As Mad Men enters its final season, it's time to come to terms with the importance of season six, the end of TV's best drama, and, you know, mortality.
If happiness is a moment before you need more happiness, what’s sadness? It might be the moment when you realize your favorite TV show isn’t fun anymore. That was the common complaint about Mad Men’s sixth season, that the joy had been evacuated, like Roger and Don vomiting up a delicious spread of raw oysters. (Remember those good times?)
“The entire run of the season, the first half especially, suffered from putting Don Draper’s suffering in the foreground,” Matthew Zoller Seitz wrote in his reconsideration of season six for Vulture. “Watching Don seek temporary refuge in everything from light BDSM and drugs to last week’s full-on, fetal regression has been fascinating, but it hasn’t been very much fun,” wrote Grantland’s Andy Greenwald, using the f-word outright.
Last season was punishing. But it was still good. As Seitz (begrudgingly) admitted, “It makes an unpleasant dramatic sense that Mad Men would do everything it possibly could to make Don Draper as exhausting as possible.” To which I say: hell yes. Because Matthew Weiner’s ad-agency drama, which returns this Sunday, resolved the dilemma of the “bad fan.”
In the last year, there’s been a lot of important writing (see Emily Nussbaum on All in the Family in The New Yorker) dedicated to complicated shows receiving simplified, troubling responses from viewers. The bulk of the writing came out of—don’t laugh—Twitter conversations about Breaking Bad, specifically how the viewer is supposed to see Walter White. The bad fan’s reduction looks like this: Walter White = badass. It turns a blind eye to the misconduct of the anti-hero in order to better celebrate his technical genius. It reduces Skyler White to a nagging wife who gets in the way of her awesome hubbie, like Home Improvement but with emotional terrorism and a body count.
A bad fan’s reading of a show is one that seizes on every escape hatch through which the viewer can avoid the downsides of identifying with the protagonist. All the fun of meth, none of the dental problems! At its best (see “Ozymandias”), Breaking Bad transformed those escape hatches into traps. The phone call that ended “Ozymandias” was a masterful bit of writing where Walter ingeniously leads the cops off Skyler’s trail while also exposing himself as a monster by using the language of the bad fan. You feel the violence he has long perpetrated against his wife and children, and you see Walt as a multi-faceted monster, not a paper-thin badass. (To what degree the series finale undid that work is a different conversation.)
AMC’s very official list of things critics are not to spoil did not mention feelings, and so I can report that I laughed a handful of times, felt high on a beautifully disorientating formal prank that opens the episode, and walked away tingly and cold.
Other shows aren’t so sophisticated. True Detective, for instance, proved itself conservative and cowardly by letting the Marty Monster go. As Lili Loofbourow explains in her reckoning for the Los Angeles Review of Books, those dicks didn’t get the right guy during that half-baked Silence of the Lambs-type finale; their showrunner didn’t let them. Instead, the Marty Monster got bedside absolution, and all the prayers that Nic Pizzolatto’s show was a grotesque parody of macho buddy-cop bullshit went unanswered. The darkness beat the light that day.
Mad Men didn’t pull any of that nonsense in season six. You couldn’t possibly cheer Don as he made his mistress, Sylvia, put his feet inside his shoes in the hotel room where he kept her for an entire episode. And even if you did manage to groove on 50 Shades of Draper, the show had a cudgel held behind its back. At season’s end, it beat you down with the back-to-back blows of “Favors” and “The Quality of Mercy,” the episodes wherein Don irreparably harms his relationship with his daughter, Sally, and then nests in his despair like a dying dog curled in on itself beneath the family porch, waiting for the end.
If felt really freaking bad. Maybe it’s not the most elegant solution to the Bad Fan Problem, but still—it worked.
Truly, what can’t this show do? Well, make you feel good is the big one. Though Mad Men understands comedy better than any other current drama, it doesn’t let the viewer take solace in any overwhelming good. For all its Nazis and gatling guns, Breaking Bad believed in family. True Detective, as it turns out, believed in redemption. (Which, um, for those assholes? Nah.) I’m not convinced that Mad Men believes in anything positive. Instead, there’s the fundamental unknowability we all share as people. We can’t really know anyone, the show insists, even when the characters claim otherwise. We can’t change, either. We’re allowed only small moments of joy in this life—that is, assuming you can find the joy in a mother sharing a carcinogen with her young daughter.
What will season seven bring? How do you conclude a show that is without precedent, that isn’t beholden to any genre or narrative arc? No one knows but Matthew Weiner. “There are no rules,” he told The Paris Review earlier this year. If this is going to end happily, there’s no sign of it in the premiere. AMC’s very official list of things critics are not to spoil did not mention feelings, and so I can report that I laughed a handful of times, felt high on a beautifully disorientating formal prank that opens the episode, and walked away tingly and cold.
If you tune in Sunday, it’s because, on some level, you like feeling bad. It’s okay. Really. Embrace it. Matthew Weiner has, and look how it turned out for him. “You already know about Jesus, either he lives in your heart or he doesn’t,” DD said in the first season, leaving each word coated in acid and smoking. Jesus does not live in Don’s heart. He’s nowhere to be found in Mad Men.
So, what’s sadness? It’s not just the moment after no Mad Men (though I will cry a thousand tears). It’s everywhere and has always been. For the critics wondering where the fun went, remember that season one’s finale was a hard lesson in nostalgia. That nostalgia isn’t actually a fun time machine, it’s the “pain from an old wound.” This show was never about “fun”—what carousel ride were you on?
Now this particular ride is coming to an end. Thirteen episodes more after the premiere. But there are always the larger rotations of life and death to remind you of the around-and-around repetition. Enjoy.
Ross Scarano is a deputy editor at Complex and is ride-or-die for Sally Draper. He tweets here.