Los Angeles Review of Books

This Week on Dear Television:

  • “Age of Olson” from Phil Maciak
     

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Age of Olson
By Phillip Maciak
May 4, 2015

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Dear television,

WHO CARES about Don Draper? I mean that literally. For what longtime viewer of Mad Men is Don Draper either the center of the dramatic universe within the show or the affective one outside of it? Being a viewer of this sort of television is often defined, I think, by the ability to choose one’s way through a series. We are led along by plot, hitched to the narrative wagon of one or several key consciousnesses, but the best of these shows — or at least the ones I like the most — give us the freedom to pledge our allegiances liberally, idiosyncratically. I watched The Sopranos for Carmela and Christopher, Friday Night Lights for Tim Riggins, The Office for Pam and Dwight. Some shows have more insistent core magnetism. (No matter how much Jesse Pinkman stole the show, it was hard not to watch Breaking Bad for Walter White.) Some are more diffuse. (McNulty was no more the protagonist of The Wire than Ned Stark is currently the protagonist of Game of Thrones.) But one of the great things about this era of TV — and one of the many positive things these shows share formally with soap operas — is the ability to free associate. You can choose your own protagonist.

So, back to my question: who cares about Don Draper? It seems silly to even say it, but, just to preface this discussion: structurally, Don is Mad Men’s protagonist. Indeed, in last week’s Hollywood Prospectus podcast, Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan declared that all those critics who’d suggested that Peggy was the actual protagonist had been proven wrong by the seeming wrap-up of her story and Weiner’s increasing interest in Don’s journey. (For what it’s worth, this episode proved that Peggy’s got lots more gas in the tank as a character.) But, beyond that, claiming that an episode proves or doesn’t prove the location of this show’s primary narrative investment misses the point of critiques like those that claim Peggy as protagonist. I spent most of season six arguing that the show was interested in displacing Don’s narrative perspective — through Sally, Peggy, even Dawn. This didn’t mean that I thought Don was being written off the show but that I thought the show’s narrative arc was looking more and more to other characters. To say, rhetorically, that Peggy or Sally are contenders to be this show’s protagonist is simply to say that they sometimes provide the show’s structuring consciousness. Or, in other words, it’s to say that the show seems to matter most when they’re at the forefront.

In a final season preoccupied with Don’s disappearance, irrelevance, powerlessness, etc., it seems to me that Mad Men is still interested in displacing its lead. Don Draper, the mysterious cipher at the core of this story, has almost never been the most interesting character on his own show. And, this season, his tiresome repetitions, his follies, his failures suggest that the show knows that. We’re going to see where Don’s road trip ends, but, by and large, the world of Mad Men is over Don Draper. He’s moved on and so has his universe. Rather than this show’s dynamic engine, he has become its institution, its context. Jon Hamm stars as The Nineteen-Sixties, more an embodied era than a man. And while the passage of time haunts us all, who has empathy for Time itself? I am interested to see what happens to Don; I care about what happens to Peggy and Sally and Joan. Don will bring the series to its end; they will give that end its meaning. Don is the show’s protagonist, but that doesn’t mean that Peggy can’t be my protagonist.

I mentioned this last week, but, when we talk about this era of television production, we talk about an era dominated by shows that are themselves dominated by male anti-heroes. But anyone who’s actually viewed and loved these shows knows that they don’t actually work that way. Mad Men isn’t dominated by Don Draper any more than Jaws is dominated by the shark. What makes these shows great is what grows up to surround the anti-hero. These guys are anti-heroic in that they’re bad and quasi-villainous, but they’re also anti-heroic inasmuch as they’re surrounded by heroes far more compelling than they are. We all want to know what happens with the shark, but the real action is on the boat.

So let me tell you about my show. It’s called Mad Men, and it’s the story of Peggy Olson. She starts out as a receptionist at a big Madison Avenue ad agency and works her way up through a thick haze of sexism, back-biting, and institutional hurdles to become a junior copywriter and the protégé of a brilliant, asshole ad man named Don Draper. Just as she achieves this goal, she realizes that she’s gotten pregnant after a fling with a weasly young executive. She has the baby and gives it up for adoption in order to pursue her dream and career. That career faces a number of ups and downs including a falling-out with her mentor, an affair with her new boss, and, ultimately, a return to her original agency, but, throughout, we see her grow as both a writer and a human in the world. She wrestles with her Catholic family, her feminism, and her capitalism. She’s funny, she’s flawed, and she has a sense of whimsy when drunk. She’s ambitious, and she’s competent, and we’re going to end this series with a sense of all that she regrets in her life but also all she can and will become when we leave her.

One third of “Lost Horizon” is essentially a bottle episode starring Peggy first with her former employee and then with her current/former boss, Roger Sterling, bouncing around the abandoned offices of SC&P. She’s harsh but respectful with the employee, and she’s frustrated and affectionate with Roger. In another section of this episode, Joan Holloway is facing an institutional sexism so spring-loaded and destructive that even to name it is to set it off like a land mine. The centerpiece of the episode is Joan’s mic-drop threat to call in Betty Friedan and the Feminist Avengers to burn McCann-Erickson to the ground. Watching that scene, it was almost too beautiful to imagine that this lawsuit, this dismemberment of Advertising itself at the hands of Joan Holloway might be Mad Men’s endgame. But, by the end of the episode, Joan seems to have backed off, to have accepted her own story as a semi-tragic one, of tenuous power that’s not worth the trouble.

But Joan’s struggle is not the end. Ferg, one of this show’s most loathesome, pinky-ringed, cuff-linked creations, infers to her that Peggy will likely face the exact same dilution of power once she arrives. (In reference to Peggy’s status as a boss at McCann, he says, “I doubt that will continue anyway.”) But then Peggy arrives. Shades on inside, cigarette hanging from her mouth, tentacle-porn print slung under her arm, Peggy doesn’t look like she’s going to burn the place down so much as burn a hole through it. Joan put McCann on blast, but it was a rhetorical victory only. Peggy, we’re invited to hope, might ruin this place. Or at least take it over.

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Over at SC&P, Peggy tells Roger that her ambition is, in his words, to “have her name on the door.” There’s an irony here: Peggy, as a copywriter, has long lived in the shadow of her mentor, unnamed. Don Draper, on the other hand, is the defining intelligence of the agency. Back in an earlier SC&P bottle episode, Peggy tells Don that everybody thinks he does her work for her. (Part of her attraction to Ted Chaough seems to be that he understands her individual talent.) Likewise, Don is the eponymous Mad Man of the title. But, unlike the advertising world of the 1960s, the audience of Mad Men can give credit where credit is due. For me, Peggy’s name is already on the door. Don Draper is a monolith planted in the middle of this show. He’s a riddle to solve, not a story to follow. The show I’ve been watching for eight years is a show about Peggy Olson and her dying, desperate boss.

In “Lost Horizon,” Don is like a contrail evaporating in the sky. He sees Joan in the elevator, but he can’t help her. When he goes to pick up Sally, she’s not there. She didn’t need a ride from him, and Betty, likewise, doesn’t need his massage. Peggy, too, is a woman apart. She explicitly doesn’t ask his advice about her new career move, and the two spend the entire episode in separate spaces. There’s a lot going on here, and Don’s not necessary for any of it. Don Draper is the occasion for us to know any of these people, but they no longer need him around. We no longer need him around.

The great joy of this TV series, for me, has been how inviting it is to us as contemporary viewers in time. From the dense ensemble to the meticulously-detailed production design, this is an easy show to inhabit. I’ve watched it through probably three times by now, and it’s moving and funny and lovable and sad each time in different ways. And each time, it’s never Don who stays with me. That’s not a fault of the show; it’s the show’s biggest achievement. Don Draper is the sun around which this show orbits. But who loves the sun?

I’m not scary, organ music is scary,

Phil.

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