Mad Men Has Become a Bad Comic Book

Don's sad backstory may explain why he's a dirtbag, but not why we should care.
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I've been thinking for some time about this piece Emily Nussbaum wrote on Mad Men where she articulates the basic problems with the sixth season and, perhaps now, the entire series:

As the island was to "Lost," Don Draper is to "Mad Men." He was a great premise, a mystery we were dying to understand. But, the more the puzzle has been filled in, the more he's begun to feel suspiciously like a symbol, a thesis title rather than a character: "Appearance Versus Reality"; "American Masculinity as Performance"; "The Links Between Prostitution, Marriage, and the Ad Game." I'd hoped that the death of Don's California-stoner muse, Anna, two seasons ago—in one of the series' standout episodes, "The Suitcase"—would work as an exorcism, but instead Weiner doubled down, adding fresh flashbacks, to the point that even JT LeRoy might think that he was laying it on a bit thick. 

To recap: Don's real name is Dick Whitman. His prostitute mother died in childbirth; his dad, her john, beat him. His fundamentalist stepmother called him a "whore's child." Then his father got kicked in the head by a horse, and the stepmother moved in with her sister, herself a prostitute, living in a brothel. The stepmother, heavily pregnant with Don's half brother, prostituted herself to her brother-in-law, as the teen-age Don knelt outside her door. He watched them, through the keyhole, have sex. C'mon, now. This is no longer the backstory of a serial adulterer; it's the backstory of a serial killer.

We haven't even got to the part where Whitman goes to fight in Korea, accidentally blows up his superior officer, Don Draper, steals his identity, forms a secret relationship with his widow (she's motherly, yet also somewhat prostitute-like, since he pays for her upkeep), becomes a greaser, and seduces a model who is also concerned primarily with appearances. Eventually, he gets into advertising, and when his half brother, Adam, finds him, Don rejects him, and Adam hangs himself. It's not that none of this makes sense, or could make sense; it's just too much, overdetermined. None of the other characters has this sort of reverse-engineered psychology, and for good reason: it's a lazy way to impose meaning.

Reading Emily detail Draper's back-story, I had the feeling that I'd seen this improbable twisting and turning before—in comic books. We grant comic books that license because they are arched over decades, forged by different writers and editors. Some writers emphasize one aspect of backstory more than others, and whole events are often retconned into oblivion. Either way I don't think backstory is so much the problem, as the belief that backstory has more explanatory power than it actually does.

We are being told that Don is having an affair with Sylvia. Presumably this affair has some relation to the perversions he experienced as a child. That's a good start but it is insufficient. Why—specifically—Sylvia? Who is she? What, precisely, is she offering that Don simply can't get enough of? How does that particular character interact with whatever is going on in Don Draper's head?

This is not a new challenge. What made Don Draper's two affairs so powerful in the first season was the sense that both Rachel and Midge were doing something for him. Rachel and Don connected on mutual feeling of being a pariah. Midge was window into a world of nonconformity that has always intrigued Don—the representation of a path that an identity thief, running from a dysfunctional family might, himself, have taken.

And each of these characters were actual people. Rachel had a father and a sister and expectations emanating from each of those. She had her own thoughts on Judaism and Israel, ad ultimately, on what constituted cowardice and what didn't. Midge inhabited the falling world of the Beatnicks. And you had some real sense of that world—you got to see her friends, you got to go to Jazz clubs with them, and finally, you got to see her in love with someone else.

What other world does Sylvia represent, beyond OPP? Who is she independent of Don? What are the grounds on which they relate? Why did she agree to begin their affair again? Why does she like Don? Is it because he is the most interesting man alive?  Right now, all I am watching is the latest vagina Don Draper happened to trip over.

That is depressing. Mad Men's greatest strength was always the humanity it gave to women. You still see some of that in the interactions between Peggy and Joan. But this season has been mostly about making an argument, rather than telling a story. Whole arcs are initiated and then dropped. There are a flurry of characters, interesting in their own right, whose shine comes and goes. There's no focus beyond a kind of creeping amorality. (I think that's the argument.) Sally Draper's friend from the last episode wasn't so much a character as a demigod of chaos summoned up solely to fuck up Sally Draper even more. 

For those of us who once cared about Don, the big reveal lacked any emotional power. Here is a dude so low that he would bang his friend's wife while his own wife was upstairs, and go off on a drug binge while his house was robbed and his kids were held hostage. There's no sympathy left. He's a dirt bag. And I am fine watching dirt bags. But tell me something new about this particular dirt bag. Show me something about him that I did not know or suspect—something beyond, "Hey you know that dirt bag, really is just a dirtbag." There needs to be something more.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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