Peter Pan Nation
A.O. Scott murmurs from deep inside in the Gray Lady: “Sometime this spring, during the first half of the final season of “Mad Men,” the popular pastime of watching the show — recapping episodes, tripping over spoilers, trading notes on the flawless production design, quibbling about historical details and debating big themes — segued into a parlor game of reading signs of its hero’s almost universally anticipated demise. Maybe the 5 o’clock shadow of mortality was on Don Draper (fig. 1) from the start. Maybe the plummeting graphics of the opening titles implied a literal as well as a moral fall. Maybe the notable deaths in previous seasons (fictional characters like Miss Blankenship, Lane Pryce and Bert Cooper, as well as figures like Marilyn Monroe and Medgar Evers) were premonitions of Don’s own departure. In any case, fans and critics settled in for a vigil. It was not a matter of whether, but of how and when.
TV characters are among the allegorical figures of our age, giving individual human shape to our collective anxieties and aspirations. The meanings of “Mad Men” are not very mysterious: The title of the final half season, which airs next spring, will be “The End of an Era.” The most obvious thing about the series’s meticulous, revisionist, present-minded depiction of the past, and for many viewers the most pleasurable, is that it shows an old order collapsing under the weight of internal contradiction and external pressure. From the start, “Mad Men” has, in addition to cataloging bygone vices and fashion choices, traced the erosion, the gradual slide toward obsolescence, of a power structure built on and in service of the prerogatives of white men. The unthinking way Don, Pete, Roger and the rest of them enjoy their position, and the ease with which they abuse it, inspires what has become a familiar kind of ambivalence among cable viewers. Weren’t those guys awful, back then? But weren’t they also kind of cool? We are invited to have our outrage and eat our nostalgia too, to applaud the show’s right-thinking critique of what we love it for glamorizing.
The widespread hunch that “Mad Men” will end with its hero’s death is what you might call overdetermined. It does not arise only from the internal logic of the narrative itself, but is also a product of cultural expectations. Something profound has been happening in our television over the past decade, some end-stage reckoning. It is the era not just of mad men, but also of sad men and, above all, bad men. Don is at once the heir and precursor to Tony Soprano (fig. 2), that avatar of masculine entitlement who fended off threats to the alpha-dog status he had inherited and worked hard to maintain. Walter White, the protagonist of “Breaking Bad,” struggled, early on, with his own emasculation and then triumphantly (and sociopathically) reasserted the mastery that the world had contrived to deny him. The monstrousness of these men was inseparable from their charisma, and sometimes it was hard to tell if we were supposed to be rooting for them or recoiling in horror. We were invited to participate in their self-delusions and to see through them, to marvel at the mask of masculine competence even as we watched it slip or turn ugly. Their deaths were (and will be) a culmination and a conclusion: Tony, Walter and Don are the last of the patriarchs.”