***SPOILERS – This article mentions info from the final episodes of Mad Men.***
After the series finale of Mad Men, I started thinking about all the characters, how they developed, and how they ended up. I remember around the end of season five wondering if Kenny (Aaron Staton) was the only good guy on the show. Of course by “good” I mean someone not willing to sacrifice his or her own personal morals for the job. Not that that makes him better than any of the other players involved, but it certainly makes him stand out against such wonderfully broken characters.
The Not so Regular Joe
From the very start of the show, Kenny’s back story sets him apart, even though it is supposed to be the boring “regular Joe” origin story. As detailed on the Mad Men Wiki page, Kenny was born in Vermont, raised in an average family, served his time in the military, and went to college. Compared to the star of the show, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) – who is the illegitimate son of a prostitute, grew up in absolute poverty, and faked his own death to live under an assumed name – Kenny’s back story is humdrum to say the least. However, Kenny’s character was never designed as the foil to Don. The two work together quite well, because each of them performs a different function for the ad agency. Kenny is an accounts man – he handles the clients. Don, on the other hand, is a writer and the art director – he creates the advertisements that make everyone want to buy the client’s product. If Kenny is meant to be the foil to anyone, then he’s the foil to the other accounts man, Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser).
The writers of the show design Kenny and Pete as rivals, but it seems like no one ever gave Kenny the memo. He never acts intimidated by Pete, although he knows Pete’s connections give him a lot of clout. After all, going back to the origin story comparison, Pete Campbell comes from money, he went to an Ivy League college, and his last name alone carries so much weight that he can get into any club or association he wants. With all of that going for him, Kenny simply can’t imagine that Pete would ever be jealous of his success. But that’s what makes Kenny so different.
Unlike all the other key characters of the show – Don, Pete, Peggy, Roger, and Joan – Kenny doesn’t put work first. Until about season six, Kenny resists that workaholic mentality that makes Pete and some of the other characters so despicable and so miserable.
It’s not that Kenny doesn’t care about his job. In fact, his job comes naturally to him, because he is such an honestly nice and compassionate person. For an accounts man, you really need to possess empathy for your clients, or you have to fake it, since the bulk of your job involves babysitting the clients and keeping them happy. For Kenny, he doesn’t have to fake it, and he quickly proves himself to be one of the best. In contrast, Pete’s weasel-like nature makes him appear arrogant and two-faced, so he has to work twice as hard, if not harder, to be almost as good as Kenny.
If Kenny is someone everyone likes, and if he does his job so well, why does everyone leave him behind when McCann buys Sterling Cooper? Simple – because he’s a good guy, and he never would’ve followed through with the plan. Before they started up Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (SCDP), the team pretty much stole their clients that should’ve gone to McCann when McCann made the purchase. Even though the theft resulted in professional freedom, the act involved major dirty dealing, and I’m pretty sure all of the characters recognized that Kenny simply wasn’t that type of guy. He didn’t have the same hunger for the business, and everyone else knew it. They had plenty of respect/jealousy for Kenny, but at the time they needed people who possessed the willingness to double-cross McCann.
Optimistically, I suppose you could argue that when the key players left to start SCDP, they had no idea if it would be a success, so perhaps they didn’t want to drag anyone else down with them. Several of them were on extremely friendly terms with Kenny, which is why they invited him to work with SCDP, despite Pete’s wishes against the decision. Nevertheless, in all honesty, I cannot give the key players the benefit of the doubt here. What they did to start SCDP was calculative, strategic, and self-serving. It was business. It was anti-Kenny.
Even the Good Can Break
Before Kenny joined up with SCDP, we learned that his experiences at McCann were not very enjoyable. He even made a few enemies over there, which led to his eventual termination that we saw this last season in “Severance.” How did a nice guy like Kenny make enemies? My guess – he didn’t play ball.
All throughout the show, we saw how the other characters were willing to use any type of leverage they had to make a deal work. Most of the characters who didn’t do so lost their jobs and fell to the wayside. In comparison, Kenny made it perfectly clear that he simply was not willing to use such leverage. Even when his own father-in-law was one of the clients, Kenny refused to use nepotism. While those actions showed his strong character, they didn’t win him any followers at McCann. Had he not been so good at his job, Kenny probably wouldn’t have been invited to SCDP. In fact, his skill is probably the only thing that saved him from being fired with all the other mostly moralistic non-workaholics.
The negative experiences that Kenny went through at McCann marked the point when his character was on the verge of breaking. He somehow managed to survive his time at McCann fairly unscathed before he joined up with SCDP. As the new company grew, merged, and became SC&P, Kenny’s star began to rise, and he got put into a management position over accounts. But more responsibility at the job created more stress for him in his private life, and it changed his entire persona.
When he was just an accounts man and lower on the corporate totem pole, he could do his job and leave it at the office when he went home at night. As his hard work paid off and he started to climb the corporate ladder, he still held to his beliefs and was able to separate the job from his life. Once he became the accounts man for Chevy, though, he could no longer balance his life at work with his life at home, because Chevy demanded all of Kenny’s attention.
When SC&P started pulling in major corporations, the game changed completely for Kenny. After his brief experience working for McCann, you might think that he should have seen this game change coming, but I think he and the rest of the team still saw themselves as a small, privately owned ad agency. They wanted bigger clients, they wined and dined those clients, but I don’t think they ever thought about what would happen when they finally landed those accounts. In today’s business world, they would’ve needed some sort of organizational redesign or something similar to handle such a changeover in the business, but that wasn’t really even a concept during the 1960s, which is when the story takes place. With greed as the motivating factor for SC&P, Kenny could do nothing else but keep the clients happy, no matter the fallout.
But the boys at Chevy were more than Kenny or anyone else bargained for. They pushed Kenny to join them on their corporate expense account pleasure tours, but they constantly jerked him around about their feelings on the ad campaigns. When Kenny wasn’t getting pressure from the Chevy boys, he kept getting pressure from everyone at SC&P to find out how the client was doing. Perhaps what finally broke Kenny, though, was the hunting accident when the Chevy boys’ actions left Kenny permanently disfigured with an eye patch.
From this point on, Kenny finally becomes one of the broken people at SC&P. Regardless, his level of brokenness always felt temporary in comparison to his colleagues. Sure – he had a lot of stress that he could have redirected elsewhere, but the parts of Kenny that were broken were not beyond mending. I think that’s why the writers decided to show him as physically injured as a direct result of the job. All of his injuries remained on the surface. He’d be scarred for life, but those scars would heal and he could still function. Everyone else at the company maintained their beautiful façades as a ruse, allowing each of them to hide their broken parts that would never be fully mended.
Nice Guy Revenge
After losing an eye, getting overworked, and then getting fired, you might expect Kenny to break beyond repair – but that’s not how Kenny plays the game of life. All of the physical and emotional scars he received in the advertising world made him realize that he didn’t always have to play the nice guy. There were ways to bow out respectfully and get revenge, which is what Kenny did.
In the final season of the show, McCann finally purchases and absorbs SC&P. When they absorb the company, they start firing people they don’t need or want. Kenny is one of the first on the chopping block, since when he was with McCann before he didn’t make any allies. When Roger and Pete give him the news and fire him, Roger demands that if Kenny wants his sizable severance package, then he will help Pete re-secure all of Kenny’s accounts. Kenny agrees, because he’s in shock, and in that moment I think that Kenny was truly on the fence about whether he should walk out with dignity or find a way to stick it to McCann. What pushed him over the edge was the way that Pete treated him in the end.
Pete acted as if this was all just business, that this would give Kenny time to get back to his writing. Of course, Pete passively belittles Kenny’s writing skills, and then makes the comment that Kenny’s eye patch would be sure to make his picture on the back of his book jackets look more interesting. Pete never even realizes how cruel and dismissive he acts, but Pete has no real people skills, so no surprise there.
So what is Kenny’s revenge? He finally uses nepotism to his advantage, and, through the help of his father-in-law, he lands a major position in the marketing department of a chemical company that is one of McCann’s/SC&P’s clients. Kenny’s new career puts Pete and Roger in the uncomfortable position of having to kiss up to Kenny to keep him happy if they want to keep the chemical company as their client.
Like I said – it’s a nice guy’s version of revenge, and it feels a bit lackluster. Kenny does force Pete and Roger to squirm a bit, making the agency buy Kenny a client’s dinner, but ultimately Kenny does not use his new leverage in a way that would truly hurt either Pete or Roger. Instead of making their professional lives miserable, Kenny simply fires them. But in the end, I think this action shows Kenny getting back to who he is – the good guy. He didn’t sink to their level. He didn’t become the world’s worst client just to watch them go crazy. No – he just cut ties with them, because good guys don’t hurt people.