Are you Don? ‘Mad Men’ and its challenge to the audience

The man in the gray flannel suit: "Mad Men's" Don Draper
Courtesy of AMC
The man in the gray flannel suit: “Mad Men’s” Don Draper

Mad Men” finally started filming its fifth season this past month; it’s now expected to start airing in March of next year. But there’s plenty of “Mad Men” about anyway — there’s a “Mad Men” inspired collection of clothes at Banana Republic just now, created with the costume designer for the show, Janie Bryant. The collection mostly looks to the costumes from the first years of the show, when the cast was still mired in the early ’60s — there’s Don Draper’s grey flannel suit and grey felt fedora. “Are you Betty?” the ads in the store ask, “are you Don?”

Good question! Let’s see — am I a deeply repressed suburban housewife who, with her three children, is unconsciously mimicking the curt abusiveness of her own mother? Or am I the serial philanderer who’s been living a secret double life as a result of deserting the military during wartime? Good question! I suppose it depends on my gender and what clothes I prefer. Gosh, I hope I can be Pete Campbell, the spoiled scion of an old, but bankrupt, New York family who has never entertained an ethical question, but constantly throws tantrums because he can’t get whatever he wants the moment he wants them! I like how he dresses!

However stylish the show may be (and its styles are likely to get a lot wackier as the show progresses further into the 1960s), at its core are a group of characters who are pretty miserable. And this is, in my opinion, one of the show’s better features, although this is not a show without its critics. All really interesting art will have its detractors, and “Mad Men” walks an exceptionally fine line between drama and melodrama, history and satire of history, and naiveté and archness. It’s telling that the show has a peculiar obsession with “Peyton Place,” the neutered prime-time soap opera based on Grace Metalious’ scabrous novel, the details of which television ad man Harry Crane loves to spill before it has aired. Both shows lovingly detail scandalous behavior by wealthy men and women, but you’d have to be awfully sheltered to be shocked by any of it.

But even if “Mad Men” is a bit bloodless (and, for a program created by a former “Sopranos” writer, “Mad Men” scarcely has any violence), there’s a lot to recommend the show. AMC recently made “Mad Men” available via Netfilx’s streaming video service, making it easy to plow through all four existing seasons in a week or so, as I have just done. I’d like to note a few things I especially like about the show.

1. It’s sort of a sequel to “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”: Ad man Shepherd Mead wrote a very popular book in 1952 called “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” a satire of American self-help books based on Mead’s own rise from mail room to vice presidency at Benton & Bowles, the company that invented the soap opera, which was designed as a mechanism for moving product. The book was adapted to the Broadway stage in 1961 by Frank Loesser, the man behind “Guys and Dolls,” and the stage play was, in turn, adapted to the screen in 1967. The star of both was Robert Morse, who appears in “Mad Men” as Bertram Cooper, the Japanophile and Ayn Rand-obsessed co-owner of Sterling Cooper.

“Mad Men” shares “How to Succeed’s” fascination with the sometimes devious office politics that leads to success or failure in an advertising agency. Don Draper, as an example, snuck in, getting one of the business owners drunk and then just showing up for work, claiming the man had hired him when intoxicated. “Mad Men” also shares the musical’s exaggerated sense of style, although, alas, not its Bob Fosse dance numbers — the best we get is Pete Campbell and his wife suddenly dancing a Charleston at a party, which they do with surprising skill.

2. “Mad Men” intersects with history in a very clever way: Sometimes the show has fun with the fact that it is set in the ’60s, such as the show’s presentation of Don Draper and Betty Francis (formerly Draper) and chronic, oblivious litterers. But “Mad Men’s” characters are genuinely products of their era; most obviously, they are impacted by big events, such as the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. But these are ad men, and they’re just as affected by changes in the world of advertising — the show was obviously written by an ad buff, as the program could be a crash course in the history of ’60s advertising, from the famously self-depreciating VW Bug ads that started appearing in 1961 to the publication of  David Ogilvy’s “Confessions of an Advertising Man” in 1963, all of which causes long, fairly substantial discussions among the show’s characters. 

The show is quite clever to have set itself in the ’60s, an era in which current events moved from being something you saw on television to something that everybody participated in, starting with the civil-rights movement, moving on to the women’s-lib movement, and exploding with a massive and politically active youth counterculture. Even though we’re still in the early ’60s in the show’s timeline, events such as the murder of civil-rights activist Medgar Evers have hinted at how the political will become personal — Sally Draper, the daughter of Don and Betty, uses his death as a proxy for her grandfather’s. Medgar Evers also appears in a hallucination Betty has while giving birth, where he is used as an example by Betty’s chastising mother: “You see what happens to people who speak up?” her mother says. 

3. The counterculture: Because “Mad Men” is set right at the intersection of art and commerce, the cast of the show constantly interact with the developing countercultures of the era — in Don Draper’s case, his curiosity is mostly sexual, as he’ll sleep with Beatniks and proto-hippie teachers, but otherwise disdains them. But the youth is a growing market, and “Mad Men’s” advertising company grudging looks to take advantage of them, even hiring some vaguely groovy, turtleneck and Aran sweater-clad hipsters to help them sell to the kids. Beyond this, the firm’s sole female copywriter hobnobs with the downtown art scene. This is Peggy Olson, who is, in a way, the shadow lead character in the show — “Mad Men” opens with her introduction to Sterling Cooper as a secretary, and, as she has moved up through the ranks, she has grown to be more and more like Don Draper, including a secret past and a tendency to bully her employees when she doesn’t get her way. And Peggy is one of the characters through which “Mad Men” demonstrates its strongest thematic element. 

4. “Mad Men” understands privilege: If Peggy is the shadow lead to the show, privilege is its shadow theme. The show constantly, and sometimes subtly, shifts perspective, moving from the viewpoint of people who have power to people who don’t. It’s astonishingly good at showing just how blinkered those with privilege can be — how invisible their own privilege is right up until the moment it is challenged, and how quickly and blindly they will fight that challenge. This is most dramatically characterized by Pete Campbell, who expects everything to just go his way and cannot stand it when it doesn’t, but this is also a show filled with men who are relentlessly, stubbornly sexist and white people who are thoughtlessly, carelessly racist — and these are the show’s leads! 

“Mad Men” is filled with a thousand little cuts — brief moments of unconscious meanness, such as when Peggy accidentally gets an African-American elevator operator and janitor fired when she files a complaint after a minor theft. There’s also the fact that Joan Holloway, the show’s office manager, suddenly demonstrates a genuine love and talent for television, but is immediately replaced by a man as soon as the firm can afford one. The most amazing character arc in the show is that of Sal Romano, the firm’s art director, who is so flamboyantly gay that every single thing he says seems designed to tip you to the fact, but works with men so oblivious that they manage to misinterpret everything he says. Sal is broadcasting his sexuality to an audience incapable of reading it correctly, which includes even himself — he’s deeply closeted, and when men pick up on his obvious signals, he responds with astonishment, informing them that they’ve made a mistake. As long as Sal keeps himself in the closet, he can behave stereotypically gay and nobody will notice. But the moment that closet door opens, even a crack, and against Sal’s will, Don Draper fires him.

The fact that it was Don who fired Sal is interesting; Draper is unsympathetic to Sal, sneering “you people” at him when showing him the door. And yet Draper is the show’s lead, and one we have been expected to feel a lot of sympathy for, and is generally fairly sympathetic. This is always the way it is on “Mad Men” — while the show has its bullies, as often as not an injustice will come from a character we like. And I think there’s a subtle indictment of the audience there. After all, we’re still in a world of privilege, and its still invisible to those who have it, who nonetheless unthinkingly defend it the moment it is threatened. Don Draper is often treated as an aspirational character — he’s a handsome, powerful man with an enviable fashion sense. But if he’s capable of this sort of casual cruelty, we may be as well.

That’s a hell of a challenge for a show to direct at its audience. And I suspect, as the ’60s progresses, that challenge will become increasingly explicit. I look forward to it.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 08/23/2011 - 11:41 am.

    “Mad Men” is one of my guilty pleasures. I look forward to the new season on Netflix. Thanks for the thoughtful commentary and insights.

  2. Submitted by Jane Cracraft on 08/23/2011 - 12:04 pm.

    Nice essay, Max. I impatiently awaiting season 5!

    I don’t disagree with your comments on Pete Campbell, but after a while some other aspects of Pete reveal themselves. The big one is he is the only person in a happy, stable relationship. Also, I like how he was aware early on that the youth market would be key, and he was genuinely puzzled when clients didn’t want to advertise for Blacks and Hispanics.

    And you probably knew Vince Kartheiser is from MN.

  3. Submitted by Pat Thompson on 08/23/2011 - 03:40 pm.

    Max, I can think of a lot of adjectives to put in front of Don Draper’s name, but having watched all of the seasons in real time, “sympathetic” wouldn’t be one of them. Compelling like a slow-motion train wreck, yeah, I’ll give you that.

    The fact that you just watched all the episodes at once makes me wonder if that has anything to do with it.

  4. Submitted by Max Sparber on 08/23/2011 - 04:27 pm.

    Don, for all his bullying, is one of Peggy’s few defenders in the office. He reprimands his coworkers when the mock women and impersonate a man with a stutter. We’re given quite a bit of background about his childhood, which included substantial abuse. We’re shown his friendship with Anna Draper, which is unusually intimate for its absence of a romantic component.

    Most of all, we see Don Draper striving to do the right thing and failing repeatedly. There’s a lot of reasons to dislike the character, but I think the presentation is sympathetic.

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