Return of the King: “Mad Men” and the Greatest Story Ever Sold


Kathy Knapp in LA Review of Books:

Mad Men still has a half-season to go, but Don Draper’s obituary has already been written. We don’t know exactly how it will end for Don, but the critical consensus is that his fate is sealed: for the past seven years, we’ve watched him follow the same downward trajectory his silhouetted likeness traces in the opening credits, so that all that’s left is for him to land. In a piece lamenting the “death of adulthood in American culture,” A. O. Scott says that Mad Men is one of several recent pop cultural narratives — among them The Sopranos and Breaking Bad — that chart the “final, exhausted collapse” of white men and their regimes, but I’m not convinced. Don has a way of bouncing back. Where one episode opens with him on an examination table, lying to his doctor about how much he drinks and smokes as if his bloodshot eyes and smoker’s cough didn’t give him away (even bets on cirrhosis and emphysema), another finds him swimming laps, cutting down on his drinking, and keeping a journal in an effort to “gain a modicum of control.” Over the course of the past six and a half seasons, Don has been on the brink of personal and professional destruction too many times to count, and yet when we last saw him at the conclusion of “Waterloo,” the final episode of the last half-season, which aired last May, he was fresh-faced and back on top. The truth is that Mad Men has something far more unsettling (and historically accurate) to tell us about the way that white male power works to protect its own interests, precisely by staging and restaging its own death.

In fact, a closer look at “Waterloo” in particular makes clear that the show does not chronicle the last gasp of the white male, as Scott would have it, but outlines the way that a wily old guard has followed the advice of E. Digby Baltzell (who coined the acronym WASP in 1964) by “absorbing talented and distinguished members of minority groups into its privileged ranks” in order to maintain its grip on power. After several episodes of unrelenting humiliation for Don, this installment was so thoroughly upbeat that it had critics wondering just whose Waterloo it was, anyway. Unlike Napoleon, Don doesn’t defiantly march into a futile, fatal battle to save his job, but instead surprises everyone by stepping graciously aside, handing a big pitch for Burger Chef to his protégé, Peggy Olson. Peggy protests she can’t, because she’s a woman; it seems a clear sign that the times are indeed a-changing that Don concludes, “Maybe that’s better.

More here.