Dear Television is Jane Hu, Evan Kindley, Lili Loofbourow, and Phillip Maciak. This season, they'll be posting weekly letters about AMC's "Mad Men." While this is not a full recap, there are still plenty of spoilers. Read the last installment here.
Dear TV, I’ve been far from impressed with this show for a couple of seasons now, but I’ll give credit where credit is due: This episode blew me away.
There sometimes comes a point in a novel or a show when the consumer discovers that her empathetic faculties are overextended; when this happens she recoils, in shock, to find that the emotions she was feeling on a character’s behalf were never there at all. The distance between empathy and sympathy is sometimes described as the difference between spontaneously feeling with someone versus feeling for them by guessing at what they must be feeling. If the former is primarily affective, the latter is more theoretical: The average person may feel for “the poor” or the victims of an earthquake, but she does not typically feel with them. In last night’s episode (as Jane points out), we saw the entire white cast caught between these two poles: Do they feel with the “Negroes” or for them? Is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death “theirs” or “ours”? As we saw with reactions to our own national tragedy last week, violence tests the true boundaries of one’s affective community.
It tests ours too. Viewers have been feeling with Don Draper for years, and with some justice: Despite his many failings, his selfishness, his childishness, his blindness, Don showed himself capable of sympathy with his children when (for example) he reassured a frightened Sally that baby Gene wasn’t the ghost of her dead grandfather. Don was a good father, viewers felt—and by this they did not mean that he was present, or responsible, or thoughtful, or engaged. They meant that Don, in contrast to Betty, was a feeling parent. In our culture, if you want to make a character sympathetic, make him a loving father. There’s no other fictional figure who more completely captures our loyalty and whose other failings we happily forgive (Louis C.K. has capitalized on this beautifully; his ability to go beyond the pale in his comedy and retain our trust rests on the fact that he’s a good dad.)
Viewers have been souring on Don Draper this season, but he had two deep wells of empathy to draw on. We’ve watched his childhood for years, and we’ve watched his fatherhood too, both from a point of view that we thought was his. There have been inconsistencies, of course, but by and large we’ve trusted that when the camera dips into Don’s past, what you see is what Don sees, and what you feel is what Don feels.1 But in “The Flood” Don talks for the very first time about his childhood. It was unhappy, he says, and this squares with our impression of his childhood. But then he says something else: He never loved his kids. We discover we’ve entirely misunderstood; Don was never a feeling parent at all.
This is a shock for a variety of reasons, but the main insult is to our vanity. “Mad Men” has always flattered the public; the show has a knack for spoon-feeding viewers while making us feel brilliant for noticing whatever we’ve just been quite broadly directed to notice. If what Don says to Megan is true—and I agree with Jane that the episode is full of failed efforts to feel—then it turns out our glimpses into Don’s perspective were, if not untrue, then a form of misdirection. Remember the awkward scene between Joan and Dawn at SCDP the morning after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination? Joan is generally a good reader of people, but she’s terrible on race, and this was no exception. Her attempt at sympathy—her effort to imagine Dawn’s experience and respond to the imaginary feelings that would arise from that imaginary experience—is wrong in every respect. Unlike Peggy’s secretary, Dawn does not seem grief-stricken by the assassination, she does not want to be comforted, and she does not want to go home. Every affective state Joan ascribes to Dawn is absent. If Don is Dawn, then we, without noticing it, for years and years, have been Joan, awkwardly trying to hug him.
Kicked out of empathy with Don, we’re hovering like all the white characters, trying to find a way to feel. This is what happens when a society goes through the growing pains of trying to produce a broader “we,” and “Mad Men” is at one level the story of American culture very slowly detaching itself from the claustrophobic solipsism of the white man’s brain. He’s receding into the distance like Paul Newman, and maybe at some point we’ll need binoculars to see him, let alone see inside him.
In the meantime, the no man’s land between sympathy and empathy is hard territory to occupy, and different characters grope and feel their way through in the dark. Pete’s strategy is to sympathize promiscuously. He’s not good at it. He tries it with Trudy and fails, and then he foolishly asks whether his daughter Tammy (who can’t understand, let alone feel) is okay. The next day he explodes at Harry, and it’s hard not to read that outburst as a sympathetic act in search of an object, as “on behalf of” rather than “native to.” Pete may be furious on behalf of a society that he’s finally trying to be a part of, or perhaps on Trudy’s behalf—the word she uses, “shameful,” is the word Pete adopts as his own and brandishes at Harry like a club. But in any case, he’s working hard at trying on other perspectives, feeling his way through them, and failing. At least he’s trying. Harry, in contrast, can’t see beyond his own interests, nor does he want to. Megan “follows the script,” as Jane put it, but I do think she’s sincere. Peggy acts exactly the way she feels: bothered in a distant way, aware that the events have serious consequences that may affect her and others, but otherwise unperturbed. Ginsberg ends his date. Henry decides to run for office.
These are all possible and even legitimate responses in the show’s universe, but there’s one strategy this episode exposes as truly monstrous, and we get hints of it when Peggy says to Abe, “Stop being such a martyr. You’re having the time of your life.” The real monsters aren’t those struggling with the question of who their affective communities contain and whether their feelings can change from “they” to “we” in response to those changing borders, they’re the sentimental vampires who trample those borders down. They’re the over-sympathizers, the narcissists who cry too hard about someone else’s loss, who snatch an “us” that doesn’t yet belong to them and feel all tragedies as their own.
I talked earlier about the shock of getting kicked out of empathy. Part of that shock is shame because what our mistake really reveals—and every accidental empathizer knows this—is that we filled a projection with our own desires and feelings, and sympathized with it. It’s emotional onanism. Still, over-sympathizers are worse. In Randall Walsh, “Mad Men” gives us the ultimate over-sympathizer: the man who fails to recognize the limits of his emotional imagination and who therefore mistakes sympathy for empathy, feeling for with feeling with. He sees himself as universal; he transcends race, gender, class. He communes with the ghost of Martin Luther King, Jr., he channels Tecumseh, and yet, when he closes his eyes, he sees his name, and a Molotov cocktail with a match lit underneath it, and misses the irony.
I’m going to go flush that toilet again,
Among the inconsistencie: A flashback in season one that seemed to be channeling Don’s memory was actually the scene of his conception which he of course could not have witnessed.