Today I am joined by Kerensa Cadenas to discuss what has been happening so far on season 6 of Mad Men and specifically with Don Draper. Don has become problematic this season, even though his actions are pretty much in tune with everything we have seen before and so we wanted to talk about why our reactions and sympathy for this character has changed. Other factors that we consider include what makes unlikeable characters appealing and I explain why I used to be a Pete Campbell defender. We also discuss what aspects of the show we have been enjoying and who we want to see of more this year. And yes Matthew Weiner probably doesn’t care that we don’t like Don so far this year.
Emma: There have been various comments on both Twitter and in longer articles that I have seen that discuss whether Don Draper has become increasingly dislikeable and I wanted to expand upon this further as I have definitely been feeling this way. We’re only four episodes into season 6 and while I still think the show is one of the best on TV, it’s becoming increasingly hard to sympathize with Mr Draper. Previously this hasn’t been the case and while his pattern of lying and cheating is nothing new, it also feels very different this year. Season 5 showed that Don could remain faithful, until the final scene when he is asked “Are you alone?” and it is apparent that the Don we have previously watched for five years is back.
It always seemed unlikely that Don and Megan’s relationship would go the distance; they started sleeping together when he was seeing someone else and the engagement and subsequent marriage was rushed. There is the age/generational difference and Don clearly likes the idea of Megan more than the reality of Megan. When Megan goes against this ideal to pursue her acting career, this is when their relationship really started to falter. With Betty, she quit her job when they got married and became the dutiful housewife and mother; this was never going to happen with Megan. I know other viewers have their issues with Megan and while she’s definitely naive, I also find her really compelling to watch (also from a style point of view she’s also the best dressed cast member and I love seeing what Janie Bryant conjures up for her).
The other point is that a lead character doesn’t have to be likeable (see Walter White) but there also has to be some kind of character progression and the affair storyline with Don just feels like regression. It’s different in one respect because this time it’s with a woman who lives in the same building, but is also bears all the hallmarks of his previous affairs with women like Midge, Rachel Menken, and Suzanne Farrell; dark haired beauties, who are smart, challenging and who give him something that his current wife can’t. It’s a lot more fun watching Don get stoned in a windowless room with Stan (and his magnificent beard) and debating ketchup vs. mustard as a hot dog condiment than see him admonish his wife and go straight to his mistress.
Perhaps this is what has led me to loathing Don Draper this season; his moral superiority (which is also not a new trait) has become tiresome and all the aspects that previously made him sympathetic just feel like hollow excuses (see childhood brothel flashbacks).
What are you thinking of this season? What about Don has made you adjust your feelings towards this character?
Kerensa: I really liked the last episode. But I feel like everything other than Don is more compelling to me because he’s just in this constant state of progressing and then regressing. As of late it’s clearly the latter, but I think the thing that’s frustrating and while it’s much more subtext than text is that it seems that Don believes there’s nothing he can do to change. But it feels like he doesn’t ever ACTUALLY try to change.
I agree with you completely that it never seemed like Don and Megan would make it without Don going back into his old patterns. But a part of me last season remained optimistic about it. While I was sad that Don just completely screwed over the wonderful Dr. Faye, Megan to me still seemed like the interesting, complex, intelligent women Don favors to have his affairs with. She’s independent, challenges Don and apparently (well used to be) a very compatible sexual partner in the Don Draper kink department. Don’s needs, frankly, are completely annoying, unrealistic and completely contradictory. He appears to want a challenging, interesting woman but then when she’s unwilling to compromise what she wants for him, he wants to go back to, I think the model of the dutiful housewife, mostly because it’s someone who is dependent on him. But then he’ll eventually resent that too.
Basically, I don’t think Don Draper wants a woman. He wants the idea of a woman–a vessel that he can project his latest desires upon and discard when he’s done with. I mean this is clearly how I think he operates romantically–his relationships with Peggy and Anna are much different.
I appreciate an unlikeable character, but just Don’s complete inability to even try to look at himself critically–even though I believe we are meant to think he is through his philosophical readings and one-liner emotional thoughts. In the last episode when Sylvia tells Don she prays he finds peace, I felt pretty done. Don has no interest in finding peace and I’ve discovered I don’t really care if he does either.
Emma: I agree with what you say about Don wanting the idea of woman, as opposed to an actual romantic relationship is right and I think that the purpose of the flashbacks are meant to show that the kind of women he grew up with might have given him a very skewed opinion of women. What I think would be an interesting idea for a flashback would be to see the kind of women Dick dated before he went to war and came home as Don. We’ve seen what he was like when he started dating Betty, but he was already Don at this point. Also as you mention his relationships with Anna and Peggy are very different, I might even include Joan in this category as despite flirtation this has never developed into anything more. This could be why he was so protective over Joan and the Jaguar seediness that went on at the end of last season. Has Don got the ultimate Madonna/Whore complex?
I’m going to move on to the point that I teased yesterday with the admission that I used to be big Pete Campbell defender and my feelings about Don this season kind of match how I feel about Pete now. Pete has always wanted to be Don and so I think that there is a comparison to be made, especially when Pete got everything that Don had (the fancy office, the beautiful wife, child and house in the suburbs) and it ended up making Pete more miserable.
Now my sympathy for Pete and subsequent defending started at the start of season 2 when his father died and he didn’t know how to respond. Pete’s parents are also awful in that lack of emotion way and so it became easier to understand some of Pete’s less desirable character traits. The scene at the end of this season when Peggy reveals that she had his baby is also heartbreaking and added further fuel to this sympathy. Moments of whining like “Why can’t I have everything that I want all at once?” are incredibly bratty and might be a sign of how awful Pete is (and why people like to punch him) but I still persevered. Then there’s Trudy and the marvellous Alison Brie and yes it was awful when he threw the roast out of the window that she had prepared (“Hell’s bells Trudy!” is still one of my favorite lines from Mad Men), but then they danced the Charleston and all seemed well. The moment with the German au pair was a low, low point and it was at this point that I started to reconsider my Pete Campbell feelings. After this Trudy and Pete’s relationship improved and so once again I started to like him and his involvement in the whole SCDP caper only made me like him more.
Bit by bit Pete has returned to his slimy, weasel like ways and now that he lives life like Don Draper, he also doesn’t respect Don all that much anymore. The affair last season, his involvement with Joan and his punch up with Lane all made me see why people loathe this character, with the final straw coming a couple of weeks ago. In this moment I was cheering on Trudy Campbell as she yelled at her awful husband along with every other viewer and the spell has been well and truly broken.
So what’s the point of this long Pete Campbell diversion? It’s as you say we can like an unlikeable character but there has to be something compelling in their flaws. Don is still charming and Pete is a weasel, but at this point I’m probably more interested in Pete’s story. I think one aspect in this comparison that I’ve used is that Don is the lead character, whereas Pete is part of a large ensemble but the lead needs to remain the one we want to see. At this point it’s every other story that I want to watch and I’m pretty sure that’s not how it should be. Obviously we’re only a handful of episodes in and I can never predict what direction Mad Men will go in (which is half the fun), I just hope it isn’t a season of seeing Don back in this old routine.
I feel like I went off on a bit of a tangent there! So Don is the least compelling part of the season so far, but whose storyline are you enjoying the most/want to see more of?
Kerensa: I’ve never been a Pete defender, but I totally agree with your point. Although I think Pete is a total weasel, his storyline is more compelling to me than Don’s (also having my girl Alison Brie around always helps). And it’s fine having the your lead unlikeable, I mean there are so many examples of that, but when I’m watching Walter White or Hannah Horvath even if I am currently despising them or can’t stand their choices, I’m still interested in what they are doing. Right now, I don’t have that for Don at all. I completely agree with you that I hope this season isn’t all about Don’s old routine.
I mean my girl, Peggy obviously. I’d be so happy if the show was just about her and Joan. I was really happy to see a storyline developing for Dawn last week and I’m hoping that we get more about her. I’m curious about James Wolk’s character, mostly because he’s my ideal man, but also because we know nothing about his character. TV.com just did a really funny piece about that exact thing.
I also want more angry tween Sally Draper storylines. What about you?
Emma: I’m with you on both Peggy and Joan as even though they’ve both progressed professionally within this world they are both still facing struggles at work; Peggy’s is less to do with her gender but how she can manage the staff below her and well, Joan has Harry to contend with and the feeling that she’s just a better paid secretary with a fancy title. I’m so glad that they’ve expanded Dawn’s role too and her assessment of SCDP being an office full of sad people was spot on. The mysterious Bob Benson and subsequent speculation is also hilarious and I’d definitely like to see him hook-up with Trudy (can you imagine Pete’s reaction?!). More Stan and Ginsberg with their fabulous facial hair would also be appreciated.
I’d also like to spend time in the Betty Francis household and whereas before this would have been purely to see Sally get progressively more snarky with her mother, I’m actually interested in Betty’s storyline too. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Betty’s role in the season 6 premiere and by how much I liked this character (probably the first time since she confronted Don with the knowledge of his Dick Whitman past in season 3). While it’s harder to find room for Betty in an episode, I hope that we get to see her and her new brunette hair soon. Plus I want to see how much screen time both Bobby and Gene get this year.
Also have you seen how Kiernan Shipka has been killing it on the red carpet this week? I’m always impressed that she dresses age appropriate (ok most 13 year old girls don’t get to wear Chanel, but you get my point) and she never comes across as precocious. Yep a 13 year old dresses much better than me.
Kerensa: Kiernan Shipka is probably the most fashionable 13 year old ever.
How are you finding this season of Mad Men? Have you fallen out of love with Don Draper?