Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Why Don Draper is a Hero (and the Mad Men writers are mine)

A year or so ago, I wrote an analysis of the first episode of Mad Men where I marveled at the skill with which the writers made me, the viewer, care about a guy who really wasn't a very good guy. It particularly struck me, because I saw Season 1 of Mad Men all out of order the first time, so I already knew Don's "big secret" before I watched the first episode, and I just loved how the writers hid the truth from us, without lying. How they showed us all Don's most positive traits before revealing things that would turn many viewers off, if they'd been the first things we knew about Don.

And watching the season 3 finale episode, I had my little mind similarly blown.

Season 3 was a bit of a slow burn, with lots of interesting subplots, but no obvious major plot line for a while. Yet, I finally thought I had it all figured out. Slowly and surely, I figured, they were taking away everything Don cared about. It seemed a tad obvious, but a big part of me thought, he has it coming. It's about time Don's lies and cheating and arrogant manipulations and occasional cruelties caught up with him. I figured the writers had decided they had no choice but to punish him a bit, and I assumed the season was about Karma coming back to bite Don. I figured the season would end with everything falling apart and him starting over again next season, or at least being cut down several notches. Or maybe he'd implode in some major way.

But while what I'd been expecting sort of happened, I realized the Mad Men writers were at least two (or forty) steps ahead of me, and were so much smarter than that. Yes, they caused a huge crisis for Don, several crises at the same time, in fact, but instead of having him crumple or implode and get what many probably think he deserves, as I'd started to expect, they proved why their main character, Don Draper, is worthy of the title "hero" or protagonist.

What does Don do when everything's falling apart around him? He rises to the occasion in every sense of the word. He's brave and smart and bold and convinces others to follow his audacious plans. He realizes, whether or not his wife had been having an affair doesn't matter. He sees he has no business or right to be angry with her, takes the high road, and gives her what she asks for, even though it will destroy the perfect little family life he's constructed and oh so desperately wanted his entire life. He eats some crow and tells Pete and Peggy why he values them -- even though he hates Pete and has trouble respecting and valuing women. (And Peggy proves herself a worthy protagonist, too.)

Yes, in the Season 3 Finale episode, Don, with bags under his eyes, with childhood flashbacks haunting him, with everyone else tossing up their hands in defeat and saying, "Well, there's nothing we can do," Don proves himself a real hero. (Even if we all know he's a fake.)

Oh, Mad Men, how I do love thee.

7 comments:

Kimber Chin said...

I rarely watch Mad Men but found myself watching the finale. Although I didn't know the characters or the backstory, I was sucked in. I FELT the emotion. The acting was right. The writing was right. It worked.

Brilliant.

Molly O'Keefe said...

So with you. The viewer saw a lot of this stuff coming - but they exceeded expectations to the thousandth degree and you're so right about Don Draper rising to the occassion but for several episodes before the finale I was like...wow, punish this guy, he's such a jerk. His arrogance is outrageous. But then as Draper handles everytyhing falling apart with serious aplomb I was rising to the occassion too - yes! Don! Save teh Day! Be a hero - when a few weeks ago I was ready for his downfall. And it was subtle - him eating crow with sterling, peggy and pete - it was awesome. And the showdown with Betty? Delicious - and then the resolution - heartbreaking. I'm with you - those writers are worthy of hero worship.

Maureen McGowan said...

I forgot he had to deal with Roger, too, Molly. Really, it was such a brilliant episode.

Eileen said...

One of these days, everyone will be gone for a week or so and I'll rent the DVDs and watch the whole thing. I watched a little of the first season and liked it (if for nothing else the incredible sets and costumes!), but not enough to watch it by myself. My family made it clear that no one was willing to watch it with me. Boys! What are you going to do with them?

Kathy Holmes said...

It's absolutely brilliant writing - a lesson for any writer on creating the next worse thing to a character. I wrote a blog post about how it was a lesson in writing - not a lesson in history since some out there were getting confused. LOL! But on top of the brilliant writing, is the very talented cast and crew.

Anyway, just got the boxed set with commentary so I can start all over with episode 1 and won't have MadMen withdrawal. :)

Sinead M said...

Just finally watched the season finale and could finally read your post, Maureen.
My love for this show knows no bounds right now, and my admiration for the writers and their magnificent restraint. Because I would have been tempted to show the world how cleverly I was manipulating the world seven episodes ago, instead of waiting and letting everything simmer, as they did..

How long do we have to wait for season 4?

Juanita's Journal said...

I'm trying so hard not to laugh at this article. Really. Don Draper, a hero? Oh dear God.

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