Do you remember the good old days, when things were simpler? A dashing young senator had just taken the White House, suits came in two colors, black and gray, men wore hats, and “mixology” meant combining ice with liquor, not centrifuges and liquid nitrogen. Yes, it was all so much easier back in the heady days of 2007-10, when Mad Men was in bloom, seizing the zeitgeist instead of trying our patience.
I can’t be the only fan who finds himself nostalgic for the nostalgia of those early seasons when everything old felt impossibly new.1 I think both those behind the camera and those in front of it must feel it too. Why else would they have spent this jumbled, stumbling sixth season circling back to previous plots and recycled behavior, picking over the unsatisfying bones of the past like a flock of cirrhotic vultures? Banished are the go-go changes of last year, when Don briefly experimented with loving his wife more than his work. In their place are all the old vices, still staining the scenery like decade-old cigarette smoke: adultery and avarice, hubris and ego. Betty is thin and blonde again, Peggy has been dragged, kissing and screaming, back into the office like Eurydice. And while the company’s logo may be “funky” and fresh, its contents are anything but: Don and Lane have been scrubbed from the masthead as if they’d never existed. “Come with me, we’ll go back to Disneyland,” a backward-looking Don said to Megan in “A Tale of Two Cities,” before what turned out to be his first ever lousy trip to California. “From what I remember, something amazing happened there.” “Yeah,” she replied with a smile. “I made the biggest mistake of my life.”
Everything old isn’t new again. Everything is just suddenly old.
Doubling and disappointment have been the twin themes of Mad Men this year. From the preseason poster to this past Sunday’s penultimate hour, Don Draper has been surrounded by doppelgängers, mocking shadows that flit around him the way ghosts teased and enveloped Dante on his long walk to hell. (At least our Don has an elevator in his building to help speed his descent.) Bob Benson is a younger, hungrier striver. Ted Chaough a nicer, happier competitor ensconced directly across the hall like a sunny reflection. And Sally Draper, once her father’s closest emotional ally, has fallen down a dynastic rabbit hole of his own making: like him, she saw something she shouldn’t through a doorway, her only inheritance a familiar sadness and chilly remove. Even Don’s wife has vanished, or at least the supportive, office-bantering version of her he preferred. Now he’s living with an actress who spends her days portraying split-personality twins and Frenching square-jawed fakers other than the one she’s married to.
A self-made man whose astronaut looks once allowed him to travel effortlessly into anyone’s orbit, Don now seems perpetually floating in the wrong direction, haunted not by the roads not taken but by the ones he already took. Watching Don seek temporary refuge in everything from light BDSM and drugs to last week’s full-on, fetal regression has been fascinating, but it hasn’t been very much fun. While “the ’60s” part of the ’60s2 is playing out on television and police band radio, Mad Men and its stressy protagonists have retreated into their cocoons of privilege and denial. They cower from the sirens on the street below without realizing the danger is already inside the house: A grifter robbed the Drapers blind by pretending to be a phantom from Don’s past, and the only thing Peggy protected herself from with her homemade spear was any chance at the life of a happily married gentrifier, let alone one within delivery distance of Zabar’s.
They’re chasing ghosts at work, too: Margarine is like butter but cheaper and worse, “cranberry cocktail” isn’t exactly juice, and the Chevy Vega was a notorious lemon. The best idea Peggy’s ever had is spending double the money to rip off a horror movie she’s seen twice.3 And the only way Don keeps it alive is by invoking the name of the recently departed Frank Gleason. This was the year when the nonstop flow of sallow-faced character actors arriving for meetings, expecting pastries and flattery, started to feel like a perverse joke. Was there any real difference between Chevy (demanding), Heinz beans (desperate), and Jaguar (disgusting)? It was a telling moment when the only two people from Sterling Cooper to be nominated for a Clio were Megan and Peggy, two women who had vanished months ago. Even the trophies are haunted.
Anticipated by viewers for months, when the high-profile deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy occurred — the latter a faint echo of his brother’s more resonant assassination in Season 3 — they barely ruffled the hair in Stan’s voluminous beard.4 Instead, the more relevant cadaver would appear to be Albert Einstein, whose quote about repetition, not relativity, ruled the day. From Don and Roger making passes at their ex-wives to Pete making eyes at Peggy and fondling his forgotten rifle, these people just won’t stop picking at old wounds.5 This increasingly self-referential insularity has given obsessives like me tons to chew but very little to savor. I wouldn’t be surprised if this Sunday’s season finale ended with Don passed-out drunk on a broken-down carousel.
Season 6 began on a high note with the lush, otherworldly “The Doorway,” an episode some found elliptical and inert but that I loved. Given the mandate — and the extra money — from his network to make another two-hour premiere, Weiner crafted a defiantly odd and artful mini-movie about the possibility of life after death and the impossibility of life in general. Don didn’t speak at all for nearly 10 minutes, stumbled into an otherworldly wedding, and then vomited at a funeral. Don’s Hawaiian “experience” — the one he was unable to put into words and has been chasing ever since — was probably autobiographical for Weiner; the entire thing felt like the sort of story that bubbles up while broiling on a beach somewhere, lulled by the sound of the waves and your second Red Stripe. “The Doorway” was the apotheosis of what Mad Men does better than any other show on television: chasing plot with the logic of dreams, not the strict rigidity of audience expectation or act breaks.
“Experiences are nothing,” Roger announced from his analyst’s couch. “They’re just some pennies you pick up off the floor.” Moments later we met Sylvia, Don’s very Catholic, very married new neighbor. She would be the first of many scuffed pennies our putative hero couldn’t resist picking up this season. The problem is, we’ve been watching Don paw at loose change for years. Roger’s doomy realization about how none of us ever learns anything was both profound and wrenching, but it also makes for some mightily frustrating television.6 It was impossible to shake the feeling that we’d seen all this before — and not just seen it; we’d enjoyed the rich, buttery version. Watching Don dig deep into his back catalogue these past 11 weeks — screwing around,7 chasing a big client, blowing up the agency, getting high with Los Angeles weirdos, spying through keyholes, and, last week, enthusiastically, if hypocritically, ruining other people’s happiness — was pure margarine.
If it sounds grim, that’s because it is. Almost unrelentingly so. Which is why many fans turned their attention away from the repetitive power games at the office and toward the season’s most exciting mystery: Bob Benson. With little else to puzzle over or become invested in,8 the Internet exploded with conspiracy theories about James Wolk’s brown-nosing interloper, most of which felt more suited to the island from Lost than to Mad Men‘s relatively staid Manhattan. Bob was a government spy! Or a muckraking journalist! Or Pete and Peggy’s time-shifted son! The truth was both perfectly obvious and bracingly cynical. Bob wasn’t a fresh face, he was old hat. Sunday’s episode revealed Bob to be nothing more than the latest iteration of Dick Whitman, a charlatan who fits in perfectly within the walls of an advertising agency because it’s one of the few places on earth where a good sizzle is always more valuable than a steak. When Pete confronted Bob last week, it wasn’t just history repeating itself — it was choking on its own tail.
Consider: Last season’s paradigm-challenging newcomers — Dawn, Ginsberg, Megan — were all marginalized and the fresh faces introduced in their stead are anything but: Linda Cardellini, Harry Hamlin, and Ted McGinley (the “Patron Saint of Shark-Jumping”!) are all recognizable TV vets loaded with their own baggage. And the two best episodes of the season, “For Immediate Release” and “The Crash,” both explicitly echoed past highs: The former was a jacked-up cover version of Season 3′s status quo–tipping “Shut the Door. Have a Seat” (zippy caper flick in which the gang reboots the firm), while the latter was a cheap and jittery redo of last year’s exquisitely trippy “Far Away Places” (Roger drops acid, hears music in a vodka bottle). “The Crash,” in particular, seemed significant, its terrifying mania a smart way for Mad Men to tease out a change in the larger culture,9 as the good vibes of the summer of love gave way to the violently harshed mellow of global student riots and antiwar demonstrations.10 Despite this and a few other flashes of brilliance — Pete falling down the stairs, Kenny dancing, Kenny getting shot in the face, anything with Sally or Stan11 — it’s very hard to argue that this hasn’t been Mad Men‘s least satisfying season by a fair margin, a 12-hour treatise on diminishing returns that more than delivered them itself.
I‘m starting to wonder if this wasn’t also the point. Between slugs of scotch, Don Draper is very often a mouthpiece for the emotions of Matthew Weiner, as well as his words.12 And this year Don has been nothing if not self-destructive, doing his dirt a floor away from where he eats, pumping Chevy reps for draft-dodging tips, setting fire to relationships with the diligence and destruction of an arsonist in an oil field. Last year, Weiner gave us an exceptional (and exceptionally dark) season in which Don seemingly got everything he’d ever wanted — a beautiful new wife who accepted his secrets, a swank pad in Manhattan, a car account, a heaping bowl of orange sherbet — and somehow it wasn’t enough, not for Don himself and, seemingly, not for a large swath of the show’s fan base who pined for the “old” Don — the swinging dick, that is, not the sniveling Dick Whitman. (Mad Men‘s old-timey flashbacks remain its worst indulgence, the most unintentionally damning evidence of the uselessness of holding on to the past.)
This year they got him, and I bet most fans have come to regret their desire. Weiner cut his teeth working on The Sopranos, and I can’t help but detect a whiff of David Chase in this season’s depressing spiral. The Sopranos boss was famously furious with the way his audience seemed to love his main character more in equal proportion to all the terrible things he did. Weiner seems to have pushed Don to a similar extreme this year, reinflating his testosterone but strip-mining him of any remaining charm, competence, or swag. What we’re left with isn’t quite the “monster” that Peggy accuses him of being, but it’s just as ugly: a scared little boy who managed to con the world with an opaque exterior. But what’s he hiding now, other than an insatiable appetite? In 1968, Don Draper is an empty Jaguar with tinted windows: great to look at it, but a disaster under the hood.
I honestly don’t know where we go from here, both on Sunday night and in the final season to come. Weiner has said that, like every year, he used up every single idea he had for the show and will have to start fresh again — perhaps with a story dreamed up this summer under the hot Hawaiian sun — in the fall. But the bleakness of this season has made me question just what stories, apart from the death Don seemed to be chasing on Waikiki Beach and at the bottom of a Beverly Hills swimming pool, remain to be told. Mad Men is still the most visually sumptuous, unexpectedly funny, balletically scripted show on television. But Weiner’s admirable commitment to making a point about how people invariably stay trapped in who they are — even if they’ve literally become someone else — has dulled the show’s edge. What we thought was a series about a transforming culture has revealed itself, through the bottom of a highball glass, to be a dirge about a stubborn man who never learns.
Five seasons ago, Don Draper walked a tightrope with the suits from Eastman Kodak, convincing them that their product could both change and comfort consumers. Now, that seems like a glib fantasy. In reality, the 1960s were when lauded ad execs like John Caples ushered in an unsentimental era of market-driven research, putting to pasture the fantasy-fulfilling cowboys who thought they could write a happy ending for every situation, including their own. It was Caples who coined a phrase that could serve as both an epitaph and a warning for Mad Men as it, like Don and Dante, approaches the end of “the road of [its] life”:
“Times change,” Caples said. “People don’t.”