The exquisite end of this half-season finds the show doing something different for a serious antihero drama: having the protagonist realize it's not all about him.
Spoilers for season 7 of Mad Men to date follow:
With “Waterloo,” Mad Men has soft-shoed off with Bert Cooper to hiatus–albeit a less permanent one for the show than for him–so that we’ll have to wait another year to find out where, and when, the story goes. But it seems time we begin bracing ourselves for a shocking possibility:
Mad Men may have a happy ending.
Well, if not a happy one, then a hopeful one. A lot of Mad Men viewers–and I’ve been among them–have seen the show as being much like The Sopranos (which Matthew Weiner wrote for) in its view of human nature: People don’t change. And certainly not for the better. Characters would repeat their patterns: Don running away from his problems, Betty lashing out in pettiness, Pete being a heel. They might make a show of changing, but–as with Don’s “quitting tobacco”–it would be a marketing gesture out of self-interest. They might make genuine efforts, but they return to some psychological set points. They might deceive themselves that they had had epiphanies, not unlike Tony Soprano doing peyote in the desert (in “Kennedy and Heidi,” an episode Weiner wrote). But people, as Dr. Faye once told us, were types, even if they didn’t like to hear it, and they would revert to type–Don Draper above all.
And yet–could it be?–the first seven episodes of the final season seemed, in what amounts to a stunning twist for a Serious Cable Drama, to show characters actually changing. For the better, even. Maturing. Learning.
It wasn’t only Don, though we might as well start with him. The half-season ended with a “win” for him on the job front, in that he saved his place with the firm he started. But the closing fantasy number, “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” suggests that that success in itself wasn’t a triumph. It was nice; it felt good. But keeping his office, and getting millions for his partnership, is not going to be the thing that saves Don.
What’s more significant in these seven episodes is how Don goes about turning around his life, which is, largely, by not “being Don Draper” as we’ve come to know that. On the one hand, the Don Draper we know is a man who’s dealt with problems by escaping, geographically (California’s right there! He could go any time!), or emotionally, or into a bottle. Mad Men could have shown us that and played him true to character. On the other hand, he’s had a history–especially when it comes to business–of pulling out genius moves at the last minute, be it an ad pitch or the coup that led to the founding of his own agency. Mad Men could have given us that and satisfied the itch of the antihero audience to see another brilliant Difficult Man prove his exceptionalism by taking his destiny (and everyone else’s) into his hands and emerging victorious.
Don Draper and Mad Men did neither of those things this season-to-date. Instead, the show did something unusual for its genre in having its antagonist succeed by acting internally rather than externally–by stepping back, listening to others, giving agency and control to the people around him.
It’s by no means been an easy or 100% successful process for him: see the season premiere, in which he imposed his perspective on Megan’s new life in L.A. in the form of a massive, unasked-for TV set. Nor has he been able to resist trying to pull the dramatic Don move, as when he barged into the Commander Cigarettes meeting in an attempt to outmaneuver Jim Cutler and Lou Avery. But in the end, what worked for him was something we truly have not seen from him before on a sustained basis–indeed, something we rarely see in antihero-driven drama: humility, reflectiveness, even, in a good way, passiveness.
The season begins with Don having to adjust to not being at center stage: it literally opens with a tight focus on Freddy Rumsen, in the Don position, delivering what we later learn is Don’s sales pitch. In a way, it’s another strategy–he’s basically warging Freddy Rumsen to stay in the picture. But it’s a first step. He’s adjusting to the idea that he may not always be in the spotlight, or need to be. Slowly, and again, not without a hitch: after he gets back to the office, he throws a silverback tantrum at the idea of being assigned to deliver tag lines to Peggy. But it’s through acclimating, knuckling down, doing the work, silencing his ego, that he begins to find his way back.
Maybe not all the way, but enough that, by the remarkable sixth episode “The Strategy,” we can see that his willingness to give authority to Peggy is not merely, well, a strategy. (She first suspects it might be, and who can blame her?) It’s a recognition that things have changed, that she has changed too, that she’s earned the responsibility, risk, and credit. In the gorgeous, holy Burger Chef tableau that closes “The Strategy,” he’s just one more mouth on the table, one more member of the team. And at the same time we see how Peggy’s grown: fitfully, she’s developed a kind of authority and confidence that comes not from being “the next Don” but from learning to work–and manage, and dream–like herself.
Likewise, the last bit of derring-do that upends Cutler’s plan to eject Don (and maybe much of the rest of the company) is not a Don Draper Hail Mary but Roger’s plan, and one that demonstrates his own personal progress. Roger’s arrested development has been a theme played subtly for a long time in Mad Men–it’s not just that he’s an older man hanging on to youth (through youthful women, for instance) but that, as his mother’s funeral last season suggested, he still sees himself as a little boy. His last conversation with Bert gets at this, as his partner tells Roger that after all this time, he doesn’t see him as a leader. Even Roger’s business coups in the past have often had the feel of college-boy hijinks, cajoling business secrets out of liquored-up execs on airplanes, for instance. His sale of the agency to McCann, on the other hand, is big-picture thinking, and a plan that doesn’t just protect his buddy but enriches each of his partners. And Don’s role in this is–to let him do it. He provides an assist, talking Ted off the career ledge (and maybe an existential one), but he doesn’t impose himself on the story.
Nor does he at the end of his marriage, which takes place quietly, sadly, calmly, in what may be the most mature joint action he and Megan have taken as a couple. There’s no talk of fault; it’s two people realizing that they are in different places between which there is no air route. He doesn’t make a grand gesture in an attempt to fix anything. “You don’t owe me anything,” she says when he offers her his help, and what he does give her in the moment isn’t material–it’s the recognition that what’s happening is not only about him.
Mad Men has a large ensemble, and you can make valid arguments that other characters are more important or interesting, but at least in terms of narrative structure, Don Draper is still the show’s protagonist. But this half-season has been a recognition of what many of us take a lifetime to learn: that everyone is the protagonist of his or her own story. And while Mad Men hasn’t always done well with huge historical moments (e.g., the JFK assassination), the moon landing ends up perfectly suited to this theme. It’s a collective achievement, collectively shared. Neil Armstrong may have been the “protagonist” of that event, but he didn’t put himself on the moon. The moon, as the song says, belongs to everyone. “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”: with everyone, working together, letting each other be their best, he’s just one guy stepping off a ladder.
So too with Don; at every major juncture of this half-season, he contributes best by letting someone else be the star. This is an unusual step in the recent history of highly individualistic TV dramas. Walter White went out guns blazing, executing his singular plan; Tony Soprano fought his last battle as many of his soldiers were cut down around him; even the highly community-focused Lost ended on Jack’s self-sacrifice. But in this stretch of Mad Men, especially the remarkable last two episodes, Don Draper grew by allowing himself to recede, and he gave others the space to grow around him.
Of course, this isn’t the end. Seven more episodes is more than enough time for terrible things to happen. Matt Weiner has said that he constructs the second halves of his seasons as answers to the first, so we may see next year that none of this sticks, or that what seemed like triumph could end up being a terrible mistake. But so far it’s striking to see a drama like Mad Men, so conscious of how history repeats, to suggest something more hopeful about human nature, the capacity to grow, to mature, to see beyond ourselves. If we can put a man on the moon, maybe we can do anything.