Saturday, May 16, 2015

Some pre-finale thoughts on Mad Men's final stretch

"Is That All There Is?"  That's the name of the song by Peggy Lee that bookends "Severance," the first of Mad Men's final seven episodes, and it serves as a road map to understanding this half-season in the way that all of the show's premieres do.  It seems like a question everyone has been asking themselves for the entirety of the series, only now it's with an increasing sense of urgency.  At the end of last year's masterful "Waterloo," all of the main characters essentially sold their souls to McCann for a fat paycheck and a promise of retaining the status quo.  When we return to them, they've got money, they've got power, and yet "Severance" makes it clear that there's still something missing.

"Is that all there is?" was a question many fans were asking at the start of this final stretch as well.  The first few episodes divided the internet, with the louder party lamenting that they weren't momentous enough and with only seven episodes left, Matthew Weiner and his crew of writers were "wasting time."  It's easy to see where the frustration came from.  "Severance" deliberately called back to many of the show's early elements -- misogynist pigs give Peggy and Joan a hard time at an important meeting, the name "Rachel Menken" is spoken for the first time since season one, there's more Don philandering -- in a way that felt poetic and meaningful, but could just as simply be seen as evidence that Weiner no longer had anything new to say.  And it certainly didn't help that Don's latest brunette fling, Diane, was way more flat and boring than any of the other sirens he's bedded in the past.  It became a fun game to watch a new episode on Sunday, then log on to Twitter to see people arguing over whether or not it was a disappointment.

But here's the thing about Mad Men: it's a show that Matt Weiner has always made on his own terms, and if viewers were on the same wavelength as he was at any given moment, then that was just icing on the cake.  And he's gained enough goodwill that one would think he'd be trusted to figure out a way for everything to come together, but apparently that trust wasn't there for many fans and critics.  I thought it was bold of him to make episodes so willfully alienating to some people, but thankfully, I also wasn't one of those people being alienated.  I've loved every single episode that has aired this year.  (Yes, even "New Business," which many people are already calling one of the worst episodes in Mad Men history.  What a loopy, brilliant piece of comedy that episode was, and it was heartening to see that the show still had something that light in its arsenal this late in the game.)

Every season of Mad Men has its own individual themes that bubble up alongside the show's larger ideas, and from the first few moments of "Severance," season 7B has been pushing the notion of "the life not lived."  When you're first born, life is a massive series of branching paths, a river that breaks into trillions of tributaries.  But then you go down one of those tributaries, and suddenly those other ones start to disappear, like they never even existed.  This happens again and again, all throughout your life, until at some point that display of forks just becomes a single line.

These final episodes have been all about characters wrestling with their lives not lived, those tributaries they missed floating down because they chose another route.  These moments work because Mad Men has always had an excellent grasp of its own history, playing off the tapestry of connections that have accumulated between its characters to wring emotion out of a little glance or a knowing line.  When Pete catches a glimpse of Peggy standing amongst a gaggle of children in "Time & Life," we know he's thinking about what could have happened if she had told him about her pregnancy way back in season one.  Another episode opens with an idyllic scene of Don standing in the kitchen with Betty and his children, and it's so easy to imagine that this is what life would have been like if the two of them had stayed together, before Henry walks in and dissolves the dream.  The show has always drawn power from the way its stories allow us to reflect on aspects of our own lives, and by pondering the "life not lived" of these characters, we're also forced to think about all of the lives we'll never get to live.

McCann's decision to absorb Sterling Cooper & Partners into their own firm offered an opportunity for most of the main characters to forget about the life not lived in exchange for the life they've always wanted.  Ted gets the pharmaceutical he was dreaming about in "The Forecast;" Pete gets Nabisco; Roger gets Buick; and Don gets his own great white whale, Coca Cola.  But if nothing else, Mad Men is about how ephemeral everything is.  That beautiful ad you worked so hard at perfecting?  It will eventually stop being printed in magazines or aired on TV.  That person you're so sure will be the answer to your problems that you jump into an affair or relationship with them?  Sooner or later, you'll realize that they didn't fill that hole inside of you.  Happiness fades in the world of this series, so it's no surprise that many of these people got what they wanted and again realized that it's not enough.

Does my life mean anything?  Did I make the right choices?  Is this it?  These questions are swirling around every character, but especially Don.  He's searching for meaning, and he's willing to do anything to find it.  His whole story has been about wrapping himself up in layers to get away from his true self: a false identity, a Grace Kelly type of wife, a typical American family, success and money.  Season 7B has found him slowly stripping those layers from himself.  He gives away $1 million to Megan in "New Business," he walks away from advertising in "Lost Horizon," he relieves himself of his car in "The Milk & Honey Route."  Who knows where this is all leading to, but something tells me we won't see a return of the Don Draper we've known for seven seasons.

It's easy to see meta meanings in these ruminations on life and success during this whole half-season.  Creator Matt Weiner has spent the last 8 years crafting one of the greatest TV shows of all time, and now it's coming to a close, leaving him with the task of figuring out what life has in store for him next.  So in a way, the ending of Mad Men feels like it's mourning the end of Mad Men, as I'm sure Weiner was thinking about how they'd have to break down all the sets for good when he was writing about the gradual emptying of the offices in the Time-Life building.

There's been a heavy feeling of finality to these past six episodes; you can really see what Weiner meant when he said that every episode would feel like a finale in some way.  So many scenes feel like they could very well be the last we see of certain characters, and it's not hard to imagine a series finale that's just all Don.  If that's the case, then the show has left us with moments that feel right for everyone, in a story sense if not in a cosmic one.

Season 7B has been structured in a way that makes the whole thing feel like an epilogue to a version of the show that ended last year with Bert Cooper's haunting song-and-dance warning that the best things in life are free.  Everything after the move to the McCann offices, in particular, resembles the loose and somber nature of falling action.  If Peggy's last image is her walking into the new offices with sunglasses on and a cigarette hanging lazily out of her mouth, and Betty's final moment is her greeting death with a practiced smile and perfect hair, and Pete's ending is reuniting with Trudy and looking towards Kansas with a boundless sense of hope; then those are fitting and believable conclusions for them.

In this age, we place so much stock in "sticking the landing."  Years and years of satisfying viewing experiences can be washed away by a disappointing ending to far too many people.  Matt Weiner himself said it best when he told the New York Times, "If you do your ending right, then it is a great ending.  It's not a reflection on the entire TV show, but it is a great ending."  In the same way, a bad ending isn't a reflection on the entire TV show either.  Luckily, I have very little fear about the series finale of Mad Men, given that the six that came before it have been as challenging, massive, and gorgeous as ever.


  1. I, for one, loved New Business and thought it was hilarious. Megan's Mom just was NOT having it and was taking all of Don's shit! XD

    I'm about to watch the finale now, and while I know from an unwanted glimpse at the opening lines of a recap that it's not an all-Don affair, I am still anticipating some kind of callback to those opening credits so we'll see how it really is. I do also believe there's no real reason to see Peggy again with that ending previously, or Pete or Betty, but it's very possible they could all show up as well.

    I'm pretty sure the whole Diana affair won't come into play, since that seemed to be resolved with the upset husband, and any chance of Don's military history coming into play disseminated last episode as well. So I feel myself anticipating one last great idea from Don a la The Carousel speech from the Season 1 Finale.

    1. I'm interested in hearing your thoughts on the finale. (I was planning on writing something about it but the time has passed and everyone has said everything that can be said about it.) I just rewatched it now I went from a "yeah, that was pretty good" reaction on my first time around to a "wow, that was dazzling" now. It's one of my favorite finales in a long time, and I think the elegance of its construction and emotional layers really starts to show in subsequent viewings.