Tony Soprano… Walter White… Frank Underwood…
All three of these characters would be loathsome human beings, but, in the Golden Age of Television, they make for our favorite antiheroes. They are sociopaths with a body count between them that makes us ask ourselves why we root for them (or at least it should).
Don Draper ranks as one of the greatest among them, and he did it without killing anyone.
If you don’t know what to watch next, AMC’s Mad Men (2007-2015) is available to stream on Netflix.
No stranger to the antihero, series creator Matthew Weiner saw HBO’s The Sopranos (1999-2007) win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama in 2004 and 2007, when he served as their executive producer.
Mad Men itself earned the same award four years in a row, from 2008 to 2011.
Set in 1960s Manhattan, the period drama focuses on the hard-drinking Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the self-made creative director at a Madison Avenue advertising agency. Again, Don isn’t a violent criminal – his failure as a husband, father, and professional are what characterize him.
Meanwhile, all around him, the countercultural revolutions of the decade change life at work and at home.
An episode of Mad Men can go by without much happening, and its commitment to historical realism includes deadpan representations of the sexism, racism, homophobia, child abuse, alcoholism, and smoking of the era, which may be off-putting to modern audiences.
Though not for everyone, Mad Men’s slice-of-life experimentation with TV storytelling is complex with subtext. The setting itself is the star of the show, striking an unpredictable tone of crippling lawnmower accidents and nipples in gift boxes between the more mundane moments.
The aesthetic is a snapshot of the American Dream imperial capitalists at the time were propagandizing for the rest of the world in an effort to combat the global influence of communism during the Cold War.
Indeed, the 1960s may look glamorous on Mad Men, like one of Don Draper’s cigarette ads, but once you realize it’s only to sell a product that slowly kills the consumer, the glamour fades like the passing of time to reveal the social inequality and decadent consumerism lying underneath.
The fourth and fifth seasons are the crown jewels of the series, when the drama comes into its own, finds its voice, and develops its cast into their most dynamic.
One wishes, however, that Weiner were as ethical in his approach to Don Draper as he was with Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini).
In the final season of The Sopranos, Tony’s psychiatrist, Doctor Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), comes to accept what an irredeemable monster he is and condemns him in a scene that’s cathartic for anybody who’s ever had to “break up” with an antisocial personality.
Mad Men, on the other hand, features no such reckoning for Don. The closest we get is a phone call in the series finale with leading lady Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), who he manipulates out of chastising him for his selfishness, to talking him down off the ledge.
As a result, Don’s actions could come across as romanticized for the less-than-critical viewer. In spite of everything else, he is a successful, talented, attractive businessman with a tragic backstory that, for those who long to identify with him, could make him too sympathetic.
The ambiguous ending does not clarify whether Don is a changed man or not after his conversation with Peggy, which could mean he gets away with his narcissistic behavior one last time…
While Mad Men is not known for lending itself to easy interpretation, that’s what lends it well to re-watches – you can binge it over and over again and find something new every time. It is a powerfully honest character study of a man on the run, not from the law, but from himself.