Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, heading into its final stretch of episodes later this summer (52 days from now, but who’s counting?), is an amazing show, arguably the very best on television, largely because of its groundbreaking organizing principle: in numerous interviews, Gilligan has stated that his idea for the series was to turn his main character from a hero into a villain, or as he put it, “turn Mr. Chips into Scarface.” Television, he’s explained (and I’m paraphrasing), is geared toward stasis, keeping its characters and relationships and situations the same so that, assuming a show is a ratings hit, it can go on forever.
So by taking an ineffectual, milquetoast science teacher and gradually turning him into a lying, murdering drug kingpin, Gilligan is upending the traditional model for a TV series, and it has been fascinating to watch and highly deserving of the many awards it’s won. But it’s not the first show to do what it’s doing.
In the first episode of the first season of Mad Men, which premiered six months before Breaking Bad on the same network, advertising executive Don Draper welcomes his colleague Roger Sterling into his 16th-floor Madison Avenue office, pours them both a stiff drink, and trading pleasantries about another disgruntled executive, incredulously wonders aloud, “Who couldn’t be happy with all this?”
That moment has proved, in the six seasons since, to be Don Draper’s high-water mark, as he has tumbled ever further into an abyss of self-loathing almost entirely of his own making. When the show began, Don Draper was on the cover of every magazine, a style icon, the latest embodiment of the old saw “women want to be with him, men want to be him.” Everything came easily to Don: women, money, success, it was all his for the taking and he took all he could carry. His coworkers marveled at his ease with women, with his work, with his liquor. As presented in the first few seasons, this was the kind of man Hugh Hefner was telling us to emulate — the modern American man who has it all.
Around the end of the third season, all of that began to erode: He lost his wife when she discovered the extent of his lies and cheating. He lost his best copywriter and protege because he treated her badly. He lost his daughter because she caught him cheating on his second wife with his neighbor. He’s lost his creative skills because he took them for granted. He’s losing his ease with women to alcohol, tobacco, and Father Time — he’s looking pretty pasty and bloated lately, and nobody shtups the neighbor lady if they’ve still got it out on the street. More losses seem to be waiting on the horizon: his second marriage is on life support, he’s so checked out at work that he has little idea what’s going on, missing meetings, coming up with so few ideas he’s removed it from his job description, and didn’t make a peep when they removed “Draper” from the company’s name — how long till they fire him altogether? The most recent episode of the show ended with Don on his office couch in the fetal position, having just finally, irreparably destroyed his two most important professional relationships: to his protege and star copywriter Peggy, and his new partner Ted. Quite a contrast from the weekly opening image of the back of Don’s head, arm draped over his office couch, surveying his kingdom. (“Who couldn’t be happy with all this?”)
Lots of Mad Men fans have made a parlor game of guessing who those opening credits depict falling from the building: everyone seemed to think petulant accounts executive Pete Campbell was going to jump out the window last season, and as Don has sunk lower and lower speculation has turned to him as the jumper. Nobody’s going to literally jump out the window, any more than anyone’s going to be murdered — it’s just not that kind of show. (The shock of British partner Lane Pryce’s suicide last season was the exception that proved the rule.) That opening graphic is the show’s mission statement: this guy is headed for a (metaphorical) fall. Now that we’re 6/7 of the way through the story, it’s suddenly become clear: just as Vince Gilligan is turning Mr. Chips into Scarface, Matt Weiner is turning Cary Grant into Willy Loman.
The transformation is a little more subtle — a raised eyebrow or a remark at a business meeting can mean as much to the plot on Mad Men as ordering a murder does on Breaking Bad — but what Weiner’s doing is no less audacious, slowly changing his main character from someone to be envied and emulated to someone to be pitied.It’s pretty clear that Walter White’s transformation is going to end in jail or in the morgue, and though I don’t expect Don Draper to go out in a hail of gunfire, Weiner has been saying for years that he knows how he wants the series to end, which only underlines the notion that there’s always been a plan in play here, and it’s all there in those opening credits. This guy is going down. Whether he comes back up again, we’ll see in a year, but I tend to doubt it — this guy has had eight years to learn from his mistakes, and it would be way out of character, for Don and for Weiner, for him to start now.