Dear Matthew Weiner,
OK, we get it: Don Draper, the serial philanderer, alcoholic, enigma, and antihero of Mad Men who regularly traverses the line between decent chap and scoundrel, is repeating all his old patterns. He is sinking further into a morass of disappointing his family, his colleagues, himself. People don’t change. Habits die hard. The past comes back to haunt us.
All this is a good mimicry of the futility of human existence. But long-running narrative, like the kind TV series are made of, needs change to move forward! So just because he’s repeating patterns, you don’t have to. I mean, really? Another Don Draper affair with a brunette? Another ice cube dropped into a tumbler, a pained blank stare into oblivion, another nap on the couch? And not one but multiple corny, uncomfortable Dust Bowl-era flashbacks to Don’s childhood in a house of prostitution, as if his early sexual scars are to blame for all his lady-issues?
It’s no wonder we’re all much more fascinated with new accounts man Bob Benson than we are with Don. He’s the new Don, the smiling, ambiguously gay Don, a kid from the sticks who has parlayed a knack for dissembling and pleasing the powerful into a suave, blue-blood persona that gets him a foot in the door—just like Don did. (Remember when we thought Bob was going to go all Charles Manson on Megan?) This motion, this mystery has made Bob, not Don, the central figure of interest in the show, and he throws our protagonist into weary relief.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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We’ve enjoyed watching Don at work and at play, but here’s my unsolicited advice: Pull a Game of Thrones and kill Don off. Let him become the falling man in the opening credits, and give us one whole season of the show’s women as full, well-rounded leads.
But Don Draper is Mad Men, you say. Well, don’t listen to me—listen to the most trusted media critics of our age. They’re hinting at it too. At TheAtlantic.com, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that Don’s season-long affair is giving him a case of the blahs:
What made Don Draper’s two affairs so powerful in the first season was the sense that both Rachel and Midge were doing something for him. … Who is [Silvia] independent of Don? What are the grounds on which they relate? Why did she agree to begin their affair again? Why does she like Don? Is it because he is the most interesting man alive? Right now, all I am watching is the latest vagina Don Draper happened to trip over.
Emily Nussbaum opines along similar lines at the New Yorker. She notes that Don has lost his mojo as a character, even if he’s still saving accounts and bedding women:
Don, instead of being the show’s engine, has become its anchor—heavy, even in the sixties sense. … he’s begun to feel suspiciously like a symbol, a thesis title rather than a character: “Appearance Versus Reality”; “American Masculinity as Performance”; “The Links Between Prostitution, Marriage, and the Ad Game.”
It’s been a good run for tortured male anti-heroes, but as we mourn James Gandolfini and Breaking Bad inches to a close, maybe it’s time to move on as a culture. We’ve interrogated, as Nussbaum says, masculinity as performance on our TV screens on Sunday nights until the topic feels exhausted. Though as feminists we believe we shouldn’t ever stop interrogating masculinity, maybe we could take a break? Let’s interrogate some alternate models of existence on the gender spectrum.
When you bump Don off, the segment of viewers who still, after all the relapses, think Don is cool—and a related segment who swoon over Jon Hamm’s physique—will revolt for a time. But they’ll still tune in to see the aftermath; I know they will.
Then you’ll get the chance to make the show you always should have made, the show that’s constantly clawing to the surface and getting clamped down by an icy Don glare. You know, the one about Peggy and Joan. They can go to sex clubs in the Village and complain over cigarettes about egotistical bosses who marry their secretaries. They can have fraught conversations about abortion and motherhood when they meet up with Megan, who will be having a lesbian affair with another actress after Don’s demise, and Betty, who will be cooking for a commune in the East Village. They may bump into Sally Draper, who is the president of Model UN at Miss Porter’s School and has been working through her paternal abandonment issues with a good therapist. And yes, they can hang out with Dawn, Don’s Black secretary, who—since this is my fantasy we’re talking about—will exist on her own terms, not only as a way to throw the other characters’ white privilege into relief.
But let’s be serious. One of my favorite moments this season was watching Sally Draper at her visit to Miss Porter’s—the boarding school where she wants to go after witnessing her dad in flagrante with a woman who is neither wife #1 nor #2—struggling to fit in with a group of girls who are posh and proper on the outside, but want to drink, smoke, and neck at all given opportunities. Watching Sally, who acts like a tough woman of the world but isn’t quite there yet, navigate her own sexual boundaries and her desire to fit in, we see echoes of her father’s ability to make waves in old institutions. But the sequence also paints a convincing portrait of girlhood approaching womanhood; it underscores the level of innocence Sally maintains even after her dad has shattered her illusions and before her mom hands her a triumphant cigarette.
The best part of Mad Men, the reason feminist bloggers have been addicted for six seasons, has always been the fact that it addresses gender as an explicit theme. We don’t have to project gender on to it; you’ve put it there, Matt.
The exploration of sexism and sexual politics in the workplace and the family, in fact, is what makes your show original. Don’s tortured self-invented shtick is a riff on what we’ve seen in works from The Great Gatsby to The Sopranos, both. But what we haven’t seen much of before, even in recent years, are scenes detailing women’s professional rivalries and confidences as dramatic centerpieces.
And you did that! Joan and Peggy’s edgy friendship-slash-competition is the primary instrument for excellent feminist exploration. They help the show pass the Bechdel Test with their many tête-à-têtes. They talk about work, and their different paths from cubicle to corner office—neither of these paths explicitly feminist, but both snaking through the thicket of patriarchy.
Joan and Peggy talk about men, too, but not in a “He’s cute” kind of way—in a life choices way. Joan has discovered a new path to fulfillment, a far cry from her original plans. “The whole goal was to play the cards right, get a husband, and move out to the country. And what a surprise to find out that the husband and the child are not as fulfilling as the work,” Christina Hendricks, who plays Joan, told EW.com. But the one unconventional choice Joan made, to sell her body for one night to sit at the boardroom in perpetuity, means that she is constantly worried about being treated as a lightweight, someone who doesn’t deserve to be where she is.
As for Peggy, she often encounters the opposite problem, getting addressed like she’s frigid or no fun as she charges fearlessly up the ladder. And yet she’s found that her romantic and professional relationships with powerful men, both peers and bosses, present quite a few unexpected hurdles: One boss is in love with her but won’t act on it, and the other takes his own issues out on her. Meanwhile, her best work friend propositions her when he’s sad but forgets her when she’s in the same position, and she’s bayoneted her hippie ex-boyfriend.
One season exploring the life of Peggy Olson, Girl Creative Director, without the distraction of Don front and center would be welcome.
Actually, Matt, I would probably be a little bummed if you killed Don, mostly because I get unreasonably sad about things that happen on TV shows. But whether through death or just better writing, it wouldn’t hurt you to move the spotlight off his chiseled face, and linger with the ladies of the show a little longer, before all the lights go out.