At the end of season five of Mad Men, Don Draper had a “hot tooth.” It had to be yanked out, all rotted and painful. That dead tooth foreshadowed the theme of season six: rotting Don in a rotting city. We’ve seen Don behave terribly before. And we’ve seen the characters’ world in tumult. But this season put those things together, and in doing so, each piece — the micro and the macro — made the other seem more catastrophic. The fact that the products Don & Co. were pitching this year were so inversely sunny only underscored the question of whether there is anything substantial in this world that isn’t decaying? Is Sunday’s finale destined to be a black hole of misery, or is there a sunny Hawaiian vacation in anyone’s future?
The characters of Mad Men advertise what they themselves are looking for. Think of Peggy’s “mark your man” campaign, when she was in a secret relationship with Pete and couldn’t possibly mark her married man. Sal’s Patio campaign was all about replacing one thing (say, full-calorie soda, or Ann-Margret in Bye Bye Birdie) with something that’s just a little bit different but just as good! Except of course it’s not just as good, because it’s not the real thing, and that’s Sal’s closeted life in a nutshell; wanting to believe that this lifelike simulation is the same thing as real happiness. When Don wants to seem upstanding and reliable, he pitches those exact things to Dow Chemical. When America needs it, it’s Dow.
In season six, everyone’s looking for a break, for safety, for comfort, for respite. Don’s trying to sell the idea of Hawaii, of disappearing into paradise and leaving everything behind. Hey, he’s done it once before. Peggy’s selling headphones — the better to block everything out and only listen to the good parts. They pitch fruit juices, Ocean Spray and Sunkist, a notable turn for people who’ve come up with gimmicks and slogans for cigarettes and napalm. Hey, have some juice. It’s not poison™. Or maybe try a baby aspirin, on account of how much pain you’re in. Peggy, Ted, and Don try to sell margarine, a staple that has no inherent appeal, but, as they tell each other over and over, it lasts forever. It doesn’t go bad. It’s just like you left it. Finally, something of permanence in this volatile world.
They pitch ketchup. They pitch Chevy. They might as well pitch American flags next. Safe! Stable! Everything is fine! Please please please let everything just be fine.
“The future is something you haven’t even thought of yet,” Don says in his Chevy pitch. It better be, because the future that people have thought of so far is an incredibly bleak and scary one. (Nixon’s ad campaign, which we hear in “A Quality of Mercy,” is based on that exact fear, that everything is terrible.) Ted wants the future to be “an adventure,” and not the probable dissolution of his strained marriage.
And of course everyone is searching for a promising future, a reliably ketchuped burger, a modern and nutritious Carnation Instant Breakfast. Because everywhere else they look, the world is going to shit. So far this season, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy have been assassinated. People are still dying in Vietnam, including Stan’s young cousin. Police are beating protestors at the Chicago Democratic Convention. Things are so bad that even the ultraprim Betty Francis found herself in a squatter apartment. Peggy stabbed her boyfriend, right in the guts. Sally’s chichi boarding school turned out to be just another cruddy place to drink and get high and fight and make out. Don’s cuckolded neighbor Dr. Rosen can’t even perform the heart transplants he dreams of — looks like those bum tickers are sticking around.
In Mad Men’s early seasons, some of the things that scandalized our characters seemed very quaint. People whispered about Suzanne having the audacity to jog. But this season, their concerns seem a lot less parochial. Riots, a military draft, assassinations. A burglary. Lots of unusual sexual propositions. It’s not just the old-fashioned squares who are filled with anxiety — Megan, Peggy, Abe, everybody. Even Sally is pessimistic and seemingly wearied. In season four, Betty complained that leaving the kids with Don was like leaving them “with no one,” because Sally impulsively cut her hair while under a babysitter’s supervision. This season, Betty had the same complaint — only Sally didn’t cut her hair this time, she was the victim of a home invasion from a bizarre mammy character. It’s not my imagination; things are getting worse.
Back in season two, Don left Bobbie Barrett tied up in a hotel room as part of their domination play. And yet somehow when he insisted that Sylvia stay in a hotel room this season and wait for him, it seemed much crueler, much colder, much less about fun and kink and much more about struggling to find a way to cut through the numbness. We’ve seen Don drink and yell and philander before, but we used to be able to explain if not excuse it: It was the pressure of keeping his identity a secret, the strain of his marriage, the heartbreak of his divorce. Don bailed on Sally’s birthday party in season one. He’s forgotten to pick her and her siblings up for visits, and he’s barely been able to conceal his distaste for parenting. But getting caught literally with his pants down is a new low. We know Don’s a gifted manipulator — if you don’t like what they’re saying, change the conversation! — and we know he can’t handle other people’s strong emotions, particularly strong emotions from women, and even more particularly strong emotions from crying women. But the way Don lied to Sally through the door, telling her she didn’t see him cheating on her stepmother but rather saw people “comforting” each other — it’s the worst thing he’s ever done to her. You can lie to yourself. And you can lie to other people. But man, it’s really low to ask other people to lie to you about yourself.
Things are getting worse.