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


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.


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.


Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 12:29 PM A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

Subprime Loans Are Back

And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

  News & Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
Dear Prudence
Sept. 23 2014 6:00 AM Naked and Afraid Prudie offers advice on whether a young boy should sleep in the same room with his nude grandfather.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 9:17 PM Trent Reznor’s Gone Girl Soundtrack Sounds Like an Eerie, Innovative Success
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 22 2014 4:34 PM Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.