Mad Men is a soap opera. It’s a show that claims to be “about” the 1960s while limiting its engagement with the 1960s to men’s fashion and background news items that serve, primarily, to let viewers know how much time has passed between episodes. Don Draper has ceased to be a dynamic character; like the show, he’s stagnating. There is nothing new under the sun—and, in television, this means nothing worth watching. So, at least, goes the criticism of Mad Men’s sixth season. Unlike Tony Soprano, Don Draper isn’t even being offered the genuine possibility of change, if only to reject it. And, unlike Tony, Don knows he ought to change: so we watch him brood while his charisma dries up.
This line of criticism wants Mad Men to be something other than what it really is. Less than a show about a serial philanderer, it is a show about an alcoholic father; less than a show about the rights movements, political turmoil, and wars of the 1960s, it is about the 1960s as an inflection point in the stability of the American nuclear family.
Don Draper’s alcoholism has long been understated but offers, perhaps, the best paradigm for thinking about his character’s development (or lack thereof). Anyone who has lived with an addict will recognize the chasms between self-awareness and resolve, resolve and action, and action and permanence that have defined him over the past three seasons. Don’s self-disgust and belief that he cannot change; his near-manic joy when he believes he can, just by the sheer force of his resolve; his refusal, until Sally will not speak to him and Megan leaves him, to recognize that others are also aware of his problem—these are all part of a frustrating, circular, and not atypical (or unfamiliar) pattern. Don stagnates not because the writing is poor, or he is a wanna-be existentialist in a grey flannel suit, but because his defining characteristic is that he is an addict—and the change which addicts must undergo is nothing if not difficult, slippery, and prone to two steps back for every step forward.
Unlike Roger Sterling, Don has never drunk from sheer delight in drinking. His is largely bound up with the second characteristic of the show—a change in the stability of the American family. His drinking was at its most severe in the fourth season as his family lay in ruins about him. That this was largely the consequence of his own actions does not lessen the importance of his deterioration, for several episodes, into a non-functional alcoholic. This confluence, moreover, was what drove him to realize he had a problem—on the fronts of both family stability and addiction—that must be addressed. I wrote at the time that no one should have been surprised by his sudden proposal to Megan—almost solely because she was good with his children—instead of the professional woman with whom he had greater rapport. Don was not interested, at the moment, in individual fulfillment or romantic love, but in shoring fragments against ruins and recovering what he could of his family after the belated realization that it was worth struggling to preserve.
The fifth season, which was criticized at the time for dullness and stagnating because Don wasn’t sleeping around or drinking heavily, depicts the interval of his sobriety. He didn’t stray; he tried to balance family and work; he struggled with his own skepticism of Megan’s career in order to make their marriage work. Its final scene, we now know, should be read as the signal of Don’s relapse. (That it takes place at a bar is not unimportant, even though he never totally abstains from alcohol.) The recently-concluded sixth season is, in essence, scene after scene of the effects of this relapse, with variations on the theme of family breakdown supplied by Roger Sterling, Pete Campbell, and Ted Chaough. It’s “stagnant” because we’ve seen this before—and so has Don, Megan, Sally, Betty, and others. The repetitions frustrate far more than they point to a greater artistic struggle—but this is the quality of the repetitions endured by an addict and his family.
Where does this leave Don Draper? For that, it’s best to return to the opening moments of the season: Don is reading the beginning of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Too many viewers and reviewers have taken this as a signal to hunt for allusions to and traces of the Inferno throughout the sixth season. But it’s misguided to wonder how many, and which, sins each character is guilty of. Mad Men didn’t take its characters or its viewers through Dante’s Hell: it only took them through the first Canto.
Dante does not stray from the True Way and then stumble into Hell; he strays, realizes he is lost, and catches sight of the sun above the Mount of Joy—which he attempts to race up as quickly as possible, only to be chased down again by a triad of beasts representing various forms of incontinence. Virgil explains:
It is another path that you must take,
he answered when he saw my tearfulness,
if you would leave this savage wilderness;
the beast that is the cause of your outcry
allows no man to pass along her track, but
blocks him even to the point of death;
her nature is so squalid, so malicious
that she can never sate her greedy will;
when she has fed, she’s hungrier than ever.
It’s not clear that all who stray must pass on a guided tour of Hell and Purgatory before righting their way—but it is clear that there can be no shortcuts, that the path must be long and arduous.
As Don and Ted Chaough prepare to go into their meeting with Hershey’s executives, they’ve been arguing over who should go to California to run the Sunkist campaign. Don thinks going will save his marriage and his self; Ted thinks going will, by virtue of three thousand miles, keep him from pursuing an affair with Peggy any further. For Ted, uprooting his family and damaging his career is the arduous path he needs to take in order to save that family. For Don, master of re-invention, it would be an attempt to quit cold-turkey. “Will you have a drink before you go into that meeting?” Ted asks him. “My father—” he stammers, adding, “You can’t just stop like that.”
For Don to have gone to California—for Don’s character to “progress” neatly, or at all—would be for him to charge up the hill and either slay or be slain by his own incontinence. Perhaps that would better serve the demands of television narrative. But genuine change, Mad Men insists, the kind that saves one, that allows one to repent, cannot be summoned on a whim.
For Don Draper—and, therefore, for Mad Men—there will only be the long, slow struggle for sobriety. We won’t see him get to Heaven, or sink into the lowest pits of Hell—just to endure the flames of Purgatory which are distinguished from those of Hell only by the belief that one day, two days, a week, a month less than eternity, one will be cleansed, and their torments will finally cease.
This is the kind of work that poetry and the novel are capable of depicting. This is the kind of work that television must attempt if it wants to live up to the merits claimed for it by its apologists.