I Don’t Care What The Critics Say, I Love Mad Men (and the Sopranos and the Hills)

(x-posted to The Valve)

I’ve just finished Scott Kaufman’s very enjoyable post, “Don Draper as an unraptured Emma Bovary,” and feel moved to respond.

Scott observes, quite insightfully, that the difference between Don Draper and other, younger characters on the show, including Pete Campbell and Peggy Olson, is that Draper is stuck in a single historical moment, that of Advertising’s Golden Age. Even as history takes place around him, ushering in a new age of research-driven ads and social upheaval, Don remains a rock. For Scott, this turns Draper into something of a fiction. Other character show a realistic tendency to move with the zeitgeist, making him less real, and in fact it is his unreality that allows us to forgive his misdeeds — unlike the sins of Pete Campbell, which we “revile” because they are all too familiar, Draper’s lapses seem to take place in an aesthetic otherworld where all is permitted. There are no sins inside the gates of Eden.

Scott has done a beautiful job pinpointing Don’s relation to “history,” as the show understands it; he has also used Draper as a convenient poster boy for a set of attitudes about aesthetic self-fashioning with which I must take issue. Pete Campbell is not more “real” than Don; on the contrary, he is far less real to us, as I will show with a little help from The Sopranos and The Hills.


First of all, we cannot discount the role of aesthetics in our (potentially) differing attitudes toward Don and Pete. Pete utterly fails to live up to Don’s standard. He is less handsome than Don. His voice is squeaky and high. He is clumsy around women, and often gives the impression that he cannot anticipate what they are going to do. Furthermore, his wife is less pretty than Betty, but is much more impressive as a personality, with a strong sense of what she wants and of what her husband deserves. We revile Pete not because we are reminded too much of ourselves, but because he lacks backbone, polish, and verve. He also undervalues his partner. Scott implies that we have different moral standards for televised life and real life, but in my experience this is neither true, nor — were it true — would it be desirable. As it happens, lots of people (Flaubert included) judge Madame Bovary quite harshly for wrecking her life, just as there will always be people who think The Sorrows of Young Werther is about a selfish, idle young man. But more to the point, it is quite common in real life to let other people “get away” with attitudes or behaviors that we eschew, and that we (rather confusingly) also consider unethical. That is because, sadly, our sense of the “ethical” often functions partly as a justification for the dead spaces, aesthetic failures, and unresolved dreariness that infiltrate our lives.

The best argument for the reality of Don Draper is also the most transparent one: he is the most important person on the show, the absolute focus of the audience’s attention. Without Don Draper, Mad Men wouldn’t have lasted half a season. Scott believes that his stubborn recourse to an increasingly outdated subject-position makes him unreal, but I would counter that his stubbornness is, in fact, peculiarly modern. Modernity, after all, enwraps him whether he will or no: the final episode of Season 2 is entitled “Meditations in an Emergency,” a title taken from a collection of Frank O’Hara poems. In other words, Draper is already inside the O’Hara poem even though the beatnik at the bar tells Draper he probably wouldn’t enjoy O’Hara’s work. Draper’s personality is a careful fabrication, as we know from the painstaking backstory, and that is why we might meet him tomorrow on the streets of an American city, whereas meeting Peggy Olson or Pete Campbell would be a shock. We are all Don Draper, or whatever alternative to Don Draper we have fabricated instead. Meanwhile, the historical events that are determining the minor characters have now either faded into the background, or disappeared; for Peggy Olson, moving from a secretarial job onto the creative team foreshadows 60s feminism, whereas in a contemporary show like Entourage all the secretaries (male and female) in Ari Gold’s office are hoping to become agents, a fact with zero larger significance. The reason Draper dislikes free love is not because it’s ahead of his time; he dislikes it because it destabilizes the kind of structures that support an easily readable identity, such as marriage and fatherhood.

In other words, it’s not just that, by definition, Pete Campbell the fictional character cannot be inherently “realer” than Don Draper the fictional character. It’s also that Matthew Weiner cut his teeth working on The Sopranos, and Tony Soprano is a realistic character precisely because of all of his anachronisms. Draper is a symbol of what we want now. He stands for our conservatism, our hedonism, and our cynicism. On Season 5 of The Hills, the engagement between Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt becomes certain after Pratt meets Heidi’s father, who she describes as “a real cowboy.” When Bill Montag arrives, he has a Sam Elliott moustache, a cowboy hat, and (apparently) a shotgun in his car. Multiple people refer to the shotgun, Bill included, even though it will obviously never be fired and is practically a fashion accessory. Spencer and Bill get along famously, erasing the memory of Spencer’s disastrous interactions with Heidi’s fundamentalist Christian other family and friends, who he calls “aliens from another planet.” When Spencer talks about getting into a bar fight to conceal an adulterous flirtation, Bill immediately mythologizes that as something “you do to protect your family” according to the rules of “the Wild West.”

Who are the “real” people here, the ones living within historical time? The young fundamentalist Christians from Colorado, talking about St. Paul’s injunctions against “fornification”? Spencer and Heidi, referencing the Sopranos, drinking Patron Platinum, and starring on an MTV reality show? Bill with his signifying shotgun? Spencer and Bill are sitting in a diner in Los Angeles, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, when Bill launches into the ethos of the West. Spencer tells him the Wild West sounds perfect. He adds: I’d like to live there some day.