This season of Mad Men hasn’t done much for me this season, something Sean T. Collins and I discussed at length in an episode of Bloggingheads earlier this week. But one scene has lingered with me, bright among the haze of marijuana smoke and misery: the sight of Don Draper taking a seat by himself at a table for two at Bobby’s summer camp, and watching his ex-wife, Betty, with her new husband, Henry Francis. The day before, Don ran into a newly-slim Betty at a gas station where they’d both stopped for directions, and the two of them had staged a sexual reunion in one of the cabins. Where previously, that might have been an act of self-loathing on Betty’s part, the way she sought out an anonymous stranger for sexual affirmation when she and Don were still married, and an expression of Don’s overpowering charisma, the polarity between them was reversed. Don sought out Betty, who in previous seasons had called him on the phone as if she missed him. And where Don had always meandered home from his sexual liaisons to a resentful Betty, this time Don was disposable, a fling, someone to indulge and discard. Like an inverse vampire, Betty was fresh, rejuvenated, and flirtatious at breakfast in the morning sun with Henry, while Don, stuck against the wall and in the shadows, seemed drained. The sexual power that had once been exclusive to Don in their relationship was now Betty’s, too. And without that advantage, Don was at a loss, experiencing, for the second time in the season after Sylvia broke it off with him, what it meant to be cast off as he’d disappointed so many women before.
The sequence, more so than any other image of Don looking drugged, or miserable, or at a loss this season, was powerful because it illustrated not just that Don is unhappy, but why he’s unhappy and unmoored. Much like Roger Sterling discovering that his smooth lines don’t work on a woman who’s drugged out of her mind, and for reasons that seem incomprehensible to him, has picked out a shorter, less impressive man for the evening, Don Draper is learning that, absent the forces that conferred extra sexual and economic power and freedom on him simply because he was born a certain gender, it’s a lot less fun to be Don Draper.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about the show’s heavy reliance this season on the characters reacting to the welter of historical tragedies that marked 1968, “Ostensibly, Mad Men is a show about ‘the ‘60s.’ But stories ‘about’ particular times almost never work. Stories about people work.” And the way to make stories about eras work is to explore what happens to very particular characters as they’re buffeted by world historical forces. That doesn’t mean that the characters have to stand in for their demographics — in fact, precisely the reverse. Details like Roger’s embrace of acid culture, or Joan’s decision to preserve the myth of Greg as her son’s father in part because of Greg’s service in Vietnam lends him a glint of heroism he never really deserved work because they’re human and particular, grounded in the characters we’ve come to know so well. But it does mean that the forces of history are more interesting when they’re writ large than when the characters are checking off boxes, reacting to political murders, racist assassinations, racially-demarcated riots, and protests against the war in Vietnam.Where those scenes spoonfeed us a historical timeline, there’s something much more striking about a character coming up against the forces of history in a tremendously personal moment, and trusting those of us at home to diagnose the problems that, for the characters we’re watching, as yet have no names. Don’s secretiveness, the unwillingness to show gratitude or appreciation, or to allow leeway to people that have so often marked his relationship with Peggy, and his treatment of women as instrumental were all characteristics that served him well in an era that’s passing. But a transitional figure like Bob Benson, whose shows of concern for his fellow coworkers have alienated the men who find them unfamiliar while winning over women who find them welcome, may be ahead of his time, but his time is rapidly approaching. Don, it turns out, is more sympathetic when he’s bewildered by the passing of an era than when he’s merely a particularly miserable SOB, flashing back over and over again to the baroque. I can sympathize with Don as a man who’s confused and overwhelmed by his declining privilege, his losses opening up space for a conversation about how much men’s gender roles need to be reassessed, too. But as an individual, I just wish he’d hit up Roger’s shrink.
That way of understanding why Mad Men has been both good and bad this season clicked while I was reading Rowan Kaiser and Amanda Marcotte’s meditations on the Game of Thrones episode “The Rains of Castamere.” Rowan argues that this was an episode where a key theme of the show clicked into place, that a patriarchal society asks impossible things of men as well as women: “As heir to Winterfell, and then as King In The North, he had obligations that had to be fulfilled, which included marrying for strategic gain — obligations that he didn’t keep. Marrying Talisa Maegyr instead of Roslyn Frey wasn’t his only shirked responsibility. His inability to maintain relations among his vassals led directly to his death as well, in large part because he was unable to punish his mother after she worked against him.” I think that, and his explication of the cruelty directed at Tyrion Lannister, are correct: the expectations for these men are cruel, and contrary to the conscience and emotion.
But something else struck me about the moment when Roose Bolton sunk a knife into Robb Stark’s gut, and the scene in which Tywin Lannister informed Tyrion that he would be wed to Sansa Stark to secure the line of inheritance to the North. Despite the buffeting both men have taken in their lives, whether Robb’s lost his father, or Tyrion being forced to participate in the gang rape of his wife, both Robb and Tyrion seemed surprised that life was meting out further cruelties to them. Privilege gave them a hope, no matter how slight it was on the darkest days, that they had a means of control over their lives. Robb believed that he could marry who he liked, throw his promise to the Freys out the window, and mend the damage afterwards. Tyrion believed that he could keep Shae. And both of them were shocked when they faced actual consequences for exercising that freedom, rather than conforming to the hard expectations set out for them. Sansa Stark learned quickly in King’s Landing how badly she could be punished for failing to conform to the role assigned her. It took her older brother and future husband far longer to realize that even men can be punished for stepping out of line. The tension in those scenes, for a viewer, is the same as watching Don sit sadly at the dining hall table watching Betty: we know why dreadful things are happening to all of these characters, even if they don’t, and our pity is awakened.
And Amanda makes an important point that, even if Robb and Tyrion overstep their bounds, they’ve long benefitted from the rigid gender roles that Westeros proscribes for men and women. “ Yes, patriarchy hurts men by luring them into its bullshit narrative about putting “honor” over more important things like love and human decency,” she writes. “But it’s not like they’re lured with phantoms. For men, the reward of upholding these unfair systems is that they are given a place of prestige and told that their lives matter — and that the other half of the human race exists solely to uphold and serve them.” The reckoning Daenerys Targaryen is bringing to that system, enforced by steel and fire, makes the rise of Peggy Olson and the liberation of Betty Draper look downright gentle as a result. Don Draper should snap out of it and count his lucky stars that he’s in New York in the 1960s, and that there’s still time for him to find a way to be a different kind of man.