The Peculiar Allure of Mad Men
By david roark
March 26, 2012
Last night, Mad Men returned with its long-awaited fifth season premiere. It's been 17 months since fans spent time with the faces of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and they've been clamoring to know the status of the marriages, children, advertising deals and various misbehaviors of the team. Whether or not you tune in to the AMC drama, there is no question the show is a success: It's inspired clothing lines, launched careers and garnered 15 Emmy awards thus far, including four for Outstanding Drama. But the stories, motives and characters that drive Mad Men are as questionable as they come. Why does the show demand such devotion?
Mad Men turns the American Dream on its head. Set in an ad agency during the 1960s, the drama portrays that time period unlike anything we’ve seen. The men drink and smoke day and night, cheat on their wives, cheat at their jobs. They do whatever it takes to get ahead and fulfill their lustful desires. The women don’t behave any better. They throw themselves at men. They disregard their kids. They gossip among their friends.
At the center of this mess—perhaps the real face of the '60s—stands creative genius, womanizer and family man Don Draper (Jon Hamm). As an antihero, Draper represents all that is good—but mostly all that is bad—with this mad world. While he’s a terrible husband, father and, well, person, the forefront of his problem takes shape in his identity. For the past 10 years, Draper has lived as someone else—he has lived a double life.
The show explores other characters and ideas like feminism, gender roles, racism and capitalism, but its biggest concern is Draper and his redemption—or downfall. Just when it appears he is going to finally change or, at the very least, move in the right direction, he makes a huge mistake that sets him back. No matter how hard he tries to do what’s right, it seems he simply can’t. Draper can control the advertising world, but he can’t control his own life.
As easy as it would seem to hate Draper and write him off as a sleazy, amoral adulterer—because he has proven himself to be undoubtedly that—Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and his team, including Hamm, make that tough. No matter how badly he behaves, we can’t help but love and continue to put hope in him. It’s not because Mad Men takes his nasty behavior lightly—it never blurs the line between black and white. It’s because we can all relate to Draper, knowing the feeling of being human—of failing over and over again. In this—in Draper’s conflicted morality—the show provides just enough hope to hold our empathy.
This cycle was introduced as early as the pilot episode. We first meet Draper in bed with a woman and then at work where he stands out as an advertising genius—only to later discover he has a wife and kids he apparently loves, too. Everything points to him being a coward whom we should despise and reject—but we don’t. In the oddest way, as we see him stare at his family with sincere and tender eyes, we care about him. From the beginning, we want him to get better.
This struggle—a bouncing back and forth between right and wrong, wrong and right—sums up the heart of Mad Men and the heart of Draper. There are moments of enlightenment, moments of change, moments of redemption—from Draper’s love and loyalty to his colleague Peggy, to his momentary decisions to stop smoking, drinking and sleeping around, to a trip to California where he experiences a sort of self-baptism. But there are also moments of descent, moments of despair, moments of downfall.
Such a personified seesaw proves to be the very reason why Mad Men resonates, why it holds so much appeal: because we can relate. Most of us have probably never led as depraved a life as Draper—he does break nearly every commandment in the Book—but like him, we all know what it’s like to know the right thing to do and want to do it but not be able to. This universal conflict communicates the core of human experience and the natural condition of the heart.
Beyond our failures, though, some of us also know the power of redemption. We know what it’s like to, not by our own power, do good and be good—or at least be viewed as good. In this, viewers continue to root for Draper and his redemption. We continue to long for hope—after all, there was hope for us. He’s certainly shown hints of it, particularly in his desire to be a good father and his grace and compassion for Peggy. But with only a few seasons left, hope still seems distant—and if the show’s intro carries any symbolic weight, it may never get here.