‘Mad Men’ delivers with surprising finale

20 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Mad Men’ finale mostly satisfying.

Complaining about a series finale, especially of a series that has been as consistently excellent as Mad Men, seems churlish to me, like not thanking your dinner host because you found the strawberry shortcake too sweet.He has been Don Draper, the singularly suave advertising executive of the 1960s (and early 1970s), whose cool and in-control exterior hid an insecure man unsure of his place in a rapidly changing world.

For Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, Monday is the day to begin “officially resting on my laurels” and staying off the internet while he basks in the twilight of the television show that has occupied his life for the last eight years. “This whole thing has exceeded all of my childhood dreams, honestly,” Weiner said at a Sunday night screening of the series finale in Los Angeles, surrounded by cast, crew and fans of the AMC drama about the dark advertising man, Don Draper, against the deep changes of 1960s America. “I am expecting to wake up feeling a little different,” he said. “I am not going on the internet, I can tell you that.Seconds before “The Sopranos” ended in 2007, Tony Soprano heard a bell ring — the opening of the diner door — and looked up before the show cut to black. And he has been Dick Whitman, the son of a prostitute mother and an alcoholic father, who saw a chance to create a new life for himself by stealing the identity of another man he accidentally killed in the Korean War. Don figured out that he screwed up his life, which we could have told him 80 episodes ago, and just as all the doors looked closed, he found a little window. I made myself a promise.” Those who know the 49-year-old writer and director say that promise will probably last half an hour before he caves to the temptation of seeing the reviews of episode 92, entitled “Person to Person”. “There’s no way he won’t read them,” said Bob Levinson, a co-producer and advertising consultant for the show. “He has to know what they say.” When he does break his promise, Weiner will see lots of ink about what he was trying to say with the seminal Coca-Cola ad “I’d Like To Buy the World a Coke,” the final note of the Emmy-winning series.

The beautiful-to-look-at and even more beautiful-to-think-about TV show just aired its very last episode yesterday, eight years after it sashayed onto our screens in 2007. After a life of cheating, lies and way too much alcohol, Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm, surprisingly finds enlightenment at a retreat in California that looks a lot like the real-life Esalen Institute in Big Sur. Over seven seasons and 92 episodes, creator Matt Weiner gave eager viewers a slice of America in the 1960s and its transition from the seemingly idyllic 1950s through the social upheaval of the following decade. Julia, you pointed out last week that the Mad Men writers had pulled off a nifty trick: In the two episodes that preceded the finale, they’d given nearly all of the main characters a valedictory turn, leaving the finale free to strike out in some unexpected direction.

Mad Men referenced, through its characters, the Cuban missile crisis, the Kennedy assassination, Civil Rights and race relations, the Summer of Love, gender politics and the Vietnam War. He was warning his younger companion Stephanie, “You don’t know what happens to people who believe in things,” and telling Peggy he couldn’t go back home because “I can’t get out of here.” Then he hugged a stranger, settled into the lotus position and poof, all the baggage floated away.

Then comes the Coke ad that made waves in 1971 for its youthful, multi-ethnic invitation to share Coke and peace, in, what the episode suggests, might have been the creation of a rejuvenated Don. Backer witnessed these irate passengers later in the journey, calmer and bonding over bottles of Coke.) So the big question viewers and the millions who debated the ending around watercoolers Monday morning were left with was, did Don Draper return to McCann and create that commercial? (Peggy even mentioned in a phone call that Don could come home and work on Coke.) Or did he stay in California and become further enlightened? 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. Weiner won’t explain it, and neither will anyone in the group of people that wrapped up filming last summer and managed to keep all seven episodes of the second half of the seventh season a secret. But more than the overflowing merits of the show, Mad Men will be remembered for its considerable influence on the so-called Golden Age of TV we’re living through.

Variety TV critic Brian Lowry had a mixed review, noting that “while the hour mixed in some wonderfully graceful notes and tied up a few loose ends, others were left dangling, starting with the cryptic question of whether meditation and peace with the universe birthed that famous ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’ Coca-Cola campaign.” For Alessandra Stanley at the New York Times, there was no ambiguity. For every Duck Dynasty, Keeping Up With The Kardashians or Hardcore Pawn, we’re also gifted with The Honourable Woman, The Americans or Transparent.

She called the ad “Don Draper’s idea.” Stanley saluted the finale’s endorsement of the women in Mad Men, like Joan, played by Christina Hendricks, and Peggy, played by Elisabeth Moss, who after seven seasons of often crushing chauvinism prevailed professionally. “A new era is at hand, and fittingly, Mad Men ends with the dawn of the strong women who get to work and the sensitive men who get in touch with their feelings,” said Stanley. Brave and cinematic TV with character-driven stories and sustained narratives needs antecedents so TV execs feel comfortable greenlighting projects that will cost loads of money to make but probably won’t bring in that many viewers. As for Weiner, he is working on a few things, “just not telling anybody”, and looking forward to spending more time with family, taking kids to school and teaching them how to drive. “I didn’t want to straddle into something else,” said Weiner. “I was back at zero when I moved out of my office in December, creatively. Mad Men has rarely been sentimental, even when it comes to its heroes, but last night everyone got their exciting new job, their longed-for loved one, or, in the case of Pete, both.

Those last few moments of the episode, and that transition from Draper’s bliss to the Coke commercial, has raised many questions about what it means. 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. Cancer-stricken Betty Draper (January Jones), a loathsome character early in the series, matured and became something resembling sympathetic once she got her terminal cancer diagnosis and responded with dignity and concern for her death’s impact on her children. But I preferred the sense of possibility, and precariousness, that each character brought into this episode to the sense of dreams delivered with which they left it.

She got the first of two collect calls from Don — to, arguably, the two most important women in his life, Betty and Peggy — and while Don wanted to drop everything and be there, Betty said she wanted the status quo in as cutting but honest a way as possible. Hanna, I’m with you: The moment Peggy and Stan shared on the phone two weeks ago, happy simply in the knowledge that the other is on the line, was far more powerful than the confessions and clutch of the finale. Joan (Christina Hendricks) ended up without her California suitor, Richard (Bruce Greenwood), who wanted her to have fun (like trying cocaine on vacation!), not be ambitious. There was a Ross-and-Rachelness to last night’s proceedings, right down to Stan’s breathless Schwimmering up to Peggy’s office to close the deal.

Joan started her own production company, initially trying to woo Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), who ultimately decided to stay at McCann, to join her in Harris Olson Productions (“You’ve got to have two names,” Joan said). Ultimately Joan went into business on her own — employing her babysitter as an assistant — and used her two last names for Holloway-Harris Productions. Mad Men’s influence and cultural success was a precursor to other ‘basic’ cable channels commissioning shows like Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Justified, Fargo, Rectify, Sons of Anarchy and Top of the Lake. With “The Sopranos,” creator David Chase chose to go his own way with an ambiguous ending (did Tony Soprano live or die?) that infuriated many viewers. “Lost” raised too many questions it didn’t answer, and when a revelation came, it proved unsatisfying for many who had stuck with the show.

Arguably, seeing what the basic cable guys have been able to do also gave confidence to the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Hulu who have commissioned gems like Orange is the New Black and Daredevil. The inclusion of the so-called Hilltop commercial — which features a multicultural cast singing on a hillside — had some wondering if “Mad Men” had simply been one long advertisement. But HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” with its fast-forward musical montage that showed how all the characters died, gained near universal acclaim, perhaps because it gave viewers the one thing they always seek: closure. “Mad Men” series creator and series finale writer/director Weiner seemed to try to have it both ways: Satisfy fans by giving closure to most of the primary characters — except Don.

But he is a damn good ad man, the kind who goes out into the world, puts a finger in the wind, and comes back with campaigns that don’t just reflect the culture, but shift it. (As Jeff Chang pointed out in a Slate piece this morning, two different versions of the Coke jingle ended up on the Billboard charts.) If we believe Don is the author of that ad, it suggests that he’s gone back to being something like the man we met in Season 1, who took pride in his vocation, even if he perhaps recognized that his work, like his life, was frequently a lie. When we find Don in that place, and this stranger relates this story of not being heard or seen or understood or appreciated, the resonance for Don was total in that moment. 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.

At the Slate offices last week, we had fun revisiting the now-classic Season 1 scene in which Don sells Kodak on his nostalgia-soaked campaign for the Carousel, in which he used snapshots from what seemed like his blissful family life to sell the executives on his concept. In the beginning, it was 1960 and Don Draper had everything a man in his era should have: a high-powered job in Manhattan, two adorable children and a blonde wife at home behind that suburban red door.

Watching that scene again, I was struck by how genuinely great the pitch was, and it made me realize how long it’s been since we’ve seen Don work his magic as a creative director. We see him in an incredibly vulnerable place, surrounded by strangers, and he reaches out to the only person he can at that moment, and it’s this stranger. Peggy and Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) had a nice farewell moment before he boarded a Learjet to his new job in Wichita and a reunion with ex-wife Trudy (Alison Brie) still seeming like it will take. (And miracle of miracles, no plane crash!) Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) got the bum’s rush, but that character deserved nothing more. There’s a way to see it in a completely cynical way, and say, “Wow, that’s awful.” But I think that for Don, it represents some kind of understanding and comfort in this incredibly unquiet, uncomfortable life that he has led. As Roger tries to ink the deal, Don breaks down and describes his real childhood, in a brothel, noting that the only affection he ever received was from a girl who paid him to go through the pockets of johns while she had them otherwise engaged. (Don comes by his suspicion of prostitutes honestly.) The scene is startling to watch: It suggests not just that Don had lost his touch, but that the very idea of the work had become horrible to him.

After spending the final episode on an emotional carousel at a spiritual retreat, where for a fleeting moment, you’d be forgiven for thinking he would become the falling man in the opening credits, the man who talks for a living is finally left without words. It was nice to see Don and Peggy get a final chat, and the Peggy-Stan phone call cemented the episode’s theme of “Person to Person” phone calls in place of in-person contact. Was it odd to be shooting these scenes away from your co-stars January Jones, Kiernan Shipka and Elisabeth Moss, and disconnected from the cast members you’d worked with for so long? The final montage gave viewers some nice glimpses into the characters’ futures — Joan busy starting her company, Roger and Marie happy in a cafe, Stan giving Peggy a shoulder massage after she works at the typewriter, Sally doing dishes as Betty smokes her way to the grave — and then it was back to Don and the hippies and Don’s breakthrough moment during a group therapy session. After finally being able to embrace his emotional self, our last look at the enigma that is Don Draper is him in a meditation pose on a hilltop overlooking the Pacific Ocean with the beginnings of a smile on his face.

Weiner had used, called the ending “a love letter for a brand.” (Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” got a similar jolt of attention after it was featured in the final seconds of “The Sopranos” in 2007.) Coca-Cola is not planning to run the Hilltop ad as a paid, stand-alone commercial in the near future, Ms. As Jeff Chang points out, its saccharine message arrived in the midst of bitter turmoil: “prisoners attacked at Attica, the Watergate scandal and the Pentagon Papers, the Manson and Serpico and My Lai trials, guns in Munich, bombs in D.C., and troops in Derry. Pain and hatred and misery.” Viewed this way, this ostensibly cheery finale might actually be every bit as dark as that of the Sopranos, with its nihilistic cut to black: A vision of America sold a beautiful lie about itself by a man who broke his vows, scandalized his child, assumed another man’s identity—and then did yoga for a few days and now feels better enough about it all to continue to enrich himself, his company, and his clients by peddling whatever product lands on his desk. Backer, who was also behind lauded campaigns for Miller beer, Campbell’s Soup and others, was then the creative director on the Coca-Cola account for McCann Erickson. Everybody picks up and thinks, oh, that’s too bad — that guy had a nervous breakdown. [With January Jones and Kiernan Shipka], we shot those on set.

Coke currently has an ad in frequent rotation in which the beverage—in a throwback hobble-skirt bottle—becomes a symbol of good will toward men, handed from person-in-need to person-in-need as 1969’s “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” plays in the background: There’s no problem we can’t solve if we’re all willing to give each other the occasional soft drink. That, after spending his whole life being tortured, he was able to find a place where he was okay with who he is, and that place isn’t on Madison Avenue. So you can actually have the person sitting right off camera, reading the lines to you. [For Elisabeth Moss], we were three and a half hours up the [California] coast, on the edge of a cliff. But advertising will always be a part of our world — that artificial world where everything is shiny and great, but only if you buy whatever newfangled product someone is selling.

Backer said, he observed some of the passengers — “all types, ages, sexes,” he recalled — in the airport, talking and sharing bottles of warm Coca-Cola. I’m sure there are other takes of that scene where I’m much more emotional, and Matthew chose to use the ones that are a little more confused and restrained. 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. 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. You said on Sunday, at a Television Academy event, that after “Mad Men” and after Don Draper, you will “fade into nothingness and no one will remember me.” Do you really think that? [chuckles knowingly] I think every actor thinks that when they end a job.

Is my melancholy seeping through enough? [laughs] In a much more healthy sense, we all put this show to bed quite some time ago, and said our goodbyes and cried our tears.

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