‘Mad Men’ and The Greatest Trick Don Draper Ever Pulled

Salon’s Matthew Brandon Wolfson recently criticized Mad Men for its commercial appeal. He accused the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, of “selling…an image of a glowing past — a prettier, simpler time when people knew their social roles and played them perfectly.” And he insinuated both that the show’s commercial-friendly nature sits uneasily with its art and that Weiner wants the viewer to “find [the show] twisted and layered and dark, but [he] also wants you to buy it.” But in describing Mad Men as an “exquisite empty shell,” Wolfson mistakes the packaging for the package, and misses the subtly brilliant way the series has its cake and eats it too.

Look at the top rated shows on television: CSI: Miami, Two and a Half Men, The Voice — slick stock procedurals, standard-issue sitcoms, and flashy reality shows. I’m not saying these shows are necessarily bad. (Well, maybe I am, but with the understanding that it’s a personal preference and not an objective fact.) But they are assuredly, at base, easily digestible and not particularly challenging for a viewer. They don’t ask much of the audience beyond “watch, laugh, and be entertained.” There’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s not hard to see why such shows have an appeal. Many individuals watch television as a respite from mental exhaustion. People are busier and busier, and having something that is accessible without requiring much investment on the other side of the screen often fits their needs.

But it also makes a show like Mad Men, with deliberately-paced storylines, complicated character building, difficult-to-parse dialogue, and some very unlikeable personalities, a much harder sell. Mad Men is not easily consumed, nor is it meant to be. It’s meant to be debated and dissected and unpacked for years to come.

It’s also tells very different kinds of stories than the rest of popular television. Not only does Mad Men typically present a series of thematically connected vignettes in a given episode rather than an overarching plot, but its narrative arcs are dark and messy, and not in the fun, soapy way that shows like Scandal aspire to. The storylines the show depicts rarely have a tidy resolution, and few of its characters simply “get better” or meet their karmic ends at each season’s conclusion. These are not the usual good, if flawed, people beating the bad guys, overcoming adversity, or following a clear personal trajectory. They are characters who backslide, who seem to change or make progress and then fall back into old habits.

What’s more, Mad Men presents challenging combinations of character traits: an obsequious wretch who’s racially progressive; a lecherous yuppie who’s one of the few people in the office who sees the future of the industry; a housewife who elicits derision for how she acts and sympathy for why she became the kind of person who would act that way. The series’s protagonist himself is a complex individual who constantly leaves the audience wondering what he’s really thinking. Nothing about the ethos of the show, or its characters, fits neatly into boxes.

And yet, you still have to sell it. So you emphasize the fashion, the boozing, the womanizing, and what Todd Vanderwerff calls the “Hey! It’s The Sixties!” moments. You add flash to the substance. You welcome the viewers who see Don Draper as role model rather than a cautionary tale, the same kind of fans who rooted wholeheartedly for Walter White on Breaking Bad even as he became more and more depraved.

Because otherwise you go off the air. Otherwise you get lost in a sea of CSIs, SVUs, and the rest of television’s alphabet soup. You have to give the show a hook.

That’s why I relish those oft-maligned “bad fans” of Breaking Bad. I relish the people who only watched The Sopranos to see the next stoolie get whacked. I relish the viewers who only enjoy Mad Men for its style and not its substance. Because those fans keep these shows going and tell network executives that with the right veneer, complex, intricate, difficult shows are financially viable.

Art is, almost by definition, open to interpretation. There are always going to be members of any given audience who take a point the author didn’t intend, one that may even be entirely contrary to the intended purpose of the work. There are always going to be people who enjoy the glamour of something but miss the intentions behind it. That, however, is the beauty of Mad Men; it offers that hook to reel in these types of fans, but still uses it as a means to its creative ends and its larger theme of image versus reality.

Mad Men may attract the people who see Don Draper as an unmitigated badass, but it also bakes in the subtext of the ways in which he is unsustainable, watching the world pass him by, and at various times, falling apart. His superficial allure is, more or less, the point. Draper may have the patina of style, sophistication, and rugged masculinity that makes him marketable, in-universe and out, yet the show is constantly exploring what lurks behind that exterior and how it informs both his own flaws and those of the society that embraces him and later pushes him away. The same goes for nearly all of the show’s characters and the ecosystem in which they operate. Mad Men depicts a complicated, ugly world, but does so in a clean, beautiful setting that not only helps the series to survive and succeed commercially, but makes that contradiction at its core all the more striking.

One of the major themes of Mad Men is how that sheen–the smoke and mirrors that an ad exec may use at the office, or at home, to create the illusion of perfection and desirability–just hides the deeper rot behind the walls. There’s something correspondingly poetic about that same shallow attractiveness, the surface-level appeal of Don Draper and his cohorts, sustaining the show financially, while allowing it to present its weightier, less-palatable themes safely from within the confines of that lightweight exterior.

It’s frankly an astonishing balancing act. That’s why I love the stylistic flair of Mad Men — because it confers that all-important commercial viability, and yet the show still uses it for far loftier ends than merely selling fedoras. And it’s why I love the show’s “bad fans”, the ones who only enjoy it for that exquisite shell — because they ensure there’s a show to be a fan of at all.

Andrew Bloom (@TheAndrewBlog) runs The Andrew Blog, where he overanalyzes The Simpsons and takes pop culture too seriously. He honestly received a chip-and-dip as a wedding present, and was sorely tempted to exchange it for a rifle.

Previous post:

Next post: