I used to watch Mad Men for its fascinating study of Don Draper secretly working to maintain his image. But this season, I am watching Mad Men only to maintain mine. I continue to dutifully tune in because cultural cool kids watch Mad Men. Apparently, we watch it even when it starts to unhinge into Freudian flashback-ridden chaos.
There were clues along the way that things might take this turn, of course. I can think of few other programs that are so deeply dependent upon the sex lives of its characters to reveal their “true selves.” For years, Mad Men has let us in on the secret of who people are, what they really want, and what they really fear by literally putting them on the couch… or the floor, or the desk, or the bed.
And is there anything on television any less narrative and any more like a Rhorshach than a preview for the next week’s Mad Men episode?
To say that the show has always been about identity crisis is more than obvious. Don’s talent for creating and selling a shiny advertising image was always a metaphor for the facade he had used to remake himself. And from the beginning Don’s sex life and his secret past were intertwined–doubled sources of his duplicity that each built layers of story on how his behavior was shaped both by an orphan’s loneliness and a whore’s selling of the self. Mothers and whores have competed for Don’s affection in the present and have been one in the same in his past.
None of this was ever particularly earth-shattering conceptually. But it was cheekily smart for a long time. There is something wry in writing so Freudian a backstory for a protagonist living at the height of Freudian pop-psychology. There was something culturally knowing about a story of a hollowed-out pitchman in the era of “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.” Moreover, the misogyny of it all could pass for cultural commentary since the series is set in a version of the 1960s bent on demystifying idealism about that era.
But as the series ages, it’s becoming clumsy. The flashbacks upon which it has become so heavily reliant this season seem more inscrutable than revelatory and have almost nothing to do with anything other than “Hey, Don grew up in a whorehouse. It was pretty messed up. Except he also got some action.” And by the way, is this like the start of Sweetsweetback where I’m supposed to think of a young boy having sex with a prostitute as indicative of his sexual prowess? Cause I can’t get past the statutory rape thing myself. But, hey, Betty can. I mean, what the hell was all that about her offering to help her husband bed Sally’s 16 year old friend? The sex is getting kinkier but the expectation that complicating a character’s sex life is the same thing as developing an arc is getting pedestrian.
I miss the advertising. (So thanks, Peggy for at least writing a little copy.) I miss the work politics. (So thanks, Ted, for adding a new, less jaded personality to the firm.) I miss humor. Perhaps most of all I miss subtlety: Do we really need a random black woman to pass herself off to Sally as the woman that raised her dad, just to underscore how truly mother-less Don is? Does Ken Cosgrove really have to tap dance while under the influence of drugs for us to get that he has been tap-dancing for the client? Geesh.
I miss feeling like Don was coming apart at the seams a little because of his trying wife or his work deadlines or his Gothic-novel-sized secret. Now he just seems to come apart because he grew up without a mother in a house of ill repute.
I suppose that really has been the nut of his character all along. But Mad Men used to sell it to me a lot more artfully.