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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.

As Don himself says, "Happiness is a moment before you need more happiness."

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.

Commentarium (12 Comments)

Jun 12 12 - 12:27pm

Yeah, this season was brutal. I was ready to hate Megan, ended up thinking she was great, and then they twisted around and ruined that too. BRUTAL.

Jun 12 12 - 12:54pm
mr. man

i've only watched a few episodes of the show and was unable to find any significant hope in the characters and gave it up. the emotional black hole is hard to handle if there isn't some light to counter it. some uncynical aspects. i have been very cynical about relationships but i know some people who have genuinely found a satisfying partnership that enhances each of their lives. that's still gotta be the ideal. if i wanna find love i probably have to change.

Jun 12 12 - 6:48pm

It was a brilliant season and a very good article too - well in.

Jun 12 12 - 7:19pm
Tim Hein

I always find Mad Men a balance between the myth and the reality of modern life. We can't complain when reality slips through:

Jun 13 12 - 1:49am

good article. mad men is my favorite tv show and is basically the only reason why i turn on the television but it has kind of fucked me up.

Jun 13 12 - 3:47pm

Nicely put. Well written. But I disagree.

When you find someone you really love, I think, compromises don't seem like they're chipping away from what was originally there. Instead, they feel like they're building the foundation stronger. I'm ultimately happy to make a compromise for my partner because it shows my love and I know it makes me a better person.

I feel like this especially since the fights I have with my significant other are usually dumb and never deep. If you're having these deep-rooted arguments about trust and lies and your ability to be a good boyfriend, well then you haven't found someone that suits you perfectly just yet.

Chin up.

Jun 13 12 - 10:42pm

Don and Megan have a passionate relationship and truly care for and about each other. I'm sorry you don't see it. Just because they had an escalating and increasingly ugly fight a while ago doesn't mean their marriage is doomed or their love is a failure. What we have seen is an evolution, as Megan asserts herself more and Don comes to terms with having a partner who is vocal and passionate.

Jun 14 12 - 11:00am

So that's what Don was doing in that bar with the two random women.

Jun 14 12 - 1:25pm

Uh, he was in a bar. The scene ended before he could respond. We have no idea WHAT he is going to do, and it's very possible that he'll decline the offer.

Jun 18 12 - 3:10am

I think the framing of the scene prior; Megan as a fairy princess, secluded in an island of light, as Don walks away into the ever expanding darkness was pretty fucking telling. More so than the little Draper-ish eyebrow quirk; that was his response. Don Draper is BACK. The old Don, the one we thought was gone, and he is not faithful to his wife.

People forget; Betty was a woman of education and ambitions (studied anthro, knew Italian, was a model) before she married Don too.

Jun 18 12 - 7:48pm

The new new Don may be unfaithful to his wife -- that remains to be seen -- but he will not be the old Don. One thing Mad Men does that many other shows don't do is that it allows its characters to evolve. Today's Peggy is not yesterday's Peggy and tomorrow's Don will not be yesterday's Don.

Jun 14 12 - 6:44pm

I liked this piece a lot. Thanks for writing it. When I reflect on the various characters in the show, I have to point out that it is mostly the men who become dissatisfied in their relationships and not so much the women. Is this Weiner's period-true way of describing who held the power in this era? Perhaps. The women, by and large, seem more focused on long-term happiness than short. Would you agree?

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