Character Development and the Problem of Mad Men

I used to be a Mad Men fan. Not for long. A year, maybe, or however long it took me to binge-watch the first four seasons on Netflix Instant. By the time the fifth season hit AMC, I was totally caught up and entirely losing interest. I lasted half a season before I realized the show had become work, that I was counting the minutes until an episode ended so I could move on to something else, and I deleted the subscription from my DVR before disinterest turned to hate.

The thing is, for as fast as I crashed out, I loved the show’s early seasons. I loved them even though I didn’t want to. I started episode one more so I could be a part of the conversation than because I thought it’d be for me. (I do this sometimes. I still remember the uneasy months spent reading the entire Twilight series. I wish I didn’t.) The show won me over almost instantly, drew me in and pushed me from episode to episode like only the best-made drama can. And yet, as I said, I stopped.

Why? Mad Men didn’t go off the rails, as some shows do. It didn’t even get worse, exactly. The writing, direction, acting, and production values in the season that chased me off were as high as they were when I started watching. I wrote off my loss of interest as a refutation of showrunner Matt Weiner’s thesis that “people don’t change”. Which, sure, is kind of a shallow idea to base a long-running show around, but it’s not like theses I disagree with can’t result in great drama. It had to be more.

While I tried to unravel why I’d left, I killed some time trolling, as I do:

Anyway.

Getting to the bottom of your problems with a work is an important skill as an artist. If you can unpack why something didn’t click, you get a better sense of yourself, a better handle on your own processes. If Mad Men didn’t work for me even though I thought it was a great show, going past the easy surface answer would teach me something I needed to learn.

And it did. Finally, today, as I sat miserably in traffic, disparate pieces of writer-thoughts found each other and combined their powers, Captain Planet style, into a lesson I needed to learn. A lesson I figured I’d pass along, because the best way not to forget something you learned is to explain it to someone else. (Bonus meta-advice!)

So, let’s talk Character Development.

We all know it’s really important, right? That it’s the lifeblood of your story and all that stuff? Yeah? Cool, moving on…

The way I see it, there are two types of character development. The first type is the series of changes a character goes through as the story progresses. Character starts here, has some things happen to her (mostly bad, but some good), reacts to those things, changes because of her reactions, and comes out the other side a (maybe slightly) different person. The character has been developed! Huzzah!

This is, generally speaking, what blowhards who give you their endless, interminable writing advice (no, I don’t spend much time looking in the mirror, why do you ask?) are getting at when they yell at you to do moar character development!

But that’s not the only way to develop a character. See, while I have problems with Weiner’s philosophy that people don’t change, there are a lot of books and shows and films that tell great stories with characters with little to no character growth. If character development is so important, how the hell are they pulling that off? By using the other kind of character development, of course.

The second way to develop a character is to change the audience’s perception of them. Instead of having events change who the character is, you use those events to force them to reveal things we (the audience) didn’t know. Think of Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the first season he seemed like a stereotypical British academic; all tweed and no toughness. Then, in season 2’s “The Dark Age”, we learned about the dark magic he studied in his youth and how it bit him in the ass. Giles himself wasn’t a different person by the end of the episode, but we saw him differently. Subjectively, from our points of view, Giles was now a different person. Character development achieved! Huzzah again!

Most shows use a mix of both, but it’s the second kind of  development that early Mad Men primarily used. Think of the first episode, where we follow Don as he goes to work, visits who we think is his girlfriend, and generally lives the life of a playboy bachelor dude. Until, at the end of the episode, Don goes home…and there’s his family. The man we thought Don was turned out to be very different from his actual self. It’s a trick the show pulled on us a lot in the early seasons, regularly peeling back layers to reveal Don to be someone other than who he seemed. And it worked! Don was compelling not because of where he was going, but from where he’d come .

Which brings us back to how I used to be a fan of Mad Men.

There comes a point when you’ve peeled back all the layers there are. You’ve shown who a character is. You’ve shown why they are and how. You’ve drawn the audience as clear and nuanced a picture as you can manage. What do you do then?

Well, usually, when you’ve developed a character to that point, it’s the end of the story (or at least a significant phase of it). In Don’s case, once he’d run out of new things to show us, it was either time to exit stage left or start reacting to the pressures of his life by becoming someone new. In other words, character arc or GTFO.

Season 5 Mad Man did neither. Don stayed who he was (that was, after all, the show’s thesis), which meant he stayed exactly the person we thought him to be. Life got crappier around him, he got less happy and less in control, but the development slowed to a crawl. The show, like Don himself, became static and staid. Without either kind of character development to grab onto, I lost interest and wandered away.

If your characters don’t change, there’s a good chance your story is dead. But they don’t have to change from their points of view. They can change in the audience’s perceptions by revealing themselves to be different than they seemed on the surface. They can reveal things under pressure that we would have never seen otherwise. That reaction doesn’t need to be new to them. Only to us, the audience.

I stopped being a fan of Mad Men because, as far as I was concerned, I’d reached the end of my journey with Don. I knew everything about him I was likely to learn, and seeing someone I had the measure of fail to change for three more seasons wasn’t something I needed. The story was over. Time to move on.

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5 Responses to Character Development and the Problem of Mad Men

  1. Nice! And I get it, even though the show was only ever a little bit about Don, for me. You’re definitely not alone in feeling like the last few seasons are getting repetitive, although I haven’t found them so. The characters (including Don, though not him primarily) just fascinate me, and I love watching them… react, I guess. I had not thought much about change / growth until other people started to complain about the lack of it. If I make myself think of it, then OK, Don and Joan especially are characters who kind of stay who they are while the times, and their lives, change around them. Betty too. Maybe Peggy is my favorite character because she *does* change and grow so much, and the end of last season gave us such a beautiful final Peggy moment (but won’t spoil it without your say-so, in case you go back to the show!). I’m Very Excited about the next season. Maybe I should live-tweet it all AT YOU, so you can get the gist without watching! ;)

  2. Eric Sipple says:

    I completely agree about the fascination of watching them react. This was a weird show-quit for me, because I found myself enjoying any given moment of the show a lot, but became frustrated by the sense that there was no longer a bigger picture. The writing stayed so strong, and there were a number of scenes in season 5 that I loved. Usually when I quit a show it’s became I’m angry. This was the rare case where I simply walked away because there wasn’t enough to keep me, but lots that I missed.

  3. samatwitch says:

    I watched a few episodes of “Mad Men” when it first started, primarily because Christina Hendricks, Vincent Kartheiser and Elizabeth Moss were in it. Unfortunately for me, it pushed too many of my buttons and I only lasted about three episodes. I lived through that time and I knew people like those bosses (as friends’ fathers, mostly) and I could feel my stomach clenching when I watched. Don’t need that.

    I also want character development in my stories – of either kind, but mostly characters who actively change either by circumstances or desire. That was why I stopped watching “House” after the first few seasons. Every time I thought he had learned a lesson, he went right back to his original personality the next episode. (Also, the fact that every episode had some mysterious disease that this ‘brilliant’ physician could not diagnose properly until the last few minutes, sometimes almost killing the patient with treatment for a wrong diagnosis, wore a little thin and did nothing to alleviate my mistrust of the medical world!)

    I watch a lot of TV but I find I am less tolerant now than I used to be; unless I actively like the characters and want to spend time with them, I don’t. :)

  4. Noelle Q. de Jesus says:

    Aaah, but in season 6, change does/did take place. Don Draper has changed. But he changed the way we all do — a little bit at a time, with some relapses, one step forward and two steps back. Having finished part 1 of Season 7, the show seems to be on the brink of something for all the characters, and in Don Draper, who by no means is the only compelling character of the show, it’s about the fulfillment of destiny — the journey all of us go through, the discovery and with any luck, the mastery of self. At any rate, the show is also a portrait of an era, and how a group of well-drawn characters conquer or are conquered by that era. Is what I think anyway.

    [I ran into this because I was looking for opinions of people who didn’t like Mad Men (as opposed to people who don’t watch it). I’m glad I found this.]

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