Halftime Leisure

Mad Men’s season finale goes outta this world

June 9, 2014

Several weeks ago, I reviewed the first episode of Mad Men’s seventh season, which is airing in two seven-episode halves a year apart on AMC. “Waterloo,” which capped off this year’s run, fittingly crowns a season centered around loss—and reconciliation to loss—in all its forms: professional and personal, foregone and forestalled, dreaded and imminent. If, as the ascendant advertising phenom Peggy Olson (masterfully portrayed by Elizabeth Moss this season) tells us, “every great ad tells a story,” so too does every great show. And if “Waterloo” is any indication of things to come, you’re going to want to stay the course with this one.

In my review of “Time Zones,” the season’s premier episode, I wrote that the collapse of Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) family-man and white-collar fictions at the end of season six might have finally signaled a turnabout for his character. “Waterloo” suggests that the lesson Don takes to heart is in large part a function of how he learns it. After all, the teachings are hardly new. Time and time again, Don has borne witness to the destructive consequences of his serial adultery, drinking, domineering behavior, jealousy, and selfishness. Womanizing and dishonesty brought down his first marriage to Betty (January Jones) way back in season three. The following year, drinking led him into a disastrous one-night stand with a secretary, jeopardized his work, and threatened his relationship with his family. But the lesson wasn’t truly learned until his daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) caught him with his pants down (literally) last season with the wife of his downstairs neighbor. Similarly, drinking never led to real consequences until Don’s fellow Sterling Cooper & Partners partners placed him on a non-negotiable leave of absence at the end of last season.

Judging by the trajectory of this year, however, revealing the truth of his childhood to his three children in last season’s finale signaled the arrival of a new Don—one who wasn’t afraid of learning a lesson and learning it in the right way. Don—or perhaps the anti-Don—has learned his lessons inside and outside the office, to which he predictably returned in short order (albeit in a reduced capacity and with pointed restrictions on his drinking habits and interactions with clients). Rather than responding to these frustrations like “a football player in a suit,” in the words of the avowedly antagonistic Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin), Don, who has never willfully sat through a partners’ meeting, invokes parliamentary procedure to save his job. While the old Don relied on flash, intimidation, and unpredictability at the expense of others, the anti-Don uses tact, restraint, and teamwork to accomplish his ends.

These ends have also become far less self-serving than longtime viewers are used to. Don’s final act this season, convincing California-based SC&P creative director Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) to agree to Roger Sterling’s (John Slattery) plan to sell the firm to advertising giant McCann-Erickson as a subsidiary company, was practically one of charity. As Don well knew, the jobs of everyone at the firm rode on Ted’s vote. Of even greater redemptive value was Don’s humane treatment of Ted’s mid-life crisis and relationship to his work, given how hard Don worked last season to undermine him at every turn.

This precedent for change and redemption made season seven poised to zeroed in on the themes of family and familial acceptance. Though Don has not yet, in my mind, experienced a final reckoning with his children or his ex-wife (in “Waterloo,” Betty reveals that she’s started thinking of him as a “bad boyfriend only a young anthropology major would marry”), season seven did bring a momentous transformation to Don’s relationship with his children of a sort: his protégé-turned-boss Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss) and insubordinate-turned-ally Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser). With the 1950s nuclear family falling apart, Mad Men appropriately capitalizes on the cobbled-together Frankenfamilies that provide refuge and fulfillment in equal parts. Despite their shared history, the final scene of the season’s sixth episode, entitled “The Strategy”—in which Don, Pete, and Peggy sat together at a dinner table accompanied by one of the brilliant musical cues Mad Men has become famous for—was less nostalgic than it was progressive.

Season seven also posed some difficult questions about familial duty. In the most interesting turn her character has taken showlong, Roger’s daughter Margaret (Elizabeth Rice) abandoned her husband and young son for a convent of Luddite Bohemians in the New York countryside. Roger’s woebegone effort to bring her back forced him to confront his own failings as a parent but also gestured towards a deeper and more universal tension: when does one’s personal happiness become subordinated to one’s children?

Don’s wife Megan (Jessica Paré) was another sacrifice to the theme of familial loss, abetted by the plotting of a season that took her character on a rollercoaster ride of plausibility. Numerous reviewers have noted the disappointing inconsistency in the depiction of Megan and Don’s fractious marriage, as though the former were there only to serve episode-to-episode intrigues. To the writers’ credit, it’s possible this effect was intended to reflect the pair’s own uncertainty about the solvency of their relationship. And when, in “Waterloo,” they appear to have finally accepted the dissolution of their marriage, the end comes not with a bang of the kind that signaled the end of Don’s first marriage but with the roar of silence during a long-distance telephone call.

Mad Men, ever a show about change and resistance to change within the lives of its characters, has allowed some of its thematics to seep into its form. The show has always been, by design, a period piece, a way to reexamine a time gone by through the lens of characters who fully inhabit it. But the show is far too aware of its viewers and its viewers’ temporality not to explore the connections between its time and ours, an awareness that has come closer to the surface this season. Whether it was the advent of the technological hum of the computer age in the offices of SC&P, Ginsberg grappling with mental illness, Peggy’s hard-won ascendance to the top, or the racial tensions that freighted her interactions with her secretary Dawn Chambers (Teyonah Parris), Mad Men of late seems to both complicate a bygone era as well as jab harder at national narratives of loss and reconciliation that continue recognizably today.

It’s almost inevitable, then, that certain characters have become emblematic of the cultural, political, or social zeitgeist of the radically changing 1960s rather than fully-fledged personalities in their own right. Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) and Jim Cutler are two, signaling both a coming sea-change in business and a mild rebuke of its religion of the bottom-line. Though they aren’t nearly as suave, likeable, or inherently gifted as their generational and stylistic predecessors Don and Roger, their coming-of-age parallels the maturation of advertising into a business that—to judge by the standards of today—was becoming less dependent on the archaism of creativity and more a game of numbers, statistics, and technology. After all, American advertising got from Don’s cathartic Carousel pitch to the inanity of the Geico Caveman somehow.  Mad Men would have us think of these characters as the proverbial missing link in the evolutionary tree, and they play their roles well—ham-handed, devoid of panache, and vampirically ruthless.

That’s not to say I’ve been a fan of everything Mad Men’s done with its numerous recurring cast members this season, which is inevitably the biggest disappointment for a show that runs on fidelity to the characters it has labored to bring to life over the past seven years. As the cast has proliferated, the sin of such unfaithfulness has necessarily taken a backseat to the (albeit lesser) evil of simple neglect. The eyepatch-sporting Ken Cosgrove’s (Aaron Stanton) newly frazzled persona in the first episode of season seven was sufficiently intriguing to merit further exploration, but his only other memorable moment was the sneer he gave Harry after the latter was barked out of yet another impromptu partners’ meeting in the most recent finale. Even Bob Benson’s (James Wolk) inevitable comeuppance in “Waterloo,” and seeming departure from the firm, seemed weak given the amount of screentime his character received last season.

But perhaps the most egregious example of Mad Men character assassination occurred in the curious case of Joan “Benedict” (to borrow Roger’s phrasing) Harris, played by an increasingly impressive Christina Hendricks, who has actively opposed Don’s attempts this season to reintegrate as a partner and contributing member of SC&P. Arraying beloved characters like Joan against Don as mere obstacles to be surmounted, however, does a disservice to the humanity with which the show has endowed those characters. “I’m tired of him costing me money” might work in a pinch to explain Joan’s sudden and total antipathy towards Don, but it doesn’t satisfy the deeper matrix of interaction that grounds their relationship. Don’s behavior last season in scuttling the Jaguar account after Joan made such person sacrifices to win it in the first place, as well as ruining SC&P’s bid to go public through which Joan stood to make million dollars, may have set the two at odds. But Don has been at Joan’s side through too manydifficultmoments of her own for her to plausibly neither reciprocate nor empathize during one of his—and certainly not for so bland a motive as greed. What the show will ultimately do with one of its most dynamic, complex and, well, female characters will be a matter for the coming year.

But perhaps the whole thing isn’t a matter of logic and sense-making at all. While other shows—its AMC cousin, Breaking Bad, or HBO’s Game of Thrones—might be its dramatic equals, Mad Men has increasingly excelled at gesturing, honestly and seemingly genuinely, at the way life actually works. There are rarely clean breaks or neat bows in life. When the end finally comes, don’t expect Don to jump off a skyscraper or Megan to bite it from Charles Manson. And life is far from monotonal—Don’s none-too-bright secretary coming comically to his aid (as well as coming onto him) and Pete’s suggestion that “marriage is a racket” in “Waterloo” play out quite comfortably beside Bert Cooper’s death and the end of Don and Megan’s marriage. Life goes on as it will, under no obligation to follow an order or kowtow to reason. Nevertheless, it’s our human instinct to filter out the white noise and build a story from the randomness. It’s the handling of this tension that “Waterloo” achieves with both brilliance and humility—never a small feat in the world of constructed television narrative. The series has been taken to task this season for occasionally mining its own symbolism a bit too forcefully and, while I’ve never felt as metaphorically bludgeoned watching Mad Men as I have while watching, say, Netflix’s House of Cards, the criticism isn’t entirely off-base. Nevertheless, the season finale left these detractors back on Earth by juxtaposing its central dramatic tension, the Burger Chef pitch as Peggy’s first true moment in the spotlight, alongside the nationwide intake of breath that accompanied the successful Apollo 11 moon landings. Accentuated by slow motion, the moment perfectly captures Don observing Peggy not as a critic, rival, or star of the “Don Draper show” but as a mentor and a friend, with Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” quip still echoing in the background. The pitch isn’t just about the make-believe family of the ad—instead, it signifies a unity, solidarity, and belonging that briefly united a country “starved” for a moment of connection, however fictionalized, hypertrophied, or false.

But Mad Men, it seems, is never content to deliver an uncomplicated message. Armstrong’s line itself is perhaps the most eloquent advertisement for the America of the ‘60s ever uttered, not only for the story it tells but for what it leaves out. The Space Race was America at its best, reaching wide-eyed for the vast reaches of space for the greater glory of all mankind. It was also America at its worst: Cold War provocation launched in a time of optimism and hope but achieved at the end of a decade marred by war, assassination, social unrest, and cynicism (Sally, when Don calls home during the news broadcast, calls Kennedy’s romanticism “a waste of money”). Witnessing Peggy talk of family and motherhood given the losses she has suffered in both arenas, with her former boss and the married man who unknowingly impregnated her and whose child she gave away listening, was breathtaking. The hollowness of advertising compared to the true emotions it aspires to convey, after all, is the show’s most enduring loss—not only the loss of optimism but the loss of satisfying fictions to sustain happiness as well. In the (final) words of Bert Cooper (Robert Morse): “Bravo.”

Which brings us to perhaps the most poignant season-ender yet: Cooper’s death and the question of what to make of his off-Broadway musical rendition of “The Best Things in Life are Free” that closes out the episode. In an apparent vision to Don, Cooper appears in the SC&P office for one final unorthodox display whose atonality—what feels like a warning, given Don’s history, delivered through the celebratory medium of song—is striking.  Mad Men isn’t usually one to turn on a dime or throw the viewer a curveball late in the game. But if season seven has done anything unequivocally, it’s bucked trends. The show’s office procedural origins have been unflinchingly deserted in favor of welcome new directions, venturing boldly into uncharted territory with more flair than ever before. And while Don may not have quite found happiness at the end of this season—restraint, selflessness, or “grace” may be better terms—don’t expect the mellifluous notes to stick around for long. Don still has much to come to terms with, and Mad Men is far too nuanced to deliver a simply upbeat or cynical message. Both killing Don off and letting him walk off into the sunset are too unequivocal for creator Matthew Weiner’s taste: not merely contrary to the show’s ethos, but too easy an out for a character Weiner has invested so much in.

So was Don’s vision a ghoulishly saccharine warning from beyond the grave, a la Jacob Marley? A symptom of a mind gradually awakening to the personal failings, mistakes, and losses it must inevitably come to terms with? These are questions for the show’s final episodes that will air next year. Yes, the moon and stars might be free—but flowers and robins are awfully terrestrial. Like any great ad, “Waterloo” caps off a season that has spun out a great narrative. Through one final loss, that of Bert Cooper, the episode leaves us with a reminder that the moon, and the men who landed on it, are doing just fine. Back on Earth, though, things may be a different story.

Photo: IMDB

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