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Mad Men Character Study: Meet the Old Don. Same As the New Don?

The beauty of Sunday's Mad Men: it appealed to viewer's fascination with swaggering, confident antiheroes while also questioning it.

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Michael Yarish/AMC

Spoilers for Sunday’s Mad Men episode, “For Immediate Release,” below:

I’m going to agree with most of the reviews and online comments I’ve seen so far that “For Immediate Release” was the best Mad Men episode so far this season. But I would argue that the coolest part of the episode was not the best part. (Well, in truth both the coolest and best part was Pete Campbell falling on his ass down the stairs in a rage, but that’s hardly a fair competition.)

The coolest part of the episode–reminiscent of the Ocean’s Eleven caper that closed Mad Men’s third season–was the surprise merger of SCDP and CGC to land the Chevrolet account, enabled by a combo of Don’s barstool improvisation and Roger’s airline espionage. It was brisk, confident, funny. As our protagonists walked past GM’s shiny ’68 models and ordered up the press release announcing the merger, it was as if Mad Men itself had gotten a fresh buff, polish and coat of wax.

The episode underscored an old truth of storytelling: that characters who want something and take action are more compelling than characters who don’t. TV viewers, like anyone else in life, respond to confidence and enthusiasm. The knock on Mad Men season six to date is that it was rambling and overly morose. (I don’t entirely share that, by the way. I like those melancholy, slow Mad Men episodes, and they’re necessary to the flashier ones.) Don Draper had become a moody, contemptible asshole, contemplating death and having an affair that seemed only to depress him and the married woman he was sleeping with.

The break with Jaguar, and the chance to pitch Chevy, seemed to snap Don out of his funk, and with him, the show—it was as if the clouds parted over the second half of the episode. I don’t think that anyone who thought Don Draper an asshole before (correctly, in most respects) suddenly thinks he’s not. But we* were again seeing the confident, assured asshole we once knew, and that’s the more fun kind of asshole to watch. Schemes are fun. Action is fun. Swagger is fun.

*Note: Here and below—and, honestly, in most essays like this one—”We” means “me, and other people I’ve heard from.” (Culture critics overuse “we” the way Don Draper under-uses it.) I can’t pretend this reaction is universal: I do know that the episode successfully made me feel it, and that I was seeing a lot of “Don and Roger are back, baby!” in the post-airing comments. Your mileage may vary, especially if you are driving the 1970 Chevy Vega.
This is—in antihero TV and sometimes the larger world—our social contract with assholes. We will indulge them, at least if we’re not the ones being hurt by them, so long as they are charming and optimistic and capable. Their job is to win and be awesome. (Think also: politics, sports, entertainment.) If they deliver, we may not like them, but we can enjoy them; we may at least temporarily forget what there is to despise about them. (This may also, in part, explain why antihero shows like Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, and The Sopranos have a vocal set of fans who love stories about the characters’ areas of competence—be it drug dealing, Mob hits, or advertising—and hate family drama and pillow talk.)

There’s a big downside to that deal, of course, as we’ve seen in viewers’ responses to Don. If they become bitter and gloomy like Ted Chaough inviting Don to join him in conceding defeat, or Don for considerable stretches of Mad Men, they are doubly despised. But if they show strength and confidence, or fake it, suddenly they are the Teddy Chaough of Peggy’s fantasy, wearing a smoking jacket and reading Something by Emerson as we lean in for a kiss.

Matthew Weiner and his crew are strong enough storytellers to know this, and they’ve used the entertainment power of their charming rakes to earn goodwill for Mad Men’s darker, more interior stretches. “For Immediate Release” did that, showed us Don and Roger at their winningest, and Mad Men felt cool again.

But what was best about the episode was that, even as it pushed those buttons, it also interrogated the very feeling of excitement that it was creating. Just listen to Joan, who wasn’t about to high-five Don for his peevish impulse to end things with Herb and thus Jaguar. To Don, it’s another in a string of hero moments in his life, and he sees no reason why Joan shouldn’t thank him for cutting loose the man she was traded to for sex and a partnership: “Don’t you feel about 300 pounds lighter?” (Side note: there’s probably never a situation in which that’s a good thing for a man to say to a female coworker.)

But to Joan, it’s just another man high-handedly taking away her agency and expecting to be thanked for it. Herb is still the guy she had a skeevy night of sex with, but now, thanks to Don, she’s done it for nothing. Money aside, Don’s wasn’t an act of chivalry but of selfishness and disrespect. “If I could deal with him,” she says furiously, “you could deal with him.”

Pete–no hero himself, sure–makes a similar argument, no less valid for his pratfall on the stairs, or Don’s happening to save the day with Chevy: “You’re Tarzan, swinging from vine to vine.” And not everyone wants to be his Jane, being rescued without their asking.

It’s Megan, though, who offers the most striking meta-commentary on the charming-asshole fallacy at work here. Even without knowing about Don’s love-in-an-elevator escapades near home, she has no reason to be enamored with him right now: as she tells her mother early in the episode, he’s become distant to her, unsupportive of her career, as if he feels her every success diminishes him. Fans are asking her autograph, but she has to treat a dinner date with her husband as if it’s an audition for his continued affection.

And yet, when Don comes back from his Chevy brainstorming sessions, anxious, hungry, and wired—swoon!—suddenly he’s transformed into her Clark Kent and Superman all in one. It’s a response not unlike that of the Mad Men fan at seeing Don get his mojo back, for all his flaws, only she registers her approval in a slightly more, er, expressive way, heading south of his 49th parallel to bolster him to fly off and save the day.

Does this mean Don will be any more comfortable with her being a Superwoman in her own field, or can he only deal with her as his Lois Lane? Our memories of Don are long enough not to give him too much credit on the basis of one business coup. “For Immediate Release” was an exciting episode for many reasons—Peggy’s real-estate-fueled feelings of conflicted attraction, Pete’s mutually assured destruction with his father-in-law—but in large part because it gave us the confident, competent Don we remember. What makes Mad Men a great drama, though, is that it knows enough to acknowledge that charming assholes are a lot more charming when you only have to deal with them for an hour at a time.

8 comments
OhsnapItsJenni
OhsnapItsJenni

Can someone explain to me if his reason for cheating on Megan is the same reason he cheated on Betty? I honestly thought that it was his lie that caused him to cheat on Betty. I think I was the only one who thought that Don was actually going to be faithful to Megan because he was honest with her. I thought that's why he loved her so much, because she love him unconditionally whereas Betty only loved the idea of him. He does still live Megan right? He seems so unhappy in that marriage.

lee66132000
lee66132000

I hope Don falls on his ass over his actions in this episode.  God, I loathe him even more.

SueShan
SueShan

This weekend’s episode was remarkable, but I can’t help but wonder if Don would’ve acted differently had Herb not made the comment about Megan. Getting the Chevy account was just as exciting for me as it seemed to be for SCDP, but I had no idea what a Chevy Vega was until I went into my office at DISH yesterday, and found out the real story behind it from one of my coworkers. Now I can’t wait to see if that truth is revealed this season or the next. I’m so glad that my DISH Hopper can save up to 1,250 SD or 450 HD hours of whatever I record because I want to be able to hold onto this season and the next forever. With this kind of memory, I can continue to record full seasons of my other favorite shows without ever having to consider deleting anything.

TheHoobie
TheHoobie

One of the things my mom (a psychologist) always tried to impress on me as I was growing up is that people are much more "and" than "but" or "or." An old boss of mine happened to be an excellent supervisor (one of the best bosses I've ever had) and was also... kind of a d*ck as a person. You had to accept both.

I know it's complicated for shows when the lead character is an antihero---that there's a contingent of fans who valorize Walter-White-as-Scarface, for example---and that creators of shows like Breaking Bad often feel like they have to brush back that part of their audiences with episodes like BB's "Dead Freight," in which Walter's train-robbery caper has a gut-punchingly awful upshot. This episode of Mad Men seemed like a "reverse brush-back," then ("Come back! Don can still be awesome!"). But I want to hope, at least, that viewers who can hold the "and" of characters like Don and Walter in their heads at the same time are more plentiful than those who can't. And I wish Weiner and Gilligan trusted the former kind of viewer more, and so they didn't feel the need to do these brush-backs and reverse brush-backs (or at least not as often).

(The "So you're diggin' the train-robbery caper, are you?! Well, here, take THAT!" ending of "Dead Freight" hit me like a slap in the face, and I felt unjustly punished for a sin as a viewer that I hadn't committed. I was crying alone in our living room at 1:00 AM for 15 minutes afterward. [Curse you, Vince Gilligan!])

And I'm with James in not minding the quieter, more melancholy episodes per se. But my issue with this season of Mad Men is that Weiner's losing me in the quieter episodes, in ways that aren't fixed by the burst-of-action episodes. Internal/emotional/interpersonal stakes are the stakes and the action that matter to me. As an example, one of the "good" things about Don that I've always liked seeing is how he (sometimes!) can be a surprisingly good parent. I'm thinking of that lovely unexpected scene between Don and Sally late at night in the kitchen in season 3, I think, where Don talks about how Sally being a girl was a good surprise. And the special bond Don has talked about feeling with Gene. So I was dismayed to learn in a recent episode in this sour season that Don felt that most of his good parenting moments had been "faked." :-( I understand that Weiner's point of view is that personal change is hard and people will find any excuse to sabotage it, but as in my example, I feel like Don has had some small-but-meaningful insights in the course of the show that have been actively pissed on and pissed away this season. (So how should I feel about that lovely scene with Sally in the kitchen now?) The "and" of Don is getting flattened.

With Breaking Bad, I'm eager to watch the end of the story---will Walter White reach anything like redemption? Do I want him to? Or do I just want him to be punished? Or something in between (an "and" ending)? And what will happen to Jesse and Skyler and Walter Junior and Hank?! But I'm just not as sure what the point (or "end") of Mad Men is at the moment, or what is ultimately gained or meant by the constant switching of gears between morose-a-hole Don and active-a-hole Don. Or what the point is to watching Don and Pete ruin relationship after relationship. Especially if Weiner isn't really interested in depicting internal change.**

*James: I have to take mild exception to your characterization of Lois Lane! In good depictions, Lois is awesome and competent on her own. :-)

**One Mad Men character I can think of who *has* changed a lot, actually, is Harry Crane. (From sweet, tighty-whitey--clad distraught husband to thoroughgoing a-hole.) But Harry's change, paradoxically, has been so abrupt and backgrounded that it's hard to understand and take seriously!

bengodar
bengodar

@SueShan Like Sue Shan, I was also confused by elements of the last episode.  Luckily, I called a helpful DISH Network Customer Service Rep at 800-233-DISH and she explained how Don can embody genuine empathy and self-destruction.  And while "Amber" reminded me how Pete's arc continues to echo themes of lost father figures, she also convinced me that I would be better off with the America's Top 250 package with the Free Hopper upgrade.  Thanks Mad Men / DISH Network! @bengodar 

Katy93
Katy93

@TheHoobie Love this point--the way Mad Men embraces the "and" of people is one of my favorite things about the show. But I have to say that I have always wondered about his awesome parenting moments. The similarity between Don in awesome parent mode and Don in awesome ad salesman mode has always struck me as particularly eerie--the revelation that he feels he's being "fake" in the parenting scenes totally clicked for me. (Loved the line, "He's not a salesman!" Oh, he is. He's just not selling anything to you.) Indeed, my thought about the hotel pitch that didn't go well for him was that he was actually being genuine for once and it did not. work. out.  I also wonder how much he ascribes the totally normal feeling of "oh s***, I'm a parent and yet I don't have all the answers, and my kid expects an answer that makes sense right now" to his screwed-up childhood--I think part of him thinks if he'd grown up in a less awful home, he'd actually have the answers the way Megan seems to sometimes.

I also think there's a strong parallel between Don's feelings about his kids and Roger's feelings about his mother/shoe-shine guy. It's still taking shape in my mind, so I don't have anything valuable to say about it, but to me they feel like similar issues, where those emotions just aren't available to them.

I'm with you in losing a little of my ability to suspend my disgust with Don, though. *Another* affair? Does he not remember crying at Megan's feet out of fear that he'd lose her? Whatever. It's hard to be bothered about his latest foray into humanity when you know he's going to continue to disappoint you in the most predictable ways. (Not that he doesn't occasionally pick an unpredictable way to be a total jerk, just to keep things fresh, but dude. For real.

The scene with Joan broke my heart. It really implies that she slept with Jaguar primarily for the good of the company, as opposed to for the partnership or even indirectly for the security the partnership might afford her son in the future. And the company (Harry and Don in particular) are pissing all over that contribution. Ouch.

vrcplou
vrcplou

@TheHoobie RE:  Walter White - my feelings for Walter are so complicated.  I feel almost pride for him because his evolution has taken him from someone who was a passenger in his own life, just going where everyone and everything took him to being a M-A-N and taking the reins of his life, finding himself and just going with it.  I mean, sure, that meant he turned into a criminal and his moral compass is certainly whacked (maybe?), but I have enormous respect for the man because he completely claimed his life.  and I know that's weird because I feel like I'm supposed to dislike Walter because of the consequences of the things he does; but I don't.  I can't.  I'm dreading the end of BB because I can't see any way for it to be "satisfying" for me, lol.

jponiewozik
jponiewozik moderator

I'm just glad that Mad Men won't last long enough for us to see the episode where Peggy Olson has to mastermind a spam-comments campaign for some client.