If you are looking for my more recent post on the Mad Men finale, click here.
“Mad Men is a show about a lot of unlikable people, so why do we like the show so much”? I have said this myself, and heard other people ask it plenty of times.
When I tell people The Godfather is one of my all-time favorite movies, they are usually surprised, considering my other favorite movies are Anne of Green Gables and You’ve Got Mail. But seeing The Godfather for the first time was an eye-opening experience for me– and not because I was completely unfamiliar with the mafia, hiding dead bodies in mattresses, or how to prepare meatballs and spaghetti sauce for a large group of Italian men. No, it was because for the first time while watching a movie, I saw myself in the bad guy, because he started out good. Or at least decent. Anyway, he was the reliable one. And hey, aren’t I reliable?
Since The Godfather, I have also come to love The Brothers Karamazov, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men. It took a few years, but I finally realized there is a common thread woven through all of my favorite stories, and that is this: there is a “bad guy” in all of us and these stories provide us with clues to the warning signs. It is the warning signs that I find fascinating, which Mad Men is filled with.
We relate to, or at least sympathize with, the protagonist in every story if he or she has an ounce of truthfully portrayed human nature. In a lot of stories, the hero is a virtuous person, or at least someone with a little integrity. And a flawed human overcoming adversity is also a part of our humanness. Those are good stories. But they aren’t always my favorite.
Oftentimes, equally as moving, is showing ever so subtly how a person’s decisions add up and ultimately come to something they never really planned for. The Godfather is a guidebook on how to change so slowly that even your heart of hearts won’t be able to tell the difference between good and bad, pure motives and tainted motives.
I recently saw 12 Years a Slave, in which we as an audience are forced to watch a psychopath slave owner treat fellow human beings in ways we would rather believe don’t exist in our society today, and most certainly not within ourselves. There is no sympathy for his character and naturally, as a viewer, we are on Solomon’s, the free man turned slave, side. As a viewer, we don’t know much about the wicked slave owner at all, except for what we see in the present, and it is grotesquely appalling.
But if in our humanness we share the goodness of our fellow men, we share the less flattering parts, too. It’s hard to imagine we have just as much potential to become twisted and evil as the worst person who ever lived. But the path to damnation is not quick (and thus we think we are safe). The process is slow and often undetectable. And that is part of the reason why we love Mad Men. Because Mad Men, like The Godfather, The Brothers Karamazov, Flannery O’Connor’s stories, and Breaking Bad, show the process.
Don Draper is no twisted slave owner, I’ll give him that. But when we meet him, he doesn’t exactly fit into the good guy category. Don Draper is prone to the same temptations we are all faced with, so therefore he is relatable in the kind of way that makes it easy to judge him or think better of ourselves because we aren’t cheating on our spouse.
I like to tell myself that though I may share in his temptations as a fellow human being, I make better choices. Whether or not that is true, the seed for every repulsive quality in these flawed characters is buried deep within all of us, at risk of being watered. And that is a terrifying fact that we all must be prepared to face at a moment’s notice. And like Don, we don’t like thinking about it.
Whether or not Don Draper is redeemed in any way in the final season, the show itself presents a redeeming quality if it challenges the viewer to take a second look at their oft-undetected motives.
In Mad Men, and in other stories where the characters are not clearly moving in a better direction from where they started, human nature is captured in the subtlest of forms. Mad Men zooms into the smallest pixel, and tells the story while only rarely zooming back out (I am thinking of Don’s childhood). There is not a lot of apparent change or growth, but there isn’t always in our own lives, either. So in watching these characters that change ever so slowly, we have a chance to catch our breath and assume that because it is a story, there must be meaning.
In our own lives, we don’t get the big picture in two hours, or even over the course of five seasons. We aren’t even promised the big picture in the end. But maybe the big picture is not always more revealing than the individual parts. Maybe we are able to recognize that in Mad Men, and that is why we like it.
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, Father Zossima imparts this wisdom, that, although written in the 1800s, summarizes Don Draper just about as well as any modern critique could:
“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.” It even sounds a little bit like one of Don’s moving sales pitches, doesn’t it?
As Matthew Weiner, the creator of the show says: Don Draper may not believe he is capable of being loved. If his inability to be loyal to one woman is any indication, I believe it. And I am willing to bet that if Don does indeed believe he is incapable of being loved, that seed was planted a long time ago with a small lie to himself. As viewers, we can pick up on that from our vantage point.
In a way, Don gives us a second chance, whether he will get one or not. These people in books and films and TV shows who are not so likable, they reveal the un-likability in ourselves, if we let them. And we like ourselves. We hold out hope for Don, because we hold out hope for ourselves. We realize we are no better than he is, and that the only difference is that for us, there is still a chance. That is hopeful. And that, I think, is why we like Mad Men.
EDIT: My thoughts on the Mad Men finale here.