Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Impostor syndrome

I occasionally go back and rewatch old episodes of Mad Men and I think about all that was said about the show here and elsewhere. With hindsight it seems increasingly obvious to me that the show was really about impostor syndrome. That is to say, it is about impostor syndrome to the extent that it was about anything. The only thing a show has to be about is a being a show. Once viewers have been convinced of that, the creators' work is done. Most episodes just filled space in the schedule but the show always came back to questions of impostor syndrome.

A TV show, any TV show, will have a lot of creators, each of whom will be busy pulling the blanket their way. Jon Hamm wanted it to be about alcoholism because Jon Hamm struggles with alcohol addiction. Other people, a lot of other people, wanted the show to be about feminism. Most critics wanted the show to be about an antihero but Matt Weiner, who had more say than anyone, insisted it wasn't.

The obvious objection to my claim that the show is really about impostor syndrome is to say that Don Draper really is an impostor. And you're not?

In any case, Don Draper is an odd sort of impostor. He may be a Dick pretending to be a Don but he isn't pretending to be the real Don Draper. That Don Draper was an engineer, a man who'd been to college and our Don Draper didn't pretend to be either of those things. He was shockingly honest about revealing who he really was. In the second episode he unhesitatingly tells Betty that his family were too poor to have a nanny.

To the extent he is pretending anything, he is pretending not to be Dick Whitman. He's pretending not to be the person his mother told him he was. Don't get tied up about the fact that his mother wasn't really his mother. The only evidence we have of this is Dick Whitman's flashbacks and those include events he couldn't possibly have experienced such as his conception.

That makes him no different from anyone else. We're all told we're the products of our parents. Even an adopted child is told something. We're all told stories about our childhood so often that we internalize them to the point that we think we remember having experienced them. I, as I suspect most people do, took these stories as a solid foundation until just a couple of years ago.

Don Draper shakes us because he says that, no matter where you came from, all that really matters in the end is your ability to perform. That's what it takes not to be an impostor.

Unfortunately, the show doesn't have much to say about this. Don Draper continues to survive because he continues to be able to pull-off creative masterpieces, the last of which is the famous Hilltop ad. Here, however, it breaks the rules for we know (or we can look up) how the Hilltop ad was created and it is nothing like the version represented in the show.

Weiner broke the Bugs Bunny/Christopher Columbus rule: when you put a fictional character at the heart of historical events, you must make sure he or she she never does anything that would require us to rewrite the history books. The Hilltop ad requires that.

Worse, though, it accomplishes nothing. What does Don do in that episode that "solves" his problems? The answer to that is nothing, unless you think a whole bunch of appalling narcissistic bullshit about "how does that make you feel" has enabled him to find himself.

In the end the show had nothing to offer except a fascinating character. A character whom a whole lot of people admired despite the show's creators' best efforts to make us sneer at him. Successfully being Don Draper was a major achievement. Stop being the person you hate by becoming someone you can admire.

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