Sadness hangs over Mad Men — not just the seventh season premiere, but the entire show. I won’t describe the new episode here, because I want everyone to experience it fresh, as I did. But I can say, to the shock of no one who watches Matthew Weiner’s period drama, that it’s about choices made and not made, roads taken or not taken, and the sense of melancholy regret that people sometimes feel no matter what decisions they made or how their lives turned out. A good friend recently told me he stopped watching Mad Men after season four because it became apparent to him that this would be a show on which almost nobody changed in any meaningful way; he quit The Sopranos after a few seasons for the same reason. I know a number of people who make similar choices about what to watch and what to skip. They want their shows to offer some hope of meaningful change. They don’t like watching people hurt each other and drown. I don’t agree with that point of view, but I respect it. Life is short. The way we choose to spend our time defines our philosophy and shapes our mood. Some people don’t want to keep investing in a show about characters who keep fouling their own nests, then building new ones, then fouling those as well. I get it. It’s not what I require of art, but I get it.
Maybe you’re tired of watching Don Draper destroy healthy relationships by cheating, then leave the wreckage behind and start over again in a new relationship, then destroy that relationship by cheating, and by drinking too much. Maybe you’re tired of watching him nearly ruin his career, then get it under control, then start boozing again. Maybe you’re tired of seeing Peggy Olson rise despite boys’ club condescension and become an authority figure so powerful that sexism barely touches her, only to see her made subordinate again, sometimes to a man who’s her equal (like Don, or Ted), but more often to a petty, limited person. Maybe you’re tired of watching Roger Sterling glide through life, sinking lower and lower, to the point where his very presence in the office, with or without wrinkled clothes and a boozy stench, surprises his colleagues. Maybe you wish that the proud, beautiful, capable Joan hadn’t made such devastating impulsive decisions, such as getting pregnant with Roger’s baby; maybe you wish she hadn’t caved to social pressure (marrying a rapist so that she wouldn’t have to live as a “spinster”); maybe you wish she hadn’t taken what fight promoters would call a dive for the short-end money, sleeping with a client in exchange for a partnership only to be treated as a glorified secretary who’s slept her way up the ladder. Maybe you hear Don Draper’s season two admonition to Peggy post-birth, that “it will shock you how much it never happened” and feel a bad chill, because he’s telling the kind of truth that hurts other people.
The promise of reinvention is very American and essentially optimistic. But as Don, the show’s protagonist and philosophical touchstone, keeps illustrating, it’s also primally selfish. And it’s not as proactive as he makes it sound. His certitude as he advocates obeying one’s nature — by which he means one’s appetites — is another adman’s trick, a Get Out of Jail Free Card rebranded as a Golden Ticket. Don’s logic is the logic of an alcoholic who’s used to backing himself into corners and then painting cartoon escape hatches on the wall.
To greater or lesser degrees, every major character has pulled off his or her own version of Don Draper’s Looney Tunes–Houdini routine. Peggy got pregnant by Pete and gave the baby up, wisely preserving her autonomy but also helping punchable Pete escape the consequences of his actions. Like Don, Pete is a serial cheater, but even when he is made to squirm and suffer for his transgressions, in the end, he eventually leaves the crime scene behind and returns to his old ways. Don at least is aware, sometimes punishingly self-aware, of the magnitude of his screw-ups, but Pete rarely seems to appreciate how close he comes to social death. He’s blithely unselfconscious, the Forrest Gump of adulterers. We like him because he’s actually good at his job, and because his sputtering and his pipsqueak Don Draper impression amuse us. In season six, Ted Chaough had his own infidelity issues. His marriage-of-true-minds connection with Peggy paved the way for their tryst and made the whole thing seem less sad and tawdry than the Don/Roger/Pete usual. But you get down to it, he was still a married man out of a country music song, stringing along a mistress who’d rather be a mate. He gets to walk away. Peggy, Joan, Roger — everyone gets to walk away.
Yes, there are moments when they can’t help but remember a past embarrassment, scandal, or sin. Every time Joan brought her baby into the office, it affected Roger — and Pete and Peggy, too. And poor Sally Draper will never entirely get over what she saw when she rounded that corner at the Codfish Ball and saw her step-grandmother servicing Uncle Rog. And she’ll never entirely get over catching Sylvia and her dad in the act. It’s bad enough to stumble onto your parents having sex. Therapy can help her manage it. Therapy could probably help a lot of these characters. But what would help even more is Don Draper’s secret weapon: the power of forgetting.
Many have remarked on Mad Men’s fascination with reinvention. The word reinvention has a nice ring. It’s sunny. It’s forward-thinking. It makes it sound as though whatever change you made was for the best. But reinvention has a mate. Its name is amnesia. And I don’t mean the kind of amnesia that Pete’s mistress Beth experienced in season five, after electroshock cured her of depression but also wiped out any mental trace of their furtive love. I’m talking about willed amnesia. Don Draper’s “never happened” credo is a salesman’s pitch for self-inflicted, intentional amnesia. It’s the mental version of a physical act: walking away.
The show crystalizes this idea visually, and hauntingly, at the end of season five, when Don Draper leaves his wife Megan on the sound stage and walks away from her through darkness to the delightfully on-the-nose “You Only Live Twice.” Megan, enclosed by the doorway, grows smaller and smaller behind him, foreshadowing the way Don will shut her out emotionally, and resume cheating and boozing in season six. The last line of the season five finale, posed by a new woman Don meets at a bar, is a come-on, but it’s also a rhetorical question: “Are you alone?” Yes, of course he’s alone; that’s how he has to be, and that’s how he wants to be, and how he needs to be. The boy can’t help it. The entire sequence had a dreamlike, even figurative feeling. What sound stage has a working bar? Don wasn’t just walking away from a room, he was taking his first psychological steps in a journey away from a commitment he made. Don painted that door.
We like all of the major characters — almost all of the major characters — because of their skill and relentless drive. The men are morally worse than the women, for the most part, but the women aren’t saints, and both the boys and the girls of Mad Men are cursed by a tendency to act first and ask questions later. Most of us have one such character in our lives; hopefully it’s not us. Every week, Mad Men presents us with an entire repertory company. It is indeed asking a lot of its audience. In recent seasons, Weiner and his writing staff have added “masochism” to the request list. Peggy’s love life in season six was even more of a train wreck than it usually is. I’ve had a lot of bad breakups in my life, but none of them involved a bayonet.
And as fascinating as Don has managed to be all these years, I got tired of him in season six, in the way that you become tired of, well, a cheating drunk who can’t even muster the energy to keep up appearances anymore. He was doughier last year, sweatier, paler, and altogether more desperate. His affair with Sylvia lacked the power-fantasy glamour of his other affairs. It was more ordinary, almost as mundane as Pete’s fling with Beth. Even people who are comfortable with bleak portraits of incorrigible screw-ups found their patience tested. The wave graph of Don’s personal fortunes was making people seasick. It’s not bourgeoisie to wonder if Mad Men would ever give Don a shred of hope; a chance to remake himself in a more profound and productive way. Nor was it hopelessly middlebrow to wish for Roger to save himself from ruin and reclaim some of his old spark and maybe some dignity, too. To wish for Peggy to end the show in the fabled catbird seat isn’t unreasonable. She’s given us so much to root for; so of course we would want her not merely to survive, but be vindicated. To win. To be carried aloft by fate to thunderous applause, or at least toss her hat in the air like Mary Tyler Moore. To watch any engrossing drama is to feel for fictional people the way we feel for real-life friends. Even when they piss us off, we wish them the best.
Unfortunately, the universe of Mad Men is not a karmically based deposit-and-withdraw system. Even when the characters seem to be moving toward some unspecified axis leading to happiness, their progress is agonizingly slow, as if they’re walking in high wind. We’ve invested in them, and sometimes the dividends seem puny. But still we watch. At least, we masochists who don’t care about likability or happy endings watch. It’s not a self-help guide. But there is some value in Mad Men’s spectacle of misbehavior. The show has nothing to teach us. It’s just being honest about the truths people discover and then disregard, and the lies they tell themselves, as history moves around them. They’re doing the best they can.