Mad Men Season in Review: Have We Seen This Before?
In part one of the final season of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano tries to turn over a new leaf and become a better person, only to revert back to his prior terrible ways by the show’s conclusion.
In season four of The Wire, Jimmy McNulty tries to shy away from his obsessive, self-destructive path and settle down a bit. But as he steps back into his regular routine in season five, the old McNulty returns.
Now season five of Mad Men ends with Don Draper sitting at a bar, facing the temptation of two beautiful strangers as a seemingly inevitable “yes” to their proposition sits behind his lips, right next to his newly repaired rotten tooth. After a season of Don avoiding the sexual allure of high class escorts, Rolling Stones fans and Joan in an attempt at pious reinvention, I ask: Haven’t we seen this routine play out before?
In this golden age of television that kicked off at the turn of the century, there are four dramas that are largely cemented in their status as the top tier: The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. There are shows like The Shield or Homeland that have tried to breach the pack, but so far those shows stand solidly ahead of anything else.
But other than quality, one notable aspect that groups these shows together is that they all center themselves on the same concept: The American Dream. They all deal with an amoral anti-hero (or in the case of The Wire, a whole mess of amoral anti-heroes) trying to rise or having risen from meager circumstances to get what they feel society has to offer them, and how they corrupted themselves in the process of achieving that dream.
It’s rather shocking that what are coming to be considered the greatest efforts of American television have such narrative uniformity. And it seems that with that uniformity, this recurring aspect of “anti-hero seeks redemption but then reverts back to his old ways” has become a trope that sees endless repetition.
After last week’s episode, I wrote that Don was now and forever would be a different character. And I still think that’s true. His visions of his dead brother Adam only lend credence to that theory, particularly the unfortunately heavy-handed final appearance at the dentist’s office. But the fact that he is now a different character doesn’t mean his actions will necessarily change. It appears Mad Men is going to go down a road of echoes as it enters its last seasons. New Don will likely go through all the motions we saw in seasons one through three, if the napalm-fueled fire from his meeting with Dow is any indication. But it’s going to be a much more self-aware version of Don, a more nihilistic Don. It will be a Don that knows he is a hollow, empty shell without substance.
If Tony Soprano and Jimmy McNulty are any indication (or for that matter, Avon Barksdale, Omar Little, Tommy Carcetti and others), embracing the worst aspects of himself seems to be the only way for a high-class drama lead to go. But on the bright side, it could be worse for Don. Just ask the gaping wound that will be working directly above him next season, Peter Campbell.