Was this week’s ‘Mad Men’ the saddest episode ever?

11 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Mad Men’ Takes A Bus Stop And Needs A Time Jump: Tim Goodman On What’s Ahead in the Series Finale.

This is a Spoiled Bastard deconstruction of Mad Men. “It’s been a gift to me, to know when to move on”—so said a surprisingly self-possessed Betty to Sally, as she explained how she’d decided to handle her cancer diagnosis: Not by fighting a losing battle, but by living out her final days on her own terms.Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner has never hesitated to put Betty (January Jones) through the emotional wringer (and no, we haven’t forgotten about that terrible weight-gain plot in Season 5).One of the most memorable images of Betty Draper is from season one of “Mad Men.” In “Shoot,” we eventually encounter Betty standing in her yard in Rye, N.Y., in a pale pink dressing down, grasping a child’s BB gun, cigarette hanging from her mouth, shooting at her neighbor’s pigeons. New Orleans time Sunday (May 17) on AMC. “Person to Person” is the episode’s title, and, like Sunday’s (May 10) penultimate “The Milk and Honey Route,” it will run long.

After Betty falls on a staircase on her way to class and breaks her rib, the doctor discovers that she has terminal lung cancer, and gives her nine months, maybe a year to live. It’s the same episode in which Jim Hobart tries to court Don Draper by using Betty as a pawn, hoping to hook him at McCann-Erickson by casting Betty in his Coca-Cola ad. Every week, Adrian Lee, Colin Horgan and Sonya Bell quickly recap what stood out most from each of the final episodes and, in true Mad Men fan form, find one detail to obsess over, analyzing its many prisms, as the episode’s Mad Moment.

Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.” Mad Men is predicated on said “illusions”—family, martinis, glamour, all in the service of filling the existential vacuum. Her husband Henry (Christopher Stanley) begs her to start treatment immediately, but Betty has all but accepted her death sentence — opting not to tell their children and carrying on with life as usual. “I watched my mother die. Betty is so pleased to have something of her own, to have someone seemingly value her for something, even if it’s the one thing she’s been raised to do, which is look pretty.

Theory: Don Draper concludes his current hobo period sometime in the near future and somewhere in Tennessee, where he catches a glimpse of a very young TV newscaster he believes could be the next chapter in his life. And indeed Betty’s beauty doesn’t just get to stand on its own — it’s an albatross that’s got her permanently tethered, and subjugated, to Don, and it’s one of the instances in which Betty begins to realize this. When you get to this point in a series that matters the way that Mad Men matters in the stratosphere of television, the penultimate episode often lets you know that whatever you might guess, whatever you might want, what your predictions are for the future – they’re all pointless compared to the vision of the creator.

Amid the handsome orgy of rhythms, hues, and moods, it’s also about the loss of innocence, this oddly deliberate rumination on the follies of man buried in a televised medley of zombies, drug lords, and dragons; an analog show in a digital world. Her dreams of reigniting her modeling career are dashed because there will be no Coca-Cola ad for her without Don moving from Sterling Cooper to McCann-Erickson, and that’s simply not going to happen. “Shoot” also serves as a twisted window into Betty’s mothering. He or she will end it like they want to end it and if, in that penultimate episode, you’re unhappy or confused about the direction, it’s as good a point as any to realize it doesn’t matter what you think or want.

As such, whenever it devolved into melodrama, whether it be errant tractor, euphoric acid trip, or a little soft shoe en route to the great beyond, the punctuation was all the more pointed. The whole reason we see her shooting at the pigeons is because they belong to their neighbor, who threatens to shoot Polly, the Draper family dog, if he catches her in his yard. And it’s a dim view of Betty that sees attending to her appearance even in death as vanity; the kinder view is to see it as an attempt to die with dignity—rooted in the same impulse that gets her out of bed and off to class, even if she knows she might not make it to the end of the semester.

Don mentors her and together they end up in Chicago, where he helps Oprah Winfrey pioneer her trademark drop-the-microphone moment, the automobile giveaway. See, this is where viewers often get caught being selfish – there’s only an hour (or an hour and 11 minutes) left in one of their favorite shows they’ve invested in since 2007 and they are no doubt put off by what could be considered meandering or an emphasis on something that doesn’t provide maximum disclosure. The remainder of that letter revealed that, for all her squabbling with Sally over the years, Betty had finally come to appreciate her daughter and her strong-willed ways, and to look forward to the life of adventure Sally will have as a result—a life in which Sally will pursue her dreams (yearbook, Spain) before it’s too late. But that’s where everyone needs to step back and remember that if you trust someone – in this case Weiner – to tell you a story so magnetic that you can’t get enough of it, then you need to let him end it with the same creative flourish that started it.

When his Caddy breaks down, he finds himself stuck at a run-down (by his lofty standards) inn, forced to live the simple life: reading old books, eye-fondling housewives by the pool, and sipping plastic cups of cheap booze in his room while focusing on a broken miniature TV. “I killed my CO,” Don says. “We were under fire and fuel was everywhere, and I dropped my lighter, and I blew him apart. In it, Betty instructs Sally to have her buried in her favorite, blue chiffon dress, wearing lipstick from her purse and with her hair done how she likes it. And I got to go home.” The proprietor of the inn is, like Don, a veteran, and invites him to the local American Legion chapter to drown their sorrows in liquor and raise some money for a fellow vet.

Speaking in the terse, decorous manner we’ve come to expect from Betty, she ends with this piece of reassurance for Sally, who breaks down crying. “Sally, I always worried about you because you marched to the beat of your own drum, but now I know that’s good. Betty, having decided to go back to school to get her master’s in psychology, finally has a sense of purpose and hope, only to have it dashed with a diagnosis of lung cancer that’s metastasized beyond any hope for effective treatment. What a wonderfully redemptive moment this was for Betty, a character who has suffered a lot—at the hands of her philandering ex-husband, but also, it sometimes felt, at the hands of the series’ writers, who trapped her in that haunted Victorian that Henry picked out, saddled her with a beastly mother-in-law, made her wear a fat suit, and gave her a daughter who often seemed wiser than herself. Don’s own career, spent in part convincing Americans that cigarettes were harmless fun sticks. (The show’s very first scene finds Don trying to sell cigarettes to a waiter.) First, a mea culpa: many, including me, have wondered whether Betty’s chilly demeanour is either deeply understated or horribly mawkish acting on the part of January Jones. I love you, Ma.” She certainly was no mother of the year, but no one could’ve imagined Betty would be given the most dire fate of Mad Men‘s characters.

It’s spreading maliciously and she’s not interested in any procedure that will give her another year of life/also make her miserable (and look awful). But in killing her off, the writers finally found a way to make Betty likeable, to give her a chance to be more of a rock than Henry (who approaches the diagnosis as if it’s a problem that can be solved with a few calls to well-connected bureaucrats) and one step ahead of her world-weary daughter, who, it turns out, doesn’t yet know it all. After all, we saw Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) land a new job and reunite with ex-wife Trudy (Alison Brie) this episode, while Don (Jon Hamm) hung out in the Midwest with small-town grifters and Vietnam War vets.

The lost look on her face as her husband and a doctor discuss the cancer in her own body, the firmness of her stance that she will refuse treatment, the line “I’ve fought for a lot in my life. She’s not being flip or selfish, she’s thinking about what’s best for her children and decides against prolonged, miserable, and likely ineffective treatment. The duo were building a field hospital when Dick accidentally caused an explosion that killed Draper, and with Draper’s body burned beyond recognition, Tricky Dick switched dog tags and assumed Draper’s identity.

There’s never been such doubts of Kiernan Shipka, who put on a gut-wrenching performance as Sally, the daughter who has been thrust into adulthood too soon. So he reads some Mario Puzo, shows off his dad bod at the motel pool, does some light typewriter repair, offers some remedial grammar instruction, and enjoys one very strange evening at the local chapter of the American Legion.

This entire episode at the Legion is ripped straight from the pages of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (and David Fincher’s subsequent film adaptation). That scene gives Betty an all-too-rare bit of character gravitas (same as in the scene where Henry, distraught and unable to channel how much he loves Betty, is mad at her for not seeking treatment; he asks what would happen if Nelson Rockefeller got cancer and Betty tells him the stark truth – “He would die!”).

Don seems to want to drive away from his troubles and find something new, but instead he’s stuck in a dry town and forced to confront his past: In the form of a Legion hall full of veterans who want to know the story of his service, and a young conman who reminds him of his younger self. He has, like Amazing Amy, faked his own death, escaped the societal strictures weighing him down, and assumed a different identity—that of Dick Whitman. It seemed significant that our hero came clean about killing his c.o., the darkest element of Don Draper’s origin story, after initially lying about his rank. It’s even more ironic when you consider that Jon Hamm’s Mad Men contract reportedly prevented him from starring in Gone Girl—in the role of the manipulated husband that eventually went to Ben Affleck.

What a tremendous sense of poetry Matt Weiner has, to have his audience witness Betty’s best mothering on the day when everyone around the country has spent the day honoring their family matriarchs. The vets he unburdens himself to take it in stride, though I thought, when they busted into his motel room later that night, that perhaps they were visiting upon him some country justice for the fragging in Korea. Don’s done some pretty damn disagreeable things over the course of his Mad Men tenure, from being an absentee father to Sally (and those other little ones) to cheating on his wives with any lady who crossed his path, from hippies to the woman formerly known as Lindsay Weir—which was witnessed by a shocked Sally, no less.

No matter the frequency of his peccadilloes, though, we’ve always managed to forgive him, casting Don as the lovable, tortured lout with a shitty upbringing (he was raped by a prostitute, after all). Betty spent so much of the early days of the series as coolly aloof or unbearably bratty and petulant, a bored housewife who still hadn’t fully grown up, despite having children. Is the point of his wandering in the wilderness to somehow let go of his Don Draperness—the lies about his service, the Cadillac his ad money bought him—so that he can emerge a new man (again)? (His dream, in which the authorities finally catch up with him, suggested none too subtly that Don’s conscience is still far from clear.) Watching him wait for that bus, he seemed happily returned to a simpler, more (Dick) Whitmanesque time. The second story is Pete reconciling with Trudy, something I predicted earlier and I’m happy to see happen (of course, there’s still an episode left and it could all go to hell, as could Pete leaving McCann-Erickson for a cushy job with that Lear Jet startup company). “I want to start over,” Pete tells Trudy. “I know I can. But she doesn’t want Sally to experience the same pitfalls that she did, and in perhaps her biggest favor to Sally, Betty resists turning into her own mother.

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. Then there’s Don, who meets a kid in an Oklahoma motel who steals money and blames him; he curiously takes the kid under his wing and gifts him his car. It’s written on stationary topped by Betty’s original initials, a symbol of who she was before she became Betty Draper, and then Betty Francis. “I know your life will be an adventure.”

But before that, inexplicably, Don agrees to go to a legion — for a man with secrets like his, that’s like a mouse waltzing willingly into a party of cats. You might say that he seemed romantic about the past—the pitfall that Trudy was so wary of when Pete first let on that he might want to rekindle things.

He winds up revealing, drunkenly, that he killed his commanding officer and was sent home — the action that launched so many ripples, the crisis that made him leave Dick Whitman behind and become Don Draper. Julia, Hanna: I’m very eager for your take on the Pete plot, and to hear whether you have high hopes—or any hopes—for the reconstituted Campbell clan.

And believe me, that’s a modus operandi that’s been hanging over Don’s On the Road travels and even before then in episodes where he exhibited all manner of change. Whatever the case, we now know he’s the male answer to Amazing Amy: Dapper Don. “This is a big crime stealing these people’s money,” Don says to that young crook. “If you keep it, you’ll have to become somebody else. It’s a little hard for me to believe in his epiphany—that he’s recognized in himself his father’s insatiable appetites and decided to reform himself. That his path to betterment is paved by the wonderfully crazy and conniving Duck, and a very rich offer from Lear, suggests to me that as earnest as Pete may have been in that great moment with Trudy, this will prove a passing fancy. Cooper theory so many are surmising—that Don is not the mystery man who leapt out of a plane in 1971 (more on that when you see an interesting interview come Tuesday on macleans.ca).

I have a slightly hard time imagining Pete in Wichita, even if he does have a jet gassed up in the backyard and even if Kansas proves as wholesome as, say, Oklahoma. I always thought Pete and Trudy were kind of perfect for each other—she was an excellent Lady Macbeth during his rise at Sterling Cooper, and they dance a killer Charleston. Betty’s been plagued by health scares since Season 1, when she sought therapy after suffering repeated numbness in her hands, to the Season 5 weight gain and subsequent lump discovery/cancer scare. While the two polar opposites have butted heads over the years—who can forget the moment Betty almost had her committed after she was caught masturbating at a friend’s house (“She was masturbating, Don! In front of a friend!”)—they’d mended fences of late, and come to terms with each other’s differences, leading to this heartstring-tugging exchange: BETTY: “I know that.

But a minor twist lets him be accused of stealing money that was meant to help another vet who burned down his own house and needs support – of course the money was taken by the male “maid” who works at Don’s motel and who tries a con that allows Don to give him a short morality lesson in making mistakes you’ll regret. The absolution element was important and the lecture/advice element was in there to basically confirm that bad choices have ramifications that you’ll have nightmares about decades later. By that I mean that leaving Don at a bus stop so remote that it doesn’t even have a shelter attached to it is pretty daring when you have to move him either to California (or Texas, maybe) and then probably time-jump back to New York to tie up loose ends if tying up loose ends is even a thing.

I’m not sure whether that’s a beginning or an ending for Duck, though I suppose it might depend on the venture’s success (as it did for Loman, too). Having him at that remote bus stop certainly doesn’t build confidence that he’ll be back in New York any time soon when he isn’t even in California yet. (But what if he doesn’t end up on California? He’s in Oklahoma right now, sitting right on top of Texas and the episode ended with the wholly out-of-sync use of Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” song as an episode closer.

Either way, it raises an eyebrow.) But we shouldn’t lose track of the fact that, as I wrote last week, the finale will almost assuredly use a time jump to finish its story. He’s going where he needs to go for whatever rebirth or enlightenment is coming his way (I’m still betting on California, though less sure seeing him on that remote Oklahoma bus stop bench.) An argument could be made that Peggy’s story as well as Pete’s story (and, most clearly, Betty’s story), has been told. We could see Don back at that bus stop in the middle of nowhere or we could see him in California and then New York and, conceivably, see him in an entirely different year.

The decision made in this penultimate episode – particularly the no Peggy, Joan and Roger element – suggest that we might not get the airtight resolution some hope for and will instead get hints about what may be – a well-executed vagueness that allows for interpretation. Every week in this segment, our Mad Men experts find one particularly fascinating detail to analyze deeply, reading into it for its clues and its contexts.

It’s an odd turn because Trudy has seemed so certain about her hatred; just last season, she told him that if he so much as urinated within 50 feet of the house, she would destroy him. You see it in the contrast between him and his brother at a dinner while discussing work and women, where Pete notes sagely that he thinks womanizing feels good “and then it doesn’t.” Actions, meet consequences: Pete’s become a man, in a way that he’s spent the entire series striving to become, often flailing. But this season, he’s a man on both those traditional terms—beating up headmasters holding pathetic grudges, and confident in his work life — and his own, from administering toothpaste balms to his daughter’s bee stings, to saying all the right things to win back the love of his life. If so, at least we have this: the redemption of a man who began the season as its villain, the man who held a secret over Don and held a rifle to the head of Peggy, the girl he knocks up, gets to leave with everything he’s ever wanted, no doubt a better man. COLIN: If anyone dies by jumping from a plane, or being pushed from a window, it now seems to me it might be Pete (although perhaps we’re too late for either now).

It’s certainly better than the one he gave her earlier at the kitchen table, when he asks Trudy to join him at dinner with Duck and the Learjet executive. “How about for old time’s sake?” Pete offers her after she first refuses. “I’m jealous of your ability to be sentimental about the past,” Trudy replies. “I remember things as they were.” They have a word for that kind of sentimentality: nostalgia.

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