January 19, 2010

Don Draper and the Beauty of Being Human

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It was so easy when I was young to decipher bad from good. Adulterers are bad. Christians are good. Thieves are bad. Mothers are good. So easy. Then when I was in middle school, I met my grandfather - a feisty old man who diligently smoked, told us unbelievable stories from his Adventures in Life, and had more women than we could comprehend.

He would call us drunk on Sunday nights while we watched The Wonderful World of Disney. "Hello, Miss America!" he would slur, as my sisters and I giggled. He was a philanderer, a storyteller, an alcoholic, a generous man with a big heart, a skilled poker player, a champion boxer. I told my best friend about him once and she told me it was "sad" that I had a grandfather like that. Was it? I remember thinking that I shouldn't love him so much because of his faults, but I couldn't help it. I didn't think it was sad. I thought it was interesting and a little exciting.

My mother felt differently about him, and rightly so, as his version of fatherhood left her and the rest of the family alone and distant, fighting for normalcy in their lives in the 1950s. She loved him, though, and kept him in our lives once we became acquainted with him. He was a good man. With lots of flaws. Some of them hurtful. Some of them endearing. All of them human.

Don Draper, the central figure in AMC's Mad Men, is such a man. Easy to hate in the beginning, because of his constant sexual escapades and abandonment of his family. Then easy to love, as his character deepens, becomes enriched with secrets, history, pain and compassion. The traits weave together into one of the most complex characters I've seen on television. Played by Jon Hamm with a smoldering control of emotions, Don Draper is a hero and a villain in one. Just like my grandfather.

Peggy, Don Draper's secretary-turned-copywriter, similarly makes morally questionable decisions, making me cringe at times, cry at others. Her character, both pathetic and fierce, is stoic, showing almost no emotion, apparently outsourcing the task of feeling to the audience on her behalf. But there is something fighting within Peggy's character to get out - and while I was trying to figure out what that was, I became addicted to Mad Men.

Or more accurately, I became addicted to the complexity of the characters. I could go down the list of all the characters, all shown in a very human light, and weigh their good and bad qualities to determine if they are good guys or bad guys. But why? With few exceptions, human beings are not exclusively good or bad. With no exception, human beings are flawed. Most people are doing the best they can with what they have to work with. Very few television shows embrace humanity with such richness.

This show - Mad Men - is a beautiful show, no doubt you've heard. Beautiful people, beautiful sets, beautiful design. But the depth of the characters, the constant tug of war between good and evil within each person's soul, that is the most beautiful part of this show.

7 comments:

Jeff said...

Glad to see you've joined us on the bandwagon! Can't wait until next season. :)

Rhiannon said...

Beautifully written. And, oh my goodness, I love this program.

Radio Gretchen said...

Great post. It's such a rare thing these days to have anything like Mad Men. This year's season finale left me speechless.

I had an uncle who was a little like your Grandpa. Many of my relatives scared me because they were so proper, but Uncle Harold was real and talked to me like I was a person.

Erica said...

Love Mad Men! You're so right too...

Hey, It's Ansley said...

Hey, you're recapping TV shows. Didn't we just talk about that! Can't wait for more recaps. I need to catch up with you on Mad Men.

Take-a-Wipf said...

I vaguely remember you once saying that you couldn't get into Mad Men. Looks like it started to grow on you.

Shelley said...

You said all there is to say!