Every week for the sixth season of AMC's acclaimed series Mad Men, our roundtable of Eleanor Barkhorn (Sexes editor, TheAtlantic.com), Ashley Fetters (editorial fellow for TheAtlantic.com's Entertainment and Sexes channels), and Amy Sullivan (National Journal correspondent) will discuss the latest happenings at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
Barkhorn: Don's cheating on Megan. Don's cheating on Megan. Don's cheating on Megan.
Whenever I thought about Mad Men in the 10 months since the Season Five finale aired, the first thing that came to mind was, "I really hope they don't have Don cheat on Megan." An overarching question that Mad Men has posed throughout its run is, Can a person change? Don's fifth-season transformation from miserable, lying, cheating husband of Betty to happy, forthright, faithful husband of Megan seemed to maybe, possibly answer this question in the affirmative. But the season's closing scene—Don at a bar, "You Only Live Twice" playing in the background, about to answer a pretty blonde who's asked if he's alone—was a reminder of just how fragile Don's transformation is. One word, and he's back to the old Don.
I wanted season six to show us Don hadn't said yes, that he remained committed to his reformed self. Mad Men has already demonstrated how low Don can go. How much more interesting would it be to see what it takes for him to be happy long-term? So many shows right now are obsessed with the depths of human darkness—Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Game of Thrones—that happy Don seemed like a compelling way to break the mold.
But but but, as we find out toward the end of the season six premiere, Don is back to his old ways. He's having an affair with a neighbor. Who's also married. To the really nice doctor Don has become friends with. Such good friends that both the mistress and the doctor husband celebrated New Year's Eve with Don and Megan. Sigh.
But he's not the old Don—not entirely, anyway. He expresses guilt for his transgressions, something he never did when he cheated on Betty. When his mistress asks what his New Year's resolution is, he responds, "I want to stop doing this." She says, "I know," implying that he's expressed the desire to cut off the affair before. This guilt-wracked Don is different from first-season Don, who was so in denial about the fact that he already had a wife, he tells his mistress, "We should get married." Don's guilt shows he sees Megan as a person who's capable of being hurt. He never got there with Betty. So, progress?
Otherwise, Don seems in even worse shape than he was in the pre-Megan era. The season opens with the two of them on a trip to Hawaii, and as the episode follows them from the beach to the bedroom to the dinner table, Megan does all the talking and Don is silent. The first words we hear him speak (other than a voiceover of him reading Dante's Inferno at the very beginning) is at the hotel bar, where he's gone to escape in the middle of the night. It's not quite clear why Don's shutting Megan out. Maybe it's guilt over the affair, or perhaps he's jealous of her professional quasi-success. She has a minor but growing role on a soap opera, and one day she unexpectedly gets called in to work, leaving Don to his own devices. He gets so drunk he throws up at Roger's mother's funeral, in front of an aghast (and entirely sober) group of mourners.
The most dramatic sign of his unhappiness is the ad campaign he pitches to the Hawaiian resort: the image of a man who's leapt out of his clothes, with the tagline "Hawaii—the jumping-off point." It makes everyone in the room think of suicide. The baffled client stammers, "I think, and I think people might think, that he died."
Are we viewers supposed to think Don is headed for a similar fate? It seems too obvious, and yet... Ashley, what did you think of Don's lapse back into cheating and darkness? And what about the other parts of the episode?
Fetters: Yep, Don's cheating on Megan. I wish I were surprised.
Andy Greenwald at Grantland wrote a terrific piece this week asserting that what makes Mad Men great is its sense of dread, of tragic inevitability. Its drama doesn't come from will-they-or-won't-they arcs, he wrote, but rather from the agonizing wait for the other shoe to drop; in other words, Mad Men is a show about when, not a show about if.
I couldn't agree with Greenwald more, especially on the sad topic of Don's aborted change of heart. For me, his stint as a loyal husband felt like the prelude to an inevitable relapse into his trademark Don Draper ways.
If last season brought us Fat Betty, thus far it looks like this season's incarnation might be Lonesome and/or Weird Betty
But let's not pretend that phase was a complete transformation on Don's part, either. Just because Don's refrained from sleeping around doesn't mean he and Megan have a good marriage—they're kinda dysfunctional even without Don cheating. And their union, let's remember, resulted from a rash decision that smelled like disaster from the start. (You're sexy and free-spirited and a good babysitter who taught my kids to sing in French! Let's get married! ... No.) The last season's worth of things working out surprisingly OK for Don and Megan has felt to me like a long-drawn-out honeymoon phase before the real consequences materialize: the consequences for Megan of marrying a closed-off, controlling guy like Don who doesn't think the rules apply to him, and the consequences for Don of impulsively marrying a younger, more forward-thinking woman he never knew that well in the first place.