As we move toward the end of this truncated season – really a half-season with the final batch of episodes coming next year – events that unfold are unsettling, sometimes skin-crawling strange.
A threesome in a Laurel Canyon house in L.A. An ad man unhinged in a New York office, self-mutilating in panic and disgust, and dispatched from the office while strapped to an ambulance stretcher. (Keeping the details vague here in case you haven’t caught up yet.) Hippies, drugs, teen moms and the distinct sense that the traditional escapes of booze and cigarettes are waning quickly in importance.
Booze has ruined a few of the characters, including Don Draper, and while slick, middle-aged men in suits sit in backrooms and talk about promoting the tobacco industry, the young have abandoned not only the accepted dress codes but the pleasures and mores of their elders. They dress in primitive clothes and reach for a joint, then share the drug unselfconsciously.
What’s going on, maybe, is an ever-quickening path to self-destruction. It’s 1969, the culture is coming apart at the seams and a reckoning is on the horizon, a horizon that nobody sees, drenched as they are in narcissism and self-indulgence.
What’s happening, simultaneously, is the demise of an old male order. Don Draper now back at work, but in a lowly position, pounding out ideas on a typewriter to please the boss, Peggy. Even the big boss who has replaced Don, the sharp-tongued, high-handed Lou, is revealed to be, in private, an absurd figure. Roger Sterling, out in search of his wayward daughter, trying valiantly to be cool with all the hippie cant being spoken and the casual sex in straw-filled barns, ends up ridiculous, his expensive suit covered in mud as he walks away, brutally humiliated.
Meanwhile Peggy takes calm control of the deranged employee situation. When Joan strolls into Peggy’s office for a brief chat, it’s Joan who reaches for the bottle of booze and a quick drink, an action that was a defining male gesture at the start of the series and the dawn of the 1960s. Not that Joan will end up footless and slurring. In a key scene in last Sunday’s episode, the marriage of Don’s ex, Betty, to politician Henry seemed to teeter on two issues – the war in Vietnam and Betty’s right to speak her mind about it. The most cutting, and in the context of the era, most dangerous remark was Henry snapping at Betty, “Leave the thinking to me!” Betty might be a failure as a mother, but as we know from another episode this season, her friend Francine has shown her there is more to life than raising kids and supporting your husband.
But at the same time, it’s not as if the rise of female characters in power, prestige and strength of mind is presented as easy, or a panacea for the ills of this strange, unravelling world. Peggy is alone at home watching TV with a neighbour’s young boy. Roger’s daughter and Don’s “niece” Stephanie, flower-children both, are fatally compromised even in the hippie culture, because they are women.
Drugs and carnal self-indulgence in L.A. Cynical office politics in New York. The viewer who is even slightly aware of the thrust of recent U.S. history knows what the future holds – the optimism of the 1960s disintegrating, into the “Me Decade” of spiritual emptiness and moral decay, the decline of great cities, the traumatic attempt to disentangle from the mess of Vietnam. The end of entitlement for some, the evaporation of enlightenment for others.
In that context Mad Men now seems to take a dystopian turn. As it must. What seemed heavenly in the series’ first seasons – anchored in viewer nostalgia for the fashion, the social mores, the predigital requiescence of working and personal life – now turns, inexorably toward a vision of a hellish place. Darkness looms and if you look below the surface of Mad Men now it should make you shiver.