ames Wolcott on the Mad Men Finale

20 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Don Draper is, in the end, just a baby boomer’s dad.

So now it’s finally over, after seven seasons of elaborate foreplay, and everyone can now pretend that there is a yearning hole in their Sunday night viewing, a Sabbath ritual, than can never be truly fulfillingly filled—until of course the next new thing comes along sufficient in mystery, eros, and OMG Twitterific frissons. Matthew Weiner, the creator of “Mad Men,” brought his melodrama of 1960s America to an end Sunday night, closing with an intriguing riddle involving Coca-Cola and the show’s central character, Don Draper. Hamm, who played advertising executive Don Draper, spoke about his thoughts on what the show’s final sequence meant for his character. “My take is that, the next day, he wakes up in this beautiful place, and has this serene moment of understanding, and realizes who he is. What will I do without Breaking Bad?” And yet somehow as individuals and a species, we have managed to survive, knowing in the bowels of our faith in salvation entertainment that another round of True Detective will soon arrive and, those lurching shadows on the horizon, could they be the next season of The Walking Dead (and a spinoff series too) slouching toward Bethlehem?

We will go through this whole mourning memorial orgy all over again when Game of Thrones finally spurts its last, though that “we” will not include me, the rape and cruelty of Boko Haram and ISIS making the fancy-costume set piece harrowings of GoT redundant and de trop, an opinion obviously unshared by those millions of devotees out there with eyes all aglow. Instead, he got us hooked on the very complicated personal and professional lives of men and women working in the advertising game on Madison Avenue, setting his story amid a very detailed and very real backdrop of one of the most tumultuous decades of this nation’s history. It was mostly a pleasing conclusion to Mad Men, at times overpleasing, as if Matthew Weiner were doling out the Christmas bonuses and getting a bit carried away.

And in 1971, Backer came up with the jingle “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” for the iconic commercial that appeared at the end of the “Mad Men” finale. Peggy received the perfect rom-com reward for all of her years suffering at the hapless hands of loser boyfriends in the sheltering bear-hug of Stan, but the patter and staging were a bit too Love Actually for a series whose romance was usually more drenched in Douglas Sirk. After the episode aired, many were quick to link Backer — and the ad he helped create for the McCann Erickson agency, where the fictional Draper also worked — to the show’s flawed protagonist. There were the news events, usually seeping into the narrative from a radio report or a news alert on a fuzzy black-and-white television screen — the Kennedy assassination, the Cassius Clay/Sonny Liston heavyweight bout, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the moon landing.

Ken Cosgrove offered Joan some freelance work, producing industrial films, which reignited her ambitions to be her own boss and brought an abrupt end to her too-good-to-be-true romance with Richard, her super-rich LA boyfriend. What was more inspiriting—and interesting—was that it was old-school, buxom-battleship, red-headed Demeter Joan who proved to be more independent and adventurous than the Peggy, on whom much of the Internet had hung the feminist halo crown.

Peggy departs the series with a double wrap of security—Stan’s massaging hands and her position at McCann Erickson—while Joan strikes out alone after her rich-guy boyfriend exits in a cloud of talc with an entrepreneurial startup in her be-it-ever-so-humble home. “I’ve been to the beach”—such a good kiss-off line to indicate there’s more to life than leisure, hedonism, and scenic vistas. We now see that the mustache and hair style Roger was sporting as the series hit the Seventies was not just a period detail of the decade’s soon to be dominating look but was the preparation for his foxy grandpa role in post-married life with Megan’s mom. I remember tossing empty milkshake cups and hamburger wrappers out the car window before anti-littering campaigns got us all to realize what a crazy thing that was.

I remember my dad puffing on a pipe or a cigar as he drove, clouding up the car with smoke. “Mad Men” paid attention to details like these and took baby boomers down memory lane, even if our fathers were not womanizing, alcoholic, chain-smoking ad men. He calls Peggy, and she tries to get him to come back home to New York and back to his job at McCann Erickson. “Don’t you want to work on Coke?” she asks.

As for Pete, I didn’t believe his change of heart in the previous episode for a sec—he oversold his case for getting back together with Trudy, insincerity plaguing his every declaration and gesticulation—but the picture of the Family Reunited heading happily to the private jet had a lyrical breeze that was also a reminder of the romance of air travel that is no more. If there was a sacrificial victim in the series, it was Sally, last seen dutifully washing up the dishes as Betty, doomed by lung cancer, smokes a cigarette at the kitchen table in weak defiance, because what the hell difference does it make anymore. Betty is of course a victim too, but is resigned to her fate, which won’t be long in coming, whereas Sally will grow up with this shadow on her heart, the adult child forced to be responsible before her time and for whom premature maturity is a kind of cross.

Look at how purgatorially that kitchen was lit—domesticity at its drabbest—compared to the bright framings or snug surroundings of the other characters as they took their leave. The sun shone brightest on Don, as if a personal spotlight ironically mirroring his newfound illumination after his wayward wanderings through drunkenness, promiscuity, and unshaven, mopey despair to reach the promised lotus land. It seemed a very contrived carom to get Don to this spot on the grass—from a nutsy, deluded half-cross country drive to Wisconsin to find that John O’Hara waitress to the American Legion hall to the desert flats in a race car to this Esalen-like retreat (see footnote)—but, to reverse Leonard Woolf, the arrival not the journey matters.

And here he was, eyes closed, chanting Om, and a smile surfaces that isn’t the smile of bliss enlightenment but has a hint of devil in it (such a good actor Jon Hamm is, as they all are). From the glistening swimming pools of Beverly Hills and the glitz of the entertainment business to the Summer of Love in San Francisco and the communal soul searching at Big Sur, California dreaming was more than just a song.

It was a fitting sign-off for the Emmy-winning series, which, in its seven seasons, gave TV drama an air of sophistication and depth it doesn’t strive for often enough. It is probably the most adult show ever created for mainstream TV audiences, ambitiously breaking away from formulaic storytelling to portray one man’s search for identity. Creator Matthew Weiner introduced us to an impossibly beautiful group of upwardly mobile white New Yorkers who pursued fame and status in a business where seduction and illusion was the name of the game.

Don himself was an illusion — a Korean War vet who grew up in a brothel and stole his commanding officer’s identity to come home from the war. “Mad Men” will be remembered as the show that made every office worker wish they could join the conga line at a Sterling Cooper party. I know I’ll watch the Justified finale again—I’ve already watched it twice—in a way that I’ll never watch the Mad Men finale again, much as I enjoyed it. I can imagine her now, like so many women of her generation, devoting hours to finding the right assisted-living arrangement for her dad and showing up, day after day, to tend to his needs. Numerous mentions on the Internet of EST regarding the encounter group session Don took part in, but it was Gestalt psychotherapist guru Fritz Perls who pioneered the “hot seat” approach at Esalen.

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