By Josh Oakley
Mad Men, as a piece of art, represents its central character well. They are both enigmas, hiding secrets, almost building to climaxes but sliding out of them for one reason or another. Every season of the show has held Don Draper at its core, but this sixth outing shifted the ensemble to a distant second. Even the tales of Bob Benson and Peggy revolved around the man, even more than before. We began the season with the specter of death, the closing eyes of a man nearly passing away, just inches away from Don. That man, having survived, hangs over the proceedings of Mad Men’s 1968. This man is absent from the finale, though. This seems odd, as this is the episode where the most tangible losses are felt for Don, his wife and job leaving him for an undetermined amount of time. But here he is honest. His actions have caught up to him, and it must be something close to relief. See the way his daughter looks at him in the closing moments of this penultimate season. The look is absent of the fury that overwhelmed her mere moments ago. There is, if not understanding, than the path to acceptance. There is something where before there was nothing.
That jail cell, filled with men who feel they deserve to be there much more than Don does, represents a true rock bottom we only thought to be the fetal position at the closing of “Quality of Mercy”. Don stops drinking cold turkey, doing what he thinks is best. The season’s greatest scene comes as a consequence of this, as he pours his true past to executives from Hershey chocolates. Jon Hamm’s performance is deeply felt, the wounds that he often bottles up leaking out over everything. There is an unmasking present in this moment, something more powerful than any fan theory could have imagined. Don’s behavior in the meeting causes his fellow partners to lay him off for what they say is only a matter of months. But Duck Phillips, the headhunter, arrives with a client who asks Don: “Going down?”. Coming on the heels of Megan’s moment of clarity, wherein she storms out of their apartment after cleansing herself of her pent up disappointment in Don, the answer seems to be yes. Don seems to have continued digging, finding yet another low that he can fall to. But I think he will land. This will not be a sturdy landing, or a whole one. The gains are not external, but the battle for his soul, the whole of his being, not the excess that forms what everyone else witnesses. Don has always attempted to heal the outer aspects of his consistently detrimental life, whenever he has attempted to fix anything at all. But with the talk of religion here, and, again, that final scene, Mad Men proves it has not yet given up on Dick Whitman. And maybe he has not yet given up on himself.
This sense of internal struggle vs. external gain puts to shame the endless Mad Men fan theories concocted throughout the season. This isn’t a criticism; I too indulged in pointless guesswork. Most of this stemmed from the dour atmosphere this season hung over the proceedings. The multiple mentions of Rosemary’s Baby, the red herring t-shirt of Sharon Tate, the constant mentions of death, as mentioned above, from the opening shot. That mood intensified throughout, but not for any straightforward purpose. This was not foreshadowing of a twist ending concerning a time-travelling Bob Benson making sure Megan Draper was never born at all. The tension that made every episode stomach churning originated from places far more interesting than that.
The first goes back to what I was saying about Don, and the fight he finally seems to be waging against his life of choking dishonesty. The dread here was not meant to be signposts leading towards a tragic death, and it never paid off as such (unless you were tremendously interested in Pete’s mother). Concern was to be placed within the smaller, more personal decisions these characters made. This caused Don’s Hershey-inspired confession to be more white-knuckle than any horror movie in recent memory. It is never what happens to these characters; it is what they cause, or how they react to those things they are handed (or to the stripping away of things they once had). The idea of decision making is heavily utilized in the finale, culminating in Peggy’s “Well aren’t you lucky? To have decisions?” directed with wild vehemence towards the hapless Ted Chaough. Ted has positioned himself for escape from the temptation of Peggy, in order to retain the family he has. There are a number of ways to interpret this decision from an unbiased perspective, but having followed her through six years of this bullshit, it is difficult to side with anyone but Peggy. She is becoming more and more lost, torn from her former mentor by his asinine behavior, and from her lover by that same behavior (and a helping of the lover's guilt, an emotion rarely felt on this show). Now Peggy doesn’t have a say in her romantic life; Ted has taken that from her. Megan takes up the mantle of calling the shots when she becomes ultimately fed up with Don’s selfishness. He’s made the decision to stay in New York, and while there’s nothing she can do about that, she can make plenty of her own choices. The encroaching morbidity established in the opening of the season does not lead to Megan’s murder, but to a push to end the relationship that hadn’t been working for a year. The decision she made proclaimed more than any decision made unto her.
That lingering fear, the coldness of mortality also works to construct for the audience the tenor of 1968. Of course most, if not all, viewers knew that each lamentable tragedy was nearing so reveals of a plot-driven nature, when concerned with the world at large, were impossible. And even those of us born in the 90’s have heard endlessly how tumultuous and important the year was to American history; the loss of hope, the uprising of counter-culture, and the apprehension felt towards Nixon. With the abundance of both fiction and fact that everyone has heard surrounding 1968, creating that sense of shock seems impossible. I believe this to be why Mad Men’s sixth season became so odd. The anxiety that engulfed the world was best expressed through the notion of everything feeling just the slightest bit off. As I said above, I believe “The Crash” to be almost entirely a reaction to the death of RFK, and think it is dynamic as such. When Ted eulogizes the late partner of his former firm, his words could easily describe the man who died less than a decade after his brother had already stolen assurance from the hearts of his countrymen. The absence of logic, similar to an alcoholic bender but distinct in its mania, captured the unfurling hysteria the poisoned many who were gripping a man who stood for so much more than he could have ever been. RFK’s loss was deeply felt, and “The Crash” did a brilliant job at showing the personal effects of a public man’s death.
The unease captured in this season was never meant to foreshadow soap opera-esque twists, but instead illuminate the horror of 1968, especially from the perspective of a group of people old enough and white enough to remember and covet the decades before. This idea of looking backwards is nothing new for the show. The first season finale, “The Wheel” provided Don with a slideshow of his family and a beautiful, stinging speech on nostalgia. The idea that it always was better than it is can be dangerous to live inside of. Don knows this, and consistently pushes away the honesty of what actually was in order to cope. He evades the cruelty of his past for false stories such as his dad tussling his hair while buying a candy bar. That past, the one imagined, largely through advertising, has ruined Don. The distance between his life and life he creates on paper has deadened his soul.
The first episode of the season, “The Doorway”, is named for a speech that Roger gives to his therapist. He describes life as a series of doors. They close behind you immediately, and you are left to find yet another door to pass through. “Life is supposed to be a path, and you go along, and these things happen to you, and they’re supposed to change your direction,” he says, “but that’s not true. Turns out experiences are nothing”. The brunt of season six largely backs Roger up, as characters spiraled into behavior that has harmed them in the past. This is, as themes on Mad Men often are, most true of Don. I didn’t care all that much for the actuality of Don’s newest affair, but what it said was vital to the show’s beliefs. Don has never changed; he has just traveled from door to door, believing, for some reason, that the other side will be different. It’s the definition of insanity. Don almost never allows his rotten core to rise to the surface, or at least never for long enough to do anything about it. Here, though, he unsheathes that darkness in front of people who make chocolate bars for a living. He even brings his children to the place where much of that turmoil hails from. The events of 1968 represent Don in the way that he has, over the course of the show, been beaten further and further down. He had momentary happiness with Megan, but that didn’t last for long, and his old behaviors began once again. Don is sick, both in his alcoholism, and in something deeper, something rooted beneath any penetrable layer. Season six thrashed against those layers until, in those final moments, a light long coated over began to shine through. Peggy has already taken his seat in his office, at least in her mind. Bob Benson has become the new enigma. Pete, the man attempting to patch over the holes he burrowed in his home life. Don walked down the path these figures now stand upon, but he seems to have gotten off.
Mad Men has one season left, if reports are true, and this timeline makes sense. Showrunner Matthew Weiner wanted to contain the show to the 1960’s, and we’ve reached Thanksgiving of ’68. It would be utterly pointless to speculate as to what will occur in those final thirteen episodes, as even Don’s employment at SC&P is uncertain. We can, though, look at what that year will bring, as the season will likely be reflective of its time, just as this ’68 season so aggressively was. Important on the progressive front are the Stonewall riots. Though they proved a sizeable step forward for the gay rights movement, this was still an event marred by violence. The summer will bring Woodstock, but the winter will quickly erase those positive vibes with the Altamont Free Concert. Vietnam is still in full swing, and Nixon is inaugurated, bringing about a term that will erase optimism even further. Yet, in the middle of all the warning signs and death and continued discouragement, a group of human beings in a manmade machine will travel into space. They will arrive on the moon, an object both foreign and omnipresent. Neil Armstrong will step forth from that glorified box and place his feet on ground that had once seemed unreachable. That will not erase the terrors back on earth, but maybe all is not lost. Maybe Don, too, can move towards something like hope. All you need is one small step to change course.
- I know I spent almost all of that time discussing Don, but that’s what the season felt like: an essay on Don; questioning that man’s ability to change. Other characters were given good beats and stories, and Elisabeth Moss & Christina Hendricks continued to give two of the best performances on television, but almost every event congealed into a moment for Don. This is even addressed by virtue of the audience not knowing that Don is being put out to pasture until he is let go. We are so completely in that man’s headspace this year that all of the other goings-on seem there to add thematic depth to him.
- Now that isn’t to say that the show is failing with the other characters; they even introduced two new members, Bob Benson and Jim Cutler, and brought back Ted Chaough to tremendous effect. Peggy had an intriguing story, though it still felt very much like a work in progress. And Joan’s largely being sidelined was a bit of a disappointment, though whenever the season did focus on her, it was fantastic.
- The other vital character, besides Megan, who while I like more than many people do, was mostly used as reaction this year, is Sally. As with Peggy, this season seems like a prologue to the final chapter in her story, but the groundwork is laid tremendously. Her discovery of her father’s misdeeds is played for a brutal effect, and the horrifying path she’s headed down looks to be fascinating (especially as she behaves in relation to her father; both get in legal trouble due to alcohol in the season finale).
- Another specter of death that continues to hang over the company: Even though the “P” in SC&P now stands for partners, nobody has forgotten whose name it once implied. Lane Pryce is rarely mentioned in the sixth season, but he still adds to its morose nature.