Now that season 6 of Mad Men is finally over, we are now able to fully understand what it means. At first, it seemed like the season was droning along, focusing on boring subplots about Don Draper and another woman, and nothing really seemed to happen. Then, SCDP and CGC merged into a super-agency, and things started to pick up. By the time the season had ended things weren’t great for the characters. The merger had created failed relationships, bad pitches, and even perplexing drug trips. Season 6 may have been unpleasant to watch unfold, but in the end it turns out that it is absolutely essential to the series as a whole.
One of the most important things about Mad Men is its themes. Matt Weiner (the show’s creator and showrunner) has found a way to master storytelling, and build incredible amounts of thematic subject matter into each episode. As always, theme was incredibly important in the 6th season. The most important theme of the season was that the world is a circle and that history will always continue to repeat itself.
The most apparent example of this is Bob Benson, who in the beginning of the season was a mysterious figure, who always kept popping up with coffee and gleefully wearing spectacular shorts. He seemed like he could cause no harm, but as the season continued things became clear about the character. In the season’s penultimate episode “The Quality of Mercy,” Pete Campbell found out, yet again, that a coworker was not what they seemed to be. Yes, Bob Benson turned out to be Don Draper 2.0 and Pete realized that he could do nothing about it, again. This realization of Bob shows the true thematic nature of the world, which is that bad things are always going to repeat themselves, no matter how one tries to break the cycle. For the most part of the season, Bob emulated the very early Don Draper which we saw in season 4’s “Waldorf Stories.” Don was a go-getter who actually cared about his job, but he soon became a sad, manipulative Mad Man. Bob showed signs of this change in “In Care Of” the 6th season’s finale, where he forced Pete to try to drive the Chevy, only ending in failure and misery. Again, Bob has made us see who Don really is. In “The Quality of Mercy” Don manipulates Ted and Peggy in a pitch, in the same cold manner Bob did to Pete.
There was even more circling in repetition in season 6, when Don became involved with his neighbor Sylvia. Many viewers complained about this subplot and found it boring, redundant or unnecessary, but in reality it is the most necessary plot within the entire season. Sylvia had a very specific purpose within the season, which was to show Don and the viewer (if it wasn’t already clear) that he was a monster. From the beginning of the season’s opener “The Doorway” until the 11th episode “Favors” Don had some form of a relationship with Sylvia. A very important part in this relationship is found in the season’s 7th episode “Man With A Plan” where Don forced Sylvia to stay in a hotel room alone for an incredibly long amount of time. This showed the ugliness of Don’s true character to not only Sylvia, but also the viewer.
As Sylvia and the audience started to distance themselves from Don, things didn’t get any better. As suspected, they got worse as the two found each other again in “Favors.” Not only did the two find each other, but also Sally found them both together. This emotionally destroyed Sally and her trust in her father, which eventually destroyed Don himself. When she told Don that he made her sick, some sort of realization started to come alive in him. This was furthered when at the end of “The Quality of Mercy” Peggy (the second most important woman in his life) told him that he was “a monster.” In the long run, Sylvia was absolutely essential to Don’s self-realization. Without her, Don would still be lost in his cycle of awfulness, causing harm to all around him.
Don continued to learn more about himself throughout “In Care Of.” In the last pitch of the season, Don tells a nostalgic story about the Hershey’s bar. Immediately this story echo’s his Carousel pitch from the first season’s finale “The Wheel,” but it later becomes clear that it is fake. Don realizes that he is a fake, and is selling lies like a monster, so he decides to tell the truth about his childhood. This results in some of the most powerful minutes of television in 2013, and one of Jon Hamm’s shining moments in his performance as Don. Instead of continuing his cycle as living life like a monster, Don tries to break it and cleanse himself. The initial sweet pitch for a sweet candy bar soon becomes very upsetting for the Hershey executives, the viewer, and Don himself.
Don’s self-realization is aided by many more things throughout the finale. When he steals Stan’s idea about moving to California and setting up shop, Stan tears into him showing him his true outrage. Don is also torn apart by Meagan, a wife who once used to feel something for him. In the end, Don is left with various broken relationships. His daughter feels disillusioned, his protegé feels used, and he is one broken-down man. To top this all off, Don finds that his plan to escape from his problems and flee to California has been denied, and he is ultimately forced to take time off from work. By breaking down and punishing Don, he is left to only do one thing: live his life in a new way.
By forcing Don to change, Matt Weiner has retroactively changed the course of not only Don’s character, but Mad Men itself. When Don decides to take his children to the whorehouse where he grew up, he shows signs of growth and change. This is something completely unexpected of the series, and has only made it better. Season six has not only defined who Don Draper is, but has defined the world he is living in. Weiner has shown both sides of Don’s life and his world, taking the good with the bad. Now that Don is emotionally destroyed, the character and the show only can go up. None of this would have been possible without season 6, and even if it was unpleasant to watch at times, as a whole it is incredibly gratifying. One can only imagine what Don the series would be without this season, as it is absolutely essential. Maybe something like that house?