Monday, June 24, 2013

Mad Men Season 6 Review: Wants And Needs

Last year, I reviewed the Season 5 finale of Mad Men.

I'm not a TV critic by trade, and I wouldn't want the job of having to identify every nuance of a show within a context of taking copious notes. I like to watch shows for the meanings they can evoke, for the lessons they can offer, for the ways in which they tap into the fullness of the human experience. TV critics certainly watch shows for meaning, but they must pay attention to the technical aspects of a series - of the craft of television storytelling - with equal vigilance. They must absorb the content of a series and exhibit full command of the subject matter within the workings of the television industry when conversing with readers. That's a very difficult thing to do for a living; what you're about to read is definitely not intended to be a critic's professional review of Mad Men Season 6.

This is -- like last year's effort -- an attempt to make sense of a season as this treasured part of my cultural life approaches its endpoint in 2014. This review of another Mad Men season is an attempt to come to terms with the messages conveyed by this uniquely powerful show, one that has captured a piece of my heart and soul like none other.

What to make of Season 6? Through the first 10 installments of this 13-episode season, I was -- frankly -- underwhelmed. Yes, Don Draper had problems with women, drink, his marriage, his sense of self, and all the other usual demons. Tell us something we, the loyal viewers of the show, didn't already know.

Immediately, one must confront a nuance that lies at the heart of not just Season 6, but Mad Men itself: It's easy to think that the repetitive (and not disguised) dynamics at work in the first 10 episodes of Season 6 constituted creator Matthew Weiner's way of giving viewers what he felt they needed, not what they wanted. There's a difference between satisfying plot developments and necessary plot developments. A show needs to be authentic to its characters and, more specifically, convey moments and twists that register as emotionally and situationally honest. Being honest with viewers matters more than giving them a feel-good moment which somehow feels cheap, hollow, or hastily designed. Yes, the first 10 episodes of Season 6 gave viewers something other than what they wanted, but the way in which Weiner executed each episode seemed to be unnecessary.

The injection of a vitamin-based energy stimulant into the members of Sterling Cooper's workforce - the basis for a trippy, mindbending episode in which characters arrived at unexpected places under the influence of chemicals - created an engineered plot and the overpowering awareness of the presence of metaphor. Mad Men ceased to be subtle, searing and superb in such a moment. Chemical alterations of mind was a device that had been used in prior seasons (Roger Sterling's LSD trip in Season 5 felt much more organic and, instructively, honest), so the act of "dusting off" this device smacked of gimmickry. It felt - no, not necessarily lazy; it felt forced.

Similarly, Don's period of drift in his relationship with Megan - something which carried weight and poignancy in Season 5, punctuated by Don's "Carousel-"style look of Megan's film slides late in the season finale - lost its juice as a storytelling vehicle in Season 6. Critiques by Mad Men viewers that Megan's character was empty in Season 5 didn't seem to hold merit at the time. Don existed in newfound territory in Season 5, and for that reason, his new marriage held out the promise of new directions in his life... and his character. It's in Season 6 that Megan became what the critics said she was in Season 5: little more than a mirror for Don, a reflection of problems and patterns that were noticeable from a great distance but not a robust character in her own right.

Yes, the repetitive nature of Season 6 - especially as it applied to Don and Pete - naturally had a point behind it. Don and Pete, the characters who have most centrally grappled with their own self-loathing on the show, were unable to dig out of long-established tendencies. This is the stuff of life in its most urgent dimensions: We are given problems and challenges that are unique to our selves, to our deepest identities. It often takes many years of repetitions, many years in which we reunite with the same issues (perhaps clothed in slightly different situations), to finally solve them. This is one of the great dramas of Mad Men and - to expand the conversation - any show that establishes a deserved track record of creating unflinchingly honest moments for viewers, moments that announce something to the effect of, "We're not merely aiming for entertainment in the telling of this story. We're trying to reach into the deepest part of what it means to be fully human, in all its flaws and glories."

It's not satisfying to see characters continuously fail to solve their most urgent problems, many years after first being introduced to an audience. Yet, it's necessary to show as much when that's the most honest way to pry open those characters. Mad Men has excelled in that very art, but for most of Season 6 - despite the brilliance of "The Flood" and "For Immediate Release" (its two best midseason episodes) - the willingness to show characters continuing to fail (one of Mad Men's greatest virtues as a piece of storytelling and exposition) was overwhelmed by the inability to give viewers bracingly honest situations. I can't speak for every Mad Men fan, but I personally felt that the injected stimulant and Don's smoking of hashish robbed the show of its layered honesty and authenticity. Devices work when used selectively and sparingly. The use of mind-altering substances - while perhaps fitting into the late 1960s (we get that, Matt Weiner...) - was still just a bit too obvious, a bit too transparent... and a bit too frequent in the first three-fourths of Season 6.

Then, however, just when some momentum was leaking out of this remarkable show - creating that awful feeling in which a storied television run loses the ability to carry an audience to the finish line with a maximum of impact - Weiner and Co. found their fastball again in episodes 11, 12 and 13.

The final three episodes of this season - especially Sunday night's finale - showcased Mad Men at its best. The show's highest level of art from prior seasons wasn't surpassed in these episodes, but it was certainly matched.

Chemical alterations were not part of the formula in this trilogy of marvelous episodes. The marrow of Ted Chaough's life - and how it related to the people around him (his wife, Nan, and co-workers Don and Peggy) - served as a central foundation for organic yet complicated sequences of dialogue and action that took something very familiar - Don's penchant for being a nasty person - and used it to create fresh waves of consequence and drama. Real life and its unpredictable convergences of intention, spontaneity, desire, and uncertainty led Don, Ted and Pete to various breaking points. They led Joan to an important lesson (and situational rescue) delivered by Peggy. They led Peggy to yet another crushing realization about the primacy and power of the decisions of the men in her life.

No gimmicks entered the picture, and so, amidst the tumult of 1968, the turmoil of the times was sufficient to convey to viewers the inner turbulence of flesh-and-blood people trying to make sense of not only the bewildering world beyond, but the even more confusing reality within one's own heart and household. Various characters encountered either transformations or new challenges that promised substantial fork-in-the-road moments in Season 7 next year. What had been the muddle of chemically-altered or imagined drift for much of Season 6 became a different sort of jumble after the final three episodes of Season 6: Everything - every possible life trajectory, every set of choices and movements, for better or worse or anything in between - is now on the table for Season 7... and NOT at the expense of the show's honesty in its relationship with viewers.

Naturally, the way in which the final three episodes of Season 6 set the table for Season 7 is most fully reflected in the central iconic character of Mad Men, Don Draper.

Don's awareness of how much Ted needed to go to California (episode 13), coupled with his humiliation not at the hands of an adult, but his own daughter (episodes 12 and 13), brought him to a place where he could no longer keep Dick Whitman hidden before his co-workers and even his clients. A seminal life event - a two-faced character deciding to step out of a double life and fully come to grips with his true self and the shadow side which accompanies it - occurred in a way that felt very natural.

The gradual telling of the story of Young Dick Whitman - in expositional flashback scenes over multiple seasons - has been, at heart, a way of showing the viewer the pain Dick absorbed as a boy. This pain is the basis for giving the viewer an understanding of how Don Draper was a mask for - not a true escape from or solution to - an overpowering sense of inadequacy and self-loathing. What often emerges from these feelings when they surface in an individual is exactly what Mad Men has been showing for six full seasons now: Don's  reflexive pursuit of material and carnal conquest to blot out his pain, his easy inclination to enjoy the beginnings of things but then run away whenever any situation becomes fraught with difficulty. The constancy with which Don fails to break this cycle of painful realizations followed by self-destructive actions is precisely why many TV critics think - especially in the wake of the Season 6 finale - that Don Draper is an irredeemable character. However, the reality of Don's latest and deepest humiliation occurring in relationship to Sally - not Megan or Betty or a work colleague - is the very thing which makes the idea of a Draper transformation emotionally honest, and that's the genius of the final three episodes of Season 6, especially the finale.

The recollections of a shattered boyhood do not, by any means, assure the viewer that Don will figure it all out and achieve an easy redemption in Season 7 as this show rides into the sunset of the 1960s. However, those recollections do make the contents of Season 6 - chiefly, Don's dreary and doomed affair with Sylvia, not to mention his deeper connection with his old wife (Betty) compared to his current one (Megan) - feel relevant to the development of Don's character at a deep level. The floating, miserable drift of Season 6 - always possessing a genuine and evident purpose but not always being conveyed with the nuance befitting Mad Men - was finally turned into not just an epiphany, but a truly different state of mind for Don Draper.

A life history that has been teasingly shown to viewers in small doses over six seasons finally met a moment which led Don Draper to genuinely embrace Dick Whitman. This haunting past - the one Don Draper has been trying to escape since the first time we got to know him six years ago - always needed to be confronted, because the inability to accept that past is what has always prevented Don from being happy with Dick Whitman, his truest innermost self. Dick, the child who never recovered or healed from what he saw and suffered, has needed Don to look at him lovingly and express that love in public, so that Don's double life can become integrated and his masks can fall away.

It was a boy, a child, who carried all this pain  for so many years, and so it took another child's deep and confused pain - marked by a complete lack of understanding toward her father - to call Don Draper to this place of clarity. It took Sally Draper to bring Dick Whitman out of the shadows and into full view. To me, that makes complete sense. It resonates with truth and authenticity.

It also represents a brilliant counterpoint to the final line of Season 5, when a mysterious and alluring woman (one fit for a night of empty and meaningless sex, a reality that has pervaded Don's life...) asks Don, "Are you alone?"

Don, you see, has been alone throughout Mad Men's six seasons. He has needed Dick all this time. More specifically, he has needed Dick to accompany him so that he would no longer walk alone, unloved by his own deepest self at the truest possible level. Don has needed to take to heart the words of the patron saint of Mad Men, Anna Draper, who uttered the central line of the show's entire history in episode three of Season 4, when she says to Don/Dick: "I know everything about you, and I still love you." There is no greater expression of unconditional love than that. There is no greater height of spiritual wisdom, no fuller reach of forgiveness, no purer articulation of the need to accept everyone - including your own self - exactly as you are. Don, in worlds dominated by either power (SC&P) or sex (his household or any location of one of his affairs), has not been able to find a reason powerful enough to get him to embrace Dick Whitman. It took Sally - the reflection of a confused and desperately wounded child - to get Don to look into that mirror and behold Dick, also a bewildered and lost child of wayward and dysfunctional parents. Upon looking into that mirror, Don was finally able to view Dick with affection and a lack of shame.

Don's meeting of Sally's eyes in the final scene of Season 6 was and is a moment that will live on in television history -- not because it was poignant, not because there was something unmistakably hopeful about it, but because the moment was created in a complex, layered, and supremely honest way, with natural connections forging a link between a haunting past and a redemptive present, between the old chains of persistent long-term behaviors and the recognition of the possibility that those chains can yet be broken.

Season 7 might not give Mad Men viewers the happy ending that would be so satisfying to contemplate, but if it does, the foundation has now been laid, enabling viewers to say the following: "If we get said happy ending, it will feel emotionally honest." This brings up an important point about Mad Men that's worth revisiting as this reflection concludes.

One of the show's many hallmarks is that it doesn't deal in (obvious) linear progressions. Characters are not completely virtuous or completely evil. Just when a character seems to be headed over the edge, s/he is brought back from the brink or encounters a situation which brings out his/her best qualities, ones that had been hidden and perhaps didn't have a chance to shine in other circumstances. Just when characters can seemingly do no wrong or dent their reputations, their insecurities emerge - think of the way Joan reacted to Don telling off Herb Rennet earlier in Season 6. (Viewers didn't see that one coming - not most of them, at any rate.) The reality of complex, multidimensional characters is not merely intended to perpetuate intrigue or suspense in Hollywood; it's part of real life, too.

How delicious it is to contemplate, then, that Mad Men - a fundamentally dark show for its six seasons of existence - could give way to a seventh and concluding season in which the characters - especially Don - arrive at a whole and nourishing sense of self. Yes, every character will have to walk over the hot coals of self-doubt and untamed appetite to achieve that happiness, if it does emerge for them, but the grand achievement of Season 6 is that the possibility of happiness seems realistic. If Matt Weiner does bend the arc of Season 7 to the happy side, it would be one final and lasting testament to this show's ability to avoid the predictable path or the easy, preconceived expectation of what is going to (or supposed to) happen.

And if Mad Men retains its dark edge in Season 7? Well, that would certainly be emotionally honest, too...

... as long as there are no unnecessary and clouding gimmicks, of course.