MAD MEN SEASON SIX/SEASON FINALE: MAD MEH

by E.C. Fish on June 29, 2013

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madmen_fullbodyPart of the pleasure of watching past seasons of Mad Men was in watching Weiner and Company stack up offhand references over the course of a season that would pay off slowly as the season went on, and marveling at finales that tied up ends you had half-forgotten into a satisfying whole. Season Six reached the point at which tying up its loose ends and adding them up into a satisfying whole became a narrative impossibility at about Episode 4 and a mathematical one by Episode 6. Like many episodes this season, this one suffers from the lousy set-up given it by the first half of the season, during which the show ran about flapping its hands without developing any particular narrative or thematic momentum to speak of.

Like many fans, I approached the finale hoping to find some reason to keep watching the damn thing next year. It’s a tribute to how good the previous seasons of this show have been that this weakest season of Mad Men by far feels both keenly disappointing and somewhat offensive.

I think I may have found it. After this 52 Pick-Up game of a season, the finale gives the deck such a thorough shuffle that I’ll have to watch the first few episodes just to see how they pull some of this shit off, to wit:

BEEN DON SO LONG IT FEELS LIKE UP TO  ME: While the season as a whole seems to have been an exercise in making it up as it went along, the narrative line connecting Don Draper reading Dante on the beach in the premiere through various “levels of hell” and on to the events of the finale has been consistent well past the point of boredom: Don, you see, is reflexively adulterous, has intimacy issues due to <insert whorehouse flashback here>, drinks too much, and wears a sad face — blather, rinse, repeat. While this has provided ample fodder for the Don Draper Death Watch fetishists of the Internet, it has also pretty much smothered what flickering bits of narrative interest the season managed to generate, with the repetitive Don scenes joining the inevitable Don comparisons (because Pete/Peggy/Sally/Ted/Bob are of course The New Dons in much the same way Eric Christmas was The New Dylan) and bleeding the interest out of scene after scene after scene. Episode 3’s  exasperated “we know . . .” turned inevitably into Episode 6’s “. . . and we’re not sure we care,” with the ensuing six episodes (which really did represent a step up in quality) doing little to pique further interest.

As it turns out, the Don Draper death watch was really an anticipation of Don Draper hitting bottom, and the Don Draper sad face just a rather weak Ray Milland impersonation.

Part of what has made this season of Mad Men so unsatisfying is that Weiner and Company have repeatedly made the undergrad writers’ workshop error of mistaking biochemistry for character. With enough sweet genius exceptions out there to prove the rule (including Roger’s Season Five acid trip), any story that begins “the character(s) take(s) a drug, and . . .” is more likely than not going to be a lazily told story, with symptoms instead of motivations and illucid behavior in place of plot. From the premiere’s Maui Wowie to the joints of the bullpen to the hash nipples of California to Dr. Feelgood’s Patented “Vitamin” Shots, the characters of Mad Men have spent a good chunk of the season bombed out of their gourds, with the writers milking same for all the ersatz surreality and cheap confessionals they could manage.

This is also what makes this finale so unsatisfying. The point of Don’s much vaunted “arc” this season would seem to be that Don Draper is an alcoholic. While this is undoubtedly true, and probably has been for the entire run of the series, it is also the least interesting thing about him. When Don — who has inexplicably blown off work to drink in what looks like a fairly seedy tavern instead of his nice, comfortable office like he always does — punches out a proselytizing would-be missionary of Christian fellowship (inspired by a whorehouse flashback, which I have actually begun to have allergic reactions to) and wakes in a drunk tank, bottom has been reached; Don spends the next morning pouring quarts of premium booze down the sink and trying to make things up to Megan.

This might actually attain some narrative altitude if it altered the nature of Don’s behavior one bit. It doesn’t. One of the ways he attempts to make things up to Megan is by hijacking Stan’s idea of moving out to California and turning the Sunkist desk into a thriving agency, chapter and verse. His pitch to Hershey’s Chocolate — which devolves from one of the best Don Draper pitches we’ve heard this season into a verbal whorehouse flashback after Don gets a tremor — has been taken as gutsy display of honesty: “Oooh, look, Don’s being honest!” It wasn’t. It was a dick move, a wholly inappropriate sell-out of the agency’s interests to the cause of Don Draper’s ittle feewings.

This almost completely blunts the impact of the consequences Don faces by episode’s end. Megan’s walk-out leaves only the impression of being long overdue, as, after two seasons wherein he has effectively done nothing, does his suspension and possible dismissal from the agency. “Going down?” says the ad man headhunter Duck has brought in as Don’s possible replacement, driving the point home with a THUD! Down he goes, in another one of the season’s oddly prevalent elevator shots.

Which would have been a nice place to end the episode. Unfortunately, our last shot consists of Don showing his children “where I grew up.” A whorehouse flash-forward. Thank you, Weiner.

PEGGY OLSEN IS NOT A BIMBO; TED CHAUGH MIGHT BE: The finale also manages to take one of the series’ most interesting and likable characters — Peggy Olsen — and one of the season’s most interesting story lines — her complicated, as yet platonic, and rather sweet office infatuation with Ted — and throw them both down the deepest available hole. The reasonable, temperate Peggy we know and that we and Ted love is nowhere to be seen; she seems to have been replaced by a sort of bitter, bad-tempered evil twin, glaring at Ted when his family visits, and responding to just about everything in her every scene (with an obvious exception) with the most negative available emotional response.

Most disheartening is the sight of the series’ best actress, Elizabeth Moss, doing herself up as just another Mad Men bit of tail for a trip to the board room to make Ted as jealous of her date that night as she suddenly is of his family. Peggy’s better than that, and the show used to be. As it stands, Peggy, Ted, and their relationship are sullied beyond repair. The scene in which Ted is standing outside Peggy’s apartment to tell her that he loves her and show her what he means is predictable and joyless; the scene wherein he tells her he’s talked Don out of letting him take his place in California and needs to stay with his family is inevitable and drained of sadness by Peggy’s angry snarling.

“I’m not that girl,” she says when Ted tells her he’s leaving his wife for her, and, sadly, she most certainly is this time around. Having Ted fall in love with Peggy could have been a means of making us fall in love with Peggy all over again. Instead, what could have been a triumphal moment for Peggy at show’s end — Peggy, having effectively been made creative director by the departures of Don and Ted, taking over Don’s office — just leaves me with the depressing impression that, oh, great, she’s Don now. She saw what she wanted, she got it, and she’s having a sad — the booze is right over there, Peg.

Not Being Don is, in the end, what Ted seems to be all about, and “don’t make me be you” the distilled essence of his plea to Don to let him take his place 3000 miles away from Peggy. While he genuinely seems to be trying to do the right and decent thing, taking the feelings of others into account is so foreign to the show’s moral universe that the context of the show and Peggy’s reaction would have us regard him as a sort of cowardly asshole. I wish him well, hope we see more of him, and think wistfully of what might have been.

AND SOME OTHER STUFF: Present but short-shrifted thoroughly are Roger (who is being let back into his son’s life), Joan (who is letting Roger into her son’s life, but not into hers), Bob Benson (who is either palling around with Joan or is not gay after all), and Pete (who Bob effectively destroys with GM because he can’t drive a stick shift and who is moving to California with Ted). Pete’s mother has joined the rolls of the Mad Men Dearly Departed Supporting Characters.

Pete’s estranged wife Trudy gets the episode’s — and thus the season’s — valedictory speech:

It’s going to take you a moment to realize where you are. You’re free. You’re free of her, you’re free of them. You’re free of everything.

After a season wherein character and continuity were sacrificed not to character and plot development but to what looks suspiciously like expedience and self-indulgence, so are the writers of Mad Men, God help us. “Anything Can Happen Day” happened a lot this year,  and with Season Six ending in a series of enormous changes at the last minute, Weiner and Company are damn close to being free of anything we might recognize as Mad Men.

BUT THE ROWERS KEEP ON ROWING . . .: Weiner has admitted in interviews that he hasn’t a clue what Season Seven will look like. Unfortunately, he’s been given some pretty strong incentive to make it look like Season Six: this year’s ratings have been the strongest in the show’s history, and this season’s finale the highest-rated Mad Men episode ever. Apparently Mad Men that doesn’t look like Mad Men is insanely popular, drawing Real Housewives numbers — and likely part of their audience. Whether or not I’ll finally be forced to leave it to them is an open question. I’ll tell you this, though: one more whorehouse flashback and I’ll be finding something better to do with my Sunday evenings.

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E. C. Fish is the editor and publisher of, and a political commentator for, The Spleen. He is really looking forward to getting back to that.

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