Why Don Draper is Like Marcel Proust: Final Thoughts on Mad Men

Marcel-Proust-001 mad-men-don-draper-jon-hamm-season-6-quality-of-mercy

David Chase, the creator of “The Wire,” has frequently complained about the practice of recapping TV dramas as each episode appears, his argument being that you can’t really judge a show’s merits until the season is over since you don’t know where the creators are headed.

Now that Season Six of Mad Men is done, I do see what Chase was complaining about.  Almost from the Episode One, recappers complained about Don Draper’s downward spiral and assumed that the trajectory wouldn’t change.  Grantland’s Andy Greenwald, a critic I very much admire, even made the mistake of declaring this a “disappointing season” before the last episode appeared.  Imagine writing a review of The Godfather without bothering to watch the last 20 minutes!

The season was redeemed, and then some, in the last episode of the season, where Don Draper breaks down and confesses that he was raised in a whorehouse, gives up his chance to move to California in hopes of saving Ted Chaough’s marriage, and generally breaks free of the demons that have been pursuing him throughout the course of the entire series.  It turned out there really was a man with a plan and that man was Matt Weiner.

0628madmen_POSTER2Unfortunately, what a lot of critics didn’t like about the season was the very thing that Weiner was trying to show: that people continue to make the same mistakes again and again.  The whole season was about doubles, doppelgangers, and repetitive behaviors.  The season’s poster showed two Don Drapers headed in opposite directions. At least half a dozen times by my count, a line of dialogue spoken in one context is repeated in a different one (“You like to get into trouble, don’t you?” “Want to get into a little trouble Lieutenant?” “Here come a couple of high fashion models.”)

And of course the very arc of this season was a repeat from Season Four when Don spiraled down in alcoholism and self-loathing, only to pull himself back after he hit bottom. When the season opens, he’s cheating again and generally ignoring his wife, only this time he doesn’t have the excuse that he’s wife’s a cold bitch. Indeed, there is no fault to be found with Megan, except that she won’t be accessible to him 24 hours a day.

The observation that people make the same mistakes is not a new one.  I am now going to make what is probably the most pretentious literary reference I will ever make, and point out that the most highly regarded novel of the 20th century – Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time – is full of nothing but people repeating the same mistakes.  The characters are constantly falling passionately in love only to have their ardor evaporate once they have achieved their conquests.

Still, it’s one thing to understand that a certain kind of behavior is common and another to find it  interesting.  One of the most enervating experiences of my life was plowing through Proust’s “The Captive” and “The Fugitive,” which dealt with the narrator’s on-and-off obsession with his lover Albertine.  Compared to that, Don Draper’s moral zig-zags are a treat.

Here’s the thing. Like everyone else, I did think Don’s story line was a drag this year, especially since he had everything going for him last season.  The essence of drama is to show something new, not the same thing.  It’s hard for an audience to care the second time along.  There was a tremendous pay-off in the season finale, when Don finally spits out the truth, but what a long time we took to get there!

And yet, I can’t really complain about the season.  This remains the best show on television.  To grouse about “Mad Men” is like going to a luxury hotel and beefing that the room service delivered blueberries instead of strawberries.  I loved every single episode this season, all of which I watched and appreciated more on the second and third viewings, and if the overall story line seemed a bit tired, I can live with that.

Perhaps no show since “Lost” has been so scrutinized and talked about.  Almost every line and glance are meaningful and open to interpretation.  But “Lost” was a fantasy and “Man Men” is a hyper-attenuated version of reality.  Probably the most shocking plot development on TV this year was the “Red Wedding” on “Game of Thrones.”  But a close second was Sally walking in on Don and Sylvia’s tryst.  What is harder?  To achieve shock by massacring half the cast of a fantasy or by creating a situation that just might occur in real life?

With just a few tweaks, the entire “Mad Men” series could have ended satisfactorily at the conclusion of Season Six. Don is free of his lies and maybe free of his job and his marriage too.  Matt Weiner appears to have written himself into a corner for the concluding season.  Does Don start over?  Theoretically, he could already be back to work when the season begins since he was only supposed to be on leave for a few months.  Will we see Megan again?  What about Bob Benson in Detroit or Pete and Ted in California?  I hope Matt is already busy figuring this out; I won’t bother to speculate since I am always wrong.

In “A Search for Lost Time,” Proust’s narrator is obsessed with social status when he’s not obsessed with his various lovers.  In the end, though, he comes to realize that the aristocrats he has fawned over are not worthy of his attention.  For six years now, Don Draper has been obsessed with self-pity, unable to rise above deprivations of his youth.  By the end of the season, he seemed to have begun a turnaround and the question is whether, like Proust’s narrator, he will gain the insight and necessary strength to become more than an anti-hero.

Some other thoughts about the season:

Chekhov’s Gun.   The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov promulgated the dramatic principle that if a gun is hanging on the wall in the first act, it needs to be shot by the end of the play.  In other words, there should be no extraneous elements in a drama other than what are necessary to the plot.  It’s hard to think of a writer who has violated this principle more than Matt Weiner. “Mad Men” is full of clues and plot strands that go nowhere. For example: Don is coughing throughout the season, Ginsberg appears to have schizophrenia, Ted Chaough and Jim Cutler seem to be plotting a takeover of the agency, Megan wears Sharon Tate’s tee shirt, Betty tries to rescue a runaway. It’s tempting to chalk these dead ends up to bad writing, but I think Weiner is trying to establish an entirely different principle.  After all, for two seasons now, Pete has kept an actual gun in his office and it has never once gone off – that seems like a deliberate nod to Chekhov’s gun. He seems to be saying that if you’re going to surprise an audience you need to divert them, just like a magician keeps you looking at one hand while the other one is creating the actual illusion.  Of course if that gun goes off next year, I will stand completely corrected.

Megan’s Tee Shirt – Weiner might like to create his little diversions but one of them backfired badly this season. By having Megan wear Sharon Tate’s tee shirt, Weiner seemed to be implying that Megan would be murdered. Viewers quickly found other clues, including Rosemary Baby references, constant sirens and the stabbing of Abe, who was also wearing a blood soaked tee shirt. Speculation became so rampant that Weiner had to do the one thing he hates – he revealed plot details ahead of time.  With two episodes remaining he told us that no one else would die this year (he must have forgotten about Pete’s mother when he said that.).  This was a really smart move because viewers would have otherwise been in a frenzy by the end of the season and bitterly disappointed by the season finale.

Sylvia Rosen – As far as I’m concerned, the major flaw this season was Don’s obsession with Sylvia.  He has always been attracted to strong, original women but it’s not at all clear what he sees in her.  We presume she’s some kind of high-class dame because she gave him Dante’s “Inferno” to read, but because we never saw the original seduction, we can’t see the the traits that attracted him.  Part of the problem is the casting.  In real life, Linda Cardellini  is 38, which is too young to have a 19-old-son (not biologically too young, but socially too young). More to the point, only a dozen years ago she was playing a high school student in “Freaks and Geeks.”  Weiner pulled a similar stunt last year, when he cast Alexis Bledel, the star of “The Gilmore Girls,” as Pete Campbell’s illicit love interest.     Neither of these women were credible as 1960’s housewives.

madmen_finale_family.jpg.CROP.multipart2-mediumFlashbacks – Count me in among those whose heart sank every time we had a flashback to teenage Don in the whorehouse.  I never really found them credible, although I’m sure the period detail is perfect, as it always is.  The real problem – again – is with casting. It’s hard to believe that this sad sack Dick Whitman is going to grow into the handsome, outwardly confident, supremely talented Don Draper. The one good thing about those scenes is that they set up the amazing pay-off in the last scene of the series, when Don takes his kids back there and tells them “This is where I grew up.”  Personally, I hope we’ve seen the end of the flashbacks.  By rights, we should see Don continue to grow into maturity, maybe as an older teenager who enlists in the service, but I doubt Weiner’s ability to pull it off and hope we stick to 1969.

Bob Benson – Here’s another case where Weiner lost control of the narrative this year, but perhaps in a less serious way than with the Megan/Sharon Tate controversy. By slowly introducing Bob Benson to the viewers he created a mystery that reached a crescendo at the end of the season. The Internet nearly melted down with theories about who he was.  Bland, eager to please, omnipresent but apparently never actually working, Bob Benson turned out to be a double for Don – a hick who remade himself, Gatsby-like.  The big reveal, though, was that he was gay, which might have been more shocking ten years ago, but elicited a shrug in 2013.  That’s it?  He’s not Peggy and Pete’s son from the future?  He’s only a lonely gay guy?  I hope Weiner has learned that there’s a danger in building up expectations and then dashing them with run-of-the-mill explanations.

Matt Weiner interviews – Speaking of Bob Benson, Matt Weiner said in season-ending interviews that Bob might not be gay.  Oh COME ON.  Really?! Why would he make a pass at Pete but not Joan if he were straight?  These are the 1960’s, pre-Stonewall. No straight man back then would have pretended to be gay for career advancement.  Also in these interviews Weiner argued that Don’s ad ideas were rejected not because they were bad but because they were too far ahead of their time. Really?! All season long we’ve been assuming that Don has been losing his fastball and been surpassed by younger, more with-it creative types, but Weiner tells us that he’s actually at the top of his game.  I wish he had let us know that earlier. These interviews also illustrate a suspicion I’ve had before, which is that artists don’t really know what they are creating. A lot of times their creations are deeper and richer than they intended, which says something about the power of the human imagination.

Peggy – From the very first episode of “Mad Men” Peggy has been second to Don himself as the most important character on the show.  She is meant to be a stand-in for all the women who struggled professionally in the 1960s. Through hard work and talent she rose from the secretarial pool almost to the very top of her profession (at approximately age 30 no less.) Peggy’s story arc was curiously passive this year, though.  She’s the person to whom things happened – she’s not in the driver’s seat. Professionally she is forced by the merger to return to Don’s sphere of influence.  Personally, she end up living in a house she hates based on a boyfriend’s whim and her love life is decided by the men, one of whom breaks up with her and another who leads her on and then moves 3000 miles to get away from her. As she bitterly says to Ted after he tells her he’s decided to move his family to California, “Well aren’t you lucky.  To have decisions.”  Yet I’m not completely sympathetic.  She was trying to break up Ted’s marriage, after all. And no one forced her to buy that particular piece of crap building on the Upper West Side.  But cheer up Peggy, you did get to wear that awesome (not) pantsuit as you settled in behind Don’s desk.

peggy olsen pant suit

A lot of these observations sound like complaints, but they are really just quibbles about one of the greatest series ever.  I’m looking forward to the final season with a lot of hope and a bit of dread.  It’s hard to wrap up a show like this and final seasons are frequently disappointing. But I believe in Matt. He hasn’t let us down yet.

  1. I never even caught on to who Sylvia was played by until you just brought it up. How could I have missed that?

    • I have to admit I didn’t recognize her either until someone else pointed it out on Twitter. I know women of a certain social status dressed in a way that made them look older, but Cardellini just looks like a young woman in a bad wig.

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