Wrong Turns on Mad Men
Before you berate me for having bad thoughts about your favorite show, understand that I write this as a fan of Mad Men. This could have been – and could still yet be – one of the all-time great series, rated up there with The Sopranos and Twin Peaks. Here are just a few of my main problems with Mad Men up through the middle of season six, including moments where the show could have soared but instead shrunk back in on itself, making visible its weaknesses. My main motivation for writing this is in hope that Weiner and his team of writers will treat these general areas of the show differently in the latter part of season six, as well as the final season. I want Dawn to be a full character, if that is still possible, and I want Peggy and Joan to be further developed, receiving the same complete attention as the men. Meanwhile, I want the return of the heightened quality of the metaphors and storytelling mechanics we had received in earlier seasons. We are not becoming more stupid as viewers but rather more demanding and prepared to understand all the layers of plot and character in the great fictional world that is Mad Men.
Don Two, or Dawn, was introduced as the first Black secretary or employee of the advertising firm as well as the first Black character on the show. It was during an episode that attempted to shed some light on the Civil Rights movement that was making big noise outside the office yet still so little noise within. The move appeared to be an effort to diversify the cast while being realistic and true to the details of the time. Yet it failed on every single front. First, Dawn was never developed further than as a loyal, competent secretary who is too sane for the absurdities of the office. In other words, she misses out on any possibility of the offbeat characterizations that we love about Peggy, Don, Pete, and Roger. She will never surprise us, and we will never learn anything too revealing about her.
On the other hand, Mad Men has remained almost completely untouched by the social movements raging beyond its offices and private apartments. When Martin Luther King Jr. died, we were offered an interesting portrait of how White people felt a little bad, for one day, about the death of a non-White person who was greater in influence, spirit, and historical importance than they could possibly imagine. The show is riddled with racism but of the kind that does not tell a story but rather sets the stage for other stories. Race is a prop rather than the center of any subplot let alone any full plot. Dawn becomes just another non-White person the show has to tolerate because of the political correctness of diversity, while Civil Rights blends into the hazy background of a show that becomes increasingly less interested in the 1960s. We could devote a whole other section to Ida, the elderly Black woman who breaks into Don’s home while the children are there unattended, terrifies us for half an episode, and leaves with Don’s gold watches. Her subplot was one of the laziest choices Weiner ever made, and with it we can add yet another forced, intrusive stereotype to his long list.
Mad Men has been praised for its nuanced treatment of women. Rather, it has been lauded for giving women complex roles where most dramatic television otherwise depicts them as simple, one-dimensional creatures. Peggy’s arc during the first two seasons was the most interesting after Don’s, and yet she hit a wall after her successful rise to being Don’s protégé copywriter. After that fairly typical “woman in a man’s world” plot, Weiner and company could not figure out where to take her character, and she started to sink into a static, uninteresting slump. She then appeared to be only a foil to further develop Don, providing him a voice of conscience and shoulder (or lap) to cry on. Then the writers finally decided, rightly so, to take her out of the office and into a higher position as creative director at a competing firm. However, this did not last; the firms merged, and now Peggy is back as Don’s reluctant babysitter, now having to navigate two needy bosses instead of one.
The other beloved female character is Joan Holloway, known mostly for her red hair, curvaceous body, lovely (albeit overly done-up) face, and sly though direct attitude around the office. We are supposed to ball over because she is a woman and good at her job, keeping the office running from behind the scenes. Yet we have seen her be raped by her doctor husband – and stay married to him. They only break up because he would rather be a military doctor abroad than her husband (and acting father to her son) at home. Then, she sleeps with a repulsive businessman for the sake of acquiring an important account for the firm and becoming a partner. She does not earn her high position the way the men did – by working for it – nor does she have the dignity to let go of an abusive, pathetic husband. Neither of these makes sense considering the strong, confident woman we were introduced to at the beginning. Instead, we learn more about the men from her actions. Don tries to stop her from sleeping with the man – as if all she needed was another man to tell her what (not) to do. Don becomes the hero, again, setting him apart from the other partners who preferred to look the other way. Instead of having her end her horrible relationship, she stays in it so that we can see what a portrait of a soldier might look like – a man who only has success “out there” but is a failure on the home base. Yet again, the women are subordinate to the other stories that are really at the center and are dominated by males.
Now that we are done dispelling the rumors that Mad Men is revolutionary on any gender or racial front, let us turn to the horrible choices in style and story telling mechanics. At the top of the list is the way in which we receive Don’s backstory as a child of a prostitute, losing first his mother, then his father, and is raised in a brothel. Because it was not enough that he grew up feeling shamed that his mother was a whore and without a proper maternal presence, he had to, also, have his first sexual experience with a whore, who too served as a maternal replacement. This too-obvious, tedious backstory would not feel so lazy if it were not for the fact that the flashbacks are shot like detours into a bad lifetime movie. No one really acts in these side pictures; they exaggerate the main points of their purpose in the shaping of Dick Whitman and why he might want to forget his past to become Don Draper. The young Don, meanwhile, simply stands around looking terrified with a mop of hair over his head.
We get it. Because of this past, Don only values women as monetary possessions. No mother ever cared for him outside of the exchange value of cash; all female relationships are relegated through third-party exchange systems. Yet Weiner decides to drive the point home at every single possible opportunity, never failing to mention it either directly in the flashbacks or in symbolisms. Is it for lack of ideas that this concept keeps getting played over and over again, with poorly done flashbacks to add insult to injury?
So, Mad Men has never been too subtle – its opening credits are of a man falling through space, as we are, from the beginning, offered a portrait of a man stumbling through life, never quite getting his footing. But as the series has developed, it has become more of an exercise in Drama 101, spelling out its themes in the most literal and repetitive ways possible. Its strongest episodes, which are often little masterpieces, are when it decides to breathe a little, going deeper rather than skimming across various surfaces. These almost feel like flukes when the bulk of the episodes can feel so dense with the most literal thematic indicators (of death, prostitution, deception, double identities, etc.). Last season, there was, for example, Don peering down into an empty elevator shaft. Some critics found it beautiful while others too on the nose, particularly in a season with so many references to death. But does a great show quote Dante in its opening scene, after an image of a man suffering a heart attack? Here is where the show skirts the line between great and pretentious and between strong writing and lazy writing. I love Mad Men’s metaphors but sometimes they are much too many, too often, and not very creative.
With all of this said, episodes eight and nine of the current sixth season of Mad Men were quite strong (minus the Ida subplot mentioned above). Betty could have easily been on this list, except that the show put out “The Better Half” in which we were able to see a different, more enlightened and easy-going Betty of which we had glimpses in early seasons but who had mostly disappeared in later renditions of her character. She is one of the more interesting of the characters from the first two seasons, and it was a shame to see Weiner almost destroy her, often turning her into a kind of monster rather than just an unhappy woman unlucky enough to be married to a serial womanizer and introvert.
It is safe to say that I still have high hopes for Mad Men, which has one and a half more seasons with which to turn things back around. It still features some of the best writing and acting in television, so it has little excuse for the mediocrity we have been getting. Things have recently been improving, and hopefully Weiner will spare us more of the above in favor of more innovative story lines and engaging, layered writing. Despite its failings over the last five+ seasons, there is great promise yet for Mad Men.
What do you think? Leave a comment.