Monday, May 18, 2015

In Which I Review Mad Men (7x14)

And then there were none....

Do you know what I did this week? I re-watched (almost) the entire series of Mad Men. AMC aired the whole shebang and I found myself drawn in, like the proverbial moth to a flame. What can I say? I can't resist the heady dose of complex characters, narrative, symbols and themes. Here we are at the end of everything Mad Men. The last Old Fashioned has been drunk, the last cigarette has been lit, the last ad has been pitched. What did I expect from the finale? I think, in my head, I expected something like Don traveling back to New York and having conversations with those he left behind. After all, the finale is called "Person to Person." But, as usual, Matthew Weiner subverted my expectations (remember when I firmly believed that Don Draper would die before the 1970s?) and gave me something that was out of the box, weird, and little bit confusing. That's Mad Men, though. In no universe, thinking about it now, would Weiner write something so introspective as what I just proposed. People don't work like that in Weiner's world--and indeed, do they really work that way in the real world? I've been saying for a long time that 'people do not fundamentally' change is the central tenant of Mad Men. The best they can hope for is to accept their own issues and learn to live within them. Don staying a self absorbed asshole who is also a mad genius when it comes to advertising? He doesn't change. He becomes only mildly self aware and uses this new found moment of clarity not to heal but to sell hope and love to the starving American public. Because at the end of the day, he's still Donald Draper. And he'd like to buy the world a Coke. One more drink for the road? Let's go. 

I suppose, looking at the finale as a whole, there are really three stories, three people who have to decide what their future is. Isn't that really what this was all about? We can't follow these characters all the way through their lives but at least we can glean what might become of them. Joan, Peggy, and Don are all question marks. Pete got his happy ending with Trudy and Tammy and they're off to conquer Wichita; Roger is going to make the most of what time he has left by marrying Marie and seeing the world with a new girl, forever the child at heart. Sally is going to step up and take her mother's place as head of the Francis household (soon to be the Hofstader household since she and her brothers are going to live with Betty's brother?) But Joan, Peggy and Don are at a crossroads, unsure of where to go. And that's what the finale wants to answer. For Joan, she's torn between love and career, something that shouldn't surprise us too much given that Joan has forever been trapped between those two. Joan has been held there more so than Peggy, I'd say, since Joan has always been searching for love whilst Peggy has been, more or less, content to give herself over to her work (oh yes, we'll get to Peggy.) The new man in Joan's life, Richard, is awfully demanding isn't he? He wants all of Joan and he wants none of her to go toward her career or her dreams and her ambitions. Joan had a guy like that once; Greg, her husband, once told her that she should be sitting in front of the TV eating Bon-Bons. Joan, though, is fed up with living in that world--a world that says she is nothing more than a body and she shouldn't partake in the pleasures of business. It's a bit shocking to find Joan back on the business end of things, though as a producer this time around. She was miserable at McCann and even feeling a little empty at SC&P before the merger, but looking back it was less about the business and more about the fact that Joan was never seen as being capable or having the same abilities as men. Joan got where she was thanks to her body--literally prostituting herself for her partnership. In this business, Joan answers to no one and is beholden to no one. Joan is her own boss; her successes and failings are her own and she's going to make the most of it. What is Joan's future? Probably pretty bright, even if it doesn't include love. At least not yet. It's Joanie. I imagine she'll find romantic love eventually. And even if not, she's got Kevin, she's got her business, and she's got a pocket full of money. You go, Joan Harris. Take on the world and look fabulous at the same time.

Peggy Olson got the true happy ending, didn't she? I never doubted she would. I have to admit that I squealed when she and Stan declared their love for each other, not necessarily because I have been hard core rooting for them but because it meant that Peggy made it after all. She gets the golden goose egg--the job, the money, the guy. I think Peggy learned very early on how to live not only in the world and its rules but live within herself. She's knows she is not going to fundamentally change--she'll always be driven and hard and myopic and obsessive. But that doesn't mean that, to quote Stan, Peggy can't find more outside of work. It was nice to see Peggy struggling with her future; she has always wanted everything and always wanted it now. She's an eager beaver, our Peggy Olson. So when Joan approached her about going into business together (someone fanfic the hell out of that, please) Peggy was understandably eager to take it and run, but not because she wanted to do it but because it would get her "there" faster. Where is there? Success, recognition, money, power, prestige. Everything Peggy Olson wants could potentially be fast-tracked if she up and left McCann and embarked on this new adventure. But what grounds her, ultimately, is that someone loves her and wants a life with Peggy, even if it means that her name won't be on the door until 1980. I think Peggy accepted long ago that she would never find love, not after so many failed attempts: Pete, Duck, Abe, Ted, and various other men. Peggy was too career driven, too focused on her upwards climb. She never realized that Stan was climbing up with her. Did you notice the wonderful "here and there" part of Peggy and Stan's conversation? Whenever Peggy has an intense heart to heart with someone and she has to try and explain her emotions, she tends to talk in location: "it's like one day your here..." she says to Peter in Season 2. Just two weeks ago she told Stan, with regards to the child she gave up that he's "there" and she's "here." But with Stan, he is both here and there. A distance between them doesn't exist. What's Peggy's future? You better believe she'll get her name on the door somewhere at some point, though probably not McCann. She's too talented to be left in that sausage factory; three years down the road and she'll leave and go someplace else to be a partner and a creative director before getting to put her last name above the door. And Stan will be there for it. Throw your hat in the air, Peggy. From a secretary in the steno pool to copy writer to copy chief. From the girl who got pregnant and didn't realize it to the woman who pitched how starved we all are for a connection---you made it.

And finally, at long last, we come to Don. What is there to say? A lot, I'm sure. But I'm going to restate the thesis of Mad Men one more time: people do not fundamentally change. Did Don change? Nope. He's just looking for the "new you." This new him is really just Don Draper 2.0 (or hell, maybe 3.0 or even 4.0 at this point); perhaps a slightly more self aware and self enlightened Don who has learned a little bit about himself as a product that sits on a shelf waiting for love, but Don Draper nonetheless. He did not become Dick Whitman again; he did not re-baptize himself. I have no doubt that Don, having cried his manly cries, having chanted his 'oms' got in a car, went back to New York, back to McCann and said, "I have a great idea for Coke." That commercial at the end about buying the world a Coke--that was Don's last pitch (that we'll see anyway). It was hippie-tastic and shows that Don did gain some wisdom from his retreat in California and everything he's experienced this season, but it also shows that Don still understands people and how to get them to want and desire and long for the products he's pitching. The world needs love and this product--Coca Cola--is just the ticket for what ails you. And that is pure 1960s Donald Draper. But how did he get there, to this juxtaposition between the new you and the old him? Slowly. Achingly. Step by stumbling step.

Don is the only person in this episode who actually made a "Person to Person" phone call, the most significant of them being to Peggy. Can I just say, there was some ugly crying going on during this phone call? Don reached out and really talked to three women (the three women in his life): Betty, the dying mother, Sally, the up and coming daughter, and Peggy, the woman who really understood him, far more than the Anna 2.0 clone-wannabe, Stephanie, who openly declares that Don is not her family. But Peggy? Peggy is his family. I was going to be pretty upset if Don and Peggy never spoke again but Peggy told Don what he needed to hear: "you can come home..." It doesn't matter to Peggy if Don isn't the man she thought he was; it doesn't matter to her if Don broke all his vows and took another man's name and never made anything of it. Peggy doesn't care, even if it's all the truth; she's seen Don at his disastrous worst and at his shinning best and she knows him, in and out, because he's seen her too. Don had to call and say goodbye to Peggy. He never said goodbye to Anna, but by God, he's going to say goodbye to Peggy. That broke my heart. But in the end, Don reaches some measure of peace and self-awareness, as much as a man like Don can find peace and become self-aware. He sits on a beach, in his beloved California, in a business shirt (not the plaid he was sporting all episode) and a smile lights up his face: he's got it--his next great idea, the idea that will define his career forever. He might be a "new you" but he's really the old new, just with some polish but it's up to you, the viewer, to decide how much polish and what he can do with it. After all, the Wheel moves forward and backwards and then takes us home again. Does Don now know what love is? He spent his whole life looking for it, after all. Maybe, but that doesn't mean that he's magically cured of all his ills. I don't think it really matters. Mad Men was never going to spell it out for you whether or not Don has a bright future. For all I know, after the Coke ad, Don went on a bender, picked up some whores and went back down his self-torture road of misery. Only to come up with a great ad afterwards, of course. Or maybe he decides he will make a better go of it this time around. Maybe Don will be a better father, a better boss, a better man. Isn't it pretty to think so?

I want to end this (last ever) review of Mad Men on a sappy note, if I may. Two years ago, when I began this little blog of mine, it was really for one simple reason: I wanted to talk about Mad Men. I had been watching the show for years and found it highly stimulating and engaging and thought provoking, but I had little to no outlet for discussion. I had toyed with the idea of a blog for awhile and finally, one fateful day, sat down and decided to just dive in. I told myself, at the time, that it would be a blog for just about anything: TV, movies, politics, books, whatever. As you might have gathered, my focus became decidedly more narrow and now is almost exclusively about TV. Mad Men has a lot to do with that. My reviews have vastly improved since then and I became more comfortable talking about TV and the way I read texts. Again, Mad Men has a lot to do with that. I don't know that I'll ever tire of talking about, thinking about, or even just simply watching this show. Twenty years from now, it will still feel fresh and innovative, quite a feat for a show that spent its run in an era long since passed. I'll always find something new in the re-watches and something worth examining. Even though this is my final word on the show as a whole, it's not my final thought. Can I quote Don? Is that too passe? "...There's the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash, if they have a sentimental bond with the product." That's me and that's Mad Men. A sentimental bond has formed with this TV show, one that won't easily or quickly go away. So to Bert and Roger, to Megan, Betty and Sally, to Joan and Pete, to Peggy and to Don (to them most of all), from the bottom of my heart, I will be forever grateful for you, your story, and what you gave me for ten years. And I will miss you.

Miscellaneous Notes on Person to Person

--"I translated your speech into Pig Latin..."

--"And a cactus." I have a lot of love for the final Pete and Peggy scene together. They've come so far, from the married man who seduced Peggy on her first day to having a very healthy level of respect. The fact that Peggy parrots back Pete's, "a thing like that..." to him was touching.

--Roger actually wore something other than a three-piece suit and Don wore jeans! I die of shock, y'all.

--The phone call between Betty and Don was quite heartbreaking, especially when Betty gave him the cold slap that him not being around is just "normal."

--"It'll get easier as you move forward." Really Don? Has that been you experience?

--"You have to let him go; it doesn't mean you don't care about him..." And with that, I bow out.  

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