In the much-hyped lead-up to its 2007 series premiere, AMC promised something big with “Mad Men.” At first glance, it seemed almost laughable that a network so far down the dial, and so rigidly identified with films from yesteryear, would try to create something cutting edge. It seemed, at best, like an awkward attempt at re-branding for a place once called American Movie Classics, and the conventional wisdom was that original programming of any kind would be a stretch.
But the network got our attention at the outset by name-dropping creator Matthew Weiner, a prominent writer from “The Sopranos,” as a way of generating some credibility. Now that AMC’s makeover is complete, and “Mad Men” has become the juggernaut, the network seldom needs to flaunt Weiner’s C.V. anymore. But his previous gig may provide some juicy clues about the fate of our tortured Mad Man. At the core of both shows are two essential questions: Does our protagonist have a shot at redemption, and does he even deserve it?
The exploration of Tony Soprano’s dual nature was one of the hallmarks of Weiner’s writing on that show (he even penned the famous season five premiere, “The Two Tonys”), and it bears remarkable similarities to Weiner’s examination of Don Draper’s double life. When “The Sopranos” premiered on HBO in 1999, Americans were still (surprisingly?) uncomfortable with antiheroes on television. We were fine with “Dirty Harry” at the movie theater, but not in our living rooms – and much of what drove that show was the anticipation of Tony’s redemption or demise. In the end, to the shock of pretty much everybody, that show (brilliantly?) delivered neither. In retrospect, maybe Tony never had a shot at growing or changing in a significant way; many ultimately dismissed him as a psychopath with little chance of rehabilitation.
Don, like Tony, is a powerful man living in a world where the skillful deployment of brute force and finesse are the keys to success. Although he’s surrounded by those who envy and admire him, he’s never quite sure who his friends are – or for that matter, what friendship really means. He is selfish, self-involved and self-serving. But luckily, he’s in much better shape than Tony. As discussed in previous “Mad Men” recaps, the arc of this season, so far, has been bending towards a reawakening for Don, as he gradually develops a new sense of self in a world that’s quickly evolving around him. But, as we see in his half-typed letter to Allison, he’s beginning to feel remorse. If Tony Soprano was a sociopath, Don’s merely a depressive alcoholic narcissist! And according to the shrinks I know, that’s a big difference, because he has a shot at change.
Don is beginning to see that his actions have consequences and is feeling the weight of a life poorly lived. This is real growth, and a sign that Don Draper just might find the redemption that Tony Soprano never did.