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Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Discussing characters on Mad Men

Yesterday I finished this show that I have been watching for the past six months. Mad Men is a period drama set in the 1960s about men and women working in a high profile advertising agency. Its an incredible TV show that is character driven and focuses on human psychology, moral complexity and subverts of cliches, much like two of my other favourite shows The Sopranos and Game of Thrones. All three of these shows are set in different time periods and settings, but they all deal with similar themes, and characters who are often unlikeable but relatable. This post is going to discuss several of the key characters on Mad Men, much like I have done with other blog posts. Long post; will contain spoilers.

Don. 'Mad Men's Donald Draper is the leading male protagonist of the show. He represents everything an idealized man should be; conventionally handsome, alpha male, beautiful wife, children, big house, and is the Creative Director of the ad agency Sterling Cooper. Yet underneath, Don is an extremely troubled man with a haunting past. His real name is Dick Whitman, and he swapped names with a lieutenant he accidentally blew up during the Korean War. Throughout the show we get glimpses into his past; he was an orphan raised by his Aunt and Uncle in a brothel, and its revealed he was sexually assaulted by a prostitute at the age of twelve. His mother was a prostitute who died giving birth to him and his dad died when he was ten. His Aunt and Uncle were also very religious, which seemed hypocritical next to running a brothel. He grew up on a lower class farm, far removed from his glamorous adult life.

These traumatic experiences haunt Don throughout his life; as we're introduced to him on the show we see him as this successful man who seems to have it all. Yet none of it brings him happiness. Whilst I do like Don for the most part and view him as a good-hearted person, he obviously committed a severe crime (identity theft), and is frequently unfaithful to both his wives Betty and Megan, which coupled with his emotional unavailability ends up driving both away. The show ends with the camera zooming in on Don's eyes as he meditates at a spiritual retreat, and then closes with a hopeful advertisement for coca cola. Doubtlessly Don wrote this ad, which represents everything he is by the end. He made peace with his former self - Dick Whitman - and realised that he now has grown into his life as Don Draper, and been able to create beautiful pieces of advertising art that can inspire others and draw them in.

Betty. Perhaps one of the most tragic characters on the show, Betty Draper-turned-Francis goes through a sad character arc. She seems to have it all; a handsome husband with a great job, two children, and a lovely house, not to mention her beauty is ravishing. Yet like most of the characters, Betty never really seems happy. She divorces Don due to his numerous affairs and his revealing of his past to her, and marries Henry Francis. Henry is a much better husband; faithful, loyal and loving (if at times controlling), but this marriage doesn't seem to bring her much joy either. By the end of the show, Betty is diagnosed with lung cancer, which is symbolic because most of the characters on the show smoke as smoking was 'fashionable' during that time period. Yet Betty is the only one who will die because of it - almost like 'dying for everyone's sins.' Betty makes peace with her fate which is one of the few times in the show that she takes control over her life. She seems passive and trapped, going about things with little power, but she actively decides that it's ok for it to be the end which shows growth of character.

Peggy. Peggy Olson undergoes one of the best character developments in the show. She starts off as this annoying, mousy, poorly dressed young secretary working for Don. Yet overtime she rises up the ranks in the company as a copywriter and then copy-chief, and gains the respect of her co-workers. Her fashion sense and haircut improves drastically, and she gains a sense of independence and inner strength whilst still retaining basic kindness and empathy. At times she can be emotionally tumultuous and irrational which comes across as irritating, but it also gives her a sense of humanity and reminds us that she isn't perfect. Also, by the end of the show she and Stan declare their love for one another which started as a close friendship and developed. I think this is nice because she is a successful career woman but she can also have a happy relationship.

Joan. What's funny about Joan Holloway in comparison to Peggy is that she seems like the character who will end up with a man and Peggy seems more focused on her career. Yet Joan subverts the traditional seemingly perfect marriage through her relationship and subsequent divorce with Greg Harris. Greg is cold, selfish and takes his wife for granted. He is crushed by his inability to succeed as a doctor which allows the audience to empathize with him rather than paint him as this cold-hearted man. He rapes Joan in Don's office, yet this is never again directly addressed and Joan would rather keep up the pretense then leave him.

There is a lot in this show about keeping up appearances to seem like everything is 'perfect.' Most of the main characters are part of a high social class that glamorizes cigarettes, alcohol indulgence and infidelity. Its interesting to note that while many of the characters are married or in relationships, few are actually faithful to their partners - men and women included. This represents a disillusionment with the way things are and symbolizes that they aren't as happy as they pretend to be. The only man who Joan is ever with on the show who seems to genuinely care for her is Roger, and I was sad that they never got back together, but I guess Roger was a bit too all-over-the-place and Joan wanted stability. Her story arc ends with her starting up her own business; a single mother yet successful, beautiful and independent. She is no longer going to be with a man who takes her for granted for the sake of appearances; she would rather be true to herself and be with someone who really loves her and appreciates her or be with no one at all.

Pete. Pete Campbell is an interesting one; I never know if I like him or not. I think Pete, like everyone else, is someone who is deeply unhappy and spends most of the show never really being satisfied. He is married to a beautiful, loving woman - I think Trudy is one of the kindest and loveliest characters on the show - yet like the other men he is unfaithful, and spends a lot of time working and being emotionally detached from his wife. I was surprised at the end when Trudy agreed to get back with Pete despite their prior separation; Pete's story arc ended with him, his wife and daughter going away to start afresh in the country as he went to work at a new firm. I hope this symbolizes that whatever Pete claimed to want was always in front of him - a wife, daughter and a job that recognizes his talents.

Pete is a bit naive at times; unlike Don he comes from a wealthy privileged background, and I think Don resented him a bit in early seasons because Don had to literally work his way up, whereas Pete was born into high status. Pete doesn't always understand the ways of the world, such as the episode where he encourages Joan to sleep with a client in order to cement the purchase. Don would never make Joan do that because he understands the world and human psychology better, but Pete just thinks short-term and is not emotionally mature enough to empathize with others.

Roger. Roger is one of the characters who has the best sense of humour, and who also is loving and genuine. I think Roger is a kind man who cares for those around him, but he's also a bit irresponsible at times and doesn't really think before he acts. He is this way with women but also in his work; he is the head of the company yet doesn't seem to do very much. He cares deeply for Joan but because of his scatterbrained attitude to life he is unable to truly be with her in the end, although he does leave money in his will for their son. I think it was heartwarming to see him and Marie together in the end, although I was initially confused and thought she was a bit nuts but maybe that was just in the moment.

Megan. I liked Megan a lot, although I think her arc mirrors Betty's and becomes very sad. She starts off as this youthful, optimistic, loving and beautiful woman who Don marries due to wanting a kind woman and a mother-figure for his children. But through her marriage to Don, who is unfaithful, emotionally unavailable and unsupportive of her acting career, she becomes cynical, snappy and addicted to cigarettes, just like Betty. Being married to Don ended up bringing out the worst parts of Megan, and I think Don knew that and felt awful. As mentioned earlier, Don is not a cruel man, but because of being unable to make peace with his past he could not fully commit himself to either of his marriages and ended up lying to his wives and indirectly pushing them away. I'm glad Megan separated from Don and suspect her acting career will flourish and she will meet another man who treats her right.

Sally. Next to Peggy, Sally has one of the best character arcs. She is an intelligent, curious and sweet child, but grows into a bratty teenager who is rude to both her parents, particularly her mother. There were scenes in Season 2 and 3 particularly where Betty was an awful mother to Sally, but this was due to Betty's emotional repression which she took out on her children, especially Sally. Sally is more than just a spoilt brat; she is mature, smart and grounded, and handles the events leading to her mother's death in a level-headed manner.

It's interesting that at the start of the show Betty's mother died, although we never saw her mother, and it ends with Sally's mother dying. Sally also represents the break-away from the traditional conservatism that her mother emulates; having primitive views about masturbation being 'bad', and insisting that a woman's appearance is the most important thing. Sally is a child of a new time, moving away from the values that Betty's own mother instilled on her about beauty and 'femininity.' But Sally also realises that being wholesome and mature is sometimes very necessary and doesn't mean you lose your individuality.

There are a bunch of other characters on this show, but to not make this post any longer I will leave it at those ones who probably struck the biggest impact on viewers and other characters. Do you like Mad Men? Who is your favourite character? Let me know!

Other 'character discussion' posts:

13 Reasons Why

Game of Thrones

Jane the Virgin

The Big Bang Theory

Orange is the new black

The Sopranos

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I'm Zarina Macha, an author, blogger, and musician from London. I write about stuff on the internet 'cos having opinions is fun -- if you want to join the games, please note your thoughts below. All thoughts welcome, even if they're mean (just no spam links please -- can't tell you what a liability those are to remove).
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