I’ve read a lot of gripes about Mad Men today; if Ken Levine, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Ezra Klein are to be believed, Mad Men is a lesser show this season, most of it owing to supposedly unlikable characters and claims that nobody on Mad Men changes. [kyra add: Hell, even Jon Stewart lamented to Christina Hendricks what bad men all these cheating husbands are. Let’s keep in mind we’re only a couple episodes in to be writing off the whole season!] I was chatting about this briefly with Kyra earlier, and I’d like to respond to both of these propositions. First, since when are the characters on Mad Men unlikeable, and even if most of them are, why does that have to be a problem? Second, since when has it been a maxim that characters MUST CHANGE? There are many ways to tell a good story, and not all of them involve characters evolving into better people. Sometimes there’s plenty of drama in characters devolving or remaining static while their surroundings change drastically. Mostly I find it odd that people who loved and championed Mad Men are decrying it for not being less cynical after a couple seasons when it’s been pretty obvious from the start that the show would be exposing the decline of these people. For God’s sakes, Sterling Cooper was on top of the world at the beginning. Did you really expect for everybody working there to rise higher and cleanse their souls in the process? It’s one thing to say that you’re not a fan of cynicism, but another to wait until the sixth season to criticize a cynical show for being, um, cynical.
As part of the discussion Kyra and I were having, we could only name one definitively unlikeable major character on Mad Men: Pete Campbell. Everything Pete does is tinged with irredeemability. He’d happily whore out Joan and cheat on his wife without an iota of remorse and can’t help but lord his status over everybody else. In other words, whenever Pete is on screen you probably revel in his failures and cheer when he gets punched in the face because he’s a spoiled guy who’s got it all and treats that inheritance so casually. Pete’s the most uncomplicated character on the show and that makes him the easiest scapegoat for Matthew Weiner (and us); nothing is a better reminder of these guys’ degenerative spiral than something blowing up in Pete’s face.
But virtually every other major character on the show is much more complicated than Pete; none of them are easy scapegoats and none of them are saints, which means our feelings about them are also complicated. If there are any battles being fought on Mad Men, they are being fought within characters, and thus within you, too. Yes, Don Draper is the womanizing hypocrite who berates his wife for kissing another man on screen, but he’s also the guy who hired a woman as his chief copy writer, who understands his partners’ (and his own) immorality, and who at least tolerates having a black secretary (no small feat in that agency). Is Don angrier and more desperate this year? You bet. But astute viewers (like Ta-Nehisi Coates) will have noted that his wife’s increasing independence is also antithetical to Don’s structured life, that he has no one to mentor with Peggy gone, his daughter is older, and the one person who fully understood his secret is dead [kyra note: Megan knows about his past, but he has emotionally detached from her]. The things I just listed are the reasons why Don is unmoored now and seemingly wants to get caught (or why else sleep with your neighbor, not to mention your friend’s wife). To me it’s hard to take inventory of what Don has lost and then turn around and complain that he’s a lot more horrible. Don is complex and you get the good with the bad. If you’re bothered by the bad side that’s rearing its head now, that’s because you’ve seen the potential for goodness. Moreover, if you’ve ever remarked about how cool Don is—and he is fucking cool—then you’ve got something to confront yourself, just like Don; facing Don’s ugliness now is the price you’re paying for Don’s seduction of you before [kyra note: that’s simply well fucking said].
It’s easy to forget, of course, that Mad Men is more than just Don Draper, but you can see the same internal battles in everybody not named Pete. Many of these were showcased in Sunday’s episode: Harry, the smarmy creep, has only grown smarmier, creepier, and more cowardly since the show’s opening, but is also someone of value for the company who knows how to do his job if not how to behave around others. Roger is the silver-haired sarcastic product of nepotism who’s stuck in the past but has become a sympathetic character now that he’s begun to realize that he’s internalized his pain for all these years (aside from treating his problems with alcohol). Peggy is ambitious and smart, and of course we want a woman to succeed in a man’s world, but she’s constantly in danger of subverting some of her femininity to act too much like Don and her male colleagues. She is also not above dicking over her friends if it means a (failed) shot at a client. Megan is young and pursuing her own dreams, but as Kyra mentioned to me today, she certainly wasn’t above asking Don to put her in a commercial.
All of this is to say that if any of the characters on Mad Men are likable—and most of them are—they’re likable because we think they have a slim chance of overcoming their flaws. Rooting for Don, Peggy, Megan, Ken Cosgrove—whoever it is—is like rooting for the roulette wheel to land on 22. The odds are stacked against you and them because Weiner hasn’t been shy about the direction in which he thinks these characters are heading, but that’s not a reason to like them any less than we always have.
On top of that, who says every character has to be unambiguously likable? Kyra’s going to disagree with me on this, but there’s got to be some reason I like Girls even though its two most prominent characters, Hannah and Marnie, are positively unlikable, and its other principals (Jessa, Shoshanna, Adam, and Ray) suffer from internal battles like our Mad Men protagonists. It turns out that I like Girls, as I’ve written before in this space, almost because its central characters are unlikeable: It’s an unflinching and honest study of self-obsessed people, and the payoff comes from either laughing with or at them or cringing at their poor decisions.
Maybe I like Girls and Mad Men because I’m pretty cynical myself and because I find some amount of cynicism paradoxically refreshing and new, at least to TV—we haven’t seen stories this resolutely unhappy since some 1970’s movies, probably. (If it helps explain my position, my favorite movie is Chinatown—a real happy ending that one’s got.) So, yes, I’m saying that I haven’t tired of the cynicism yet, though I do get how relentless cynicism can be depressing and frustrating [kyra note: and it’s no coincidence, as I wrote in my review of this week’s episode, that Don, and Roger, and Joan, and Megan ad infinitem are depressed and frustrated]. It’s just that, as I mentioned in the introduction, it seems that now’s a little too late to complain about it, at least with regards to Mad Men. People have argued, I’m sure, that part of Mad Men‘s boldness comes from its cynicism and its indictment of viewers for craving nostalgia when the past is much dirtier than its sleek exterior.
Then there’s the issue of change, and I’ll concede that I don’t think anyone on Mad Men has really changed, or if they have it’s probably been for the worse. As Coates noted, people do relapse in real life, but he mentioned this in support of his argument that he’s grown tired of the constant downward spiral; he’d rather see somebody on the show improve his or her well-being or somebody else’s well-being. What Coates is asking for is evolution on the characters’ part, not necessarily change. [kyra note: I would actually disagree with my colleague here. I think Peggy has changed mostly for the better. While she is struggling currently to relate to her subordinates, I think she will learn. Regardless, her life has certainly changed from the start of the show and her personality along with it (from meek secretary to assertive copywriter). Additionally, I think Don has changed in some ways for the better. While he recently relapsed into his cheating ways, his relationship with Megan was much healthier than it ever was with Betty–a sign of growth. Now it is arguably a sign of maturity that he understands that he relates more to someone his own age than to Megan, and I still contend it’s reasonable for him to be very upset about her using him to jumpstart her career. I could go on, but my point is simply that there are examples of positive change on Mad Men.]
But evolution isn’t necessary to the success of a TV show, and while I want things in TV shows to change (I’ve gotta come back for each successive season, in theory), that change doesn’t have to come from the characters themselves. My example with respect to the character evolution point is Breaking Bad. There, you had pitiful, sad sack Walter White dying of terminal lung cancer, too pathetic and with no will to do anything about it. Then, he realized he could make a shitload of money cooking meth, and went down that path. The conventional reading is that Walt chose to break bad and adopted his power-hungry, I-am-the-one-knocking Heisenberg persona, distinct from his bumbling Walter White identity. Walt certainly hasn’t evolved; he’s (depending on your reading) either devolved or chosen to act on his pre-existing badness (or a little of both). Perhaps evolution OR devolution is necessary to a TV series, but I don’t think Breaking Bad is a good show just because Walt gets worse and worse. Likewise in AMC’s sister show it doesn’t bother me so much that Don and Roger are dealing with their same problems of old in basically the same way, though you could argue that Don’s choice of Sylvia for a mistress is a sign of his devolution.
What is changing on Mad Men, if the character’s really aren’t,* is time and culture; I think the real drama apart from the characters’ internal dilemmas comes from watching those characters fight to remain the same in a world that isn’t. Don is hanging onto his suits while his wife’s bosses are SWINGIN’ and Stan is growing a hedge on his face; Roger is clutching his vodka bottle while the cool kids (including older kids) take some LSD and smoke grass. That’s Mad Men for you: America isn’t leaving these people back in 1960, back when a presidential candidate didn’t realize that you should shave before debating on TV and before the civil rights and feminism movements scared the bejesus out of privileged white men, but is carrying them full throttle into the future, where their status is less certain. If you’re just catching onto that now, I’m not really sure where you’ve been. I’ve bought into the cynicism for this long, and I’m planning on letting it drag me down for these last two seasons.
*I think Kyra makes a very persuasive argument above that Peggy is the most capable of positive change. She’s my favorite character, but I think part of that is because she’s the easiest to root for on paper. If there is someone who will have a happy ending, though, she’s got the best shot. As for Don, I definitely think he’s capable of positive change and is relatively progressive, and I too empathize with his jealousy of Megan’s career. However, while he’s had his peaks, I still think he’s ending up in the valley. I’d also say that it’s quite possible his marriage to Betty followed the same track as his current marriage, but we just didn’t see Don’s happy moments with Betty on screen—he was already an established philanderer by the pilot.