Wednesday, May 28, 2014

What Else I'm Watching: Mad Men

As I mentioned in yesterday's blog, I'm going to devote this non–Game of Thrones/Walking Dead week to say that yes, I actually am watching other television. But pairing up with Christopher Lockett on GoT and Joshua Winstead for TWD means they actually kick my butt to do blog posts, which is why I'm consistent with those shows now and nothing else.

But that doesn't mean I'm not watching. Because I'm watching a TON.

And among those shows is Mad Men. It feels like it just started a couple of weeks ago, and yet here we are at the "mid-season finale" (what a load of bunk, by the way; it's the same thing they did with Breaking Bad and it's no less irritating). These season has seen Don Draper having to make up for falling apart last weekend, drunkenly making his way through the office, destroying business and losing accounts. After being forced on a paid leave, this season he lies to everyone around him, not letting anyone know he's actually being forced to stay at home. Megan is off on the west coast living in Laurel Canyon, trying to get her acting career moving again and enjoying the freer side of the late-'60s lifestyle, not realizing that the reason her husband isn't actually with her has nothing to do with having to go to a 9-5 job every day, and everything to do with burying his own pride.

And yet... it all just felt wrong. Yes, in a way Mad Men is happening in real time. We're in season 7, and we're about 10 years after the first episode (it's mentioned briefly that it's 1959 in that premiere episode, although in the next episode they zip it to 1960), so with the exception of fast-forwarding some time here and there, time has passed for us the same way it's passed for them. And yet, with us being the voyeurs looking inward, we can look back and see how far they've come. And the way they're all treating Don now is justified in some ways, but hurts in others.

As I've said on here before, Mad Men is a great show, but when the scene features Peggy and Don, it raises the show up to something extraordinary. The chemistry between Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss is wonderful. There's no romantic inclinations between them at all — he stopped that in its tracks in the very first episode, after Joan counselled Peggy to "be there" for her boss should he need that sort of thing and Peggy decided to try it — but instead they are like mentor and student... and then colleagues, then equals, and rivals. Her trajectory has been upwards, with a few bumps along the way, while he started the series near the top, then went through the stratosphere, and then his rock bottom. Emotionally and personally, Peggy hit rock bottom, too: we all remember her getting pregnant by Pete and suffering an emotional breakdown because of the way she buried the reality of what was happening to her. She didn't hide the pregnancy; she refused to acknowledge it. And when a baby suddenly came out of her, her mental collapse was complete. She was self-destructive, giving the child away, lying to Pete and everyone around her... and Don was the only one sitting by her side. Not being a shoulder to cry on, but the giver of harsh words, telling her to get up, face the world, become another person, and bury this. At once he was in her corner, but also pushing her out of that corner and telling her to give it a stiff upper lip. He was the only one she could confide in, the only one who figured out what had happened and searched for her until he found her in that hospital bed... but maybe the advice he gave her was more destructive than helpful. Their rivalry, which has jumped back and forth every season from her appealing to him and him shooting her down, to him coming to her with praise and her refusing to accept it, and then these tiny moments where they're both on the same page, as they were this year dancing in Peggy's office on a weekend as she's struggling with the copy for the ad. I still think "The Suitcase" is THE single best episode of the series, and it sits right in the middle of the show's run, like the perfect centrepiece from which every episode grows, and that has everything to do with Moss and Hamm just killing every scene.

I love this dress SO MUCH.
Joan has shown nothing but contempt for Don this season, and I'll have to admit, in the beginning I was confused as to why. She's a partner only because she spread her legs for a client and was offered a partnership to do so, and Don was the only one of the partners who found this reprehensible. He rushed to her apartment to tell her not to do this, that she's better than this, and she just smiled and kissed him and patted him on the cheek. He didn't realize she'd already done the deed, and she didn't tell him. But she knew that he cared for her. So why is she SO angry with him now? In his drunken phase, he came in and imploded the company; he drove clients away; he lost all of the partners money. If Joan was going to lose her dignity and sense of self-worth, the least she could do is pad her pockets with enough money that her son will have a better life. But now Don took away that money, her chance at becoming a millionaire, and she's furious for it. All of the men sitting at the partners table are advertising geniuses who worked their way to get there: Joan is a secretary who slept with an important client to get the business. In some ways, she doesn't seem to deserve a spot at that table. But we know how smart Joan is, how much of a lynchpin she's always been for that company, how she's kept things running smoothly behind the scenes, and how Sterling-Cooper owes much of what it is to how she kept the daily operations going, and was often even helping out with ad copy. And what she was asked to do was unforgivable. So yes, Joan deserves her spot at that table, and deserves to be angry at Don for what he did to hurt that position. Still, every time she glared at him this season or raised her hand to vote to turf him, I was saddened. I miss the camaraderie the two of them had, and the way he was always there to talk to her, not taking advantage of her the way Roger did.

And then there's Pete. Just as that hairline recedes more every year (they shave it on the show to make it look more severe than it actually is), so do Pete's morals. As he's cavorting with women, he becomes furious if he thinks his wife might be out on a date. He's always been a boor, but the scene when he took his beer bottle and stuffed it into the cake that his wife had made was classic Pete. And yet of all the people, this guy who has hated Don from the very beginning, the one who found out about Dick Whitman in season 1 and threatened to spill the beans, is the one who's in his corner now. Pete is nothing if not endlessly pragmatic. Despite everything, he knows that Don is great at what he does (when sober) and that he deserves a second chance, if only to put more cash into Pete's pockets. He doesn't care about retribution; he just wants Don back on the horse making money for the company.

Betty has been relegated to a side story, as have her children (which is too bad, because Kiernan Shipka just gets better and better every year as Sally Draper), but since the central story is Don, there's not a lot to be covered with them anymore if they're no longer in his life.

Megan is younger than Don, and he warned her early on that he worried their age difference might become a problem, but now that he's in a crisis at work, but she's wanting to live in the 1960s of free love and flower children, the generation gap has become insurmountable. We only see them together a couple of times this season, and otherwise he's in New York while she's talking to him on her hideous green phone (my parents totally had that phone). At one point she breaks down, having discovered that he's been lying to her about his job, and she tells him that it's over. But just as Don doesn't realize that being put on indefinite leave at the company means he's being turfed and can never go back, he doesn't seem to grasp that Megan telling him that it's over means IT IS OVER. She's ready to move on, he just seems to be in the way when he comes to her place, and when at one point he tries to pawn off one of his stray cats on her — Anna Draper's niece — Megan gives her some brief help before writing her a cheque to send her on her way. Of course, much of that had to do with the fact that Stephanie casually said she knew everything about Don, whom Megan still finds somewhat of an enigma, and she no longer wanted this person in her house. But on another level, she's finished with Don, and doesn't want to be picking up the pieces of his life anymore.

And so we come to the final episode. A man has just set foot on the moon, changing the world and the way we see it forever. Don has tried to come back to work, but has been turned into a guy writing tags for Peggy, taking orders from underlings, and being imprisoned by a partners contract that's as stifling as it is condescending. Don should be at the top of his game, but because he let his personal demons take over — and then affect those around him — he's paying the price. Watching him sit at a typewriter or being lambasted in meetings rather than being treated with some deference and respect is SO painful at times. We can't help but think how much he's helped every one of these people around him, how he's been there for them when they were down. But then we can't help but remember that each one of these people tried to help him when he was at the bottom, and he pushed them all away. Now that he's sober, with his head hanging in submission, they're not ready to forgive him easily. And despite him kidding himself into thinking he'll be safe, that his marriage will survive, and that he'll claw his way back to being the Don Draper of old, it's over. As a man makes a giant leap for mankind, Don lets go of the reins of the Burger Chef account, and tells Peggy it's hers now. He calls Megan and finally accepts that she's done with him. And then Bert Cooper dies.

Bert's death hits Roger the hardest, obviously, since the two men were once the only two names on that partner's wall. But in the midst of his grief, and knowing he's about to lose Don for good, he makes a play no one saw coming: he goes to McCann and offers them the company. McCann has wanted Sterling-Cooper — and specifically, Don — for some time now. They made Don a sweet offer earlier this season, and he came storming into Sterling-Cooper in the midst of his leave and waved the offer in Roger's face, who haughtily told him to take it. But Don just couldn't do it. However, he gave Roger the card that Roger needed, and knowing how badly they wanted Don, he knew this could be his way out. Roger's just been sitting in that office, drinking and not doing much, and he's been ready to move on for a long time. The ad agency is just a hobby — and more often than not, an albatross around his neck — and he's wanted a way out. But he needed to get his money out of the deal first.

So when he goes to the other partners and tells them what he's done, they're at first horrified, and then suddenly pleased when they know how much they stand to gain from this. All the money (and more) that they believe Don stole from them due to his behaviour last season is now back in their pockets, and it's all because of Don. Roger is the one who entirely orchestrated the deal, but it's the creatives they want. Say what you want about McCann, but unlike the gong show that Sterling-Cooper-Draper-whatever has become, McCann doesn't put the money guys before the creatives. They know that by buying the company, what they're getting is Ted and Don. Don manages to get Ted on board for the deal, and in doing so, helps Roger seal it. After the Season Where Don Was Humbled, he walks out of the meeting with everyone suddenly forgiving him (amazing how you forget all the good Don has done when he's cost you a million dollars, and then forget that you hated him when he gets it back for you) and Don once again on top. He's running the show, he's back where he should be, and he's in charge.

But back to Bert. We see Bert for the last time sitting on his couch, smiling as he sees man take a step on the moon. And happy in knowing the world has changed in 1969, he dies. Robert Morse found fame in the Broadway musical How to Succeed in Business without Trying, playing a young up-and-coming executive who tries to prove himself in a corporation. Here's a scene of him in that musical, when he was just a tad younger than Don Draper is supposed to be at the same time:

So when Don leaves the meeting and suddenly turns to see a vision of Bert Cooper singing and dancing (in sock feet, of course!) the song "The Best Things in Life Are Free," it was an overwhelmingly joyful moment. I glanced over at my husband, who had a big silly grin on his face that matched my own. What a wonderful, perfect way to send off that character, and to pay tribute to the actor's own background and significance during the very time period the show is portraying. In this moment, Don realizes that it's not all about money and power and finding your way to the top; it's about everything else. It's about the life he's lived, the people he's lived it with, and the experiences he's had. Even the terrible things that happened to him are important, because they made him who he is.

"Love can come to everyone, the best things in life are free."

But Don just made millions for Sterling-Cooper. He's running the show again. So what's the significance of this song? I'd like to think that Don will move on. If the series had ended here (and it very well could have) we would all be satisfied that Don got his mojo back, and that he's back on top. But there are seven more episodes, and I doubt they'll be episodes of him showing how awesome he is and doing more Kodak carousel–type pitches. I'd love to see Don striking out on his own, becoming his own person, and finding a way to embrace the Dick Whitman he once was and know that it's because of that man that he's the Don Draper he now is. Maybe this will mean him being pulled up to the top of McCann and becoming a partner there, and making that company McCann-Draper. Maybe they'll have him set up a satellite office elsewhere, where he can begin again. What I want is to see him moving forward, and this episode would indicate just that.

Despite everything, despite Don being such a loathsome character at times, we still want to see him win, just like we want all of our antiheroes to — see Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, Walter White. I'm happy to know they're returning for a final seven episodes, to wrap up everything, help Don find some peace, and show us where they'll be headed in the 1970s. (Spoiler: bell bottoms, oil crisis, and glam rock.)


Graeme said...

I don't think Don is leaving Sterling Cooper at all. He just helped Roger engineer a deal that would keep SCP not only alive but with him as an essential part. (A fascinating part of the narrative for this season that I'm surprised you didn't cover). He just convinced Ted to stay. He tells Peggy he's not staying for the announcement of Bert's death because he's "going back to work". I think he's staying. Whether he's going insane, dying or going to hate it at the McCann-owned SCP remains to be seen.

Nikki Stafford said...

And this is why I don't blog as often as I once did - I spend so much time going back up into the piece and adding new material that I don't actually finish the piece at hand. I thought I had covered the material about Roger's deal with McCann, and clearly I left it out completely. Duh.

Nikki Stafford said...

I'm on a mobile phone right now and if I delete any text it no longer allows me to type, so I'll save the rest of my comments til later, but thank you for pointing out the omission!

Graeme said...

Also...another reason why I don't think Don is leaving at all: if he does leave the McCann deal goes south (it's based on getting him and Ted for the sake of getting Buick), meaning Ted has rejoined for nothing, Joan is out of a million dollar payout again and all the good will he just rebought is for naught.

Nikki Stafford said...

Now updated, with all of the stuff that was in my head now actually on the blog. (Amazing how after all these years I STILL haven't managed to convey things telepathically.) I would argue that Roger engineered the deal, not Roger and Don, although I will concede that if Ted was part of the deal, and Don was key in convincing Ted to do that, he helped. But it was Roger who got the deal on the table in the first place.

When I said he was leaving Sterling-Cooper, I meant that. SC pretty much doesn't exist now. I'd like to see him running McCann, or, to be honest, striking out on his own, but as you say, if he's key to the deal that won't be happening. But as he leaves the building at the end, he's leaving Sterling-Cooper, and everything it once was. It's a completely different company now. Probably same building, but different name, different ownership, and he'll be treated very differently.

Nikki Stafford said...

I was going to write a big piece on Orphan Black today, but after messing up the ending of this one so spectacularly, I think I'll set blogging aside once again. Blergh.

Scot said...

Okay, you two should jointly blog about a show together. Hint, hint.

Nikki Stafford said...

Nah, Graeme and I have no interests in common.


Dusk said...

Whose your favorite OB clone? I feel in love with the show and Alison during last season's potluck episode but Helena singing on the road trip makes her the most adorable homicidal maniac ever.

Anonymous said...

All season I thought the only satisfying ending to the show would be Don and Peggy starting their own agency together as equal partners (possibly with Roger) I thought they may be heading there but not after the finale.

The whole threesome scene with Megan didn't feel right. I've always thought of her as the most well-adjusted character on the show and didn't think she would go there. But I guess I didn't live the 60's.

Roger has always been my favorite character and I was proud of the way he stood by Don this season.

I want to hate Cutler but think Harry Hamlin is so awesome that it's hard to. Just think if they jump ahead 15 years he can meet his younger self in Michael Kuzak (I feel old).

Nice to see your thought on other stuff Nikki - I'd like to hear your opinions on Veep & Silicon Valley.

-Tim Alan