Two statements to start off this report on the just finished sixth season of Mad Men: First, this was probably the weakest season of Mad Men yet. Second, even at its weakest, Mad Men is more interesting and provides more food for thought than almost any other show on television.
There’s one major reason for this season’s overall weakness: Don Draper. I’ve further broken down the problems with Don into two related issues. First, it too often feels like we’re revisiting old ground with Don Draper. This is never more clear than through the flashbacks we see this season to his childhood. These flashbacks are both way too on the nose regarding how Don sees woman, especially in the context in which they’re shown, and they don’t really reveal insight that we don’t already know. Don seems to be repeating behavior and storylines from the past several times during the season, falling back into the same cheating patterns, being needlessly mean to Peggy, and just making everybody’s life difficult in ways similar to what he’s done before.
Secondly, Don’s the worst. Don was never a great guy, and from the first episode in which we’re introduced to him, he’s stepping out on his wife, a pattern he repeats through two marriages. Still, while Don was no hero, there was still an essential humanity deep down that we could relate to and understand, even if not feel sorry for or sympathize with. Even when he was wrong, which was often, he felt, and he tried, or at least tried to try, and at work he was often the good guy even when he wasn’t at home.
None of these are any longer the case. It’s as if Matt Weiner set out this season with the goal of destroying every shred of humanity within Don and turning him into a full fledged monster, which is what Peggy calls him late in the season when he attempts to both sabotage a meeting for Ted and take credit away from Peggy in one fell swoop. He not only cheats on his new wife, but he’s also incredibly degrading to the woman he cheats with. Oh, and it happens, to add insult to injury, that she’s his neighbor, and her husband is one of the only men Don seems to genuinely like in the entirety of Mad Men. He makes constant trouble for the firm after the merger, seemingly going out of his way to frustrate Ted and belittle Peggy. The coup de grace may have been when his daughter catches him in flagrante with the neighbor, destroying what respect she had left for her dad.
There’s even more emphasis on what a drunk Don has become this season than in previous years. While he’s always been a serious drinker evolving into a borderline alcoholic, he’s clearly a full-fledged alcoholic here and sober in very few scenes over the course of the season ( (maybe more than borderline, I’m no expert at the diagnosis, but there’s never been as much emphasis on the destructive power of drink to his life). In the final episode, he seems to at least care about trying to give up booze, throwing out his bottles and not drinking at work, and even though he’s suspended by his partners, this could be the first step in a powerful redemption story. I’m not sure it’s a redemption story I want to see though. Don’s come so far, and we’ve come so far with him that I’m not sure I want to see Don redeemed at this point. Maybe I’m not giving enough credit to the plight of alcoholism, a very serious disease, and I apologize if I’m not, but his actions have seemed deplorable whether or not he was drinking. It would be great if he cleaned himself up for his character within the show, but I’m not convinced he’ll ever be a person I want to root for again.
If anyone came out worse than Don this season, it was Pete. Pete, who may have gotten the second most screen time this year after Don, has always been the anti-Don in a way. Don breaks all the rules, but, until this season, it didn’t matter, because Don always gets the breaks. He screws up big time, but makes up for it somehow by pulling a big pitch out of his ass or seducing the next woman to come along with sweet talk after he fails the previous one. Don finally does get his comeuppance here, but while it’s hard to feel sympathy for him, it’s hard to not feel at least somewhat sympathetic for Pete. Pete was the primary antagonist in the show’s early seasons but now that everything goes wrong for him anyway, it’s hard to continue to root against him. He wants to get away merely with part of what Don does effortlessly, but it never works. While Don gets away with cheating for years, Pete’s caught out in his first foray in his new apartment in the city. He think he solves an awkward situation in which he catches his father-in-law in a whorehouse, but the joke’s on him when his father-and-law would rather spill the beans on Pete’s infidelity, even if he knows that the same damning evidence will be visited on him. There was no greater physical symbolism for Pete’s stumbles than his quite literal stumble down the stairs midway through the season. It’s not that Pete doesn’t deserve a lot of what he’s getting, but it’s hard to feel like even he deserves all this misfortune in such a short period of time.
Mad Men struggled to reckon with the almost mythic historical importance of 1968, a year with multiple assassinations, infamous riots, and the election of Nixon, which symbolically ended the decade in many ways. There were occasionally powerful historical scenes, including after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, but too often I thought the efforts to have the characters react to the specific events of the time fell flat. This, as has been noted in many blogs and media outlets, has been particularly true in regards to race. My biggest problem isn’t Mad Men’s failure to deal adequately with the race-related issues that pervaded the ‘60s, although the show certainly has been largely unsuccessful. My problem is that they make a half-assed effort. I’d rather the show largely ignore race than attempt to put a couple of toes in the water only to take them right back out when the water’s too cold. Mad Men introduced a black character Dawn, only to basically never use her.
Even for its faults, there’s plenty to enjoy in the new season. Peggy, Don’s one time protégé, may be well on her way to surpassing the master, and her rise is cataloged wonderfully, even with the surreal stabbing of her now ex-boyfriend Abe. Joan and Roger shine in every scene they get; one only wishes they could get more screen time. Joan’s turning what she thought was a date into a recruitment dinner with a potential client was a great step in her evolution as a businesswoman.
There were a handful of new characters this season. The shady Bob Benson, who generated more conspiracy theories than any other new Mad Men character, turned out so far to be a doppelganger of Don’s; a man without a past who has invented a future for himself. He’s helped out several people as part of his eager beaver please anyone he meets routine, but we’ve started to see a dark side when he sets up Pete for failure at Chevy.
Ted existed before this season but never as this meaty a character, and his contrast and competition with Don was one of the most enjoyable plots of the season. Ted has his weaknesses, which are on clear display in the last episode when he jerks Peggy around romantically. Still, the inclusion of Ted makes us realize just how unusual, and not in a good way, Don is. Being a creative isn’t an excuse for his treatment of his employees and his management strategy. Also, the scene of Ted flying Don in his tiny plane was a season-long highlight. Ted’s longtime partner Jim Cutler was a welcome minor character as well this season, adding notes of humor to a show that can easily be dragged down by Don’s (and Pete’s) unrelenting self-seriousness.
I look forward to a complete rewatch at some point where I can see if the material comes together better in a shorter period of time. As I said before, it’s still Mad Men. There’s so much to chew on, and the fact that there is, even if it doesn’t always work, makes Mad Men clear appointment viewing. Still, I hope the next and last season pulls together a little bit better.