Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Mad Men: Let's change the conversation cont'd

Picking from yesterday, I want to continue with a new conversation. I'd like to suggest that what is going in the current conversation about Mad Men is missing something. And the something that it is missing is really important. It is, in fact, the reason the show is loved and that is that this show is really about something we have all lost and want back: assertive, masterful men.

We all know this of course. Noel Murray, writing at the AV Club, for example gets it:
Even as late as 1968, Don Draper remains a man that other men want to be.
But, in Noel Murray's view anyway, lack of authenticity takes this away:
Even as late as 1968, Don Draper remains a man that other men want to be. Yet Don Draper doesn’t exist—not really. Mad Men hasn’t dealt too much with “Don Draper” as Dick Whitman’s fictional construct since Betty learned the truth about her first husband back in season three; but it’s still one of the major themes that animates the show. ... But while Don can be petty and impulsive, with overt signs of physical weakness, in the main he remains iconic. He’s that hunk of man who comes with the picture frame. He’s not just in advertising, he’s of advertising.
That remains his unforgiveable sin

And yet, this show would flop in three seconds without Don Draper. And before you get too excited about the idea that he is a fictional character of his own creation, do remember that every single other person in the show is a fictional character from the point of view of the TV viewer.

But he's an "identity thief". So what? Yes, yes, in terms of criminal law he has done this very bad thing but how much does it matter teally?

You don't like that? Well let me point out the odd double standard by which he gets judged. Someone over at the Vulture site is fond of the theory that Don really wants to be every woman he seduces. For a while anyway. On the way to expounding her theory, she discusses the stolen identity.
We've seen Don's romantic transitive property from the get-go. "I don't make plans, and I don't make breakfast," Midge told him in the pilot. Neither did Don; when we were introduced to him, he was flying by the seat of his pants, trying to conceal his identity without any real strategy. (Lucky for him and unlucky for the scheming Pete, Bert Cooper didn't care.) 
It's the bit in parentheses that jumped out at me. Pete isn't just scheming, he steals Don's mail, knowingly opens mail that isn't addressed to him and then uses the information he illegally obtained to commit blackmail. Every single one of those things is a serious, go-to-jail offense. And yet, Don's offenses get taken more seriously.

Here is another example from the Matt Zoller Seitz, also writing at the Vulture:
What a rotten catch-22: the whip-smart Joan lets herself be whored out for one night for the greater good of the company and her child’s financial security, then can’t reap the full rewards of her sacrifice because that same company now thinks of her as an opportunist who slept her way to the top. 
But she did whore her way to the top! You can see Harry's point. I'm not averse to rationalizing what Joan did but if we are going to do it for her, we should be able to do it for Don too. It's not hard to understand how Dick, serving in Korea, might make a desperate move to escape from a life he hated.

And note that he was going home anyway. He didn't assume the new identity to get out of the army but in order to stop being Dick Whitman. I've often wondered if 9/11 wasn't the inspiration for this. As always is the case after traumatic events of that sort, some people elected to disappear because they didn't want to go back to their ordinary lives. Dick Whitman does more or less that. He wants, as the Hobo points out in Season one, to be someone else and he takes the opportunity to do so when it is presented him. Morally, it's no better and no worse than what Joan does, than what Pete does, than what Peggy does or than what Megan does.

But here is the thing, is Jon Hamm a better actor than any of the people playing those other roles? Or is more appealing simply because he has a better part?

Put it another way, if you could assume any role you wanted what would it be? Ghandi? Stop lying! The "real" Don Draper was an engineer. Dick Whitman doesn't in any way steal another man's identity because he doesn't even try to be that Don. No, what he does is to run away from who he was and become someone new and better.

And so I ask you again, who do you want to be? Do you want to be Ghandi or a guy who drives an Aston Martin, has a license to kill and is always travelling towards sex no matter what he is doing?

Tomorrow I'll look at Breaking Bad  to make some of the same points from another perspective.


  1. I could be wrong but I thought it was the real Draper who was due to be discharged, not Whitman. But it seems as though, at least from a dramatic perspective, all of the moral lapses that follow, from Don's womanizing to Joan's whoring herself out, emanate from that first major moral lapse of Dick Whitman. Fruit of the poisoned tree?

    1. Yes, the real Draper had served three years, six months so that makes a bit more dramatic sense. Not much though. To take teh set up even remotely credibly, you have to believe that not a single person who knew Draper saw him any time before his discharge. That, for example, none of his fellow officers came to see him at the hospital. Nothing about this bit of backstory is even remotely credible for the simple reason that no one, as Bert Cooper grasps, cares.

      No, the whole thing is a McGuffin and isn't meant to be taken seriously. The real dramatic point is that Dick Whitman didn't want to be Dick Whitman anymore and he escaped into a new name (not a new identity).

    2. Maybe Dick Whitman isn't so much searching for a new identity as AN identity.

      I agree with you that to take this set up remotely seriously requires a great leap of the imagination for all the reasons you mention and more. I don't know if I mentioned this before, but about 2 yrs ago I was watching a rerum of a M*A*S*H episode, I can't remember the name of the episode. In it a wounded G.I. plans to take the identity of a comrade who was killed in battle, but Fr. Mulcahy talks him out of it. Before he's talked out of it he muses about how much better his life would be, but Mulcahy tells him it wouldnt be real because he's not the other guy and that changing his name isn't going to change who he is. I would be very surprised if Weiner did not see this episode and get the idea for Mad Men from it.

    3. I think Father Mulcahy is just wrong about this. Outward trappings matter. No, putting on a new suit or a new name won't automatically make you a different person but both are important techniques to use.

    4. I think Mulcahy's point was that the kid needed to find himself, find out who he is, which is essentially what Draper/Whitman is doing. Its just speculation, but I think that Weiner saw this episode and thought "What if Mulcahy hadn't talked him out of it, what would happen?" and that was how Mad Men was conceived. Its just very coincidental, right down to the Korean War.

  2. I agree also that Mad Men harkens back to an era where men were assertive. But I'm thinking, Don's womanizing might be less the result of what he witnessed as a boy as it is a way of dealing with the fact that he deserted and stole another man's identity. While he provided for the real Mrs. Draper and became close with her, there's still the issue that he broke the law, and a serious law at that. So the womanizing could be an attempt to escape from that. There's really no good solution to that problem at least not in 1968..

    1. I suspect that Don sleeps with all those woman because the script says he does and for no more profound reason than that. And the script provides for that because the people who watch the show want to see it happen. It's sort of like the fights at a hockey game, everyone claims to be offended but we're all secretly hoping for it.

      The real question is, why do we like this sort of guy so much? And we do no matter how much we protest otherwise.

    2. I think we like him because he's the man in the Manhattan Shirt ad, the man we all want to be, alas, a fantasy. But isn't that what advertising is all about?