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“Not Great, Bob!” Josh Reviews Mad Men Season 6

August 28th, 2013
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Yes, I know the sixth season of Mad Men wrapped up a few months ago already, but it’s taken me a little while to catch up with this, the penultimate season of the show.  What a fantastic season of television.

I have written before that I enjoyed Mad Men from the beginning, and always respected the hell out of it as a tremendously well-crafted show, but it wasn’t until around the fourth season when I really fell in love with the show.  The characters were all a little too unlikable, a little too off-putting for me at first.  But somewhere along the way I found myself growing quite attached to all of the flawed, selfish, insensitive bastards at Sterling Cooper (and then Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and then SCDPCGC…).  And now I can’t get enough of watching these oh-so-human characters, and I am saddened that we only have one more season to spend with them.  (Matthew Weiner has stated repeatedly in interviews that season seven will be the show’s last.)

Season six was a hell of a season. First and foremost, the stories this year fulfilled the promise of the closing shot of season five, in which it looked like Don Draper was up to his old tricks again.  Indeed he was, spending much of this season involved in a new affair — with his downstairs neighbor, no less!  Linda Cardellini (Freaks and Geeks’ Lindsay Weir, all grown up!!) was a tremendous addition to the Mad Men ensemble as Sylvia Rosen, Don’s new mistress.  Finally here was a woman who could say no to Don Draper.  Seeing Don get dumped (in “Man With a Plan”) was a first for the series, a great moment in a season filled with great moments.

The standout event of the season was, of course, the shocking merger of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce with their competitors Cutler Gleason and Chaough in the middle of the season (in the final moments of “For Immediate Release”).  Suddenly everything I thought the season was going to be about, and where I thought the stories were headed, changed completely.  I adored that plot-twist, and it gave a terrific narrative thrust to the back half of the season as we got to watch the chaos that seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time merger unleashed.

There were some great new characters this year.  I already mentioned Linda Cardellini’s terrific work as Sylvia Rosen, and I also loved seeing the always-great Brian Markinson in a terrific role as her brilliant but cuckolded surgeon husband, Dr. Arnold Rosen.  Mr. Markinson’s scenes with Jon Hamm’s Don Draper really crackled.  I was also terrifically impressed by Harry Hamlin’s great work as Jim Cutler, the Roger Sterling of Cutler, Gleason and Chaough.  At first, the show drew some laughs about all the ways in which Jim Cutler and Roger Sterling were almost exactly the same.  But I appreciated how, in the later episodes of the season, we were able to see Cutler becoming more of a fully-formed character.  (His confrontation with Ginsberg in the creative lounge in “A Tale of Two Cities” is a terrific scene.)

Speaking of characters who developed over the course of the season: Bob Benson.  What a fun, enigmatic new character!  Bob started out at the beginning of the season as a background player, but gained in prominence with each passing episode.  It’s been a while since Mad Men has had a strong mystery (the way the first season posed questions about Don Draper), and so it was fascinating to learn, in the season’s final episodes, that Bob Benson essentially IS Don Draper.  I still have questions — what exactly is going on between Bob and Joan?  Is Bob really gay?  What the heck happened between Manolo and Pete’s mom on that ship??? — and hope we get a little more insight into Bob’s past, and his plans for the future, in the final season.

But my favorite addition to the Mad Men ensemble was Kevin Rahm as Ted Chaough.  Ted actually first appeared back in season 4 (in “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” dueling with Don over the Honda motorcycle account), but it was only here in season six that we started to get to know Ted as a real character.  By the end of the season, Ted was one of the most central characters in the story.  (After the decision he makes in the season finale, I wonder if we will see him again in season seven.  I hope so!)  It was great seeing Peggy get to bond with a tough but fair boss, in contrast to the cruel, unpredictable Don Draper, and I loved seeing the connection that Ted and Peggy formed as the season progressed.  Meanwhile, Ted’s continuing rivalry with Don made for compelling story-telling.  It was great to see Don finally be truly challenged, creatively, within his own agency.  Ted was far from a saint, but it was interesting for me the way that, through much of season six, I found myself rooting for Ted and against Don Draper, the main character of the show.

(By the way, when Ted’s illustrator friend Frank Gleason died, was I the only one hoping to see the return of Sal Romano??)

I’ve spent a while now focusing on the new characters, which is not to say that the returning Mad Men characters didn’t also have a lot of great development throughout season six!  I’m not even sure where to begin!

Pete continued to be the scoundrel I loved to hate.  It was a huge moment when finally, FINALLY, Trudy called him on all of his bullshit.  Oh what a spectacular scene that was in “Collaborators.”  Talk about a moment that was long-in-coming.  And there was lots more fun coming for Pete later in the season, whether it was the sight of him tumbling down the office steps in “For Immediate Release” or Vincent Kartheiser’s masterful delivery of “Not great, Bob!” (which I just had to use for the title of this blog post) when Bob Benson asks him how things are going in the season finale.  There were even a few moments when I actually sort of LIKED that scum-bag Pete Campbell, like the scene when a slightly tipsy Pete and Peggy are giggling together at dinner with Ted in “Favors.”  But then we see Pete being horrible to his mother in the middle of the office, and I remember why I hate him all over again.  I can’t believe what a great character Pete has turned into.

Roger Sterling got the most time in the spotlight in the season premiere, “Doorways,” when we see him reacting to the death of his mother.  I love the unflappable Roger who has a joke for every occasion (his “we’re sorry your last girlfriend hurt you” line to Carnation execs, which saves an awkward pitch meeting in “A Tale of Two Cities,” is Roger at his best), but it was also fascinating to see Roger at somewhat of a loss, struggling to come to terms with his feelings of disconnection from his family.

Michael Ginsberg got a little less screen-time this year than in season five, but he still had some great scenes.  It was the other face in the creative bullpen, Stan, who I really grew to love this year.  I adore the way his relationship with Peggy has developed.  I’d love to see those two start their own ad agency together.  (Or just get married and ride off into the sunset.)

We didn’t get to spend too much time with Ken Cosgrove (possibly my favorite character on the show) or Harry Crane.  (Though we did get to see a drug-addled Ken dance a crazy jig in “A Tale of Two Cities”!)  I hope those two guys — who were there from the beginning of season one — get a little more face-time in the final season next year.

I liked where Joan was this season — happy at home with her son and in a confident position of authority in the agency.  It was nice seeing her get a “win” in the office (with an assist from Peggy) when she took control of the Avon account in “A Tale of Two Cities,” and it was also nice to see her having an apparently happy Thanksgiving meal with two men, Bob Benson (possible new fling?) and Roger Sterling (her former flame), in the season finale.  I don’t trust Bob, though, and worry about where his friendship/relationship with Joan is going…

I feel like the show hasn’t quite known what to do with Betty Draper following her divorce from Don, so I was pleasantly surprised to see Betty get some great moments in the last few episodes of the season.  I loved the whole story at Bobby’s summer camp in “The Better Half.”  It was nice to see a happy, confident (and blond!) Betty again — it had been a long time!  And her post-coital summary of Don Draper was powerful in its succinct analysis of his persona: “I’m thinking about how different you are, before and after.”

Thinking about Betty Draper of course brings me to young Sally Draper.  Poor Sally continues to suffer in season six.  I talked above about how amazing it was to watch the long-in-coming scene in which Trudy finally dumped Pete.  Well, equally long-in-coming was Don Draper finally getting busted in the act, when Sally walks in on him and Sylvia having sex in “Favors.”  The effects of that moment reverberated throughout the final few episodes of the season, and I expect will continue reverberating through season seven as well.  The closing scene of the season finale, in which Don finally decides to share something of his past with Sally (a response, likely, to her comment in “The Crash” that she didn’t know anything about him), hints at a possible reconciliation between father and daughter.  I am interested to see where that goes.

I have just scratched the surface of all of the great moments of Mad Men season six.  Peggy and Abe’s astounding inside-an-ambulance break-up!  (“Your activities are offensive to my every waking moment.”)  Duck Phillips returns — and finally seems to get an edge over Don Draper in the season finale!  Burt Peterson returns to Sterling Cooper — only to get fired by Roger for a second time!  Joan puts on a hysterical “Jewish mother” voice in a commercial pitch!

What a rich, robust season of television.  Mad Men season six was incredibly funny at times, and incredibly painful to watch at others.  With an ensemble of powerhouse actors and a narrative that remains fresh and exciting even in its sixth year, this is a show that is at the top of its game.  I am excited for the final season next year.  If Matthew Weiner and co. can stick the landing, Mad Men could stand as one of the finest television shows of the past several decades.

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