I could barely watch Don this season. All the qualities that once drew us to him were suddenly gone.
He wasn’t suavely bedding bohemian free spirits. He was wallowing in a protracted, messy affair with his saintly friend’s wife.
He wasn’t crushing client meetings with bursts of eloquence and insight into human fragility. He was bumbling through misguided pitches, pettily squabbling with his own colleagues, and often not bothering to show up at all.
He wasn’t the retro stud who could throw back three whiskeys without consequence. He was an increasingly pitiable and dependent alcoholic.
That guy who promoted Peggy, carefully guided her through a personal crisis, and treated her as a respected peer? That guy who made a point of engaging Joan on the basis of her shrewd capabilities, and never treated her as a pile of garish curves?
That guy was pretty much absent this season. Until the very end.
Mad Men’s sweet spot from the start has been scenes in which the psychological nuances of advertising mesh with the psychological pathologies of its characters. Again and again, Don will pitch an ad concept that seems to speak just as much to his own emotional state as it does to the imperative of selling ketchup, or cars, or hotel rooms. That last client powwow with the good folks from Hershey’s was a stellar example.
But with a fascinating twist: Instead of rooting a proposed marketing campaign in his own neuroses, Don realized he didn’t want a campaign at all. Couldn’t tolerate any subterfuge or gilding. He yearned for honesty, authenticity, simple goodness.
Just before Don opened up his soul and poured it onto the conference table, he glanced meaningfully at Ted. Ted was lost in his thoughts, in love with Peggy, struggling to cling to the anchor of family amid a squall of social upheaval. The look on Ted’s face is what at last drove Don to ditch his lies and come clean. Don was so supremely selfish all season, disrupting the lives of everyone around him as he flitted from one emotional salve to the next. And then he finally looked through another man’s eyes (saw both sides, if you will, but more on that later) and thought: This guy deserves my help; I can help him. He packed Ted off to California, with the hope of saving the poor fellow’s marriage. It was a return of the selfless Don who’d made regular appearances in seasons past.
The billboard art for Season 6 featured two Dons passing each other on the sidewalk, headed in opposite directions. From beginning to end, the themes of doubling and bifurcation hovered over the season. There were Don and Ted, darkly and lightly complected, two men with the same job, two sides of the same coin—ending up on opposite coasts. There was Bob Benson (B.B. to Don’s D.D.), the mysteriously self-invented go-getter who seems to mirror Don’s early rise. There was Sally using Beth Francis—Betty’s name—on her fake I.D., after smoking cigarettes side-by-side with Betty on the car ride home from a prep school visit, two savvy blondes. And then Sally and Don: both getting too drunk, both with fake identities, one suspended from work and the other from school.
The episode closed with the Joni Mitchell–penned and Judy Collins–sung “Both Sides, Now,” floating along on its dark-light lyrical construction. “Try to see it from our side,” said Roger, ushering Don into a mandatory leave. As Troy Patterson pointed out, the Don standing before his childhood home as the season ended had at last—perhaps for the first time in his life—reconciled “be and seem.” There is one Don. He is both sides, now.
I felt a great deal of release when the show resolved Don’s ongoing, painful struggle to integrate himself. Let us be done, though, with this gloomy chapter. I hope next season’s overarching themes will be a bit brighter. Mad Men is many shows at once—an intimate character study, a period piece, even a sharp sitcom at times—but I like it best when it zooms along on the zingy momentum of office drama.
My wish for next season: It’s Peggy’s time. We’ve wrung all we can out of Don’s internal struggle. I want to watch a late ’60s working girl take control of her career while possibly turning into a one-woman wrecking ball in her personal life. Bring on the pantsuits!
Hanna and Paul, it was a true pleasure reading your entries each week. I’ll miss your companionship on the bumpy voyage that was Mad Men Season 6.
I want a return date,