Mad Men, Season 5

Could Mad Men Actually Be About Don's Moral Education?
Talking television.
May 15 2012 1:51 PM

Mad Men, Season 5

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Could Mad Men actually be the story of Don's moral education?

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men
Jon Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men

Still by Jordin Althaus/AMC.

I guess I buy that Stan has read “Ozymandias”—it’s widely anthologized, and I could see him having enrolled in a Romantic poetry lecture at NYU in the hopes that it’d help him meet girls. But if next week finds him peering out his office window and marveling at “the secret ministry of frost” the early winter has layered over Manhattan, well, I’m calling bullshit.

While we’re on the subject of “Ozymandias”: Was it a throwaway joke, or is it a clue? Like the fallen figure in Shelley’s sonnet, Ginsberg does have an outsized sense of his own accomplishments. But I couldn’t help wondering if in fact the writers evoked the poem not to tell us something about the young upstart but about the master in decline. Don was once emperor of all he surveyed at SCDP, lording over the firm with a “sneer of cold command” if ever there was one. But things have changed. As he leafs through SCDP’s advertising output over the last year, Don is clearly upset. Joan guesses he’s noticed that Peggy’s name is missing from the credits. But it’s the absence of his own name that really bothers him. Don’s realization is the same one dramatized in “Ozymandias”: Even the works of the mightiest are soon forgotten.

Of course, Ozymandias didn’t have the Sno Ball account. Don’s clearly not ready to give up on making a name for himself, as evidenced by his Saturday afternoon Dictaphoning. The pitch he comes up with isn’t going to win him immortality, or even a Clio, but at least he’s back on his horse.

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All of this feeds back into a larger question I’ve been mulling lately. Like many viewers, I assumed at the outset that Mad Men was a tragedy about the fall of Don Draper. He was a man living a life propped up by unsustainable lies, and the series would chart his fall, a fall that seemed that much more inevitable as you watched that dark-suited silhouette take its plunge each week during the opening credits. But recently I’ve been wondering if we make too much of that weekly fall. Don’s biggest secret is out—his wife knows it, his colleagues know it, and now even his young daughter knows it. I suppose it’s still possible that the Army will catch up with him and put him away for going AWOL. But that seems increasingly unlikely. These days, Mad Men feels less like a series about the tragic fall of Don Draper and more like one about his moral progress. As Matt Zoller Seitz points out in his recap, Don’s conversation with Sally about Anna Draper might have been his best parenting moment yet: honest, yet respectful of her still tender age. I was also impressed that he was able to see that Megan was right about how to handle Betty’s meddling—and able to admit his own initial response was wrong.

Of course, Don took a step back this week too when he left Ginsberg’s campaign in the taxi. And there’s still the question posed last week about how he’ll navigate the treacherous cultural shoals of the late '60s. But I’m no longer certain this is a show about Don’s decline and fall. Last night, during the cast’s appearance on Inside the Actor’s Studio, Matthew Weiner confirmed that, while he doesn’t know what will happen in seasons 6 and 7, he does have an image in his mind of what the series’ final scene will look like. I have no idea what that image looks like, but something tells me it won’t be a splat.

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.

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