One of the foundational beliefs of TV executives is that audiences will accept any number of flaws in a lead character—we will, in fact, accept a protagonist who is a creep—as long as he’s good at his job. Not just good, but “the best.” That’s why so many shows are about leads who are great at their jobs but can’t get it together in their personal lives (well, that, and that’s the way writers and executives may see themselves), and it’s why most anti-hero dramas are about characters who are revered for being the best in their profession.
People put up with the misanthropic title character of House because he was the most brilliant doctor in the world. Walter White on Breaking Bad wasn’t just a manufacturer of meth, he was a genius at it, the creator of the best meth there ever was; he turned to crime partly because the criminal world recognized his greatness and the law-abiding world did not. And for most of its length, Mad Men has had its resident genius in Don Draper, who is portrayed not just as an advertising huckster but a huckster for the ages, who may be emotionally cold but is as good at packaging and selling emotion to other people as Hannibal Lecter is at cannibalism.
That seemed to change this season, and especially in May 25’s mid-season finale (“mid-season finale” is a marketing term created by networks to make it more palatable that we have to wait until next year for the rest of the season). Mad Men is one of the few anti-hero shows to test whether we’ll still like a character if he is no longer the best at his job or his skills are no longer valued.
Even before his arch-nemesis, Jim Cutler, dismissed him as a “bully and a drunk” whose reputation is undeserved, this season of Mad Men was about depriving Don of the one thing he could count on: his greatness as an advertising pitchman. Whether it’s because of his increasing inability to separate himself from his life and stand apart from the world (his downfall at the agency, remember, came when he broke down and told the truth about himself instead of making things up), or the changes in the world that make his methods less useful, he’s spent the last seven episodes fighting against the perception that he’s lost his relevance.
Don has been a diminished figure in all kinds of ways, even when the increasingly Kubrickian visual style of the show isn’t making him look insignificant. He’s got his jacket off a lot more and is working with people at the company in a sort of limbo, not quite their superior, not quite their colleague. His emotional connection to the firm is cut off when Bert Cooper dies (old guys in fictional companies tend to drop dead at inconvenient times). Mad Men sometimes seems like an allegory for TV writing, another position where creative work exists to sell products. Don now lives a life familiar to a lot of TV writers working out the end of a development deal: assigned to projects, given an office, but treated with obvious contempt and condescension even by the people who support him. He seems, at least for the moment, a little past his prime.
He also knows, and acknowledges, in this mid-season finale, that he’s not unique, that it’s possible for other people to do what he did. He passes the torch to Peggy, who offers up a true Don Draper presentation: the exploitation of anxiety about social change, the gooey nostalgia for an imagined better time, the co-opting of current events into the pitch, and of course, real details from her life to peddle a false picture that appeals to the client. This is Don’s way of expressing himself creatively, and now it’s Peggy’s too.
So Don is surrounded by people who can replace him, at work or, as with his ex-wives, in their private lives. He’s even got to deal with the ultimate symbol of humans being replaceable, a computer. We don’t know yet what Don will be doing when Mad Men returns from hiatus, or even what year it will be. But if the show continues this way, it will be the rare drama to try and make us identify with an anti-hero who isn’t better than everyone else. Will Don become a better person now that he has to find some new way to express himself? Or will he just continue to have hallucinations of a singing, dancing ghost?