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Mad Men Season 6 review

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WHAT TIME DID THIS MEETING START? Jon Hamm turned in another epic performance as Don Draper in Season 6 of Mad Men
Jaimie Trueblood/AMC

Mad Men

type:
TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
seasons:
7
run date:
07/19/07
performer:
Jon Hamm, John Slattery, Elisabeth Moss
broadcaster:
AMC
genre:
Drama

We gave it an A-

Among the historical events depicted in the sixth season of Mad Men were the assassinations of Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968, and Robert F. Kennedy on June 6, 1968. The presence of these men and their murders in the context of a story that aspires to be a Fall myth for modern America reminds us that the culture we have does not resemble the culture we want. When we factor in other references, like Richard Nixon’s rise to power (during a campaign season that also saw Mia Farrow giving birth to the Antichrist in Rosemary’s Baby), and we are reminded of something else: Sometimes, people aren’t what they appear to be, either, often because they don’t know themselves. Or want to. There is a name for a person who acts or speaks contrary to the values they represent or even believe. It isn’t Don Draper (Jon Hamm). And it isn’t Bob Benson (James Wolk), whose cunning fraudulence differs from Don’s because his next-gen brand of disingenuousness is deliberate, specific, and far more controlled. The word is hypocrite. And according to Carl Jung, these toxic beings are hazardous to our health, especially since they are oblivious to their corruption.

”It is under all circumstances an advantage to be in full possession of one’s personality, otherwise the repressed elements will only crop up as a hindrance elsewhere, not just at some unimportant point, but at the very spot where we are most sensitive. If people can be educated to see the shadow-side of their nature clearly, it may be hoped that they will also learn to understand and love their fellow men better. A little less hypocrisy and a little more self-knowledge can only have good results in respect for our neighbor; for we are all too prone to transfer to our fellows the injustice and violence we inflict upon our own natures.”

Mad Men season six was fixated with hypocrisy. It was sometimes difficult to identify and tag, because hypocrites, lacking self-awareness, don’t go around shouting, ”Hey, there! We’re hypocrites!” No: We have television for that. Mad Men was fixated with that this year, too. Madison Avenue image-maker Don Draper — so enamored with the power of TV — watched a lot of news, usually in the company of his budding soap opera star wife, Megan Draper (Jessica Paré); and what they saw — police beating on protestors at the 1968 Democratic Convention; the latest awfulness from the Vietnam quagmire — was, in content and tone, totally at odds with the claims and tone of the consumerism and escapism they sold to the masses. In this way, Mad Men captured the role that the media played during the late ’60s in deconstructing our self-image, opening our eyes to our ugly realities, and changing the way we relate to and regard people of power and influence. (The watershed moment: Watergate.)

Mad Men also doted on two movies that were sign-of-the-times smashes in 1968, the aforementioned Rosemary’s Baby and the paterfamilias of the post-apocalyptic sci-fi genre that is so popular today, Planet of the Apes. (Ignored: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s pure cinema prayer for mankind’s immediate release from its worst instincts and increasing dehumanization. I would have loved an episode where Don, John Slattery’s Roger, Elisabeth Moss’ Peggy, Jay R. Ferguson’s Stan, and Stephan Mendel’s Ginsberg skipped work and went tripping with David Bowman while flying on acid.) Yes, we can thank/blame the news media for our ’60s loss of ignorance/innocence. But I wonder if Mad Men was also suggesting that we set ourselves up for disillusionment by filling ours heads with fantasy, thus hindering, not helping, our confrontation with reality.

Whatever: The reality TV that the tube brought into the home during 1968 was unprecedented and prima facie horrifying. Beholding the sickening spectacle of betrayed trust left Don and Megan shaken and demoralized?and yet, not entirely surprised. Their reaction: Like Charlton Heston at the end of Planet of the Apes, raging at the sight and implications of finding The Statue of Liberty buried up to her bosom in atom-blasted sand. We finally really did it. You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!

Or?

Like how a worldly-wise girl might feel if she caught her married father in bed with another woman who lives down the hall, simultaneously shattering her faith in him and confirming all her worst suspicions about him. Yep: That’ll leave a mark. Poor Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka). I feel such dread when Sally gets a storyline. Think Grandpa Eugene. Creepy Glenn. Mama Francis. Mad Men loves playing Sally for suspense. This season was no different. See: Burglar Mammy; the try-out weekend at Miss Porter’s, in which Sally plied the Mean Girls with drink, smokes, and Young Hippy Boys On The Make in order to secure her spot in the social order. (You’ll make a fine account exec one day, Sally.) We feared for her safety, we sweated her loss of innocence, her corruption, lest she become a monster like her father, the kind of beast suggested by the injury that Aaron Staton’s Ken Cosgrove suffered: A vision-impaired Cyclops.

It’s easy for us to feel this way for Sally because she is a child. But she is a child of the ’60s, which means that for many of us, she is us; and if she isn’t, then we know she and that generation are now running the joint. Everything with Sally is so loaded with mythological significance, because her past is going to influence our present, just as Don’s past informs the culture he produces. She is the future; she is what’s at stake. I want her to survive the ’60s, and I want her to flourish. If Mad Men is a Fall myth for American culture (which, for me, is the true metaphorical meaning of the credit sequence), she is hope that we can recover from the legacy of pessimism, cynicism, and escapism. And so we grieve the ’60s. Again. (Also see: American Horror Story: Asylum.) Is there truth to this narrative? Have we never really gotten over it? Did we never properly process it? Can we be better than Sally, forever suspended in a state of huffy-puffy acting out over the failings of cultural parents that we never really knew, that gave us nothing, that left us stranded in a bulls—- wasteland ruled by the mutants that arose from the apocalypse of meaninglessness?

The opening scene of the season premiere focused on Don Draper in Paradise, reading Dante’s Inferno, a gift from a new mistress with whom he shared two intense passions: lust and shame. Just like Paolo and Francesca, the adulterers inspired by Lancelot and Guinevere, sentenced to the second rung of the poet’s hell. Coming back to Don after watching him spend an entire year staying resolutely faithful to his wife, we discovered that Don had returned to have favorite pastime: philandering. In carrying on with equally angsty-awful-acting out Sylvia Rosen (Linda Cardellini), Don made a fool and cuckold out of a good man whose character, life, and wife he coveted, Dr. Arnold Rosen (Brian Markinson). I kept waiting for Arnie to catch Don and Sylvia in bed. I think they did. It was the only way they were going to get what they wanted most from the year 1969: to quit being who they were. They would get their wish, but from someone else entirely, and at much greater cost. The penultimate season of Mad Men dramatized a number of other sins, but none more so that the sins that sentence you to the penultimate circle of The Inferno: fraud, and all of its derivations. Seduction. Pandering. Flattery. Theft. Hypocrisy. In other words: all things Bob Benson. Dante called this realm ”The Malebolge.” (Heh-heh! He said ”Male Bulge.” Heh-heh!) It’s Italian for ”evil ditch.” Which reminds us of the Korean foxhole that was ground zero for the original sin that turned Dick Whitman into Don Draper, Mad Men‘s reigning hypocrite. And bulging male. (Sorry.)

For Don Draper in a nutshell, look to Megan Draper’s season 6. She was a hypocrite, too, but in an old school definition of the word. For the ancient Greeks, ”hypokrite” was a term for ”actor.” Fitting, then, that Don the Con would find love with a woman who has chosen acting as profession. Not that Megan’s job has always made Don happy. One of Don’s most ridiculously mean moments this past season came when the chronic adulterer petulantly, unconscionably tired to make Megan feel like a whore after watching her shoot her first love scene. (In his small defense, he was pissy from losing the Heinz Ketchup pitch, which itself was an adulterous act, as existing client Heinz Beans ordered Draper and company not to hit on its sexy sister division.) (Wait: This is not a defense.)

Further irony is found in how Megan’s arc this year was a metaphor/critique of Don: It was the story of an actor who found success playing a role, but then struggled with the head-spinning challenge of juggling two parts at once — twins, one good, one bad. How she differed from Don: refusing to compromise her values by sleeping with the swinger showrunner and his wife (and, then, just his wife); and when she was presented with an opportunity to make a break from the morally murky environment of her workplace and explore a radical change (moving to Hollywood), she jumped at it.

If only Don had such self-awareness and self-esteem, he might have?well, not married Megan! Not chickened out on Dr. Faye Miller (Cara Buono), not bungled ”The Summer Man” rehabilitation project, and not picked a ”Tomorrowland” future with his former secretary which, in the wake of season finale, has officially gone kablooey in his face, all because Hypocrite Don — to borrow again from Jung — lost possession of his personality. His great unraveling was foreshadowed in the season premiere when the publicity photographer made with the loaded line: ”Just be yourself.” The whorehouse refugee formerly known as Dick Whitman went someone-just-walked-over-my-grave pale. Be yourself? What does that mean to a man that tried to leave his born identity in a burned-out Korean War foxhole years earlier, to a professional spin artist who can’t afford the risk of authenticity? Being a hypocrite has its rewards — all addictive/debasing behavior does — but, per Jung, it can only take you so far. Season 6 gave us a new metaphor for Don’s relationship to ”Don Draper”: Dr. Feelgood’s ”miracle cure,” which certainly gave Don the feeling of new life for awhile, but also made him increasingly incoherent and dangerous to those close to him.

In other words: Don was a real devil this season. In Dante’s Inferno, you find Satan in the ninth and last circle of hell, built for those who commit the sin of treason, the kind of fraud that is not an affront to ideals (that’s circle eight) but injurious to people — friends, family, community. Such was the nature of Don’s corruption this year. At one point, Mad Men literally portrayed him as the Antichrist — by making him play the part of the baby during a rehearsal of Peggy’s proposed aspirin commercial spoofing Rosemary’s Baby. (Wahhh! Wahhhh!) Which was altogether fitting. This season, Don’s petulantly expressed arrested development cost the agency much, including some hard-won salvation. He fired Jaguar, rendering the sacrifice of Joan’s self-debasing prostitution of any meaning. He rashly merged Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce with Cutler Gleason & Chaough to get bigger and chase the glory of marketing futuristic cars for Chevy — a move analogous to his rash ”Tomorrowland” to merge lives with Megan — torpedoed SCDP’s plan to go public, which Joan, Pete, and Bert were counting on to bring them happily-ever-after paydays. He was never more Satanically treacherous than when out of his flailing despair and shame, he sought to feel powerful again, to feel mastery over the chaos of his being, by being cruel to others: forcing his mistress to play domination games; toying with Peggy and Ted (Kevin Rahm) during the St. Joseph’s meeting, first tacitly threatening to expose their affair, then manipulating Ted to betray Peggy by attributing her Rosemary’s Baby idea to the late Frank Gleason (Craig Anton).

”You’re a monster!” Peggy thundered. She was right.

The Inferno reference that began the season foreshadowed another idea that wouldn’t come into view until the finale: You can’t find salvation without going through hell. In Dante’s epic verse, the protagonists escape Hell by descending to its lowest depths, then sliding down the devil’s back. Next stop: Purgatory, then Paradise. Don began a (hopefully) similar trajectory. His downward spiral reached rock bottom during the Hershey pitch. Tweaking with guilt and shame, twitchy from an ill-timed attempt to go cold turkey sober, Don rose to the occasion of presenting a winning idea for the chocolate bar by celebrating its sincerity — how the packaging resembles the product; how the outside matches the inside — in a romantic, optimistic tonal context. What was immediately notable about Don’s idea was how different it was from his other ideas this season, all of which have played with a similar creative gimmick: hiding the product. Think: not showing Hawaii in his proposal for Sheraton. Think: not showing the ketchup in his proposal for Heinz. Think: launching the Chevy campaign with a teaser spot that didn’t show the car, only people’s reactions to it. Don’s pitch for Hershey was similar to Peggy’s pitch for Heinz: put the thing advertised front and center, loud and proud, and make it mythic.

But Don’s communion with this monolithic symbol of sincerity was a mirror to his soul, and it reflected back uncomfortable truths he could no longer suppress, that could no longer be repressed. And so his heartbreaking, bittersweet tale of what Hershey chocolate personally bubbled forth uncontrollably: As a kid, it provided some small comfort during the disillusioning whorehouse horrorshow upbringing that robbed him of his innocence, that taught him that sex was meaningless and love was something the ad guys invented to sell panty hose. Hershey chocolate was the one sweet thing in his life. Don’s trip down memory lane was the act of picking off a scab on a nasty injury that never healed properly and letting it bleed, bleed, bleed. Put another way: It’s what Don said about nostalgia while pitching Kodak in the season one finale, ”The Wheel.”

”Nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, ‘nostalgia’ literally’ means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship. It’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards…it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. ? It let’s us travel the way a child travels, around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”

Apparently, candy bars can be time machines, too.

Don Draper’s Hershey bar meltdown was a kind of suicide — an assassination attempt of his own dark character. I was struck by how Jon Hamm recalled the Hershey memory while hiding his eyes behind his hand, bravely allowing himself to feel the pain of old wounds, yet ashamed of himself at the same. Ashamed of feeling and looking weak. Of being exposed as a fraud. Of who once was and what he had now become. Of his own profession. Hershey — confused, baffled, annoyed — sarcastically asked Don if he was proposing they actually make an ad about his hard-luck story. Don told them he wished they didn’t advertise at all. This puts a whole new spin on Don’s ”Don’t Show The Product” modus operandi. It was as if Don was afraid of publicly perverting the true meaning of the things with ”truthiness” and spin.

In the aftermath of his breakdown, Don surrendered his claim to SC&P’s planned one-man California office; coming clean had apparently cathartically neutralized his instinctive desire to run away from his problems. But in one of Mad Men‘s greatest ironies, Don doing the right thing for himself produced the same kind of misery for everyone else as Don doing the wrong thing. The immediate consequences of Don coming into self-awareness and revolting against his own hypocrisy were exceptions-that-prove-the-rule inversions of what Jung said about the matter: ”A little less hypocrisy and a little more self-knowledge can only have good results in respect for our neighbor; for we are all too prone to transfer to our fellows the injustice and violence we inflict upon our own natures.” In giving up his California seat to Ted, he enabled Ted to run away from his untenable relationship with Peggy: He loved her, but he couldn’t continue doing the adultery thing (too much integrity for that), and he also knew he wouldn’t ever leave his wife, because he could never do that to the kids. This, in turn infuriated Peggy, who, of course, blamed Don (”monster!”), without ever once copping to her own hypocrisy: being party to Ted’s marital betrayal. Megan was also livid with Don’s characteristically rash, if uncharacteristically righteous, decision to bail on California. She had quit her job on the soap, set up meetings in Hollywood. For Megan, Don’s choice was proof that their marriage wasn’t working that her haunted, f’ed up husband couldn’t be trusted with her happiness.

The partners at SC&P came to a similar conclusion: Clearly convinced that Don was (to borrow again from Jung) not in ”full possession of his personality,” The Powers That Be voted to suspend him from the agency indefinitely, and perhaps, forever, lest he do any more damage to their collective future and fortune. Don resented being judged by the tribunal of Bert, Roger, and Joan. Hypocrites. On his way down, Don ran into the man that could be his replacement on the way it up. And so it went that Don slid down the back of his own devil and wound up in professional and personal limbo. Next stop? To be continued.

Season 6 of Mad Men ended with two scenes of Thanksgiving that that ironically juxtaposed a dubious resignation to hypocrisy with the challenge of liberating sincerity. First, the comic tableaux of Roger, Joan, their son, and Bob Benson. Bob carved the bird, Joan reminded Roger once again that he could act fatherly toward his biological child, but never be a father to the boy: She was raising the kid to believe that abusive wannabe war hero Army doctor ex-husband was his dad. The imagery read Rockwell Americana; the truth was — how might Don put it? — more ”complicated.” Call it: ”Still Life of Irony With Turkeys.”

And then there was the Thanksgiving picture created by the broken-in-more-ways-than-one family of Don, Sally, Bobby (Mason Vale Cotton), and Eugene. The image was sadder that the Harris-Sterling-Benson tableaux, even dystopian — and yet it was more real, sincere, honest. After picking up his delinquent daughter from Miss Porter’s — she, like him, had been suspended for acting out — Don made an out of the way sight seeing stop on the way back to Manhattan. It was the rural whorehouse where he came of age, except the neighborhood was now a slum on the outskirts of an industrial metropolis. An African American child sat on the steps of the now dilapidated, haunted house.

”This is where I grew up,” said Dick Whitman.

The excerpt from Frank O’Hara’s ”Mayakovsky” in ”Meditations In An Emergency” echoing forward in time:

”Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting and modern. The country is gray and brown and white and trees. Snows and skies of laughter are always diminishing. Less funny, not just darker. Not just gray. It may be the coldest day of the year. What does he think of that? I mean, what do I? And if I do, perhaps I am myself again.”

Not long ago, Sally said she did not know this man. She also said he had given her nothing. But in this moment, Sally recognized her father had shared something of great significance — something that began to fill in the living blank that was her father. She looked at him with warmer eyes, one fallen soul looking up to another. Sympathy for a devil. Hopefully it’s a hopeful new beginning for the damned Draper clan.

It’s certainly the beginning of the end for Mad Men. A?

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