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Dear TV: 'Mad Men' Season Six: Episode 6, Post 1

The Great Man Theory

Michael Yarish/AMC

Dear Television is Jane Hu, Evan Kindley, Lili Loofbourow, and Phillip Maciak. This season, they'll be posting weekly letters about AMC's "Mad Men." While this is not a full recap, there are still plenty of spoilers. Read the last installment here.

It’s classic “Mad Men.” A dark bar, two desperate men—formerly enemies—find themselves alone together. They agree to forge an alliance. Next thing you know, we’re in the General Motors showroom, two heads of SCDP and two heads of CGC come together to shake hands in the light of day. We hear the propulsive rock and roll of Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, and the camera cranes down as our Fab Four blaze across the frame. It’s a perfect way to end an episode. Swagger out.

But instead of letting Mr. Ryder and his Detroit Wheels sing “Baby Jane” over the credits, the song abruptly stops, and the scene cuts to Pete sitting quietly at his dinner table, then to Peggy hearing the news of the SCDP/CGC merger. The song hangs in mid-air, like “Don’t Stop Believing” at the end of "The Sopranos," but the episode is by no means finished. At the beginning of season four, Don Draper tells a reporter this creation myth of SCDP: “I realized I had two choices: I could die of boredom or holster up my guns. So I walked into Lane Pryce’s office, and I said, ‘Fire us.’” In “For Immediate Release,” “Mad Men” has carefully crafted another one of its patented mythic moments, only to tell us we should stop believing in it.

It’s tempting to get swept up with Don Draper and Ted Chaough’s new scheme the same way we got swept up in the badass story of SCDP’s creation. But, from the look of this season so far, the days of “Mad Men” sanctioning and glorifying the heroic exploits of Don Draper appear to be over. Even Don’s triumphant, balls-out pitch to Dow Chemical at the end of last season was undercut by a persistent cloud of napalm. Draper has not necessarily lost his magic touch—the show has just tired of presenting that touch as anything more than the convergence of sketchy morality, misogyny, and blithe disregard for other human beings that it is. I may have been a bit premature in singling out Dawn as the character who might finally wrest the narrative perspective of “Mad Men” away from Dick Whitman, but I think this episode confirms that the show is definitely more and more interested in de-centering Don, or at least questioning his centrality. But this episode also signals a renewed questioning of the centrality of Great Men on the show, or at least the flickering glow of a responsible skepticism toward patriarchy. 

I noted a few weeks ago that we should always pay attention when an episode ends on someone other than Don Draper. This week, especially considering the readymade “Baby Jane” tag, it was significant that we closed the episode on Peggy. The last time this happened was after Peggy quit SCDP in the season five’s “The Other Woman.” Joan ended that episode as a new partner at the firm—thanks to her sacrifice at the Altar of the Jaguar—and Peggy ended it as the copy chief at CGC, stepping unafraid into the elevator to the sound of “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks. It’s another rock and roll myth moment, Peggy’s own epiphany. But “For Immediate Release” erases both Joan’s sacrifice and Peggy’s rebellion—it is the systematic undoing of that episode. Don Draper, acting alone, or in collusion with other men, washes away the victories of these women. It is upon actions like these that Don Draper’s mythology is founded.

In time gone by, Don’s righteous dismissal of Jaguar’s Herb and his radical merger with CGC—an echo of Don's “I’m Quitting Tobacco” campaign and the rogue formation of SCDP—would have been understood by the show itself as triumphs of chivalric heroism. Now, these victories seem superficial at best and parasitic at worst. Joan, in a monologue set up beautifully by Harry’s outburst about her merit a few episodes ago, delivers a withering deconstruction of the Draper mythos: 

Don: Don’t you feel 300 pounds lighter?

Joan: I don’t. Honestly Don if I could deal with him, you could deal with him. And what now? I went through all of that for nothing?

Don: Don’t worry, I will win this.

Joan: Just once I would like to hear you use the word “we.” Because we’re all rooting for you from the sidelines, hoping that you’ll decide whatever you think is right for our lives.

Don may tell this story differently, but his defense of Joan’s honor is an act of vanity, narcissism, and control. Or, as Pete puts it, Don is “Tarzan, swinging from vine to vine,” all performative derring-do with no real purpose. What’s more, Don doesn’t even understand this speech. He focuses in on the first person plural pronoun rather than the collectivity behind it and uses it as inspiration to bro out with Ted Chaough and screw over Peggy Olson.

And Ted, that purveyor of Emersonian individualism, is just the same. Even in Peggy's fantasy of Ted, he’s a caricature of an intellectual, wearing a smoking jacket and reading a leather-bound tome called SOMETHING by Ralph Waldo Emerson. There's a hollowness to all of these dudes, a fluency with signifiers—Don’s understanding of the value of brands, the idea that a merged agency or a second floor can convey power where none exists, Ted's sappy philosophizing and humblebragging—that is crucial to their power. And it’s contrasted with the substance, even bodily investment of the women—Joan's spotless paperwork and willingness to throw herself at the firm’s troubles, Peggy's creative genius, and even the sardonic French audio commentary of Marie Calvet. 

While Emerson never published a book titled SOMETHING, he did, in 1850, publish a series of lectures titled Representative Men. The work was, in some ways, meant to be an American elaboration of Thomas Carlyle’s Great Man Theory, which held that, “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” This is a problematic theory for any number of reasons, notably for its gendering of historical progress and its lack of focus on laborers, minorities, and, well everyone else. Despite the prominence of Peggy, Joan, Betty, Sally, and even Dawn, now, “Mad Men” has always favored a Great Man theory of narrative. As Emerson puts it, “Other men are lenses through which we read our own minds,” and Don Draper, thus far, has been “Mad Men”’s primary lens. But Emerson also writes, “We are tendencies, or rather, symptoms, and none of us complete.” Don Draper will never leave our purview, but “Mad Men” is becoming mercifully more interested in highlighting his incompleteness, the ways in which those actions that might have previously scanned as heroic in context of his inner depravity, are in fact symptoms of that depravity. Stop believing. 

I don’t have any laudanum either,