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.

madmen_Dawn

Dawn

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.

Women

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.

Young Don

Flashbacks

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?

Literalness

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.

Concluding Thoughts

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.

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Melina Gills is an avid film and television watcher who is studying to get her PhD in Comparative Literature. She is from Brooklyn and also known as Shoot the Critic.

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13 Comments

  1. Austin Bender

    I don’t watch Mad Men, but my parents do (which sounds weird to say). Anyways, pretty much every time I talk to them, my father takes ten minutes to complain about how terrible this season is.

    Every show slumps, let’s just hope this can rise again so my father can stop complaining all the time. Great article.

  2. Sarah M
    0

    I respect your opinion about this season and you presented it really well. There were a things that I agree with, like everything about Dawn and the failure to explore this character. But other than this, I think this season has done really well connecting the characters and really adding some great comedy.

    Yes, it was my dream to see them all high at the office and glad that it happened.

  3. Kevin Licht

    To me Mad Men has never been about delving into the changing times, but rather showing how much things actually stay the same as different cultural events take place and how Don’s search for an identity is somewhat pointless. I’ve always appreciated how the show has had the civil rights movement and other historical events sort of laid out in the background instead of turning into another heavy-handed depiction of that period.

    I’ve personally felt that this has been a very strong season, aside from the flashbacks that were mentioned, which I don’t think have ever been a strong suit for the show. They seem to be more frequent this year though.

    Kudos on a well-thought out, interesting read.

  4. Marlon Shingles

    I totally agree in regards to the flashbacks, they are awful and need to go.

    However, I disagree in regards to Dawn: the show has been predominantly white until this point (with the exception of the maid Carla at the Draper house), and I think it would have seemed really disingenuous on Weiner’s part to throw in major story lines for a black character, just because the show needed someone to tell the MLK events. Considering this is a show about the office, which is and always has been white, it would be a cop out to use Dawn just to tell that story, when really it isn’t a huge part of the story of Mad Men.

  5. Mariam Koslay

    I think for Mad Men, audiences are still haunted by Weiner’s ability to craft this show so beautifully for the first two seasons. While I will always love Mad Men, this memory is conflicting with what is happening now in recent episodes. I agree with what you say, and I have a minute silence every time I see a Mad Men episode promo for what the show used to be.

    • How well said! That actually quite perfectly captures my feelings on it. Such a shame it’s so hard for shows to sustain such amazing artfulness and beauty and the magic that they (the good ones) establish early on. I console myself by trying to think of it as inevitable performance-art entropy… a bittersweet reality of the fictional world.

  6. Jon Lisi
    Jon Lisi
    0

    As a fan of Mad Men, your article raises some pertinent and, at times, thought-provoking issues. However, I don’t think it is fair to call Mad Men out for doing what it has, since the beginning, always done.

    As you write here: “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 whole point of the show, however, is to demonstrate how self-absorbed the characters are–how caught up they are in their own worlds. I don’t think most people at the time (especially white businessmen) could have imagined or even cared about MLK JR’S influence–we only realize things like that in retrospect. The Kennedy assassination was handled in a similar way, in which in real life people go on with their lives and deal with what they have to do.

    Perhaps it might be fair to give Dawn a better storyline or better characterization, but none of the other secretaries in the show have anything interesting to do, so why should it be different for Dawn just because she is black?

    Finally, I would argue that Peggy and Joan are fully developed characters, and that the whole “woman in a man’s world” is an actual thing women of the time period like Peggy and Joan had to deal with. A lot of other critics condemn the show for its portrayal of women, but not every woman in the world is Gloria Steinem. Can’t we see portrayals of women who are contradictory and who are not always strong independent women? Do these women not exist in the world as well? Isn’t it realistic to assume that some women rise to the top but some women have to settle for somewhere in the middle? Aren’t Peggy and Joan doing this?

    I don’t mean to sound harsh, but I hope you can consider some of these points. In any event, a well-written piece.

    • Jon, I don’t think they should give Dawn a more developed character because she’s Black. I think they should because they made such a bang about her as the new secretary. They did that with Peggy and, well, she’s Peggy. Same with Megan, who remember was a secretary before she became the all-important Mrs. Draper (even though I have a whole other set of problems with her character, but at least she has one.)
      And I loved Peggy’s character in the first two seasons (and still do) precisely because of how contradictory and complex she was (which meant making some horrible choices, as we know). It’s exactly that which became lacking in latter episodes.
      Thanks for your comment.

      • Jon Lisi
        Jon Lisi
        0

        Yes, I see your point. I guess that’s why the show is so interesting…we never know which characters will be important and which will just remain in the background.

  7. Kevin Licht

    Just to play devil’s advocate with the flashbacks, one of the problems that was mentioned was that “they exaggerate the main points of their purpose.” Does anyone think they may be too much on the point intentionally because they are memories from Don’s perspective and that’s what his character took from those occurrences?

    I don’t think this excuses the flashbacks, but I think it puts into question the reliability of the perspective in which the flashbacks are being told.

    • Hi Kevin, yes that was my point – that they made the flashbacks in that way for that reason, but I think it was a bad move. Most of what I am criticizing are artistic and plot/character choices they made very intentionally that I think did not work or took away from the greatness of the series. Thanks for your comment!

  8. Marcus Dean

    I think Dawn being a background character suits the show perfectly because it completely represents the era, for Peggy to be where she is within the company is a great thing for women at the time (not to mention Joan, even though she slept her way to the top) and the show now treats it as an un-extraordinary detail. But with black people, it is something entirely different. I think Dawn being in the office everyday as an outsider (especially considering what she said about how she doesn’t understand how much they all drink) really works for this season’s document of the change in time, because the world may be ready to afford a woman like Dawn a place at the table but that is the extent of it at the moment, perfectly represented by Martin Luther King Jr’s shooting. And when you compare Dawn to the very first black character represented on the show (the waiter in the pilot, who is shocked when Don asks his opinion on his cigarettes) it shows just how much the situation has changed for black people!

    But anyway, a well-written piece that I enjoyed reading.

  9. I think your analysis hit on a lot of great points, but I have to disagree a bit about Joan. I think Joan is meant to show what it meant to be a strong woman in that time and environment – she does what she has to to get ahead, whether it’s “fair” and “right” or not. She takes the opportunities that she’s given, which are few. And I think that she’s also flawed in a very interesting and real way. In spite of her strength, she’s afraid to be alone. She doesn’t want to be a pitied “spinster.” She doesn’t want to be looked down on. From her perspective, if that means staying with an abusive husband, then that’s what she’ll have to do. Joan can be a very tragic character, but I think she’s tragic in a very realistic sense.
    I definitely agree with you wholeheartedly about Dawn. She hasn’t been given any opportunity to expand, and with one season left, I don’t think she will.

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