Don Draper and the woke awakening: Why Mad Men is a litmus test for the new-age viewer

·8 min read

The Viewfinder is a fortnightly column by writer and critic Rahul Desai, that looks at films through a personal lens.


Watching Mad Men in 2021 is a provocative experience. For starters, the context of a pandemic is inextricable. The fact that the 'period' series is based almost entirely indoors suits the sensory parameters of a lockdown binge. New Yorkers are seen speaking, thinking, smoking and drinking in highrise offices, suburban living rooms, posh penthouses, elevators and restaurants. The bohemian insides of an ad agency account for a chunk of the screen time. The visual claustrophobia is nearly comforting. What's more, it's shot beautifully. Most frames can pass off as retro posters and minimalist paintings €" the thoughtful blocking ensures that the closed spaces become a physical expression of its people. This in turn means that even a slight glimpse of the great outdoors €" a barn or battlefield in flashback, a Manhattan pavement, a garden party, a road accident €" makes the stomach flutter. It feels like the cinematic equivalent of leaving home without a mask.

But it's a more primal, sociocultural scab that Mad Men picks at. This is possibly the wokest era in modern civilisation. Much of this wokeness is necessary; owning your accountability is a crucial cog of intellectual evolution. While erring is human, the power to recognise it is the cornerstone of humanity. But some of the wokeness is trigger-happy, which is why terms like "outrage mobs" and "cancel culture" have acquired negative connotations. For instance, the depiction of immorality is often misinterpreted as the promotion of immorality. The standard tech-age audience can rarely tell the difference between intent and content. The graver problem, however, concerns the trend of "old" entertainment being consumed through a new lens. It's fine to acknowledge that, say, the romanticisation of stalking in '90s Bollywood is problematic. But hindsight is a delicate weapon. To totally disown those titles is to not only erase them from the ethnic lexicon of a generation but also eschew complicity and strip a society of its post-liberalisation adolescence.

Judging the past only absolves history of its enterprise to reach a future. A place, after all, is nothing if not an accumulation of its time.

This is where Mad Men becomes a litmus test for the new-age viewer. Despite being made between 2007 and 2015, the 1960s-set show wears the visage of old entertainment. It is rampant with sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia, abuse, adultery and apathy €" rightfully reflective of the sub-culture it dramatizes. But the filmmaking also skillfully feigns a lack of awareness, as though the American characters who know no better are written by American men who know no better. This makes for a wicked illusion. While the seven-episode show appears to be an eloquent nod to the era it occupies, Mad Men is actually a droll indictment of the era it engages. As a millennial, a lot of my captivation was rooted in the dissonance between my inherent wokeness and the show's casual crudity. A lot of my investment was derived from the conflict between the characters' social etiquette and my retrofitted perception of it. I spent every other scene chuckling at how oblivious people in the '60s were, before berating myself for observing them through a prism of "advanced" sensibilities.

Then there's the classic symptom of digital-age hypermorality: guilt. The guilt of getting irritated with the women €" scrappy Peggy Olson, resourceful Joan Harris, restless Betty Francis, noble Megan Draper €" who carve out their names in a man's world. The guilt of detesting the personal perversions of the men in one moment and rooting for their professional acumen in the next. The guilt of feeling repulsed by the debauchery of Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell in the beginning, only to develop an underdog fondness for them by the end €" like colourful tumours that blossom into heat pimples. The guilt of equating the agency's ivory-tower reactions €" to the assassination of JFK and Martin Luther King, the Chicago riots, the Vietnam War €" to the urbane watcher's own armchair empathy for local crises (the farmers' strike, migrant exodus, Delhi riots) on computer screens. And most of all, the guilt of being in an abusive relationship with the protagonist of Mad Men, Donald Draper.

No character is designed with an eye on modern discourse, but Don is an unlikely source of reckoning. The maverick creative director is a master of deception. He lies for a living, treating his exquisite talent for short-form storytelling as rehearsal for his domestic facade and vice versa. The man is an appalling husband, a distant father and a mysterious boss. (My 2021 brain kept expecting him to be "called out," with Sterling Cooper issuing a termination notice on Twitter). But Jon Hamm plays Don as a creature of diminished self-awareness €" the subterfuge may look meticulously controlled, but Don is ultimately just a dog chasing cars. This puts the post-MeToo viewer in an awkward but essential position: of having to rationalise a haunted hybrid of predator and prey. It's easy to dismiss him as a "terrible person," but your instincts suggest that the show wants the humanising to be in the eyes of the beholder.

From the very first episode, it's established that Don is not like the other guys at work. He refuses to partake in their lewd banter, wearing the look of a disapproving headmaster at every meeting. He course-corrects their chauvinism and refuses to condemn the sexual identity of his closeted art director. Don's ethics even leads to the suicide of his embattled British colleague, Lane Pryce. His workplace persona oozes a strange superiority complex and self-righteous integrity, almost as though he were compensating for who he is outside the agency. It reminded me of the way accused offenders often tend to employ their art as a self-vindicating smokescreen: Woody Allen and his age-agnostic narratives, film-maker Vikas Bahl and his celebrated Queen, or more recently, director Subhash Kapoor and his sudden affinity for female-chief-minister sagas.

But does this mean their work itself is corrupt? Does it mean that people should disregard their own truth derived from a controversial figure's fiction? Art, by hook or by crook, is a consequence of who the artist is. It is, by design, marked by an ability to fool the audience. A creator's escape is conceived to be a viewer's homecoming. It's important to remember that the craft of film-making itself is elementally an aesthetic embodiment of lying. It's also important that, irrespective of authenticity or hidden purpose of the storytellers, it's the viewer who must stay honest to their own being. Being truthful rather than correct €" owning your moment instead of succumbing to the moment €" is crucial but hard, because it exposes the viewer's biases and conditioning. It melts the viewer's mask.

For example, I never imagined that Don's office behaviour was deliberate €" his lie feels deplorable but not dishonest. On this note, perhaps the most distinct aspect of Don Draper is that he is presented as a shadowy sum of sincere parts. He's problematic as a broad screenplay but affecting as an isolated scene. Even his infidelity looks...soulful. Sample any of his romantic trysts €" with the penniless artist, the business heiress, the school teacher, the psychologist, the mature neighbour. When he's with them, it doesn't seem impure. He isn't putting on an act to further his sexual agenda: he genuinely wants to leave everything for them, he dreams of a future with them, he thinks he's in hopeless love with them. I was perpetually torn between being intimidated and disappointed by him €" which also made me question my own affinity towards a universe where everyone is flawed for their own era but revolting for mine. Perhaps the enduring genius of Mad Men is that Don is emblematic of a fundamentally rotten person trying to be decent. Most narratives do the opposite: they present grey protagonists as fundamentally good humans ("his heart is in the right place") fighting the darkness within them. One mask hides, the other reveals.

Don's old habits die hard. But with every passing season, the demons €" of his childhood in a brothel, his Korean War days, his toxic interpretation of companionship €" look a little less ferocious. It can be argued that Don's heart, like the modern viewer's, struggles to straddle the bridge between the right place and the honest one. The series is focused on his conflict, not his cure, allowing him to exist in the vacuum that separates improvement from redemption. While his new-age counterparts are heroes who succumb to bouts of villainy, Don Draper is a beast who succumbs to bouts of kindness. His platonic bonds with Peggy Olson and Anna Draper €" the widow of the soldier whose identity he stole €" are immensely moving because they happen despite him. His rugged fondness for Roger and Pete is disarming. He isn't reverting to type so much as defying it. It's not wokeness so much as a remote awakening. Consequently, even the slight glimpse of compassion €" like the outdoor shot of a barn or battlefield, a cold Manhattan pavement, a garden party, a road accident €" makes the stomach flutter. It feels like the spiritual equivalent of leaving home without a mask.

Read more from 'The Viewfinder' series here.

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