I’ll come out of the gate and say that I could sit and argue for hours that Mad Men is the best show on television, ever, just so you know who you’re dealing with. I’ll refrain from fleshing that argument out in this forum, but I will say that one of the joys of watching Mad Men is the way the show confronts viewers’ expectations, and undermines them, not for cheap thrills or ratings, but for the sake of the show as a whole.
Even in the show's highly publicized sixth season that came to a close on Sunday, the program is still a tuna compared to ratings sharks like The Walking Dead, and that is entirely because it doesn’t pander to any of the patterns or tricks of typical cable television. Every week is like a foiled one night stand. You go in expecting dirty, no strings attached sex, and instead get three hours of foreplay and a different shade of existential crisis to walk home with.
The show is in a league of its own because Matthew Weiner, the show's creator and show runner, is, well, he’s particular. This is a man who put one of television’s critical darlings on hiatus for over a year because he wasn’t about to let AMC screw him into America-fying his baby. The network spun the ordeal to appear that Weiner was whining (Wein-ing) that they weren’t fine-tuning the greater viewing experience to be Mad Men-centric enough. In reality AMC wanted more product placement, a shorter run time and a smaller cast. Weiner won though and in May of last year the show returned with the same format as before, “and God saw the light, that it was good.”
Whereas season five was about reestablishing the world of Mad Men after not only its long absence, but also the finale of season four entirely changing the shows known tropes, season six has allowed the show to return its focus to subtlety and the subconscious. The shows time period aligning with the violent, revolutionary end of the 60’s provided the perfect backdrop for tiers of consequences, from historical tragedies like the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., to the sociopolitical ramifications of New York’s changing landscape to Don Draper finally having to answer to anyone other than himself.
There has been a lot of talk that this season was the worst, or contained some of the series’ worst episodes, and that is beyond reductive. A reviewer for the New York Times asserted that in portraying historical events the show has “painted itself into a trite corner at times;” well that’s a trite thing to say. First of all there’s not a show around that allows history to be so much of a character, while also maintaining an obsession with accuracy and continuity. But also the shows reverence for the past is so underlined that entire blogs are dedicated to decoding the painfully on-point costuming that also contains plot clues. The show is encompassing its most eventful time in history yet, and that’s obviously going to change the rhythms a bit, which is not the same as the show inaccurately or unartfully portraying historical events.
Needless to say after the turbulent season, the finale was highly anticipated, but that anticipation took on a life of its own when Reddit circulated a rumor that the character of Meghan was living a shakily parallel existence to Sharon Tate, and thus would result in a murderous finale that would give us all Manson family nightmares. I’ll admit that I too was fascinated with the idea. The evidence was suspect, but still compelling, listing moments such as Megan wearing a t-shirt that Tate was famously photographed in, their similar acting careers, multiple mentions of Rosemary’s Baby (a film by Tate’s husband, Roman Polanski), etc.
What happened Sunday night was a much better kind of murder though, and that was the metaphorical murder of the impenetrable Don Draper. Beginning with a reference to Dante’s Inferno, it’s obvious Don finally has to confront his own hell. The series has always been punctuated by Don’s secrecy and inner turmoil, not just the fact that he is Dick Whitman posing as Don Draper, but also his rolls as family man and philanderer, intuitive sage and self-loathing drunk, creative genius and indifferent schmuck, and with this episode the answer to those dualities isn’t just the sound of ice clinking in a glass anymore.
Weiner told the NYT, “The themes of the show this year really seem to capture the mood that people are in right now, which is one of anxiety and the loss of confidence, and fear of the future and a kind of curiosity about what we have to do to not feel this way.”
Don can’t hide from himself anymore, and has decided to let Dick Whitman become another facet of Don, but just as he starts to come around to that wholeness, he is finally met with repercussions at the agency, something that always seemed impossible. The series is fish-eyeing-in on Don/Dick, but it’s also coming to a close (with just one season left), and one can only assume that as it does it will only become more involved in defining the falling, silhouetted man, and what that fall really is.