Tuesday, August 26, 2008

First Thoughts About Don and Sex

Several of you have commented behind the scenes that you don't think that Don Draper is an antihero. So I want to revisit this topic a little, maybe explore it a little more in depth, and share with you some of the analysis that led me to conclude he's an antihero. Not everyone will agree with this, of course, and that's okay. This kind of analysis is always subject to interpretation.

Spoiler Alert

Before we proceed I want to make it very clear that this post will be full of spoilers. If you don't want to know the plot twists, don't keep reading.

Protagonists and Their Spouses

One of the strongest pieces of evidence that Don is an antihero can be found in his relationship with his wife. He cheats on her, and then when he's done cheating on her, he cheats some more. Speaking in generalities, how do different protagonist types handle the issue of marital fidelity? Do they cheat?

Romance Hero -- "I see only one woman, a woman so beautiful and infuriating that she claims every bit of my attention. I may have had sex with other women in the past, but any attempt to do so now, if I were even foolish enough to try it, will only result in my humiliation when I can't perform."

Tragic Hero -- "I want to be a good and faithful husband. Events conspired against me, and I cheated on my wife with my mother/sister/daughter/a nun. And now I will die."

Tragic Hero, Part 2 -- "I want to be a good and faithful husband. I made a mistake, and I cheated on my wife. Now my wife left me, I lost my job, someone dinged the left fender of my Buick, and my dog is dead. And it's all my fault."

Action Adventure Hero -- "I'm a lone wolf. I may have loved in the past, but it ended badly, and now I keep to myself. I might have a new lover in every book. But I'm not married, and probably never will be."

Women's Fiction Hero -- "I loved my wife. She died. Will you be my new wife? I know your first husband left you for a 22-year-old aerobics instructor, but I'm not like him. I'm a nice guy. I'll even wait for you while you have a rebound fling with that totally inappropriate guy."

Thriller Hero -- "Wife? Who's got time for a wife? I have to find the killer, stop the bad guy, avoid the cops, find a relic, escape from a collapsed tunnel, and learn how to fly a Cessna, all in the space of 24 hours. And I have no one to help me except this incredibly beautiful and incredibly intelligent young woman. Hey! Where did she come from? Maybe I should have sex with her."

Thriller Hero, Part 2 -- "Of course I'm married. Too bad for you. You may know things about me that I will keep secret from my wife until my dying day, but I am far too noble and magnificent to break my word."

Don Draper -- "Of course I'm married. It's all part of the master plan to make people think I'm normal. But I treat my wife like an accessory, I disappear for days at a time, and I sleep with anyone who catches my fancy. When I get caught cheating, I promise to be a better husband, but I am miserable and occasionally impotent. Obviously I'm better off sleeping around, even with a woman I despise."

As you see, a character's sexual behavior can be used to demonstrate something about the nature of that character. While we recognize that a character can still be heroic whether married or single, and while we recognize that heroic characters may go through different stages in their sexual lives, in general we expect married heroic characters to honor their marriage vows. And if they don't, we expect there to be consequences -- ranging from broken homes to broken fenders.

So let's take a look at Don Draper. Actually, before we do that, let's remind ourselves that the author of Mad Men is also the author of the Sopranos. Despite my perverse and abiding love of Mafia stories, I never watched the Sopranos, but my understanding is that people felt a lot of sympathy for the main character. He did bad things. He got away with them. We felt sorry for him.

A similar effect is being created with Don Draper and his marital infidelities. I think we can all agree that cheating on a spouse is a bad thing, just as murder and robbery are bad things. (Ignore for a moment the issue of motivation. We're talking about the act itself, not the reasons behind it.) So first Don Draper sleeps with Midge, and then he has that brutal affair with Rachel Menkin, and then in season two, despite apparent promises to his wife, and despite not even liking the woman, he has an affair with Bobbi Barrett.

Don Draper does a bad thing when he cheats on his wife. He gets away with it right up until the last moments of the last episode of season one. In season 2, Don starts out faithful. He's also miserable. He comes home every night, but he isn't happy to be there. His misery begins to manifest in high blood pressure and even on occasion impotence. So what are the consequences for his infidelity? Well, his wife is ticked off at them, but she doesn't throw him out. She just demands that he live up to his vows, which is not an unreasonable demand.

But the consequences of fidelity, the consequences of being a family man who comes home after work every night -- those are perilous. They cut right to the heart of his manhood and threaten his health.

If in usual circumstances a hero will not cheat on his wife, and if a hero who does cheat on his wife is exposed to negative consequences, then what we have here is a reversal of audience expectations. What other type of protagonist undercuts audience expectations? The antihero. Antiheroes fail to act when action is required. They wallow in angst. They do things that they shouldn't do, even though they know they shouldn't do them. They ignore consequences, they dodge consequences, or they accept consequences with a churlish shrug of the shoulders. Those of you who have been watching Mad Men can probably see how Don does exactly that, over and over.

Someone privately suggested to me that it was okay for Don Draper to cheat on his wife because the entire atmosphere at Sterling Cooper is so highly sexualized. We'll talk more about that next time.


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