‘Mad Men’s Misery Problem And How TV Can Handle Characters Who Never Change

Yesterday, my friend Matt Zeitlin tweeted: “The idea that characters are more realistic or human because they change substantially over time is, when you think about it, pretty LOL.” He was responding, I think, to Monday-morning quarterbacking of the last episode of Mad Men, a show which has given rise to an important and difficult discussion about two questions. First, what do the arcs of characters’ individual growth have to look like for us to invest in them? And second, what stories can we tell about characters who have significantly stagnated, as Don Draper seems to have at the beginning of the sixth season of the show substantially about him, which is scheduled to run for at least seven in total?

The television writer Ken Levine asked this question in a post exploring his reaction to Don Draper, in which he also touched on the way that Girls has doubled down on the unlikability of its characters in that sitcom’s second season. He wrote:

The hope was always that he’d figure it out, finally be comfortable in his own skin, and that all of his good qualities would rise to the surface and he’d become a better father, husband, employer, and stop wearing hats already in 1968. And if he slipped up a little, well – he’s only human and we’ve come to expect that. Betty is trying to throw Hansel & Gretel in an oven, she’s a lost cause. But there was still hope for Don.

Until this season. Now he has a loving wife, a wildly successful career, and he has become television’s biggest prick. It’s not enough he’s cheating on Megan, but he’s doing it with another woman in his building and he’s all buddy-buddy with her husband. They socialize together. He invites the guy to the office. What a fucking asshole! Meanwhile, he tries to destroy his wife’s dreams simply because they inconvenience him. He never talks to his children, even on Christmas. And he’s a cold distant boss to all his employees while still demanding total loyalty from them. Why should I care anymore about this miserable soul? Because he gets to his front door, slumps down to the ground, and feels sad?

And Ryan McGee, in a post about epochs of television that I don’t necessarily agree with otherwise, nailed this point:

That type of growth isn’t always linear, and it isn’t always pretty, and it quite often looks like defeat. Anyone rooting for Carrie and Brody to continue being the only sane thing in an insane world would have a hard time seeing the end of “Homeland”’s second two as progress. But it was still necessary for that to happen, not just for the storytelling of the show but also their growth as individuals. Hannah slipped something fierce after telling Joshua that she actually wanted to be happy, but that doesn’t mean her reunion with Adam at the end of the season was the end point to her ultimate journey. Boyd Crowder sees his dreams apparently squashed at the end of the fourth season of “Justified,” but neither he nor Raylan Givens traverse in pure misery. Both see a light at the end of the tunnel. They just are fantastically good at tripping themselves up on the way towards it.

There’s a third issue at play here, of course, the tendency towards extreme grimness in television drama, that’s even invaded a comedy like Girls, which other than the fact that it’s a half-hour long doesn’t seem to really qualify in a substantive way as comedy anymore. I think that this tonal shift is a response to one of the design flaws of many of the entries of the so-called Golden Age of television: the fact that the work that went into getting us to sympathize with characters who we’d find ugly, offputting, or even frightening in the real world could make it difficult for audiences to stop rooting for them when they entered downward spirals or abandoned their efforts to reform. The extreme darkness of Breaking Bad, for example, seems like a clear attempt to delineate the point at which viewers should stop sympathizing with Walter White and start feeling repulsed by him.

But I think it’s worth addressing those other questions, in part because they aren’t precisely new ones. We’ve always had a certain tolerance for characters who don’t change much, particularly in comedy. There, supporting players don’t need to have much in the way of arcs to be loveable—and in fact, giving them too much character development risks bungling up a show’s storytelling. On Cheers, Norm and Cliff work well precisely because they were an endless source of bad-trivia and domestic nagging jokes, filling the spaces allocated to them perfectly. Main characters can also stay static if their flaws are sustainable, and not so pronounced as to make them repulsive or dangerous: if Homer Simpson permanently wised up and became a Friend of Bill W., The Simpsons would lose both a core source of conflict and an emotional dynamic that’s critical to the show, rooting for Homer’s small victories. In other words, a character can stay stable, even if they haven’t achieved transcendence or even improved very much, if the needs of the show stay the same.

And the kinds of shows where those needs aren’t likely to change dramatically episode to episode and season to season case are comedies, procedural dramas, and serialized dramas, in that order. There’s no question that a procedural drama like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit had its characters change over more than a decade, but they tended to deal with the same core dramas, particularly Elliot Stabler’s rage issues and his problems with his daughters and Olivia Benson’s coming to terms with her own parentage and her mother’s neglectful treatment of her. Their character development served the show’s larger need to give emotional heft to sexual assault crimes and prosecutions. The order of priorities on a show like The Wire, which is also a procedural, but a serialized one, was inverted. The details of the cases mattered because of what they illustrated about the criminal justice, economic, political, and educational systems of Baltimore and the federal government, and because of what they told us about Jimmy McNulty, Stringer Bell, Omar Little, and Bubbles.

It’s hard to come up with a compelling procedural case or a new set of gags for a comedy every week. But it’s even more difficulty to map out extremely long arcs for characters, particularly in television where the amount of time you’ll have in which to do it can either be suddenly truncated or infinitely extended. And serialized dramas that dramatically prioritize the individual growth of their main characters are particularly at risk here. Where a procedural like Buffy the Vampire Slayer that focused substantially on character development could always smooth out the pace of a season with a case of the week or development of a big bad, a show like Mad Men that’s less formally procedural may start to look threadbare when Don Draper backslides or stalls out on his march towards peace or a dive out of a Madison Avenue skyscraper window, whichever comes first.

The question becomes, then, if the first five seasons of Mad Men were about demonstrating that Don Draper can’t change, what stories are left to tell about him? An obvious solution, suggested by Ta-Nehisi Coates and many others, is that the show simply shift its focus for a while to characters who seem like they can change. As someone who’s getting ready to pull a “Where’s Wallace!?” on Matthew Weiner in the matter of Betty Francis And The Hippies, I’m absolutely in favor of giving more screen time to some of Mad Men‘s supporting players. Another solution might be to find ways to shift the perspective away from Don, preserving him as a significant character in the story, but minimizing the extent to which it’s told from his perspective. We know how Don sees Ted Chaough, for example, as an obnoxious, obvious prankster who stole both Don’s protege and some important business from him. But how does Ted see Don? In last week’s episode, Dawn, Don’s secretary, offered a succinct diagnosis of the malaise at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, but we have yet to see much or any of her interactions with Don on-screen from her perspective. Does she like him? Is she irritated by his unreliability? Does she know he mentored Peggy and hope for something similar? What would it be like to see an episode shot from Bert Cooper’s perspective? In other words, the solution to Mad Men‘s Don Draper problem might be to treat Don less like a person to grow and be understood, and more like an obstacle for the rest of the characters.

“They have no budget. They have no time limit. And if you get into that space, you can run all day,” Don told Heinz of the potential for an ad campaign that can get stuck in consumers’ heads. But running all day in Don’s head seems, for many viewers, to feel as tiresome to us as it increasingly does for a man who’s smoking pot with increasing frequency and dreaming of ads where he wanders into the sea and disappears. Maybe he doesn’t have to leave the frame, but we could spend less time in his head, and more time playing in someone else’s.