very last seconds as Burt's apparition sings to him "The best things in life are free." It sure has taken him a long time to understand this. But, better late than never.
Peggy and Don in "The Suitcase." (Michael Yarish/AMC)
_ There are so many great TV shows right now. I recently watched all of Mad Men and then all of Breaking Bad—if you haven’t seen them, this won’t make much sense, but if you have, then maybe you are just as excited as I am. I remember when I didn't watch TV for 7 years because it wasn't worth it—I think the only show I watched was The Sopranos. Maybe I just wasn’t looking in the right places. The parameters these TV shows have to work around (trying to film them like movies but with time, budget and FCC constraints), in some cases (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, pretty much all of HBO), actually make them more creative and focused on character and plot and have real depth because they utilize these constraints to their advantage and turn inward to examine the world within the characters' relationships with each other. Each episode becomes a mini movie, except the really exciting thing is that your relationship with the characters doesn't have to end, for 5, 6, maybe 7 years in some cases.
I just watched an episode of Breaking Bad called "The Fly" which was very similar to an episode of Mad Men called "The Suitcase." Both have two characters who share scenes of tension and then incredible camaraderie, either because of mutual admiration, sharing personal history together or living in an ‘alternate’ life that can only be shared with this other person, usually because of circumstance (Don Draper and Peggy Olson in Mad Men or Walt and Jesse in Breaking Bad). Both of these episodes explore the profound psychological aspects of their relationships in the confinement of a small space (The meth lab or Don's office) while focusing on a singular task. In Breaking Bad, the entire plot is (within this one particular episode) Walt and Jesse trying to kill a fly. In Mad Men, Don and Peggy try to come up with an ad for a suitcase. Then layered on top of this singular task is a complex web of power struggles and emotional bonding, intimacy between them and ultimately between the characters and the viewer as we learn more about what makes them tick.
Jesse and Walt in "The Fly." (www.moviewebb.com)
Walt and Don are the ones in charge, yet each shows their emotional vulnerability which then allows the secondary characters to take control, even if just briefly, because they choose to stay with their superiors during their time of weakness. Peggy stays with Don even when she's supposed to meet her boyfriend for dinner on her birthday and when her older lover comes into the office drunk and gets into a fight with Don. EVEN after Don makes her cry in the bathroom, she stays with him when he is wasted and puking and she's there when he finds out a close friend has died and cries in her arms. In Breaking Bad, Walt is obsessed with finding this fly to a point of hysteria, refusing to cook the meth and locking Jesse out of the lab, yet Jesse doesn't give up on Walt. At first we can assume it’s because of money, the same way we can assume Peggy stays because she doesn’t want to lose her job or miss an opportunity for more recognition. Jesse buys tools to help catch the fly, drugs Walt to get him to sleep so he can start making the meth (which has a deadline), and even tries to catch the fly by precariously putting a ladder on two unstable tables until Walt falls asleep and Jesse makes all the meth himself. Interesting that both Peggy and Jesse help Don and Walt to bed, it really emphasizes their character’s roles as “supporting”. The story brings the two characters together, feeling empathy for each other, and then tears them apart again with dramatic tension and conflict. It must be an actor’s dream to be in scenes like these.
At the end of both episodes you think some of the conflict has been resolved—Jesse tucks in Walt after he falls asleep and Don gently puts his hand on Peggy’s hand the next morning in his office to show his gratitude and his feelings for her after they fell asleep on his office couch together. In classic ego-driven alpha character style, Walt reminds Jesse the next day that some meth is missing and insinuates that Jesse must be stealing it (which he is) instead of thanking him or acknowledging his help which Jesse so desperately wants and needs from somebody, especially Walt. The episode ends with tension between them again. In Mad Men, not long after the gentle hand touch in Don’s office, he announces he’s getting married to his secretary—a woman he barely knows. Peggy is outraged because she thought maybe Don had possible feelings for her and because she tried to get him to make the right decisions. She’s become Don’s protege and she seeks his approval. Walt and Don need to regain their protagonist status after revealing a more fragile side, and Jesse and Peggy reveal they are stronger than what we thought. The show makes you side with one and then the other and then when you realize they can’t truly function without each other, the writers present obstacles that keep them apart. This is when I love writing, actors and film/television production.
I read a review once of The Dark Knight, that talked about the importance of ending the movie with Batman as not a hero but a vigilante on the run. We're not left completely satisfied and there's a transformation in that aching and desire to have resolution for the story and the characters. Leaving us longing for Walt and Jesse to stay together in their crumbling world of drug manufacturing and distribution and our desire to see Don and Peggy maintain that intimacy where Don can actually be real and honest and Peggy can be strong and respected, keeps us coming back each week, or in my case, hitting the "Play Next Episode" on Netflix so we can see out their relationships. Both "The Fly" and "The Suitcase" episodes go back to the fundamentals of storytelling—it’s not about Walt’s life of crime with explosions and murder and DEA agents or Don’s tangled web of lies and escapades with all the women in 1960s New York City. It’s about two people, in a room, trying to solve a problem and by focusing their energy towards this one, simple task, we get to learn more about their individual stories and how much they need each other, for better or worse.
At the end of a long night (Michael Yarish/AMC)
Even the people who make Breaking Bad think it will be your favorite episode!