Monthly Archives: May 2015

‘Mad Men’ Series Finale: “Person to Person” Suggests Life’s a Cycle – and People Don’t Change

So what’s the moral of Mad Men’s story? Even without some distilled lesson, we should be able to chart a few transformations under the auspice of the American Dream where, at least ostensibly, an individual could start with nothing and grow and improve to become, oh I don’t know, a millionaire ad man. Now how do we rectify that with the show’s creator, as well as this episode’s director and writer, Matthew Weiner’s quote from a recent Rotten Tomatoes interview saying point blank, “people don’t change”? Our beloved characters’ last hurrahs in “Person to Person” might lead you to think that Peggy’s emotional forthrightness with Stan was out of character or that Pete’s recent sincerity towards Trudy and Peggy does not mesh with the Pete we knew season one. Sure Pete’s demeanor and Peggy’s honesty with herself have morphed over the seasons, but overall I contend that the characters’ underlying motivations and selves remain in tact. Let’s first look at Don.

Don’s final destination has been decidedly murky since embarking on his unannounced cross-country road trip over the past few episodes and this instability is definitely nothing new. Mad Men’s compelling pilot introduced us to Don’s double life as a philanderer and later on his more long-term double life as Dick Whitman impersonating Lieutenant Don Draper. Since those earliest moments Don’s story has been a great unraveling of a superficially stable and successful life as a wiz advertising executive living in the suburbs to a thrice divorced ad executive with a giant, empty Manhattan apartment. Don’s increasing instability can be traced to certain aspects of his character that have remained relatively static, i.e. his penchant for deception, his knowledge of people and a difficulty with commitment – which all pan out this episode.

Against all odds and without a car, Don ends up in Utah when Sally calls to inform him of Betty’s lung cancer. A wizened Sally coaches Don on parenthood, a thought echoed by Betty in a stirring phone conversation with Don. Betty uses a surprisingly display of strength to remind Don that his sole consistency has been transience. The early portion of this episode lags under the weight of so many conversations having to tie up seven seasons-long character arcs, but nonetheless both Betty and Sally deliver strong performances reminding Don that even impending death will not fundamentally change him into an honest, committed father. As a result Don moves on from Utah to Stephanie Horton’s house in Los Angeles, thus ending his journey with the closest person to the greatest (platonic) love of his life – Anna Draper. Stephanie drags Don to a hippie retreat in California causing Don to reassess his emotional reclusiveness surrounded by an openness unseen in New York. Don bonds with a staightlaced man named Leonard, who chronicles the depth of his perceived insignificance where nobody in his life would care if he dropped dead. Don firmly embraces Leonard, physically bridging a gap with a show of intimacy heretofore unprecedented from Don in any context. A call with Peggy rushes back to Don because despite his transience and unreliability at least one person sincerely cares about his wellbeing.

The logical conclusion would be on many other shows that Don realizes his self worth and leaves the ad industry to pursue his love of cares falling in step with his blue collar upbringing. However all indications from the perfectly chosen final scene don’t suggest this sort of predictable transformation. Don sits on a promontory meditating with a diverse group of hippies, perhaps the same group he had scoffed at doing tai chi the previous day. Don chants “om” and then a smile curls on his face – before we cut to one of the most memorable commercials of all time featuring a diverse group of young people sing about buying the world a Coke. Sure Don got his mojo back, but just like the first episode where Don comes up with a Lucky Strike pitch from something a waiter mentions, he uses this rambling experience as source material for an ad, a hallmark ad sure, but an ad nonetheless. Don might have changed his approach from drunkenly mining ideas from a dark, dingy bar to a sunlit wellness retreat on the California coast, but through and through Don knows how to manipulate people.

Peggy and Joan, our other foci for the episode, have also grown while remaining the same. After Peggy tries to comfort Don, she and Stan finally verbalize the feelings they have both had for some time. In a sputtering reveal, Stan tells Peggy he loves her and Peggy comes to the conclusion she loves him too, which all seems at odds with her singular focus on work that catapulted her from secretary to copy chief. Still the final pan on Peggy starts off with her typing at the typewriter well into night before Stan is revealed behind her massaging her shoulders. Peggy’s passionate pursuit of work achievement is strong as ever, but now she also happens to have a man behind her.

In a seeming role reversal, the less traditionally feminist Joan chooses a budding production company over her new boyfriend Richard. Joan’s arc may have involved the most change from a character largely defined by her relationships and sexuality to one defined by her tenacity to succeed in business. In fact, we are reminded of Joan and Roger’s relationship when he visits to discuss the assets he plans to leave for Kevin in his will. Ultimately when considering the eight year age difference between Joan and Peggy and given Joan’s discomfort in settling for a well off married life with Greg, it is likely that societal pressures more strongly impeded Joan. Joan goes so far as to tell Richard, “I can’t just turn off that part of myself,” suggesting business acumen has always been there and had just to be unearthed.
If there is a moral to the story of Mad Men it’s not some lesson that hard work and grit will get you what you want (see Joan’s firing from McCann). Instead I would argue that the characters never really changed, but rather learned to be more honest with themselves about who they are and what they want. In that way the resolution of Don’s character arc was less of a change and more of an acceptance of who he has always been. Don may truly have benefited from the retreat and yoga, but he wouldn’t be Don if he didn’t use that knowledge to make an ad.

‘Mad Men’ S7 E13 “The Milk and Honey Route” Puts Nails in a Few Coffins

The title of this week’s episode, “The Milk and Honey Route”, has obvious connotations to prosperity from our good ol’ friends Moses and the burning bush. Obviously on a grand scale the Mad Men focuses on the advertising bubble of prosperity often closed to minorities, women and those without privileged backgrounds (unless you lie about it). On an individual level the title also applies. Betty has courted this route only to recently discover it doesn’t always provide happiness, whereas Pete discovered that the milk and honey route could offer more on a personal level than hedonism. Another meaning I came across for ‘milk and honey’ was a horrible ancient Persian method of execution whereby a poor person would be tied down, force fed milk and honey until they got covered in their own diarrhea and attracted bugs. Usually they would die of some combination of dehydration, starvation and septic shock. Talk about too much of a good thing.

Too much money and not quite enough love led Betty to live a life circumscribed by fear. Betty lived most of her life guided by the fear of living outside of societal expectations. Only recently has she been able, with the support of a husband capable of love, to somewhat confidently return to college and pursue psychology despite knowing she would never actually use it for much of anything. Betty is no Peggy, trailblazing in a male- dominated world to make a name for herself, nor is she Joan, formerly accessing power by leveraging her sexuality as the ultimate means of male control. Still we have seen her reach a sort of Zen moment over the course of the past season where she can listen to what she actually wants and enjoy herself. And then we she finds out she has aggressively malignant lung cancer. Betty has achieved all she realistically ever would – a successful family, getting called Mrs. Robinson by a bunch of teenage boys and pursuing a college degree for her own pleasure. The artfully slow zoom onto her face as she hears the news suggests a profound sadness, but not one that would destroy her as I believe it would have season one.

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Henry brings in Sally to convince Betty to seek treatment, but Betty confidently asserts herself to both saying that not fighting cancer is a choice she made out of power over her life – not out of weakness. Betty doesn’t comfort Sally, of course, but in a letter Sally was meant to open after she dies Betty does offer two sentences on her hope for Sally’s future. Don’s prescription that Sally would end up like her parents is probably true, but not entirely in the way he intended. Sally showed Betty’s strength this episode when she instinctually filled the maternal role for her younger siblings when Betty fled the kitchen, but unlike her parents she has the confidence to extend her feelings outward and use Don’s charm to follow her passions. The best thing Matt Weiner has done here was leave Sally’s options open so we know nothing more than that her life will be the “adventure” Betty praises in her letter.

Pete of all people seems to also have grasped how to access his emotions capping off a months long reconciliation with Trudy this episode. For much of the season Pete has been on the backburner due to his complete comfort with transition from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to McCann. His confidence in himself stands in contrast to most of the other characters on the show and as a result he seems to have finally internalized that he doesn’t have to indulge in adultery and alcoholism to be in advertising. He now has consideration for his family that startles in its sincere intent, if not its successful execution. When Tammy gets a bug bite this episode he tenderly puts toothpaste on it, finally showing his commitment to his family instead of just spewing hollow words. His personal journey came to a head this week when he turned up at Trudy’s at 4 AM and pulled out moves no one thought he had, wooing her into reuniting with him for life in Wichita. Sure Trudy likely desired a return to good standing among the upper crust by unifying a broken home, but their kiss this episode was, ahem, something.

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Beginning in “Lost Horizon”, Don ventured away from the milk and honey of advertising to the point where when asked what he did this episode he responded, “I was in the advertising business.” Don ends up in a rural motel after driving west seemingly without a destination in mind, and news of Don’s financial success spreads quickly among the residents. After donating $40 ($249.13 today?!) at a fundraiser, Don gets framed for stealing $500 ($3,114.21!!) because town residents think he would only have donated so much if he knew he would be getting it back. Talk about too much of a good thing.

Red herrings were strewn about this episode about what, if anything might pull Don out of his existential funk such as his skill at fixing various things around the motel which could reconnect him with his blue collar roots. But the real focus was on Don admonishing the real thief of the fundraiser money, a young man who worked at the motel cleaning rooms. Don corrects the kid’s grammar and advises him against the hustler life because, as Don knows well, once you start the con game it can set the tone for the rest of your life. By the end Don leaves the young man with his car and everything in the glove compartment, which the young man accepts without looking back. The final shot of the episode leaves Don at a rural bus stop with nothing more than a plastic bag and a casual flannel outfit in lieu of his trademark suit. With one episode left and Don hell-bent on minimalism and fleeing his past, in the final episode Don is bound to be either naked on a commune or dead. My advice for anxious viewers is hope for the best – but expect the worst.

‘Mad Men’ S7.5 E5 “Lost Horizon” Unhinges the SC&P Partners in the Wake of a Bumpy McCann Transition

Last week Don had to step in and comfort an office on the verge of mutiny after the McCann acquisition announcement, but this week I don’t think there is anyone optimistic enough to even offer platitudes. Wires hang from the ceiling, Shirley quits in (rightful) anticipation of racial discrimination and all that remains in the office are yesterday’s designs taped onto office windows. Only the most corporate minded folks like Harry and Pete have adjusted to the claustrophobic, grey hallways at McCann, but “Lost Horizons” isn’t about those two. Roger assures Peggy that his dealings with McCann were purely business, i.e. a powerful company offered big money for their small agency, but somehow he forget that the small agency culture allowed for the growth and innovation McCann-Erickson can ignore with the inertia of already held accounts and name recognition.

Last week Joan picked up on the distinctly not progressive McCann’s plans for her when Jim Hobart promised juicy accounts to all the partners – except her and this week we see she was right to be concerned. Although Peggy has always been the most outspoken beacon of feminism on the show, Joan has recently suffered the most at the hands of the ignorant men of McCann. After a disastrous transition meeting bringing on McCann’s Dennis to the Topaz account, Joan’s pursuit of fair treatment yields an unrelenting string of opposition to a female account executive despite her clear commitment and intelligence. She goes up the chain of command first to Ferguson Donnelly, who unabashedly agrees to help her if he can sleep with her, and finally to Jim Hobart who point black informs her neither Joan nor Peggy will keep their accounts intact after the transition. Early on Joan’s confidence and belief in the reason that secured her a partnership back at SC&P and causes her to turn down her new boyfriend’s willingness to support her should she quit. But unfortunately life isn’t always like an uplifting TV show.

Joan threatens Hobart with ACLU retaliation and that does get Hobart to sit back down on even kilter after standing over her threateningly, but he does is offer her 50 cents on the dollar of her acquisition money if she leaves immediately. The next day Joan tellingly takes a picture of her son and bids adieu to Roger, who in this new regime can’t save her. While we all appreciate the efforts of the Gloria Steinems and the Betty Freidans, a prolonged legal battle with the high probability of seeing a net loss just isn’t possible for Joan, a middle aged single mom at this point. The hardest scenes on Mad Men are the ones where we get reminded that the 60’s, and now the 70’s, was more than just day drinking and swanky suits. In fact it included quite a lot of hardcore sexism, racism and homophobia built into the infrastructure of American society. Joan’s symbolic departure dredged up some strong anger personally and yet her confrontational last episode (maybe?) draws a stark contrast with Peggy’s alternative mode of feminist defiance, thus offering hope that at least one SC&P female executive will defy the idiots at McCann.

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Fans got a rare Roger and Peggy scene this week that along with Bert’s mystical appearance in Don’s passenger seat added a surreal tone to this week’s episode. Of course, McCann has been dragging their feet on getting Peggy over to the office by not having her office ready and screwing up all the other arrangements, but as a result she wanders into Roger playing the organ at the old SC&P office. Apart from the clear funerary dirge for the agency, Redditor gr8ver proposed a Phantom of the Opera comparison with Roger playing the role of the unloved Erik and Peggy being Christina. Don has been grooming Peggy to replace him since season one, but as Roger relays through a good ol’ World War II story, he is going to give her the final push. Roger offers her Bert’s somewhat inexplicable painting of “an octopus pleasuring a woman” which she tries to deflect telling him, “you know I need to make men feel at ease,” but we all know that tack won’t work at McCann. At first Peggy sits rigidly in her chair listening to Roger talk at her, but a few vermouths later she rollerskates around the office to the tune of Roger’s organ. In Peggy’s final scene of the episode, she walks down the hallways of McCann cigarette in mouth, raybans on eyes and a tentacle porn painting by her side, all of which suggests the confidence Don has so obviously lost is hers for the taking.

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Although Meredith has been gradually taking up the mantle of best secretary ever, the inkling last week that Don lost his mojo has come to startling fruition in “Lost Horizon”. At the beginning of the episode Jim Hobart tells Don he is the key to ratcheting up McCann’s game and of course Don warms to the praise until he makes it to the Miller Beer meeting where a dashing, younger man delivers a golden era Don pitch. The noticeably unnamed man paints a picture of the company’s target audience with the same zeal and confidence (or maybe more) that Don used to have. Without anything like a support network or a strong sense of self, Don gazes out the window at the Empire State Building stewing on the potential of self destruction – and then actualizing it! What I mean by that is that Don drives to Racine in effort to catch the flighty Diana and falls into default mode putting on two different personas in an effort to extract information on her whereabouts from her ex-husband. In a final blow, Don doesn’t even manage to fool the ex because apparently random men turn up all the time looking for Diana. This week’s song choice, David Bowie’s 1969 “Space Oddity” underscores and perhaps foretells Don’s journey. By all accounts Don has finally snapped just like the song’s protagonist Major Tom he’s hurtling into orbit/ driving aimlessly towards St. Paul.

“Though I’m past
one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go”