As always, speculation is rife as we approach this Sunday’s Emmy Awards. Of course, there are your classic questions: Which new shows will break through to the winner’s circle? And which old ones—like some crotchety old congressman who refuses to vacate his seat despite no longer having any idea which party he belongs to, or in fact, where the men’s room is—might stubbornly cling to their trophies until they’re forced off the air by the proverbial Pharaoh who did not know Joseph?
But the biggest question is the same as it’s been for the past several years: Are they finally going to let Jon Hamm win? With an almost unprecedented 14 nominations (including those for his various comedy and variety performances, which are legion) the star of Mad Men has fast become the Susan Lucci of prime time—annually recognized for his routinely excellent work, but never quite able to close the deal. It’s a strange position for Hamm to be in. One would think that the undisputed male anti-hero lead of a prestige cable show (which has won multiple Emmys for writing, directing, design, and four times for the top prize of “Outstanding Drama Series,”) would be exactly the kind of performer the Academy likes to reward. And yet.
The conventional wisdom on Hamm’s empty Emmy shelf has traditionally been twofold. The first piece is that, as good as Hamm is, he’s been consistently out-acted by his rivals, particularly Bryan Cranston on Breaking Bad. To this I say, chacun à son goût—it’s all a matter of taste. Walter White, the mild-mannered chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin is certainly the showier role, but in terms of difficulty, it’s not exactly like you can compare performances the way you can, say, Olympic high dives. There’s no one right way to act.
The second prevailing feeling is that Mad Men, by and large, is seen as a show that relies chiefly on the strength of its writing and design and has thus been amply rewarded in that vein. This argument, I think, hews a little closer to the truth, but not quite for the reason most people think.
Much has written about the coded “Jewishness” of Don Draper, or drawn parallels between his storyline and the plight of the immigrant struggling to assimilate. And it’s a fair comparison. Don Draper, as he is presented to us, is a man attempting to maintain an ultimately fictive identity. He changed his name. He changed his accent. He deeply committed to the idea of having a perfect trophy wife on his arm for appearances-sake, but is often—I would venture mostly—attracted to dark, complicated, and (usually) Jewish women who see him for who he is. Take, for example, Rachel Menken, who knew as soon as Don begged her to run away from him that he was far from the kind of man you could build a life with. Or Bobbie Barrett, who saw him for the striving social climber she recognized herself to be. They had his number, which, of course, was the one thing Don Draper could never allow anyone to really dial.
In short, Don Draper is basically who half of the men in Hollywood are attempting—with various degrees of success—to be. So, it’s easy to imagine the line of thinking of the vast majority of the Academy come voting time: If I can do it, how hard can it be? The answer is: pretty damn hard. It’s one thing to be an outwardly arrogant, privately self-loathing media type in real life. To do it compellingly on screen, for seven seasons, while still somehow remaining the most attractive man on television is nigh on impossible.
It’s time for Hamm to get the Hollywood ending he deserves. After all, even Susan Lucci won in the end.