Peggy’s dress. Don Draper remarking, “Nixon’s President, everything’s back where Jesus wants it.” Don waking up in the drunk tank. Sally Draper’s sarcastic use of the word “immoral.” Sally and Don exchanging a dark, meaning-laden glance. Peggy looking comfortable in Don’s office. Peggy’s pantsuit in that scene.
Choose your own memorable moment from the penultimate season finale of Mad Men (its creator has said next season will be its last). There are plenty to choose from. And yet, on consideration, it all seems unsubtle, doesn’t it? Too many moments that hammered home a plot point. Too much emphasis. Too much Americana. Too much accentuation of traditional themes. Too much Don Draper, frankly.
It’s great that we can take Mad Men so seriously. It’s terrific that a TV drama commands so much argument about the merits of its literary allusions. The show is a soap opera to some and an important phenomenon in the American culture to others. All great. But, on the evidence of Sunday’s Season 6 finale, two stumbling blocks have emerged that might prevent Mad Men from being the storytelling masterpiece it promised to be – an overreliance on Don Draper’s personal journey and the impulse to comply with television’s unspoken rules about neatly tied endings.
Endings are hard. There are so many pressures on TV series to reach an ending that satisfies everyone, and that’s an impossible task. The recent death of James Gandolfini reminded some of the notoriously elliptical final episode of The Sopranos. It satisfied no one, which was the point, and the only authentic closure.
Mad Men’s Season 6 had a neatness that was overcooked. From the first episode, in Hawaii, with Don reading Dante’s Inferno, to the final scene of Sunday’s episode, with Don confronting his youth and Judy Collins’s rendition of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides, Now rising on the soundtrack, there was a smoothness that was too much. If anything, it was too satisfying and, as such, too shallow.
Don Draper is the problem. The series has become his story. It’s not about men in the ad business, it’s about one man only. And Draper’s story is prototypical of American success stories popularized in countless tales from the 18th century until now. He’s the embodiment of America in that he recreated himself, whole, taking on the identity of another man. Just as the pilgrims and so many others after them abandoned their European identity, one forced upon them there by class and hierarchy, and became new again in the untamed, untried America.
Like those other figures, Draper is in constant war with the twin myths of the American culture, the primitivist myth and the myth of progress. He constantly engages with his primitive side, in his drinking, womanizing and the hurt he casually inflicts on others. There are those savage sexual urges indulged and his seeming fear of domesticity. At the same time, he’s regularly trying to move forward, to progress. He abandons one marriage for another; he leads his employer forward, creating a new company from the ruins of an old one, and he is always willing to embrace the new.
So it seems Mad Men becomes Don’s story, which in turn is America’s story. It’s an interesting narrative arrow going forward, but it’s a storytelling trap. It diminishes the intricacy of the series and the complexity of the other characters. It makes Mad Men more male-centric than it needs to be. While so much of this season has dwelt on Don Draper’s downward spiral and climaxed in yet another mordant glimpse of his traumatic childhood, such characters as Joan Holloway have faded into the background. And the journey of Don’s ex, Betty, given prominence briefly this season, has not had the emphasis it deserved.
Now, one has the uneasy feeling that the final season will be all Don Draper all the time. And the sense that he is a perambulating symbol, embodying so much American mythology, gives a person the feeling that there is a predictable end coming. It might be the move west, to California, so heavily hinted at in Sunday’s episode. Everybody, it seemed, was on the point of going to California and everybody had the urge to start over there. As Draper himself said, when the urge temporarily struck him, “We were happy there. We could be happy again.” The frontier, “lighting out for the territories,” fleeing the urban dirt and violence for the pleasant Eden of L.A. It’s all so rooted in so much American storytelling that the ending presents itself already.
And then there’s the possibility of the most optimistic and clichéd of endings – Don’s pursuit of happiness is achieved. He has, it is suggested, reached the bottom. His drinking was so out of control he stopped and faced delirium tremens. His job was erased. His daughter recognized him for the horror that he is. Now what? Well, if Mad Men is merely one man’s story and that story is so tied to familiar American archetypal stories, then happiness arrives at the end. A mess – Draper himself – is cleaned up, and a sunny future is presented. Smiles, hugs and soppy scenes.
For a series so sophisticated in so many ways, that possibility is demeaning, and one can only dread it.
Peggy’s dress, with the cutesy bow and cleavage. Then Peggy in that pantsuit in Don’s old office. Now that’s an interesting journey – one more rich and vivid than Don Draper’s, actually.