Sunday, November 15, 2009

Mad or Bat?

In an early episode of "Mad Men," one of Sterling Cooper's proles (I think it was Harry Crane) wonders aloud about his mysterious boss, Don Draper. "Maybe he's Batman," Harry laughs.*

Well, in light of last week's third-season finale, maybe Harry was more right than he realized.

SPOILERS FOLLOW for that episode (and for the series as a whole)...

... but first, I've been waiting a long time to quote this exchange between TV critic Alan Sepinwall and "Mad Men" star Jon Hamm:

[AS:] Before they cast Ryan Reynolds to play Green Lantern, I was saying to everybody that I thought you'd be perfect casting at that, but is that the kind of thing you would even be interested in doing?

[JH:] It's interesting. I was in talks with a lot of those people. Now they've tapped Mr. Reynolds to do that. And I think that's a really good choice. My thing with the sort of superhero genre is, it's a tricky balance to create. I think "Dark Knight" did it best, "Watchmen" did it fairly well. But whenever you're a superhero, you're literally a super man. You don't have any vulnerability, and that becomes very difficult to relate to, or almost becomes comically earnest. And I think there needs to be a second level, whether there's a darkness like "Dark Knight" or a sense of humor even. That can propel those things. If it's just guys in tights and capes running around shouting character names to each other and throwing fireballs, it almost becomes unintentionally funny. I would never say never to something like that, but there has to be a different level. And fortunately, there are so many amazing graphic artists out there right now that are writing these stories that have deep layers. Frank Miller obviously is one of them, and Alan Moore, and guys like that, but there's a whole new generation who are writing these new ones that are really deep and dark and cool and funny and superheroes.

[AS:] There are probably some people out there who would look at [Don] Draper as a superhero to them.

[JH:] Sure, there's a lot of that. He's kind of Mr. Perfect in a lot of ways, seemingly so.

The immediate irony of Hamm's position is that Don shares one major character trait with most superheroes: a secret identity. Born Dick Whitman into hardscrabble circumstances, Dick/Don survived a forgotten Korean War attack with his old life literally blasted away. He returned home under the name of his fallen commanding officer, eventually reconciling himself with the original Draper's widow. In time they became fast friends, although "Don" had to get a divorce in order to marry his current wife, Betty.

Naturally, Don's past has intruded upon his present on a few occasions. Dick's brother's visit ended tragically. Scheming account manager Pete Campbell discovered the secret and threatened to expose Don, but SC partner Bert Cooper dismissed the threat. (Bert later used the secret to compel Don to sign an employment contract which Don had been resisting.)

These all paled in comparison to the doomsday scenario of Betty finding out the truth, which she did late this season. Don came clean, pretty much, and for a while it seemed like the Drapers would be able to move forward together. Maybe that will prove true in future seasons (I don't see the show abandoning Betty and the kids entirely), but for now, Don has moved out, Betty is on her way to Nevada for a quickie divorce, and the show's focus has apparently shifted in favor of Don's workplace.

In the other late-season upheaval, said workplace isn't quite Sterling Cooper anymore. Rather, in a series of behind-the-back passes, Don and his partners have formed Sterling Cooper Draper Price, their bulwark against being absorbed into a bland, faceless Madison Avenue adscape. (As noted here, the agency which bought the old Sterling Cooper was responsible for Coke's treacly "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing" commercial.)

To do this, Don must repair his other damaged relationships, not just with Pete, but also to his protege Peggy Olson and his colleague Roger Sterling. This struck me as a very Batman-ish thing to do, especially since the Batman of the late '90s (and forward) had also surrounded himself with a surrogate family. In time-honored fan tradition, therefore, I will try to map Don's relationships to Bruce Wayne's.

Betty Draper is superficially similar to any number of Bruce's girlfriends who can't figure out why their date ends whenever the Bat-Signal lights up the sky. Clearly Betty's split from Don goes deeper than that. In Batman terms, she's Silver St. Cloud, who dumps Bruce after she discovers the truth; although Silver was more remorseful than Betty appears to be. Indeed, Betty is upset with Don basically for lying to her since they met. Don tries to rationalize this, asking rhetorically when he was supposed to tell her (first date? proposal? wedding night?), but no dice. Betty's reaction is a dagger through the heart of any secret-identity lifestyle, even despite her own fumbling attempts at infidelity. Still, we're not so much concerned with Betty here.

Pete Campbell is the Huntress/Helena Bertinelli, a rival of Don's who nevertheless seems bent on aping his methods and even going a little farther. I would say that Pete is Robin/Jason Todd, but neither Don nor Pete want to be mentor and protege. Besides, Batman admired Huntress enough to sponsor her for Justice League membership, and Pete is sufficiently forward-thinking for Don and Roger to recruit him into the new firm. (Also, Pete has the big clients they'll need.)

Roger Sterling worked his way out of Don's good graces over the course of this season, divorcing his wife in order to marry Don's 20-year-old secretary and thereby giving in fully to his midlife crisis. The sale of Sterling Cooper, and the prospect of facing an unbearably boring retirement alongside a vapid trophy wife, is the kick in the pants Roger needs to revive his old competitive spirit. Accordingly, Roger is Green Lantern/Hal Jordan, who gave into his more destructive impulses and had to prove himself to Batman all over again.

(Bert Cooper is Alfred, Don's older confidant who knows Don's background but doesn't care. Don doesn't need to mend too much with Bert.)

Finally, Peggy Olson is Robin/Nightwing/Dick Grayson, Don's number-one protege and the person who might have been the most wounded by Don's callous appraisals. Peggy started at SC as Don's secretary, but her ideas for a lipstick campaign led to her becoming a respected copywriter. This season, though, she was seduced (literally -- eww) by Don's rival Duck Phillips. Peggy realized she was becoming stuck in Don's shadow, and it was implied pretty heavily that she was thinking about going to Duck's firm. She stayed with SCDP, though, because she and Don both have tragedies in their pasts which shape their views of the world. (Peggy gave up a child for adoption between seasons 1 and 2, and Don helped her through it.) I suspect many "Mad Men" fans would gladly throw Don's marriage under the bus if it meant keeping Don and Peggy's relationship intact.

Now, I'm sure Don's personality and attendant relationships have a lot in common with other cold-on-the-outside characters and their ensembles. It's a simple way to humanize those kinds of characters. I stand by that Peggy/Dick comparison, though, even if it means Duck is the Starfire....

* [Considering that Harry said this in 1960, well before any of the major Batmania periods, I wonder if Superman, more popular at the time, might have been a better comparison.] Full Post