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.