Tuesday, April 28, 2015

In Which I Review Mad Men (7x11)

And that, ladies and gentleman, is the end of Donald Draper. Alright, that might be a bit of a bold statement to make out of the gates since Don is still very much alive at the end of this week's episode, "Time and Life." Or rather, his body is still breathing, moving, talking, and showing all the normal signs of life. The essence of Donald Draper is dead, however. It got swallowed up by the hellish machine known as McCann/Erikson and there was nothing Don, advertising god, could do about it. Once upon a time, Don could start over and build something with his own two hands; now, Don can't even get a room full of secretaries to listen to him. Very steadily over this last half of the season, we've been watching Don lose those carefully constructed cards that made him the man of mystery and allure we loved (hated?) for so long. The rotting and dead core that is Don Draper is finally surfacing and everyone around him can see that he's a sad and morose guy who ultimately has no character because he's devoid of any meaning--just like the ads he writes. Is there anything left for Don Draper? Sex appeal, mystery, job, wife, and even to some degree Sally, have left him. Don jokingly tells Roger this week, "What's in a name?" as if he now understands that even his name is getting him nowhere, and of course the irony in that is clear: his name isn't even his own. Grab something depressing because while this was a stellar episode, it was very sad. 

For all its complex subtly and carefully layered meanings, sometimes Mad Men gives you episode as clear cut and in your face obvious as any other TV show. This was such an episode. Not that there weren't layers and symbols and carefully constructed narratives (most of which harkened back to previous episodes, the season two finale with Pete and Peggy and more readily seen, the incredible, TV defining season three finale, 'Shut the Door. Have a Seat') but, rather, that the surface reading isn't carefully belying anything deeper. It really is crystal clear: what happens to SC&P in this episode has happened before, but this time around, there is no saving themselves or the company. They can't start over. Again. There is no time, there is no drive, there is no desire or fierce hunger to match the time, drive, and desire and hunger of season three when Donald Draper, still an advertising god, waltzed into Bert Cooper's office and demanded his chance to build something of value with his own two hands. This time, it's the same scenario but you can't get past the beginning. This entire season began with one question: do you have time to change your life? The answer seemed to be, at the end of the first half, yes you can if only you remember that the best things in life are free and love can come to anyone. But the second half takes Mad Men's ultimate thesis--people do not fundamentally change--and has our main characters go through plot lines that they've gone through before to show that they cannot change, and by virtue of not changing, the outcome is different. This time, Don is going to lose. This bit of the story needs some plot so a basic rundown is in order: McCann/Erikson, the giant machine that turns out advertising like it's a science and not an art, has officially swallowed up SC&P. McCann/Erikson played dirty, waited long enough to make SC&P think they were in the clear and then struck the company we love and never afforded them the chance to try and get out of it. Don, Roger, Pete, Joan (sound familiar? It's very season three finale) and Ted tried their hardest to pitch a new idea--going out west and being left alone out there with a few select clients but Jim Hobart at McCann didn't even let Don finish his pitch (symbolic!).

The real meat of the episode, I think, comes during the meeting at McCann. Welcome to advertising Hell, though the devil in the red tie (Jim Hobart himself) will tell you that you're going to advertising paradise. I love how this was constructed. The SC&P heroes walk into an ad agency (yes, that's a pun on a season three episode title) and they think can take on Goliath. They might be smaller but they are not without friends. And, they've got Don, advertising god. The man who can lay down some seriously profound advertising on you that will make you weep. The man who came up with the Carousel. That's Don Draper. He'll put these giants in their place. Except, it doesn't work. Don isn't even allowed to get through his pitch, to do the very thing that defines Don Draper, before Hobart, our Satan figure, interrupts and tells Don to take a seat. That should be your clue. It isn't going to work. What follows next reads like the literal devil laying out a banquet of treats for you, hopeful that you'll give into temptation.  The men (and woman, though Joan doesn't matter in Hobart's male centric eyes) of SC&P, aren't exactly resolute. With a glint in his eye, Satan slowly turns to each of the people that he thinks "matter" and offers them their greatest temptation. For Ted, it's a pharmaceutical (something Ted hinted at last week). For Pete, it's Buick. And for Don, in a hushed and awed voice spake Satan, it's Coca-Cola. This is, by the way, another nice call back to one of the earliest episodes in season one in which Hobart tried to lure Don to his company by seducing Betty into being a Coke model. Nice, eh? The fact is, though, that none of those people--Ted, Pete, and Don--are going to be as respected and valued at McCann as they are right now. Ted, doesn't care. He's a sheep and will gladly bleat along so long as he doesn't have to make decisions. Pete is morose about it and self pitying, but ultimately probably won't do anything about it because, in spite of being a grimy little pimp, Pete can often be quite profound and knows this is the future of business (and, historically, he's right). He hit the nail on the head two weeks ago: we can never get past the beginning. And Don...well Don's basically dead on the inside and has surrendered to the end. He's our very twisted Jesus insert in this episode and unless he decides to balk, he just threw up his arms and gave into temptation. There is no fight in him anymore. When the news breaks to SC&P that they are being absorbed (which means that 90% of those people are going to lose their jobs), Don tries to give a rousing speech about how this is the beginning of something new and exciting, but he is literally drowned out by the buzzing of those around him. No one is listening to Donald Draper anymore, and Don has neither the fortitude nor drive nor energy to make them. He has surrendered.

The other plot of this week was Peggy and like the SC&P team above, so below. The past is circling the partners with narrative call backs to previous stories and episode that they seem to be only passing aware of; they know they've done it before but they it doesn't become as omnipresent to them. Peggy, on the other hand, is smack dab in the middle of her own haunted past as she and Stan try to cast little children for an ad. What does Peggy know about being a mom? She thinks very little because of course she gave up her own child, something that apparently has haunted her ever since. Don's advice to her, "this never happened. It will shock you how much this never happened" (god, one of the best moments in TV history) didn't quite reach Peggy's ears. She's lived by it certainly, but giving up her son in adoption has always loomed large over her, and never more so when Peggy is expected to "play mom." Her heartbreaking conversation with Stan was, first off, supremely acted by Elisabeth Moss but, secondly, just full of pain and regret but also triumph. Peggy wouldn't change her decision, but it doesn't mean that she isn't troubled by it. I also had a major squeal of delight when Peggy gave what might be her own personal thesis; if I had to sum up Peggy it would be exactly as she put it to Stan, "She should be able to live the rest of her life, just like a man does." That's Peggy. That's just Peggy to a T. Now, with that said, I must admit that I will be really disappointed if Peggy's big Mad Men end is her actually going to McCann/Erikson. Peggy wants to create something of lasting value but I'll tell you right now, she can't do it there. Peggy won't be respected or loved or even thought about. She'll go back to being one of many instead of the one and only. If her tale ends that way, I'll be extremely upset. Maybe Peggy could shuffle through life like that (after all, as Ted said last season, "You're going to die someday, you might as well keep cashing the checks.") but for Peggy fans, it would be heartbreaking.

Miscellaneous Notes on Time and Life

--Another highlight moment, the couch scene between Pete and Peggy, recalling the last time they sat thusly on a couch: the day Peggy told Pete that he got her pregnant and she gave away the baby.

--"Enjoy the rest of your miserable life!" Okay then Lou!

--Even the West is now closed to Don Draper unless he runs from McCann/Erikson. The West has always been Don's safe haven, his paradise. But now it's a dream denied.

--Trudy Campbell has a fabulous wardrobe and I would like that white dress please.

--Joan isn't even acknowledged by Jim Hobart. She'll become nothing but a secretary to McCann/Erikson.

--"I don't know because you're not supposed to know or you can't go on with your life."

--"You are OK." I need more Drunk Roger and Drunk Don having contemplative moments. 

--"I'm fine. I have work to do." OR: how to survive life if you're a character on Mad Men.

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