The Tony Soprano-ing Of Don Draper: What Is “Mad Men” Doing?

Remember when Don used to be likeable?

Remember the first few seasons of The Sopranos? Sure, it could be dark at times, but the series tended to paint mob boss protagonist Tony Soprano as an explosively tempered, yet ultimately likeable family man who did horrible things for the sake of providing for his kids. And it helped that Tony’s sociopathic mother was held mostly responsible for his problems – paging Doctor Freud! (Fun fact: the famous neurologist lived and died long before the invention of the beeper, so this idiom is super silly, you guys.) Then, series creator David Chase decided that too many people liked and identified with the character of Tony Soprano, so he turned him from a loveable anti-hero into a truly violent, petty, and power-hungry goon, meaning that from around season three until the finale, The Sopranos became darker and darker and darker (and as a result, also not quite as good). And now, the same damn thing is happening in Mad Men.

Photo: Michael Yarish/AMC

In the first few seasons, Don Draper is a creative genius, haunted by a past and saddled with a cold Barbie doll of a wife (Betty), who is cruelly unsympathetic to Don’s past when it’s revealed who he really is (“I knew you were poor. I knew you were ashamed of it”). Disliking Betty (like Tony Soprano’s mother) made it easier to like Don, despite his philandering and lying. With foils for the audience to despise, both Tony and Don became flawed anti-heroes – but then Tony’s mother died, and Don got a divorce, and the women in both their lives (wives Carmella and Megan) became largely sympathetic victims of behavior that once appeared kinda excusable. Instead of victims acting out because of a poor childhood and an oppressive female presence, Tony and Don seemed to be behaving badly for seemingly no other reason than that they can. The result? The audience stops seeing them as guys struggling to survive, and more as just jerks who do jerky shit. And we like them (and by extension, the show) less.

By the end of The Sopranos, plenty of people were probably hoping Tony would get whacked. By turning Don into a similarly cynical and sociopathic narcissist, perhaps the writers are pushing the Mad Men audience against Don for the same purpose – to lessen the impact of Draper’s seemingly inevitable fall (BECAUSE THE OPENING CREDITS SHOW A MAN FALLING – WE ARE GOOD AT METAPHORS).

All of which is fine and all, but it makes the show a lot less fun to watch. Goddamn, that shit is depressing now.   

Get more Mad Men with Christina Hendricks’ gallery and 5 Life Lessons From Don Draper