Don Draper's midlife crisis: Now what?

Jaime Weinman explains why everyone has been so impatient


Watching the season finale of Mad Men last night, I was… wait a minute, I just realized that anything I can say here, no matter how vague, could be taken as a spoiler for at least 30 weeks thereafter, so I’d better put in a “more” tag.

Ah, there we are. Anyway, watching Mad Men last night, I was really rooting for Don Draper to move to California, even as every TV viewer’s instinct told every one of us that it probably wouldn’t happen. It would have been so audacious for the show to pack up and move to a new setting in its final season, and it would have fit in perfectly with the theme of trying to find an escape from a midlife crisis. Don saw Los Angeles, Hollywood’s own favourite symbol of the eternal promise of re-invention, as the place where he could once again re-invent himself and create a new life and identity. Instead he becomes preoccupied with the life he used to lead and the person he used to be. Some of this has a good effect on him, since he decides to quit drinking and possibly become a better person. But to shed his Don Draper skin, he more or less engineers the destruction of his current life: arranging to wreck his marriage (something that is linked with Ted’s decision to go to California to save his marriage: they may be making different decisions, but in both cases they’re arrogantly dictating the course of women’s lives and giving the women no choice in the matter) and get himself dismissed from his own agency.

And the episode ends with him trying to reconnect with his daughter (or at least scare her away from becoming a drunk like him) by giving her an idea of his origins, so she can understand him better and give him meaningful looks. If the show has been giving us a man’s midlife crisis for a while, then he’s past the stage where he tries to recapture his youth through the young, and is drifting into full-fledged – and often, to those who know him, embarrassingly maudlin – attempts to be a child again and retreat into a world where deceptive advertising, his life blood, wasn’t even necessary.

The explicit midlife-crisis aspect of the show may be one reason the sixth season made people more impatient than some of the previous seasons. Almost everyone on the show has arrived at a point where they’re doing pretty well by most standards, or at least the standards of the era. The stories of Peggy and Joan trying to rise up in the world, or of Sally growing up, were stories that gave viewers a bit of respite from the struggles of affluent guys in suits, but while those stories aren’t over, they have plateaued a bit; Peggy is now as successful in her career as a woman in her era is going to get, and she’s come to the realization that she has very little (pun intended) agency in her life or career. This leaves most of the characters facing that old Hollywood question: yes, they’re doing all right, but is it really enough?

This is not an inherently bad story to tell, and the show achieves some comic tension by setting it against a backdrop of one of the worst years the writers have covered. In a year of assassinations, a year when everyone was afraid that the city might fall apart at any moment, the characters are more concerned than they’ve ever been with petty personal problems, self-reinvention, rebirth, and problems that even the characters themselves recognize as being right out of old-fashioned fiction (when Peggy tells the married man she’s sleeping with “I’m not that girl,” she’s recognizing that she’s somehow gotten herself cast as the working girl in an old movie, even as her career has taken her beyond those old clichés). Mad Men often works best when it’s viewed as a comedy – Don’s Hershey speech was a major moment, but it was also very funny because of the reactions of the other people at the table – and to some extent season 6 is a bitter comedy about people who get more and more self-absorbed even as the wider world almost cries out to them to start taking more of an interest in it.

If you want to put it in historical context, you could see it as the “Me” decade in the making; the promise of the ’60s, whether the early promise of a new era of cool or the later promise of a new era of tolerance and equality, haven’t panned out. So the characters give up on trying to make life better and retreat into nostalgia for family values, or childhood, or – in Peggy’s case – nostalgia for the cool Don Draper we see at the end of the credits every week.

But this does tend to contribute to the stereotype – an unfair one, I think, but an understandable one – of Mad Men as a show about people who don’t have a lot of real problems. Perhaps this will change with Don’s new status as the man who, as they say, is “going down.” (That bit is one of many examples of how this show is rooted in the style of ’60s, pre-New Hollywood, movies in so many ways, and one of them is that it has absolutely no fear of being unsubtle; if it wants to hit us over the head with something, it will hit us hard, and it’s kind of a fusion of ’60s pop-culture absolutes with ’70s moral ambiguity). I have no idea if he will turn out to be the man who’s falling in the opening credits, though “going down” was undoubtedly put in in part to tease us with the possibility, as were other references to falling within the episode and elsewhere.

But he is adrift, unsure of what to do next to make himself over again, and his problems at the moment are tangible, if almost entirely self-inflicted. This presents the possibility of next year’s episodes becoming a bit less insular. Even if that doesn’t happen, Don could inch closer toward being sympathetic simply by being the underdog. Though, again, the only reason he’s become the underdog is because he chose to ruin everything, and on some level wanted to ruin everything and return to something like his primitive, pre-war, pre-Draper childhood state.

Finally, like a lot of television shows, Mad Men is in part about the process of running a TV show (or at least something like a TV show, which is the world the creator knows best). If the famous “That’s what the money’s for!” scene was as explicit a statement of Matt Weiner’s relationship with his writing staff as the show will ever give us, then this season might be partly about a long-running show trying to deal with staff shake-ups, a brewing staff revolt against the arrogance of the big auteur, and a general sense that some stories have been told once too often. Don’s initial, fake Hershey pitch, the one whose obvious fakeness finally causes his meltdown, is like a TV writer realizing that he’s gone to the same well once too often. His Carousel pitch was a brilliant and in some ways meaningful attempt to turn the ideal of the American family into an advertising campaign, but the Hershey pitch is like a pale version of that, full of sitcom clichés that even the clients can recognize. It’s like what really prompts his big confessional speech is the sense that he’s lost his creative spark and needs to come up with some new ideas, even if it means telling some truth.

I wrote the above before reading Weiner’s post-season wrap-up interview with Maureen Ryan of The Huffington Post, where he gives his own idea of what the season was about.

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