Monday, April 28, 2014

How "Mad Men" avoids the dark side

Where does it really hurt?

By Lars Trodson

As I finished watching the most recent full season of Mad Men, something was nagging at me (outside the feeling of déjà vu I was beginning to have about some of the plotlines).

I was beginning to realize just how little most of the wreckage caused by the characters’ deliberate actions actually seems to hurt. I remembered, late in the fifth season, Don goes to a seedy bar and has a brief conversation with a burnt-out preacher who reminds him of his own terrible past. The next thing we know, Don is in jail, and then right after that we see him pouring his booze out in the kitchen sink.

"Does this have to do with last night," asks his wife Meghan, and that's all that's said about it. Which is pretty much how everything is dealt with on this show: a flip line, a concerned look, but then everybody moves on. This show will seemingly dip toward the darkness, but in fact it never goes there.

Take Lane Pryce's suicide. It doesn't really seem to have caused anybody any self-doubt or soul searching. It certainly seems not to have had many ramifications outside the office. (There were also some inconsistencies in that story. It was Lane's wife who tells Don that he and the others at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce had no business filling Lane "with ambition." But this was the same woman who bought her husband a Jaguar just when his money problems were really starting.)

Remember, it is Don Draper who realizes that Lane has been stealing from the company. Don, the identity thief; the philandering husband. It is not that one expects Don to extend Lane any sort of courtesy, perhaps he did what was necessary. It is just that Don never seems to have any doubt about what he did, even though he knows he has shown a false face to the world. There is never a moment of angst or hidden remorse. Lane Pryce killed himself in part because Don didn't give him a break, but it never seems to resonate.

Look at Joan Holloway Harris (Christina Hendricks). Her husband-to-be rapes her and later decides to return to Vietnam instead of their marriage. This seems to be little more than an inconvenience for Joan. In fact, while the husband is away at war, Joan and Roger Sterling (John Slattery) resume their affair, resulting in a pregnancy and baby. Again, nobody has any problems with this. All this clutter is just that, clutter that can be washed away with a new household cleaning product.

Joan also seems to have hardly been injured in any way when Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) relays a message from a Jaguar dealer that, if he can get a night with Joan, then maybe SCDP will get the car account. Joan eventually agrees (but only if she gets a partnership) and then everyone seems to be pretty pleased with the way that turned out.

Speaking of pregnancies, copywriter Peggy Olson has Pete's baby, which she then gives up for adoption. This never seems to cause anyone any despair, any anguish, any kind of unpredicted flareup in the office. It never seemed to have any impact on Peggy — she just continued her way up the corporate ladder. Is this the way human beings act? Does she never even wonder about the fate of the child?
Peggy, by the way, stabs her boyfriend in the stomach by mistake, but this misfortune luckily turns into an opportunity for her to start an affair with her married boss. It's really quite wonderful the way that one turned out.

I could go on and on, but we have to talk a little more about Don Draper (John Hamm). It could be that, in the end, the reason that Don never truly feels desperate or in pain is that Hamm is not an especially nuanced actor. He doesn't appear to have much range: he never feels forceful enough, or inspiring enough, or intimidating enough — the glow of professional appreciation and jealousy that surrounds him never feels quite earned.

But still, Don's actions should create a maelstrom of madness around him — a wife crazed with jealousy, kids on the brink of breakdowns, unhinged girlfriends stalking the hallways of the agency. But no, despite the truly anarchic way that Draper lives his life, it always seems a tad too tidy. He rolled his former wife Betsy (January Jones), but her tics and depression always seemed more the result of her upbringing than anything Don did to her.

Even Don's separation from SCDP isn't rooted in behavior that one is supposed to interpret as destructive. It is instead presented as cathartic. The demolition of his career is meant to be the beginning of the reconstruction of his life, his humanity. (Don is pitching Hershey's chocolate with a bullshit story about a fake childhood but, suddenly ashamed of his hypocrisy, decides to tell the Hershey execs that he was brought up in a whorehouse. The Hershey execs were not impressed) So, you do not react to what Roger Sterling called an act of "self-immolation" with horror, but with relief. Once again, "Mad Men" skirts the real pain.

It's been a commonly held belief for some time that the lives and careers of the characters on "Mad Men" will not end well. They will become outdated, and their decisions, both personal and professional, will catch up to them. The boozing and smoking will cause cancer and heart attacks, the philandering divorce and the ideas, once trailblazing, will soon look quaint to a world that is rapidly passing them by. That may well be true, and it could be that the the writers of "Mad Men" have held the real pain at bay so they could achieve a big payoff. But somehow I doubt it. The show is about a company of men and women who brush aside the troubles of the world with a happy slogan or an upbeat jingle, and "Mad Men" for all its supposed sophistication, has done the same thing.

When the show ends next year, all we'll be left with is an empty room filled with the faint scent of perfume, ashtrays full of cigarettes and the memories of a party that started well but simply went on too long. That's not a tragedy, but it may have been a waste of our time.

Lars Trodson is the author of two novels, "Eagles Fly Alone" ( and "Tide Turning." (