It felt as if the whole season, even the entire series, was leading up to that terrible moment.
Two weeks ago on “Mad Men,” Sally Draper caught her father making love to his neighbor Sylvia. Sally looked through a doorway — because, along with elevators, doorways are an obsessive motif this season — and there was her compound Freudian nightmare, framed. It was like the scenes we’ve seen of Don’s own childhood, when he lived in a whorehouse and stood spying outside doors, lost and alone.
In that moment, Don seemed to be passing his afflictions onto his daughter, robbing Sally of the innocence and trust that he’d never had. Nothing changes with Don Draper, as his selfish needs persist no matter how many lessons he’s learned, or how many lives he’s singed; and now we have to wonder if he is extending his moral and emotional stagnation into the next generation. Ironically, all of Don’s character stasis, all of his reckless wheel-spinning, is taking place in the “era of change,” the 1960s, in the middle of historic shifts in lifestyles and mores.
Will Don Draper ever change? As season 6 wraps up on Sunday night, leaving Matthew Weiner’s drama with only one more season, the question is still beating loudly at the heart of “Mad Men.” Will this man, whose psyche we’ve been excavating since 2007, who started and ended the last episode in the fetal position, ever stop letting his shame-filled childhood dictate his adulthood? Will his almost mystical desire to be empowered like Dr. Arnold Rosen — to be Dr. Arnold Rosen — lead him to take some kind of forward step?
Almost every in-depth conversation I’ve had about the show circles around this core issue — will he or won’t he. Each time Don has been chastened or hurt — by Sylvia, when she broke up with him, say, or by Anna when she died — he appears ready to atone and remake himself. At those moments, it looks as though “Mad Men” is going to be a portrait of a man with identity issues slowly pulling himself together and forward. His stoned leap into the Hollywood pool this season — like “the jumping off point” of his Hawaii ad — promised to trigger some kind of rebirth. But then Don always slips back into bad behavior, ignoring his marriage and his family to fill the breach in his soul. Weiner highlighted the question of Don’s growth as a cliffhanger at the end of last season, when Don, disappointed by Megan because she’d left advertising for acting, sat at a bar and a woman asked him, “Are you alone?”
“Mad Men” isn’t the only series that pivots on its hero’s ability to change. As TV dramas dig deeper and deeper into the twisty problems of men and women (but mostly men), particularly on cable, we eventually begin to anticipate some kind of personal evolution, some kind of dramatic arc. On lighter shows, it doesn’t matter nearly as much — so what if Joey on “Friends” becomes less of a dumdum? But on dramas, particularly those built around one central character such as “Dexter,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Nurse Jackie,” “The Shield,” “Breaking Bad,” “Enlightened,” and “The Sopranos,” the potential for the hero’s or antihero’s progress is the primary underlying uncertainty.
Throughout “The Sopranos,” many viewers, along with Dr. Jennifer Melfi and Carmela Soprano, wondered if Tony would ever change. He was undergoing fierce midlife turmoil, complete with panic attacks, and he’d put himself into therapy. Was there a conscience underneath all those buried bodies? Show creator David Chase seemed to be teasing us with the possibility of a latent moral awareness hiding somewhere inside Tony, with the fantasy that Tony would redeem himself and take his family into Witness Protection. When Dr. Melfi’s therapist told her near the end of the series that therapy might only be validating Tony’s sociopathy, she was blindsided: “What are you saying? My whole work with Tony Soprano, all these years, it’s all been a waste of time?”
But Tony did not change — that was a major point of the show. Chase eschewed the more conventional story arc of growth, leaving Tony stuck in place, an unmovable boulder. “Life is change, how it differs from the rocks,” as the Jefferson Airplane (via novelist John Wyndham) sang, but not for Tony. If we had hopes for him, they were in vain.
“Breaking Bad,” on the other hand, has already revealed its identity as a story of change — massive change. The show, which returns for its final eight episodes on Aug. 11, has chronicled with great intimacy the metamorphosis of Walter White. Of course, he has developed from a gentle man into a power-hungry villain — he has become evil or just become himself more fully, as some might say. But his story is one of transformation, even if he’s driving in reverse. Show creator Vince Gilligan has given us Walt’s journey in painfully incremental stages, so that the depth of his conversion is undeniable. He has surpassed many of the bad people around him, most of all Jesse, who has grown along more socially acceptable lines and become more humane.
Will Don Draper be another Tony Soprano — not a sociopath, perhaps, but a person for whom our hopes are futile? Will Weiner, who was a writer-producer on “The Sopranos,” ultimately make his show into the claustrophobic study of a man who is permanently wedged in between hunger and emptiness? “You’re a monster,” Peggy told Don last week, after he gave credit for her ad campaign to a dead man. And she was so right, at least for now.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.