The Disappointing Sixth Season of Mad Men

Why the show's episode about Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination didn't work
mad men don bobby 650.jpg

I am fairly sure that this will be my least favorite season of Mad Men. Much of what made the show great is still there: The acting is top notch, and the writing, on a line-by-line level, is still thrilling. Witness Vincent Kartheiser's Pete Campbell angrily berating a colleague who wanted to do business the day after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination—"This cannot be made good." Simple writing and simple delivery  and what you get is a line that fractures the fourth wall, without the all the cheap House of Lies/House of Cards camera mugging.

Whatever Mad Men has been, it has never been cheap. A lot of us will be stuck on the scene where Don attempts to explain his bad fathering. I think I would be too, had I seen it five years ago—back when Don Draper was new. The problem with Mad Men right now is that whatever its individual parts, the show isn't adding up to much. It is almost as if someone has designed us a beautiful car with a bad engine. And so we're sputtering down the road... to where, exactly? I don't need to know where. What I need is to be in hands of an artist whose confidence and steadiness forces me to forget to ask.

Choosing to do an episode on the day of Martin Luther King's assassination is a major undertaking. I've generally never had much regard for the idea that there should be more black people on Mad Men. But after last night's episode, I'm very interested in what the show's writing team looks like. I just didn't really believe the non-hug between Dawn and Joan. It felt like didactic signaling. I also didn't believe the widespread sympathy for King and his aims among virtually every white face. It was almost as if King was Elvis Presley, not a man who died fighting for the rights of poor black people and opposing the Vietnam War.

I'm struggling to understand how the narrative actually advanced last night. 
I've always thought Weiner to be an especially efficient employer of narrative. Sometimes I'll watch the show and find myself believing that an episode must be at its end when, in fact, there are still 15 minutes left. Mad Men has always packed so much heart into every minute. But this season it's packing nothing.

"Matthew Weiner always starts slow" is not a reasonable defense—it confuses subtlety with sloth, and nuance with torpor. The fact that you are unsensational does not make you slow. 
From the moment you see Don Draper scribbling on a napkin, grappling with Lucky Strike, and conversing with a black waiter, you are in the story.

The problem with making great art is you are expected to make more great art. I don't think this season is great, and I thought last night's episode was weak.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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