The Year 'Mad Men' Ate Itself

The sixth season was a very Mad Men-y season indeed. But as part of a larger series, as part of the beginning of the end, it felt strangely like a regression, the magic having left, an overanalyzed favorite ossifying as just a Good Show.

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The sixth and penultimate season of Mad Men came to an end last night, bringing us the usual season finale ta-da of big moments and sudden, major changes. One year it was Betty leaving Don, then Don marrying Megan, and now Megan has seemingly left Don, at the same time that SC&P forced him to take a leave of absence. This episode's events weren't entirely out of the blue, of course — groundwork was being laid here and there all season — but we shouldn't let their bigness, their overarching significance, blind us to the fact that what came before the finale was sort of a muddle.

Plenty of people seemed to find this season as enthralling as ever; they enjoyed touring another dark pathway of Don Draper's soul, watching Peggy shakily ascend to new heights, reveled once again in the bluster and clipped desperation of the office. But I can't imagine I'm alone in thinking that something about this season was a little too too, as if Mad Men was almost playing at being Mad Men, giving us all the office intrigue we're supposed to want, all the somber Don psychology that once captivated us, and throwing in enough surprise and oddity to make us scratch our heads and dissect the symbolism for the rest of the week. In that most rudimentary of Mad Men ways, the sixth season was a success, a very Mad Men-y season indeed. But as part of a larger series, as part of the beginning of the end, it felt strangely like a regression, as if the show suddenly got simpler when it should have been growing wiser and richer.

I noticed a little of this back around the time of the premiere, sensing in the season's first two hours that themes and metaphors were more loudly and clearly stated than they used to be. There wasn't much investigation to be had, from Don reading about middle-aged Dante on the beach to the G.I.'s slapdash wedding service, it all felt very... on the nose, I guess you could say. Which is fine, the show was still sharply written and acted, but there was something more obvious — flatter — about it as well. Much of the season continued that way, going too far with plot lines that felt almost trite. Peggy and Ted, for example, gave Elisabeth Moss and Kevin Rahm some nice moments of barely buttoned-up lust and jealousy to play, but the whole boss-and-employee-falling-for-each-other thing was done, and done more thoughtfully, earlier on the show. The intricacies of Roger and Joan, and Don and Megan — even Don and Peggy in one excruciating scene in the first season — were far more eloquently stated, and more narratively satisfying, than Peggy and Ted's relatively simple problem this season.

Which raises another point of contention about this season. It was inconsistent, wasn't it? It frequently contradicted itself or jumped awkwardly in time to get around plot obstacles it had itself set up. When did Ted's adamant demand that Peggy not even look at him become them making goo-goo eyes at each other in the office and giggling at the movie theater? I get that Ted's defenses were worn down, but it would have been nice to see that happen more gradually, it would have given the fairly standard illicit office romance some depth and specificity.

Similarly, Don's disastrous relationship with the lady downstairs (an underused Linda Cardellini) provided some nice moments of tenderness and frailty, but we were thrown into it and then quickly dragged back out in a way that didn't let the audience really consider the affair, to glean much of anything from the story beyond the fact that Don, yet again, is a broken person trying to fill a void in all the wrong places, in all the wrong ways. We've seen that same theme handled better, more subtly, and more fruitfully in seasons past. (I'd say his affair with the Bowdoin nanny was one of the more effective examples.) I know that Don has to have an affair every season (except for last season, right?), but this one felt both familiar and disjointedly drawn, very "same old, same old" on a show that has up to this point been steadily maturing. Not that each season is necessarily "better" than the last, but the ball moves forward.

Again, I know lots of people will disagree with me. And that's fine. Mad Men is still a beguiling and exquisitely tailored show. But there used to be an air of mystery about it, a secret whispering under its surface that you had to lean in close to begin to understand. That alluring, oddly Chris Van Allsburgian magic left the show for me this season, Mad Men ossifying as just a Good Show, no longer an expression of something else, something intangible hovering in the aether. And that's fine. It just means that the show has been on for six seasons and I'm perhaps more susceptible to series fatigue than others. I'm still more than curious to see how Matthew Weiner and crew might end the show with next year's final season, I just think I'll be glad that it's done.

It's a strange thing to say as someone who does this for a living, but I think that Mad Men got to be, perhaps, a bit overanalyzed. Too much prodding makes the meat get tough. And it also, I'd have to imagine, makes Weiner and his other writers perilously conscious of what people want and expect their show to be. Weiner has always posed himself, admirably for the most part, as a principled and semi-autonomous auteur, but I can't imagine that none of the external pressures have seeped in. Knowing that the show is definitely ending next season is probably a blessing and something of a curse, now that the deadline has been set and the demand to end this thing right has become concrete. And thus, I think, we get a season like this, which felt very made in the style of how the audience talks about the show, giving us typical Don floundering and even a new guy with a secret past to wonder about in the way that we did once before, long ago. I think last night's season finale was lovely, and did push the show forward into somewhere new, but it got there on an old, and bumpy, road.

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