. . . I probably won’t, which surprises me, because when I started watching “Mad Men” on Netflix earlier this year, I was hooked immediately and practically gobbled up the first couple of seasons. And then, things started. To slow. Down.
For most of the people I’ve talked to, the appeal of the show boils down to two factors: one, the aesthetics of the era; two, the character of Don Draper, Old-Fashioned Manly Man. I certainly appreciate the first, but I’ve never entirely understood the chatter about the second. Is it actually news that a strong, ambitious, handsome man who has a palpable sexual hunger for women is attractive? That’s a surprise? I remember reading all these ruminative articles wondering whether there’s a “lesson” – or a “problem” – for feminism in the fact that the male-chauvinist Draper is so appealing to women. Does that prove that equality kills sex appeal?
But Draper’s defining characteristic is not his male chauvinism. That doesn’t distinguish him from Peter Campbell or Roger Sterling or any of the other major male characters. His defining characteristic is that he’s a Gatsby character, not merely a self-made man but a self-created one (with a rather over-ripe backstory, true, but I was willing to run with that). He treats most of his relationships – including with his wife – in a superficial and manipulative manner because he interacts with people on the level of his persona. The two women he truly bonds with in the first season – Peggy Olson and Rachel Menken – are the two women in whom he senses a kindred spirit of also being in the process of willful self-creation. The only woman he truly loves and trusts, Anna Draper, is also the only one who knows who he was before he created himself.
The “Gatsby” character is perpetually interesting, both for its own sake and because of its continuing relevance for the American experience. When the show is “about” anything, it’s about creating of a powerful external persona and interacting with the world on that basis, and how reality exploits and widens the cracks in that persona. Advertising represents that process in the world of business, and the show is set in the early 1960s because that period was the apotheosis of the post-war American persona in the world, and the moment when its cracks began to widen. The romantic relations between the major characters generally revolve around this same axis: men and women relate on this superficial basis between personae; the real person underneath is a danger. The two most appealing female characters – Peggy Olson and Joan Harris – have taken entirely opposite approaches to the same process of persona-creation; the most terrifying – Betty Draper – is also the least self-aware, and the least in control of a persona that is not, one senses of her own creation.
I’d say a good point of comparison for the show would be something like Trollope’s The Way We Live Now.
The problem with the show is that it lost track of what it was about, and became a soap opera set in a stylish era. In soap operas, characters don’t have arcs; they just have histories. And that, unfortunately, has become the fate of the characters on “Mad Men.” I don’t care about what happens to any of the characters anymore, because I know that all that’s going to happen is . . . stuff. And while apparently that’s enough for a lot of people – the soap opera is an enduringly popular form for a reason – personally I have trouble caring about characters whose actions have no meaning. And in fiction as in life, meaning comes from (or is expressed through) structure.