Reviews Too Late: Mad Men

by wjw on December 2, 2008

I recently finished watching the first season of Mad Men, courtesy of Netflix. The series poses an interesting fictional problem: is it possible to tell a gripping story when everyone in your narrative is a total rat-bastard?

In this particular case, the answer would seem to be No.

I don’t insist on sympathetic characters in my fiction. (Hell, my favorite book is Lolita.) I’ve written my share of unsympathetic protagonists. But there’s something in me that objects when the entire fictional landscape is so completely devoid of what for lack of a better term I shall call “ordinary decent human beings.” I think that’s what’s always got between me and Faulkner: his books were so totally populated by the miserable, the psychotic, the brainless, the losers, the criminal, the useless, the deluded, and the wannabes, that there was no room for anyone that I recognized from my actual life.

Mad Men takes place in an ad agency in 1960— the ad agency, in fact, that is assigned to sell to the American public a young, good-looking naval hero, Dick Nixon. (It has to be said that the series does very little with this subplot.)

Every male in the place is an utter swine: vain, ambitious, ruthless, priapic, and totally consumed with his own selfish needs. Any one of them would kick his grandmother to death for a chance at the corner office. Any one of them would stab the other in the back for a chance to bang a secretary.

While I’m perfectly willing to believe that ad agencies in the 1950s were full of such people, I’m not yet convinced why it’s supposed to matter to me. If I’m supposed to be interested in shitheads, they better damn well be really fascinating shitheads.

The shithead-in-chief is Dick Draper, a highly successful ad man with a house in the suburbs, an ex-model wife, two lovely children, a couple of mistresses, and a rivalry with a junior copywriter who wants his job. Draper is a master manipulator, and it’s clear early on that “Dick Draper” is in fact a construct— he’s a fictional persona created by a man with a compulsion (and pretty good reasons) to hide his own past. This is potentially interesting— why would a character from an abusive background, now masquerading as someone else, choose advertising as a career? (Because it gives him every opportunity to lie and manipulate in his own interest, apparently.)

(It’s a measure of the cynicism of the milieu that when Draper’s big secret is finally revealed, nobody cares. The ad agency is in the business of constructing huge fabulations, and if one of their executives is a fabulation himself, that is of little interest. He’s a huge rainmaker, and that’s all they care about.)

It’s Draper’s job to sell the American dream to the public. And he’s sold himself on the dream as well— hence the suburban home, the lovely wife, the children, all part of his con but a con he seems determined to act out. He keeps his wife under his thumb by ruthlessly undermining her self-esteem, and in the meantime passes his time by pursuing more intellectually interesting Manhattan career women.

Where Draper fails is in his attempt to con me. He fails to convince me that he’s fascinating. Oh, I can admire his clever advertising campaigns, at least insofar as I can admire anything designed to sell me something I don’t want. I stand in awe of his ruthlessness. But by the end of the series I was cheering his defeats and feeling chagrin at his victories. I wanted the rat-bastard to lose. He couldn’t lose fast enough for me. And at the end, when his house of cards crumbled and he found himself staring oblivion in the face, I was cheering. I was just sorry that it had taken so long.

I don’t think that’s what the writers intended.

In opposition to the ad men are the series’ various women, all of whom are victims. Scarcely a quarter-hour goes by without one of the male characters taking time out of his life to exploit and/or demean one of the women.

This may be true to the period, but again I found it problematical. I started by being appalled, then sympathetic, and then gradually the sympathy went away. The women were so complicit in their own misery, so much willing partners in their own degradation, that I stopped being interested in their problems. (Am I sorry because a masochist gets whipped? Not much, no.)

Which brings us to the character of Peggy, the character who starts as a naive secretary and ends the season as the firm’s only female copywriter. Her journey is probably the most interesting one on offer, but the writers stuck her with a huge reveal at the end of the season that was well beyond unbelievable. Yes, I know that such things happen, but I’m disinclined to think they happen to people like Peggy. She’d been established as too intelligent for such a surprise.

I was interested in how the creators justified throwing us such a screwball, so I listened to the DVD audio commentary for that particular episode. The actress who plays Peggy did the commendary, along with the actress who plays Dick Draper’s much-abused wife, and they both went to extreme lengths to explain why the development wasn’t unbelievable. “This isn’t unbelievable at all.” “No, some people might think it’s unbelievable, but it isn’t.” “That’s right, it’s totally non-unbelievable.” “This sort of thing happens all the time, it’s not unbelievable in any way, shape. or form.”

When you have people involved in the series going to such extremes to convince us that it isn’t unbelievable, then I think we have a problem.

On the plus side, the series does a terrific job of re-creating 1960. Production values are terrific. The actors are very good, if sometimes ill-served by the writers. (Vincent Kartheiser’s character in particular seems a sketch, to be filled in later.)

Toward the end of the season, the series drags quite a bit. There isn’t quite enough material in the series arc to stretch to all those episodes, and so some of them end up being about nothing in particular.

Mad Men makes for an interesting case study in the creation of unsympathetic characters. It provides me with more evidence that if I’m going to spend time in the company of someone I’m going to dislike, I need to be fascinated in some way.

Ideally, I need to get into the character’s psyche, so that I understand why he’s behaving this way and what drives him. From the writer’s perspective, this is more difficult to do in series television than in a novel, where I can literally tell you what the character is thinking. Since you can’t do that in TV— at least not without reviving the art of the soliloquy— the television writer has to do this some other way, for instance through a carefully-controlled series of flashbacks. (The flashbacks in
Mad Men had me more interested in the way they were structured than involved in the story they were telling, but maybe that’s just me.)

Another way to get me interested is to show us the evil genius in action. If he’s an evil overlord, let me savor his over-the-top schemes for world domination! If he’s a con man, get me involved in the zest of the con! But Dick Draper doesn’t seem to enjoy himself when he’s lying and cheating and bullying and back-stabbing, it’s just the sort of thing he does on a daily basis, because that’s who he is and that’s what he does. He’s not a man for reflection, he doesn’t seem interested in why he behaves the way he does, and— after a while— neither am I.

And oh yeah, it’s best if something more is at stake than who gets the Clearasil account. Let’s make that clear right off. I don’t care about the Clearasil account, I can’t be made to care, and no matter how brilliantly you scheme to win it, I still won’t give a damn.

So can we now introduce the ad man who’s married to a witch? Because, y’know, we could use some humor around here.

Ted December 3, 2008 at 10:05 am

Wow, I had a completely different reaction. I found Mad Men riveting, one of the best TV series ever made outside of premium cable. Don Draper isn’t an admirable guy, but he’s far from evil; he’s got it all, but he’s still miserable and he doesn’t know why.

(And I thought the Nixon subplot justified itself by providing a parallel to Don’s conflict with Pete Campbell.)

Sean Craven December 3, 2008 at 6:09 pm

As regards the issue of unlikeable protagonists — the most effective use in pop fiction that I can think of comes from George Frazier’s Flashman books.

His technique involves a combination of luring the audience into sympathizing with his swinish lead’s prurient desires and making that lead’s misfortunes seem thoroughly deserved, thus providing the audience with two marginally abject pleasures. Humor is the key lubricant here.

Jack Vance did the same thing in his Cugel stories, still favorites of mine.

Foxessa December 3, 2008 at 7:33 pm

Makes quite a contrast with The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, doesn’t it?

In so many areas from design, to color palette, to office types and politics for both men and women, Mad Men filches from the film made of The Best of Everything. Except The Best of Everything, as novel and as movie, played it straight. Mad Men, coming along after many a television series like Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman or Twin Peaks, simply cannot, or more likely, doesn’t really want to. Whereas the 70’s series, Swingtown does, and thus is chock-a-block with likeable and sympatico characters.

Love, C.

halojones-fan December 4, 2008 at 1:51 am

I dunno. People seem to be batshit crazy in love with Mafia movies, which are about actual criminal thugs rather than just Not Very Nice People. Apparently character-driven tragedy is only interesting if it’s about Italian gangsters?

dubjay December 4, 2008 at 3:08 am

I =did= enjoy watching Tony Soprano at work— at least for the first couple of seasons, after which the series began its decline. I think I enjoyed Tony Soprano so much because Tony himself so thoroughly enjoyed his mobster life.

I knew what Tony wanted. The whole point of being a gangster is to get what you want, and get it immediately. I’m not sure what the whole point of being an ad man is.

Even though the Sopranos was explicit about the collateral damage Tony was wreaking all around him, you could still see Tony’s point of view and enjoy his zest as he plundered the world around him.

Just as you can enjoy Harry Flashman’s pleasure in his own unspeakable behavior, as well as feeling that the inevitable payback was well-deserved.

With Don Draper, I dunno. He never seems to have a particularly good time. He doesn’t seem to enjoy what he has, and I don’t know what else he wants, or why.

I wanted very much a lot of scenes of the ad guys brainstorming Nixon’s campaign and selling us the guy who made the Checkers Speech and sent the Pink Letter. Now =that= would be evil! And fun, too.

But the series seems to eschew fun.

Ted, did you find the last episode’s development re: Peggy believable?

Mark Pontin December 4, 2008 at 7:02 pm

I’ve seen Mad Men’s second season, set two years ahead in 1962, and it’s clearer that the show’s creator and scriptwriters are playing the long game. The series is opening out geographically and sociologically as the transformations of the 1960s start to roll in like a wave: thus, for instance, Don and Peter make a trip to pitch to California’s military aerospace industry that opens up into glimpses of proto-hippies and the surfers that Tom Wolfe wrote about in The Pump House Gang, as well a Herman Kahn-like speaker describing a thermonuclear war scenario. Simultaneously, women and African-Americans are starting to be less accepting of their situation, and so on.

It’s true that the main pleasure of the first season of Mad Men is seeing the world from John Cheever’s and Richard Yates’s stories recreated on a TV screen in 2008, with great attention paid to the era’s design alongside its mores. (Thanks to Foxessa for mentioning The Best of Everything as a likely influence on the design, since I was unaware of that and will now try to check it out.)

With the second season, Mad Men becomes more than that. Not to overrate this series, because it’s not in the same league and what it aspires to achieve seems much smaller, but it resembles The Wire in that it’s clearer now that Mad Men’s writers also aspire to tell a long story with a novelistic sweep.

As with The Wire, the characters are not simply identifiable as being good or bad. Don Draper, far from being all-bad, goes out on a limb in some brave ways to help individuals that others won’t — though, arguably, these occasions may turn out to be when he does the most damage.

GRRM December 4, 2008 at 9:22 pm

I’ve only seen an episode and a half of MAD MEN. So far it has failed to captivate me.

In general, however, I am quite fond of “unlikeable” protagonists. Tony Soprano and Harry Flashman are both favorites. I also enjoy the hell out of the thoroughly reprehensible Cugel the Clever.

Melinda Snodgrass December 5, 2008 at 3:53 am

I watched most of the first season, but the role of women in that society was like some horrible flashback. I was a little kid, but I remember my rage when I would say “I want to be a jockey.” “Oh, girl’s can’t be jockeys.” “I want to be president.” “Oh, girl’s can’t be president. What you want is to get married and be Jackie Kennedy.” No! I wanted to be president.

Watching the show brought back that choking rage. I finally gave up. I can’t agree that the women are willing victims. If you don’t think there is any other possibility you try and live in the straight jacket. After all, they used to commit women who rebelled. Obviously they were crazy.

Steve Stirling December 5, 2008 at 3:59 am

Generally speaking, the “downside of success” story is consolation for the unsuccessful; a form of ‘the damned grapes were sour anyway’.

Other things being equal, money and success do make people more happy.

I’m also suspicious of stories which dwell on how much better we are than the immediate past. In general, this mistakes changes in fashion for moral superiority.

Ted December 5, 2008 at 7:01 am

Walter, I had a mixed reaction to the last episode’s developments regarding Peggy, but I’d say it mostly worked for me. The show is all about denial and self-deception, so it seemed fitting.

And I think there’s fun in the show, too. Roger Sterling in particular is hilarious.

As another data point, I couldn’t get into The Sopranos because I felt absolutely no sympathy for Tony Soprano.

dubjay December 5, 2008 at 10:53 pm

Steve, it’s a =soap opera.= You can’t have happy, successful people in it. That defeats the point.

And though I share your suspicion of stories that enlarge on our contemporary moral superiority, I think we can make an objective case that we are genuinely better than we were in 1960.

Black people now have civil rights and the vote. Lynchings are rarities instead of regular occurrences. A half-African guy raised in Hawaii and Indonesia is going to be our next president.

Gay people are no longer imprisoned or subjected to electroshock for being gay.

Women have much more opportunity than they had in the past.

It’s true that we have more crime and more people in prison than in 1960, but if you take out all the people condemned by our idiotic drug laws, we’re doing pretty well on that front, too.

The only people with any right to be nostalgic for that era would be mediocre white males. Because the birth rate declined so precipitously in the Great Depression, there were relatively few white guys to go around, and if you were white and male and reasonably functional, you were guaranteed a pretty good job. That isn’t the case any longer.

Foxessa December 6, 2008 at 7:38 pm

As far as all the characters being unlikeable, the office manager, Joan, is very likeable, as was Draper’s first mistress. His second one, the dept. store owner, was also interesting and likeable.

In fact, I liked, so to speak, all the female principals in Mad Men, even Draper’s wife. She in particular, got me recalling again the situation of so many suburban women who did what they were supposed to do, and how it could drive them mad (as well married to a man who has so many secrets and is so withholding as Dan, will do an emotional number on his wife and his kids). Even very gifted women, who developed their gifts, like Muriel Rukeyser and Sylvia Plath, felt these conflicting pressures, which were well-nigh intolerable.*

Love, C.

Well, a case can be maid that these two in particular might well have been well-nigh intolerable in their own right, but nevermind.

The Rush Blog February 23, 2009 at 10:34 pm

This is one of the most one-dimensional articles I have ever read, hands down. Jesus!

The Rush Blog February 23, 2009 at 10:36 pm

Just as you can enjoy Harry Flashman’s pleasure in his own unspeakable behavior, as well as feeling that the inevitable payback was well-deserved.

With Don Draper, I dunno. He never seems to have a particularly good time. He doesn’t seem to enjoy what he has, and I don’t know what else he wants, or why.

Do you expect all anti-heroes or ambiguous male characters to be EXACTLY like Harry Flashman? Isn’t that . . . unoriginal?

dubjay February 23, 2009 at 11:00 pm

Oh, you’re a person who publishes fan fiction on your site, and you accuse me of being unoriginal.

Uh-huh. Makes sense, that.

Furthermore, you go on to beat up a straw man. I never said I wanted anti-heroes to be exactly like Harry Flashman, and you can’t pretend that I did.

I would normally suggest that you learn to read more carefully before responding, but why bother? I don’t give a tupenny damn what you think, and there’s no point in pretending that I do.

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