Don Draper is a distinctive fellow, equal parts competent and confident. Middle-aged, successful in his career, his beautiful family living in a beautiful home, he has secured what society wants of him and has made his place in the world. From the start, the audience knows that he is a person worthy of some respect.
While his life undergoes real changes in the four seasons after the viewer first encounters him, that sense of Don as an established man never goes away. And while he does a great number of bad things and a small number of truly awful things, the force and magnetism of his initial portrayal allows for an empathy for the character that often forgives those actions.
While that sense of allegiance may not withstand the burden of many seasons and too many misdeeds, shows with this kind of character at the center have set their anchor, and the audience’s investment of sympathy and respect in them can last a very long time. And there are quite a few shows that have this kind of figure: from Draper to Tony Soprano to to Jed Bartlett to Jack Bauer to Gregory House to Vic Mackey to Eric Taylor to Nucky Thompson, the established man may be the great recurring figure in television drama over the past decade. It’s also no accident that these variations comprise a majority of the enduring male television performances since 1999: with the right marriage of actor and character, the charisma and sure-footedness of this template makes for beautiful material to play.
For a man who holds himself apart from the world and those around him, then, Don Draper has many kin. Other aspects of Mad Men make Draper feel like a particularly refined embodiment of the concept: Jon Hamm’s restrained yet masterful portrayal, how he registers as a period archetype to a modern-day audience, and most importantly, how Draper himself is consciously playing this role, a sense enhanced by his backstory.
Beyond those details, Mad Men feels like a natural capstone to the past decade’s exploration of this figure because of how perceptively it grasps the ways in which having an anchor character like Don determines how the rest of the cast will function. Television shows aren’t one-man plays, after all, and like all successful dramatic shows the other major and minor characters on Mad Men are richly developed in their own right. Having a character like this in place, however, defines and circumscribes how the other characters will operate. The established man has a hand in or influence over the fate of every character, and their relationships, and the scope of their world, largely define the world of the series. (This only increases the charisma and bearing of the characters in question, and that indispensability is of crucial help in sustaining audience sympathy during times when they’re acting in very unsympathetic ways.) While this clearly carries many limitations, it’s worth noting how much richer the stories and interactions can be when the creators work with, and not against, the clear center of gravity.
Mad Men is, of course, carefully poised on a fulcrum between the old and the new, and one of its truly exciting qualities is how the series depicts the rise and ambition of its younger characters, the way their lives develop and their confidence builds as they grow to become peers with the adults in the room. Don and Roger Sterling (the past-his-prime established man) are, for all their constant awfulness, nonetheless the most charismatic and immediately likable characters on the show, and that sense comes through most clearly in their constant depiction as the clear-headed and competent types amid the rabble at Sterling Cooper, or as Alan Sepinwall calls them, “the chipmunks.” Mad Men‘s heart might be in characters like Peggy Olson, who you constantly want to achieve and succeed, but the immediate charisma isn’t there; we recognize them and appreciate them as striving potential and not fully-formed persons. Even if they haven’t reached the pinnacle of success, and indeed run up against some very real barriers, characters like Joan, a mature adult in her sensibilities and experiences, more immediately win the affection and admiration of the audience.
Mad Men understands how this works very well, and has from the start. Other shows happen upon the intrinsic attraction of the character who holds power, influence, and self-assurance more organically, changing noticeably as they progress—a subset of the general phenomenon of “breakout” characters who occupy more screen time than originally intended. The West Wing, which never really chose a main character in the Sorkin years, came to play more and more as a show about Jeb Bartlett, largely because such an immediately attention-grabbing character naturally came to define the rhythms and potential storylines of the show. This culminated at the close of Season 2 in the focused character study “Two Cathedrals,” which marked both the show’s widely acknowledged finest episode and also the irrevocable point at which Jeb Bartlett dominated its world not only thematically but in practical terms, the show no longer quite about the lives of people whose boss was named POTUS and more about “President Bartlett and his staff,” in that order. Even in a more abstract and inconsistent fashion, shows can develop similar rhythms: later seasons of Lost clearly acquired the sense that Benjamin Linus, John Locke, and Charles Widmere were occupying a very different territory and set of concerns (and in a gradually more “legitimate” way) than young guns like Jack, Kate, and Sawyer. Tellingly, Jack, Lost‘s own anchor, would become gradually concerned with the island’s power struggles, rather than Ben and Locke becoming concerned with Jack’s own life; characters with power and resources drive the course of events, the haves leading the have-nots.
Thematic concerns of the established versus making-their-way, or simply old versus new, aren’t exactly tapped out—I think generational concerns may have come up in Hamlet once or twice—but one consequence of the particular mold of the “established man,” or even the elder captain-figure, is the ways in which shows that concern themselves and orient themselves around young characters on the rise become crowded out. Especially with the memories of shows like Freaks & Geeks and Veronica Mars far in the past, which really did attempt to tell coming-of-age stories, television’s versions of these narratives often find themselves situated within larger stories where a more accomplished figure is the center of gravity. Think of even a comedy like The Office, where an elder character who runs things (Michael Scott) defines the space of the upward, evolving relationship (Jim and Pam), the latter a magnificent slow-burn of a couple growing into adulthood that nonetheless consistently saw interference from the show’s inescapable and often-tiring center of gravity.
This isn’t, for all that, a bad thing, either on the merits with a show like The Office or as a larger phenomenon. Characters that demand respect can grab an audience and provide the time and patience to grow younger, less immediately charismatic characters into adulthood. Further, the proliferation of these examples and their lengthy viability can shed light on the importance of the relative age and station of characters as a means of “reading” a series, and, especially, sorting out both its long-term prospects and in its storytelling accomplishment. (I’d submit, for instance, that much of the incoherence of Justified comes from the ways in which Raylon is an imperfect version of a Draper or Mackey, with the creators’ lack of control over the formal implications gradually sapping the lead of his appeal and the show of any sense of direction.)
And while I can’t offer the relative age and stations of characters as more than a way of thinking about and comparing how shows constitute themselves, this does suggest that television will find its most productive material in upcoming years in dramas that acknowledge how powerful these arrangements are and know how best to navigate their contours. A shared and exceptional genius of The Wire and Breaking Bad, for instance, is how both lend their anchor characters not the air of election but the brutal, hard-knocks desperation of wanting to make a difference even as their years advance. These shows have no problem with realizing compelling, accomplished figures that demand our attention and respect, yet they take very careful care to keep the narrative focus of their shows on characters that don’t have this kind of particular and form-distorting gravity. That control is evident even in the fourth season of The Wire, where McNulty receives far less focus, and the creators move carefully and beautifully to use the resulting space to tell the story of two other figures earlier introduced and then granted their turn to ascend.
Though this doesn’t lead me to believe that the established man has given all he can give, however, the extent to which Draper feels like a perfection of this concept may mark an endpoint to its short-term usefulness, at least until more creators can find a way to extend this template beyond middle-aged white men to women and minorities. The successes of the past decade nonetheless demonstrate that the television series with the quality and command that mark the highest level of storytelling are those with the surest sense of where they’ve placed their characters in both time and narrative, and what that means for where they will go.
As Mad Men heads toward a furious disruption of the status quo in the late 1960s, it’s uniquely well-positioned to show us how much can still be drawn from this same well and how the relative stability or instability of a show’s foundations can play havoc with the depicted lives of its characters. If we reach the point of seeing Draper in a world where he no longer represents what is there already—where he is no longer one of those who demand the fullest attention—Mad Men will have irrevocably altered its identity. In doing so, it would pivot in a way that not only deftly drives home its societal portrait but might point a way forward for the medium itself.