June 27th, 2013
Mark: What a fantastic finale that was. A good riposte to the claim last year that Mad Men’s storytelling jumped the shark, becoming more reliant on cheap shock value because Weiner had run out of ideas. If Megan had died the way people thought she would the critics might have had a case, but as it was we got a typically understated episode, with an ending so enigmatic only someone watching closely would be able to properly understand it. My partner burst into tears when Sally and Don exchanged glances, but a casual viewer would be left scratching their head. Quietly devastating. Proper Mad Men.
Matt Weiner often talks about his writing process starting with the last image and I love the idea that he began with the simultaneously comprehending and uncomprehending look (amazing acting!) Sally gives Don just before the before the credits roll. It was so moving and funny at the same time. Partly it was the contrast, the shock of ending on something so light after months of emotional turmoil. But mostly it was the just the sudden recognition of the surprisingly gentle truth that this was the only way the story could end.
Adam: Sally saw Don in that moment. It’s a real connection, maybe as real as the moment in the Rosens’ apartment. Don is saying that’s not all there is to me – he’s opening up and with that comes the possibility to, if not erase the scarring, maybe heal the terrible wound he’s caused. It’s brave because it might not work out. Exquisite stuff really – moving and hopeful despite everything. All the relentless godawfulness.
Mark: The little boy on the step is clever. He’s black as opposed to white working class poor, but he could easily stand in for Don, and the lolly a Hershey’s bar. It sticks out like a laser, doesn’t it? Possibly the only sweet thing in that child’s life…..
Adam: Popsicle? It’s hard to imagine that kid gets to enjoy the “ritual” from Peggy’s popsicle pitch on a day to day basis. Thinking about it “take it, break it, share it and love it” might have been Peggy’s but it’s pure Don, it’s his pitch this episode all over, and like his pitch – assuming that is a popsicle – it’s exposed as a lie. No idea if that was intended but it works for me
Mark: It’s definitely a Popsicle.
Adam: On a way lighter tip, they’ve been having fun with the sound design over the last few episodes. The squeak of Don’s shoes, and in this episode Megan’s leather tank top, were skewed just enough to sound sodden.
Mark: See also: the sound effects when Pete pops home to say goodbye to Tammy. Is that the wind or the Californian surf?
Adam: I guess Megan’s lost at sea too. Don might be the villain in their marriage, but neither of them have put the work into figuring out where it’s going. Not that Don’s made approaching the subject easy, mind you. Unsurprisingly Megan’s pretty much left Don to his misery all season, afraid to rock the boat (and other nautical metaphors). What energy she can muster has been focussed on her burgeoning career, and why not? At least she has influence over that area of her life. At least it brings her self worth and pleasure.
Unlike Don, Megan’s mostly floundering efforts to bring about change have focused on their marriage. She’s tried to reassure Don that her career doesn’t amount to abandoning him, that she’s there for him. Primarily she’s tried to get him to see her, to give her attention, good or bad. She teases that she’s a lying, cheating whore, she dances with other men, she dresses provocatively, she breaks the flow of a conversation to say “hello”. Hey, if she gets him angry that’s something. Better yet it might tip over, bring on one of Season 5’s barnstorming rows – stop them talking about the riots and wars out there and fix their attention on their devastated relationship.
Mark: I think it was important that it didn’t end on some cataclysmically significant plot beat for their relationship, though.
Adam: The telegraphing was bleaker than the reality. Don’s line “They’re writing my wife out of her own show” had me very worried.
I liked that it was Megan walking out at the end, hopefully in the direction of Hollywood. Great to see her given some agency – the kind that can end a marriage and make a career – instead of the largely passive role she’s been given all season. Don did what he did for good reasons, noble reasons even, but at this point in their marriage, seriously, fuck him and his big decisions. That’s why the partner meeting was more satisfying than sad. Everyone finally got together and said NO.
Mark: It still made me feel sad, though, because while Megan’s response was understandable, I just don’t think Don had any other choice.
The locus of change has to be the children. That’s why the penultimate episode was bookended by an image of Don curled up in the foetus position. Okay, on one level it was there to illustrate that throughout The Quality of Mercy Don was behaving like a selfish, destructive satanbaby, but a deeper reading, a reading that takes into account the entire thematic context of the season, points to Don having to go back and start from the beginning in order to repair his – and excuse the hippydom here! – inner child. It’s only by placing himself in the position of a child damaged by a collapse of stability and love that he can reclaim the parent both he and his own children have lost. He’s starting small – literally – and hopefully working out from there.
Adam: As you’ve pointed out, Don hasn’t just mistreated his children, he’s systematically infantalised and abused the women in his life to the point where things have become dangerously blurry. Favors saw Sally in effect become one of his women, and Crash saw his efforts to dominate Sylvia reach pathological proportions.
Mark: While Don was ranting and raving and not making much sense in The Crash, his genius was still hard at work. That oatmeal advert gave him the inspiration for the only solid pitch he’s made all season, and of course entirely informed his decision at the end. Midway through the bullshit about lovely Daddies and their sons, he suddenly switches his identification from the child to the parent, realising that in order for history not to repeat itself, he has to be there for his kids.
Adam: A fantasy about an idyllic parent child relationship must strike him as a lie waaay too far. This in an episode where Sally and Don both get in trouble for drinking and both get thrown out of school, and in season which has seen lots of uncomfortable equivalences set up between them and a deep betrayal of parental trust.
I like how Ted suggests that Don have a drink in advance of the meeting with Hershey’s. Just a little jab at the alcoholic who ruined his plans there, but a well aimed one.
Mark: It’s amazing to watch the negative space, the absence, of the previous pitches suddenly become visible, the way Don goes from describing a child’s fantasy of a good parent to exactly why that child is fantasising in the first place. It’s a classic Don Draper pitch in some ways, utilising his own psychological processes in order to sell product.
Adam: More specifically it was quintessential Season 6 Don Draper. His failed pitch to Hershey’s was simply the logical conclusion of a trend which started in earnest Season 5 when he pitched to Jaguar and Dow Chemical and ran through this season.
Mark: Yeah, he oversteps the line because in that moment it’s more important he express his gratitude to Hershey’s, what they symbolised for him when he was growing up, and that he be a whole person. It’s like if he broke down in tears in the middle of the Carousel pitch and started wailing about how much he loved Betty or something!
“Bigger than advertising”? Damn right it is. People thought this was a season that would end on Don going to California. In fact he thought it would too. But this wasn’t about career changes, starting with a desk and building a company – it was about making enough chocolate to build a town.
Adam: He’s been building since mid-season. SC&P is teeming. It even has satellites, for godsake, which he’s helped spawn. Ultimately what Don needs to build isn’t a bigger agency. Despite all his efforts over the history of the show, work – advertising – can only do so much for Don. It can’t be a replacement for a life, and that’s the point here: his increasing discomfort with what he does comes down to the fact that his job will never make him whole no matter how many dreams he manufactures. Neatly explains why he’s been so reluctant to sell anything this season. For Don it’s all exhausting bullshit. Negative space, you say? There’s literally nothing there.
Besides, something the size of SC&P ends up taking care of itself. A reality which Don comes face to face with when the partners revolt, but not one which can have come as much of a surprise. Don’s allowed himself to be swamped by the influx of bodies and talent ever since SCDP and CGC merged. One suspects it was part of his drive to force a crisis, or ruin himself in the process. Make yourself superfluous enough and eventually someone with authority and influence will notice, and of course they did.
Mark: Good, consistent television allows you to test your models, and I was very happy to see that In Care Of recapitulated so much of what happened in The Doorway. See? I said Don disappeared in Hawaii, didn’t I? And this time as soon as Sheraton arrived: POOF! And Ted, Don’s better half all season (pun intended), also finds himself catching the Hawaiian bug. It’s clearly not a coincidence that it’s another christmas vacation being mooted, another holiday in paradise for a star crossed couple who want to get away from their lives for a little while, who want to slough off their suits, their selves, and ‘jump off’.
Adam: It’s all very circular, isn’t it? Desperate couples heading off into the light and blue in an effort to heal something. A character with a dissolving sense of identity disappearing overboard.
Mark: She takes Pete with her, too. Dorothy’s death frees Pete up completely. No wonder he’s off to California, Mad Men’s perennial “soft” place. His old identity is in tatters.
The other interesting feature of Sheraton’s return is that the doubling at the heart of Don Draper resurfaced, only this time he confronted it. He allowed it a voice. As I said in my notes for The Doorway, to do so is professional suicide – nobody at SC&P wants to hear from Dick – but on a personal level, it may be one of the bravest acts Don’s ever taken. And it made me understand something. Every time Don does something gamechanging, from getting Lane to fire the partners in season 3, to writing The Letter, to masterminding the merger this time around, it’s all the product of his eternally thwarted desire to come clean and be honest about his past. All of these things are ways of paying off the universe – massive over compensations that, somewhere in his mind, allow him to defer the moment of real, substantive, personal change.
Adam: The community Don needs to build has to start with his kids and take in the other important relationships in his life. Don’s constructed a fabulous career, but he’s put precious little effort into family and friends. The suggestion seems to be that if he manages to work on that aspect then maybe he’ll be able to overcome some of the terrible identity confusion and loneliness which plagues him. As Ted says (Mark: And Duck!), family can be a shelter from the chaos of the world. Something Don didn’t get the chance to learn as a child, but perhaps something he’s learning now.
At this juncture it’s tempting to read Mad Men as coming out strongly in defence of family. Nice to know its definition includes Joan’s profoundly non traditional Thanksgiving table setting! How far she’s come, eh?
Roger sitting down with his son brought a lump to my throat. The guy’s an irresponsible child himself, but he’s trying. He’ll probably fail but, oh God, he wants a chance.
Mark: I think you’re being a little too pessimistic. Fuck up, yes – of course he’ll fuck up. But “fail”? The only way he can fail is by not trying.
Yes, it was kind of fantastic that the titular Doorway of the first episode scaled down to Joan’s front door. They’re not all the same after all, eh, Roger? What a lovely end to his story this season. And, yeah, it’s good that family, while obviously something very special in the MM universe, doesn’t have to mean 2.4 kids, etc, just somewhere where the chocolate flows.
I think the scene at Joan’s points out that it’s about having roots as much as anything else. And how we have the power, right now, to define where those roots are. Don may not have had much of a childhood, for instance, but he has people around who can love him now, he just has to let them in. Families can take whatever shape you want – just ask Roger. He’s so lonely right now, I doubt he gives a shit what kind of box they come wrapped in.
Adam: A box with Bob Benson and Gail Harris in it.
Mark: We musn’t forget the social change aspect of the Thanksgiving dinner either. The scene is typical of the way Mad Men handles this sort of thing – a bunch of people from diverse groups thrown together not because of any direct crusading, paradigm shifts or psychological breakthroughs, but by random circumstance. And what you end up with is Roger Sterling – of all people! – having to spend his holidays with this guy.
And that’s great.
Adam: Love how house proud Bob is in that apron.
Mark: The door opens for people, just slightly, and eventually everything comes rushing through. We get to scry the future a lot in Mad Men, from the angry conservatives who’ll help Reagan take power in 1980 in A Tale of Two Cities, to the intolerant face of the new churches of the 1970’s and beyond who rear their head in the form of the minister this time around, but this future, the future represented by Joan’s Thanksgiving, where family takes on an entirely new meaning and people are given so many more chances for happiness, is one I’m more than happy to see.
Adam: Yeah, even if it doesn’t end up going anywhere permanent for the characters in question,. there’s a way in which that doesn’t matter. What matters is that right now a door is open and those people are in that room. Works brilliantly in counterpoint to the scene with Bob and Roger in Roger’s office too. All that macho marking of territory crap that Roger loves to pull turned on its head.
Mark: We’re out of time and yanking the plug on this one. We’ll be back with part two at the weekend, where we’ll be concentrating on some of the weirder stuff….