A few months ago, I wrote an article here about how to get pumped for the new season of Mad Men. In Season Five, the show had gotten so overtly damning to its characters and I had trouble caring what happened next. This season, the damnation only continued, as blatantly suggested by Don reading the Inferno in the first scene, and by his insistence, like some villainous Dracula, that his mistress, Sylvia, turn her cross necklace away from him whilst they canoodled.
I’ve enjoyed a lot of this season, but it’s also been exhausting. I realized tonight, to my horror, that with only one episode left in the season, I’m actually tired of thinking and talking about Mad Men, for the first time ever. Maybe if I had been watching the similarly draggy third season as it aired, rather than binge-watching it, Season Six might not set the precedent for that.
Season Six has been consistently comparable to Season Three, in fact–much of it has been aimless, and many scenes have been boring in the way that, on another show, you would say, “Oh, they’re setting something up here.” Except Mad Men viewers know at this point that a lot of the show doesn’t add up to anything except cool subtext and anti-climax, (as is often the case in real life). Season Three chose to break up the monotony with a lawnmower accident and musical numbers, and President Kennedy was killed. This year the characters faced the deaths of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy (the former was what Emily Nussbaum at The New Yorker called “a tone poem of white-person awkwardness,” and the latter was used, to shocking effect, as merely a footnote to Don getting dumped), and in their own lives there has been a car crash, a dart-stabbing, a death by cancer, an off-screen mugging, a bayonetting, and a Dick-Cheney-style shot to the face while hunting.
It sounds pretty good when I put it that way. And it has been, kind of. I think the problem I have is not only that the show gone back to the same “Don cheats on his wife, he has everything but he takes it for granted, what can possibly save him?” arc it broke away from years ago to such compelling effect, but that it did so to teach us a lesson. That lesson is: times change, but people don’t necessarily change or learn from their mistakes, man. The Hell imagery of the season premiere, in addition to the cross thing and the final moment of most recent episode, “The Quality of Mercy,” where Peggy calls Don a monster, have turned that subtle theme into the overt lesson it’s become.
All this, of course, does not mean I will stop thinking or talking about the show. “The Quality of Mercy,” for instance, had a lot of great moments to offer: Pete Campbell admitting that Bob Benson, the conniving mystery man who came on to him in the previous episode, is handsome. A reference to Vaughn Meader, who is a very obscure and fascinating historical footnote. Everything relating to accounts man and actually-decent-person Ken Cosgrove, who this past season has assumed a role of slapstick martyrdom in the name of entertaining hedonistic Chevy representatives. And I love it any time the characters enthusiastically act out a hacky ad they plan on pitching, as they did in “Mercy” for a Rosemary’s Baby-themed baby aspirin ad.
There is an episode of Seinfeld in which George asks Jerry to appear unfunny, so his date will think George is the funniest guy in the room. Jerry takes it too far, and, when asked about birthdays, he makes a proto-Draperesque speech which I think also sums up the tone and message of the past season of Mad Men:
“Well, birthdays are merely symbolic of how another year has gone by and how little we’ve grown. No matter how desperate we are that someday a better self will emerge, with each flicker of the candles on the cake, we know it’s not to be; that for the rest of our sad, wretched pathetic lives, this is who we are to the bitter end.”
At its best, Mad Men is like Seinfeld in that it is hilarious in a similarly hopeless, looking-down-on-its-characters (all spoiled, amoral Manhattanites) way. Episode eight of this season, “The Crash,” fit this description—Ken Cosgrove dances on a broken foot, Don spends the whole time in an upper-induced frenzy trying to “pitch” a way to woo back Sylvia, and Stan gets a dart to the arm in a crazed game of William Tell. The show now only seems capable of being fun at the expense of its characters—the kind of triumphant moments they might have been capable of earlier in the series are gone almost entirely.
In one of Don’s few cool moments this season, he tells off a Jaguar representative, but the moment is fleeting—Don hadn’t considered that losing Jaguar means Joan prostituted herself to that same creep last season for nothing. Joan makes a speech about how we all love to watch Don go around making decisions without thinking of the consequences, whether or not he cares how it effects everyone else. She represents the viewer in that moment: our love of seeing him act recklessly enables that recklessness.
But if the show is pointing its finger at me, I plead guilty. In the most recent episode, when Don embarrassed Ted Chaugh at a meeting with a client, ostensibly in the name of saving money but possibly also out of jealousy towards him and his relationship with Peggy, I realized I’m totally comfortable with Don just being a villain all the time. The show itself seems to be mourning the loss of Don’s soul unduly, and it would make much better enablers of us if it allowed that subtext to stay in the background.
The season finale of Mad Men airs Sunday, June 23 on AMC.