The characters of Mad Men are beloved for being complex human beings with nuanced motivations and behaviour, so it’s pretty funny looking back at the early episodes and especially the pilot and seeing how the narrative function of each character is extremely clear and easy to articulate. Over the course of Mad Men‘s seven seasons, six characters stand out as the main cast, appearing in almost every episode: Don Draper, Peggy Olson, Peter Campbell, Roger Sterling, Betty Draper, and Joan Holloway. Don is our protagonist – not because he’s the most likable or most interesting of the characters, but because we’ve decided we’re going to follow his behaviour. I’ve already articulated why he makes a good protagonist, so I won’t go any further into that. Peggy Olson is an audience surrogate, who knows little-to-nothing about this particular setting and can exhibit curiosity and act out the obvious conclusion for us – including making mistakes by understandably misreading or oversimplifying situations. Peter is the clearest of Don’s antagonists. He wants the opposite of what Don wants, and he’ll do unDon-ish things to get it. Don is a liar, but he’s a sincere, thoughtful liar. He understands not just how things work but why they do, and as Zoe Z Dean says, he has an untouchable lack of pretension, feeling absolutely no need to make people like him. Pete thinks he can recreate the superficial details of something to get the same results, and this makes him an awful, obvious liar, with pretense dripping from his lips as he speaks. Roger is effectively Don’s enabler. In a professional sense, he’s Don’s boss, making a living by unleashing Don on a problem while admitting he has no idea how he does it. He’s there, in part, to give Don enough rope to hang himself so we can be shocked when he makes Shibari. The stakes of failure for Don is Roger’s disappointment.
Obviously, Betty’s role in the pilot is purely to act as a punchline, but it also points to her early role as Don’s other antagonist, one who requires different techniques than Pete. Don can crush Pete, but he must outsmart and outmaneuver Betty. Finally, Joan is a pure exposition machine, someone who hands Peggy her early information on the world, both literally and philosophically (“Go home, take a paper bag, and cut some eye-holes out of it. Put it over your head, get undressed, and look at yourself in the mirror. Really evaluate where your strengths and weaknesses are. And be honest.”). Underneath all of these characters are a group my Mum and I affectionately call the Hen’s Nest, a group of low-level execs too powerless to affect the narrative who provide a Greek Chorus, analysing the events of the plot from a perspective slightly less limited (they have history with Don we haven’t seen) and slightly more (they don’t get the intimate moments we do now). Mad Men is another show that hit the ground running, and one of the reasons it did was because it creates characters who engage in totally distinct behaviour that is all recognisably human and feels all of one piece. I’ve seen a lot of bad stories where the metaphysics of the world bend themselves around the protagonist, so that people only matter in their relationship to our hero. Mad Men shows how that’s not necessarily a bad idea for the conception of a story; everyone here (aside from Joan) begins the show defined by their relationship to Don Draper. What we know is that Don is intelligent, socially aware, private, and has both personal and professional power. Who is someone that could reasonably fuck up his day? Someone socially inept who both craves and resents his respect. Who is someone that would employ him? Someone who respects what he does enough to let him do it, mystery and all. Who would he marry? Someone who understands image as well as he does, but could be made to submit to his control.
It means that even when Don does pretty much the same thing, he’s getting a different reaction to it, and even then we’re seeing him modulate his performance for each person. It’s a constant flow of new and interesting data. There’s something compelling about disorder, whether it’s practical (how does this work?), emotional (why does this person do what they do?), moral (is this guy good or bad?) or social (interpersonal conflict). The elegance of early Mad Men is how every scene presents some kind of disorder that catches our attention and forces us to puzzle it out, with Don and Peggy acting as our grounding element to stop us from spinning off into meaningless noodling. The wisdom of later Mad Men is that it didn’t force these characters to stay defined by their relationship to Don; rather, they simply became the kind of people who would do the things they did in the pilot. Pete is the kind of person who desperately wants to be liked and has a fairly literal view of the world. Joan has hypercompetence informed by an ability to read why things happen and to crunch it down into a witty line. It’s self-absorbed to consider the world to revolve around you, but it’s practical to begin with your sphere of influence and work outward. To build a cast, one asks who one’s protagonist would contrast with – who they create disorder with. What does our protagonist want? Who would interfere with that? Who would the protagonist have supporting them, and how would these people contrast with the protagonist? After that, good storytelling carries them the rest of the way.