[Warning: Mad Men spoilers]
A show as complicated as Mad Men has many themes. The most important, and consistently central one, is the power of the creative leader. Precisely during a time of great upheaval (the 1960s), the most powerful person in the room is the one that understands the story, the motivations, the influence of desire, and precisely how to sell that to everyone else. Don Draper is the true personification of such a power: in all its creative, frightening, tyrannical glory.
The move at the end of season 6 to begin to recognize the evil side of such power, and for the first time in a life full of lies and survival, to turn toward a life of honesty, free of manipulation and malice, is masterful storytelling. Because, from what I’ve seen, it has brought growth and maturity for Don, and discord and anger from everyone around him. Everyone except his daughter, who has always begged for him to be honest with her. To prove he’s worth being called “Dad”.
None are able to recognize the transformation, or even the power that honesty has brought Don. They’re too busy with who he was, too busy with their own pain, too busy with punishing him. And for the first time, he isn’t punishing them. They can’t see that, either.
This “everyone” includes the viewers, by the way. This review by Maureen Ryan is absolutely brilliant. But she is writing from a place that includes Don as unchanged and potentially deserving of his current state.
What Don Draper has done is to self-differentiate from the family system. He is breaking from his own role in it, and expecting the system to change with him. And for the system, there is no greater perceived threat to the system than self-differentiation. He’s breaking free from the system that makes him an anti-hero, destructive to the people around him, and constantly out of step with the order of things, while so incredibly connected with the zeitgeist and the character of the age. Until the end of season 6, Don was woefully stuck in the modern age as it transitioned into postmodernism. I’m no longer convinced that’s the case.
In last night’s episode, Don comes back to the firm: with stipulations. If you haven’t seen the episode, I implore you to watch it. It is unbelievable.
Where Maureen calls this move a “win-win” for the firm and a “lose-lose” for Don (and part of me totally agrees), this situation is a complete lose-lose for everyone involved. They refuse to get rid of Don and refuse to risk allowing Don to in any way effect the firm: positively or negatively. The stipulations will prevent him from doing the very things he’s good at. Their place in this arrangement is purely punitive–geared, in the end, toward manufacturing cause for getting rid of Don.
What is particularly noteworthy is the place money is playing in this conversation. They refuse to pay him off. But, they are worried about losing business he would draw to a competitor. And yet, they are also going to leave a ton of money on the table, because Lou sucks at Don’s old job. And now they won’t allow Don to win them the big money. They are operating in a completely risk-averse way, worrying so much that they’ll lose another Hershey that they are forgetting how they’ve even landed and kept these very clients. It wasn’t just Roger’s charm and the accounts receivable department.
The guardians of the system are simultaneously completely oblivious Peggy, who, next to Don, is the sole reason there is any business left at the firm. They are burning her out even quicker than they did Don.
Mad Men has always been part cautionary tale. Cautionary to the excess of indulgence, to the transformation of the age, to the problems that come without notice, to the idea of completely throwing caution to the wind. And yet, every ounce of the firm’s success has come, not from safe decisions or boot-strapping, but from incredible insight, remarkable creativity, and ruthless ambition. Both in the branding and in the forming of their very structure. Their success rises and falls with building up creativity.
The fact that the partners are bent on tearing it down is a great omen for the show.
Everybody watching should take note. And everyone not watching should recognize the danger of such a risk-averse environment.