On Season 6 of Mad Men

This is the longer version of the post up at The New Republic:

Dear TV,

My favorite thing about this season of Mad Men has been watching Don Draper go slack. Many fans of the show have—understandably—lamented that Don’s inability to change is boring. One senses a hunger for Don’s redemption, and simmering under the restive essays on Don’s issues and how poorly they’ve aged is the question of what fiction is supposed to do. It’s true that people don’t change in real life, these critics write, but. The implication is that Don’s patterns are identical to the show’s and that Don’s progress is identical to the show’s progress: he hasn’t changed, therefore the show hasn’t changed.

We haven’t been among these critics. For me, it’s only at this point when, startled, we start to really experience what it’s like to be a Betty living with a Don—when we start occupying the subject position of wife (fan) instead of would-be mistress (potential viewer)—that the show becomes truly interesting. This is one of the few thought-provoking experiments American television, with its sprawling multi-year seasons that more often than not end in accidental burnout, can intentionally conduct, and it’s not an experiment in entertainment: rather, it’s a study of boredom and the perils of long-term arrangements that began with choice and ossified. Like addiction, like work, like marriage. The answer to creating a damaged, chronically depressed character whose tragic relation to his past consigns him to sameness isn’t to fix him or guide him to a happy ending (if Mad Men has taught us anything it’s that nothing ends); the answer is to chronicle the awful boredom of the compulsive.

In that sense it’s a show about our own time, no more about the past than Star Trek was about the future. We (the “we” whose peculiarly white American history Mad Men presumes to tell, anyway) Gatsby-ed our way to an expensive, sexy, monstrous prosperity and we’re more depressed than we’ve ever been. Our current crop of self-help is less about happiness than it is about “lifehacks,” the willpower to curb our compulsions, and the Mad Men Phenomenon unifies a cluster of especially ornate tics we anxiously pretend to control: sex, work, television, and the internet. The complaint that Don has become repetitive after SIX YEARS of cheating and self-delusion (in some televisual variant on the seven-year itch) both overlooks that the tyranny of habit constitutes a legitimate and indeed urgent subject and mistakes the source of our creeping disinvestment in the show. Especially since the show has changed precisely by highlighting that Don hasn’t; it has changed dramatically this season by decoupling itself from Don and peeling its progress away from his stasis.

Not that the charge was believable anyway; the apparently bottomless market for superhero movies proves that we tolerate repetition well enough. But that appetite was what made much of this season good: Don’s affliction, his stumble into anesthetic self-destructive sameness is ours. Our stupid yearning for happy endings, even for characters who don’t want them, even when we can see for ourselves how any such ending would compromise the integrity of the story we’ve been following so slavishly for so long, is just another kind of death-wish. All season I’ve been chuckling at the idea of Don having a come-to-Jesus moment. More compelling than a documentary portrait of 1960s white America is Mad Men’s true protagonist, the awful boredom that turns people into monsters.

For too long (and for too many) Mad Men’s appeal has been linked to Don’s. It’s nobody’s fault; this peculiar age of Serious TV Dramas Featuring White Male Antiheroes caught us unprepared. Blindsided by feelings before we can parse them, we’ve come to a wrongheaded consensus that a show’s interest and complexity is identical to (or interchangeable with) its protagonist. Somehow—and predictably, since we have a thousand years of tragedy as precedent—we’ve taken the (super)hero story’s sly cousin, this genre whose subversive project is forcing us to identify with a subjectivity we know to be evil, or wrong, or mistaken, and responded to this complicated narrative experiment by being, for the most part, stunningly sincere. Our reactions and loyalties are more or less the same as it would be if the antihero were a hero. Yes, there’s a veneer of knowingness; everyone understands intellectually that Don’s an asshole. But he’s awesome at his job, and look at the women he gets! There is (or was) a plague of men who want to be Donald Draper and women who want to sleep with him. This shiny-haired salesman from the late fifties is the cool kid everyone wants to be, not Back Then but now, still.

That’s weird, and it’s a symptom of just how oddly our sympathies have skewed. It’s been happening for awhile—I’m struck every time someone describes an insufferable and pushy woman as a Tracy Flick because it so clearly illustrates this affective loophole. Matthew Broderick’s character in Election was a psychopath intent on stopping a girl from a “broken home” (to use Betty Draper’s phrase) and a victim of statutory rape to boot—at the hands of a teacher, no less, and for this McAllister blames her—from being class president. Everyone knew it was satire when they watched the film but Tracy Flick remains the monster in our memory, not McAllister. We’re in an age when “it’s satire!” has become a facile defense of narrative strategies that so sincerely engage our sentiments that they (or we) forget their satirical goals.

Though not a satire, Mad Men suffers from this affliction. When watching any particular scene the experience splits pretty neatly into two basic categories. The first category is so context-rich and unpredictable that we forget we’re obsessed decoders and relish the odd dialogue. These are the Bob Benson conversations, the Roger Sterling-and-Jane-Divorcing sequences. The second category boils down to a naked quasi-schematic shorthand that informs us so loudly of the Scene’s Function that we never sink into the scene at all. Back in Mad Men’s early days, if Betty and the kids were onscreen, the point was to show us that Betty was an unfeeling and selfish mother. If Don and the kids were onscreen, in contrast, that scene’s work was to portray a complex person who, despite his faults, saw his children as feeling creatures and tried in his limited way to tend to their small frightened subjectivities. This was a tiresome double-standard and it became progressively more constricting and narratively unkind. Now that the narrator has reconciled Don and Bets, the scenes between Betty and Sally are newly rich; they breathe.

The Don and Sylvia scenes were of the second type, as were the scenes between Don and Ted which registered Competition! Not so the telephone conversations between Peggy and Stan or any storyline involving Pete’s mother. Those had the virtuosic quality of seeming like weird things that happened—they lacked the thudding expository quality that sometimes flattens Mad Men into a series of symbolic flash cards. Scene with Ginsberg were almost always the former whereas the conversation between Dawn and her friend in the diner was definitely the latter. But even those flash cards served the show well so long as they registered its growing narrative distance from Don.

The finale was sensational and absorbing but I was stunned to see Don actually get the come-to-Jesus moment I’d chuckled at because the possibility seemed absurd. I never would have guessed that the season-long corrective to our five-year habit of accidentally falling for Don would devolve into the clichés of hitting bottom and redemption. Don’s not the only recidivist; Matthew Weiner has reverted to Don-centrism. How good it was to see the show acknowledge that Don couldn’t anchor the show anymore—much better than seeing Don Confess to His Past or Punished For His Excesses was seeing him deglamorized and sometimes shuffled aside. To the extent that one can hope for the demise of a charming character, I had hoped Roger’s death would justify the references to death sprinkled throughout the season—Roger’s many allusions, the Inferno-reading, Vietnam, the assassinations, near-shootings, etc. He seemed like the logical candidate for reasons I explained there, and for Don’s midlife crisis not to culminate in any death related to Don would have so beautifully cemented the show’s defection and its new commitment to other characters and plots.

But the season concluded with the symbolic “death” of Don the liar and a full throated return to Dick-centric catharsis. It seems we have a resurrection to look forward to. Don’t get me wrong: it’s nice to see him come clean to Sally, but Don isn’t a tragic hero nor should he be saved—those traditions belongs to another time. Ours is smaller, sharper, and full of clicks. Don’s office isn’t where everything is. Where’s Ginsberg’s dad? What happened to Peggy’s secretary? Oh Joan and your bid for Avon, where did you go?

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