In Defense of Jon Hamm!

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 4 2010 11:50 AM

In Defense of Jon Hamm!

What? Julia, you are a demanding viewer indeed. Did you really expect Jon Hamm to have "millions of infinitely shaded 'What?'s"? That's a lot of shadings for one little word!

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I actually share your reservations about Hamm I think he may, as you suggest, have found in Don Draper the perfect role for his particular talents (and looks). Certainly his turn as a stiff FBI agent in The Town   didn't suggest great range. I agree that his comedic work has often been terrific, though I always wonder when I see him on 30 Rock  whether what I'm responding to is mostly just the idea of Hamm behaving in such an un-Draper-like fashion. All that said, I had a different response to the "What?" montage than you did I was quite impressed at how much feeling and meaning Hamm could pack into that interrogative. It made me think more highly of his acting ability. And while I don't see millions of shadings in this montage, I was surprised by how many different ways Hamm used the word. I count at least eight distinct "What?"s in the video:

1. The "I am genuinely surprised" what : See 0:14, 0:25, 1:16, 1:18.
2. The "are you fucking kidding me?" what  (like the surprised what , but tinged with anger or even rage): See 0:17, 0:26.
3. The "I am so befuddled I can't pronounce the T" wha (also contains genuine surprise, but there's an air of sadness about it; typically shows up when Don hears bad news about a loved one): See 0:21, 0:22.
4. The "I didn't hear what you said" what  (i.e., Don actually didn't hear what you said and would like you to repeat it): See 1:04.
5. The "I'm pretty sure I heard what you said, but you better not have said what I think you said" what (often deployed with Betty): See 0:15, 0:43.
6. The defensive "What did I do?" what : See 0:18, 0:53.
7. The hip-hop, "Yeah, I did it, what are you going to do about it?" what (like No. 6, but more defiant than defensive): 0:31, 0:45.
8. The bemused what (said with a little smile): See 0:56.

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That's a pretty nice selection of "What?"s for one actor to have in his quiver. Sure, the video shows Hamm repeating some tics, but that's realistic, isn't it? Do you really have a custom what  for every occasion? I think not!

Readers who are in my corner: I'm sure I missed some types of Draper "What?"s in the video. Add yours in the comments.  

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.