“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.