The Masks of Mad Men

October 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

Upon reading a recent article about the role of women as central characters in TV shows, specifically Mad Men, it got me thinking about the show and work and life and what the show is really about.

In the article, they ask the question about whether Mad Men would be as compelling or popular if Peggy Olson, Don’s protege, was the lead character instead of Don.

To which, I answer simply: No.

Why? While the central plot line through the show has mostly been “Who is Don Draper?”, that’s not what the show is ultimately about. It’s about masks. Don’s mask is more interesting and somehow, more relatable than Peggy’s.

Masks

The central tension in Mad Men is the masks they all wear. We see deep inside each character’s actions and then we see their interactions as they hide what’s inside.

Don with his philandering, drinking, workaholism, and his mysterious past all butting up against his reputation and family life.

Roger Sterling with his family inheritance, drinking, and womanizing pushing up against his desire to put on an air of credibility and infallibility.

Pete Campbell with his holier-than-thou attitude and domestic aspirations coming face-to-face with his sense of entitlement, smarminess, and affair with Peggy.

Peggy Olson with her career, desire to grow independently, yet hiding her pregnancy from Pete, and becoming whoever she needs to be for whatever boyfriend she gets (going so far as to act as if she a virgin).

Joan with her blend of social intelligence, control, and put-together perfection—all while she’s had three abortions. (The most recent being one that happened in an affair with Roger while her husband is in Vietnam.)

Bert Cooper has his masks as well. He comes off cultured, refined in a 1950s-meets-Eastern culture way. But we learned recently he used to be a bit of a womanizer himself before he literally had his testicles removed. Who is this guy really?

The firm of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is one big mask as they try to appear stable while the ground is falling out from underneath them.

The mask of advertising: Attempting to sell someone a thought or feeling that may or may not be real so that they, too, can wear that mask for others.

Masks.

Rarely has a show delved so deeply in to the contradiction between who we present we are versus the reality of who we are.

Don’s masks are probably the most unique of them all, if not the deepest. If Mad Men were about anyone else, that character’s masks would have to be deeper, more interesting, or more relevant today than Don’s. That simply doesn’t exist with any other character on Mad Men than it does with Don.

For those who watch Mad Men, we know that Peggy’s struggles are the most closely aligned to Don’s. Yes, she’s a very interesting character I want to know more about. But her struggles are tied more closely to a period-specific set of troubles, which changes everything.

MIx It All Together

If Mad Men were a show about Peggy Olson, it wouldn’t be Mad Men. Her external circumstances of being in a male-dominated world would be immediate and pressing—and largely out of her control. This is depressing and frankly, Mad Men is depressing enough already. Mad Men with Peggy as the central character would be a different story, one that would likely be about her triumph in the face of her cultural circumstances. Again, that’s a different show.

Don’s circumstances, on the other hand, are largely of his own doing, his own demons. Yet it’s mostly in his control, free of the cultural oppression of the times. However, he is not free from the culture in which he lives.

That is where Mad Men gets interesting. You mix the masks with the 50s & 60s culture and it forms a toxic, exciting soup to taste. As viewers, we get to see both sides of all their lives, so out there, obvious, sinful, and yet still beholden to the decorum of their day. To our modern senses, it creates a heightened reality that leaves no doubt as to the tension, the masks.

Today, we all wear masks to get forward in the world. Same as it ever was. We may have exchanged daytime drinking for daytime running. Smoking for yoga. Office affairs for online affairs. Steak for sushi. We may feel better physically, but we are no less beholden to our culture than Don or Peggy or Roger or Bert was by theirs. We may be more Puritanical, but we are no more pure.

The difference is that, today, men and women often stand shoulder to shoulder in the workplace. (I have worked for many female bosses.) Further, with facebook, twitter, email, and everything else, our work lives and professional lives are constantly crashing into each other. We may wear our masks more subtly, but we also rarely get a break from them. We are acutely aware of our own masks, yet we are unsure that others wear them, too. But, we all do.

This is why Don Draper is the central character and not Peggy: Don’s struggles and his masks more closely reflect the broad spectrum of today’s masks in society than do Peggy’s. This is a good thing. The best thing, actually.

Sure, Don comes from nothing, he hides his past, and drinks, smokes, and has sex in ways that only James Bond could relate. But more and more women today wear the Don Draper mask than the Peggy Olson mask: The balance of work, life, family, and the suffering of choices not limited so much by external circumstance as much as by their own choices, for good or ill. We can relate to Don even as our jaws drop at his actions.

The best thing, it turns out, is to fail of your own doing, and to relate to that—not because someone stopped you for no good reason. The best thing, in this case, is that women are more able to relate to Don Draper than ever before, not Peggy Olson.

Mad Men, indeed.

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