With the surgical precision of Dr. Lyle Evans, this week's season finale of Mad Men killed the essence of Don Draper.
There is a special frustration that comes with being a long time fan that’s been let down. There from day one, you can't help feeling invested. You defend the weaker episodes along the way and strive to find the logic in weak secondary and tertiary characters, knowing that there's a higher power at work, with a purpose that will reveal itself when we're ready.
Season 4 needed a lot of defense, weaving in and out of the characters' stories with all the skill of a formerly elite but now drunken skier. With the exception of two brilliant episodes ("The Suitcase" and "The Summer Man"), the show began demonstrating symptoms of the double M's, a known killer of outstanding television -- melodrama and mediocrity. Sometimes caused by believing your own hype or due to an epic idea drought, the writing veered into soap-y waters, with the actors gamely trying to follow along.
There are always limits to the lifespan of a show, especially when it's dependent on characters and not medical crises or solving crimes. Add to that the automatically kitschy element of being set in the past and I knew from the start that I'd be mourning Mad Men at some point in the future. What I didn't expect was being so disgusted with this season and in particular its pathetic finale that I'm eager to pull the plug.
At the heart (or liver) of Mad Men, there've always been two characters -- Don Draper and Peggy Olson. This season, we were treated to "The Suitcase," which gave them a full episode together and us a chance to see how exceptional the show can be. But like Peggy, I reacted with the same disgust, confusion and disappointment to Don's engagement to "Pretty Megan" as the wrap-up to his season-long existential crisis. Since he's wrapped up in the almost mind-numbingly good-looking packaging of Jon Hamm, it's been easy to overlook how much of a loser Don has always been.
This season, the suave, seemingly in control, casually cruel Don Draper was replaced by a sloshed, sweating, vomiting, lying-in-a-fetal-position Dick Whitman. When he cleaned up, he was no better than before. Meanwhile, Peggy has grown in a myriad of ways, personally and at work, and learning about herself. The themes of strength vs. weakness, the future vs. the past, acceptance vs. denial were highlighted along the way and all were leaning towards Peggy, who may not cause the same fluttering of hearts but neither does she leave a path of destruction in her wake.
There was a line in the finale, when Don explained to the American Cancer Society why he took out the NYT ad -"it was an impulse and I did what I needed to in order to move forward." Confusing motion with moving ahead is a mistake we all make but we're not sharks, needing to move in order to breathe. The tragedy of Mad Men is that it moved ahead at its own expense and with that decision, lost something that can't be found in an Emmy win -- the devotion of its audience.
My issue is not with a plot twist that failed to ignite my imagination. I’m truly sorry to see a great show flounder so early in its potential lifespan and transform into a high-end nighttime soap. Is it better to be great for a short time than average forever? Probably. But I still end up feeling like one of Don’s many conquests, used and cast aside, without even the enjoyment of having been Draper-ed. Will I be around for season 5? Stay tuned.