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Why Is ‘Mad Men’ Trying So Hard to Distance Viewers From Its Characters?

Flavorwire is celebrating Memorial Day with The Year in TV, a series of features on the 2012-13 TV season, which ends this month.

Remember when we used to like Betty? You could be forgiven for forgetting, seeing as she’s been a combination villain/ punching bag for at least half of Mad Men‘s run; it’s been virtually impossible to sympathize with her in the years since her name change from Draper to Francis. But in those early seasons, she was a page out of the Feminine Mystique, flailing to maintain her sanity and take care of her children as her distant, philandering husband neglected the entire family. It’s become a cliché to point out how unsympathetic her character has become over the years, from her campily evil treatment of Sally to the meme-worthy Fat Betty. So it may come as something of a relief to Betty apologists that in Season 6, Matt Weiner and his writers seem set on evening things up for TV’s most desperate housewife — by driving as big a wedge between viewers and the show’s other characters as they did between us and Betty.

With the possible exception of Pete Campbell, everyone on Mad Men was once a fully realized human being, with positive traits that, if they didn’t quite balance out the flaws, at least gave viewers some stake in their life. Consider Harry Crane: Once a hapless but likable young married type who confessed a moment of impulsive infidelity to his wife (in this world, his honesty puts him miles ahead of most of his colleagues), in Season 6 he’s transformed into a petulant, envious time bomb, bursting into meetings demanding he be made a partner and torturing Joan with reminders about how she became one. His selfishness about how the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. affects his TV campaigns is so repulsive, even Pete calls Harry a racist.

This has also been the darkest season for Don Draper, Mad Men‘s central character and greatest mystery. He’s had low times in the past, of course — mainly in Season 4, after his marriage to Betty dissolved and he’d moved into a dark, depressing apartment in the city. But in those days, Don was just pathetic, paying prostitutes to slap him around and bursting into drunken tears during a late night in the office with Peggy. Following a relatively stable fifth season that ended on what might have been the precise moment when Don fell out of love with Megan, Season 6 has transformed him into a monster. Even in her more sympathetic days, it was easy to see why Betty wasn’t a good wife for him; Megan, however, is all he ever wanted: laid back, permissive, independent. It’s painful to watch Don wantonly destroy what should have been perfect marriage. His preferred mode of destruction has become more sinister, too. Judging by his standoff in the hotel with Sylvia and the way he tortures her by smoking cigarettes in front of her apartment door, sadism now appeals to Don more than masochism.

Even Peggy Olson, the most all-around likable character on the show, is darker than she used to be. With every passing season she becomes more like her chief mentor and antagonist, Don. In the past, she’s mostly adopted his positive traits, creativity and toughness and determination. This year, however, we saw her sneakily show up to a pitch meeting and steal his motto (“If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation”). Most worrisome of all, her affair with Ted — which, in classic Don Draper fashion, doesn’t seem to unsettle her at all — is proving that office infidelity isn’t just for men anymore. This isn’t to say she’s no longer a sympathetic character, but it’s getting harder to root for her the way we once did, and in no small part because we don’t seem to be privy to what’s driving her behavior this season.

Peggy isn’t the only “good” character whose  have been obscured by Mad Men‘s writing staff this season. Part of the reason why we feel so alienated from the characters is that the show seems to be purposefully veering away from the people who provide its moral center. As their relationship has fallen apart (and she’s had to recover from her miscarriage), we’ve rarely seen Megan without Don long enough to get a sense of how his behavior is affecting her. And what about Michael Ginsberg, who’s so upright and honest that he recently confessed to woman that he’s still a virgin? Last season, his purity made him a foil for and antidote to his amoral colleagues; this season, that one silly blind date vignette has been Michael’s only real story line.

The alienation doesn’t end with the character development, either. From the moment when Betty arrives home from New York City a brunette and Bobby promptly calls her ugly to Pete’s (admittedly wonderful) fall on the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce stairs, much of the show seems designed to elicit maximum schadenfreude. Most sarcastic of all was the end of the recent episode “Man With a Plan,” when the syrupy hippie ballad “Reach Out of the Darkness” starts playing as Megan cries about RFK’s assassination and Don coldly ignores her. As the husband-and-wife duo Lover & Friend sings “It’s so groovy now/ That people are finally getting together” over this depressing scene, Mad Men doesn’t give us the option to empathize with these characters; it manipulates us into laughing bitterly at their pain.

This may read like a condemnation of Mad Men‘s approach to character development in Season 6, but it isn’t. Mostly, I’m intrigued. With the exception of shows like Breaking Bad, whose protagonist’s trajectory is a clear straight line from Mr. Chips to Scarface, dramas tend to make us like and relate to the characters more every season. That’s why we stay invested in their stories. If Weiner’s grand plan is to make us disengage from the personalities we’ve invested so much time in, he must have a reason. Is Mad Men pushing us away because it’s planning to suddenly reel us back in with an emotional gut-punch? Does it want to us to analyze rather than empathize (and, if so, is that also why this year’s episodes are more packed than ever with semi-obvious symbolism)? We can only find out by continuing to watch — and watch we will, because by now, our minds are so addicted that Mad Men can afford to ignore our hearts.

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