I suppose it’s sort of a cumulative effect that over the past six seasons, Matthew Weiner has pushed the notion of death and dying at his audience from nearly every possible angle so they would begin to believe something awful was coming. And, in the last two seasons in particular, there has been the pervasive sense that things in the rather gloomy world of Mad Men were about to get even gloomier.
As such, the series finds itself near the end 1968; it has been a year that brought about so much turmoil and conflict with the Vietnam War, the radicalization the nation’s citizens and a precipitous increase in crime – all of which the series has depicted through the noise of the world becoming increasingly louder and heard through the closed doors and windows of Manhattan high rises (specifically, the one shared by Don and Megan Draper).
Season 6 began with a pitch Don made to Sheraton where he said, “How do you get to heaven? Something terrible has to happen.” That ominous note gave way to things like the death of Roger Sterling’s mother and the guy who shines his shoes, and then later, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. And, of course, there was the ostensible death of SCDP and CGC (although that birthed something new, but not necessarily something good – which is, in and of itself a mirror of the Dick Whitman way). Then there was Don’s temporary death in a California swimming pool, after the normally restorative effects of California remained elusive.
But perhaps most significant is the death that occurred in the waning moments of ‘Favors,’ when Don Draper ostensibly died as a father in the eyes of his daughter Sally, and then, in the following episode, ‘The Quality of Mercy,’ where Don essentially exhumed the rotting corpse of his own decency to drag it through the office and kill it again by performing a brutal, emotional evisceration of Peggy and Ted, as though he was trying to pull others into the misery of his own life. If anything, the death being intimated over the course of the season was not the death of a major character at all, but rather the death of character in Don Draper.
And now, at the end of season 6 (and so close to the series’ conclusion), it’s a completely different Don Draper than before, one that is not remotely charming or likeable (even in that roguish sort of way that makes television characters tick nowadays). Weiner and his writers have made him as emotionally unappealing as possible, so that when he finally starts turning things around by pouring his booze down the sink and proposing a move to California with Megan – a chance for them relive a time in their life when they were happy and optimistic about the future – his renewal of self goes south very quickly. It’s like Ted told him when he noticed Don’s hand shaking before the meeting with Hershey’s: “You can’t stop cold like that.” Apparently, that sage advice holds true for being a bastard as much as it does an alcoholic.
Season 5 ended with Nancy Sinatra singing ‘You Only Live Twice,’ as a woman approached Don, foreshadowing that the philandering of his past would soon become a part of his future. In season 6, we see the gruesome manifestation of that fanciful insinuation. So much of this season has been spent examining doubles and cheap imitations, while characters settled into old routines or spent time revisiting the past. It became clear that doing the same thing over again, or pursuing something a second time as a way to re-create the rush of when it initially happened, simply doesn’t produce the same high; it leads to a spiritual death and a hollowness of character.
Don may have been seeking what he loves so much – i.e., the beginnings of things – but as season 6 has shown, nothing is new; so often new is just a repackaged memory, or a pale imitation glossing over the fact that everything and everyone is inching ever closer toward the end.
And so, Don finds himself on an elevator going down, after the partners greet him in the office with an intervention, of sorts, and he’s placed on temporary leave from the company. Peggy loses Ted to his family and California – which also takes Pete, who has found some kind of balance in his life now that he is free of his mother and has come to an understanding with Trudy. It’s a series of new beginnings and a new status quo emerging from the rubble of what was a troublesome and difficult point in time.
This was a chaotic and uneven season for what is normally a thematically sound television series, but something tells me that when the season is looked at as a whole, the chaos and unevenness may feel more deliberate. Perhaps it was all part of the season 6 design – a way to better illustrate the turmoil and commotion of the year it was navigating.
Let’s keep in mind that this season is Matthew Weiner’s slow wind up to the pitch that will close the series out for good. And that could mean the series will end with its characters in 1969 – the year humankind first landed on the moon. Maybe after his awful year, Don Draper can have a rebound that’s spiritually rejuvenating. After all, he’s been told before how much he looks like an astronaut.
Mad Men will return for its final season sometime in 2014 on AMC.
Photos: Jaimie Trueblood/AMC