Tuesday, April 22, 2014

My Love-Hate Relationship with Mad Men

Like just about everyone else in America, I'm hooked on AMC's Mad Men. I started watching it on Netflix with Matt and haven't been able to give it up. The thing is: I hate Mad Men. I also love it--I can't help myself. There's just something about getting a peek at a time period when my folks were children--my mother, born in 1955, would have been able the same age as Sally Draper, born in 1954. It's an outrageous and, I hope, hyperbolic look at the 1960s that has left me hating every single character. All of them are just terrible. They're so completely and thoroughly unlikable, in fact, that I can't bring myself to watch anything with Jon Hamm in it. I dislike Don Draper so much that all of my suspension of disbelief can't erase him from my consciousness long enough to give the guy a shot.

From my perspective, it's an eloquent excuse to put sexism on TV under the guise of period drama--it certainly, boldly celebrates the objectification of women, who were then largely discounted as pretty and fragile, but not much else. Which is not to say that, largely, life wasn't like this for women during this time period, it certainly was. Matt doesn't agree, he sees it as a way to address many of today's continuing issues through the same sort of Otherness that allowed writers of old to mock their cultures without getting into trouble. I don't completely agree--the issues aren't exactly addressed, they're just put on display for the consumption of the masses.

One of the only things I like about Mad Men is the way both sexes are equally unlikable. The men are sexist, philandering drunks who cheat on their wives. The women are petty and malicious, often sleeping their way to the top only to be cruel to the women left at the bottom. The men who don't drink and cheat on their wives (the unicorn!) go nowhere, fast. The women who didn't sleep their way to the top are either still at the bottom or, by chance, have climbed the ladder--by the grace of men, of course--only to treat other women like shit. Notably, this is an issue that permeates literature, where women treat younger and/or less important women the only way they know how, the way they were treated, at best with petty disregard, but more often with unabated cruelty.

As examples, Don and Peggy are perfect illustration of everything wrong with the show. They're not the only unlikable characters--in fact, all of the characters are disgusting--but they are some of the most unlikable because in some way they represent every other character who enters their orbit. They have access to every other major and minor character on the show, all of whom are flimsy stereotypes. They're the glue that holds it all together. It's seven degrees of Don Draper and Peggy Olson, a formula that works too well.

Don is both a terrible husband and ex-husband, a bad father, a fair-weather friend, a sexist who skirts dangerously close to predatory. He cheats, lies and manipulates everyone in his life--men and women alike--and treats his kids with careless disregard bordering on abuse. Everyone wants to know him, the other men want to be him, but his life is a cesspit of shame and vodka. A mess he blames on his bad childhood. He doesn't ever take responsibility for his recklessness. No matter what he's done, the audience is expected to defer to his childhood for an explanation and then feel, what, sympathy for him?

Peggy is a secretary who, through a series of circumstances that include Don's need for someone to help him do his work while he drank and slept his way across New York, managed to climb to copy writer. Then to copy chief. She lets men take advantage of her, over and over, and treats the women around her like garbage. She refuses to remember where she came from and, in most cases, suffers from the same sort of mentality that allowed Queen Elizabeth to be queen while supporting the subjugation of women. She believes she's above it, that she's an exception rather than the rule. What's more, she's threatened by other women who have power, regardless of how they got that power. She's also an emotional cripple who can't sustain relationships with anyone.

Don and Peggy are then surrounded by the usual stereotypes: the creepy ad man (Pete), the sexpot who sleeps her way to the top (Joan), the rich has-been (Roger), the unlikable stepford wife (Betty), the neglected children (Sally and Bobby Draper), the shallow representation of change/bad trophy wife (Megan). None of whom could work at all without Don and Peggy to tie them together and enable their collective unlikability.

The one shining light in a gloom of sadly realistic period melodrama is that the show is packed with stunningly accurate historical detail. The costumes are perfect, the hair is amazing, the cars are fantastic. The historical events--such as the deaths of JFK, Marilyn Monroe, and Martin Luther King Jr.--are sprinkled in to make the show a perfect replica of the 1960s. They even address life both in the city and in the burbs--where all the people are just as terrible as the main characters.

Still, the show is an exercise in determination and restraint. I can't stop watching it, even though I've considered it on several occasions. I have to know what happens to this tragic collection of rotten human beings. I can't help hoping that Don gets what he deserves, that what goes around really does come around. At the same time, I kind of want him to be redeemed and find some peace, he really did have a terrible childhood after all. I also continue to hope for the ending where Don is infamous 1960s skyjacker DB Cooper. Just another few months and it'll all be over, for better or worse, and despite it's many deplorable moments and anger-inducing characters... I'm definitely going to miss it.