(I missed the last two episodes of Mad Men while away on vacation, so I’m a little late to writing about this. If you’re further behind me, you may want to stop reading now — that is, if you’re the type of viewer who tries to avoid anything and everything.)
I’ve noticed a lot of people have come to hate the flashbacks on Mad Men. While I never agreed with those critics, I certainly understood their criticism, and imagined myself eventually agreeing with them. In short, they argued that in addition to becoming boring and/or repetitive, Don’s flashbacks were also unfair. We didn’t receive this access to any other character, they argued.
I suppose the main reason I never came around to this side was that I never found such flashbacks boring. I liked the way each season seemed to focus on one particular time in Don’s young life: it was realistic to me that he’d dwell on different moments at different times in his life. This show isn’t Lost, after all. But I certainly couldn’t argue much with the idea that we had unfair access to Don. The best reason I could come up with was, “He’s the main character!” But that’s not a very interesting blog post, and hypocritical coming from someone who tends to think of Peggy and Sally and Pete as Don’s equals in terms of importance to the story Mad Men is telling.
But the concluding episodes of season six were a good reminder of why we have access to Don and no one else: Don’s a liar. Sure, everyone on Mad Men has told a lie at some point (many, really), but no one else is so fundamentally untrustworthy when it comes to the story of his life. Well, except for Bob Benson, but I suspect we all agree that a new character doesn’t enter a story and have the structure re-built to incorporate him. Bob, as we now know, is a part of Pete’s story. We don’t have access to Pete’s memories because we’ve learned we can trust what we hear about Pete’s life story. Viewers don’t need flashbacks when they can trust what they learn from conversation and context.
Don’s flashbacks, then, became not just ways to learn about his past, but ways to learn about his future. Indeed, they literally burst out of him in the final episode, prompting him to punch a minister and tell a true story during an ad pitch to Hershey’s. What’s so exciting about these moments — and the final one, when Don brings his children to his childhood home — is how they reflect both a potential change in character and storytelling. Will season 7 have any flashbacks? I imagine it won’t, at least so far as Don continues down this more honest path he’s struck out on. The character is in control, rendering access to memories necessary or unnecessary.