Mendelsohn argues that the show’s main appeal is that it indulges viewers in a sense of false superiority over the 1960’s-era characters, who spout the naiveties and unfashionable sentiments of their time, while simultaneously offering the fantasy of the period’s excesses. He also complains that the wardrobe and accoutrements of the characters’ lifestyles are fetishized and then sold to consumers as marketing tie-ins.
There’s validity to Mendelsohn’s complaint that Mad Men sometimes takes easy shots at its character’s antiquated norms and ignorance of the adverse health-effects of smoking and drinking excessively (or while pregnant). But the weaker moments of Mad Men are no worse or more frequent than those on the other beloved modern shows Mendelsohn cites as counterexamples. For example, Battlestar Galactica, which Mendelsohn praises as “a kind of futuristic retelling of The Aeneid,” enraged its fans with a bizarre mystical denouement.
Further, many of Mendelsohn’s criticisms seem to miss the point. While Mad Men is a show set in the 1960’s, and a show which frequently evokes that era’s historical events and political issues, it’s not really about race, feminism or social change. Mad Men is, rather, a show about secrets, about lies, and about the ethos of characters who keep secrets and tell lies.
Mad Men’s focus on surfaces reinforces the show’s themes
At the start of the first season, the show presents Don Draper, a handsome, rising ad-executive with a dapper wardrobe, a well-stocked bar in his boy’s club of an office, a neglected family at home in the suburbs, a two-pack-a-day habit and a series of mistresses. Don thinks he’s on the way up, but the audience, with its historical perspective, knows that his moment is already passing. He’s reliant and dependent upon an unjust system that’s about to be shattered. This guy is on the way out.
History, it seems, is going to hit this retrograde, racist chauvinist like a freight train.
And then, it doesn’t.
Instead, we learn that Don Draper is really Dick Whitman, a poor kid from a disadvantaged background who walked away from his past when a moment of battlefield confusion in Korea gave him an opportunity to steal a dead man’s name.
Draper's backstory, which Mendelsohn calls “rusty and unsubtle” reveals that this man is not the embodiment of mid-century white male privilege he appears to be. Rather, he’s something potentially worse; an empty suit; a cipher; a man who is nothing but surface. He stands for nothing, except possibly the perpetuation of the lies that animate him.
This revelation posits a different fate for Don; he’s not going to be pilloried as the representation of his antiquated beliefs. He can shrug those off as easily as he strips out of his immaculately-tailored suit. Don’s story is about the manufacture and maintenance of his perfect surface, and his efforts to conceal or excise aspects of himself that are inconsistent with it. He’s not going stand against the tide of history. He’s going to yield to it; he’s in advertising, after all. The show establishes that he’s reinvented himself before so it can concern itself with how he will do it again.
Don’s chameleon-like adaptability and his cynical method of survival is demonstrated at the end of season 3, when Don and his cohorts steal everything of value from their company, which is staid, wood-paneled and collapsing, and decamp to start a new firm with trippy artwork on the walls and stylish, mod furniture.
So, when Mendelsohn criticizes actor Jon Hamm’s portrayal of Draper as being “remarkably vacant,” maybe he’s missing the point. It’s not the show’s failing that we are “constantly told about, but never really feel” Don’s “tormented interior.” Don has no interior. His ostensibly tormented internal life is just another charade.
This is the kind of character who will use photos of his beautiful, disintegrating family to land Kodak’s advertising account, and then he’ll go celebrate the coup with his mistress. His greatest professional success comes when he invokes the idyllic childhood he never had and is failing to provide for his kids, so that he can sell GlowCoat floor wax. Don Draper is so fake that his internal conflict is between the man he’s pretending to be and the man he wants to pretend to be.
Mad Men does not use its characters to explore issues; it uses issues to explore characters.
When one understands that the show is about characters who neglect or disregard underlying problems to focus on surfaces, the character, behaviors and storylines Mendelsohn targets for specific criticism fit elegantly into the whole. Don’s arc is the main narrative thrust of the show, and because Mad Men is a coherent story, the other characters’ stories tend to reinforce Don’s themes.
For example, Mendelsohn is puzzled at why Paul Kinsey, a member of Draper’s creative team and a white Princeton graduate, is living with a black supermarket check-out girl in New Jersey during the second season. He feels that this relationship is insufficiently explained, and that the black girlfriend is a character who is “parachuted in” to raise an “issue-related subplot.” In fact, this story is not about race or about the girlfriend, but about Kinsey, and it’s very clear and consistent within the thematic fabric of Mad Men.
Kinsey, following the show’s larger theme, is primarily concerned with surfaces. He’s the kind of white guy who thinks he can become a progressive revolutionary by growing a beard and smoking a pipe. Like Draper, whose identity is totally fabricated, Kinsey views his life as a story he tells about himself, and Kinsey wants to tell a story about the guy with the black girlfriend in 1963. He’s not making some courageous stand for a kind of love society discourages; that’s just the dress-up game he’s playing. He outfits himself with the props that allow him to live the narrative he’s fashioned for himself.
When we see him parade this woman through the office, he’s grinning with smug satisfaction about how uncomfortable he’s making all the squares, and he’s completely oblivious or indifferent to how uncomfortable his girlfriend is. Later on, Kinsey blows off his “principles” to further his career (unsuccessfully: Kinsey is ultimately abandoned at the old office with the old furniture when Draper defects at the end of Season 3). But this story is a miniature retelling of the larger story of Don’s marriage. Kinsey’s controversial interracial relationship is the same as Draper’s conventional marriage; these men are playing house with women they can’t really love and never try to understand.
Mendelsohn also expresses disappointment at the resolution of the Salvatore Romano character, a closeted homosexual who gets fired by Draper after he rebuffs a come-on from a powerful male client. Mendelsohn is disappointed that this story turned out to be about caving to power, and Draper’s business ethics instead of the more obvious story “about gayness in the 1960s.” But that’s because Mendelsohn expects the show to be about issues, and the show is about Draper and the people around him.
When Mendelsohn complains that Draper’s discovery of Romano making out with a bellboy on a business trip “weirdly… [has] no repercussions,” he demonstrates the depth of his misunderstanding. Draper’s discovery of Romano’s homosexuality doesn’t create conflict; it draws an analogy between the two characters. These are both lonely men who neglect their frustrated wives to conduct a series of trysts in hotel rooms, and Don Draper is the last character who would ever think about exposing somebody else’s secret double-life.
It also seems likely that New York businessmen in the 1960’s would politely ignore obvious signs that a co-worker was secretly homosexual, just like they’d ignore a colleague’s alcoholism or extramarital affairs. Any resolution to the Romano story that brought the issue of his sexuality to the forefront would be inconsistent with the story Mad Men is telling. These characters are selfish, not sanctimonious, and they’ll protect their colleagues’ secrets to avoid unpleasantness or inconvenience, and out of fear their own secrets might be exposed.
Draper’s approach to “issues” is best exemplified in season 4, when he fakes a moral stand against cigarette advertising to save face after his company loses the tobacco account that provides the bulk of its business. In typical Draper fashion, his cynical, self-serving maneuver is, on paper, a perfect facsimile of a genuine crisis of conscience. He types it with a cigarette clenched between his teeth.
Mendelsohn’s complaints about the show’s melodrama and soapiness are baffling
While Mendelsohn alleges, without much discussion, that the show is poorly-written and acted, his most serious charge is that it resorts to soap-operatic “melodrama” of serially-raised and quickly-resolved personal crises rather than “drama” of “believable conflicts between personality and character.”
In general, the stories on Mad Men deal with two kinds of problems. Professional hurdles are these characters’ specialties. Don is uniquely innovative as a creative talent, and he’s forceful and compelling when he pitches to clients. He’s cagey, with a strong survival instinct, and he’s good at corporate politics as well.
But for problems in his personal life, Don’s strategy is to ignore, deny and conceal. In one Season 4 episode, Draper’s protégé, Peggy Olsen is astonished when Don emerges after an all-night bender in a pressed suit, without a hair out of place. No underlying problems have been resolved, but the façade is flawless.
Other characters follow similar arcs, as with Romano’s closeted double-life, or a season 4 storyline when Don’s business partner attempted to hide the loss of the tobacco account from his colleagues.
In season 1, Peggy Olsen’s burgeoning career is threatened when she gets pregnant after a fling with a co-worker. Draper helps her conceal the child’s existence. “This never happened,” he tells her. “It will shock you how much it never happened.”
This is one of the “successive personal crises” that Mendelsohn complains about the show “serially (and often unbelievably) generating and resolving.” But concealing the child isn’t really a resolution; it’s just a way of avoiding the problem. Because, while Mendelsohn thinks he’s watching a show that should be “exploring [social issues] by means of believable conflicts between personality and situation,” Mad Men is, more often than not, a show about how people ignore or talk around the issues in order to avoid conflicts.
Mendelsohn’s criticisms are non-specific enough to apply to almost any show
A television show necessarily contains some padding and some repetition when compared to other narrative forms. A novel is usually between 80,000 and 110,000 words long, and takes most readers six to eight hours to read. A Hollywood film generally lasts between 90 and 150 minutes. There are currently 52 episodes of Mad Men, roughly 45 minutes each, excluding commercials.
That kind of length necessarily requires that, like most television shows, Mad Men functions as a series of interconnected stories rather than a single narrative. Problems must be resolved over the course of those hours (and years), and new ones must replace them. There’s an argument to be made against television as a medium for narrative; if Hamlet takes two hours to explore and resolve, and Gatsby requires only two-hundred pages, why do we need dozens of episodes to figure out what’s going on with Don Draper or Tony Soprano or Archie Bunker or Captain Kirk?
But Mendelsohn doesn’t make an argument against television; in fact, he says that we’re living in “a new golden age” of programming, citing The Sopranos, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica and Friday Night Lights, all great shows that could easily be tarred by Mendelsohn’s broad and non-specific complaints of melodrama, repetition and parachuted-characters.
Ultimately, while Mendelsohn’s feeling that Mad Men is glib, slick and cold may justify his subjective dislike for it, his arguments don’t have enough substance to justify a re-examination of the prevailing positive critical opinion.