O Mother, Where Art Thou?: 'Mad Men' and its lady problems

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Image Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

“I have reached the point where I have absolutely no affection left for Don Draper.”

So wrote my friend (and Entertainment Weekly colleague) Missy Schwartz on her Facebook page a few weeks ago, just hours after Don demanded that his mistress crawl across the hotel room on her hands and knees to fetch his shoes. “I’m so fed up with him and his atrocious behavior that I found myself wishing someone awful would happen to him,” she continued. “Are we supposed to feel sorry for him that he’s turned into a past-his-prime shadow of his former self at work? Who then tries to compensate for this by ordering his mistress to crawl on the floor on all fours?”

I understood what she meant. (And, apparently, so did the many others who “liked” the update.) It’s been a very long time since I’ve felt any affection for Don Draper. And for me, that’s a very different thing than saying that it’s been a long time since I’ve liked him. You can love a show even if you don’t like the main character, and I still believe Mad Men is one of the best shows on television. But being able to feel sorry for that character is crucial. That’s why Walter White has cancer. It’s why Tony Soprano was wracked by the same panic attacks as his father. It’s why Enlightened began with Amy Jelicoe having a nervous breakdown, not long after going through a messy divorce and (we soon learn) suffering a miscarriage. But I just can’t bring myself to feel sorry for Don Draper anymore, and I’m starting to question why I ever did.

Jon Hamm’s consistently excellent performance can’t erase the laissez-faire nihilism of Don’s worldview: Most of his melodramatic problems have been largely his own fault, and — unlike Tony Soprano — he doesn’t seem remotely interested in changing anything about who he is. He’d rather just marry a different secretary or find a new brunette downstairs. For Don, “evolution” just means a new person to seduce. So the show keeps returning, again and again, to the same heavy-handed origin story that’s supposed to explain why he’s so dysfunctional: he was raised in a whorehouse. These flashbacks are often clumsy (a shot of Don coughing cuts back to a shot of him coughing as a kid) and poorly written (“I defy your accusations!”). Yet this season has relied upon them so much that last week’s episode almost seemed to poke fun at them. “Every time we get a car,” Don said, “this place turns into a whorehouse!” He was joking about Stan’s hookup during the Chevy brainstorming session, but he might as well have been joking about Mad Men itself.

Maybe it’s hard to sympathize with Don because the mother/whore confusion isn’t just his own issue. It’s a problem for everyone — including the show. After launching into his frantic “It’s my job!” tap-dance routine, Ken Cosgrove can’t remember who taught it to him, his mother or his ex-girlfriend. Pete cheats on his wife in the same whorehouse where Trudy’s father cheats on her mother. Once, in the “Maidenform” episode, the show winked at the idea that everyone’s a Marilyn or a Jackie. But now, the female characters fall a little too neatly into the mother/whore spectrum — and sometimes it’s hard to tell if that’s just the way Don sees them, or if that’s the vision of the show itself. Don views Peggy as the ultimate Madonna: she comforts Ted with a chaste hand on his arm, though we all know she’s dying to sleep with him. Betty feels maternal toward the young violinist who’s staying with her, but that doesn’t keep her from joking that Henry should rape the little girl. Joan has literally become both a mother and a whore, having slept with the Jaguar executive in exchange for a partner position and more money. And the connections between Don’s mistress and the whorehouse are made very clear: she has the same beauty mark on her face as the prostitute who took his virginity. Don remembers picking up a penny while spying in the whorehouse, and — the next thing you know — his mistress leaves a penny by the doormat as a signal. Roger sums up that whole affair in a conversation with his shrink: “Turns out, the experiences are nothing,” he says. “They’re just some pennies you pick up off the floor, stick in your pocket, and you’re just going in a straight line to you-know-where.”

The irony, of course, is that if anyone’s selling himself for dubious motives, it’s Don — and the show tends to view this as a positive thing. You could argue that there’s an underlying critique of advertising as a concept, because sex (as well as youth and happiness and everything else you can package) is being sold to consumers through a pack of Lucky Strikes or a bottle of Heinz ketchup. But Don really does present himself as a commodity here. “You have to get me in a room so I can look them in the eye,” he tells Ken about their next meeting with Chevy. “The timbre of my voice is as important as the content.” He’s not wrong about this — but under the hyper-kinetic influence of amphetamines, those cliches and aphorisms suddenly seem ridiculous. He’s such a self-made man, having named himself and created his own story, that he has become another hollow product. He’s now the human incarnation of style over substance. Later, when he gathers the troops to figure out the Chevy campaign, he’s literally trying to fabricate the perfect pitch for his own life. “I’ve got this great message, and it has to do with what holds people together,” he announces. “What is that thing that draws them? It’s a history. And it may not even be with that person, but it’s like a… ” His voice trails off, as if he’s not so sure anymore. “Well,” he continues, “it’s bigger than that.”

It seems like Don doesn’t know where his life is headed, and my growing sense is that the show isn’t sure either. Mad Men has always been focused on one theme: what happens when the whole world is changing around you, but you still feel exactly the same as you always did? History repeats itself, over and over again, people believe that things will be different this time, but nothing really changes. Just think of Pete’s mom, who suffers from dementia, confusing him for his own father, who was a cheater just like his son. Or think of Don divorcing Betty and marrying Megan, only to find that he still can’t stop himself from betraying his wife. But lately, it’s not the characters who are refusing to change — it’s the show.

Six seasons in, when we see Don demanding a mistress crawl across the floor for sexual motives that reflect nothing interesting or authentic about his own character, it seems strange that we’re still following this sad, slow decline forever. It’s just another way for Don to boss women around (the only difference is that it’s happening in a hotel room). He can only fall for so long before we start wishing he’d actually hit the bottom; there’s no reason to empathize with a man whose only punishment appears to be an on-going interior battle with his own sense of self. This season, Megan hoped that he would “jump from the balcony and fly to work, like Superman,” which sounded like an ominous nod to the show’s opening credits — but maybe that’s all this show is. What if Mad Men is just the story of a handsome, confused man who falls and falls and falls … yet never truly hits the ground. If we’re supposed to care about the life of Don Draper, we have to believe the way he behaves has consequences. It’s time for Don to fail for real. It’s the best thing that could possibly happen to him, and us.

Follow Melissa Maerz on Twitter: @MsMelissaMaerz

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