Tuesday, May 12, 2015

In Which I Review Mad Men (7x13)

Well, Happy Mother's Day to you too, Matthew Weiner. Only Mad Men would essentially kill off the original mother of the show on Mother's Day. There is only one episode left and while there is a sense of finality to all the characters--you better believe that's the last time we'll ever see Betty Draper-Francis--there is still an underlying tension of not knowing how all this will end and where we, the TV hobos, are going. This weeks episode, "The Milk and Honey Route," was one of those rare Mad Men episodes where I sat, slack jawed, staring at the screen wondering what I was watching. Most penultimate episodes of shows build toward something; there is a sense that the audience needs to prepare to take a giant leap forward in the following week by revving up the drama or the intrigue. Mad Men would never be so passe, though. Instead this weeks episode was very much about people being stuck, either in a certain location, in a situation, or an emotional mindset. This isn't to say that this weeks episode wasn't good--it's Mad Men; it's always going to be good. But rather, once again, Weiner and company subvert my expectations of what TV is supposed to feel like. In any other universe, the second to last episode of a series would have been loud and full throttle. Instead, it actually felt incredibly slowed down. It's hard to believe that we only have one episode left, forever. I'm not ready to say goodbye. So, instead, grab all your belongings and shove them into a Sears bag, hug your mother one final time and let's go. 

Is this the last we're going to see of Pete Campbell? It doesn't feel right that Pete and Don wouldn't interact one more time given how Pete has spent the past ten years attempting to become Don, but at the same time, this storyline is as close to happily ever after as Peter is likely to get. I'm just going to say it: the storyline for Pete this week was confusing. First, hello Duck. I never liked you so please go away with your drinking shame and your hat in your hands. Pete is quite happy at McCann/Erikson. He brought back in some clients after SC&P moved; he's obviously well liked and doing his job well. He's a cog in the machine; more important than some, less important than a whole lot of others. Don's prediction back in season one that Pete would eventually become a balding, middle aged executive with only moderate success seems to be coming true. Pete could spend the rest of his life at McCann and be adequately successful and happy. However, that's never what Pete wanted for himself. He wants to be King; it's literally his fantasy as we saw several seasons ago when being declared a King by a prostitute was what it took to get his motor running. Right now, Pete is a middle sized fish in the Ocean. What Duck Philips is presenting is a chance to be a shark in the middle of a duck pond. I guess I'm not one hundred percent sure what this new job is--account man for a luxury air travel agency? Sure. But what matters is that the opportunity to move to Wichita affords Pete a rather grand view of his life so far and what is missing from it: his family. Pete and Trudy were always dynamic together when their marriage wasn't falling to pieces, and to be fair it was often falling to pieces. But here, ten years after we first met Pete--wide-eyed, egotistical, eager beaver, dour Peter Campbell--he seems to have come to a conclusion about himself. He wants to be petted and admired and Pete can't be that at McCann nor even in New York. This latter part is important since Pete has always held New York in quasi-romantic terms. The suburbs of Cos Cob bored Pete; California turned into a nightmare, but New York was where he felt most at home, until it too turned on him and became "a toilet." Am I happy that Pete and Trudy got back together? I don't know in all honestly. It does feel a bit too saccharine for Weiner, someone who's never tried to present the world with kid gloves nor with cotton candy tinged experiences. Trudy and Pete were realistic as two well-to-do, upper class socialites who ultimately made each other miserable because their life together were never enough, at least for Pete. If Don is what Pete would become someday--divorced, mediocre, burnt out and bored--then it seems as though on some subconscious level, Pete is taking Don's departure as a the key to his happiness. Run west, Pete, with your family, become the King of Wichita and luxury airline travel and embrace the morning.

 I never expected to cry over Betty Draper, a character that I've never liked and stopped pitying after season one. Or maybe I cried over Sally and how broken she was, knowing that she was going to lose her mother very soon. I've said this so many time but I'll say it once more, the underlying thesis of Mad Men is that people do not fundamentally change, but they can learn to live within their own set of behaviors. Of course Betty's final letter to Sally was instructions on how to make her look at her funeral. Of course Betty included a picture of what she wanted to buried in with details on her hair and makeup. That's Betty Draper for you: vain, shallow, and pretentious. But sometimes, Betty Draper can be surprisingly deep. In the midst of all this vanity, Betty finally told Sally that she loved her. Betty has accepted her fate that she is going to die of lung cancer (finally someone on this show pays the price for smoking as much as they do). She's not going to fight; she knows it's over and she doesn't want to put Sally, Bobby, and Gene through what Betty herself went through watching her own mother die. Instead, Betty is going to march to the beat of her own slightly vainglorious drum. Betty will go to school, continue to be a mother and a wife and not be drawn into the morbidity of her final days. Betty matured quite a bit didn't she? She's still childlike with her haughty list of demands about her lipstick (something that reads more teenager instead of child), but she's accepted that this is who she is and the best thing she can do is to live in her own expectations of self. And, touchingly, tell her daughter one final fundamental truth: you are going to be okay. Sally might be the amalgam of her father and mother, the conservative yet hobo-esque beautiful girl, but like Betty said in her goodbye letter, she marches to the beat of her own drum and while that worried Betty, she understands now that it is Sally's strength. Embrace your drum, Sally. You are going to be okay.

And then there's Dick. Don? Dick. He keeps introducing himself to others as Don but at this stage of the game, Don is a mere shadow, a bad memory even. Dick Whitman has shed almost every single possession or construct that made Don who he was. No family, no wife, no friends, no job, no house, no business suit, and in the end no car--something he bought years and years ago as a sign of his status and wealth as Donald Draper. When asked how he earned his money, Don replied "I was in the advertising business." Past tense. It's over for Don and he has no intention of going back. He's a hobo and it's not even subtle anymore. There was one other construct that Don let go of in this episode: the secret of who he is. It's not that people before don't know that he's not really Donald Draper--Betty, Anna, Bert Cooper, Pete Campbell, Sally, Megan. They know. But the one thing no one has ever got was Don's true telling, that he was responsible for the real Don's death. It's always been couched as an accident, but here, in front on men who understand war and loss and survival, Don let's go of his greatest secret: "I killed my CO." Don's whole life has been plagued by the notion that he killed people--his whore mother who birthed him, his drunk father, his CO, and his brother Adam. By letting go of some of those burdens, by confessing, Dick Whitman is emerging from behind Don's carefully laid veneer. But back to being a hobo: it's not just that he's running; his possessions are in a bag, he's doing odd handy jobs around a home to earn food and board and in the end, he has no car and must rely on the bus and other forms of transport to get around. That's a hobo. That's what the hobo who showed up on Young Dick's farm in PA (one of the most significant episodes for Don) did and that's what Don is going to do. I don't think it's a secret that Don is slowly making his way out to California. California is his bliss. The final shot of this episode is Don sitting all alone at a bus station with a huge grin on his face. He's in heaven, finally, having emerged from McCann and New York hell. But here's the underlying tension now: what will Don do when he learns that Betty is dying or dead and that his children need him? Will he high-tail it back to New York and be a father or will he pursue his own pleasures and continue to head out west on the open road? People do not fundamentally change; Don is a runner. He runs from his wives, his family, his job, and he has been running from a Death denied (only to find it everywhere he goes...). So what will he do? Well, Sally has always been Don's saving grace on this show (her and Peggy) and I really want to believe that Don will turn around and go back to be with his children but....people. They don't fundamentally change.

And then there was one....

Miscellaneous Notes on The Milk And Honey Route

--Can we take a moment to appreciate how good Jon Hamm looks in 1960s/1970s casual drag? I mean, damn.

--Sally and Don were wearing the same colored shirts in their first phone call, with Sally wearing plaid, mirroring Don's plaid shirt in the final scene. Even half a country apart and those two are linked.

--"I walked into town and it's hard for me. I got flat feet." I didn't particularly care about Andy and his grifter storyline but it does serve to show how self aware Don can be. He knows this kid is him at a younger age, looking for a way out the only way he knows how: by conning people, something Don is an expert at doing. Don's best life advice: "you'll have to become someone else. That's not what you think it is." Quite a change from telling Peggy that "this never happened. It will shock you how much this never happened."

--Yes, Donald Draper got beat up with a phone book after he told his secret. It was a big bold move for him but it does rather reinforce the idea that he should keep his mouth shut.  

--Loved Sally's orange coat. 

--"You just do what you gotta do to come home." Or: Mad Men Season 7B in a nutshell.

--So, what is the final image of the show? Is it Don "Drapering" (the iconic shot of him lounging)? Is it a parallel to the first episode of Season 1 in which he sits by his children's beside, holding their hands (but this time with no Betty in the doorway?) Is it Don standing in the ocean, being re-baptized and reborn as Dick Whitman?

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