Mad Men’s elusiveness makes it a deeply frustrating, deeply satisfying show. It’s obvious in some ways and subtle in others. At times, it seems to practice a version of magician’s misdirection, convincing you that it’s up to only one thing when in fact it’s doing two or three other things simultaneously, often in ways so clever or slippery that it’s tough to prove intent. What is it up to? What is it saying? Where is it taking us? We can’t say for sure, but we can have fun trying.
That’s why, despite declaring season six the show’s weakest season overall in my finale recap, I left the door open for reconsideration. I’ve watched enough TV to know that while initial, gut reactions are valid — Netflix notwithstanding, we watch first-run TV shows in pieces — snapshot reactions don’t add up to a big picture until you lay them all out in a collage after the finale and stare at them.
Speaking of big pictures, the season’s teaser poster is being parsed again, post-finale, and treated as a magic key that will unlock the show, or at least clear some things up. USA Today’s Patrick Ryan speculates that the policemen, whom some fans thought heralded Don getting arrested for fraud and desertion, or even Megan’s murder in a Sharon Tate–type atrocity, were “more symbolic of the sense of dread that hung over this season rather than foreshadowing a specific travesty.” And the plane flying over the street “could signify new beginnings for the agency as well as its associates.” He also wondered if the central image, of Don Draper seeming to pass himself on the street, was an allusion to all the Don Draper–Bob Benson–as-twins stuff, as well as the Don Draper–Dick Whitman schism detailed in seasons one through five. I much prefer the idea that the poster anticipates Don’s decision to crawl out of his misery pit, get clean (of both alcoholism and assholism), and, in a sense, turn away from himself, or from the swaggering alpha male image he’d fabricated over the years. I also like the idea that the poster symbolizes Don finally coming to terms with his past as Dick Whitman, the traumatized boy pictured in the show’s heavy-handed but still disturbing flashbacks.
What I love most about the show — so much that I don’t mind its miscalculations and occasional dud experiments — is that it’s ultimately impossible to read that poster, or the show it advertises, in any single way, and be sure that the interpretation will trump all others. That’s what I mean when I say the show practices the art of plausible deniability. They might have meant exactly what you think they meant, or they might have meant something else, or maybe they don’t know exactly what they meant, because they’re not making the kind of show in which A plus B equals C.
I used to find Matthew Weiner’s post–Mad Men explanatory talks on AMC irritating, because I don’t think any artist should actively participate in telling audiences what he’s trying to do. But I stopped being annoyed when I realized that Weiner almost never decoded anything truly important. His comments are often about character motivation and storytelling structure — pointing out, for instance, that an episode’s two main plotlines mirrored each other in some way. What Weiner doesn’t do, for the most part, is parse the show’s metaphors and symbols in relation to history: personal or national. I admire him for that, because that’s the truly great part of Mad Men, the thing that makes it so much more than just a weekly chronicle of good-looking people screwing each other, figuratively or literally.
Yes, this series practices the literal-minded, this-equals-that kind of drama — but only on the surface. Its depths are more complex, because it’s in the depths that Mad Men comes close to dream logic. Often a situation or a character’s choice will mean exactly what you think it means, but at the same time there’ll be something else to it, something that connects to another character or situation in a glancing or uncanny way.
That’s why I never put much stock in the Sherlock Holmes approach toward predicting what Mad Men might do next, based on what it’s done before, or what the critic thinks it’s doing at that moment. This season it was predicted that Megan’s Sharon Tate T-shirt and the constant presence of police sirens on the soundtrack and all the Los Angeles scenes foreshadowed Megan getting butchered, à la Tate by the Manson family. That didn’t happen. Salon’s big season-five prediction — that Pete Campbell would commit suicide by jumping from a building, thus becoming the silhouetted character in the opening credits — didn’t happen, either. Weiner told the Wrap’s Tim Molloy that the jumper wasn’t supposed to be Don or Pete or anyone else, and that it wasn’t predictive of anything. “That jump out the window was always meant to be symbolic and internal,” he said. “I never meant it literally.” This was in response to all the fans approaching Weiner and giving him their great idea for ending the series: have somebody jump out of a window, just like in the opening credits! (Let’s not even talk about the D.B. Cooper theory — that the show will end with Don hijacking a plane and bailing out, thus becoming one of America’s most notorious missing persons cases.)
Those kinds of scenarios are fun to fantasize about, and Mad Men’s peculiar and special tone encourages flights of fancy. But aside from the foreshadowing of Lane Pryce’s suicide in season five, which I delved into in a collaborative video essay for Vulture, I can’t think of many major developments that you could look back on in retrospect and say, “Yes, of course, they totally telegraphed this, and we all should have known it was going to happen, and in exactly that way.” It’s not a science experiment; we’re not taking note of chemicals in play and predicting when and how they’ll combust. It’s a story. It’s entertainment. It’s art. And that means a big part of the show’s writing must be intuitive, with Weiner and his staff working as close to their unconscious as they can while still worrying about continuity and motivation.
“I know this sounds like a joke,” Weiner told the Wrap, “but none of it is real.” Those last five words are key, I think. They don’t mean that we shouldn’t bond with the characters and care what happens to them. More likely he’s warning us, as fiction writers sometimes have to, that in a good story, there’s more going on than who goes where and does what to whom — and that in the really good stories, you can feel that “more” roiling beneath every moment of the tale, even though you can’t specifically identify what’s causing it.
“We always try to keep in mind previous relationships, and something ends up being a setup and you don’t even realize it,” Weiner said. “I wish I were smart enough to figure out how to map the whole thing out, but I really go season-by-season.” Which is to say that he and the other writers are improvising in slow-motion, just like pretty much every other group of people who’ve ever made a TV show. That’s why I suspect it’s wiser to spelunk in Mad Men’s depths without getting hung up on “proving” what the work is trying to do or predicting what it will do next. (This is a lesson I have to keep re-learning myself, by the way: I once predicted that Mad Men wouldn’t kill off a major character in season five, because it would have been too obvious, and by this point I’m pretty sure that my “Pete is closeted” theory is a non-starter — though you never know!)
Along those lines, the best bit of Mad Men writing I’ve seen this year is a video: “How Mad Men Fought Vietnam,” by Forrest Wickman and Chris Wade of Slate. It’s modeled on a video essay by Amanda Marcotte and Kevin Lee that ran at my old blog, Press Play, which posited that the episode of Mad Men in which the characters reacted to JFK’s assassination was redundantly literal because the show had already dealt with the event in metaphor, via the “lawnmower episode.”
The Slate video takes a similar tack with season six of Mad Men, zeroing in on clips and lines to make a case that this season was a coded working-through of the national misadventure of Vietnam. Throughout, there were loosely-associated images of living and dead soldiers, violence and intimations of violence, and men being “shipped off” to a distant location to fight a “war” for which they were underequipped and ill-prepared, and that proceeded to tear the “country” apart. (The distant land was Detroit and the war was the Chevy account; Chevy is a division of GM, one of America’s biggest munitions companies.) In the first episode, Don encounters a living soldier who perhaps reminds him of himself as a young man; the soldier shows up later in a drug hallucination, telling Don he’s dead. The most amazing catch is the video’s juxtaposition of one of the soldier’s lines in the pilot and Don’s line to Ted in the bar, right before they decide to merge their agencies. Don repeats a variation of the soldier’s line to Ted: “Hey, Lieutenant, wanna get into some trouble?”
There’s a lot of stuff in the video that feels like overreaching — suggesting, for instance, that Stan’s preference for green shirts is related to the fate of his cousin, a soldier who dies overseas — but when you think about the dream-logic nuttiness of Peggy wounding her boyfriend with, of all things, a bayonet, maybe it’s not farfetched after all. While watching the piece, I realized that Ken’s shooting echoes situations in Norman Mailer’s novel “Why We Are in Vietnam,” which is about a bunch of faux-macho guys on a hunting trip.
Now I’ll offer my own theory about season six, and try to follow my own advice and not sell it too hard.
I rewatched a few sixth season episodes again over the weekend and felt only slightly more charitable toward them; they were more thoughtful and engrossing than almost anything else on TV, but by the standards of previous Mad Men seasons, they felt sluggish and lumpy and unfocused. There were hints of fruitful subplots that didn’t go anywhere: Joan trying to escape the shadow of her sex-for-partnership deal from season five and taking baby steps toward becoming a full-fledged Mad Woman by seizing the Avon account; Michael Ginsberg’s blind date with a young woman who seemed to understand him better than he’d expected; Roger’s ongoing issues with his daughter, which often seemed shoehorned into episodes as an afterthought.
And I still think the entire run of the season, the first half especially, suffered from putting Don Draper’s suffering in the foreground. The problem isn’t that the character is no longer watchable — thanks to Jon Hamm’s magnificently morose performance, he still is, even when he’s staggering deeper into Dante’s Inferno, Old Fashioned in one hand, cigarette in the other.
The problem is that Don no longer seems as deep as he once did, because we’ve gotten to know him too well. We’ve explored every nook and cranny of his psyche. We’ve seen him disappoint everybody, and himself, over and over again. He sank so low this year that he can’t go any further, and he screwed up at work so much that you couldn’t say, “Well, his personal life is a disaster, but he’s great at his job.” He was almost a zero this year. The mystery and allure are gone. Now he feels more like a collection of fiction writers’ notes for a character than a real person. Don Draper was always a construct, of course, but now he feels like one and plays like one. We see through him. He’s old and tired, as both a man and a character. We’ve had enough of him.
If Don Draper is, in some sense, America, or a representation of America’s self-image being that of a white male heterosexual patriarch lording it over women, gays, and people of different ethnicities and colors, perhaps the show was right to rub our noses in his failures and highlight how outmoded and self-serving, hypocritical, and entitled his values had become. If one of Mad Men’s major themes is how America in the sixties started to rebel against the established power structures without entirely deposing them, much less knowing what to replace them with, then it makes an unpleasant dramatic sense that Mad Men would do everything it possibly could to make Don Draper as exhausting as possible.
There are two kinds of intoxication happening with the character of Don Draper: physical intoxication, via alcohol and drugs, and metaphoric intoxication — the idea of manhood, power and control that Don represents. Don himself turned away from alcohol, and from his addiction to his self-created mythology, during a season in which Mad Men’s writers pushed our sympathy for the character to its breaking point. I didn’t always like the way in which it did this, but as I work my way through season six again, I’m becoming convinced that that is, in fact, what it’s doing, among many other things. It’s turning us against Don and showing us Don turning against himself. We get tired of Don, and America gets tired of guys like Don, at the same time that everybody gets tired of Don, including Don.
When Don comes out on top in an episode — landing the account, bedding the babe, getting away with something — certain message boards light up with variations of the same phrase: “Don Draper is the man!” Maybe the arc of this show begins with that phrase, then repeats it again near the end, with a slightly different spelling, changing two lower-case letters to capitals: Don Draper is The Man.