Over the past two weeks, the internet has developed a new favorite game: Coming up with ever-crazier theories to explain the real story behind Mad Men's strange, disappointing sixth season.
Earlier this week, Uproxx's Dustin Rowles threw out the possibility that Don Draper imagined a recent conversation with his wife Megan, who — unbeknownst to viewers — is already dead. "I have traveled so far down the Mad Men rabbit hole that I may have lost perspective," concedes Rowles, who also wrote an article that popularized the "Megan Draper is Sharon Tate" theory, which originated on Reddit, last week. "When you're this deep into a rabbit hole, you see connections everywhere."
The first major fan theory to gain traction came last year, when everyone was totally convinced that the show was embedding clues pointing to Pete Campbell's eventual suicide. (As it turned out, everyone was wrong.) But if season five's Pete Campbell theory kicked off the trend, the conspiracy theories have officially reached a fever pitch in season six. Megan Draper is going to be murdered. Megan Draper has already been murdered. Bob Benson is a government agent. No, he's an investigative reporter. No, he's a serial killer.
These theories are, of course, a blast to parse and debate with other fans — but unfortunately, they also speak to a much greater problem with the series. Why have Mad Men fans and critics started treating a period drama about advertising like Lost, where every shot was loaded with hidden meaning that needed to be unpacked? Here's the sad truth: After 10 episodes (and with just three more to go), Mad Men's sixth season has been a disappointment, leading viewers to start looking for clues that there's something more interesting going on under its water-treading surface.
Let me be clear: Mad Men, even at its worst, is still pretty good television. It's wonderfully acted, gorgeously shot, and it features a surplus of Jon Hamm's throaty baritone, which is enough to make even the show's most banal dialogue memorable. Season six hasn't been all bad; "For Immediate Release," which saw SCDP merge with longtime rivals CGC to snare the Chevrolet account, is easily the highlight of the season so far — a buoyant episode that hearkened back to season three's terrific, game-changing season finale. I was even a fan of the polarizing "The Crash," which saw most of the newly-merged firm go on a surreal drug trip after a visit from Jim Cutler's oddball doctor.
But those are the scattered standout moments from a season that has, on the whole, never felt draggier. The sixth season has spent much of its time reiterating things that were far more effective the first time we saw them: Don withholding honesty and affection from his wife; Don embarking on a self-destructive extramarital affair; Don recalling incidents from his strange, traumatic childhood; Don taking a soul-searching trip to California.
You might have noticed that every one of those sentences has something in common. Mad Men has a Don Draper problem, because, for the first time in the series' history, it is utterly committed to the idea that Don is incapable of changing. This is not the first time a TV show has raised the idea that people can't change — in fact, HBO's The Sopranos, where Mad Men showrunner Matt Weiner cut his teeth, spent eight years making exactly that argument — but Mad Men has reached the end of Don Draper's arc with two full seasons left to go, and nothing left to say about him.
That wouldn't be a problem if the show was willing to pull its laser focus away from Don long enough to delve into its other characters. With nearly six full seasons under its belt, and one more guaranteed, Mad Men had a unique opportunity to throw out its status quo in favor of something truly unexpected. It's a critic's job to evaluate what a show is, not what it could be, but it's frustrating to think about the canvas of possibilities Mad Men left on the table. With such a rich stable of actors, the show could have veered away from Don Draper as its primary focus to explore any number of its still-evolving characters in more depth: Megan Draper, Peggy Olson, Sally Draper, or even Ted Chaough. Unfortunately, Mad Men remains obsessed with exploring Don Draper's psyche, even after there's nothing left to explore.
In season four's "The Summer Man" — the only episode in the series that has made us privy to Don Draper's inner monologue — Don delivered what I suspect is the defining message of Mad Men: "People tell you who they are, but we ignore it, because we want them to be who we want them to be." Later in the season, Don ignored his own moral by proposing to Megan, and spent the entirety of season five trying to convince himself that he had changed. Now, watch the final scenes of season five again:
What has Mad Men said about Don Draper over the past 10 episodes that isn't already clear — and infinitely more powerful — in that final five-second shot that brought the fifth season to a close? Of course fans and critics are obsessively analyzing the show, trying to parse out a twist or a deeper meaning; everything we've seen so far has been uncharacteristically straightforward. And even if one of those seemingly out-there theories turns out to be right, it won't make up for all the wheel-spinning of the sixth season's first 10 episodes.
And that's why there's a big part of me that's wholeheartedly willing to embrace one Mad Men fan theory: The theory that Don Draper will die at the end of the season. After 10 episodes, I'm convinced that Don Draper's story is over — but there's still the possibility that Mad Men could bounce back — and say something new — without him.
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