Mad Men season six ended a few nights ago and it’s taken me that long to put my thoughts about it in order. For those of you who don’t understand the subtle magic of the best-written television show of the last decade, feel free to skip this article, and next time I promise to put more jokes and boobs. For those that remain, be warned : the following is instead laden with spoilers and gushing praise.
And gifs of Pete Campbell
Mad Men is the story of Don Draper. But, more importantly, Mad Men is the story of what Don Draper represents. The bastard son of a prostitute, raised first on a failing farm and then in a whore-house, Don (or plain old Dick Whitman) escapes his empty life by joining the army, ending up in Korea just long enough to be mistaken for the real, dead Don Draper. Thus does he clothe himself in old odd ends, and seem a saint when most he plays the devil. Don screws, drinks and lies his way to a partner’s position in one of the best advertising agencies of the sixties. He is the man that men want to be and women want to be with.
Don is the American dream personified. He represents what is best about the New World : a world where you don’t need money, a bloodline or a title to get ahead in life. The best of the American dream is that it allows men and women, irrespective of class or provenance, to rise to the top. All they need is genius. Don Draper is a genius at telling lies. He tells lies so completely, so consummately, that he has forgotten who he is. Only through the haze of marijuana smoke beside a pool in L.A. does he remember what it was to be Dick Whitman, growing up poor and alone surrounded by the people society didn’t want to acknowledge.
They say that the greatest mistake is to start believing your own legend. They also say that fame is a mask that eats into the face. Both happen to Don throughout the course of season six as the cracks begin to appear. If Don represents the American dream, he also represents the cracks within that structured mirage. America is a land built on opportunity and cemented by immigrants of many nations who arrived fleeing persecution. The legend of Lady Liberty, a sonnet by Emma Lazarus called The New Colossus, says as much;
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The truth is more prosaic: each tempest-tost wretch that arrives on the shores of the Land of Opportunity brings his own personal hell with him. We never escape our past. Don Draper’s fame had become his reality through an extended process of denial and alcoholism. He had begun to believe his own legend. Only here and there did we see cracks appear in the mask: when his brother hung himself, when his fake wife died of cancer, when his real wife deserted him. Don Draper was always a cross being borne by Dick Whitman but, for a long time, he believed the load he carried wasn’t all that heavy. By doping himself up and enfolding himself in yet another random woman, he believed he was free and, for a while, he bore that burden gladly.
But the past doesn’t go away and Don’s personal journey is, if anything, self-acceptance. He was never, if we’ll be honest, Dick Whitman. He was always a man in the process of becoming the legendary Don Draper. But that by itself isn’t enough. Rather than having sprung from the clay fully-formed, Don has to admit that there was a process behind his invention. And processes have to be acknowledged, because it’s the process that matters – not the finished product.
It’s only in the final moments of Mad Men that you see this process come full circle: as the execrable Duck Phillips (ugh!) smiles at what he supposes is the downfall of his nemesis and his assistant thumbs the elevator and says “going down?”, the camera focuses on Don’s face. The lift doors are closing. The look on his face says, “no”.
Having been through his own private hell in season six, a hell that included not only the usual infidelity and chronic drinking but also love-sickness, nearly drowning and drug-induced flashbacks of dead people, Don’s final act of the season was to lead his children to an abandoned block and show them a house. The house where he grew up. Don’s transformation is coming to the end: I predict in season seven we will see New Don : a Don at peace with who he was and who he is.
Several other characters have, through successive seasons, charted a course towards the mystical land of Don. Chief amongst them was Pete Campbell, the comedy relief of much of season six. Pete, from the beginning, wanted to be Don Draper. He aped him, even after discovering Dick Whitman. “Ape” is the salient word because Petes journey of self-discovery only emphasised how unlike Don he is. He is vain, self-absorbed and casually cruel, sure, but Pete is a little boy wearing large shoes. He will never be anything other than what he is, because his mask is too large for his face. He wants to be a philanderer, a drinker and a mad man in control…but his wife takes control of the situation and leaves, his mother is lost at sea, and his life is perpetually tormented by the smiling Bob Benson (more on him in a second). Pete is a man who is coming to terms with the fact that he will never live up to his idols.
Plus he’s so damn funny. When his mother, who he’s always hated, disappears overboard on a cruise and they discuss fees with a private investigator, he and his brother solemnly look at each other and say, “well, it won’t bring her back”. Pete is a black comedy all on his own, and of all the characters deserves a spin-off. Something a bit like Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Peggy, the office-girl-turned-copywriter-turned-creative-genius, has always admired Don in spite of herself. We last see her sitting in his chair. Throughout this series and previous ones she’s swung between outright adoration of Draper-ness and subdued loathing. Peggy as a woman wants to be loved by a man she despises (the old Odi Et Amo of Catullus, I’m afraid) and settles for Don-lite, Ted Chaugh, a man who can’t hold his drink or his feelings in check. Yet he can’t maintain even the illusion of happiness between them, choosing instead to return to his wife and children and abandon her on the east coast. If Peggy is to learn anything, it’s that she has to be honest with herself. She loves Don Draper and always has.
Several other characters don’t fit this profile at all. Earlier in the season I thought Bob Benson, the smiling accountant, would be the stand-out villain of the year. With his buoyant good looks, charm, and closet homosexuality, Bob reminded me of Patricia Highsmith’s talented Tom Ripley, a man who starts out as a busking musician and discovers a talent for blackmail, murder, impersonation and fraud. Similarly, Bob’s history is a tissue of lies and half-truths, concocted to get him the position of accounts man at CGC. Bob’s romantic overtures towards Pete were largely abandoned later on – I thought they would end with Pete being battered to death by a besotted Bob – but maybe next season. Bob Benson is dangerous, and probably insane. I know this because he smiles a lot.
It’s important to note the setting of Mad Men and the setting of the last season in particular. We know the sixties was an era of change, but 1968 was the year in particular when it seemed like the American dream was falling apart at the seams. Between January and December of that year, the following happened: student riots that left scores dead, civil rights movements and mass rallies, the My Lai massacre, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the sinking of the Scorpion, the hijacking of flight 281, the Zodiac killings, and the election of Richard Milhouse Nixon. 1968 was a year when everything seemed to be falling apart. Vietnam and, it seemed, the Cold War, were unwinnable. America was being attacked internally as well as externally. The hypocrisy, stagnation and denial of the previous decades was catching up with the country. Don Draper’s personal strife – self doubt, denial and fear – are echoes of a larger struggle. The death-throes of an imploding dream. Thematically, this is represented by the implosion of several key relationships, several families, and the increasing sidelining of star turns Bert Cooper and Roger Sterling, symbols of the old America. Sterling in particular is my favourite character: a man who soldiers through two heart attacks, two divorces, having an illegitimate son with the infamous redhead, takes LSD and has his mother die, yet repeatedly shows up to deliver the very best black humour that Mad Men has to offer. I love Roger Sterling. If Don Draper represents the cack-handed young generation dealing with changes on society and culture, Roger Sterling represents a breed of people who went through a depression and a world war without losing poise. Roger Sterling knows that these have been dark times and he still smiles.
I mean, I’d be smiling all the time too.
Because he knows, as do the audience, that good things are still ahead. We know that America, like Don, has yet to have his greatest triumphs. In the next year, man will stand on the moon and, I believe, we will see Don Draper running SC&P, surrounded by people who understand each other and themselves a little better. Mad Men is, at times like this, truly transcendent television: a show that brings many great themes into play: the dualities of Christ and Faust, themes of redemption and self-acceptance and a commentary on what it means to be human. The next season will be the last, and with its passing, something truly great will have passed from the small-screen.