by Greg Akers
If you're like me, you watch each episode (or at least choice scenes) multiple times — schedule permitting — discuss it with anyone who will lend an ear, develop wild and complex theories, and read every episode recap online you can. (Here I'd like to publicly acknowledge the work and thought of Todd VanDerWerff on Onion A.V. Club and Matt Zoller Seitz on Vulture, upon whose shoulders this post pretends.)
In April, on my Twitter account (@gregakers) and at the behest of Memphis City Councilman Shea Flinn (@flinnshady, #FF), I named my top 10 TV dramas since 2000. In a Flyer post some other time I'll name them and elaborate, but, spoiler alert, my #1 show on the list is Mad Men.
Upon naming Mad Men my top show, I said:
Five-tool TV show. Looks great, acted great, written great, entertaining about matters of import.
It has changed what I have come to want from the TV, film, and books I consume. I now value thought over plot, character over narrative.
Nothing "happened" in that episode of MAD MEN? I don't care. Peggy made this face about something Don said? MORE PLEASE.
The glacial though constant jockeying for position, reflective of changing social dynamics, true then and now. That's the show I want to watch.
That was after episode 1 of season 6. How do I feel now that the season has reached its terminus, and with but one final season to go before Mad Men rides off into the sunset? Same.
(Hereupon, I declare Mad Men Total Spoiler Alert status for this post and also presume if you're reading you know what the show's about. I'm not going to define a "mad man.")
The S6 finale, "In Care of," delivered the exact ending required, punctuated with exquisite moments but not without missed opportunities, to a hovering-around-average season (by Mad Men standards).
Mad Men has always been reducible to two premises: Don wrestling with Dick Whitman, and Peggy wrestling with social professional forces. Both came to satisfactory, end-game conclusions this week.
The climactic moment of Don's professional life comes as he undoes his own perfect Hershey pitch, substituting the lovely lie for the ugly truth. Don's glib ability to lie is what always made him the best ad creative around, and his unwillingness to continue the practice means he's choosing to not be in the line of work anymore, or at least not in the way he has been. I wouldn't be surprised to see Don doing something completely different come next season. His "mad men" days might be over and just a story he tells Sally's kids when they graduate from college in the 1990s. Hell, they might even call him Grampa Dick instead of Grampa Don by then.
As for Peggy, she has at long last achieved her goal: Sitting in Don's chair in his office at a top agency in New York, every bit the creative powerhouse as he was. Look how far she's come, from ingenue secretary to this. The compromises and failures along the way, including the subplot between her and Ted this season, were just the journey on the way to this destination. Accept, then, my disappointment that we don't linger in that moment a little longer with Peggy in the season finale. We see the view that she now possesses. Would that we could take in longe her face and see, what, there? What admixture of highs and lows does Peggy feel? And why is Elisabeth Moss denied the one scene she's been building her character toward for years?
S6 was maybe the show's least good apart from season 3; still better than 90 percent of standard TV fare but a little disappointing in the context of itself. In retrospect, S6 is the companion piece to S3. That they should both fall a little short is more a function of the show's structure than execution.
Consider seasons 3 and 6 in relation to each other.
Thematically, they're about primary totems in Don's life falling apart: his marriage in S3, his career in S6. Both events' coup de grâce is the untidy existence of Dick Whitman. Betty dumped Don when she learned he was a poor, essentially. He lied to her for years, usually about who he was with, but once she confronted him with who he was, the jig was up.
In S6, Don is placed on probation by the agency — a separation rather than divorce for now, but I'd be surprised if he ever works another day for Sterling Cooper & Partners. In an interesting half-turn beyond Betty's reaction, SC&P dumps Don not because they find out who he is and that he lied (remember that Bert Cooper has known for years), but because he can no longer hide who he is and lie to clients. Working in an industry that prizes the ability to manufacture fake truth — not just in advertising but in client relations — Don has reached a point where he can't tell the lie with a straight face and clear conscience. Not even when it was only in the service of selling a client on themselves. It's like a brewer trying to kick and dry out. Don's in the wrong line of work now.
It has been distressing seeing Don struggle the past two seasons to recapture the professional magic of the first several seasons; it seemed at the time to be a failure of his character, a symptom of distraction with drink and infidelity. In retrospect, his increasing failure to succeed in advertising is a healthy, holistic response to becoming a better man.
Don felt some liberation when Betty found the truth about Dick in S3, however painful the process. Being basically fired by SC&P doesn't destroy his ego the way it would anyone else. He knows it's coming when he leaves the Hershey meeting and bids Dawn, "Goodbye, sweetheart." His step seems lighter, no regrets. After all, he's the one who told Peggy all those years ago, back in S1, "It will shock you how much it never happened."
For years, Don hopped beds and embraces looking for happiness and satisfaction with himself. He never could. I think at last he has hit upon a route to being whole: run back to being Dick Whitman.
And then, at last, the shape of the season comes into focus: the long-suffering march toward Dick Whitman getting his life back. And not one epiphanic moment where it all turns around on a dime but rather new life by a thousand cathartic cuts: embarrassment at Roger's mother's funeral, Planet of the Apes with Bobby, the breakup with Sylvia, physical reconciliation with Betty, near-death in the pool, Sally walking in on him and Sylvia, losing Peggy to Ted, estrangement from Megan, trying to stop drinking, the Hershey pitch, disbarment from work. It's not easy or clean.
And it's not just Don. Several characters in the episode are given the opportunity to ponder a life with a fresh start, a clean slate to be forgiven for their past sins and their souls restored spotless as snow.
In keeping with other metatextual moments in S6 (primarily the drugged-out episode "The Crash," seemingly in part about Matthew Weiner and the rest of Mad Men's writers' creative processes), "In Care of" dares to let some chickens finally come home to roost for many characters and bring them to their ultimate destination as first envisioned with the first episode of the series.
In other words, some Mad Men premise shit gets resolved. So, what's next season, the show's last, look like now? It's tempting to think Matthew Weiner and co. will reward themselves for crossing their t's and dotting their i's by doing some unconventional plotting. I wonder if S7 will even begin in the 1960s. It could start 10 years later for that matter.
—S6 was heavy on big historical moments where characters just stop and watch the news on TV. So was 1968 for that matter. It didn't help the flow of the season, however, and contributed to the borderline special-episodic feel at times. Thank goodness nothing important happens in 1969.
—I've been certain since mid-S5 that Megan was doomed to a violent death, either in an accident or murder. Obviously, it didn't happen (yet, maybe), but just as obviously, the audience was intended to fear for her health. A fear of terrifying out of control harmful forces needed to permeate the show, and Weiner et al. did a good job of it. Most memorable is Megan wearing the Sharon Tate T-shirt while police sirens encroach on her dialogue.
—Give the Emmy to James Wolk for his S6 role as Bob Benson. Give him all the Emmys.
—Regarding, Bob, there were lots of interesting internet theories about his innate goodness, or lack thereof. A serial killer hiding behind that smile? A nice sociopath or political backstabber? It reminds me of when I first started watching the show and didn't know where it was headed, and wondered what Don's sinister secret was. A killer? What was he going to do to his brother, who threatened to out him? Murder him and hide the body? I get the urge to wonder at ulterior purposes of opaque characters like Don and Bob. More honestly, though, Bob represents a time when I don't want to endlessly speculate and develop crystal-pattern structures for why he's really this way or that way. With Bob, I just want to live in the moment. Wolk is a tremendous actor and the character was one of the funniest the show has ever had, maybe second following Roger. The best line of the season: Bob Benson comforts Ginsberg, who is freaking out over his own hypocrisy and declares, "Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds." Bob, unflappable and sweet, massages back, "Come on, buddy, you're not death!"
—Betty saying that Sally's future is in the balance and wondering if Sally is good or bad, except instead of Sally you can swap in proper nouns like Don and America.
—In an episodes full of heartrending shots, tops is probably Pete saying goodbye to his daughter. Devastating.
—The scene where Don is told the verdict by the partners, but just watch Joan and when she can't look at Don.
—On the flipside, the closing with Sally and Don sharing a nonverbal moment is a well-earned feel-good moment.
—In the end, whenever the show flags a little or seems a little wobbly, I would prescribe the following thing, every time: More Betty (remember the impeccable Christmas scene and the runaway violinist?), more Sally, and, the annual more Glen.