I described season 5 as “slightly disappointing” following the excellent season 4 and wondered if there was some kind of Star Trek like rule that the odd seasons weren’t as good as the even ones. Well, as it turns out, there’s no such rule, but instead just a downward trend, because season 6 bordered perilously close to outright rubbish.
The responsibility for my dislike of this season lies almost exclusively on one well-coiffed head. Don Draper is not a nice man. He’s not even an anti-hero, he’s just unpleasant to himself and to everyone around him. He’s had countless opportunities over the last 6 seasons (covering most of a decade) to be a better person, but at every turn he chooses the other direction. It’s not even that he’s doing things for selfish gain at the expense of those around him, he’s still miserable and surrounded by carnage. Back in season 4 it felt like he’d had an epiphany that he could be happy, but he turned that to darkness as well. You could almost certainly write whole essays analysing his psychology, but I don’t want to expend that much thought on him and really don’t want to spend more time in his company.
This also rubs off on the other characters, as they ignore, allow or forgive his behaviour, I lose sympathy for them too. It’s coming to something where I’m forced to say that the character with the most appropriate response to Don has always been Pete, a character I otherwise can’t stand, but has always called Don on his bad behaviour even when he is in turn replicating it. Even more bizarre was that I found myself enjoying Betty’s character as well, after the ill-advised weight story of the previous season, she’s back in all her child-like and bitchy glory. She may be a poor mother, but she does see Don in a way that Megan is completely unable to.
It can be hard to see the rest of Mad Men loitering behind the all encompassing Don, but more than ever the other characters felt completely marginalised. Characters like Joan felt almost like guest stars rather than integrated parts of an ensemble, with their stories arriving out of nowhere and disappearing just as fast. Media-driven stories about Megan being related to Sharon Tate, or Bob being a communist spy just felt like a desperate attempt to create interest where really there was none.
I want Mad Men to be an ensemble, but it really isn’t. If the series is going to be about Don Draper, he has to grow consistently as a character, not be stuck in an endless loop of epiphany and regression. He has become boring, and given that he dominates the show, that too has become boring. If next season were not the last, I would almost certainly not be bothering with it. The final episode did at least give some glimmers of hope that there may finally be some developments, but I won’t be holding my breath.