Although the first 3 seasons of Mad Men certainly turned heads, both critically and popularly, season 4 started the show all over again by ripping away most of Don Draper’s confidence-preserving illusions as a the seductive, white male, who beds any woman he pleases–artists, executives, or bubbly flight attendents. (Spoiler alert: There is even woman in Season 4 who doesn’t immediately jump into bed with Don at his command.)
Both The Sopranos and Mad Men start with that general archetype of the strong, silent. lone gunman. Although variations on this stock character abound, they all share stem from some prized ideal of American manliness. Shoot faster then the other guy, don’t wince, keep your mouth shut, and if you’re worth a damn, you’ll have that woman behind the bar in bed with you before long. Tony Soprano and Don Draper play into these stereotypes allowing the audience to see what happens between the gunfights and steamy scenes. Most of the time, you actually don’t get to ride out of town on a horse the next day.
In The Sopranos, Tony’s character directly references this archetype by being an actual gunman. He’ll kill somebody if he needs to, and afterward go home to have his wife heat up some rigatoni while he watches the History Chanel. Don Draper doesn’t use a gun like Tony Soprano does, but I bet he would if he had to.
Mad Men take an interesting departure from The Sopranos by making the audience wait three seasons until Don’s facade finally collapses. In The Sopranos, we saw this collapse before the beginning of the first episode–the first scene of the series is Tony’s consultation with his psychiatrist regarding his panic attacks.
Don is able to maintain the juggling act for a lot longer that Tony can. For almost three whole seasons, he successfully navigates several conflicting lifestyles: he has a successful career where he is respected and feared by his competitors and employees; a wife and two kids; countless mistresses and one-night stands; and a past he cannot speak about. For three years, the audience believes: maybe this guy can pull it off. He’s ruining people’s lives around him, but somehow he seems to hold it all together. However, the ball drops at the end of season three and to a greater extent in season four. Not only has Don Draper—the mythical, successful, sexually irresistable lost his family, he gets rejected by women, he becomes increasingly distanced from his children, his hidden past constantly threatens to ruin his career, and he begins having panic attacks (Sopranos reference? Definitely).
By delaying Don’s downfall to season four, Mad Men was able to do what The Sopranos did not do. While Don is able to hold it together for three seasons, it allows the audience to reinvest themselves in the myth of the American lone gunman, the myth that The Sopranos already so thoroughly deconstructed.Even though our better judgment says not to, we become slowly convinced that maybe Don can do it. He hits rough patches (his wife catches him, his past surfaces every once in a while, etc.) but he smoothes it over, and before long, he’s back to his old tricks. Then–when it rains on poor Don, it pours. Three years into the show, everything is viciously ripped from Don fourth season, even his mental stability.
When this collapse happens to Don, it happens to the audience as well. We started to believe, whether consciously or unconsciously, there are people out there who are able to have it all and get away with it. Mad Men seduces us into wanting what Don has, everything we want without consequences, even though most of us realize the impossibility of this in our own lives. The show sells us the Draper lifestyle for three seasons until it reminds us at the end of season three and throughout four that everyone has to pay the piper eventually–even absurdly good looking, capable, and well-dressed advertising executives.
In this way, I believe that Mad Men is Matt Weiner’s revision of The Sopranos. The Sopranos was groundbreaking because it took the archetype of the lone gunman to places that Martin Scorces could not take it in a 2 hour movie. Robert DeNiro played brilliantly in Scorcese’s films, but what happens when Jimmy Conway from Goodfellas is your father, throwing temper tantrums in front of you, sleeping with prostitutes, and killing people to buy you a new SUV. This is a tension that starts in the first episode and continues throughout, complicating upon itself throughout the series. Matt Weiner came to The Sopranos for seasons five and six, writing or co-writing twelve episodes and garnering two Emmy’s as a producer of the show. He was certainly instrumental in the show’s strong final seasons, writing or co-writing memorable episodes such as “Unidentified Black Males” and “Heidi and Kennedy.” However, when Matt Weiner created Mad Men, he chose to do something different: sell the audience the myth of strong, silent type all over again. With Tony, we knew the balancing act was failing from the beginning. He is having panic attacks before the series begins because of the stress of his work and his family life. With Mad Men, Weiner takes a different approach. He lets us watch Don constantly smooth things over until it all collapses.
(The scene directly following Don’s panic attack, when his girlfriend asks if he wants a valium).
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Don’s panic attack in season four is an explicit reference to The Sopranos. If Harold Bloom has taught us anything, great writers have to encounter their father figures in their own writing. Matt Weiner came in to The Sopranos when it had already solidified near-unanimous critical agreement as the best show on television. In 2007, Weiner finally gets a shot at making a show he has been shopping around Hollywood for years. He takes his chance and now his show is in the top tier of contenders for the coveted Sopranos crown. This time around, Weiner lets the audience bite the hook before we see Don coming apart at the seems rather than having his mental instability as a constant motif.
I have yet to see a series finale better than The Sopranos. If anyone is up to the task of matching that finale, it’s Matt Weiner. However, whatever way he does end it, it will in some ways necessarily be a revision of The Sopranos finale. And even as a devotee of The Sopranos, I am confident that few people could rap up a post-Sopranos show, both anchored around the fascinating image of the collapsing strong silent type. Mad Men also faces the challenge of having the same critical visibility as Sopranos. But even if Don Draper and Tony fell apart a long time ago, Matt Weiner will find a compelling way to wrap up Don’s saga that will perhaps catch us off guard, like the brilliantly suggestive ambiguities of The Sopranos finale, a topic for another set of sentences at another time.
Matt Shedd’s an American writer and pen for hire. Contact him at email@example.com