As an early and excited fan of Mad Men (Okay, I realize that this doesn’t make me the first man on the moon, but I was there), it saddens me to say that I was pretty disappointed in this past season. I know others disagree–Troy Patterson in Slate called it the show’s best season ever–but I felt let down.
When Mad Men debuted, among the many things that was so brilliant the show was who the show was about–though set in 1960, it was about us. It was about us in two ways: first, it showed the birth of what may be called `our era’–the birth of a fully integrated America, the birth of women in the work force, the birth of a sexually freer country, the birth of more psychologically aware country. Second, it was about us, the people who were living in the first years of the 21st century, the years when the good days were ending and a crack-up loomed over the horizon. The show, of course, was about other things, notably the tortured soul of Don Draper. But lets face it: there’s only so much tortured soul crap we take from our friends and loved ones, and I believe I speak for most of us when say that my tolerance for it among my favorite fictional characters is even less. Megan Draper may have to put up with Don coming home ever night half in the bag, but I don’t, not unless he and Roger Sterling and Freddie Rumson have gone to an after-hours gambling joint and punched Jimmy Barrett in the jaw first. That’s the Don I like, the Don who, however deplorable, is always able to out wit the Ducks on the world.
In this season, set in 1968, Matthew Weiner and his creative team treated all these imperatives with a lot of literalness. We followed Don into a season-long descent into alienation, witnessing a sadistic relationshipo with his mistress, general meanness to his colleagues, neglect of his his wife and children (what’s new?) and a trip to the drunk tank, although in the final episode we were given a flickering indication that a turnaround might be in order. We also experienced the turbulent events of 1968 with at once a surface literalness (seeing the riots on TV) and a theatrical surrealism, like the elderly black woman thief or the Chevy account as Mad Men‘s Vietnam (see Slate‘s very smart deconstruction). This is an exercise in not very entertaining intellectual masturbation, a dog whistle that went over most of the audience’s head. Weiner, moreover, began to repeat himself, with another mysterious liar in Bob Benson and another Pete Campbell parent being lost in transit. Would it have been a challenge for one of the characters to have been caught up in street turmoil at Columbia or the Chicago convention? Almost certainly–you see things like that all time in inferior programs so frequently that it becomes a cliche. But presented with the challenge to elevate this moment, the writers punted. The reality of the era was played for decoration, for surfaces. Abe’s radicalism was revealed to be careerism, a bourgois boomer wrapped in a lefty taco. Ginzberg and Rizzo and Megan were shown to be liberals with no bottom. Megan spouted anit-war bromides, but never did anything. The attitudes were a superficial as the buttons pinned to Glenn’s pea coat. None of them went to a rally, none of them went to a meeting, none of them did any pro bono work, none of them marched. But some of those people would have. During the whole year, Betty was the only who actually saw something face to face. This was a huge swing and a miss for what had been the Mantle of TV shows.
By the way, what ever happened to Mad Men‘s Republicans? I was delighted to see that in the final episode, the bar where Don met the evangelist had for some reason two political posters hanging on the wall: a vintage Nixon’s the One poster, and one for Roy Goodman, who was the Republcan state senator for the Upper East Side of Manhattan from 1969 to 2002, a liberal Rockefeller Republican whose kind we just don’t see anymore. I thought that one of the most original Mad Men insights was that Cooper and Sterling were Republicans, that the firm worked for Nixon in 1960, that Bert Cooper was part of old money, board-sitting Manhattan Republican establishment. The advent of Henry Francis kept this going. but as the show lost interest in Betty it lost interest in Henry, and a whole fruitful dramatic path was back-burnered. Remember, we think of the sixties as a period when things went to hell, but they didn’t go to hell for everybody: Nixon won, and he won with the help of Haldeman and Ehrlihman and Roger Ailes and Ron Ziegler, all of them products of the Mad Men milieu. I’m sorry Weiner has let this story line slacken. I had hoped that by the end of the final season, as 1969 drew to a close, we would be seeing Pete Campbell taking the first steps that would eventually lead him to his indictment in the Watergate conspiracy.