* * SPOILER ALERT * * – Ye be warned if you haven’t yet seen Hitchcock’s Psycho.
I was watching Mad Men last night and marveling over how much I continue to sympathize with the character of Don Draper. Am I mad? The guy has cheated on his wife for the first three seasons, even after she bears his third child, and still those dramatic shots of Don sitting in isolation as the camera gradually zooms out still pluck out a melancholy little banjo tune on a heartstring or two.
This brings to mind a post I recently read on Milo James Fowler’s In Media Res blog that discusses how the villains in books, TV, or film tend to fascinate us, to the point where we might find ourselves cheering for them. When I read this, I immediately thought of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and how the director’s genius for creating suspense through cinematography and Anthony Perkins’s stutteringly shy Norman Bates always leaves me biting my fingernails each time Norman is close to getting caught. The part directly following the infamous shower scene, for example, shows Norman pushing a car (with Marion’s dead body inside) into a swamp. As slowly as if the water was molasses, the car glub-glubs down until, suddenly, it just stops. Norman swallows in anxiety, and after several looong seconds, the car continues to gurgle down into the swamp’s depths, now fully concealed. There is something about the shot-reaction-shot sequence here that makes the viewer (I know it can’t just be me) tense on Norman’s behalf and want the car to keep sinking just as much as he does. Why is that?!
Not that Don Draper exudes the villainy of a murderer with a curling black mustache and a damsel in distress bound in rope underfoot…but that’s precisely my point. For me, if a villain is in the least bit complicated with a sense of vulnerability, I will sympathize. The Don Draper character mesmerizes me because I can’t quite slide him into a specific slot; he is complicated by a darker past and an inner struggle between being a good person that does right by others and a psychopath that acts in complete disregard of them. Norman Bates is a mentally unstable young man whose psychosis is likewise triggered by a difficult childhood; in his conversations with Marion before her death, we see the friendly, likable side of him that is tormented by the wicked personality of his mother that he’s invented in his mind.
It’s the classic struggle of the good versus evil within each of us, after all, and a great many fascinating stories have been written around this internal conflict, the most engaging of which (for me) tending to be when the protagonists and antagonists of the plot at times blur into each other. (As you can see in the photos above, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is one of many films utilizing the imagery of duality—here, both Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando’s faces are half in light and half in shadow—as who is the “hero” and who is the “villain” is called into question.) As it stands, Don is a flawed protagonist just as much as Norman is a well-intentioned antagonist.
So, in the end, what I think makes me want to pat someone like Don on the back and console him with a glass of Scotch along with a Lucky Strike cigarette is the fact that, while I cannot directly empathize with his choices/actions, I can sympathize (to small degree) with where he’s coming from. Just something to ponder as we craft our own “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys” in our stories, those complex characters that we willingly invite to ride the carousel of our minds…