How "Mad Men" Brought Back the Paterfamilias


It was a dramatic season 6 finale, but hardly the one that so many loyal “Mad Men” viewers had expected.  Don Draper, the charismatic but troubled alpha male around which the entire hit TV series revolves, didn’t take his life under pressure from the raging demons of his dark and troubled past. But he did take a huge fall.  His once-loyal senior partners at the Sterling Cooper ad agency all but fired him.  The final straw?  Draper’s remarkable over-the-top sales presentation to the agency’s new client, Hershey’s chocolate.  Initially in fine form despite a bad case of the shakes, Draper brilliantly conveyed the magic and joy of a son entering a candy store and receiving a Hershey’s bar from his father as a reward for good behavior.  But then a remarkable thing happened: inexplicably, Draper proceeded to deconstruct his Norman Rockwell-style sales pitch by telling the story of his own real-life relationship with the Hershey brand growing up the fatherless son to a prostitute in a Pennsylvania whorehouse.  Apparently, the hookers who raised him after his mother died used to reward him with a Hershey bar
if he managed to steal enough money out of their John’s pockets while they were busy having sex with the men.   Oh yes, he loved the iconic Hershey bar, Draper confessed, as Hershey’s stunned executives looked on, but not in the way most tender young boys his age typically did.

For Don, this was a different form of public “suicide”:  the deliberate sabotage of his carefully crafted persona as a cock-sure captain of industry striding through life clutching the world by its
balls.  Over 13 often harrowing episodes this season, viewers learned for the first time in
lurid detail just what life was like for young Draper growing up in that brothel, including his initiation into sex by a female prostitute that a feminist writer for Atlantic magazine recently described as a case of “female rape.”  The extended flashbacks from Draper’s bruised and traumatic adolescence have seemed calculated to give viewers a strong — and highly sympathetic — psychological explanation for his sometimes beastly character: on the one hand suggesting that he’s simply too damaged to sustain “normal” love but also pointing to the reasons for his surprisingly deep affection for many of the women he encounters, and beds down promiscuously, including the spouse of a neighbor with whom he carried on an intense and reckless affair.

It was his young daughter’s discovery of that affair in Episode 11 — she  actually catches her father in flagrante derelicto – and Draper’s dawning sense of guilt that appears to have been a catalyst for his sudden and unexpected turn away from his carefully concocted lie of a life. Another was an emotional plea from his chief corporate rival, Ted, whom Don typically does his best to suborn and humiliate.   Ted wanted to take Don’s place at a new office in California so that he could save his own marriage from the same kind of reckless behavior that’s destroying Don’s.  Don initially refuses, but after Ted tells him “I know there’s a decent man in there somewhere,” Don relents, knowing that his own desire for the slot in California was just another one of his patented, and increasingly desperate, escapes.

This is the beginning of a new theme in Mad Men that not only points the way forward for the series in its 7th and concluding season, but could well take it into new and uncharted waters.  Most popular cable series wind down in uneventful ways — the characters rarely develop further and the writers strive for an emotionally satisfying ending that will leave die-hard fans happy. Mad Men to date has managed to have it both ways with two different kinds of audiences: on the one hand, those who long nostalgically for the American glory days of the 1960s, when gender roles were clearer, simpler, and more circumscribed, especially for women, and on the other hand, viewers who interpret the show as testimony to the collapse of corporate patriarchy and the dawning of the modern feminist era.  For the latter group, Draper’s travails, and seeming collapse this season, was a kind of sweet vindication, and they’re anticipating the series to begin focusing more intently on the female characters, all of whom seem ready to come into their own in one fashion or another.

But fortunately, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner — who previously wrote the hit series The Sopranos (whose own alpha male star James Gandolfini coincidentally died last month) —  seems to have something far more nuanced and interesting in mind.  Rather than simply have Don & Co. fade into the background, he seems intent on shifting the show’s gender drama away from the workplace towards the family and allowing his charming but beleaguered patriarchs to shine proudly once again — but this time as parental role models.  Not only Don, who in the final scene is shown reaching out powerfully to his three children especially his distraught daughter Sally, but two other leading Mad Men, Roger and Ted, two of the senior partners who provisionally canned Don, are renewing relationships with their own children and preparing to show a side of their character that the show has largely neglected.  It turns out that these ego-driven men have real emotional needs, and rather than heartlessly abandon their families when they need them most, are willing to step up to the challenge — and lead.

If that sounds like a striking departure from so many contemporary television dramas, that’s because it is. In the family world of the 1960s, a mere 5% of children were born outside of a setting that included a father and mother living at home.  By 1980 it was 18 percent, and by 2000 it had risen to 33 percent. Today, the number is 41 percent.  The rise of the single Mom is part of the social landscape of our times, and men, it seems, are so far out of the family picture that writers like Maureen Dowd can write a book entitled, “Are Men Even Necessary?” and no oneeven bats an eyelash.  Father’s Day, once a proud counterpart to Mother’s Day, is not even considered a serious marketing opportunity any more.  And yet the culture, amid all the celebration of the “Super Mom,” is still starved for a stronger male presence, just as the nation’s children are.

In this context, Mad Men’s disturbing retro drama now has an opportunity to say something of lasting social and cultural value about shifting gender roles that have accompanied the massive entry of women into workforce over the past several decades.  Many of the women in the show, while seemingly victimized by male figures like Don, have their own abiding pathologies, and, some like Peggy, the gold-digging copy girl who seems desperate for personal recognition and power, and who gave up her love child on a whim, have suspect credentials as mothers. Feminist critics may rejoice that the Don Draper they perceive as a nasty borderline sociopath is finally “off the streets,” and that the show’s women will be freer to rise up the ranks of Don’s firm.  But that same role shift could end up casting a more favorable light on Draper & Co. as they eagerly step back into the role of “Daddy.”

The corporate patriarch, it seems, is dying a quiet death. But for some happy viewers, the era of the pater familias is far from over.

Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at stewartlawrence81147@gmail.com

Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at stewartlawrence81147@gmail.com

November 26, 2015
Ashley Nicole McCray – Lawrence Ware
Decolonizing the History of Thanksgiving
Joseph Grosso
The Enduring Tragedy: Guatemala’s Bloody Farce
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Imperial Myths: the Enduring Lie of the US’s Origin
Ralph Nader
The Joys of Solitude: a Thanksgiving!

Joseph G. Ramsey
Something to be Thankful For: Struggles, Seeds…and Surprises
Dan Glazebrook
Turkey Shoot: the Rage of the Impotent in Syria
Andrew Stewart
The Odious President Wilson
Colin Todhunter
Corporate Parasites And Economic Plunder: We Need A Genuine Green Revolution
Rajesh Makwana
Ten Billion Reasons to Demand System Change
Joyce Nelson
Turkey Moved the Border!
Richard Baum
Hillary Clinton’s Meager Proposal to Help Holders of Student Debt
Sam Husseini
A Thanksgiving Day Prayer
November 25, 2015
Jeff Taylor
Bob Dylan and Christian Zionism
Dana E. Abizaid
Provoking Russia
Oliver Tickell
Syria’s Cauldron of Fire: a Downed Russian Jet and the Battle of Two Pipelines
Patrick Cockburn
Trigger Happy: Will Turkey’s Downing of Russian Jet Backfire on NATO?
Robert Fisk
The Soothsayers of Eternal War
Russell Mokhiber
The Coming Boycott of Nike
Ted Rall
Like Father Like Son: George W. Bush Was Bad, His Father May Have Been Worse
Matt Peppe
Bad Policy, Bad Ethics: U.S. Military Bases Abroad
Martha Rosenberg
Pfizer Too Big (and Slippery) to Fail
Yorgos Mitralias
Bernie Sanders, Mr. Voutsis and the Truth Commission on Greek Public Debt
Jorge Vilches
Too Big for Fed: Have Central Banks Lost Control?
Sam Husseini
Why Trump is Wrong About Waterboarding — It’s Probably Not What You Think
Binoy Kampmark
The Perils of Certainty: Obama and the Assad Regime
Roger Annis
State of Emergency in Crimea
Soud Sharabani
ISIS in Lebanon: An Interview with Andre Vltchek
Thomas Knapp
NATO: This Deal is a Turkey
November 24, 2015
Dave Lindorff
An Invisible US Hand Leading to War? Turkey’s Downing of a Russian Jet was an Act of Madness
Mike Whitney
Turkey Downs Russian Fighter to Draw NATO and US Deeper into Syrian Quagmire
Walter Clemens
Who Created This Monster?
Patrick Graham
Bombing ISIS Will Not Work
Lida Maxwell
Who Gets to Demand Safety?
Eric Draitser
Refugees as Weapons in a Propaganda War
David Rosen
Trump’s Enemies List: a Trial Balloon for More Repression?
Chris Gilbert
“Why Socialism?” Revisited: Reflections Inspired by Einstein’s Article
Eric Mann
Playing Politics While the Planet Sizzles
Charles Davis
NSA Spies on Venezuela’s Oil Company
Michael Barker
Democracy vs. Political Policing
Barry Lando
Shocked by Trump? Churchill Wanted to “Collar Them All”
Cal Winslow
When Workers Fight: the National Union of Healthcare Workers Wins Battle with Kaiser
Norman Pollack
Where Does It End?: Left Political Correctness
David Macaray
Companies Continue to Profit by Playing Dumb
Binoy Kampmark
Animals in Conflict: Diesel, Dobrynya and Sentimental Security
Dave Welsh
Defiant Haiti: “We Won’t Let You Steal These Elections!”