"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

Published June 11, 2012 12:30PM (EDT)

Jon Hamm in "Mad Men"
Jon 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.

By Nelle Engoron

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

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