SPOILER ALERT: If you don’t want any surprises ruined, don’t read this until you’ve finished Season 6.
The sixth season of AMC’s Mad Men ended on Sunday night. It’s a show I’ve always had mixed feelings about. It’s fun to look at, the people in it are beautiful, and I think I would have fit in great in that bygone everyone-gets-drunk-and-chain-smokes-cigarettes-all-day-at-work environment. But I’ve often felt the dramatic tension a bit lacking. I personally don’t give a shit what accounts the mythical Sterling Cooper advertising firm wins or loses, and to take it a bit further, I basically think Don Draper and Roger Sterling and all those Madison Avenue types are what’s wrong with America. In the early seasons, the only plots that I thought were really compelling were the ones about Peggy trying to break through the incredibly low glass ceiling of the early 1960s.
But the show was always just good enough to keep me watching. And I felt like it broke through in Season 5, when they really hit what we think of as THE SIXTIES, in which characters from the old school are forced to confront what their society is becoming. In particular, the scene in which Megan (who I originally thought was a boring–albeit ridiculously hot–addition, but proved to be a nice youthful foil to Draper) handed Don a copy of Revolver, and he snapped it off after a minute of Tomorrow Never Knows, not understanding the point, was masterful. And the episode in which they win the Jaguar account, in which we see Joan and Peggy take polar opposite paths (Joan securing her financial future at the cost of prostituting herself for the firm, while Peggy quits for a better deal elsewhere and steps into the elevator to the brash chords of the Kinks), was one of the best hours of dramatic TV ever, right up there with some of the best work on Breaking Bad or The Wire.
Season 6 didn’t quite live up to the lofty standards of Season 5. Some of this, I felt, was because the show seemed like it just wanted to go back and cover old ground (I am not the first one to point this out): I thought when Peggy walked into that elevator she was gone, but she gets dragged right back into the office so Draper can fuck with her life some more; and the plotline of Draper screwing the downstairs neighbor led to some memorable scenes (none more than when his daughter catches him in flagrante), but it still felt kind of tired. This season did capture a few landmark moments (my favorite episode from this season is the one that swirls around the MLK assassination), but it was most obsessed with Draper’s disintegration, and with the presence of his two doubles, Bob Benson (who the show really wants me to care about, but I just don’t), and Ted Chaough (who we’ll get to shortly). At this point it feels incomplete; show-runner Matthew Weiner has said he plans to do one more season, which would take the characters through to the end of the ’60s, and the end of this season feels like it’s mostly just open-ended questions to make us think about that: Will Megan leave Don? Will he get his job back? Follow her to California? What about his relationship with his daughter? And I haven’t even addressed any of the other characters who are up in the air.
I don’t have answers to these questions. Without going into too much of a belabored analysis, here, in no particular order, are my five favorite moments from last season.
1. When Trudy finds out Pete slept with the neighbor: I was laughing watching Pete lie awake in bed, waiting for his wife to come home, knowing that the neighbor girl he screwed was going to spill the beans, and the scene got even better when Trudy walked in and, boring holes in the back of Pete’s head with her eyes, clicked the lights off. That bit of righteous rage would have been enough for me, but the morning-after scene topped it, when she tells him, “All I wanted was for you to be discrete,” and then kicks him out with the coup de grace: “I’m going to draw a 50-mile radius around this house, and if you so much as open your fly to urinate, I will destroy you.” God, I love Alison Brie.
2. Pete telling off Harry in the MLK episode: Pete Campbell is a funny character; he’s such a slimy, weasel-faced piece of shit, and 99% of the time you just want to punch him. But his character does display rare moments of decency. I thought the scene in Season 5 where he visited his mistress after her electro-shock therapy was strangely touching. And in this scene, when he excoriates Harry for thinking about the money that will be lost on ads due to the assassination of MLK: “Let me put this in terms you’ll understand: That man had a wife and four children.” It’s so unexpected–this character is the very definition of pampered upper crust, and the only black people he ever talks to are cab drivers and elevator operators–and it actually makes you like him for a moment. As Amy Hempel said in a writing workshop I once took: “People aren’t one thing or another; they’re one thing and another.”
3. “Frank Gleason’s last idea”: Ted Chaough is a mirror for Draper; they hold the same position in the company and they’re equally competitive, but Ted’s a nice guy who can’t hold his liquor and stays true to his wife (at least for a while), and Draper is none of these things. Draper wants to destroy Chaough, especially because it kills him to see that Peggy loves Chaough. It’s not that Draper wants Peggy; he doesn’t. But he doesn’t want anyone else to have her either. So he holds them both over the fire in the client meeting, letting them see that he could out them (and crush them), only to then give them an out that they have to agree to–giving the credit for Peggy’s idea to the recently deceased Frank Gleason. When Peggy calls him a monster, she’s not kidding.
4. Chaough asks to go to California: This is a couple of scenes together. First there’s Chaough sleeping with Peggy, a scene in which he shows his similarity to Draper when he tells Peggy he doesn’t want anyone else to have her. Then he decides the answer to his problems is to run away to California–the same decision Draper made. Draper lets him go, and the characters split–Chaough presumably returning to the light and staying with his family, Draper possibly losing Megan over the decision. And then, of course, there’s the scene where Chaough breaks the news to Peggy, telling her, “One day you’ll be glad I made this decision.” Her acid, jilted reply is as good as screenwriting gets: “Well, aren’t you lucky. To have decisions.”
5. The Whorehouse: I’m referring to two scenes from the season’s final episode. The first is Draper’s confession in the Hershey’s meeting, in which follows his fake childhood Hershey bar story with the real one, about how a hooker would give him a Hershey bar if he robbed her trick. Aside from it being a superbly written anecdote, it’s the first time in the history of the show that Draper is truly genuine. He follows this up in the final scene of the season, when he takes his kids to see the house he grew up in, now a dilapidated building in a crumbling neighborhood. His sons are a bit too young to understand, but Sally does. It’s a stark contrast to earlier in the season, when she caught her dad shtupping the neighbor and he tried to feed her some tripe about “comforting her.” The ripple of comprehension that comes across young actress Kiernan Shipka’s face in this scene is brilliant.
So, while this season wasn’t as good as the last one, it ended on a high note, giving us some hope for the finale. Until then, how will we entertain ourselves? What’s that you say, AMC? The final season of Breaking Bad starts in August? Oh yes. That’ll do nicely.