Hornblower the hero and broken men without honour

Peggy is visiting her sister, Anita, in S2E08 (A Night to Remember) and drops off C.S. Forester’s Hornblower in the West Indies for Anita’s husband, Gerry Respola, who’s laid up with a “bad back” and “hates his job.”

Gerry isn’t in the episode and no one’s seen reading the book, but it’s on screen, so I read it.

Basic summary: Horatio Hornblower is Commander-in-chief of His Majesty’s ships and vessels in the West Indies and trying to keep order in the post-Napoleonic War world. He fights pirates, revolutionaries, a hurricane and all the things you’d expect in a swashbuckling, sea-faring, tall ship adventure.

He is full of honour, does the right thing, and is loyal to his doting wife and son.

Here’s a preview.

Imagine Don Draper at the helm of one of these ships.

To state the blindingly obvious: this is a different kind of hero than the ones in Mad Men.

There are no honourable men in Mad Men. Of course there were likely no honourable men in the Hornblower saga as well if the writer chose to highlight the highly questionable colonial era of ship faring Britons and French and Spanish, but that’s not how those types of stories were written at the time.

Mad Men is square in the antihero camp while Hornblower is the honourable hero. It’s interesting to think about this dichotomy in storytelling. Which are you drawn to? Are you okay with a hero’s faults and interior contradictions being exposed or do you want to root for him? The answers to those questions will likely illuminate what series you’re into.

Don Draper along with Walter White, Tony Soprano, Jackie Peyton, Marty Byrde are all emblematic of the modern antihero.

We don’t cheer for Don Draper, and we definitely don’t in this season and even more so in this episode. He’s in the super gross zone in season two. Betty is humiliated at a dinner party in E08 after being humiliated at a fundraiser in E07 and spirals to the point of telling Don to not come home.

Don Draper, Roger Sterling, Pete Campbell and the rest are all liars, cheaters, and manipulators without honour. We watch them do awful things to people around them but sympathise because we know we’re also capable of erring I suppose.

That, or we’re naively hoping they do something honourable.

I found it harder to connect with Hornblower (as I generally do with the shiny heroes) because their decisions and actions are just so predictable. Antiheroes throw you off because you don’t know what they’ll do. There is more intrigue because there is less certainty.

Mad Men and Hornblower are at separate ends of the storytelling spectrum. The Hornblower tales look back nostalgically at the post-Napoleonic era where the question of right and wrong is always easy to see because the characters are so clearly arrogant, false or evil versus good, true and honourable.

Mad Men looks back on a highly questionable age and shines a light on inequality, racism, sexism, substance abuse, and on and on.

One can easily picture Don Draper at the helm of a ship and Hornblower in an advertising agency physically. All other aspects of their characters, however, would need to be rewritten for them to fit in either series.

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