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September 9, 2010

Style, substance, and that something: on the Mad Men conundrum

When I began watching Mad Men earlier this year, my assessment was similar to Karen Von Hahn’s of the show being “all style, no substance”. This was partly because I’d been biased already by the review of Mad Men Season 1 in the London Review of Books,  in which the show’s chief attraction was summed up as our own superiority at watching pregnant women smoke while their children played with dry cleaner bags. Mad Men is good, because at least we get to feel like we’ve come along why, which undermines the fact that we most certainly haven’t.

I enjoyed the first few episodes of season 1, though not as much as I’d anticipated– I wondered if my expectations had been made too high. Soon I’d decided that I’d finish watching the first season, but probably not pursue it beyond that. And I’m not sure what the turning point was, but somewhere along the line not pursuing the rest of Mad Men was not remotely a possibility.

I’m now just about at the end of Season Three. I’m in no hurry to get to Season Four. Though of course I am, but you understand how tragic it would be to one day have no more Mad Men before me. Because I love Mad Men, I do. I love its style, I love when it shocks me (the lawnmower, Betty and the shotgun), I love how I am desperate to find sympathy for these characters who do nothing to deserve it, that I have so much invested in the disaster that is Don and Betty, but mostly I just really love Don Draper. In a way I have never loved anybody, except for Dylan McKay and my high school math teacher. Impossible, lustful, agonizing loves, where you’re fortunate to run into them once in a while in early morning dreams.

It’s not just that he’s good looking– Jon Hamm on 30 Rock really didn’t do it for me, which was sort of the point of that endeavour, but I don’t think we can write it all down to Hamm being such a great actor. It could very well be the suits and the haircut. Or what I’m after might be the elusive Don Draper something that makes him such a magnet on the show. How he’s unpindownable. And when he’s good, he’s not even that good, but I cling to straws– “at least he’s a better parent than Betty”, which isn’t even technically true and wouldn’t be an achievement even if it were. But when he defended Bobby, and when he cooked for Sally in the middle of the night, and when he bought Betty the necklace, and when he demanded that guy remove his hat in the elevator. That he kept Sal’s secret. Fundamentally, he’s a man of integrity.

And when he goes and does something abhorrent, which is usually, somehow I’m convinced that he’s just not himself. That perhaps what he’s really lacking, what he’s calling out for in the dark, is someone to love him properly and that someone would be me. I sometimes wonder what Don Draper could do to have me finally not forgive him. More than he’s cultivated his own self, have I merely cultivated a self for him? Is that what everybody around him has done as well?  Is he the projection of our fantasies (and mine happens to be a good dad, and a kind husband)? Is the point of Don Draper that we want to believe in beautiful people? That we fling our sympathy upon them? Does his charisma come from him being fundamentally empty, and therefore a vessel for anything? Is he all style and no substance, and the entire show is this self-aware?

It’s curious though, the inconsistencies of his character. Of everybody’s character on that show, and it was one of my problems with it when I first started watching. The characters were different people in each episode, not just in a mildly interesting way, but in a way that made me wonder if the show had too many writers. I get the whole “Don Draper is an enigma” thing, but it has crossed my mind from time to time that that hole who is he might just be a clever way of badly constructing a character. And that the other characters who weren’t hatched out of nothing have no such excuse for being wildly fluctuating from one thing to another. Except Pete Campbell. I have determined he’s a psychopath.

I experience Mad Men the way I experience novels, by which I mean that there are often whole passages I don’t understand. And I love this about the show, that there’s more going on than I’m ever supposing, but sometimes I wonder if the problem is not so much that I’ve missed something as much as that that something just doesn’t make any sense. Mad Men is either brilliant or terrible, and I’m really not sure which, but it’s brilliant certainly in that I don’t care regardless.

5 thoughts on “Style, substance, and that something: on the Mad Men conundrum”

  1. Panic says:

    I feel exactly the same way. John Hamm does nothing for me, Don Draper? Ooooooh, Don Draper. The bit with Bobbi Barret on the sideboard in season 2? IIEEE!

    And he IS a better parent than Betty. There are moments when you see how much he truly loves those kids.

    The last episode of season 3 had me cheering and clapping like a crazy person. Sooooo good.

    And since you love Don Draper like I do, I must warn you that season 4 will make you sad for a while, but stick with it, because the episode that aired last Sunday was a piece of episodic perfection that will never be equalled.

    Okay, enough fangirling from me. 🙂

  2. Rona Maynard says:

    Come on, Kerry, it’s brilliant. Nothing terrible about it–although I’m waiting for Peggy to get her due as a fully developed character. Meanwhile, I’m with you on Don Draper, a cad with a conscience. I’m not watching season 4 until I can immerse myself in it and escape the commercials.

  3. Nathalie says:

    Sesame Street does Mad Men. (Thank you India Knight.)

  4. Britt Gullick says:

    All I watch these days are HBO dramas… cureently making our way through Rome (which is awesome, having exhausted the Sopranos, Deadwood and The Wire and having loved every minute of all of them). I’ve decided that, in all of them, you long for the character consistency of a movie, sometimes forgetting the these are individual episodes and sometimes consistency is a little irregular. I think it’s because we watch them all in order, all mashed together, with high expectations for fluidity- whereas if we watched one per week we’d probably not even notice. Maybe?

    1. Kerry says:

      That is an interesting point, that consistency isn’t something inherent to TV. That it would be impossible to sustain a series if characters were too consistent. But I do watch my Mad Man episodes one per week, and I still find the lack of consistency troubling. Maybe I’m just looking in the wrong place for it? I don’t watch enough TV to really know.

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