“Mad Men”: A wearying season finale

"Mad Men's" finale echoes the show's themes a little too faithfully, another off note in an uneven season

Topics: Mad Men, TV, Television, Editor's Picks,

"Mad Men": A wearying season finaleJon Hamm in "Mad Men"
For a very different take on the Mad Men finale check out Willa Paskin’s piece here.

I have to assume that Matthew Weiner was joking when he promised that “The Phantom,” the fifth-season finale of “Mad Men,” would be “orgasmic” – but given that the episode he co-wrote and directed shows two dogs humping in its final moments, I’m not sure what to think. And to quote Joan, “I’m sorry, but I think someone has to voice the negatives.” Intended to show the sad reality of Peggy’s highly anticipated first business trip, those dogs are a shocking lapse of taste in a show famous for its sophistication and subtlety.

Even worse, they were the one unfamiliar element in an episode built largely of scenes that triggered a weary déjà vu: A depressed Megan impersonates Betty drinking wine and watching TV (but still ready to hump Don like a dog the moment he comes home); Roger insinuates his way into bed with a woman; Pete bemoans not getting what he wants out of life; Joan thinks she should have had sex with a man to make things all better; Don makes a decision without consulting his partners, considers infidelity in a bar while drinking an old-fashioned (get it?) and ponders mortality while on laughing gas. In a near-parody of the series’ famous angst, that substance gives Don not the pleasant, giggly high most people experience, but a self-flagellating hallucination in which his dead brother Adam tells him he’s not just a pain in the jaw, but rotten to the core. As Stan put it in his usual pithy manner, “I’m bored with this dynamic.”

Pete’s lust object, Beth, sings the praises of electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) while regretfully noting that it wipes out several months of memory. “It’s going to be different after,” she guarantees. “It always is.” I hope that the sixth season of “Mad Men” fulfills that promise, and that the hiatus wipes out my memory of this weak finish to what’s been a very uneven season. But maybe I’m engaging in the same wishful thinking as Don, who swears that “It will go away; it always does” about the toothache that nearly costs him his jaw.



Of course, like much of the show’s dialogue, Don’s comment has another meaning, about his hope that his wife’s discontent will just disappear – conveniently forgetting that what actually disappears is the wife. When he remembers this fact, he stops playing the beast to Megan’s beauty and resumes his role as dashing hero by giving her the role that she craves – not as his wife, but as the star of his client’s commercial. In doing so, he both fulfills and contradicts his assertion that “You want to be somebody’s discovery, not somebody’s wife.” Don has indeed discovered Megan, pulling her from the secretarial pool into his arms and then his life, and giving her the exposure she needs as an actress after rediscovering her on film. That moment, which seems intended to conjure the same heart-tug that we felt a few years ago when Don described the wheel of life conveyed in family pictures, is played out without his sonorous narration, and it says little on its own. We already know how striking Jessica Pare is as Megan, and Jon Hamm’s usually eloquent facial expressions add nothing to that knowledge.

The intended payoff to this scene comes shortly thereafter, when we see Megan in colorful storybook splendor, preparing to become somebody’s discovery after getting all her career breaks as somebody’s wife. Having done what he’d previously claimed he couldn’t do, Don has chosen to launch Megan’s dreams and let her go. He walks away from her bright future into darkness, stepping seamlessly into a bar where the opening scene of the series is reenacted when a young woman asks him to light her cigarette.

Back at the very beginning of “Mad Men,” Don’s cigarette was lit by a waiter who also gave him inspiration for an ad campaign. Now Don lights the aspirations of others – first Peggy, and now Megan – only to watch them go. As he says to Peggy when he runs into her at the movie theater they’ve both taken refuge in: “That’s what happens when you help someone — they succeed and move on.” Peggy prompts him to the appropriate emotion by asking, “Don’t you want them to?” but his perfunctory “I’m proud of you” is accompanied by the plaintive qualifier, “I just didn’t know it would be without me.”

As this shift plays out, the theme music from the James Bond film “You Only Live Twice” rises up, underlining the comparisons some of us have previously drawn between Don and that big-screen hero of the 1960s. But Don has already lived twice – as Dick and as Don – even before his recent do-over of married life, followed by a re-boot of his once dynamic career. And then there’s the fact that the James Bond film he and Peggy are watching is the 1967 spoof “Casino Royale,” which mockingly deflated that superhero’s charms and powers, just as Don’s have been knocked down the past two seasons. Can he really pull off that elusive third act? Or is he too old-fashioned to change? His buttoned up appearance doesn’t bode well, and neither does his weary but susceptible look when the girl at the bar asks if he’s alone. Of course he is – he’s Don Draper, the existential man.

By contrast, another man who usually can’t bear to do anything alone, Roger, bares it all on his own, having realized he needs another dose of LSD to “really appreciate here” rather than believing as Lane did that something better lies out there. Hoping that Megan’s mother, Marie, will be the chaperone that he promised but failed to provide, he accepts her refusal to take care of him during an acid trip with surprisingly good grace. Taking the leap into bliss by himself suggests once again that Roger might become one of the rare “elders” who adapts to the changing times.

Nakedly greeting awareness and bedding Marie with joie de vivre, Roger fulfills the Bob Dylan lyric that “I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now,” but our pink-cheeked lad Pete seems to be moving in the opposite direction. Rekindling his affair with Beth, he describes it as an act that he thought would make aging seem worthwhile. He wanted to prove he knew things young people didn’t (what those are is left unstated, but not screwing your train-buddy’s wife obviously isn’t one of them). After watching the season premiere, I described Pete as “apparently one of those people for whom being young is like the flu: something you get over and move on from as soon as you can.” But it’s Beth who nails Pete in more than the carnal sense when she says that they both have the same problem — only she’s aware she has it and Pete isn’t. And when a woman with amnesia understands things better than you do, you’re in trouble.

Even when he finally grasps his fundamental unhappiness – saying the infatuation with Beth was merely a “temporary bandage on a permanent wound” — Pete places the blame outside himself as usual. Saying he’s realized that everything he has isn’t right, he fails to understand that what needs to be made right isn’t what he has, but what he thinks and feels about it all. As Trudy rightly scolds him, it’s all gloom and doom with Pete, who finds a pool too terrifyingly permanent, perhaps because it’s a hole in the ground like a grave. Even when Trudy grants his wish for a city apartment, Pete doesn’t look relieved or happy, and when we last see him, he’s closed within himself, following his own private drummer on headphones.

Pete’s solipsism is also on display when he crows to Beth, “Don’t tell me you don’t feel better; don’t tell me you’re not happy right now” after they make love. Like Megan in her screen test footage, Beth is silent, unable to communicate to the man trying to capture her with his adoring but confining gaze. It’s only after Pete accuses Howard of forcing her into ECT and asks her to run away with him to L.A. (where he’s sure the sun will fix them both right up) that Beth indicates she’s acting on her own free will, explaining that the treatments rescue her from suicidal despair, and correcting Pete’s talk of love by calmly stating that they don’t really know each other. Pete’s so focused on his own desires that he doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know, but the real insult occurs when Beth’s memory of him has been erased, an unbearable negation of that self-importance Pete is always fighting for. Thus provoked, he insults Howard as the “most disgusting person” he’s ever seen and picks not just one but two fights on the train, only to end this season zero for three on his boxing score card.

But Pete’s not the only one mystified about women. Having lost Peggy’s insight into female consumers, Rizzo and Ginsberg come up with a disastrous campaign for Topaz pantyhose: “Always less expensive. Never cheap.” As the client notes, “cheap isn’t part of any girl’s fantasy,” and by putting the word out there, you put it in the customer’s mind even with a “never” in front of it. Some of us would argue that’s true of how women are sometimes portrayed on the show. While the show’s creator agrees with many of its fans that Joan’s sleeping with a client was empowering, putting that action into the mind of both the male characters and viewers changes things. Even Joan seems to have shifted her view of herself, guiltily telling Don she should have given Lane what he wanted, as if it’s her obligation to sexually service any man who needs her – a far cry from the Joan who’s firmly set her own terms with men for most of the series. (Greg being a notable exception until she dumped him.) Her lack of confidence in her new role as partner is more understandable, as she stares at Lane’s empty chair in meetings and tries to replace the financial perspective he provided, only to rely on Don to make an executive decision about Lane’s insurance. By the end of the episode, she seems more confident, spray painting the carpet in the new offices they’re renting to mark where they’ll cut in a staircase, and taking her place in the middle of the superhero formation that the partners strike in silhouette.

It’s not just at SCD that women are struggling to find their place. While Peggy seems to be thriving in her new job, trusted to win over a new client and bossing around her underlings Don Draper style, even she has to adopt a nasty habit to please her boss, who not only tells her to start smoking but immediately redefines her as a “smoker” over all rational objections. Yet he shows an open mind to changing mores by suggesting of the cigarette campaign, “It’s gotta make noise, maybe she lights it herself,” which we know Peggy can. Like Megan and Joan, Peggy’s been given her start by men, even if she has to carry things from there, but as Ted Chaough foresees, the time is coming when a woman won’t even need that initial spark.

The contrast is sharply drawn between that possibility and the status of an older generation of women. Lane’s widow, Rebecca, seems more upset that he may have had other women than that he’s dead, and is furious at Don for “filling a man like that with ambition,” as if Lane’s real sin was thinking more of himself than she deems he should have. Megan’s mother, Marie, is so bitter about her own constricted life that she belittles Megan’s dreams as childish by saying that “not every little girl gets to do what they want.” She thinks Megan is selfish because Don gives her everything she wants while she refuses to have his child, and accuses her of chasing a phantom. Separately she advises Don that Megan has an artistic temperament but no talent and suggests that by waiting it out, he’ll get the life he desires. But we can see how well this worked out for the Calvets, with the father having affairs and the mother calling her daughter a little bitch. Waiting for people to abandon their dreams and settle for what they can get is exactly the type of time-honored advice that this younger generation is rejecting, in large part because they’ve seen the toll that these choices have taken on their parents.

In giving Megan the opportunity she craves, Don seems to overturn this tradition and make good on his promise to support her dreams. As with Roger’s creeping desire for awareness, age needn’t be a barrier to change – just as Pete’s youth is wasted as a gift that he refuses to acknowledge. “I’ll have the same view as you do,” he tells Don in contemplating their new offices, to which Don wryly responds, “Congratulations.” But while Pete’s views seem clear – the ones mirrored in those eyes that look like Beth’s — Don’s remain a mystery, hidden behind world-weary eyes that contemplate a Megan look-alike at the end of the bar while he ponders the deceptively simple question, “Are you alone?” It’s a question that defines both Dick Whitman’s and Don Draper’s lives. If Dick wasn’t alone after he left home, he was once his brother Adam hung himself. And Don Draper only let Anna and now Megan know his real self.

“It’s easy to have, not easy to win,” Peggy says to Don about the cigarette account he’s called easy money. But for Don, the opposite has always been true. He wins over women and clients easily, but the having is where he stumbles. “I kept thinking it would go away,” he tells the dentist about his pain, an understandable idea from a man who never knew his mother, was given nothing by anyone and has clawed his way to what he has.

He told the Dow clients that happiness is just the moment before you want more happiness. But he really understands happiness to be the moment before you expect it all to be ripped away from you – and the temptation to preempt that loss and destroy it yourself can be overpowering. We end this season with the question of whether Don will pull happiness out of his life by its bloody roots, or whether he will choose to suffer the complicated pain of real and selfless love.

Nelle Engoron is a freelance writer, an Open Salon blogger and the author of "Mad Men Unmasked: Decoding Season 4."

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>