The pilot episode of Mad Men tracked the 1960 day-in-the-life of the smoking, charming, Don Draper at mid-climb up the slippery advertising ladders of Manhattan. He’s confident, women roll out of bed with him and greasy-haired society boys wish they could be him; what’s not to like? Then, in the episode’s final scene, he pulls into the driveway of his domestic life in the suburbs. And to boot, his wife is a model and his kids are cute.
It’s a great “reveal” that sets the tone for the rest of the double-life that is “draped” from the rest of the world. As the series moves along, we discover plenty of dark secrets including a war-time identity switch and an odd California marriage to a doomed nice lady.
There’s this tightrope walk that my wife and I have with many of these successful cable protagonists. Do we want Walt to keep cooking meth and not get caught? Do we really care if any of the Atlanta refugees don’t get eaten by zombies? If Larry David fell into a crevice during an earthquake, wouldn’t that be just what he deserves?
As we once again enter the emotional mine-field of another season of Mad Men and Don Draper’s self-sabotage, we again ask ourselves–is this guy worth rooting for or against? This season, we meet the neighbor downstairs, Dr. Arnold Rosen–a charming doctor and his wife. There’s a bit of a bro-mance between the two men as the short bald-guy eavesdrops on Don in his element dissecting a terrible ad-campaign and Don’s envy of the noble medical profession compared to his own slimy world.
But then, as it suddenly appears that Don/Dickie Whitman actually has found a pal, he hits the self-destruct button once again. The key word seems to be “cigarettes.”
Under the premise of buying cigarettes, Don escorts the doc away from their dinner party. To make us like the guy even more, Dr. Rosen is charmingly heading out on cross-country skis in a blizzard to see his patient. It’s a cute moment as Don smiles at his idol then heads back upstairs to sleep with Mrs. Rosen.
Sylvia Rosen smells the same rat that ex-wife Betty knows so well–and that poor, trusting Megan is piecing together. Of course, Sylvia can complain all she wants at dinner, but Don so accurately predicts that they’re going to end up in bed together that we get to see the love scene before they’ve even left the restaurant.
He’s like a Michael Corleone/Scarlett O’Hara hero. We just love to hate these characters and can’t wait to see who they’re going to take down next–along with themselves. In True Blood, another “we’re not sure if we like this” show we keep on watching, Lafayette points out to Sookie that she’s a similar epicenter. That everyone around her ends up dead.
There would be a certain poetic passing-of-the-torch in Matt Weiner’s late 1960’s New York, if, some dark night in Newark, Don were lighting a cigarette beside his Cadillac after ditching another heartbroken girlfriend to get mugged up by a young Tony Soprano, Silvio and Paulie.
As The Sopranos wrapped up its final two seasons, we saw a similar arc in leading man. Tony recovers from a near-fatal shooting from his uncle, sees the other side, and vows to change his ways. He’s got a clean slate, like Don has with Megan, and we’re kind of rooting for a happy ending–but not really.
The caricature wannabees for each alpha-male, Tony’s Christopher, Silvio, Paulie and Don’s weasely Peter, Ken Cosgrove and even formerly-sweet Peggy Olsen can’t fill the vacuum of their “born-again” leader–so they are as confused and disappointed as the viewers. We don’t want Tony and Don with moral codes–even if we say we do as we tsk-tsk their naughty behavior.
It would be like a philanthropic Gordon Gecko–or a Gilligan who builds a smarter radio out of coconuts than the professor. The universe would be out of whack.
The last thing we need from our favorite characters is a drastic change–particularly if it’s a bad guy gone good.