Nielsens: ‘Mad Men,’ ‘American Idol’

20 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Mad Men’ Finale: Tim Goodman on Embracing the Positive, Not Cynical, End of Don Draper’s Journey.

In the wake of what will likely go down as one of the best (and better received) series finales in television history, one bit of Mad Men analysis has baffled me. So many critics have weighed in with thoughtful and insightful essays; even when I don’t particularly agree with another writer’s opinion, I’ve been floored by how eloquent and intelligent the post-finale commentary has been. And that’s the cynical take on the ending — that Don Draper didn’t experience any personal enlightenment and merely came up with a way to sell soda to hippies, end of story. Libby Nelson: One of Mad Men’s most prominent themes has been its characters’ ambiguous relationships with motherhood, particularly in an era when having children was the default for most women.

But I do believe it’s important to reiterate how the narrative structure, which Weiner made open-ended (I described it in-depth in the deconstruction) contributed to an ending that allowed viewers (and critics) to imagine what they wanted about the unseen future as the major characters lives moved forward. And so, in the last scene we see him in, he has a wry smile in a yoga pose at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, where serious introspection is expected. What I didn’t expect was a theory that the ending proves Don learns nothing at Esalen and goes back to his life an unchanged man — a theory that seems shortsightedly cynical and wrong.

It’s easy to project that Don’s smile is Mad Men’s creator Matthew Weiner’s smile, laughing at his audience that a show that has been thoughtful, intuitive, cynical and subtle for the past seven years would go out in such a saccharine, predictable way. My view of “The Sopranos” has evolved a lot since that famous cut to black, and there are moments and ideas from a dozen other long-dead shows that still percolate in my brain to this day. Until Weiner says something definitive on the issue (and unlike his mentor David Chase of The Sopranos, who chose silence and then vagueness when discussing his own controversial ending, he just might), I’m a little surprised about the more cynical reading of that ending.

When it comes to the closing images of “Mad Men,” I just want to add my voice to the chorus of those who have said that there doesn’t necessarily have to be a binary choice when it comes to how to view Don Draper’s smile and the famous Coca-Cola ad. Or perhaps this is just another of his cyclical renewals, a moment of bliss and success before gravity (and women, and alcohol, and his tendency to randomly pull the ripcord on his own life) drags him downward again.

Stan’s mother didn’t like him very much. “You shouldn’t have been with a lowlife, you shouldn’t have gotten pregnant, you should have loved being a mother,” Stephanie says halfway through the finale. None of the characters or storylines was predictable or came packaged in a neat little box. “No one cares that I’m gone,” Leonard says in the final episode to the encounter group at the retreat, talking about his family, before Don Draper crosses the room to hug him, in shared understanding of the shortcomings of having everything, but really having nothing at all. “They taught us at Barnard about that word, ‘utopia’…..‘ou-topos’ the place that cannot be,” Rachel Menken tells Don in Season 1, episode 6. “Advertising is not a comfortable place for everyone,” Shirley tells her boss, Roger, in the penultimate episode, before she lightens the mood by telling him she was amused by him, with a tone that suggests she was laughing at him, not with him. At its core, the show was about how people that benefit from white privilege and racism suffer in ways that they’re unwilling to reconcile because of the short term benefits of privilege. I’m the kind of person who was, for many seasons, rooting for Don to remain Don to the end, not because that’s some cool way for an iconic character to “go out on his terms” but because making change in a life, any life, is difficult. The fact that Don spends even a second out West after learning Betty’s news—that he accepts her conclusion about his familial uselessness, rather than challenging it—suggests no.

Whatever the payouts from various business dealings, the money in his bank account wouldn’t support vacations, private schools and college for three children, let alone the posh lifestyle Don likes to lead when he’s not crashing in cheap motels. And when Don offers his litany of sins, it feels odd that he lists making “nothing” of the Draper name up there with breaking his vows, scandalizing his child, and stealing a man’s identity. Like Robert Downey Sr.’s film, Putney Swope, released in 1969, a comedy satirizing the advertising world where Putney, the only black person at the firm accidentally gets voted to lead the firm and fires all the white people, Mad Men is about the fear of change.

Joan’s decision to have and raise Kevin largely alone underlined a core theme of her character — that it’s a good thing she’s reliable, because she’s surrounded by people who can’t be relied upon. He’d get back into the ad game because he loves the thrill of the chase, and pursuing a great ad concept has always brought him more joy than any relationship.

But there have been several currents in the past few episodes that suggest abandoning your children is the one form of self-expression that Mad Men can’t condone. The “shoulds” of motherhood came up earlier this season, too — in Peggy’s stunning conversation with Stan about the stage mother she fought with that turned into her admission that she’d had a baby and given him up for adoption. Martin Luther King’s death, the overwhelming sentiment is that it is a tragedy of inconvenience— commutes will be delayed and there will be potential property damage. So, to be on the side believing in real personal growth for Don — to be someone basking in the positive and believing the ending was, in fact, a sign of positive personal growth — is a little foreign.

Peggy and Stan’s grand romantic scene felt as if Nora Ephron had dropped by Matthew Weiner’s office and slipped a couple of pages into the script behind his back. This flurry of emotional or actual reunions suggests to me that Don will soon be in a kitchen with Sally, somewhere, sharing a Coke with the girl who understands him best.

The culprit here is the smash-cut of Don finding peace, flashing that smile (not a smirk, by the way — it’s reminiscent of the one he flashed on the bus stop in Oklahoma where he felt truly free), right when the zen bell during the sun salutation rings for the second time and Weiner cuts to the actual Coca-Cola ad in question. Ultimately, he’s trying to sell himself ideas that he has been resistant to, because he is a reject, an orphan, an outsider who finds it hard to experience or feel love. He was moved not by the political promise of the era, but by the psychodynamics of an age when men and women put themselves, rather than their obligations, first. I would argue it made for good television, a memorable ending that will get people talking, but one that may not have served the massive amount of time spent prior proving that Don had indeed come to a point in his life where he could absorb change.

In the 1950s the black consumer market had risen, with estimates topping $19 billion per year, according to Jason Chamber’s book, “Madison Avenue and the Color Line: African Americans in the Advertising Industry.” A selective patronage campaign started in 1961 by 400 ministers motivated area companies to employ blacks, not as tokens, but in white collar positions in Philadelphia. So, if he didn’t have a great idea for a Coke ad — and I think the show strongly implies he did — he’d have another great idea about another product someday, and, being who he is and needing a paycheck as well as validation, he’d simply have to follow through. One day, he’ll ditch morning yoga and don (!) the power suit and floor a client with something they didn’t know they wanted but need, once he creates that need inside them.

The National Urban League, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) united in working towards integration in advertising. CORE members met with agencies and advertisers, including Coca Cola, about integrated advertising and increasing black employment and were successful in their efforts.

I lean toward this interpretation, partly because, as I said in a Twitter dialogue on Monday, the expression on his face was the satisfied smirk of a man who knew, in his bones, he was going to absolutely crush a pitch. What’s left open to interpretation — and I hail Weiner for choosing that storytelling construct of keeping the story alive — is what happens before and even after the ad is created.

It was Roquel Billy Davis, a black former music executive courted by McCann-Erickson, who produced the song for the Coca Cola commercial, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” that ended the series. My nickname for early-seasons Don Draper is “Sex Batman” — you know it’s true — but when he’s on his A-game at work, you could also think of him as the Iron Man of pitches. The entirety of season seven is about real, absolute change to Don’s life — to his wishes and desires, in his personal and professional life, and to him, coming to terms with his past and looking at a future he can control.

But we were also watching a pretty conventional romantic comedy about how she started off hating Stan’s guts and eventually realized she was in love with him. He would eventually be credited for popularizing song form in advertising and eventually became the vice president at McCann-Erickson and has a conference room named after him. By glomming on to a cynical theory that Don just becomes Don again in the finale 60 seconds of the finale and races home to make that ad requires an unwillingness to acknowledge what Weiner labored to put in front of you. He also worked on Miller Life, another campaign featured in the series, producing the song “If You’ve Got the Time.” There were other black executives.

We thought we were watching Sally grow up and away from her parents, trying to become anyone but Betty, but in fact we were watching her growing stronger, growing up because she’s going to need to grow up. Like Don’s clients, we want to believe a man can fly, and the sharp-suited, suffer-no-fools, tells-us-what’s-what Don Draper lets us believe, for a moment, that liftoff is possible.

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. Why not allow Weiner, as the storyteller, to finally after seven seasons bring those incremental and difficult changes to Don’s character and imagine a more optimistic future for him?

At the end of the series, we saw Don enter a phase we’ve seen him in many times before (perhaps one or two times too many, which is why it was time for the show to end). The Don who walked into the ocean in “The Mountain King” is the Don who embraced Leonard: We are seeing Don, once again, find a few precious scraps of self-acceptance, self-awareness and compassion.

Don created perhaps the most famous advertising campaign in history or he spent his life as a hippie in California with a nice cushion in case he changes his mind. Not if he conducts himself in a way that doesn’t make Sally or Peggy ashamed of him, and not if he conducts himself in a way that doesn’t make him lapse into self-hatred (well, not too often).

Will they all just end up spinning circles on Don’s imaginary carousel, not really having changed at all and just enjoying, as Don’s girlfriend Faye told him “the beginnings of things?” If I had a problem with the finale, it’s because throughout, I wanted Don to go home to Sally, the human being with whom he arguably has the most powerful bond. Beyond that, there’s a weird acceptance that Weiner can make the other characters change in some positive way — and outside of Betty, they all do — but he can’t make Don change. You’ll accept Pete and Trudy changing, and Roger changing, and Peggy changing and Joan changing her historic reliance on men to choose to make her own dreams come true, but you won’t accept Don changing even an ounce (even if the evidence has been presented throughout season seven)?

I mean, you don’t have two deaths that impact Don’s understanding of his current life’s situation — Rachel Menken’s, and the impending loss of Betty and what that means to Don as a father — and then have him revert to the norm. Don’s life — success and money and Coke aside — will be a constant turning of the wheel, cycles of self-doubt and pain followed by halting attempts at self-awareness and connection. It’s the culmination of seven seasons of introspection, and at least a season and a half of hard truths leading up to the behavior illustrating that change. But that’s the great comfort of Buddhist thought: It takes it as a given that we are all stuck on the wheel of samsara, an eternal cycle of endless rebirth. That’s not only boring, it doesn’t allow for Weiner to move a character from A to B (or as I noted earlier, you’ll accept change in every other character but this one).

Weiner had done so much beating of that drum that it seemed like overkill (even acknowledging that the repetition of mistakes over time is essential to show a pattern of behavior, particularly if you’re tackling the intellectually challenging aspect of unhappiness, discontent and the inability to be satisfied with your own accomplishments). But if you look at how Mad Men was negotiated as a television series, you’ll see that Weiner got that sixth season but AMC owned on option on the seventh (and there was no way Weiner wasn’t going to be involved in the ending). Like Don, I’m a work in progress, but part of that progress is an awareness of my worst impulses, which in turn creates more opportunities to interrupt them. But credit the latter part of season six as a time when Weiner could then begin the real descent, the real end, the real change that his protagonist needed to suffer. Matt Weiner was masterful at telling great short stories on screen and populating those richly imagined stories with believably complex, intelligent, driven people.

He did it, however, like he’s done everything else — by clinging to the realism of human behavior, where we take two steps forward and then one back. And while “Mad Men” gave viewers several excellent season finales and penultimate episodes, I don’t think anyone will look at the series finale and put it on a list of Greatest Finales of All Time. Existential dread, the questioning of whether you’re happy or whether you’re content, of whether you lived your life the way you should before you see the end rushing up on you — those are not issues most people comfortable talking about. Whether you like it or not, that’s why he ends up in California, at Esalen, made to confront the past and what brought him to this point and to be given an opportunity that’s stated very clearly in that finale — to start a new life that’s yet to be lived. Everything I’m bringing up here — it all sounds hippie-ish and earnest and vague, and yes, the quest for self-awareness can quickly slide into a state of self-absorption (which certainly happened in the ‘70s and it undoubtedly happens now).

It might be cynical to beam out ads about love and tolerance into the world in order to sell sugared water, and it might also be a meaningful act that promotes kindness. That’s why the world of advertising has been such a fertile arena for the show: Don is pitching the world on what he wants to be true, and as consumers, we also want to edit reality into something we can cope with and possibly even enjoy.

People are receptive to great pitches, which can be double-edged swords; “Mad Men” reminded us every week that “the truth” can be malleable, which is a scary and thrilling idea. I find the Coke ad, and Don’s possible role in the creation of it, no more and no less cynical than Don’s role in the creation of the Carousel pitch, which, viewed from a certain perspective, tells the entire story of the show. “It goes backwards, forwards … This is an ancient truth.” Don is able to bring a mode of Buddhist-flavored thought to the creative process: He can make observations and evaluations that help him and his protegees — and the work — evolve and change for the better.

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