‘Mad Men’ finale recap: There’s no place like om

20 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

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

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.

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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. Don closes his eyes, and says the Buddhist chant, “Om.” Cut to the famous “Real Thing” Coke commercial, with a group of young people singing, “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.” Unlike the abrupt finale of “The Sopranos,” the “Mad Men” finale gave viewers what they wanted: closure for the major characters and a rebirth for Don.

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. 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. Cut to 1980, where Stan has a roast in the oven and a toddler in his arms while Enjoli Superwoman walks in the door and puts up her feet for a massage. 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. 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. 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.

Maybe he would have survived long enough that, at the end of a lifelong search for love and belonging, feeling the tender hand of his daughter caressing his brow, he would be thinking to himself: “Yeah, this is it. 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). 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. 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. 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. 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.

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