By D.G. McCabe
“History repeats itself first as tragedy, second as farce”
– Karl Marx
Last night’s season finale of Mad Men was one of the most climactic of the six season finales so far in a conventional sense, as several of this season’s storylines came to their apex. The undercurrent of this entire season, however, was not the “will they or won’t they” Peggy and Ted story, the saga of Pete’s mother in law, Sally’s coming of age, Don and Megan’s distant marriage, or Don and Betty’s detente. The theme of this season has been the increasingly diminishing returns of Don Draper.
In professional sports, there is the phenomenon of the cocky “playmaker.” They argue with teammates, coaches, and officials, they say outrageous things to the media, get in trouble with law, and basically do whatever else they feel like. Still, they perform masterfully on the field, court, diamond, pitch, etc.. Their talent, you see, makes their asinine behavior worth putting up with. Eventually, their skills deteriorate, but even as they drop passes or miss open shots their bullcrap maintains a steady high. Inevitably, the grim reaper of diminishing returns comes for their career a few years earlier than the guys who built up enough goodwill to overcome their fading talent (as opposed to having enough talent to overcome their circus antics).
Don Draper is a playmaker. In previous seasons, we’ve seen him drunkenly lurch through his life and career, leaving a trail of empty bottles of Canadian Club and brunettes in his wake. Still, he was the man who drove business for the agency, who nailed pitch after pitch, and whose reputation as a can’t-miss creative director was relied on by a small ad firm to stay in the game. Even after his seeming disasters (the anti-tobacco letter, the Dow Chemical meeting, or this season’s Jaguar meltdown), he was able to pull something out of his back pocket to save the day.
As the 60’s moved forward, however, his colleagues learned that they could get along without Don Draper. They tired of the missed meetings, the endless drinking, and the razor’s edge business transactions. They grew tired of riding the hurricane, and now, as a top thirty agency, realized that they didn’t have to anymore. Missing one important pitch meeting in the drunk tank or nosediving into uncomfortable personal history in another may, individually, have been reluctantly accepted as the price of doing business. Both events in a 48 hour period were finally a bridge too far.
It should be noted that Don “rehabbed” himself was when he was single in Season 4, so we know it can be done. For a minute, he controlled his drinking, had a healthy adult relationship with Faye Miller, and had a steady hand on the wheel. Of course he quickly backslid into a bender of angry front page letters and impulse marriage proposals, but even those risks seemed to be paying off for him in Season 5.
Somewhere over the course of this season, or maybe at the end of last season, the bottom fell out. Don Draper’s first instinct at the first sign of trouble has always been to run, but in the end he was unable to run from himself. Will he be able to gain any of it back after losing everything? We’ll have to wait until sometime next year to find out, as I expect the final season of Mad Men to hinge on this question.
(c) D.G. McCabe