Watching the first episode of the final season of “Mad Men,” I found myself agreeing with my colleague, Washington Post television critic Hank Stuever, that the show is “as watchable as ever, and also as unsatisfying as ever, as it veers toward the helter-skelter.” But as much as the hour, titled “Time Zones” for its shifts back and forth between New York and California, mostly served to set up the action for the episodes to come, it also suggested a new way to read the show. The first season of “Mad Men” coincided with Californian Richard Nixon’s failure to win the White House, while its last begins with his inauguration. If we want to understand Matthew Weiner’s portrait of a golden age in decline, maybe we should stop trying to compare Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and his protege, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), and instead examine the trajectories of Don and Nixon.
When Richard Nixon last played a vital role in an episode of “Mad Men,” during the first season of the show, his attempts to appeal to the American public suffered by comparison to Don Draper’s, even as Nixon’s loss was a harbinger of what would prove to be Don’s declining cultural power. During “Nixon vs. Kennedy,” Sterling Cooper, Don’s agency, went to work for the Nixon campaign for free, in the hopes that a Nixon administration might bolster its business. It was a vain hope: all of the company’s cool could not overcome Nixon’s profound dorkiness.
But even as Nixon went down to defeat after an extremely long night, both for him, and for the employees of Sterling Cooper, “Mad Men” affirmed Don Draper’s astonishing ability to reinvent himself. After Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) threatened to expose Don as a deserter who had stolen another man’s identity, Don’s memories revealed just how quickly he improvised during the Korean War. Don could have faltered when an explosion killed his superior officer, rather than claiming the man’s dog tags. He could have confessed in the hospital. He could have gotten off the train and acknowledged to his family that he was not, in fact, dead. Instead, Don fully committed to the part, and his conviction carried the day in a way that Nixon could not in this particular race–the vice president was too well-known to disappear into whatever identity Sterling Cooper wanted to craft for him.
Don did have a moment of panic in “Nixon vs. Kennedy.” After he confirmed that Pete really had evidence of his deception, Don ran to his mistress, Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff) and, in what would become a pattern for him, asked her to run away with him. ”How about Los Angeles? Mexico? I have money,” Don told her, sweating and visibly discomposed. “Something happened, and I want to go, and I want you to come with me, and I don’t want to come back.” But just as Don pulled himself together in Korea, he righted himself. Here, too, he bluffed Pete, who discovered to his dismay, that his boss–much like the American voters who pulled the lever for Kennedy–was willing to accept Don for what he presented himself to be, rather than tethering Don to his old name and his old life. Nixon lost the race, but Don was able to stay secure in his job, and to go home to his gorgeous wife, asleep on the couch in front of Nixon’s concession speech.
Nine years later, Don has run off to California, sort of: While still on forced leave from Sterling Cooper Partners, he is flying back and forth between New York and Los Angeles, where his second wife, Megan (Jessica Paré), is making a go of it as an actress. But his fantasy of running away has gone sour, and Don’s failure in Nixon’s home state comes as Nixon is finally winning over the voters who rejected him in 1960.
Pete Campbell, the very man who almost chased Don out of New York in “Nixon vs. Kennedy” nine years earlier, is thriving in California, tanned and relaxed, shopping for a swinging pad, eating oranges off the tree. Don, by contrast, is disoriented. When Pete wants to know whether Megan’s house in the hills is “City or Valley?” Don literally has no idea. His prosperity is less valuable to Megan than it once was. When he buys her a massive television so she can watch her debut on NBC, Megan is uncomfortable rather than delighted. “How’s it going to look, Don?” she demands of him. “Everyone I know here is starving.” Even Don’s erotic magnetism seems to have betrayed him in California–Megan seems surprised when he proposes they have sex to celebrate her career success. Nixon may have learned not to wear his wingtips on the beach after the 1960 campaign. But Don is still wearing a hat in the Los Angeles airport, whether because he is unaware that fashions have changed or because he is unwilling or unable to let go of the image that he crafted for himself so many years ago.
And Don is not doing much better back in New York, either. The sliding door onto his balcony won’t close, making his apartment uncomfortably cold. Locked out of Sterling Cooper Partners, Don trying to stay in the game by working with Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray). And where he once skipped a party at work to watch election returns with his family, Don now shines his shoes by himself while Nixon is inaugurated.
Nixon might well be describing Don in that inaugural address when he declares: “We find ourselves rich in goods, but ragged in spirit; reaching with magnificent precision for the moon, but failing into raucous discord on earth. We are caught in war, wanting peace. We are torn by division, wanting unity. We see around us empty lives, wanting fulfillment. We see tasks that need doing, waiting for hands to do them. To a crisis of the spirit, we need an answer of the spirit.”
Don has that crisis in excess. But unlike Nixon, who changed to meet the needs of the country that was changing around him, Don’s character calcified at some point. He lacks the flexibility and emotional strength to change and grow again after remaking his life so dramatically.
Nixon’s essential character would, of course, assert itself again in the paranoia that led to the Watergate scandal. When he departed the White House, acknowledging that his presidency could not survive the disaster of his own making, the victory sign he flashed on the steps of the plane that would carry him away was every bit as mortifying as his Checkers speech. But I suspect that even if Nixon is to decay during this final, two-part season of “Mad Men,” we are unlikely to see Don Draper’s cool in full flower again. Whatever victories and defeats Nixon and Don have suffered over the past decade, they seem headed to the same destination, a sort of obsolescence from which there is no return.