Stakes (No Worcestershire Sauce Nor Fangs Required)

In Just What Is It About Mad Men?, I asked what draws viewers to the hit show season after season. I still don’t have that answer. What I do have is another question that perhaps the writers collected will discuss.

What are the stakes for Don Draper? In other words, what does he have to lose and how high are those stakes for him? For us? The discussion is relevant to the the writing of single stories such as novels and feature films as well as to the writing of stories told in series.

Season one gives us Draper with his culturally idyllic family, upwardly mobile career, and an enormous secret that could bring it all crashing down. This is powerful stuff if we are made to be invested in the personal importance of the prize and to empathize with the protagonist.

Later in the series, Draper’s career is threatened by exposure but crisis is avoided a few times over. That’s one half of Mad Men’s stakes equation. The other is tackled when one of his great fears comes to fruition as his behavior destroys his family.

When this life-shattering fear come true Draper, for his part, recovers quickly. This may be one of the great differences between episodic series and feature film. Stories in series have long had the benefit of time between episodes for major impact to settle emotionally with the audience and, presumably with the characters. (This luxury has been shifting with the advent of demand-based viewing.) With feature film, the cause-effect continuum needs to be upheld and further, lead to even greater effect until the story’s climactic event. In feature film, if the protagonist’s greatest fear comes true and doesn’t drastically alter his life by making all his worst nightmares reality, then something has gone terribly wrong somewhere.

The takeaway here is that medium does matter when it comes to stakes — but only in that it shifts how crisis events unfold. Series characters must live on even after the worst and they need not be profoundly changed (and often are not). To capture our interest, we must understand what a character has to lose and what that will mean for her. Without dire consequence, we’re just watching one event after another. But you knew that already, didn’t you?

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