The thing people keep coming back to when discussing Mad Men is the pain. Certainly this is true of late. Once, it was the costumes, set design and atmosphere we talked about, or the way it placed major historical events in an approachable, personal context or its consummately phenomenal writing and acting. When I ask people about it, a lot of them are still fascinated by it, but the conversation inevitably turns to how depressing it has become. Such an assessment has never been truer than now, in wake of the show’s Season 6 finale.
Pain is the engine that drives this show. Childhood trauma, societal upheaval, crises of identity, the unmitigated thirsts of lust, addiction, anger and endless need – all these things make for a perfect storm. As the show stands, everything could be either totally fucked or perfectly saved for Don Draper/Dick Whitman. His job is either over or on long-term hiatus, his second wife, Megan Draper, may have left him, his drinking has reached a critical mass and his few, remaining friends are gone or thoroughly alienated. The only benefit to this is that in theory, there’s nowhere to go but up for next year’s seventh and final season.
Season 6 tried the patience of many viewers, because the process of getting to the point I just described was excruciating and at times almost unwatchable. We saw Don (and others, particularly Pete Campbell) repeat mistakes they should’ve long ago learned to avoid. We saw them remain out of touch with societal changes and massive world events (e.g. the always-contemptible Harry Crane’s nonplussed reaction to the murder of Martin Luther King). Most of all, we saw fakery and bullshit thrive above all things, in the often worthless products and services that Sterling Cooper & Partners advertised and in the ascent of another self-made cipher, the sycophantic Bob Benson.
All of these behaviors stem in one way or another from deep internal pain and the aforementioned hungers that it engenders. Don has always been subject to massive, internal struggle, some of it beyond his control and some of it entirely self-created. His rudderless lack of identity, alcoholism and misunderstanding of intimacy couldn’t be contained for long.
Even falling in love with and marrying Megan Calvet, which to me seemed genuine, he couldn’t beat back those demons. So, in season 6, he’s in another affair, one that ends more disastrously than any other even though Megan doesn’t discover it. The undercurrent of pain and masochism in all such couplings – such as his string of brief relationships in Season 4, when he was single – is now obvious, represented largely in his paramour Sylvia’s Catholic guilt. He’s convinced he can’t sustain friendships, so he undermines the chance he has for a real one, with Sylvia’s husband Dr. Rosen, by fucking Rosen’s wife. He continues to practice self-sabotage through the increasingly mental-BDSM treatment of Sylvia, but then can’t understand that it’s over when she dumps him. He gets her back briefly by pulling strings to secure her son’s protection from being drafted for Vietnam – and then the affair is definitively torpedoed when his daughter Sally catches them in the act. Even Don finally realizes he’s gone too far at that point.
The simultaneous ascent and descent of Peggy Olson is perhaps even more intriguing. Her Season 6 narrative brings her to the brink of domestic (but still empowered!) happiness with Abe, but being around the toxic men in her profession has finally started to rot her, too. Their conservatism starts to erode her idealism, which transforms into resentment for Abe’s progressive attitudes, and after the blackly hysterical stabbing incident, he dumps her not for another woman, but for his own ideals.
Peggy instead falls in love with Ted Chaough, a man who despite being kinder and warmer than Don is no less essentially conservative and chauvinistic. He gets to dangle the possibility of leaving his wife for Peggy in front of her, and gets to snatch it away and call it a benevolent act. She continues to accumulate power (literally wearing pants in her final scene as she takes Don’s office), but is she happy? Really? I think not. She has as few friends as Don does, irrespective of romance. The hurt that she’s accumulated, despite rising from secretary to creative director in 8 years and realizing her ambitions, is all too likely to come back and bite her in the ass.
Even someone like Bob Benson, who was consistently the only comic relief in this season, has the same driving force of pain and frustration behind him as all the show’s major characters – Don, Peggy, Roger Sterling, Joan Harris, Betty Francis, Pete Campbell and Sally Draper. For Bob, it’s that he’s clearly been next to nothing all his life. His resume is a clump of forgeries and his last verifiable profession was being a rich man’s “manservant,” and I think it’s safe to assume that didn’t mean secretary. It’s reasonable to say that this channeling of rage at being unrecognized is a positive thing, but something about him seems sad all the same.
These characters are merely the most recent and prominent examples of the show’s thematic focus on pain and deception, particularly self-deception. There are plenty others – Roger Sterling’s plotline from season 4 onward, Pete Campbell in seasons 5 and 6, the sad meltdown of Lane Pryce, FAT BETTY…so many things.
With pain comes the need to purge, to vent, to rage. Purging is a near-ubiquitous motif in Mad Men. Consider how often the characters are seen vomiting. This is obviously a logical consequence of Don’s excessive drinking and that of other characters, but puking is also almost the default reaction to stress or internal conflict among these people. (Sex, booze and screaming matches are also forms of purging, of course.)
Season 4′s “The Suitcase” is commonly cited as one of the best – if not the best – episodes of the show, and it is certainly the purest distillation of everything that Mad Men is about. It climaxes, tellingly, with puking and crying, and is of course also shot through with violence, self-hatred, and the desire for validation. It features the most accurate portrayal of the disparities between the male and female experience in the workplace I’ve ever seen. (Regarding the latter, consider the “THAT’S WHAT THE MONEY IS FOR!” outburst.) And through it all, it’s burdened with the pain of a man who was thrown into misery since birth and who practices self-abnegation and the destruction of those around him because he knows no other way to act.
Season 6′s finale, “In Care Of,” is similarly evocative and strong because it’s just as laser-focused on the aforementioned themes, with none of the oft-excessive wallowing that distinguished much of this year’s run of episodes. It also serves as the final purge. Don just lets everything out in a climactic spew (he doesn’t actually vomit, but does tear up during the harrowing, heartbreaking, confessional Hershey’s pitch). Naturally, he fucks up the bid to get Hershey’s as an account, and this serves as the straw that breaks the camel’s back and catalyzes his quasi-firing from SC&P.
Yet, with this purge comes a glimmer of hope. Don has hit bottom, but finally begun to learn how to understand, if not quite deal with, the conflagration of flaws that sum him up. He can either continue to crawl around on the ground of the hole he’s fallen down or go up. There are no other options.
Most of us have come to similar points in our lives, and the only way to deal with it is to live with it and move forward or resign to being lost. The fall of Don Draper serves as an object-lesson in this truth, and Mad Men now ranks among the greatest art in any medium because it’s capable of inspiring us to be better by showing examples of us at our worst.
Liam Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.