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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

1968 just hasn't been Don Draper's year

His well-tailored veneer can no longer hide his pathetic failings

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REMEMBER when Don Draper was cool? When he was hot? When he had that "women want him, men want to be him" thing going on?

The more aloof and arrogant and bullying he was -- "My office, now!" -- the more we were attracted. Sure, he could be depressive, self-destructive and prone to drunken misjudgments. We excused it all by saying he's "complex."

Having built up Don Draper's status as a pop-culture icon, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner now seems wilfully intent on pulling it down. In Season 6, we see fewer flashes of Don's decency -- his sense of fairness, his hatred of hypocrisy. He keeps doing terrible things that even those dreary, sepia-toned flashbacks of his Depression-era whorehouse-childhood can't justify. Whether he's humiliating an employee or strategically undermining his wife, Don is becoming increasingly unlikable.

That's not a complete surprise. Part of Don's retrosexual appeal was that he didn't care if people liked him or not.

Much more intriguing is this new sense that he's irrelevant, fatally out-of-touch. Don's favourite cocktail, the old fashioned, used to suggest vintage cool. Suddenly it seems, well, old-fashioned.

In the pre-Sopranos era, a successful TV show could more or less repeat its winning formula season after season. In these days of long-form television, audiences expect novelistic arcs. Mad Men seems to be ardently embracing a narrative of decline. Forget life-altering epiphanies. Don is moving in an ever-tightening death spiral.

This downbeat direction is reflected in the show's look and mood. Mad Men initially grabbed its audiences with the seductive surfaces of the early '60s. Everyone looked swell. Everyone was smoking their heads off and drinking in the afternoon. Now we're journeying toward bell bottoms and sideburns and Altamont. Face it: These last two seasons aren't going to be pretty.

And they seem to be particularly unpretty for Don. Ever since we hit 1968, we've seen seismic social shifts that Don just doesn't get.

Ted Chaough, initially a younger rival and now a partner, is hands-on and non-hierarchical. He likes "rap sessions" where "there are no wrong answers."

Ted can't hold his liquor, and physically he resembles a big crazy bird. But when Don and Ted head out in a small plane to meet an upstate client, Ted is the confident, in-control pilot, while Don is the passenger, pale and sweating.

Don's new fallibility has spread to his work, where his creative genius -- previously talked about in hushed, almost religious tones by awed clients and co-workers -- now seems open to parody. In the episode officially titled The Crash (but more commonly known as the "What the Hell Was That?" episode), the firm brings in a dubious Dr. Feelgood to get the employees hepped up on speed so they can work on a new Chevy campaign.

A delusionally confident Don is certain he's on the edge of a Big Idea, but in a reversal of the usual dramatic reveal, the work is exposed in the sober light of Monday morning as drug-addled gibberish. As Ted points out, some of the pitches don't even spell "Chevy" right.

Likewise, Don's loony S&M subplot with Sylvia can be read as a parody of his earlier, sexier forays into kink.

In their hotel scenes, Don exhibits a level of desperate self-seriousness that makes the dialogue weirdly hilarious. When he says, "You exist in this room for my pleasure" with a straight face, he seems to be anticipating the overwrought prose of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Don still has the sharp tailoring, but he's starting to look like an empty suit, increasingly stricken and tired, confused and clammy. Any Sunday now, we can expect to see a roll of neck fat spilling over his collar, as Mad Men's punitive prosthetics department -- which has already gone after Peggy, Betty and Carlton, the philandering neighbour -- gets its hands on Don.

Weiner sometimes accuses the Monday morning TV analysts of reading too much into things, and certainly Don still exists as a complicated, deeply damaged guy rather than just a symbol of "the end of men" or "the death of the American dream." But it's undeniable that the show that created such a persuasive pop-culture image, such a walking, talking, smoking embodiment of the old-school alpha male, now seems to be telling us -- insistently -- that this model is untenable.

Or maybe Mad Men has always been telling us this. Maybe we were just so busy hoping Don Draper would light our cigarette that we couldn't be bothered to listen.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 1, 2013 D12

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