Saturday, September 26, 2009

"Don Draper, you are a heel and I salute you for it." Part One

Last week, while writing the most recent Mountains of Madness entry, I came across the type of revelation that the Church Fathers would have had to go into the Egyptian desert and starve themselves to obtain. In briefly analyzing the story arc of Sterling Cooper's head money man, the very British chivalry enthusiast Lane Pryce, I noticed that his character, who had been set up as the closest thing Mad Men has to a "bad guy" this season, was suddenly being shown in a sympathetic light. Lane had shown up in episode one of the season as everything that was going wrong around the office, firing Accounts head Burt Peterson in his introduction to the audience and acting as a constant source of belt-tightening and receipt-demanding. When the Putnam, Powell, and Lowe head honchoes opted to transfer him to act as "snake charmer" in their Bombay office, Lane seemed of all things sad that he would have to be leaving his new home in New York. That scene, where Lane was presented with a stuffed cobra which he glumly tried to place somewhere in what would soon no longer be his office was the first time that we the audience had been asked to feel bad for or sympathize with Lane. It would seem (of course, there's still a lot of season left so we'll see) that Lane has gone from heel to face.

The terms "heel" and "face" originate in that strange world of professional wrestling, a world that some people fear to enter. I've been a casual follower of the WWE for the past five or six years and find it something of a guilty pleasure. The common refrain against pro wrestling is "it's fake!". But instead of its own fakeness being a detriment to enjoyment of "sports entertainment", I and millions of fans around the world find it to be the aspect that makes it so darn fun. One doesn't watch wrestling to see a fair fight, it doesn't matter who wins but rather how. Besides the remarkable athleticism and gluttony for punishment exhibited by wrestlers, the larger-than-life personalities and storylines keep fans coming back. Everyone has their favorite whom they root for even though they know that the results of matches are decided in a writers room (just like a TV drama!).

A "heel" is a villain, a character who cheats to win and generally displays dispicable behavior, oftentimes manifest itself in contempt for fans or competitors. Conversely the "face" is the hero who plays by the rules and practices good sportsmanship. Sometimes, a character can switch allegiances, often depending on fan reaction, and transform from one archetype to the other. A good example of this would be the Scorpion King himself, Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson. When the Rock first started, he was a face, playing by the rules and treating his enemies and the fans with respect. However, when this character failed to catch on, the Rock became a megalomaniacal villain, and viewers loved him for it. I realized through watching Lane's plight that the same sort of transformation is capable for entirely fictional dramatic characters on show like Mad Men. Like the WWE, Mad Men is a battle of gigantic egos constantly squabbling and backstabbing each other in order to win fabulous prizes. However, whereas wrestlers battle for belts and titles, mad men battle for accounts. Here's a handy guide to the men and women of Sterling Cooper and what sort of role they take on in wrestling terms.


Don Draper: ???
Don might be the one character who truly transcends classification in the face/heel category. He is a man of honor, prone more to direct confrontation and teamwork than intrigue or sabotage like some of his co-workers. However, his infidelity and secret life make him something of a dishonest scoundrel, in fact Don has actually been called a "heel" (old-timey speak for a jerk) when he missed Sally's birthday in Season One. But can we the viewer really fault him for any of it? The more Don mucks up his home life, the more we love him. His philandering ways are something of the ultimate male fantasy, a beautiful wife and perfect family at home and stable of really hot mistresses. He has his cake and eats it too, who could ask for more? Also, could you really hate a man this handsome? I've been told that there's something of a gender divide between the men who like Don and the women who loathe him, which would make sense I guess. He's an asshole, but he looks great doing it. In this way, Don is sort of like Triple H or the Undertaker. He isn't a heel or a face, though he exhibits qualities of both. What he really is is a badass.

Betty Draper: Heel
Betty, Don's better half, could best be described as a heel. While of course she is wronged again and again by her breadwinner, she oftentimes takes on the role of the childish spoiled foil for Don. If she merely endlessly suffered at the hands of Don's infidelity and secrecy, she would be a face, but her behavior in regards to Don and their family often comes across as malicious. For example, she's the taskmaster while Don is often the "cool dad": she's the one won't let Sally play in a plastic bag while he buys her a puppy and let's her drink at his office. Her subplots involving her family and Glen Bishop have made her go through some faceish transformations, but the fight over baby Gene's name pushes her back into heel territory. In the end, Betty might be more pathetic than downright villainous, but she's still in heel territory, for now...

Peggy Olson: Face
Is there a better face around the office than Peggy? At the series' inception, she's the viewer surrogate, being new to the fast-paced world of advertising. She's the wide-eyed innocent, yearning to find her place in the world. We can only cheer when her careers advances, especially when she made the jump from secretary to copywriter and when she got her own office. Peggy is something above the fray of office politics, often to her detriment, but when she wins she wins big and when her good ideas are ignored we jeer her superiors for their stupidity. So far Peggy can do no wrong in the eyes of the Mad Men fan, and we can't help but cheer her on as she slowly conquers Madison Avenue.

Pete Campbell: Heel --> face
Pete started off the series as the prototypical heel, he was the young gun who would resorts to any means to bring down Don and anyone else who got in his way. He was also apparently a spoiled brat born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was also mean to his wife Trudy, who couldn't conceive a child, and nothing can do more to make you look like a jerk than to disrespect a woman as over-the-top adorable as Trudy Campbell. At the end of Season One when he tried to take down Don with the knowledge of his secret past and identity, his heel status reached an apotheosis; he was the heel made manifest. However, Pete has transformed almost completely over the course of the series. We found out how much mutual hate he has for his upper-class family, Peggy (initially) seemed to bring out some good in him, he eventually shaped up in terms of Trudy, and he even came to Don's aid in the face of the Duck-orchestrated merger. As Cooper said, quoting the Japanese, "one never knows how loyalty is born." His passive-agressive battle with Ken Cosgrove over the position of Head of Accounts has firmly cemented his face status, we're rooting for you, Pete.

Roger Sterling: Heel
If there's a character on Mad Men who gets away more with behaving badly than anyone else, it's Roger. The silver fox is a vain, self-centered cad whose mess of a personal life is directly responsible for the sad state of affairs at Sterling Cooper (the merger was necessary to pay for his divorce). Roger is a jerk to everyone and lives life like he's "on shore leave", but he's always ready with a one-liner to get back on our good sides. Don's analysis of Roger, that everyone thinks he "looks foolish" was right on the money, he's become more of a hinderance to the business than a benefit. The fact that he was forgotten on the big chart that the Brits prepare is coincidence in my view, he's becoming more and more irrelevant. However, in spite of all his boorishness, he might rank highest among fans' favorite characters: he's just awesome. No matter what sticky situation he gets everyone into, you can't wait to watch him do it. In my mind, he's the most like the WWE chairman Vince McMahon- both are high powered businessmen who we love to hate but don't hate to love. I want to see Roger powerwalk across the office before the season's over.

Joan Harris (née Holloway)- Heel --> face
Joan started off as something of a personal antagonist to our girl Peggy, always jealous of her advancement beyond the secretarial pool. She was representative of the old ways of the advertising world: as a woman her power is directly connected to her sexuality and mousey Peggy's promotion was a direct threat to that. Her affair with Roger allied her to his heelish ways and her whole character seemed something of an impediment to the hopes and dreams of young miss Margaret Olson. However, like her lover Roger, she made being a heel look good. Thing have changed for Joan though: her marriage to rapist Dr. Greg has swung her decidedly into the realm of the face. As she struggle to overcome her horrible, horrible husband, she has our eternal support, and now Joan is the one we're all rooting for. Though she's left the office, we can only hope she'll be back sooner rather than later.

Next week, the supporting cast! Drapermania is running wild!