Each Friday in The Televangelists, one of our writers examines the met and missed potential of television.
After finishing the first four seasons of Mad Men, I wrote that the nature of these characters’ madness is a slow suicide of the self. The singular pursuit of happiness qua self-indulgent, unrestrained freedom does not produce a lasting contentment, but instead produces the suicide of the essential self because the self is constituted, in large part, by loving commitments. These Ad Men want to find happiness in the superficial identities they sell to themselves as all-encompassing fulfillment; total self-defined self-creation is the business they’re in, and Dick Whitman (dressed up as “Don Draper”) is the quintessential example. Yet, a sense of dread hangs over Don through the first four seasons, whether he’s staring listlessly at an oncoming train, or having deluded visions of his father assessing his no-strings-attached existence as the cultivation of “bull—-.” I’ve described Mad Men as a character-driven show about the death of character. After finishing the fourth season, I wondered if any of these mad men would find the judicious self-restraint that is characteristic of freedom and sanity.
At the start of the newest season, it feels like Don Draper has had a rebirth of sorts. The cheating womanizer is now happily married to his former secretary-turned-copywriter, Megan. But Megan isn’t just the new flavor of the week that makes Don momentarily pleased; it’s more significant than that. There’s a sense in which Don finds in Megan what he formerly found in his work. The drive for success in the advertisement agency was the sine qua non of Don’s existence. Now, it’s Megan who is the functional all-in-all of Don’s life. On the whole, Don seems to be in a better—more sane—place. In one episode, copywriter and aspiring “mad man” Peggy Olson says of Don in a bit of disbelief, “I don’t recognize that man. He’s kind and patient.” Then, in a loaded statement with layers of significance, Peggy says, “It concerns me.”
In a business that tends to be driven by deceit and ruthlessness, Don seems less interested in pitching a product ad to a potential client and more resigned to a posture that is beholden to Megan. He’s willing to ditch work to be with her, he’s willing to let her be his colleague, and, most recently, he’s willing to let her pursue what she wants—namely, an acting career. Megan insists on having her say, and Don obliges. He is scared of losing Megan, and, thus, equally afraid of relapsing into lasciviousness. He’s haunted by his former lifestyle, afraid he’ll lose the good thing he’s found. And, in a recent episode, when Megan is revolted by the way Don abandons her in a fit of anger, he recognizes that he’s in danger of losing her. A lasting image from early in this season is when he gets on his knees, almost begging Megan not to leave him.
However, the most haunting image of the season for me is when Don—having just watched Megan leave “Sterling Draper Cooper Pryce” for good—opens an elevator door to see not a car, but an enigmatic void before him. Don has always been on the edge, but it’s an open question at this point in the season as to whether his visions of the abyss are a haunting reminder of his past, a vision of what is to come, or perhaps both. Is it Don’s inescapable past, ever threatening to overwhelm him again? Or perhaps Megan has the potential to be to Don what Don was to his first wife, Betty? If Megan is “Lady Lazarus“—the Sylvia Plath-inspired title of the most recent episode—then does her renaissance “out of the ash” infer that she will “eat men like air”?
In terms of observing Don’s colleagues tending to envy Don’s life as the pinnacle of happiness, I’ve always been most interested in Peter Campbell and Peggy Olson—two fascinating characters that have been inextricably connected since their initial ambition-laden tryst. If Don is in a different place in the beginning of this season, then Pete is undoubtedly his successor. Ever craving the admiration and power that he perceives Don to receive and maintain, Pete’s dissatisfaction is like the constant drip of a faucet. This season, however, the irony is that it’s a leak that Don is capable of quickly fixing (so to speak). Don is even an inadvertent presence of conviction when Pete is out gallivanting with women in spite of his enviable family situation. Pete’s recognition of the abyss is apparent when he confesses tearfully to Don that he “has nothing.” In a sense, he already has more than enough for contentment, but Pete’s endless pursuit of what left Don feeling empty can only leave him feeling empty-handed too.
While Pete’s reckless jump into the void is both ongoing and imminent, Peggy is much more conflicted about her descent into madness. She is dumbfounded when Megan decides to quit her job at the agency, but also seemingly stung by the realization that attaining “Heinz Beans” may not be the personal and professional mountaintop that she perceives it to be. The heart of Peggy’s conflict is perhaps most transparent when she asks if she’s too much like a man; in a sense, she’s effectively wondering if she’s becoming who Don used to be. Peggy increasingly struggles with the fact that pursuing the mad man’s lifestyle that she so desires may just transform her into that which she despises. One minute she is “servicing” a random stranger at the movie theatre, and the next minute she seems hopeful at the prospect of marital engagement. What freedom must she attain as a woman in order to achieve the status of respectability she so desires without self-destructing?
Will Don and Megan remain committed to one another, or is Megan going to swallow him up the way Don has so many women? Will Peggy find a perspective balance between her work ambition and starting a family? Will Pete find some semblance of contentment and appreciation for all that he has? For better or worse, the abyss of madness seems to be coming into clearer focus for these characters. The sense of impending doom is palpable. But if their choices are to redirect them away from madness, then their desires must change. It remains to be seen whether they want to be well, or whether they’ll continue to employ futile devices.