I was not interested in the Sixties. I was interested in the Fifties. It’s an important distinction.
— Matthew Weiner, Austin Film Festival, 26 October 2009
Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner had little idea of what exactly he wanted to do after graduation as he began his senior year at Wesleyan University in August 1986. He wrote poetry in college and thought he might get into publishing or work for a magazine. Like a lot of university students before and after him, his plans were nebulous and uncertain. When Thanksgiving break arrived that November, he accompanied a friend to New York and they spent a long weekend catching up on some new independent film releases, most notably David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), Jim Jarmusch’sDown by Law (1986), and Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge (1986). The retro poetics and subversive atmospherics of Blue Velvet especially appealed to him. For the first time, the thought that he might go to graduate school in film took hold.
Weiner’s studies at Wesleyan tended towards philosophy, literature, and history. Coming of age during the Reagan era, he like a lot of Americans was prompted by the political scene to reconsider the America that existed before the seismic changes of the 1960s, a decade whose legacy was then being hotly contested in the culture wars of the 1980s. Flash forward 27 years—including an MFA earned in film directing from USC—to the two-hour season six premiere of Mad Men entitled ‘The Doorway.’ It is December 1967 and Don Draper is pictured lounging on the beach at Waikiki with his new wife, Megan. He is at another of what has become a long line of crossroads in his life reading John Ciardi’s perennially successful translation of Dante’s The Inferno (1964 edition) as he contemplates the opening stanza in voiceover: ‘Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray/from the straight road and woke to find myself/alone in a dark wood.’
Matthew Weiner’s literate series, Mad Men, has always featured a wide range of contemporaneous references in art, advertising, fashion, literature, media, music, and politics that all reflect his liberal arts background and sensibility. There is nothing startling about Don’s choice of recreational reading. He’s a troubled guy, but he has always been curious and open to new ideas. The works of Frank O’Hara, D.H. Lawrence, and Michelangelo Antonioni, among many other cultural signposts, have made cameos in Mad Men. The fact that viewers find out later that The Inferno was recommended to him by his upstairs neighbor, Sylvia Rosen, is rendered all the more delicious by the show’s slow reveal at the end of ‘The Doorway’ that she and Don are having an affair.
Sylvia is the good Catholic spouse of Jewish heart surgeon, Dr. Arnold Rosen, who Don is friends with and genuinely admires. The Drapers and Rosens celebrate New Year’s Eve together until Arnold is suddenly called away to perform an emergency surgery. Don walks him to the storage room doorway of their Manhattan apartment building where Arnold casually reveals that ‘the whole life and death thing doesn’t bother me,’ before departing on cross-country skis into the snowy night to administer to his patient. Don in contrast is preoccupied with death throughout season six. At the end of ‘The Doorway,’ he goes directly to the Rosen’s flat to sleep with Sylvia. His capacity for betrayal knows no bounds, placing him squarely in the inferno’s ninth circle where the level of pain and suffering is the most intense. According to Dante, treachery is the worst of all transgressions, condemning the sinner to the ninth and final circle, which symbolizes the depths of hell reserved only for the likes of Judas Iscariot, and in Mad Men, Don Draper.
Season six of Mad Men is mostly about Don reaching rock bottom and caught in the rut of his own shortcomings for what has seemed to be an interminable length of time. In general, people do make the same mistakes over and over again in life, but rarely is there enough screen time on television or film to show the repetitive nature of a character’s poor judgment. Mad Men has never shied away from such negative, ugly, and at times tiresome depictions, such as Don’s serial philandering and out-of-control drinking, which is a double-edged sword for viewers. It evokes a kind of behavioral verisimilitude, but throughout season six in particular, Don’s chronic transgressions and inertia grows increasingly tedious and morose. In the season’s final episode, ‘In Care Of,’ Don finally throws caution to the wind by publically revealing his past as an orphan raised in a brothel to his executive clients from Hershey’s chocolate and his stunned colleagues at Sterling Cooper and Partners (SCP). In the last scene, he then takes his children on a once-in-a-lifetime road trip to show them the dilapidated wreck of a house where he grew up. Don is making moves to escape the inferno. Only time will tell if he succeeds.
The Inferno is merely the start of Dante’s three-part epic poem, Divine Comedy, which is followed by Purgatorio and Paradiso. The narrative throughline is a fall from grace, leading to a period of personal suffering and spiritual growth to eventual redemption. My point is not to suggest that Matthew Weiner and his creative team is literally adapting the Divine Comedy in concluding the two seven-episode parts of the last season entitled ‘The Beginning’ (telecasting now on AMC in the US and on Sky Atlantic in the UK) and ‘The End of an Era’ (which will debut in April 2015). Still, Weiner is heavily steeped in the Western narrative tradition, which is understandably his default mode when constructing his series arc. He has moreover stated explicitly that ‘Don is slowly evolving into a more enlightened person’ and has admitted that he has known since 2009 how the series is going to end (PBS).
AMC is reprising the successful business strategy it devised for the rollout of Breaking Bad’s fifth and final season when it divided the culmination of that series into two eight-episode segments in 2012 and 2013, resulting in a ratings bonanza for the network where Breaking Bad’s fourth season finale of 1.9 million viewers skyrocketed 442 percent to an audience of 10.3 million for the program’s last episode (Hibberd). Nevertheless, Breaking Bad’s spike in popularity was due in large part to the fact that the show got much better with each succeeding season. Mad Men has followed a far more conventional lifecycle for a breakout series by starting strong, gaining momentum through its middle seasons, before starting to lose steam last year. Despite AMC’s best laid plans, Mad Men lost 1.3 million or an estimated 30 percent of its viewers (3.6 to 2.3 million) from its season six to its season seven premieres (O’Connell). Still, the series averages more than 30 million unduplicated viewers in the States alone when taking into account all the various digital platforms on which viewers watch television programs today.
As Mad Men’s final season promo announces, so much about the series remains ‘up in the air.’ Vince Gilligan’s often-quoted narrative arc for Breaking Bad—of turning ‘Mr. Chips into Scarface’—was always more clearcut and easily understandable in comparison. Gilligan also expressed his awareness and inclination to meet his audience’s expectations as he ended Breaking Bad’s storyline (MacInnes). In contrast, Matthew Weiner has taken his cues from David Chase in crafting a series arc that is far more singular, enigmatic, and at times, alienating. Weiner has conceded that ‘Mad Men would have been some sort of crisp, soapy version of The West Wing if not for The Sopranos’ (Chellas). In some ways, he has stayed true to those films that inspired him during that Thanksgiving weekend back in 1986 by integrating the style, aesthetics, and narrative open-endedness of the independent art film to TV storytelling. By no means is Weiner the first television showrunner to do so. Besides Chase, Weiner was greatly inspired by David Lynch, even admitting that he thought that the ‘best case scenario’ for Mad Men ‘would be Twin Peaks’ (KCRW).
Mad Men is yet another recent example of a modestly sized but growing genre of small screen storytelling that might be categorized as art TV. Art films have always been more aesthetically adventurous and culturally resonant than wildly popular. Not unlike the Godfather I and II, The Sopranos may be television’s exception to this general rule. Nevertheless, in navigating that thin line between formula and innovation, art television producers usually err on the side of invention when forced to choose between viewer-friendly conventions and staying true to the fictional world and characters they’ve created. For instance, Mad Men often leaves its viewers feeling awkward and embarrassed when they watch those private moments in the aftermath of a dramatic climax that the series specializes in where its characters are left humbled or ashamed of what just happened to them. For instance, ‘Time Zones’ (7:1) ends with Peggy brought to her knees, alone in her apartment crying after having experienced a series of petty humiliations at work; followed by Don left lost and shivering on the balcony of his penthouse with his career in shambles and his marriage to Megan on life support.
Weiner and his creative team ask a lot of their audience; and in turn, viewers of Mad Men expect a lot from them. In the case of Don Draper specifically, viewer disaffection may have reached the breaking point. His ongoing psychological dysfunction, habitual narcissism, and mounting number of personal and professional failures have left Mad Men a tough slog of late, especially throughout a mostly static and unremittingly downbeat season six. Mad Men fatigue has set in by keeping Don Draper in such an arrested state of development since season five. Mad Men’s central branding image for season seven is another case in point. The familiar over-the-shoulder view of a black silhouetted Don Draper from season one looking out at a panorama of psychedelia in the style of George Dunning’s animated Yellow Submarine (1968) sells both the protagonist and the audience short.
For all of his faults, Don has long ago proven that he is resilient and a survivor. He is also a reckless risk taker, which has its good as well as bad side. To assume that he would continue to be stuck in time while the whole world is changing around him slowly erodes the logic of his character. To the good, Don and Mad Men seem to be finally showing signs of life thus far this season. Viewers have long ago recognized the main character’s deep-seated need and desire to be exposed, but unlike the usual television conventions where truth telling typically leads to growth, hugs, and forgiveness, art TV more closely resembles the complexities of real life. Beginning with Jon Hamm’s emotionally naked tour-de-force in ‘The Gypsy and the Hobo’ (3:11) where he literally transforms from Don Draper to Dick Whitman during his confession to Betty, his subsequent struggles to come clean to others has more often than not resulted in even more complications rather than any peaceful resolutions. Viewers are left asking whether Don Draper is actually capable of genuine change; and if so, will the people around him help or hinder his attempt to merge his personal and public selves.
What these rhetorical questions imply is that Mad Men has grown increasingly more psychological and less socially and culturally relevant since the start of season four. As the opening epigraph suggests, Weiner has always been far more interested in the high Fifties than the Sixties; and so has Mad Men’s core audience. What made the series unique and why it captured the zeitgeist so completely between 2007 and 2010 is because it so deftly explored the America immediately before the Kennedy assassination, a time that has been largely suppressed and long forgotten in popular culture. A strong case can be made that the era known as the Sixties did not truly start until after JFK was killed and the nation began to respond en masse to the shock of his passing. In that way, Mad Men would have been much better served if Weiner and company had spent even more time examining the front end of Fifties/Sixties divide. Instead, they have now produced more Mad Men episodes on the post-1963 back end of that transitional moment like so many other television producers and filmmakers before them.
It is no coincidence therefore that season four of Mad Men begins with a scene of its reluctant hero botching an interview with a reporter from Advertising Age by declining to answer the question: ‘Who is Don Draper?’ From that point onward, the series has been mainly preoccupied with that simple query. Don is one of the iconic characters to emerge in Y2KTV, but barring additional changes, Mad Men is unlikely to pull out of its season six-long slump in season seven. Channeling Dante Alighieri again, Matthew Weiner recently stated that ‘confession was good for the soul’ when discussing the evolution of Don’s character and the endgame of Mad Men (NPR). Having lost its hold on the zeitgeist circa 2010, Mad Men is no longer the coolest show on television; it may have even grown passé. It remains as smart and subtle as anything on TV however. Much like the use of Alice Russell’s ‘Breakdown’ in the season seven promo, Don Draper is currently an anachronism in his fictional world. Here’s hoping Weiner and his creative team can infuse him with something akin to this new theme song’s soulful vibe, energy, and meaning during the rest of season seven.
Gary R. Edgerton is Professor and Dean of the College of Communication at Butler University. His books include Mad Men: Dream Come True TV (I.B. Tauris, 2011) and The Sopranos (Wayne State University Press, 2013). He also coedits the Journal of Popular Film and Television.