Photo: Jamie Trueblood / AMC

Invention Of The Intervention

Like many long-running series, Don hits rock bottom in Season 6 -- or does he?

First of all, much respect to Jon Hamm for getting help, as we just learned this week. Apparently Don Draper was thirsty enough to get them both hooked on the sauce. Add that to Don's increasingly lengthy karmic bill.

I suppose it was inevitable that in a season that had to cover so many assassinations, Matthew Weiner would start getting cute about it. First, Ted Chaough tells Don in the air, apropos of nothing, that if you don't keep an eye on your instruments, you could end up flying upside down. Symbolic of Don's habit of veering off-course, I'm sure, but all I thought about was the way JFK Jr. died. And then at the end of that same episode, Pete's mom -- who's been "confused" throughout the episode -- reports that the Kennedy boy's been shot. Pete dismisses it as more demented ramblings, but of course it really is breaking news. And we're out for that episode as we watch the Drapers viewing the footage of JFK Jr.'s uncle Bobby on that restaurant floor, to the strains of an ironically cheery '60s anthem.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, and not for the first time. I predicted that the SCDPGCG merger was just a feint on the part of either Don or Ted and probably both, so I was surprised to see them actually going through with it. I was less surprised to see Don going out of his way to humiliate Ted on his first day, and then Ted terrifying Don in the stormy skies the next. There was obviously something going on between those two, alluded to by Ted and his dying partner Frank Gleason. But the merger, as contentious as it ended up being, was for real, contrary to my prediction. It's just that pulling it off required something I didn't think the show would be that interested in doing: humanizing Ted Chaough.

Not that it was a sudden transition. Obviously he started out as a smirking tool with delusions of adequacy, a Justin Hammer to Don's Tony Stark. But he turned it around, mainly by appreciating Peggy in a way Don never did (and later in another way Don never did, but more on that in a minute). From there, it was a surprisingly smooth transition for Ted to move in with Don so they could start hate-fucking in earnest. Figuratively speaking, that is (mostly).

Narratively, I still have some questions about the merger. I suspect that happened more for Matthew Weiner's reasons than for Don's. It's been clearly established that there can never be enough foils for Don, and Ted Chaough was too far away to be able to commit fully to the job. And of course Peggy and Don had to get back under the same roof. In-story, the merger hardly seemed worth the trouble. It was supposedly a move to get bigger, because Chevrolet wanted a big agency, but they immediately started layoffs. So then they ended up overworked and exhausted, and Ken Cosgrove was nearly killed not once but twice (slick move there, shooting him at the opening and then making us wait to see if he was dead so long that I don't remember anything else that happened in the first act of that episode). Don wanted to get into the big leagues, but why? It's hard there, and he has some very good reasons to not be famous. Maybe he had some idea that landing enough big accounts would get him more Clios and better whisky and longer naps, which so far has not been the case. I keep thinking back to earlier in the series when he told Betty that he always knows what he wants, as if it were absurd to think otherwise. We all know better now, but does he?

Meanwhile, Roger -- who should be savoring his triumph with Chevrolet -- is instead getting worse at his actual job, which is to pretend he's not bothered by the deterioration of his personal life. Picking on Danny at that Hollywood Hills party is an ugly piece of business, and riffing primarily on height jokes only reduces Roger's own stature. He does partially redeem himself by fishing Don out of the pool later that evening. In fact, all he would have needed to do to break even would be to rescue someone nicer.

Actually, the best part of that sequence is Don's hash-fueled hallucinations. I don't know what Matthew Weiner did when he worked on The Sopranos, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear he specialized in the dream sequences. Like The Sopranos, Mad Men has done some amazing things with rendering alternate realities, both chemical-induced and otherwise. And now I don't ever have to try hash.

As for Betty, her storyline made me realize that no, Mad Men is probably not getting permission from the brands it uses. Never mind that my dad, a lifelong GM employee, would never behave the way the firm's Chevrolet contacts do and probably doesn't know anyone who would -- what about Weight Watchers? Betty's a member for years, but it helps her a lot less than simply having a husband running for office seems to. Would Don have gone back to bed with her at the latest Bobby's camp if she still looked like Elizabeth Taylor? (Sorry, Henry, but I meant Elizabeth Taylor in the 1980s). Would Don have even cared? Honestly, I suspect that the only reason he found himself attracted to her again was because some other dude was ogling her. That certainly worked on Henry as well.

So this guy, Pete Campbell. I thought of making a Venn diagram breaking down the times when he's acting entitled, butt-hurt, superior, supercilious, snobby, smug, offended, demanding, het up, and/or in high dudgeon, but then I realized there would be so much overlap that it would just end up as a brown smear. More of a portrait than a diagram, in other words. I knew the peak-Campbell "not great, Bob" moment was coming, even though I never would have guessed what the setup was, and I still had to rewind it several times to savor it. On the other hand, they make him actually likable for a short scene every season or two, and this time it was the one where he, Ted, and Peggy are upstate for the Ocean Spray meeting. Pete has drunk enough to properly lubricate the driveshaft that's constantly up his ass, and he's actually laughing with Peggy. Not chuckling, snickering, sneering, or cackling like he usually does, but laughing. Clearly that's what he needs a lot more of: to be drunk in public with Peggy.

Which is not to say I'm rooting for Peggy and Pete to end up together. Quite the contrary, in fact. Hasn't she been through enough, just this past half-season? First she's caught between Don and Ted, both of whom shut her out. Then Abe dumps her for reasons having nothing to do with the fact that she just stabbed him with a pikestaff (some of Mad Men's bizarre accidents seem designed to prove that our safety-conscious culture of the present exists for a reason). Then Ted rejects her too, and then gradually starts changing his mind, only to have the whole thing sabotaged by Don in front of a client. But then Ted vows to leave his wife and goes to bed with Peggy, only to go back on his promise. In other words, as exceptionally successful as Peggy and Joan are for women in the 1960s, it's still the patriarchy and they forget it at their peril. Peggy goes from copywriting golden girl to the poster child for rejection until she's literally left alone in her apartment with her cat. So, uh, that'll learn her?

Speaking of Joan, I can't even imagine how desperate she must have felt with the Avon situation. Here's this social genius who not only always knows the perfect thing to do and the perfect thing to say, she always does and says it. So deliberately committing such an egregious breach of protocol with the guy from Avon must have torn her up inside more than anything Pete and Ted could have said to her. Yes, I know Pete almost got fired for stepping out of his lane back in the first season, but Pete, as I may have made clear, is considerably less awesome. It was nice to see Peggy having Joan's back, but it would be even nicer to see Joan actually landing the account.

But if the gender politics are still troubling on this show, what the hell is up with the racial ones? I know there weren't a lot of black CEOs in the 1960s, but could we get a person of color on Mad Men who isn't a secretary, or wearing a low-status uniform, or a criminal? It was one thing when Joan and Roger got mugged by a dark-skinned gentleman the night Kevin was conceived. But then to also have Don's apartment robbed by an elderly black woman? That's problematic already. And then Abe gets stabbed in the subway and won't disclose the race of his assailant (read: also not white) and he's made to look like an idiot for not turning racist on the spot. It's like most of the series has been saying, "Isn't it terrible how bigoted people were back then?" and now it's telling us, "Yeah, here's why." Not. Helping.

But of course Mad Men is less and less about the world of the 1960s and more and more about the world of Don Draper. What is his damage, anyway? Was he in love with Sylvia from downstairs? He went from his long-form display of sexual dominance to begging her not to leave in a hurry, and I don't think it's just because he's used to being the one doing the dumping. He was actively concerned for her safety during the Washington, D.C. riots in "The Flood," and the list of people Don gets genuinely concerned about is short enough that I can leave one mitten on. And then, of course, during the drug-addled episode that follows, Don uses the Michael Jackson cocktail administered by Jim Cutler's quack not to crack the Chevrolet problem, but to write a pitch to win Sylvia back. By the way, Don's inspirational "open the door" speech to the creative lounge in that episode was by far the most Mad Men I'd ever seen before this year.

As Don's story continues, his fascinating contradictions get more and more stark. He's been told he was good-looking before it was true. He grew up feeling unwanted, but was deflowered by a prostitute and then got his ass beat for it. That would screw up anyone's sexual mores, so he's quite the libertine -- unless his wife is involved. He's a hick from the sticks who became a paragon of urban urbanity. He's a control freak who can't control himself. Normally this would just result in a lot of tension, but things are coming loose and swinging wickedly about, causing indiscriminate damage. Some characters have arcs, but this guy has a sine wave, and it's increasing in amplitude. He's gone from a rising star and family man to an exiled husband falling in relevance to creepy but Clio-wielding partner at a growing startup, to faithfully married husband and back down again. Now he appears to have gotten himself kicked out of another marriage as well as the firm he practically willed into existence. Dude needs some therapy, if not outright rehab, but it's still only 1968, after all. For now he's going to have start with showing Sally some part of why he is this way. The one hope for Don at the end of Season 6 is that Sally doesn't appear entirely closed off to the message. This is not necessarily good news for Sally. I worry about that girl, and not just because she looks like my niece.

And randomly, I noticed Matthew Weiner digging into his cast's "special skills" again this week, what with Roger juggling and Ken tap dancing. If you got 'em, use 'em, I suppose.

As for whether Don's next moves will contain the damage he's done to his life or multiply it, that's what the final season is for. But more than that, I'm hoping we'll learn more about what turned the awkward boy into the smooth-talking player. Either way, by this time next week I will have seen as much of it as you all have, and then we'll be even. Sort of.

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For Dick Week we offer:

A Partial, Non-Ordered List Of Dick Whitman's Top Dick Moves (Seasons 1-6)

  • Giving his entire huge bonus check to a woman with whom he is cheating on his wife
  • Yelling at Peggy whenever she dares question him
  • Dealing with his lies to Betty while the woman with whom he is cheating on his wife waits in his car
  • Unilaterally blowing up Jaguar
  • Disappearing in California -- twice!
  • Crashing the car while driving drunk with a woman with whom he is cheating on his wife
  • Firing Sal Romano
  • Leaving Ginsberg's Snowball pitch in the cab
  • Cheating on his wife with the downstairs neighbor
  • Chickening out on telling Anna about her cancer
  • Yelling at Sally for catching him cheating on his wife
  • Dumping Dr. Faye Miler for his secretary
  • Repeatedly forgetting and/or failing to pick up his kids
  • Cheating on his wife with his ex-wife
  • Abandoning his wife at an upstate HoJo over fucking sherbet
  • Puking at Mrs. Sterling's memorial
  • Yelling at Megan for shooting a love scene at her job and then leaving to cheat on his wife
  • Deciding to move to California, thus screwing Stan and Ted
  • Deciding not to move to California, thus screwing Megan and Peggy
  • Inventing identity theft

Also in Jeff's Mad Men Marathon Diary

One man falls through six and a half seasons of the Emmy winner before the back half of its seventh season hits the pavement.

  1. Getting Mad
  2. On Target
  3. Don, Knots
  4. Identity Theft Crisis
  5. Hilton High Water
  6. When It's '64
  7. Fits Of Peek
  8. Megan It Official
  9. Beat And Re-Beat Pete
  10. Strange Bedfellows
  11. Invention Of The Intervention
  12. And Now I Face The Final Curtain

View the entire series