Over the last few months, I’ve been spending my after-hours walking leisurely through the first four seasons of Mad Men on Netflix streaming. Obviously, like everybody else, I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly, but I’d prefer to refrain from waxing eloquent on its elegant style, its pitch-perfect dialogue, or the show’s most unique feature – the idiosyncratic slow-burn, almost plot-less pace (of which many words could be very well spent, I might add). Instead, I’d like to address the dramatic relationship of Don and Betty Draper.
I’ve made it up to the very beginning of season four, and as far as I see it, the main couple’s dynamic is fairly evenly split: season one focused on Don’s sexual and otherwise deceitful escapades paired with Betty’s noticeable innocence; season two centered around Betty’s growing dissatisfaction with her married life and her penchant for taking it out on the kids; and season three culminated with the entire family’s breaking apart slowly until the exposing of Don’s secret past was able to retroactively validate the snowball of destruction that had destroyed any further possibility of Draper family unity. This phenomenon is best seen in an episode in season three where each of the family members quietly abuses the person one-rung lower on the hierarchy: Don violently grabs Betty’s notebook to write down an address, Betty silently moves Sally out of the way to use her mirror, and Sally goes all De Niro on poor unwitting Bobby. To make the truism stick, I was simply waiting for Bobby to kick the dog!
In season four, Betty has divorced Don and forced him to move out of the house, so it seems an ideal time to carefully measure out their wrongs, to weigh the scales of their injustices. What seems clear to me at this point, however, is that the balance of justice is skewed largely by the weight of the particular infractions. Don has done everything wrong in this series of events: he’s cheated several times, lied about a great number of things, and been an altogether uncaring and hapless parent and husband. But he does it with class. There’s almost an authenticity to his Janus-face. Betty, on the other hand, acts like a stubborn child throughout, whining, complaining, and being altogether bitter about her current station. She’s not being honest about what she really wants (proven by her insistence on staying in Don’s house – she just wants the same unrealistic family ideal, but with a replacement husband).
This reminded of a phenomenon Zizek spoke of in some book or lecture, the origin of which escapes me now. He references the historical fact that post World War II films universally obeyed a sort of moral structuring principle: not only would the Allies be the good guys and the Nazis be the bad guys, but they would be so all the way down. In the big picture, the Allies fought for the right cause: to stop the evil rise of the Third Reich, but in order to make that scenario cinematically plausible, they would need to be portrayed as the kind of people that do the right thing, that is, honest, caring, and basically good to the core. Likewise, the Nazis would need to be understood as the kind of people that do the horribly wrong thing, so we would witness them engage in petty evils like backstabbing, lying, and an altogether vicious nature, rotten to the core. The Manicheanism is obvious, and it betrays the simple ontology in the background of the narrative: a person or a people are a united something. For Zizek, what would have been really interesting, and presumably more analogous to an ambiguous reality, would have been a scenario where the Nazis were the ones who felt a strong kinship with their brothers, held themselves to a high moral standard, and manifested a pleasant nature even while committing known atrocities, whereas the Allies traded in the sort of debauchery and moral callousness normally associated with opposing parties. Yet all the while, from a cinematic point of view, their opposition to the Nazi evil was still unambiguously correct. The Allies aren’t authentically good down to their respective cores, but their basic trajectory is righteous, their principle acts have moral weight. The Nazis, however, feature all the social graces, and this in no way inhibits their becoming monsters. This would have been a story worthy of the label “drama.”
What seems clear to me at this point is that Don and Betty occupy these latter two structurally uncertain poles. Ignoring Godwin’s Law for a moment, Don takes the role of the central wrong-doer: he’s done every kind substantial and material misdeed of which one can think, yet the grace and seeming authenticity of his demeanor convinces us of a certain goodness to his character – “he doesn’t really mean to hurt anyone after all, I mean, how could he, right?”, we ask with trepidation. His is Arendt’s banality of evil, but privatized and packaged for familial consumption. Meanwhile, Betty’s wrongs are almost incalculable, and not because they are too numerous to mention, but because, individually, they are lacking in any meaning. She is parallel to the Allies in Zizek’s bizarro war film: engaging in various annoying idiosyncrasies and displaying a temperament unfitting for a prospective heroine. She whines and complains about every little thing, desires nothing but the most superficial of pleasures, and is driven by romantic ideals which she is entirely unwilling to admit to herself or others. She’s disdainful, but even so, I would argue that we must root for her. I do not mean that we should root for her personally, as in wishing for the downfall of Don and the realization of her dreams (to follow Zizek, this would only actually ruin her, as happens when the false desires of the Imaginary are fulfilled), but that we should follow the aforementioned logical re-structuring and re-frame the narrative to fit a more ambiguous, and yet centrally moral claim, something I think the creators of Mad Men hint at occasionally (and since all they ever do is hint, I’ll take that as equivalent to heavy-handedness). It’s the re-situating of the ethical coordinates that’s in view here, and great stories become great by forever altering the way we understand the world. If nothing else, understand me to be saying that this is great television, and honestly the greatest form of drama.