We're only two weeks into Mad Men's ultra-long goodbye—the final season's second half won't even air until 2015, meaning we could all be sporting Duck Dynasty beards by the time Part Deux rolls around—and I'm already noticing how sick I am of deciphering the runes in Don Draper's morose face. Can it be that Jon Hamm is getting as bored with playing Matthew Weiner's study in Existential Anguish 101 as I am by watching him?
Hard to tell, but you'd hardly blame the actor if a certain fatigue has set in: "Okay, Jon, let's try a take where you squint pensively into the distance first and wince second for a change." A character can only be an enigma for so long before you start to wonder whether "enigma" got its start in life as the Greek word for "dullard."
And a TV series can only toy with profundity for so long before the whole thing starts to feel like a shell game. (Just ask anyone sucked in by Lost.) When all else fails, Mad Men can always fall back on sociology to hold our interest: the period mores and decor, the workplace kerfuffles that double as comments on the culture's shifting ways. But the show's appeal has long relied on our presumed fascination with finding the elusive key to Don Draper's pained, recessive, murky soul.
That's why we might well ask ourselves when he last did something that would justify our staying intrigued—something less contrived and implausible, that is, than the blubbery conference-room monologue about his orphaned childhood that got his partners riled into scooting him out the door in last season's finale. Now that the show has gone from revealing new sides of him to having him leakily reveal the same old crap to different listeners, it's getting hard to imagine any concluding revelation about what makes this lardy dork tick that would repay how much time we've invested in him since 2007.
Back in Mad Men's peak years—seasons two, three, and four, by my reckoning—the series was so confidently put together that Weiner's pretensions didn't seem like pretensions. In other words, we believed he could make good on them. But the more convinced he's grown that he's a genius who can do no wrong, the more erratic and dithering the show's concept has gotten. Heck, Mad Men doesn't even seem to have very much to say anymore about "the Sixties"—and just when the decade was getting interestingly batshit-haywire, too. The show's only effective evocation of the era's druggy side (Roger Sterling's LSD trip) hardly made up for a whole sequence packed with unconvincing groaners (Don's L.A. pool-party hallucinations on hashish) or an entire episode (the whole office getting high on speed) that registered as a bizarre conceit, with Ken Cosgrove's tap-dance routine operating as some kind of final kiss-off to artistic integrity.
When capturing a period's meaning is your selling point, you'd best not get caught looking as if you're just tossing stuff out to see what sticks. That's happened a lot in Mad Men's later years. At least so far, not much about this season has me convinced that Weiner even knows what he's driving at anymore. Is the real reason he's so zealous in warning critics against divulging spoilers that he doesn't want audiences to find out beforehand how little has changed? The current storylines are blatantly just killing time until the Smart Bus shows up at their stop, from Don's situation—still on hiatus from the agency, he's dolefully pondering his latest marriage to something other than a bottle—to office shenanigans and henanigans we've seen before.
It's been a truism for some time that the women's story arcs on Mad Men are a better reason to tune in than watching the latest coat of paint dry on Don's endless funk. They're the ones acting out the pressures of changing times instead of resisting them, and so on. Yet it's almost as if Weiner's inner male chauvinist—let's not pretend one doesn't exist—has come to resent that and wants to prove us wrong. Once the series's best-conceived female character—the complicated ways her guile and her vulnerability coexisted rang true to the era's minuet of reassuring restrictions and alarming possibilities—Christina Hendricks's Joan has never truly recovered from the idiot season five subplot that had her sleeping with a Jaguar exec in exchange for a partnership in the agency. (If she were the First Lady, her Secret Service code name would be Sharkjumper.) Now that she's a partner, she's also, for the first time, ineffectual, which doesn't seem to reflect Joan's personality so much as Weiner's new stinginess about developing the role. When it comes to thinking up attention-grabbing plot twists and then not delivering on their consequences, he can be pretty slovenly. He just thinks up the next twist instead, or else lazily reverts to the status quo ante—sometimes both.
For people rooting for Elizabeth Moss's Peggy Olson to end up as the series's big winner—and we are, or used to be, legion—what's gone on with her so far this season is more annoying still. Now that she ought to be coming into her own at last—the promise held out by the iconic moment when her silhouette replaced Don's in the show's title image last season—why is Weiner reducing her to such a feckless crybaby? He seems to relish punishing her—withholding sex included, you might say—but it's awfully unclear what she's being punished for. The illusion that he wants us to sympathize with her is getting awfully flimsy, and that goes double for Jessica Pare as Don's actress wife, Megan. Because her emotions come off as so plastic and shallow, the deck has been stacked to ensure we won't be upset when Don treats his Barbie doll badly (not the case with his first marriage, which was dramatized with a lot more two-way empathy but is now just a dimming memory). He's expressing his pain, folks, and nobody likes Megan anyway.
The larger way that Weiner is out of sympathy is that he just doesn't have the same enthusiasm for the later Sixties that he did for Don Draper's snap-brim, martini-slurping, blissfully sexist prime. While it used to seem that he was out to show us why all that had to change, what's coming through now, consciously or not, is how plaintively—not to say peevishly—he wishes it hadn't, and the show's disgraceful use of its African-American characters is only the most unpleasant proof. True, it's early in Mad Men's farewell season yet, and Weiner may still have a king-sized rabbit in waiting to pull out of his hat. But lately, I'm suspecting it's going to look an awful lot more like a well-preserved Playboy bunny's corpse.
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