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A Slumping Mad Men Heads to Its Season Finale

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One of the greatest TV series of all time has just one episode to go in its divisive sixth season, and just one season left after that in this epic novel for television.

Viewership for the latest Mad Men episode, The Quality of Mercy, dropped again. It was the lowest viewership for a season penultimate episode since 2009.

The show I praised to the skies not long ago -- here's an archive of my pieces on the show, in The Mad Men File -- its record-tying Emmy Award-winning streak as television's best drama receding, has spent much of this season stuck in the stasis of the melodramatic existential crisis and ever impending yet never occurring demise of its anti-hero protagonist, Don Draper. Some episodes have been somewhat painful to watch, though the latest was quite entertaining.

Beware of spoilers, as always.

It's October 1968. Don Draper, a Richard Nixon backer when we met him in 1960 and now an opponent of the Vietnam War, wordlessly watches a scarifying Nixon for President ad. "This time vote as if your life depends on it - because it does." For their part, Peggy Olson and Ted Chaough have conjured up an ad for children's aspirin based on the hit horror movie, Rosemary's Baby.

Strange days have found us.

Sally Draper, badly hurt by walking in on her father with the neighbor lady, wants to run away. Not to Woodstock, as so many have imagined, though that's still 10 months off so it's still not impossible, but to Miss Porter's, Jackie Kennedy's old chi-chi boarding school. Which naturally turns out to be a seething den of mean girl intrigue.

Peggy has come a long way, baby, since her days as Draper's secretary. As the old ad slogan appropriating an emerging feminism to sell cigarettes had it. Speaking of which ... What happened to that product??!!

We saw Peggy, having left the Sterling Coo nest at the end of the last season, seemingly about to take on this product in a big boost to her career. That intriguing storyline certainly disappeared.

Still, she is the ad maven she wanted to be.

The episode was enjoyable, but the show again plays games with the plot ... Ted and Peggy are now flirting shamelessly in public! Uh, since when? What happened to change the situation?

It turns out the Bob Benson is a life twin of sorts of Don Draper, a completely invented persona. That's the big reveal here, though the show gets caught up once again in the latest spiraling Don bit. As a reveal, the twin trope is a bit glib -- BB, DD, now I get it -- but it's interesting, almost as much for Pete's very different reaction from Season 1 as anything else. He decides to turn Bob into an asset, within defined limits, rather than attack him as he so fruitlessly did with Draper. Not that Draper didn't turn into an ally and benefactor of Pete's in the end.

In his commentary on the episode, Mad Men creator Matt Weiner says that Pete has realized that he can't beat Bob. Which certainly isn't Bob's impression. But Pete was in the meeting in which it was made clear to him that if he wouldn't work with Bob on Chevy -- taking over for the shot-in-the-face Ken Cosgrove, a development given short shrift, they'd damn well find someone who would. So Bob is at a different point in the character arc than Don was in Season 1.

At least the Bob story element is somewhat new. Or, more accurately, cleverly recycled old story element.

The rest is getting a bit repetitive. Weiner has got to come up with more than just moving the characters forward in time doing the same things.

Some have noted that Weiner may be mirroring developments in the last few seasons of another he was a writer/producer on, The Sopranos. The folks who did that landmark show reportedly became concerned that mob boss Tony Soprano had become too sympathetic a character.

I didn't think much of the last couple seasons of The Sopranos. I used to love the show, but haven't though to even look at it since the finale.

Of course, there are very important differences between Draper and Soprano. Tony Soprano was a mob boss who did all sorts of very evil things, among the least of which was killing his goofball nephew.

Don Draper is an ad man who had his tweener daughter walk in on him with his ex (?) mistress and embarrassed his protege in a meeting, without actually letting on to those who did not already know precisely what the nature of the embarrassment was. (Ted's infatuation with Peggy and desire for her to win a Clio led to huge cost overruns on the kids' aspirin ad, which might have led to a serious problem with the client. Draper saves the day, and embarrasses Ted and Peggy in the process without anyone else the wiser about the nature of the embarrassment. Not that Don didn't hold the moment over Ted and Peggy much longer than he had to in order to make his nasty private point.)

Is Don an asshole? Sure. He has been through much of the series since the pilot, when we met him scheming about how to get around health warnings about cigarettes. A "monster," as Peggy calls him at the end of the episode? Not if the word means anything.

The tromp of doom aura around the Draper character is getting repetitive almost to the point of parody, given the relatively lightweight setting of the show.

Don embarrasses colleagues in meeting about selling children's aspirin. Not that the client, who ends up satisfied, has any idea what he's getting at. Clearly, an act of monstrous aggression on par with death penalty crimes.

Watching Weiner's commentary every week is revealing in his lack of esteem for his lead character. Weiner himself may have turned on his character, or is playing a game with the big swath of the audience that actually dislikes Don, in the recurring and ultimately static negativity he focuses on him.

In fact, he may have tipped his hand with the latest commentary.

Weiner starts off the latest commentary by saying Don is wracked with guilt, etc., and by the end of the episode he's lost both his daughters.

Then towards the end of his commentary, Weiner says something that may unconsciously tip his hand: "As Peggy said, he won't stop kicking until he's dead."

What? When did Peggy say that?

Did Weiner just set up another parallel with Tony Soprano? It does seem increasingly clear that good old Tony didn't shuffle off to a nice vacation in the Florida Keys after the abrupt end to series finale of The Sopranos.

One bit of unalloyed good news is that, despite one of the many wacky theories that has developed as part of the Lost-ing of Mad Men, Megan Draper will not die. At least not this season.

One more episode, In Care Of, to go in this still intriguing Mad Men season.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.

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