I had to wait to watch the finale of the sixth season of Mad Men until Monday night, and given the news cycle of the past several days, I decided to sit with my thoughts as they developed. I’ll have some longer arguments about the weaknesses of the season and the state of anti-heroes tomorrow, but I felt like I came away from the finale with five observations, which, even if Mad Men is currently riding a cold streak is a lot more than most television offers up:
1. Peggy, Don, and why neither men nor women have it all: It’s no mistake that it takes Don getting put on leave by the other partners at the firm for Peggy to take, at least for the moment, his corner office. But it’s also not coincidental that Peggy’s ascent came after she was dumped by a regretful Ted, who wanted to go back to his family and that when Don was metaphorically defenestrated from his firm, he turned to his children, taking them to the whorehouse where he was raised in Pennsylvania. In this respect, Mad Men reminds me of 30 Rock, another show that deftly explored the idea that “having it all” is not a problem that’s exclusive to women. Peggy may have lost a long-time boyfriend and a lover this season, and gained new authority at work, but Don Draper has never really had it all more than she has. He may have had enormous professional influence, but when he was married to Betty, he was an inconsistent presence in his children’s lives thanks to the late nights occasioned by his work and his affairs, and after their divorce, he saw even less of them. It’s only when he’d lost his lover, Sylvia, through Sally’s discovery of the two of them together, his present wife, Megan, by selfishly making decisions that threatened her career, and his work that he’s able to not only take his children on a trip, but to be honest with them, even in a very small way about his past.
2. The audacity of that final image and Mad Men‘s race problems: I assume the use of Judy Collins’ recording of “Both Sides Now,” released as a single in 1968, during Don’s visit with his children to the brothel where he was raised was meant to suggest that Don was gaining some perspective. But there was something disconcerting about the use of that song given that the child who was sitting on the steps where Don once might have lingered was African-American. Mad Men might have made more efforts this season to show us the world from the perspective of Dawn, Don’s secretary. But the show only did that when it was necessary for a plotline that served to illuminate the racial attitudes of the show’s white characters. And it’s not as if Don had anything to say to his children about the demographic changes in his old neighborhood. Don might be beginning to understand what it’s like to be something other than a master of the universe. But it’s past time to acknowledge that Mad Men has no real interest in looking at race from both sides now, or in the future.
3. The persistence of Bob Benson, and why we like to be fooled: One of the problems this season, I thought, was that it repeated points Mad Men has made over and over again. But there was something moderately new in the juxtaposition between Don’s expulsion from the firm after unburdening himself to Hershey in one of his first moments of honesty about his past, and Bob Benson’s cheerful presence at Joan’s Thanksgiving dinner table. More often than we like to admit, we’re not actually looking for the truth. We want to be fooled, as long as we’re fooled in a way that meets our needs. It’s why Bert Cooper blew off Don’s fabrication of his identity as long as those fabrications served his purposes. And it’s why Joan, who seems absolutely clear that there’s no prospect of a romantic relationship, is happy to have Bob around because his company is cheerful, his attention to Kevin fulfills her needs, and he replaces her husband in ways she appreciates–like carving her turkey–while not asking of her anything she doesn’t want to give. Pete Campbell’s relationship with Bob may have ended in farce–his mother getting tossed off a cruise ship by a gay nurse who married her for her non-existent money may be the silliest, soapiest thing Mad Men has ever done–but his observation that Bob would continue to rise was dead on.
4. The tragedy of Pete Campbell: Speaking of Pete Campbell, this might be the closest the show’s ever come to making me feel sorry for Pete as an exemplar of a victim of toxic masculinity. Trudy’s tremendously perceptive in pointing out that Pete got everything he wanted, freedom from her, his mother, and from the suburbs, only to find that he didn’t want any of it after all. Pete’s always wanted what he couldn’t have because he thought it was right for him to want it. He went after Peggy because he thinks ad men are supposed to schtupp secretaries, after the nanny and the neighbor because he believes married men are supposed to maintain their sexual independence, and leased an apartment in the city for the same reasons. That’s not to say definitively that if Pete had been trained to sit with his own feelings and discern what he actually wanted, he would have turned out to be a saint. But trying to do what he believes is expected of men hasn’t served him well, either. When we see him clinging to those final moments at Tammy’s side before the holidays, he’s a much attenuated Adam about to be expelled from the Eden of her bedroom, wallpapered with vines.
5. Whatever happened to Sandy? Mad Men gets a lot of credit for putting together plot elements that come together slowly to dramatic conclusions, as happened with Don’s affair with Sylvia. But I’m still disappointed that season six lost hold of one of the most interesting plot threads in the premiere, Betty’s relationship with Sandy, the gifted musician who was living in her home, and who sold her violin and ran away to California when she didn’t get into Julliard. The implications for Betty’s sexuality, her relationship to feminism and the counterculture, and how she understands Sally, were fascinating, and never picked up again. It’s a shame.