by Eric Walters
Photo by Jordin Althaus
Back in April, when Mad Men was primed to begin its penultimate season, the only question that lingered in my mind was, “What will the first shot be?” Not the first shot of liquor, not the first shot one character took at another, but the first exposure of light, the first image of the year.
Matthew Weiner is known to foreshadow things to come in his first image of a season, and this year was no different. The opening shot of season six was first-person chaos, a man gasping for breath, collapsed on the floor, presumably dying.
A light bulb flickered in my head. Only one possible explanation: the death of Don Draper.
Many have theorized where Mad Men’s true purpose lies. What story Weiner is trying to tell? One of the best has always been that, as much as the show is about the power of man (and specifically, the power of one man), in truth it’s about the rise of women. It’s more about Peggy than Don.
Evidence can be found in the show’s first 30 seconds. The opening credits depict a shadow, presumably Don, falling from a Madison Avenue skyscraper, backed by ominous music. The drama’s title sequence has been considered metaphor for the fall of man, and perhaps for the fall of Don in particular.
Season six makes me wonder if this theory is too grandiose. Weiner, certainly, is no simpleton and we cannot assume that his message within Mad Men is devoid of complexity. But let’s look at it this way: Who’s the one character that has, despite having superior clout over the show, been overlooked in the last half dozen years? Dick Whitman.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget, as he is schmoozing and boozing, delivering awe-inspiring speeches, that Don is truly Dick. A grifter who happened upon an opportunity to make his life better than it was destined to be. A decision that the character continues to struggle with, that no doubt adds to his self-destructive tendencies, and as season six wore on, he had a lot of inspiration for self-destructive tendencies.
In this season, Don indulged those vices. He drank, he screwed, he imploded and he paid the price. This was the year Don fell from grace, it was the credit sequence serialized.
But no women rose.
Peggy expended exponential amounts of energy to break free of Don last year, only to be dragged back to hell thanks to Ted Chaough and Chevy. She’s still moving forward, but it’s a grueling process. She’s slogging through quicksand. In Sunday’s finale, Peggy voiced her fury (“At least you have choices!”), and found herself in Don’s desk. Which, if it were to be where she ends up come next year’s series finale, would be progress and would complete the storyline of “the fall of Don Draper, the rise of Peggy Olsen.” But even if she were to take over Don’s job, she’d still be in his shadow. Constantly reminded of who used to occupy that office. And that’s not real progress, not for Peggy.
Betty is thin again, she understands Don more than ever and more than any woman he’s ever bedded. Which might make her the most powerful woman in Don’s life (immensely more so than Megan who, after dismantling Don’s entire existence in season five, has become nonexistent a year later), but she’s not the most powerful woman on the show.
That accolade goes to Joan, the only woman within the Mad Men universe to make real strides this season. She won the Avon account without the help of a big bad man, and while that storyline was unjustly left quiet for most of the year, her presence at Don’s pseudo-firing in the finale put her above him. And she, unlike Betty, Peggy and Megan, is not overshadowed by Sterling Cooper & Partners’ creative director.
But the show is still about Don more than anything. And none of these women pose a real threat to him just yet. The only person that is a threat to Don is himself, and perhaps the man he truly is.
So who is to be the phoenix? Who will rise from Don’s ashes? Dick Whitman.
Season six was a lot about inescapable pasts. Don can’t escape his fucked-up childhood, Peggy can’t escape Don, Ted can’t escape his family to be truly happy and Pete can’t escape the sea his father flew into.
And that’s what Don Draper always was. A way for the character to escape his past.
He did it successfully for years, but season six, from the opening shot to the closing one, proved that Don cannot escape Dick. It was slow, painful and incredibly dark, this season, and it had to be. It was chronicling the death of Don Draper.
In the outset, I expected literal death. Complete with sirens, sobbing and lots and lots of booze. It was the only way for this tragic life to end, tragically. But Don’s seeming acceptance of his true self at the end of the year signals a possible brighter ending than previously imaginable.
I don’t know what the next season, Mad Men’s final, will bring. But as Don stood with his children, in front of that old whorehouse, in that “bad part of town,” I couldn’t help but think we had seen the last of Don Draper. That the character had finally understood that he couldn’t escape himself, no matter how hard he tried.
No matter how many times he quit cold turkey, like the liquor he needs to get through the day, he would always be Dick Whitman.
Photo by Jamie Trueblood