By Isaac Butler
One of the great challenges facing Mad Men as a narrative project is the essential opaqueness of its central character, one Mister Don Draper. This is also what initially made the show so exciting. Is Don a blank? A sociopath? Does he have hidden depths? Is he pure male rage?
As the show has progressed, we've see that one of the keys to Don's perpetual unhappiness is that he has constructed his life around protecting the secret parts of himself. This left him unknown, without real intimacy in his life, trapped in an unhappy marriage and unable to trust basically anyone, a cycle that only repeats itself as, unable to really confide in anyone, he hides greater parts of himself away.
The challenge this presents is that as audience we have some need to know what the heck is going on with our protagonist, and close-ups can only do us some good. In prose fiction, solving this problem is easy, there's a whole host of tools, from writing out his interiority to simply showing us how he sees things and what he notices, to narrating his thoughts, to metaphor etc. In theater, this problem is often solved through direct address.
Neither of these strategies are available to Mad Men. The Sopranos solved this problem by giving Tony a sounding board character in the person of his therapist. It didn't matter that he frequently lied to this sounding board, as the lies he told were often his own delusions about himself and that, in turn, was revealing. Breaking Bad solves this problem by having a protagonist who is unable to keep the secret parts of himself secret and by being plot driven enough that his actions can reveal his inner workings.
Mad Men, having used flashbacks to reveal Don's past, occasionally solves this problem by taking a page from the Sopranos playbook and using dream sequences and hallucations. . This latest season relied on two of them to let us know (a) that Don was worried about returning to his old alcoholic houndogging ways and (b) that Don felt guilt over one particular plot point in the second half of the season (you're welcome, spoiler-hounds).
The problem with this strategy is that it just rings false because the fantasy sequences are so on the nose, so obviously thematically related and so, well, clear. They're also used too frequently (a problem that dogged The Sopranos as well). I'm also unsure whether we really need Don to be explained in this way. Do we need the specter of a woman he used to sleep with hounding him through a fever to know his conflicts about his past and present selves? Isn't it more interesting, as we wait with baited breath to see whether cahnge will be fleeding or not, to leave the inner self burdened with this journey ambiguous?