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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

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

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