Mad Men is aging like dashboard milk. Maybe I should have expected this, given that even at the height of my affair with the show, I knew that it didn't start to get good until season 3, and that it fell off in quality after season 5. That's not, when you come down to it, a long time in the sun. But the series as a whole, as a gestalt, felt like it would last forever. The performances were unimpeachable, or at least – in a couple of cases – unremovable from office by a Senate supermajority. The aesthetics were lush and gorgeous as a fern-filled bathroom. And it was set when my parents were teenagers, which seemed proof against its becoming too dated. I'd apparently forgotten that nothing dates faster than the way we interpret the recent past.
And yet here I am, rewatching Mad Men ten years later, and Christ but it's going badly. This has everything to do with the writing, which once seemed deliberate and now seems nothing of the sort – neither deliberate as in "slow but careful" nor deliberate as in "on purpose." The change in my perception may be partially a factor of growing up when I did. I was raised on the kind of TV – Deep Space Nine, The X-Files – which was viewed as revolutionary because it had an arc, never mind the fact that The Prisoner was doing primetime arcs in 1967, or that my mom's soap had kept arcs running in geologic time since it was on the radio. Coming from that context, the 13-episode, tightly arced seasons of television's "Can People Change?" era felt fascinatingly honed at the time, with no room for sprawl.
But some of those '90s shows have still aged better than Mad Men. I've seen Deep Space Nine episodes more socially brave. I've certainly seen Deep Space Nine episodes less willing to waste my time – to spend my time profligately, like the wastrel husband of a rich medieval widow. It is one thing to develop side characters, to give moments time to breathe, to be exploratory, even to be plotless. If that were a crime, then my own fiction would be criminal fiction, and each book would come equipped with an unpickable lock. Mad Men doesn't develop side characters, though; it just opens a little window on to a page of Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, or Carver, and asks an actor to recite it.
The other problem with Mad Men – if you'll bear with me, the central problem with Mad Men – is that for thematic reasons, men should want to fuck Don Draper, and yet they rarely do. The series builds itself on Don's sexual conquests. It posits that Don's seductiveness is what makes him more than a good copywriter like Peggy, and that it comes from his empty, withholding, narcissistic personality. Any light you shine will show him in broad and bright colors, passionate red and soulful blue – it's because there's nothing inside of him to absorb it. Like many narcissists, Don also comes packaged with an implication of danger, even if the series shies away from having him kill the man whose identity he's stolen. That's part of his seductiveness, too. You're scared of him, but not because he's capable of taking a philosophical stand, as television's murderers all do. You're scared of him because he's not capable of that.
The series has no problem portraying this as the secret of Don's appeal to women, but it avoids making him the object of male sexual desire. The danger of an aspirational character like Don – for a homophobe, which is to say the average TV viewer in 2008 – is that you might end up wanting to fuck him, instead of be him. Or you might lose your sympathy for him, find him queered and unmanned by his fuckability, unless the only people who want him are women. For this reason, women's desire for Don plays a strange double duty on Mad Men. It's present for its own sake, but it also stands in for the male desire that the series won't risk showing us. For this reason, it has to be twice as fervent, because every woman stands for two people. That's why Don, a handsome grifter on an island of a million handsome grifters, is uniquely able to turn women into thirsty maenads.
Mad Men is full of moments when a man almost desires Don. Don and Sal go on a business trip, indulge in some witty roleplay on the plane: a flight attendant and a bellboy appear from the wings to fuck them. A handsome gay scammer, Bob, infiltrates Sterling Cooper with the intent of sleeping his way to the top, but the man he latches onto is the mediocre Pete. When predatory client Lee makes a move on someone from creative, the man he chooses is Sal, who's gay but not interested. Just as the women who want to fuck Don become metaphors for men, the men who should by rights want to fuck Don end up deflected onto each other. Don Draper is inviolate, and it bends and deforms the light around him, making the series' storytelling shimmery and strange. The natural flow of fuckability is disrupted.
There is one time when a man wants to fuck Don, and the series comes alive when it happens. The man in question is Lane, played by Jared Harris, who among his many skills (because of Foundation, Harris is having a moment right now, which means we're all talking about him roughly as much as I do) is very good at conveying barely-veiled horniness – whether it's the spit-slick and revolting straight horniness of The Beast Must Die or the grimy all-purpose horniness of The Terror, which begins in a marriage proposal but finds its apotheosis in gently tipping poison down another man's throat. (Legasov in Chernobyl doesn't count; he's just horny for the truth.)
At the top of Mad Men's season 4, Don takes Lane out for a new divorcés' riot which becomes an increasingly obvious date. They get plastered, shout about handjobs at a Godzilla film, have a dinner where a shimmeringly drunk Lane slaps his crotch with a steak and howls gleefully about "American meat," and get riddled with homophobic jokes by an East Village hack comedian. To this last, Lane reacts with visible ecstasy, heckling loudly while trying to exchange glances with Don, as if to say, "Yes! Let them laugh – they'll never know a love like this." As always with moments when a man wants to fuck Don, two sex workers appear on schedule to usher the sequence into the gentle light of heterosexuality, but they're no match for an assassin like Harris. The thing is broken wide open: Don Draper is man-fuckable.
For these twenty minutes, he also makes sense as a character. Don doesn't want anything, but precisely because of this, he is endlessly wanted. If the show had had the moral courage to let him be wanted by everybody – to let him be the man who fulfills all longings and makes all promises – to let him be the universal object of desire, then it might play today as well as it did ten years ago. It doesn't, though. And more than Mad Men's garden-variety creative ills, this strict and boring division between the ways men and women want Don – a division that allows for no complexity and no anxiety around desire, which is meant to be its primary theme – is the reason why.