In “The Stone Guest,” Alexander Pushkin’s re-telling of the Don Juan story, the eponymous seducer asks one paramour, whose father he’s killed, whether she hates him. She replies that she wishes she could. Mad Men’s Don Draper fits well in the mold of a Don Juan, and it is easy to imagine him being addressed in such terms by one of his many lovers. While Draper is a man of much mystery, down to his very identity, one of his most enigmatic qualities is his likeability for other characters on the show. Romantically, he engages in frequent and brief affairs with the women he interacts with in his life, all of whom must be aware that he will not remain with them for long. He shows little more constancy in the workplace, where he is a prickly boss who unpredictably praises and censures his subordinates. This capriciousness, however, does nothing to prevent the cult of loyalty he inspires in his employees. Draper possesses a charisma that causes both fellow characters and television audiences to cheer for him in spite of themselves.
This strange allure is not restricted to the character of Draper, but well characterizes the viewer’s relationship to Mad Men itself. I greatly enjoy this show; indeed it is my favorite on television. I was thoroughly impatient at the year and a half delay between the fourth and current fifth season, and duly excited when the show’s return finally came. As I engage with the experience of the show, however, there is an amusedly detached part that notices just how cruelly Mad Men behaves. That is not to say that it is superficial or poorly produced; such criticisms have been levied by others, but receive no approval from me. On the contrary, I find the program well written, acted, and executed, and compelling in its elegant examination of a particular subset of society in a particular time. Rather, I marvel at the show’s ability to remain thoroughly enjoyable, without really caring about what I want to see.
I most keenly felt the show’s callousness through its recent hiatus. That is not to say the delay itself is particularly offensive; it seems to have occurred from entirely predictable disagreements between the studio and the creators. I am more surprised by the lack of perceptible negative response to this quarreling. I read few articles that judged them harshly, and in my discussions with friends who also watch the show, I found no one who was particularly piqued. This thoroughly unscientific search gives me confidence that I was not the only one who reacted with equanimity to the pause of my favorite program. Indeed, it is good that viewers did not demand an apology, for the show certainly did not supply one. As I watched the season premiere this past week, I marveled at the remorseless passage of time in the Mad Men world, which apparently did not stop with its filming. Life has advanced in our absence, as Draper has settled into his new marriage, and the financial situation of advertising agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has stabilized. Somewhat paradoxically for a show that recreates things past, it refuses to linger on its own lost time. This makes the show thoroughly watchable, yet also demands that the viewer remain strictly up to date with the events of earlier seasons.
Nor is Mad Men’s remorsefulness found only in its delay; even during earlier seasons it abused its viewer’s interest. Promising characters and plot lines would be suddenly culled, leaving vast areas unexplored. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this tendency can be seen in the finale of the third season, when Don abandons the old Sterling Cooper to found a new firm. Many of the old characters jump ship with him, yet not all are invited. Thus one loses several intriguing characters, such as writer Paul Kinsey, without even a backward glance. In this, the show seems rather reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s The Gambler, a novella hastily written, appropriately enough, to satisfy a debt. Here characters and plot lines are frequently introduced yet occasionally developed. While this story’s frenetic structure is somewhat compelled by the circumstances of its composition, Mad Men lacks this explanation. This accusation does not imply that the show is ineffective as a consequence; on the contrary, its ruthlessness adds both excitement and verisimilitude. Yet the entertainment Mad Men provides seems given almost unintentionally, as if it would exist no differently or less confidently in the absence of critical success. I eagerly await the remainder of the fifth season, yet I do so with no little trepidation.