A 'Mad Men' character study: Roger Sterling, better living through chemistry

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Image Credit: Frank Ockenfels/AMC

This is shaping up to be the best Mad Men season yet. There are a a number of reasons for that — the bold variations in storytelling styles from week to week; the already vast shades of mood displayed by dizzy newlywed Don Draper; the saga of Peggy Olson, destined to become either an ad agency superstar or the female Freddie Rumsen, it’s her choice — but I’m going to narrow this post down to one current live wire sparking the series: Roger Sterling.

As played by John Slattery, Roger has always served two simultaneous functions on the show. He’s Don’s closest office confidant (at least until the arrival of Megan) and thus the person most likely to prise out information from the show’s complex central figure. Roger also serves as the audience surrogate: Through wisecracks and an alcohol-loosened mind, he speaks thoughts we have, or wish we’d had, about what’s going on at any given moment. (His immortal words as Pete and Lane began to square off for fisticuffs: “I know cooler heads should step in, but am I the only one who wants to see this?”) The show’s writers, even beyond Matthew Weiner, seem to have a very clear idea of just how to portray Roger, a cold cad with a warm heart. His utterly charming badinage with little Sally at the awards dinner this week was a perfect example of the way Roger can be a marvelous companion to just about anyone. (Who wouldn’t want to sit next to him at a dinner party and be privy to his murmured insights and insults, pointing out the power players and ridiculing the Margaret Dumonts in the room? Roger is probably the only Mad Men character other than Peggy who’d be ultra-aware that Dow Corning was making napalm as well as sturdy dishware at the time of that soiree.)

The key to Roger is that he’s a comic-relief character with a profoundly tragic aspect. A silver fox born with a silver spoon in his mouth — it’s his dad’s name that leads off the ad agency’s title, not Roger’s — Roger probably spent the first half of his career gliding through life with occasional opportunities to show that he’s smart and can work hard. It’s that changeling aspect to Roger’s nature that probably helped him bond, initially, with Don, himself an identity shape-shifter who could go undetected even by Jared Harris if he was in his David Robert Jones/Fringe character rather than his Lane Pryce/Mad Men form. In his blackened heart, Roger believes his mojo could disappear at any moment, and his current rough patch, competing with Pete Campbell for accounts — a humiliating situation for a man like Roger — only confirms this for him.

I was immensely pleased that this past Sunday’s Mad Men did not consign Roger’s LSD trip from the previous episode to a one-off lark. Like a good number of people who experiment with hallucinogens, Roger’s outlook on life seems to have been changed, or at least shifted into a new perspective. Meeting up with his ex-wife for a marvelously intimate, endearing, conniving conversation (congrats to Talia Balsam, Slattery’s real-life wife, for another excellent cameo), Roger was sincere when he said that he’d undergone “a life-changing experience.”

Combine work pressure with opening the doors of perception and Roger was bound to have some acting-out behavior — not that the old goat needed an acid trip to make him receptive to the oral ministrations of a woman as comely as Julia Ormond’s character in this week’s episode. (Collateral mind-blow casualty: Poor Sally!)

It’s going to be fascinating, I’d bet, to trace Roger’s arc over this season. He’s already negotiated the smoothest marital exit strategy in Mad Men history when, post acid trip, he convinced wife Jane that he’d mind-melded her desire for them to separate. I think it’s possible that Weiner might have a character plan for Roger that’s similar to the one Anthony Powell devised for his endlessly fascinating supporting character Kenneth Widmerpool in his great novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time. Widmerpool is more of a plodder than Roger ever was, one always viewed with amused suspicion by the novel’s Draper-ish narrator, Nick Jenkins. But the progression of Widmerpool’s character over the Dance‘s 12 volumes is not dissimilar to Roger’s: He begins an eager-beaver achiever, settles into a defensive middle age, only to find himself swayed by another aspect of 1960s counterculture — in Widmerpool’s case, a sham guru, for whom Widmerpool throws over his career, with semi-tragic, semi-farcical results.

Who knows if a similar fate awaits Roger Sterling? I can picture Roger in tie-dye sack-cloth attire, chanting between licks of LSD buttons. And when I see John Slattery, his hair askew in an un-Roger-like manner as he drives a Lincoln MKX in a commercial that airs frequently during Mad Men, I sometimes think that the actor and the writers could take Roger anywhere, motoring swiftly into his future that is our troubled past.

Twitter: @kentucker


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