My mom loves Don Draper. I do, too, but at least I can veil my obsession in that gossamer cloak of nostalgia for an era I wasn’t alive to witness. My mom, however, can remember a time when doctors smoked in their offices and the phrase “sexual harassment” didn’t exist.
Those days may be behind us, yet my mother and I, and a gazillion others, fetishize the world of Mad Men—and the cult figurehead at its centre. On the one hand, Don represents the inherent dickishness of that über-patriarchal era. On the other, he’s more than just a throwback jerk. Mad Men’s fans are overwhelmingly passionate about Don Draper not despite his archaic improprieties, but because of them. He’s a complicated asshole, a guy who is so good at being bad that you forget you’re supposed to hate him.
Certainly, Don is not the only captivating anti-hero on TV. The leading men of both Louie and Breaking Bad are also members of the “complicated asshole” club. Louie’s creator, Louis C.K., writes and directs the series, and stars as a version of himself: a divorced New York comedian and father, whose two daughters are frequently the subjects of the show’s stand-up bits. Although Louie is a loving and caring dad, C.K. loves to subject his semi-autobiographical character to countless humiliations, and seems to relish putting Louie in his place.
In one scene from the current season’s premiere, Louie sits silently at a restaurant eyeing a bowl of ice cream while his girlfriend (Gaby Hoffmann) breaks up with herself on his behalf. He then goes out and buys a motorcycle, which he promptly crashes. Louie’s problems, unlike Don Draper’s, are highly relatable: He’s a compulsive eater; he pines for a woman he knows he’ll never have. In showcasing these pedestrian concerns, Louie provides a public service by allowing us to exorcize our inner assholes in convenient half-hour sessions.
Breaking Bad offers a far more insidious example of men—or at least, one man—behaving badly. Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-mogul, has a teenage son with cerebral palsy and a baby daughter, whose mere physical presence underscores the contrast between his involvement in the violent drug world and his family life. Late in the fourth season, Walt’s son, Walter Jr., goes to his dad’s condo and finds him out of sorts, glasses broken and white shirt spotted with blood. Walt bursts into tears. The next morning, he tells Walter Jr. that he doesn’t want his son to remember him as he was the night before. But Walter Jr. doesn’t care about macho displays of strength: “At least last night you were real,” he says.
Breaking Bad’s creator Vince Gilligan has said that his goal was to track Walt’s transformation from innocuous to immoral, and to find out whether the audience would still root for him. In contrast to a character like Tony Soprano, who was bad right off the bat, we’ve watched Walt rise up the ladder of the drug trade with his particular brand of desperate corruption. “I am not in danger,” Walt hisses at his wife in a scene from the fourth season. “I am the danger.” With Walt, Gilligan breaks the first rule of TV protagonists: They shouldn’t fundamentally change. Breaking Bad shows us how even an ordinary schoolteacher is capable of extreme depravity, of shifting from protagonist to antagonist. As viewers, we have the luxury of confronting our own craving for decadent vice while remaining smugly superior.
Like Breaking Bad, Mad Men began as a chilling story about a man with a hidden identity and ended up in an even darker place once his secret was revealed. In Mad Men’s fifth season, Don struggles to suppress his persistent sense of dissatisfaction. We watch him press the reset button on his life, only to revert back to self-destructive habits. There’s a delightful masochism in watching someone consistently squander the opportunity to do the right thing. Maybe it makes us feel better about our own destructive tendencies. Or, more likely, these shows suggest that even if we could play out our self-indulgent fantasies the way TV characters do, we’d probably still be the same miserable assholes.