The Problem with 'Mad Men' As It Wraps Up Season Six on Sunday
AMC's Mad Men will wrap up its sixth season this Sunday night, and I'm ready. I love Mad Men, I do, but the show has two devastating problems.
One of the problems with Mad Men is that it is so very good, and so rich with symbols and subtext, that devout fans tend to watch each episode two or three times so that we can talk to each other and comment on blog recaps about all of it. It's an intensive avocation, the life of a Mad Men fan. Our commitment to every line, costume, and set choice is a stronger one than Don Draper is capable of maintaining -- to anyone or anything, except maybe to booze.
Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner gave us so much to work with this season on top of his standard, flawlessly executed exploration of American history through the lives of complex and compelling characters.
The season began with images of a heart attack and has carried themes from Dante's Inferno, Catholicism, heart surgery, and Rosemary's Baby throughout. But all of this material -- all of the tales of Don's descent and two agencies and two Betties and three Megans, plus Pete and Joan and Ted and Chevy and a home bayonet stabbing, plus hashish and that one day they all injected speed -- wasn't enough. Fans ran with conspiracy theories about the season's new character Bob Benson (is he a spy? gay? a gay spy?), and a Sharon Tate T-shirt worn by Megan led to wild plot predictions that were so off the rail that Weiner uncharacteristically gave spoilers in advance of the finale to calm down anxious viewers.
It's been a heavy trip, man.
And then the second problem with Mad Men, the permanent problem of Don Draper, has reached critical mass. Mad Men is a dark, moody show that deals in uncomfortable corruption. The tension of Don Draper's character is so expansive because, while he works out his formidable Mother Issues, he forces us to work out our Daddy Issues -- including any lingering personal ones, but most especially our societal issues with the Big Daddy patriarchal culture of the previous generation. Don Draper is formerly suave postwar America at its most decayed, and the downfall of a country with a drunk-dad executive as proxy is exhausting to watch. Fantastic, instructive, and well-wrought, but exhausting.
This season, we rooted for every woman in Don's life to reject him, and most did. But these were not triumphant rejections, because we saw them through his eyes. Abandonment by Sylvia made him beg. He begged and manipulated Sally, too. "I know you think you saw something," he said after destroying any last bit of innocence to which she might have been clinging. Condemnations by Peggy and Sally brought him to the fetal position. "My father never gave me anything," Sally said to try to spin her crumbling relationship with her father.
But we know all of his women are forever tied to Don, and he knows it, too. He's heard Peggy mouthing his words to clients. He knew how to play Big Daddy to get Sylvia back. He'll pay for Sally's school, and own her that way. Don similarly owns us. We know he's broken, and we know why he's broken, and while we root for women to shut him out, we somehow also root for his redemption, recovery, and growth, and...quick, someone call my therapist, these Daddy Issues are thick.
It's no wonder we feel worn out now. Don is standing in for the very decline of the American Man as family head and provider, power broker, and progress leader, and Mad Men is showing us America straining under that postwar way. The margarine and juice wars of this season showed us the broken food marketing and advertising models that Madison Avenue built. Politics and violence broke hearts, and drunk, corrupt men led us to hell and back. Love died; music died.
So I'm ready for the final show of this hard season that put us in the height of all of that death. I'm ready for the season to wrap up to put me out of some of this agony and exhaustion. I'm hoping for some more information about Bob and about Sylvia. I want to see Megan start to save herself. I want Ted to understand his entire agency was a pawn in Don's game, and I want Peggy to free herself, again. I won't get all of that, but I do want a few edges tucked in for hiatus. We have more than enough to chew on until next season.
Bye, bye, Miss American Pie. I love you, Mad Men, but the problem is that you've exhausted me and sent me back to therapy -- and in this season of the Chevy, the levee is dry. Let's wrap up on at least one high, uncomplicated note. The season started with Don and Megan on vacation in Hawaii, and every viewer needs the same right about now.