Power-mad Men: Character Manipulation through Narrative Manipulation in Mad Men

In the second scene of critically acclaimed AMC drama Mad Men’s pilot episode, the protagonist, 1960’s-era ad-man Don Draper (Jon Hamm), knocks on a mysterious door and checks his watch.

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It’s soon revealed that Don is paying a late-night visit to a bohemian lady friend, Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt). “You weren’t worried about waking me, were you?” Midge says when she opens the door, smiling slyly at Don. Midge isn’t surprised by Don’s impromptu visit; by now she knows what viewers will soon find out: Don Draper is a man who is only late when he wants to be late. The only clock he runs by is his own. This point is reinforced when, the next night, Don takes the train from New York City to an impeccably decorated home in the suburbs, where his pretty blonde wife, Betty (January Jones) lies in wait. “I thought you were staying in the city again,” she says. “There’s a plate in the oven.” Don begins to kiss her suggestively. “Unless you’re not hungry,” Betty giggles. The pilot episode’s Don, the Don Draper of 1960, is representative of the gender roles of his era. He’s a man in charge, a man who can visit his mistress anytime—early or late—and climb into bed with his wife long after the sun has set with no interrogation. Just as Don refuses to sign an employment contract with the advertising company he works for, he refuses to sign a contract of sorts with any timekeeper in life. He is beholden to no one, least of all a woman, and thus he is powerful.

Fast-forward to four seasons later, 1967 in the show’s time. It’s a far different world, taken over by social change for minorities and women. Appropriately, we find a far different Don Draper. He is on his second marriage, having been kicked out and divorced by Betty. New wife Megan (Jessica Pare) is young and strong-willed, refusing to settle into the humble, wifely role Don is accustomed to. Don is now partner at advertising firm Sterling Cooper Draper Price—with a contract to boot—and the slick, nattily dressed ladies man is starting to show some wear and tear around the edges. Don’s inability to catch up with the changing times is perhaps best typified by a scene in which Megan encourages him to listen to a Beatles record. Don doesn’t make it through one song.

Mad Men’s writers deftly convey that the world Don seemed so in control of is beginning to bypass him through narrative spectacle. The show dabbled in nontraditional narrative techniques in its early seasons, largely through flashbacks and dream sequences, but as Don—and the show—age, Mad Men has become more experimental, narratively speaking. In the Season 5 episode “Far Away Places,” Mad Men loops back through the day’s events, retelling them from different characters’ perspectives. In “Mystery Date,” also a Season 5 episode, the show stages a violent, feverish dream sequence. Mittell writes that conventional television shows often use narrative devices like these, but notes that when employing such nontraditional techniques conventional shows “typically maximize their obviousness by explicitly signaling them as differentiations from a norm, predicated by expository narration (“I remember it well…”) or contrived scenarios (like hypnosis, courtroom testimonies, or recollections over a photo album) to highlight how the show is using non-conventional conventions” (16). Mad Men distinguishes itself as a complex narrative because it does not spell things out for the viewers. For example, some viewers and television critics assumed the dream sequence referenced above, in which Don kills a woman, was real. The show did not announce its intentions, but rather used narrative spectacle to force the viewer to engage on a deeper level, all while driving character and plot forward. By unsettling viewers’ perceptions of when things are happening or whether they’re happening at all, Weiner and company reinforce how unstuck Don is in time.

One notable example of narrative spectacle comes in the eleventh episode of Season 5, titled “The Other Woman.” In the episode, Sterling Cooper Draper Price is on the verge of a much-needed deal with Jaguar. When two of SCDP’s accounts men go out to dinner with Herb Rennet (Gary Basaraba), the head of Jaguar’s Dealers Association, Herb implies that SCDP will gain an advantage in the race for Jaguar’s business if he is set up with Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), SCDP’s office manager (and a beloved main character). Joan initially balks at the proposition, but eventually agrees to sleep with Herb in exchange for a five percent stake in SCDP and a position as partner. Don vehemently objects to the deal—whether that’s because he wants to guard Joan’s virtue or because he wants to win the account himself is arguable. He goes to Joan’s home and cautions her against taking the deal, seemingly convinced that they’ve agreed that she’ll refrain as he leaves her apartment. Director Phil Abraham foreshadows the miscommunication that’s about to be revealed by always obscuring either Don’s or Joan’s face in the frame during the exchange in her apartment. We cut to a series of shot reverse shots, with the camera placed behind Don’s shoulder or behind Joan’s shoulder, but are never given a two-shot where both faces are clear or even partially clear in the same frame.

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Abraham’s framing clues us into the idea that Don and Joan are not on the same page, a fact that is about to become painfully clear. “Good luck tomorrow,” Joan says as Don departs.

Once Don leaves, the narrative spectacle begins. We seemingly move to the next day and Don begins to make his pitch to Jaguar. As Don begins the pitch, he likens the car to a beautiful woman.

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“Deep beauty,” he says, “creates a desire because it is, by nature, unattainable.” Suddenly we cross-cut to Joan meeting Herb at a hotel room. “We’re taught to think that function is all that matters, but we have a natural longing for this other thing,” Don says in the pitch room. We cut to Herb giving Joan an emerald necklace. Don speaks further of man’s insatiable desire for beautiful things as Herb looks at Joan’s breasts and says, “Lemme see ‘em.” A few cuts later a disgusted Joan climbs out of Herb’s bed.

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Don delivers the kicker: “Jaguar: At last, something beautiful you can truly own.” We cut back to Joan, now at home, as she removes the necklace. Her mother enters the room and says, “Mr. Draper’s here to see you.” Only then is it clear that we have cycled back to Joan and Don’s aforementioned meeting, that he never had a chance to dissuade her, that Don Draper, for once, was too late.

This episode clearly deals with the commodification and objectification of Joan’s body, a message that the cross-cutting effectively drives home. But the narrative loop-de-loop, the reveal of Don’s lateness, also illustrates his declining authority, especially when compared to the Don Draper of earlier seasons. Just scenes before the pitch Don is angered when Megan seemingly places her career goals ahead of their relationship. “Just keep doing whatever the hell you want!” he shouts at her, but Megan is already out of sight. Don no longer has the docile wife; he’s groping for control over his own marital relationship. The pitch room is seemingly his only remaining sphere of dominance. Through reordering the story’s chronology, or the manipulation of what Mittell terms “discourse time” (5), the episode’s writers let us in on the dramatic irony of Don’s pitch: he thinks he has finally recaptured his dominance, but we know that, put crudely, Joan’s actions render his glory moment moot. Degrading as it is, Joan’s sexual bargain is a power play for both her and Herb. Don’s pitch, too, hinges on power dynamics. And yet, it’s Don Draper who, as in most of Season 5, is ultimately left powerless.

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