Giving thanks for another year of Mad Men
There was a point in the first half of this season of Mad Men - probably right after that bizarre scene when Megan's boss at the television show propositioned Megan and Don for a bout of swinging (the "throw your keys in the bowl" kind, not the kid' playground kind) - where I almost, almost gave up on the show.
(Warning: spoilers from the sixth season of Mad Men follow.)
The show seemed to be going around in circles and characters seemed to be stuck in time loops, doomed to repeat the same little iterations of their lives for eternity.
Don (Jon Hamm) was busy sabotaging his own marriage to a beautiful younger woman by having an affair with the neighbour, which came to a head when she ended the relationship and sent him into a tailspin. Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) spent the season being undermined by the men in her life, from ex-boyfriend Abe to new boss Ted to former boss Don (after the merger). Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) ended up confronting another mysterious character with a fictional past in Bob Benson, though things turned out slightly better than when he confronted Don about the same back in Season 1.
Even creator Matthew Weiner made the same mistakes as before, relying too heavily on characters like Megan and being a little too heavy-handed with some of the historical tie-ins.
Yet I'm sitting here after last night's finale - set around Thanksgiving 1968 - and I think it paid off.
It helps that the season was capped off by its two strongest episodes. Last week's Bob-centric episode, with Pete confronting the mysterious greaser and Don sabotaging Ted's pitch to St Joseph's Aspirin, was a perfect setup for a finale in which the wheels came off the Don Train, leaving our leading man a wreck.
Back when the first episode aired, I suggested that the theme of the season would be change. The year in which the show is set, 1968, was a year of tumultuous historical change - and much of that made its way into the show. For much of the season, I was eating humble pie. If anything, the frustrating lack of change in the lives of our leads was a stark contrast to the cultural change going on around them, and the repetitious nature of their lives only served to underline that.
But in the same way that the cultural changes that took place in the late 60s were forced on society, change ended up being forced on Don, and on Peggy and Pete, and everyone else. It was a joy to watch last night.
I rather like the idea of Don hitting rock bottom. In a way, it's been a long time coming - the man has spent the last eight-plus years (of story time) neglecting his family and doing his own thing at work, then saving the day with his patented pitches. There had to come a day where things started to go wrong. His affair with Sylvia ended badly both times: the first break-up sent him into a tailspin, and the second go-round ended with the pair being busted by his daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka), the other half of the only meaningful relationship in his life, who now hates him.
The unravelling of his professional life was swift. It hasn't been a good year for Don at work, with a string of failed pitches and backhanded manoeuvring (like the SCDP-CGC merger he didn't talk to any of his co-partners about before going through with) seeing him ousted by the other partners at the firm; I would be surprised, at this point, if Don is back working at Sterling Cooper & Partners when we return to this world in a year's time. I don't think he will be.
It's fitting that we end with the normally secretive Don revealing an important part of his childhood to his own children. Change is forced on Don at the end. At least he has the good sense to embrace it, rather than fight.
There was lots to love elsewhere in the season. James Wolk's performance as the ever-smiling Bob Benson was awesome, even if I am disappointed how similar his own story is to that of Don. I loved Kartheiser's portrayal of Pete Campbell this year; he looks as though he is having a great time whenever he is on-screen - his scene with Benson last night in the elevator ("Not great, Bob!") was fantastic. Moss had a strong year as Peggy, too. Between this and Top of the Lake, I hope she gets nominated for an Emmy.
But it was an inconsistent season overall. A few characters - notably Joan (Christina Hendricks) and Roger (John Slattery), though both featured prominently in the finale - were underserved, while others (*cough* Megan) featured way too much. And though I've come to appreciate some of the repetition, it did feel a bit like transitional filler to get us from the end of Season 5 to the start of the final season, Season 7.
This season of Mad Men ended well, though. Even with the complaints I've got, it still manages to be better than nearly everything else on television. And my excitement for next year outweighs any disappointment this year.
Did you enjoy Mad Men this season? What did you think of the sixth season overall?