Now that we're more than halfway through the first half of the final season of "Mad Men," can we just acknowledge what a long, strange trip this show has been so far? For true fans (and I definitely count myself as one), the experience of watching Matthew Weiner's creation from its first season forward has been unlike any other TV viewing experience I can think of. It's not necessarily that "Mad Men" is the greatest TV drama of all time, despite AMC's hopelessly awkward efforts to pound that notion into our brains through blunt repetition. It's more that the show has pulled Americans, kicking and screaming, through their own thrilling, ugly, sexy, melancholy history like no other.
And the timing of this tour couldn't be better. "Mad Men" hit the air six years after 9/11, one year before the crash of 2008 and subsequent Great Recession. America's global supremacy feels far less assured now than it did just a few years ago when Don Draper first tumbled down our TV screens. When we met Don, it was 1960. His world was clean and shiny. Girls go here, boys go there. Now it's 1969 and everything feels uncertain, like all those clean lines and boundaries are turning into chaotic scribbles. No wonder everything Don does now feels a little bit like an omen of our national demise.
Is it possible to feel nostalgic about the early days of a TV show about nostalgia? Because part of the magic Matthew Weiner has worked on us this season lies in his earlier presentation of Don as this tragic hero against a backdrop of cinched waists and sparkling cocktails and gorgeous but hilariously impractical white wall-to-wall carpeting. Even though we always knew that Don's Gatsby-like self-invention was skin-deep and would fall to pieces in time – just as we knew Gatsby was damaged and doomed and owned far too many beautiful shirts to be quite right in the head – we still couldn't help but get caught up in his fantasy world. The very best part of "Mad Men" for its first few seasons was always that moment when, despite screwing up the rest of his life but good, Don swept into the office and saved the day with a bulletproof pitch.
Watching Don humbled, having to take the role of the obedient underling, should feel redemptive. Why not? The man is a dinosaur who's behaved badly for long enough. But the beauty of the show's maneuvering this season is that, even though we don't necessarily love Don, and even though we've been taught to encounter the '60s as a time of important, progressive cultural shifts, Weiner allows us to view these sweeping changes through Don's fearful eyes. Yes, we feel for Peggy and want her to succeed. Of course we care about Joan and Dawn and even Pete and Ginsberg and Stan. But it's also hard not to long for the simplicity of the early '60s, the smooth suits and shrimp cocktails and clear hierarchies. The office – which stands as a physical embodiment of Don's professional life -- was much more beautiful and spacious in the old days, the boundaries between The Boss and The Bossed crystal clear. Now the office is noisy, cramped, chaotic. Who is the boss? There are bosses everywhere. Lou is the creative director, and so is Don (according to Don). A big, ugly computer is being installed. It can count the stars, Lloyd the salesman blurts. But who would even want that, Don wonders.
Throw in poor Roger, begging his daughter to leave the commune and return to her son, and our nostalgia for the bad old days is complete. Weiner has transformed the most liberal among us into Archie Bunker, singing "Gee, our old LaSalle ran great!" right before his dirty hippie son-in-law Meathead walks in and spoils everything.
Let's be honest. "Mad Men" sometimes lacks the emotional resonance that you find in other shows of its caliber. Omar's fate on "The Wire," Tony's fate on "The Sopranos," Claire's fate on "Six Feet Under": all felt more crucial than what ultimately happens to Don Draper or even Roger Sterling or Joan Holloway (God, I love that Joan). Even so, there's a kind of emotional resonance that Matthew Weiner creates around American culture itself. He allows us to feel the same fear and pity and affection and revulsion that we felt for Tony Soprano, but he makes us feel these emotions for the strange, tragic twists in our shared history. Weiner makes us feel nostalgia and dread for our family dynamics, for our workplaces, for our hero complexes, for our infidelities, for our giant appetites, for our deeply rooted dissatisfaction.
Somehow we feel these things when we see that superhero boss Don is now underling Don. Why shouldn't we savor Don's inability to take orders from a woman, particularly when she's his former secretary? But we can't, not exactly. And we feel unnerved to discover that prim, money-grubbing Margaret is now peaceful, unwashed Marigold. Isn't Marigold right about her mother, sneaking off to drink a pint of gin in the bathroom, and her father, who missed most of her childhood? Why does her liberation feel so misguided and sad, then? Even watching easy-going Burt Cooper turn all scoldy and dismissive in Don's presence feels wrong. And then there's groovy California Pete, feeling nostalgic about Trudy instead of enjoying his work-focused, thoroughly undomesticated girlfriend.
Lane Pryce's Mets pennant, which Don finds in his office, haunts this episode for a reason. Lane loved American culture. His boyish adoration for it was one of his most likeable qualities. We've never seen Don love anything in such an unguarded way. When Don gets drunk on vodka and calls Freddy Rumsen to go to a Mets game, he's trying desperately to play make-believe at a kind of earnest enthusiasm that was stomped out of him decades ago. Instead, he gets belligerent and insults the future (in the form of the IBM salesman), then passes out and misses the game entirely. When he wakes up, there's Freddy, asking him, "Are you just going to kill yourself, and give them what they want?" (This feels like Weiner teasing us for taking the opening credits too literally, doesn't it?)
By the last moments of the episode, though, Don is cleaned up, slick, and typing away, and maybe by next week he'll be the same hero of our faded memories. Even so, the message of this episode, and of the season thus far, and maybe of the show at large, feels like it's rising closer to the surface. Thanks to the inherent corruption of American culture, it almost doesn't matter what you choose to do. Hold it together or fall apart. Work or hide. Follow the herd or rebel. The same selfishness, shortsightedness, and lack of principles pervades every choice.
And the same end awaits. That's certainly what Don seems to be preoccupied with when he equates Lloyd with the devil. "You go by many names. I know who you are," he tells Lloyd. "You've got the best campaign since the dawn of time." In Don's eyes – and maybe in Weiner's -- the seduction of the modern, of global commerce, of faster, smarter, better, is luring us all straight to hell.
At that moment when Roger and Marigold fall into a giant mud puddle, one thing is clear: The man in the three-piece suit has it all wrong, but so does the scraggly haired lady whose young son is being watched by strangers so she can screw around with strangers. Marigold tells her dad, "I used to think the country was lonely. Now I realize the city is." But when most of us grow up, we realize that there's no moral center and not enough to sustain a life in either place, really. The city and the country are both lonely. As Weiner has shown, we're lonely because of our hero complexes, our infidelities, our giant appetites, our deeply rooted dissatisfaction. And if there's one thing we've learned from "Mad Men" over the years, it's that the past may have been lonely, but the future might be even lonelier.