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Actually, to say this is to sell Mad Men short; the exegeses began when the season began in April, and what we saw when it ended Sunday night was simply the climactic tsunami. Websites are insatiable maws, and Mad Men fed them; for instance, newrepublic.com rounded up four reviewers— Jane Hu, Evan Kindley, Lili Loofbourow, and Phillip Maciak—to post weekly "letters" about the series.
Kindley, after episode seven: "The asymmetry of information thus cuts both ways: Sylvia doesn't know that Don knows that she doesn't, in fact, have to get home (or that she gains power by delaying, and making Arnold wait); but Don doesn't know what Sylvia knows (whether she desires or intends to return to Arnold at all). It's a BDSM twist on the classic prisoner's dilemma: effective collaboration and trust between the two parties is impossible, precisely because neither is fully aware of the stakes of the situation."
Hu, after episode 12: "Dear Television, Don Draper can't deal. It's the penultimate episode of the penultimate season of 'Mad Men,' and our hero is totally losing his shit. Getting caught in flagrante by Sally has sent him spiraling into fetal position, sneaking vodka into his morning OJ. He can't even bother to help Megan boil two eggs. Poor boo boo, probably needs to take a sick day off. Even in the office, Don is reduced to assuming the part of a 'wah-wah'-ing baby for the St. Joseph's aspirin ad. And so of course the episode ends with Don curled up in fetal position, back where we began. Way back."
Loofbourow, after the finale: "The complaint that Don has become repetitive after six years of cheating and self-delusion (in some televisual variant on the seven-year itch) overlooks that the tyranny of habit constitutes a legitimate and indeed urgent subject and mistakes the source of our creeping disinvestment in the show. Especially since the show has changed by highlighting that Don hasn't; it has changed dramatically this season by decoupling itself from Don and peeling its progress away from his stasis."
Maciak, after Loofbourow: "Lili, I agree with practically everything you've said here, but I want to suggest an alternate reading of that final scene, one a little more in line with the way you (and I) understand the series as a whole. Perhaps Don Draper hasn't had an epiphany, or at least not a traditional one. From his efforts to quit drinking to the sunny lyric 'I've seen the clouds from both sides now' that ends the episode, there's certainly plenty of evidence that Don has indeed had his come-to-Jesus moment, but I think we should entertain the possibility that it really is too late for Don Draper, and, furthermore, that he knows this. What if Don himself has realized that he's not the protagonist of his own show?"
Heady stuff. Want more? Then drop in on theatlantic.com's Mad Men "roundtable." And on to Slate's Seth Stevenson, Hanna Rosin , and Paul Ford (who can claim exegetic bragging rights for having actually graduated from the Milton Hershey school for orphans Don Draper dreamed of attending when he was a kid named Dick Whitman growing up in a brothel).
We're still scraping the surface of Mad Men punditry. If we cared enough to sort through NSA surveillance with half the perspicacity Mad Men inspires in our best minds, Edward Snowden would deserve a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
No, I'm not mocking the discussion. I'm joining it. I offer, for your consideration, the reflections of npr.org's Linda Holmes. She has some thoughts on Don Draper that I'm pretty sure I actually understand; and what's more, I have something to add to them.
Writes Holmes: "There is perhaps no greater lie embedded in our grand cultural self-improvement fable than the idea that feeling bad about the pain you cause is a reliable and important step toward not causing it anymore. Mad Men has always been straightforward on this point. Don always feels bad. Don felt bad about cheating on Betty, just as he feels bad about cheating on Megan. He has looked wrecked over and over. He has cried. He has sweated. There are no firsts in his despair."
And no lasts either. "Mad Men has been brutally fair about Don, about sending a single message: he doesn't learn. He can't. He will meet kindness with cruelty, he will think of himself and not others, and he will never stop believing that just out of his reach is his better, kinder, greater self. Any day now. Perhaps ironically, what made the season finale unsatisfying is the show's integrity. Don goes in circles; this is how it is. It is sad, but it is permanent."
Does this remind you of somebody else you met on television? Dr. Melfi had Tony Soprano in therapy for all six seasons and the only breakthrough that mattered was her own: she realized at the end he was a sociopath who was conning her (and probably himself) and would never change. Matthew Weiner, who created Mad Men, earlier worked on The Sopranos, and he even coauthored (with David Chase) the episode in which Dr. Melfi wises up and tells Tony to find another shrink.
So maybe, for variety's sake, Weiner plans something besides more of same for Don Draper in the next, and last, season of Mad Men. And maybe, for the same reason, when Mad Men's run its course it won't leave us scratching our heads wondering whether its antihero is alive or dead. Come to think of it, on a spiritual level that's the debate the pundits are having now. A year from now we should know.