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Mad Men Is Ruining My Faith In Love
There's one thing Don Draper can't sell me on.
by Jeremy Popkin
A lot of people are saying that the fifth season of Mad Men (which just ended last night) has been its bleakest yet. For a show where every character constantly seems on the verge of collapsing into their own Sylvia Plath poem, that’s impressive. Along with countless harbingers of doom (empty elevator shafts, etc), this season has seen decaying marriages, prostitution, and even suicide.
And while that’s all been dramatically satisfying — give or take a Fat Betty or two — it’s also been emotionally exhausting. After five years of watching our heroes try to fill the vast emptiness in their lives through flings with secretaries, strangers at movie theaters, and former Gilmore Girls, I’m ready to call it: Mad Men has officially made me terrified of ever falling in love again.
Now, I don't have much in common with Don Draper; in a highly accurate "Which Mad Men character are you?" quiz, I'm probably Peggy’s neurotic Jewish boyfriend, at best. And I know I shouldn’t be shaping my view of relationships with a television series whose characters treat adultery with the same moral gravity as jaywalking. But after this latest season, I’ve found myself succumbing to the show’s cynical worldview.
Mad Men's skepticism about love is complex. Don Draper has sometimes claimed that love was invented to sell nylons, but that’s a glib argument that's not so hard to counter. No, Mad Men's assault on love has been far more methodical. It's put its characters through an endless ringer of unsatisfying relationships and flings. While I can cite any number of broken marriages from the show this year — the LSD-fueled dissolution of Roger and Jane, Pete’s inexplicable inability to find satisfaction in the beautiful blue eyes of Alison Brie — the one that’s made me lose all hope has been Don’s volatile relationship with Megan. What ended last season as the desperate act of a seemingly on-the-mend Don and began this season as a sexy karaoke number with barely suppressed BDSM overtones has, over the course of the last thirteen episodes, come to represent the futility with which Mad Men treats all romance. Lane Pryce swinging from his office door may have been shocking, but the biggest death this season has been the drawn out rot and decay of Don and Megan’s relationship.
Don’s decision to choose Megan over the seemingly more sensible Dr. Faye Miller was infuriating at first. But the more we learned about Megan, the more we actually bought into that idea that Don had finally found someone that was right for him. Megan had her own aspirations. She was a capable and independent woman. She was able to handle Sally spilling a milkshake without threatening to cut her fingers off.
And for however rash their engagement may have seemed, Don was open with her in ways we had never seen him be with Betty. He may have been disengaged in his professional life, but in the first few episodes of this season, we saw Don happy in a way he had only ever been when visiting Anna Draper in California. Don and Megan seemed to have as close to a functional relationship as anyone on this show is capable of.
That, in hindsight, should have been the biggest red flag that their marriage was doomed, even more than the premiere’s uncomfortable round of post-birthday-party violent sex. The worst thing that can happen to a character on Mad Men is finally getting what they want. As Don himself says, "Happiness is a moment before you need more happiness," and anybody who gets their hands on that one thing they’ve desired the most discovers how little it actually helps to patch over the inexplicable void at their core. No matter how much you have, your eyes will always be wandering for something more. That constant pursuit of "happiness" is the foundation of all consumerism, but the way Mad Men extends the same concept to love is chilling and all-too-believable.
The gradual end of Don and Megan’s infatuation period was inevitable, but that didn't make it any less painful to watch. Diverging agendas and an undeniable generation gap widened the wedge until Don and Megan started to look a lot like Don and Betty. But everything you really needed to know about their relationship came in that argument at the Howard Johnson's. It’s the argument that comes at a certain point in any relationship. Everybody has experienced that moment when an innocuous disagreement over a bowl of orange sherbet turns into you reminding your partner that their mother was a prostitute. Even in my relatively short love life, I’ve seen a joke about my girlfriend cheating at Words with Friends turn into a bitter discussion about my failures as a boyfriend.