someone's got to die
Last night's Mad Men (season six, episode eight: 'The Crash') depicts what has to be the most despicable conduct seen so far on the series. After Frank Gleason's funeral, his CGC partner Jim Cutler brings Frank's teenaged daughter Wendy to the agency's offices where she gets fucked by a drug-addled adult male predator in the person of Stan Rizzo while Cutler watches through an open door. Although we may not meet Wendy again, I think it's safe to imagine that her combination of bright-eyed mysticism, hippie-seer vision, and misplaced trust in the men around her will probably not lead anywhere good.
There's a creepy symmetry to the episode in that we see not one but two vulnerable, fatherless teenagers get fucked by adults, the other one being someone we know doesn't turn out well: Dick Whitman, in flashback at the whorehouse where he lived with his step-mother. In one of the many lines reverberating between the 1960s and the 1930s, Don ends the episode barking to Ted and Jim: 'Everytime we get a car this place turns into a whorehouse.' In the visual echo across the decades we learn what Sylvia Rosen and Aimée have in common: an identical mole on the cheek. Young Dick's first encounter yields a savage wooden-spoon beating from his step-mother and her even more brutal verbal assault: 'You're trash! You know that you are!' While perhaps too obviously a developmentally-damaging first sex experience, the scene resonates with several others we've seen recently of children in peril.
The two most recurrent themes in season six have been death and abandoned children. In the season premiere we met Sandy whose parent (I thought it was her father, but Wikipedia says her mother and the AMC website doesn't say) has recently died and who vanishes without a trace after selling her violin to the lost boys of Saint Marks Place, who defiantly tell Betty they are the trash of a society that has abandoned them. The Draper children—Sally, Bobby, and Eugene—faced a more immediate peril this week in being abandoned by the adults at their father's Park Avenue flat on a night when a thief visits. (Here we must pause to note that the most lines ever by a black person on Mad Men were spoken by an actress playing a criminal. After the show reduced Martin Luther King's murder to a night of white fears of black riots, I no longer find it possible to defend the show against accusations of racism.)
Where is all of this leading? It may lead nowhere. One thing Matthew Weiner learned from his apprenticeship on The Sopranos is the lesson of open-endedness and non-closure. I could be wildly wrong—time will tell between now and the June 23 season finale—but I feel like we are waiting for another death, one that will rattle Don Draper. All the death this season—vomitting at a funeral notwithstanding—has left him untouched: Roger's mother, Giorgio the shoeshine guy, MLK, RFK, Frank Gleason.
Don hates death like no character on television since Nate Fisher of Six Feet Under. All season long I've been seeing, or perhaps imagining, connections between Don and Nate. Nate told us who he was in the pilot: a thirty-five-year-old who'd never had a relationship and who fled his family because he was haunted by death. He was an asshole, but Peter Krause, the actor who played him, often made us forget that and made us love him instead. As the series progressed, it became harder to overlook his selfishness, his narcissism, and the pain he inflicted on those around him. The same could be said of Don Draper: he's no worse now than he was in 1960, but the show's audience is definitely starting to turn against him. If you've seen all of Six Feet Under, you know how Nate treated his pregnant wife at the end. (And you'd also know that both characters had fortieth-birthday parties that went eerily wrong.) With Mad Men's season-premiere miscarriage—an event that occurs in SFU's final season premiere, too—and the unequivocal indication that Don's crucifix-clad mistress Sylvia opposes abortion, I thought we might see Don pull a Nate Fisher and do some version of what he did.
I had also started to imagine we might see something that has almost never happened on a television series—the death of the leading man, a dream shared by Matt Zoller Seitz on Twitter before last night's episode:
It would be kind of awesome if MAD MEN killed off Don Draper tonight and everybody had to just deal.Someone else has to die this season; the question is who. The safe money is on Private Dinkins, whose lighter followed Don from Hawaii and later levitated out of the trash. News of his demise in Vietnam might hit Don hard, however briefly. I can imagine him watching Dinkins's wedding slides again on his Kodak Carousel. My money is on someone whose death would hit Don way harder: one of his kids, probably Sally. If she were to die right now, her last words to him would be: 'And then I realized I don't know anything about you.' In their telephone chat the morning after the crime, he neglected to say, 'I love you,' despite his recent observation in the MLK episode that he was surprised to find he loved his kids.
— Matt Zoller Seitz (@mattzollerseitz) May 20, 2013
Aside from The Ice Storm, another tale of self-absorbed, negligent parents, children usually don't die in fiction. It's too painful. Yet the one event that would unite this season's two main themes—not that they have to be united per se—would be for Don to lose a kid, particularly if her death were brought on by his own actions. The season began with a miscarriage for Megan and Don. Perhaps it ends with the death of a child. Then we may finally get to see fulfilled the prophecy of the opening credits: Don in freefall out his office window past images of happy families.