Note: Don’t read this if you haven’t watched the entire sixth season of Mad Men.
Great television spoils us. And even worse, even as it raises our expectations for what serialized drama can be, we quickly employ our newly evolved standards against the very thing that inspired us. This is, naturally, what has happened with Mad Men. After five knockout seasons, it seemed more viewers were on patrol for a decline in quality than were actually enjoying the vicissitudes of the sixth season.
I’ll confess to occasionally being one of them. There were times when it seemed the series lacked the same tug on me that earlier seasons had—I put off watching it at times; I wasn’t sure I was missing anything. Most of the criticism stayed locked on Jon Hamm’s Don Draper. Hadn’t we indeed seen this movie before? The drunkenness, the philandering, the flashbacks and the fantasy sequences. He seemed trapped on a treadmill to nowhere. Other characters seemed to be suffering the same fate, quippy Roger, unlikeable Pete, vexed Peggy. Had the show overstayed its welcome like an articulate but ultimately exhausting party guest, someone who hours ago sounded insightful but now simply tries the patience?
Then something like “In Care Of” happens—the sixth season finale—and you are reminded, again, of the show’s seemingly endless capacity to deliver in a way that sears the gut and haunts the mind. I still cannot rid myself of the image of a broken, battered Don staring down at his rebellious daughter now confronted with the ruin of his childhood, with she now clearly cast as the inheritor of his sins. Just as the fifth season ended with a truly indelible scene—Don striding away from Megan Draper across a darkened soundstage—so did the sixth, but on an entirely different note.
Compare the two endings and you develop a heightened appreciation for what creator Matthew Weiner is attempting to accomplish. He gives his audience what it thinks it wants and then makes it reconsider that. When I wrote, a year ago, that I felt a certain thrill seeing Don return to his tomcatting ways, it was accompanied by a pang of guilt, the same duality that existed with Tony Soprano. How could I cheer on the corruption of a soul?
The Sopranos made us accomplices in Tony’s misdeeds—and Weiner does that here. What we want, of course, is for Don to get his act together. Just not too quickly, because, well, where’s the fun in that? But we aren’t allowed to have the Don we want. Just like Megan, we’re stuck with the one we get. Don Draper doesn’t have demons; he has pathologies. More often than not, those deepen even as we struggle to rise above them.
And, as with The Sopranos before it, one of the preeminent themes of Mad Men is how difficult it is to change. Talk may be cheap, but moments of clarity can also be found in the bargain bin. Self-transformation requires sustained effort along with a certain uprooting of the foundation. All of us want to be better people. Some of us even deliver. But more often than not, we backslide, and then curse ourselves for it, vow to do better, and surrender again.
The greatness of Mad Men is that what makes Don special, both as a character and as a professional at his craft, is also what can make him so repellent. It really is a turn of the screw. A healthy confidence is twisted into narcissism. Fear of failure is supplanted by pure self-loathing. Genius yields to imitation and finally parody. Passion alchemizes into self-destructiveness.
Many have commented that Mad Men, at heart, is really a show about writing a television program and the kind of tension discussed above is what lies within creatives. Being gifted with command of language means that you can talk yourself into anything. And so Don, for a moment in the finale, really does believe he can alter the course of his life simply by moving west, by reconstituting the bubble that first led to his marriage with Megan, a picture just as irresistible as the first one he draws for the Hershey execs, the one that comes complete with tousled hair.
It’s a lie and it doesn’t take long for him to figure it out. It may have been being confronted with his partner Ted Chaough’s own deception–and Ted’s belief that running away will safeguard his marriage. That leads to the now infamous pitch meeting with Hershey, which has already become one of the most talked about and pivotal scenes in the show’s history.
For people like Don, the truth doesn’t simply arrive, it attacks. His adult life has been dedicated to the suppression of truth. A year ago, I wrote that I had once believed Mad Men was a show about subverting upper-middle class values along the lines of the Revolutionary Road-style literary fiction of the 1960s. But eventually it became clear to me that it’s literally a show about advertising, about packaging, about the lies companies tell the world and about the lies we tell ourselves. It also, to its credit, has been a show that features characters who are self-aware. Which means Don, himself a creation, has always comprehended the layers of deception upon which he operated, even prospered. What he needed was a mechanism for coping with it. Hence, the drinking.
But even that, as viewers witnessed this season, really is not helping him anymore. For all the AA chatter that has surrounded this year’s set of episodes, there is a basic principle at work here for Don. It’s not that he’s going to crash his car or land in jail (both of which have already happened), it’s that, to quote the Verve, the drugs don’t work. He can’t keep Dick Whitman buried any longer.
That’s what drove the Hershey scene: Not his despair over Sally or the loss of his downstairs girlfriend, but that Don can no longer use alcohol–or work or sex–to keep the overwhelming sense that he is a fraud at bay. The season presented several alternate versions of Don: Ted, Pete, Peggy, Bob Benson, for our consideration. But its brilliance lay in the merger of the two agencies. It forced Don to work with a true peer for the first time and to watch his protege, Peggy, declare Ted the better man. That had to be a body blow to Don’s waning confidence. Once you no longer think you’re the smartest guy in the world, it isn’t long before you doubt whether you’re talented at all. It throws acid on all of your choices.
The enduring appeal of Mad Men is that all of us, at times, feel like Don. We all believe we are frauds on the verge of being found out, whether it is at work or at home. Our internal selves live in a state of Cold War with our external ones. There are moments when the funhouse mirror shatters and a real one replaces it. Don Draper is tired of lying. But lying is the thing that makes his life work. More than that, Don, like the rest of of us, has to come to grips with the idea that the person he is, rather than person he aspires to be, is his true self.
Does that mean he can never work in the ad game again? Obviously, he must. That’s the show, after all. But subordinating the truth comes at a high price. We’ll find out next year, the final year, whether he’s ready to pay it. Or if he indeed is the falling man in the credits.