I Hate to See Mad Men Go, But I Love to Watch It Leave

19 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Mad Men’ series finale recap: The 7 best moments from the last-ever episode.

On last night’s Mad Men finale, an epic Don Draper brainstorm produced one of the most legendary commercials of the 20th century, in which a group of multicultural young people sing “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” on a grassy hill.Over the years of “Mad Men”’s run, there’s been a sense that this is not just another show – even another sharp-looking, prestige show – but a serious look at an era, a critique of racial and gender attitudes, a kind of running social history of the postwar years. But the real-life ad man who came up with the Coca-Cola concept is now retired and in his late 80s: Bill Backer, formerly the creative director of McCann. After all the people Don Draper has rolled through over seven seasons of “Mad Men,” who knew the key to his potential redemption was an insecure schlub named Leonard?

Don’s creative spark for the Coke ad seemed to derive from finding inner peace at a Big Sur retreat, but Backer’s real-life inspiration came from watching stranded airline passengers bond over bottles of Coca-Cola. And as Peggy notes to Don over the phone, this isn’t the first time he’s run away from his job and his life, and McCann would still likely take him back. “Apparently it’s been done before,” she says.

There’s also been a contrarian side that says the show is just a mid-century modern soap opera, as sharp-eyed critic Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in a 2011 New York Review of Books essay. Then you realize they’re trying, and you don’t even know what ‘it’ is.” – Leonard (man at Don’s retreat) How do we use language to describe feelings, and drives, and thoughts, in a way that doesn’t leave those delicate phenomena pinned and wriggling on the wall? Just as I loved how it snuck past us that Joan was offering Peggy $1,200 to moonlight—and portraying it as a fortune—when the offer from Ken Cosgrove was for $50,000.* (Guess who would pocket the rest.) The stunted negotiation between the two women perfectly captured the two female types, a division that’s run through all of Mad Men: Peggy, a creature of the office, who understands its rules perfectly but is trapped by them, and Joan, who uses them as a springboard to actual life. This Leonard person starts talking about how he dreamed he was inside a refrigerator when someone opened the door and the light came on, but no one wanted him, so they shut the door and the light went out again.

Betty reminded him he hadn’t even seen the kids in weeks. “I want to keep things as normal as possible,” she said, “and your not being here is part of that.” Then he went to visit Stephanie, who will be remembered as the niece of Anna Draper, the woman whose husband Don later admitted he killed. Peggy convinces them to put her back on, but given that they’re hardly letting her hold onto Chevalier, it’s unlikely that they’d so quickly move her onto one of their most prized accounts. This is especially notable in the penultimate episode, when Don is asked to fix a Coke machine at the motel he stays in for a few days while his car is being fixed. I agree that Matt Weiner took this on as a central and recurring theme but I also think, in this finale and elsewhere, it was somewhat dutifully executed.

In fact, Don has been coming up with real-life slogans and ads since the pilot, which ends with Don coming up with Lucky Strike’s real-life, longtime tagline, “It’s toasted.” It seems likely that Don, as he meditated on his surroundings—the grassy cliffside hilltops, the circle of hippies—imagined a locale just like this for the ad. Every cliché started off as a brilliant insight. (Read “Hamlet” some time, if you haven’t since high school, and you’ll be amazed how old-hat it sounds.) The discipline of psychology — both the scientific and therapeutic branches — represents an ongoing attempt to create and refine a language for talking about people, about what we do and why. Fred Kaplan and others have taken me to task for calling the piggish executive Joan and Peggy encountered “cartoonish,” because, in fact, men of that era were just that bad. The conclusion to a seven- (or is it eight?) season show, especially one with a wide range of characters and spanning such tumultuous years, was bound to leave a lot of people disappointed and a lot of strands unstrung. Only Stephanie also remained screwed up, and after a group therapy session in which she felt “judged,” she bolted, leaving Don behind with no wheels.

In the pilot, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” a consultant schools Don in how to sell cigarettes: “Before ze var, vhen I studied vis Adler in Vienna, ve postulated zat vhat Freud called ze ‘death vish’ is as powerful a drive as zose for sexual reproduction and physical sustenance.” In the next episode, Betty seeks psychiatric help for psychosomatic numbness in her hands. And each audience was looking for something different: If you liked the creative tension in the ad office, you probably dropped out a few seasons ago. While the sexism may reflect the times, I still find it unsatisfying that, as characters, Peggy and Joan are put through such obvious sociological dilemmas while the men are allowed to wander down a more novelistic arc.

Call it another Matthew Weiner wink at all those fans who were sure there’d be a Manson subplot somewhere. “Where?” he replied. “I messed everything up. Yet he ends the series at a spiritual retreat, absorbing new-age, Eastern-inflected nostrums about the self and humming “Om.” Without the show’s full context, Don in a California ashram would seem more like Mad magazine than anything else, the wise and cynical adman puncturing the psychospiritual excesses of the 1970s. I broke all my vows, I scandalized my children, I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.” The episode started with Don continuing his campaign to give away his worldly possessions – in this case bankrolling a couple of kids who were building a race car.

Yet having been through seven seasons with these characters, we know how deep the repression can go. “It will shock you how much this never happened, ”Don says to Peggy in season two, urging her to forget her baby and move on. If Peggy has absolute authority on anything, it’s the rules of office politics, down to the finest details. (“He acts like we’re the three musketeers. Showrunner Matt Weiner is a smart dude who wrote for “The Sopranos,” still considered either the greatest television series ever or the show that opened to the door to whatever you think the greatest-series-ever happened to be. The scenes of awkward consciousness-raising and “How do you feel?” sessions would be laughable, were it not clear that Don and the other attendees have so little language for discussing their inner lives that even this woo-woo is an improvement.

The different schools and theories in psychology, from psychoanalysis to transactional analysis to evolutionary psychology, can be thought of as different languages for discussing the self. (Lacking such a language, Ken hilariously responds to an inquiry about his son with “He’s a little weird, actually. I think there might be something wrong with him.”) One of my favorite psychological languages, especially for understanding people in a business context, is David McClelland’s motivational theory. There are at least several conversations that illuminate pages from Betty Friedan’ “Feminine Mystique”; there is at least one scene that could come from an essay by socially conscious economist John Kenneth Galbraith.

At its best the show seems to say, “Sure, consumer capitalism and status obsession look like fun from the outside, don’t they, but here’s what they’re really about.” It’s hard to think of a mainstream American television program that even got started on the notion of what postwar affluence and consumerism would do to our souls. McAdams added need for intimacy to the list. (To the best of my knowledge, neither the McClelland nor the McAdams clans were involved in that unpleasant Glen Coe business with the Campbells, perhaps explaining the lack of a “vengeance motive.)” The motivations aren’t like astrological signs.

Richard says he wants her to take advantage of all he has, then adds, “all you have.” In her mind, what Joan has is $500,000 and a full Rolodex, but Richard is waving his hand up and down her body. They do seem to correspond with events in the real world, for one thing, and also a person isn’t born, say, high in need for power and then stays that way throughout life.

Everyone has all four motivations, though in different proportions, and the mix changes over time, and we can control how some of that change happens. The notion that Madison Avenue would harness countercultural impulses that Draper eavesdrops on (in early seasons in Greenwich Village and in the final one in Big Sur) is a fascinating one. Don went on parental autopilot, saying, “Grownups make these decisions.” Sally didn’t bother to explain that’s an earned right, not an automatic privilege. But since the idea was worked out almost two decades ago, in a book that has served as blueprint for the show, it seems, since its 2007 debut – “The Conquest of Cool,” by my Salon colleague Thomas Frank – is a little, uh, lame. (The book even gets into “Hip versus Square in the Cola Wars.”) At the very least, it doesn’t push the show’s ideas or critique or look at history forward in any kind of way. Even the barely legal blonde Don sleeps with is trapped in the feminine mystique, telling Don she’d like to have a man to take care of while stealing from his wallet.

Julia, I was actually surprised at how ungenerous an ending Weiner had laid out for Don. (Yes, he got a hug, but in my favorite moment of the episode, he also got a shove from that grey-haired woman). They also don’t tend to do well in high-pressure, status-oriented workplaces, so there aren’t many characters with this primary motivation on “Mad Men,” although Meredith might be a contender. After all that suffering, all those betrayals and heartbreaks and wine stains, Don ended up pretty much where he always was, only a little more self-actualized.

And if we didn’t know it already, this episode made clear what Weiner thinks of self-actualization: “Divorce: a creative experience,” and the naked man who dresses himself in red mechanic overalls. Weiner is on the side of the woman in group therapy who feels for the abandoned children, and yet he let Don walk glibly out the other side and make a jingle. Still, she’d made her point – and as lost as Don felt when he hung up on her, it ended with him saying, “I’ll see you soon.” But the last scene, the one after Don hugged Leonard and now seemed to have found inner peace in the yoga position, was the one that fired up the Internet. Intimacy is what Leonard, a lost soul at Don’s California retreat, feels is missing from his life, the “it” that he can’t name, let alone believe that he’s ever received.

If he did indeed make that famous Coke ad, then Don is responsible for harnessing all the ’60’s idealism into corporate profits, the precursor to today’s odious Bobos in Paradise. Another very present theme of this finale was the next generation—the fate of the children in the show who are exact contemporaries of many of its viewers. As the show progressed, she gradually allowed herself to experience the joy of competence for its own sake, letting her need for achievement emerge more and more. When McCann Erikson proved to be no place for an achiever of Joan’s type, she tried to make a life based around only intimacy with the leisure-suited Richard … but it wasn’t enough. I expected Sally would represent next-generation freedom from female roles, but there she was, in her yellow gloves, while Betty sat at the table reading the paper and smoking a cigarette, like Sally’s future jerk of a husband.

No mention of Peggy’s child—that surprised me, although maybe we are meant to imagine that happy Stan will one day fold him up in his big hairy arms. In any given episode of Mad Men, the only thing more likely to come out of a character’s mouth than the trailing smoke of a Lucky Strike cigarette is a witty one-liner. Peggy is in touch with her power motivation — her swagger into her new workplace with shades, lit cigarette, and an erotic Japanese print tucked under her arm last week showed that she’s as capable of a pure power move as her mentor Don ever was. As we enter the final days of Sterling Cooper & Partners, Slate’s TV Club will celebrate the show’s retorts and rejoinders by highlighting a Mad Men Zinger of the Week for Slate Plus. Peggy has always, though, been motivated by intimacy as much as by achievement — not by the desire for romance and long walks on the beach, but to be known.

Peggy doesn’t say what’s expected of her, but what she feels: “Everyone’s going to miss you, who doesn’t hate you for getting that big job,” she says to Pete.

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