As we near the end of AMC’s Mad Men and fans speculate over the fate of the series’ antihero Don Draper, I think it’s interesting to look at what else the actor who plays the misogynistic, self-centered shell-of-a-man has been doing on television. In many ways, he’s been getting rejected, fired, and convicted…by strong women.
For the past six years, Hamm has had recurring guest roles or cameos on female-centric sitcoms written and produced by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. In all three examples, his character is the polar opposite of Don Draper: inept, dumb, and criminal. Or is he?
In 30 Rock, Hamm’s recurring role happened at the height of Mad Men‘s popularity. Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) is instantly infatuated with her handsome doctor neighbor, and after some zany sitcom shenanigans starts to date him. Eventually, however, Liz learns that Drew is a doctor who doesn’t know the Heimlich maneuver, gets parking tickets thrown away, never has to wait in line, and generally lives in a bubble due to his good looks. Liz eventually has to dump him because he is just simply too dumb…proven when he eventually loses both hands from waiving in a helicopter and playing with fireworks.
In Parks and Rec, Hamm’s role was far less developed, but perhaps even more pointed towards his more well-known on-screen workplace persona. He pops up in the series’ “time jump” to 2017 as the world’s most incompetent government employee, and as soon as you recognize his face he’s promptly fired by Poehler’s Knope.
And most recently (and what inspired me to muse on this topic a bit), Hamm made a hilarious turn in the Netflix Original, Tina Fey-penned sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as the backwards Indiana preacher who kidnaps the title character and three other young women and keeps them in a bunker for fifteen years.
All three of these characters seem to be the polar opposite of Don Draper’s cool reserve and dominance both in the boardroom and the bedroom.
Or are they?
In many ways, I think these cameos and guest roles, which are written in such a way that we cannot read them outside of them being played by Hamm (and by extension through Don Draper), are Don without the smoke and mirrors–they are shades of Dick Whitman. Think about it. In 30 Rock he plays someone who’s only gotten to where he has due to what he looks like (much like his white male status in Mad Men‘s 1960s). In Parks and Rec he’s bad at his job and women who are better at it than him put him in his place (whereas Don constantly manipulates Peggy to hide his own failings at his job). In Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt he abducts and abuses women…like Don has done with clients in restaurants and neighbors in hotel rooms.
Last week for my class Screens and Screenings we read the last chapter from David Joselit’s Feedback, which discusses television’s superimposition of two forms of “character”: the role enacted on television and the attributes of a person’s personality (exemplified by Lucille Ball’s real life pregnancy being written into the script of I Love Lucy). I think by interweaving Hamm’s publicly professed feminism with Don Draper and his recurring guest roles and cameos, we come to an intertextual example of character and character superimposition in the post-broadcast age.
While I think Mad Men‘s gender politics are actually far more progressive than its male characters’ actions, the subtleties of the program are potentially lost over the course of the seven-year run or overshadowed by the series’ sumptuous production value. That Hamm plays Draper’s fake person so well can overwhelm the implicit critique. I even stopped watching the show for a while finding his character so deplorable (though I eventually came around and was glad I did). However, I can see how Draper’s slickness could be read as implicit acceptance of his attitudes and actions, much like how Gordon Gecko’s dictum “greed is good” in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) was misread by many young men entering the financial services industry.
In many ways Hamm’s recurring roles in woman-centric sitcoms provide an intertextual critique of Draper and unravels and exposes his character’s flaws in ways that attempt to reveal the actor’s personal character (“I’m not actually like Don–and you shouldn’t want to be either!“). The roles are his penance for playing Draper so effectively.
Given the series’ popularity and the ancillary marketing that has cropped up around it, including restaurant “liquid lunch” specials, furniture design articles, and fashion lines, the boundaries between the show’s handsome exterior and the (I believe will be ultimately) tragic morality play at its core becomes blurred along the lines of fan culture and franchise merchandizing.
The slick surface and rotten core of Draper’s character create a tension in the narrative that has been slowly building to a crescendo. This surface tension is also interwoven with other televisual texts, its star’s public persona, and Mad Men‘s fan and commercial culture.
My hope for the final season is that this tightly woven fabric will rip right down the center. Spectacularly.