‘Mad Men: Season Six’: Steps Back and Forward

The penultimate season of Mad Men was full of moments that were memorable and remarkable, and a few that might be called essential or even defining. One of these belonged to faux plucky Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce accounts man Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton), in “The Crash.” Flipping up the cane he requires after a car accident caused by the freewheeling executives of the advertising agency’s new mega-account, Chevrolet, he broke into an impeccable, high-stepping vaudeville tap dance. Enumerating the ordeals presented by these Detroit men as he tapped, Ken made clear the desperate performative nature of his job — as well as all of advertising, the business world, and 1960s America.

Mad Men has always been about the tension between the politics of social performance and the desires for emotional fulfillment. It stands to reason that those who excel at conjuring pitches both understand this tension and are enmeshed in it. The principal figures of Sterling Cooper’s continuing corporate derivations, for all of their numerous foibles, really do excel at their business, mostly because they’re caught irresolutely between the poles of social expectations and personal realities.

No one knows the undertow of this identity maelstrom better than Don Draper (Jon Hamm), who has been treading water in it for years, somehow avoiding getting his head wet. As he is wont to do, Don slid back into his old patterns of behavior this past season. Unable to deny that his marriage to his former secretary and aspiring actress Megan (Jessica Paré) was proving as emotionally deficient as his first marriage to Betty (January Jones), Don was detaching from her and receding into the distance, despite, and partly because of, her flailing efforts to pull him back.

This detachment was effected by Don’s usual barbiturates of alcohol and adulterous sex, this season indulged with his neighbor’s wife, Sylvia (Linda Cardellini). This first sustained affair of his second marriage did not unfold without consequence. A mildly twisted confinement power-fantasy backfired, and she ended the affair, leaving Don surprisingly, though none too sympathetically, heartbroken. After another shock between the sheets (a one-night stand with Betty that saw her emerge the stronger of the two), Don showed apparent magnanimity in engineering an escape route from the Vietnam draft for Sylvia’s son, for which he was rewarded with his true objective: a route back into her bedroom. Unfortunately, Don’s daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) caught them at it, quite possibly sundering a resilient father-daughter relationship for good and all.

Mad Men‘s primary tension was plain enough in the parallel between Don’s personal crisis and those in his professional life. Again, he kept taking what he wanted without giving long-term thought as to what he needed (the Rolling Stones’ timeless pop wisdom on this point remains a good half-year away, unfortunately for him). His compulsive pursuits helped to drive Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, which chased new business aggressively all season, often to the detriment of its existing clientele.

In the revolutionary mid-season sea change of “For Immediate Release,” Don swept away the Jaguar account that he had once pursued with such vigor. At the same time, the lucrative Vicks account that was the marriage dowry of Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) went by the wayside along with that marriage, due to a combination of Pete’s clumsy infidelity and an encounter with his father-in-law (a Vicks exec) in a Manhattan brothel.

But Don had an answer to these setbacks, to reboot the agency as he had done before, and as he equally had once rebooted a hick son of a whore named Dick Whitman. Chasing a lead with Chevrolet flushed out by a newly energized Roger (John Slattery) that SCDP couldn’t hope to win on its own, Don hard-sold his chief rival Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) on a daring plan. They combined their dynamite “creative” and eventually their mid-sized agencies, and gained the important Chevy account together.

This merger, however, was not the unambiguously positive news that both Don and Ted suggested when they revealed it to their protégée Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) at the end of “For Immediate Release.” Having left the shelter of Don’s emotionally unhealthy influence for the more encouraging Ted’s agency CGC, Peggy didn’t relish returning to the SCDP fold, and the eventual renaming of the merged firm as Sterling Cooper & Partners indicated that the more things changed in that office, the more they stayed the same. This was particularly the case for Peggy, due to her feelings for Ted, reciprocated and acted on as the season closed, even if the fundamental goodness that attracted her to him in the first place led him to block off that particular avenue.

Peggy’s professional steps towards cracking through the glass ceiling were echoed by Joan (Christina Hendricks), who took an unexpected meeting with Avon and was then chided by the male partners for going it alone without a big man to hold her hand. That Peggy put aside their past disagreements to bail Joan out hinted at sisterly solidarity, but her solution, like so many others embraced in the agency, merely kicked the can a little further down the road. Joan may not have as keen a grasp of the accounts game as Pete (who memorably threw a tantrum when he ran out of Bran Flakes), but she did get the Avon account (although this was so subtly implied that it took an interview with Matthew Weiner to confirm it for certain).

Even Peggy chose the quick hit to the lasting high, a crucial feature of her professional milieu (sometimes literally, as when a quack doctor injected several agency employees with amphetamines and set off a drug-fuelled burst of wild-goose-chase unproductive production). Again, her greatest weakness was revealed to her greatest strength as a copywriter: she cannot separate social performance from personal meaning, cannot keep her work and her life separate. It’s simultaneously what makes her ad work so good and her relationships so disastrous.

Even as Peggy’s fate was framed by the dichotomy of social performance and professional desire, so too was the sixth season’s most fascinating new character, fast-rising Accounts toady Bob Benson (James Wolk). First glimpsed carrying coffee cups around the department, Bob quickly ingratiated himself as he had hoped, assisting Ken with the Chevy account before taking it over entirely, befriending Joan by showing tact and ingenuity in a health emergency and offering the home care services of a male nurse acquaintance to Pete’s mother.

Not everything about cheerful Bob Benson was as it seemed. Bob is gay, or at least has a (very strange) thing for Pete, and what’s more, remade himself from humble origins into the polished simulacrum of all American success. But just as Don Draper never quite overwrote all of Dick Whitman, Bob Benson could not repress every element of his own identity, and revealed it to the object of his affection, hoping to fulfill his desires. That the disclosure did not cost him his job might suggest, as Mad Men is often so fond of doing, that identity is a matter of personal decision, and not is imposed by the social, economic or cultural circumstances.

This is Don Draper’s unspoken mantra, of course, the belief he has performed impeccably for so long. Still, if this uneven but occasionally revelatory season demonstrated anything, it’s that Don has begun to forget the precise steps to this performance, as his relationships deteriorated, as the business changed, and as his mask of identity slipped.

By season’s end, Don descended from Sterling Cooper & Partners literally and figuratively, having exposed too much of his unpalatable origins to reps from Hershey’s Chocolate when their product sparked a raw personal memory from his youth. Suspended indefinitely by his fellow partners, his marriage to Megan wounded, Don’s fortunes were once again at a low ebb. And yet, as he stood with his own children before the dilapidated former brothel where he told them he grew up, there was a hint of redemption in his performance of self-knowledge. Letting go of his assumed identity was a step back in Don Draper’s career, but may well be a step forward in his life.

RATING 8 / 10