Mad Men 7a: Part 1 – The Don Delusion

17 May

Quick PSA before I get started on this. I used to blog TV and sometimes movies over on couchpumpkin. As you can probably tell from the last timestamp on there, I haven’t had time to keep that up on top of this blog and everything else – so I’m going to be doing any media writing on here from now on. I’ve been writing about Mad Men in fits and starts since 2009 – check out the tag to find my other pieces.

don1

There is so much I want to say to you, Mad Men. How can we have so little time left? A handful of episodes, and a 12-month stretch to divide us. I’m not sure how I’ll manage when you’re gone. Endless rewatches, I’m sure. The fruitless search for something to match you.

In all seriousness, I will be devastated when this show ends. Mad Men is no ordinary show – it is a novel, really, masquerading as episodic television. So to analyse as we go along feels somewhat lacking – the full power will perhaps only be revealed after the final scene. But, of course, the show invites deep reading – it thrives on it.

Partially, then, over the next few posts, I want to tackle the themes of the first half of Season 7 (7a), which remain the same as those we’ve seen so far: gender, change, our relationship with the past and duality. I want to start off, however, by responding to a common fallacy in casual viewers of the show. Let’s call it ‘The Don Delusion’.

A few weeks ago, Danielle Henderson wrote a piece for the Guardian about Game of Thrones and sexism. Although I’m a big fan of ASOIAF, I agree with Danielle on some of the failings of the GoT series, particularly with respect to women – definitely a topic that deserves its own discussion. But what also caught my eye was a brief mention of Mad Men:

It’s strange to quit a show after putting so much time into it. I also decided to skip this final season of Mad Men, having long ago lost interest in the weekly display of misogyny and ill will that main character Don Draper visits upon everyone around him. Sure, he’s a man of his time, but that doesn’t mean I have to engage in the weekly assault on my eyeballs as he denigrates his wives and stomps around as a titan of industry, a master of the universe. I’m exhausted by the triumph of men at the expense of women as a narrative device.

There are two main things to take issue with here. Firstly, the last line – ‘the expense of women as a narrative device’ – is baffling to me, when Mad Men is one of the only shows to consistently feature complex, rounded and fascinating women with as much agency as any man in the same narrative. This is the topic for post number 2, partially because I want as much space as possible to wax lyrical about my one true love Peggy Olson.

What I’d like to tackle here is the delusion that Don is a triumphant character: a ‘master of the universe’. The anachronistic term here references Wolfe’s 1980s The Bonfire of the Vanities (and, by way of this, Fifty Shades of Grey – f.k.a. MoTU back when it was a Twilight fanfic), suggesting swaggering masculine power, rampant capitalism and moral corruption. Henderson seems to perceive Draper as a figure whose poor behaviour is celebrated in the narrative; by implication, he is celebrated by the audience, too. Henderson is not the first to make such criticisms of the show. Daniel Mendelsohn, in his article The Mad Men Account, accuses the show of ‘eroticising’ 1960s mores through the triumph of style over substance, providing mere ‘fantasies…of significant potency’. Again, Draper’s  ‘wicked’ behaviour is seen as a focus for our admiration and therefore a significant weakness in the show.

Obviously, I disagree.

Sure, Don’s very first episode might support such an idea. The opening shot swoops in on slicked-back hair and the broad shoulders of a matinee idol; he is alone with his ideas in the dark and smoky bar, knocking back Old Fashioneds and sucking on a Lucky Strike. We are drawn to him as (to quote Mendelsohn) ‘an alluring historical fantasy’. There is no doubt that this remains a powerful image that provokes many forms of desire. Indeed, in the comments for this scene on Youtube, one user remarks enviously that ‘people back then seemed to be able to enjoy life’.

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To take this image as the whole of Draper, however, is arguably to miss the true complexity of the character. From this first scene, the fantasy is dismantled, brick by brick. Don has found no fulfilment in his many relationships – or only fleeting. Mere physical satisfaction has turned to love in many cases, but his true matches (like Rachel Menken) have turned away from the darkness beneath the perfect exterior. Other physical appetities, like drinking, have turned Don from suave smooth-talker to a shambling mess.

The falseness of the Draper persona becomes, in essence, a cancer that eats away at anything good in his life. His brother commits suicide; his two marriages dissolve into falsehood and acrimony; he loses his children (to the point of having had no noticeable contact with Bobby or Gene in s7 so far) and finally his job. He is also hopelessly behind the times, clinging to his outdated fedora that marks him out as a relic of a bygone age.  Don by Season 7 is a shadow of his former self, and he knows it. We know it, too. Who dreams of being the middle-aged man, left out on a freezing balcony of a roach-ridden apartment, alone in the middle of the vast New York night?

don3This has not been a straightforward tumble, no matter what the opening credits promise. In Season 2’s The Mountain King, Don strides naked into the Pacific, a moment we could read as Odyssean (guided as he was by Circean Anna, the guardian of the Sun sign). Having stumbled, having lost his way, he renews his purpose as a man. At the end of Season 3, again, he resurrects himself through the establishment of SCDP. His path is a Snakes and Ladders game. Each step forwards has been followed by a slide backwards.

That is not to say that Don is without his positive points. He is, at heart, the son of a prostitute and a drunk, who has only made his way in the world through his one great talent – his creativity. Now, in Season 7, he must fall back on this. Only time will tell if it is enough to pull him from the mire –  or if he will succumb to temptations once again.

Our desire for Don – to be him or be with him – is tempered by his failings. This is an echo of our relationship with the past as developed through the series as a whole. In one of the most memorable scenes from the whole show, Don rebrands ‘the carousel’ as a ‘nostalgia’ device. His definition of ‘nostalgia’ is ‘pain from an old wound’, but as all Greek scholars know, ‘nostos’ is the long journey home, as undertaken by our aforementioned Odysseus.

There are several ways we can interpret this theme. Firstly, the suggestion that to confront the past is both painful and painfully desired. Yes, on a simplistic level, it is fun to experience old ways of life; it is also cathartic, giving us a safe space in which to play around with notions of culture. But we also tread a knife edge between embracing and rejecting our ancestry.

Similarly, our responses to Don can be myriad. Rather than playing the role of uncomplicated ‘titan of industry’, he is a hugely flawed object of both desire and repulsion. By accepting ‘The Don Delusion’, the notion that he is only a hyper-masculine pin-up, we run the risk of missing much of the show’s deeper significance.

As for the triumph of women, let’s come back to that another time…

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One Response to “Mad Men 7a: Part 1 – The Don Delusion”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Mad Men 7a Part 2: The Women | Catherine Queen - June 28, 2014

    […] I think this might be another symptom of the aforementioned Don Delusion – believing that Don is the only main character. Don is incredibly important, no doubt about […]

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