Why is Jon Hamm everyone everywhere all at once this year?

Why is Jon Hamm everyone everywhere all at once this year?

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There’s a painterly sequence in the fifth season of “Fargo,” set to Rush’s “Working Man,” in which Jon Hamm — playing a sheriff with a God complex — surveys the flat expanse of his North Dakota empire from an outdoor hot tub fashioned to look like a barrel. The character, Roy Tillman, is nude, save for a cowboy hat. He’s smoking. And when FBI agents show up to question him, he pauses majestically before them, bits in full view, before theatrically grabbing a towel emblazoned with his own face. (The towel also features a full-body image of him sitting on a horse).

It’s a fun conceit for the guy who played Don Draper to literally drape himself in his own iconicity. And that moment in some ways captures what Jon Hamm has spent 2023 doing: mocking America’s almost scriptural reverence for a particular strain of masculinity, and the part he himself has played in perpetuating it.

Hamm’s character on “Mad Men” was notoriously easy to glorify. Don Draper was a TV antihero so appealing that the actor himself has consistently registered some disgust not just for the character — whom he described as “rotting from the inside out” in 2014 to Time Magazine and as a “horrible person” when he won a Golden Globes award in 2016 for best actor in a TV drama — but also for how much viewers kept rooting for him.

Making no secret of his desire to get away from Don, Hamm has worked pretty hard to play against type — as the kidnapper/cult leader Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” as himself on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” a villain in “Baby Driver,” the by-the-book Air Boss trying to keep Maverick in check in “Top Gun: Maverick,” the jerk in “Bridesmaids,” Fletch in “Confess, Fletch” and a gorgeous idiot on “30 Rock” whose obliviousness to how the world works is obviated by the fact that it (the world) caters to his every whim.

He hasn’t been hiding, in other words. He’s on record as loving comedy, he’s good at it, and he’s been clowning around for years, all but circling and underlining the ways his unsmiling gravitas as TV’s deepest, most depressive ad man was a stylized, highly artificial choice. A performance so self-serious it’s maybe even a little bit silly. He treats the version of American manhood he wielded like a superpower as if it’s a trick — rendering our veneration of it a little absurd every time he deploys that dopey smile. “Really?” he seems to be saying when he’s hamming it up the most. “You fell for this guy?”

Those mild subversions haven’t worked. They usually scan as genial self-deprecation about his own good looks, which only increases the modern-day Marlboro Man’s appeal. Eight years later after “Mad Men” ended, it’s still almost impossible not to see Hamm as Draper.

This year, the actor seems to have gone from dodging the character who made him famous to tackling him head on. He’s on television screens playing three different avatars of extreme masculine power who get exposed (sometimes literally) as dangerous but less than competent. On the third season of Apple TV Plus’s soapy drama “The Morning Show,” Hamm plays Paul Marks, a charming but sinister billionaire trying to acquire embattled network UBA. Marks has Draperesque swagger and charm, but he turns out to be diabolical in a thoroughly uninteresting way — and also (given how easily Jennifer Aniston’s character Alex Levy figured out he was surveilling her) a little bit dumb. The character’s tech success was based on someone else’s code and his space program was fraudulent; he’d been faking reports to NASA and covering up failures in his navigation system. He’s empty, a grubby, entitled cheat whose real gift is an ability to tap into the public’s appetite for men who confirm the cosmetic subtext of the American Dream.

End of carousel

Hamm also returned to “Good Omens,” the comedy based on Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s novel, where he plays the Supreme Archangel Gabriel, Heaven’s top bureaucrat who he described to Variety in 2019 as “the towering, confident person who is supremely certain of his own rectitude but is very often totally wrong.” He noted that Neil Gaiman wanted Gabriel to be American rather than British “because there’s a certain confidence that American businessmen have.” “Trump does it,” Hamm adds, “it’s bulls—, it’s a firm handshake and all this other stuff.”

As God’s confident, beautifully dressed, not especially bright Number Two, Gabriel starts the show’s second season, which aired in July, walking naked through London bearing the traditional “I’ve been fired” office box before him. Freshly dethroned, his memory mysteriously wiped, he’s forgotten who he is and (more important) how he’s supposed to be. Unburdened by these expectations, the once-insufferable character is silly but sincere. Jolly. Humble. And ready, it turns out, to prioritize things other than his work (which would, had he remained confident and committed, have resulted in the literal end of the world).

That Hamm shows up naked in two of the three series he worked on this year doesn’t feel like a coincidence. He’s on display in a new way here — toying not just with his own public image but also with the ways the form of masculinity he’s most famous for is (ahem) packaged.

There is, to be clear, no link whatsoever between Don Draper and the Supreme Archangel Gabriel — save for the fact that both start off as hotshots, high up in the hierarchy in their respective offices. It is nevertheless hard to look at his freshly fired Gabriel without pondering what Don might look like similarly stripped of context. Imagine that gorgeous, beleaguered clotheshorse, that master of surfaces who transformed the story of some guys moving from one office to another into a drama with heart-rending stakes — naked and jobless and looking in every way like his own opposite: clueless, amiable, desperately uncool and totally relieved.

(It matters, of course, that Gabriel’s box, which ostensibly contains the detritus of the version of life one lived in the office, is empty.)

Hamm doesn’t write the roles he plays, so I don’t want overstate what he’s up to here. But his choices do reflect an ambient interest in the symbolic bankruptcy of Cool American Men. I think a lot about an on-set interview Hamm gave while filming “Top Gun: Maverick” that let some ambivalence about Cool Guys bleed through even as he tried to praise Tom Cruise. “He kind of set the tone for a certain style of character for some time,” Hamm said of Cruise’s style of leading man, whom he described as “cocky, kind of overconfident, hubris-gets-in-his-way but he wins out at the end.” He characterizes the public’s obsession with this type, “the kind of guys who don’t exactly follow the rules all the time,” as quintessentially American. “That’s very sexy to people and it’s very intriguing to people and it’s very watchable to people, honestly, and Tom is so perfectly cast in that role.”

This analysis of what’s sexy and watchable “to people” feels informed by Hamm’s exhaustion with Draper worship. Rather than identify with this lineage as a fellow Cool Guy, Hamm seems to take a little pride in how his character Cyclone, the guy he plays who tries to keep Maverick in line, doesn’t fit that profile: He’s “a company man, by the book guy,” Hamm says, who “has a job to do and does it very well, and it’s a lot of responsibility.”

Of Hamm’s 2023 trilogy sending up the exhausted currency of American Manhood, his most complex salvo is undoubtedly Tillman in “Fargo.” The tough, militia-loving lawman could have been silly, a version of the cult leader Hamm played in “Kimmy Schmidt” (who headed up “Rick’s Spooky Church of the Scary Apocalypse”). But Hamm plays him relatively straight even as he lectures all and sundry on freedom, America, God and the “natural order” while sending minions to hunt a disobedient woman down.

Tillman is Coenesque, but he’s not quite reducible to satire, even though his reelection motto is “A Hard Man for Hard Times.” Yes, his hubris is off the charts (“I am the law of the land,” he tells the aforementioned FBI agents.) But he’s not ridiculous. His claim that his constituents love him rings true for good reason: He’s the cowboy America has always adored. The guy with his own code, who resists authority and buys into his own hype so much that other folks do, too.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say Tillman turns out to be bad news. But Hamm walks an interesting line by making him retrograde but seductive: He endows Tillman with enough of that Draper magic to make him seem a little noble, a little inspiring, a little too much of a true believer in himself to be a joke. A maverick, in fact. Before driving home who really pays the price for a maverick’s delusions.

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