Mad Men Season 6 and the Utter Boredom of Moral Plays

So Don's going to find redemption now? Zzz...
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If you have a chance, dip into our Mad Men roundtable for some reflections on this week's episode. Ashley Fetters is feeling dangerously optimistic:

Don's fresh start could be a trickier one. To me, it feels like we've already seen the beginning of the end of Don Draper--not the man himself, but the fake identity Don Draper. We've seen the slick veneer chipping away flashback by flashback all season, and I think on some level, whatever remains of Dick Whitman is growing disgusted with what Don Draper has become. It's almost like it's Don Draper who makes the Hershey pitch, but then it's Dick Whitman who emerges afterward, wanting someone, somewhere to know the truth. Same goes for the scene with Bobby and Sally at the end of the episode. It's the revenge of Dick Whitman.

Will Don's downward spiral continue? Potentially. But I saw that last revelation of his childhood home as a good start in the right direction. At the very least, he's taken one step toward being a more honest dad to his kids.

I'm on record saying that I didn't much like this season, but I like how it ended much more than how it began and proceeded. Moreover, looking back it feels this season worked to clear out narrative problems from last season. I would argue that, in terms of storytelling, moving Peggy to another office (if you want to keep her on the show) was a mistake.

In its early years, Mad Men's efficiency was incredible. The show began to (necessarily) sprawl when Don and Betty divorced, and then sprawl even more when Peggy left. I find that a little sad because I generally think the Betty character, and January Jones's performance, are among the highlights of the show. There simply hasn't been a series of scenes between Don and another woman that throbbed with the power of his interaction with Betty leading up to their one-night dalliance. I suspect that is because of the writing--Betty is simply a better developed and more finely detailed character then Megan. But we see less of Betty these days, because she's not central to Don's life. The same fate threatened Peggy. But her return streamlines the world of Mad Men again, and allows the writers to, once again, develop Peggy while developing Stan, Joan, or Ginsburg.

I miss the villain. I miss the Don Draper for whom adultery seemed but the smallest of his sins.

One mistake that remains is substituting in the narrative of an identity thief on the run for a kind of moral redemption play. In this I somewhat disagree with Ashley. I don't find Don Draper's redemption interesting at all. I prefer to think of him in the way that I thought of Ray Milland in Dial M for Murder--a veneer of cool covering a core of panic and desperation. Perhaps it's because television is flush with anti-heroes, and villains who want to do right. These days, everyone is Magneto.

But what was original about Don Draper was that he was a thief--possibly repentant, but not really. That Don Draper understood the ephemeral nature of truth and good breeding. I don't think I've seen a colder scene than Don Draper staring coolly at his brother and effectively telling him to get lost. And I don't know that I've seen a more riveting scene than Draper telling his young Padwan, "This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened." That was villainy--villainy in service of an accidental feminism, but villainy all the same. I miss the villain. I miss the Don Draper for whom adultery seemed but the smallest of his sins. And I don't need him to be redeemed.

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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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