Monday, February 2, 2015

Mad Men: Don Draper's Secret Goes Missing

By Lars Trodson

The final seven episodes of "Mad Men" are scheduled to begin on AMC on April 5, 2015.

What does it mean when two of the most creative people in the “Mad Men” cast of characters are insane? While most of the employees of Sterling Cooper Draper & Price (or, lately SC&P) are excellent and efficient at their jobs, it is Don Draper and copywriter Michael Ginsberg that have the spark of real imagination, creativity and wit, and both of them are clearly off their rockers. Draper is self-destructive in epic ways, and when Ginsberg needed a valve to vent the rhythms emanating from the new IBM computer in the office and were vibrating through his body, he cut off a nipple and presented it to Peggy Olson as a token of his love.

Why do writers who write about writers see them in such a bad light?

I suppose I should be thinking of more immediate topics when watching the show, but there wasn't a single episode in the first half of "Mad Men"'s final season during which I didn't seek distraction. While the writer's neatly added some drama to the Burger Chef pitch by linking a successful moon landing to the fates of Don, Peggy and the rest of the creative team, the idea that there was any inherent drama in the search for a new client had clearly passed. There wasn't much in season seven that seemed terribly fresh. 

This was due to the fact that the most prominent persona in this whole drama hasn't really turned out to be terribly interesting after all. It's been fascinating, in a sadistic kind of way, to see how the creators of "Mad Men" have worked overtime to undermine the authority of the character of Don Draper. This may be the first show in the history of television where the main character is not just disliked by other characters, but disparaged by those who created it. It's one thing to be a monster like Walter White in "Breaking Bad." He became a twisted hero, and he ruled the show and the people within the show. Don Draper isn't that guy. "He's a pain in the ass," says Bert Cooper only moments after he votes to keep Don in the company. It is no coincidence that Pete Campbell, just moments after that pronouncement, calls Don "horseflesh." The writers of "Gunsmoke" wouldn't even have called Festus such a disparaging term.

Don is, finally, a poorly drawn and inadequately portrayed man. For reasons that seem unclear, even Joan Harrison (Christina Hendricks) has turned on him. "I'm tired of him costing me money," Joan says at the impromptu meeting where the partners (barely) vote to keep Don on. I suspect the writer's felt this was meant to show that Joan is becoming more independent. But while Don's decision not to have the company go public may have been a financial loss to others, he was also the one who didn't want Joan to agree to the provision that would get her a partnership in the firm: a deal to sleep with the Jaguar executive. How do we, as 21st century members of the audience, react to that? And who are we supposed to have empathy for? Joan for getting what she wants? Or for Don for finally showing some scruples? It's fine for a character to be conflicted and complicated, but that is not the same as being written in a murky, confused and unfocused way.

We all know the terror supposedly underlying Don’s torment. He stole the identity of a fellow soldier in the Korean War, and transformed himself from hayseed Dick Whitman to elegant, successful Don Draper. 

As I’ve said in the past, this identity-theft hook has been an albatross for the writers of the show. My guess has always been that a show simply about an advertising executive in 1960s Manhattan just didn’t seem to have enough dramatic punch for the networks, so Matt Weiner and company created this name switch to add some extra panache. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but as the show took off it turned out to be the least interesting hook. It’s never been fully explored and its dramatic payoff (so far) has been minimal at best.

The writers seem to believe this, too. The first half of the last season (aired in 2014) doesn’t even touch on this motif. Don Draper is merely becoming more comfortable with being... Don Draper. His every act of contrition seems to be greeted with relief and grand forgiveness (all he has to do is tell Sally he was on leave from work and all is forgiven, again). There must be something heading his way.

As in the past, the only characters that remain defined are John Slattery’s Roger Sterling and, to a much lesser degree, Bert Cooper (Robert Morse). Joan Harrison has become a frustratingly one-note character, and we don’t know why. Peggy Olson’s strange and odd reaction to her secretary over a mixup over who bought a Valentine’s Day bouquet hinted at some racism (Peggy’s secretary is black) that was never remotely considered before. (Peggy also thinks the flowers were delivered by former flame Ted Chaough, which was raised as a significant plot point and then never followed up on.) We know that Peggy is alone, but why has she been drawn either as an ambitious young woman or a lonely heartsick one? Why can't the writers bring these two threads together? 

Other scenes may have delivered a much-needed jolt of energy to an episode, such as when Chaough decides to cut the engines of his plane while he’s flying with some Sunkist executives, but these are dramatically unhelpful; they seem chaotic. The likable Stan Rizzo, the unsavory Betty Draper and her husband, Henry, and Bob Benson (wft?) become more and more secondary and drift in and out with no apparent purpose.

In one particularly gratuitous scene, Betty Draper goes on a field trip with her son (the episode is called “The Field Trip,”) and when Bobby trades away her sandwich for some gumdrops, Betty turns ice cold and monstrous and forces him to eat the candy. She belittles her son and he feels sick about it. Later, when she asks Henry if she’s a bad mother and he says “No,” you actually think he’s a fool. (This guy is gubernatorial timber?)

As for Don's marriage to Megan, that relationship is going in circles. They're on, they're off. Even the scene of the ménages à trois seemed boring and forced. When Don’s “niece” Stephanie calls for help because she’s pregnant, she turns up in Megan’s LA apartment, only to be dispatched with a $1,000 check after some inscrutable dialogue about Don's secrets. The writers have no idea what to do with Megan.

One of the main problems, dramatically, continues to be the acting of Jon Hamm. He looks the part, but he hasn’t fleshed out Don Draper in season seven any more than he did in season one. In one gracious move, Don allows Peggy to make the big pitch to the Burger Chef executives. As Peggy clearly nails the presentation, Don doesn’t look happy or satisfied, he looks as he always does, slightly pinched and somewhat confused. It’s an expression that Hamm can’t seem to shake, no matter what the situation.

The convenience and threat of technology has become something of a minor theme. The telecommunications on long distance calls breaks down, and there is, of course, that lurking, humming computer in the office. Mostly this is played for comedy, but when Ginsberg spies Lou Avery and Jim Cutler conspiring in the computer room, the cinematography quotes the scene in Kubrick’s “2001” when HAL lip reads the two astronauts trying to kill him. Why did the writers of "Mad Men" take such a jokey approach to reveal that one of their characters has a serious mental illness?

Ironically, it isn’t Ginsberg that should be most afraid of the computer age. It should be Don Draper, because at some point Draper’s Social Security number, age, date of birth and all the rest will be added into the national database, and something isn’t going to come up right. Don is going to be exposed, and the creators could have made Don aware of that impending doom. What they did, instead, was make him look foolish. His suit, when he arrives in LA, is hilariously out of sync with the west coast.

The first half of season seven has often appeared too random (a soft-shoe shuffle musical number, as Bert Cooper sloughs off his mortal coil, ends the final episode) and none of the episodes had that icy punch of the past.

There is one lovely, sublime moment in season seven, however, when Don, Pete Campbell and Peggy have dinner at a Burger Chef. This ersatz, makeshift family are surrounded by images of idealized groupings of nuclear 1960s families, and the three suddenly seem terribly alone and insignificant. They may not love each other, but they were, at that moment, the closest thing to family that they've got.