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This is another of the ongoing episode previews for the final batch of Mad Men episodes, as always, focusing on the Top 5 developments coming out of the previous episode.

Mad Men Episode 7.9

Photo Courtesy of AMC

Warning: Spoiler Alert

Last week, in the midseason premiere, Ken spoke to Don about “the life not lived.”  In Episode 7.9, New Business, Don encounters a wide array of his life’s experiences, with most of them being paths that he traversed and abandoned.  With only five episodes remaining in the series, the lessons that he drew from these experiences remain as oblique as ever.

What seemed most noteworthy was his new relationship with the diner waitress, Diana.  Despite her admonition to leave him alone, he follows up on his apparent (that qualifier must be used, because Matthew Weiner doesn’t ever want us to get too cocky about thinking that we know what’s in these characters’ heads) sense that she can fill the emptiness that is threatening to swallow him whole.  Her misunderstanding about Don having been soliciting her in the previous episode stems from her being a newcomer to the big city and thinking the worst about the expectations of the rich and powerful in the Big Apple.

And while frustration has been noted in this space previously about the winding character paths of Don and Company, sometimes Weiner pulls out a tie-in that is so stunning that it seems apparent that few, if any, other showrunners could manage it.  In this case, Diana turns out to be a guilt-ridden runaway from Racine, WI, who was so traumatized by the death of one daughter that she abandoned her other one, her husband and her tranquil middle-class life.  So the very woman who only materialized in Don’s life because she reminded him of a/the “one who got away,” Rachel, is living the life that Don almost lived with Rachel.  Remember the moment that caused Rachel to peer at Don with true, undisguised disgust for the first time: when Don, terrified of Pete detonating the “Dick Whitman bomb,” wanted to run away with her to Los Angeles and leave his entire life – children certainly included – behind.  For Diana, a deeply unhappy woman wanting to remain numb to the pain she suffered and is inflicting on her fellow family survivors, the reason for fleeing is more serious than Don’s would have been, but the emotional torment is the same as Don would have felt and would have inflicted on Sally, Bobby and Gene.  After an episode that seemed to indicate that Don and the  mysterious Diana might be able to find emotional refuge together, in a turning-the-page dynamic that each needs, her revelation at the end and plea for Don to let her try to resume her numbness in peace seems to indicate that the fledgling relationship is doomed.

Now, there’s a school of thought that indicates that heartbreak can be dealt with by getting distracted by another, less emotionally fraught matter to cause anger.  If that’s the case, then Don is the luckiest man in the world, because he arrives home from his apparent end with Diana to discover that his luxury apartment is completely empty!

The story of how that happened seemed to check off every box on the “why people hate French/French Canadians” stereotype, so if there’s any pressure groups who monitor such matters, Weiner should be expecting some hate mail in his inbox after this episode.  Megan, with her insufferable mother and sister in tow, has come to collect her share of the furniture to take back to Los Angeles.  Also, Megan, who was last seen telling Don that he doesn’t owe her anything, has since devolved into bitterness and a sense of entitlement when it comes to Don’s money.  Don generously foots the bill for the entire matter to go down smoothly, except it doesn’t when Marie decides that her daughter is “owed more” and directs the movers to take it all away.  Naturally, Don is at the office and, subsequently, on a golf course with clients when his hateful mother-in-law ups the ante.  And naturally, the movers demand more money when they are instructed to exceed the agreed-upon labor.  And naturally, Marie calls Roger to deliver the money when she cannot reach Don.  And naturally, Marie and Roger demonstrate that furniture is completely unnecessary when it comes to defiling her marriage.  Seriously, for as much as the big picture with this show can be hard to decipher, sometimes connecting the dots within an episode takes no effort at all.

So Don’s starting over from scratch in his “dee-lux apartment … in the sky—yyy—yyy” (hey, in five years, George Jefferson’s going to become his neighbor – what a crossover that would have been) as he continues to glance at the discarded used pieces of his life around him.  As he is departing Henry’s home after a visit with the kids, he stares wistfully at the family tableau – after having been amused a few minutes earlier by Betty’s declaration that she’s going to be obtaining a Master’s in psychology.  If there’s not a sequel to the show portraying the lost souls of the Seventies doomed to broken lives by the spoiled, self-centered advice of TV’s most unlikeable trophy wife (yes, including all the Bravo reality shows), then that will be a big disappointment.  Don also encounters Sylvia and Arnold in the elevator of his building, the first time that they’ve been shown since the end of that most unfortunate affair.  Based on Arnold’s attitude, it seems that he’s sussed out the betrayal of his “friend” and his wife, but Don doesn’t appear to feel anything in particular when he sees them.

Having either Arnold or Sylvia drop a little knowledge on Megan just to add more bitterness and truculence to the divorce would have been a nice touch, but really, it’s not like she needs any more.  She herself figured out that Don was making “the O face” with other lasses and with her career on the rocks – starting from her resignation from the soap opera when she thought that she and Don were moving to California – she’s guzzling from her flask of Haterade every chance that she gets.  A lunch meeting with Harry that is supposed to lead her to better representation turns into a typical, unclassy Harry-on-the-make scene.  His scurrying, preemptive attempt to cover himself with Don by denouncing Megan as unstable (after he, naturally, disparaged Don to try to get into her pants) and untrustworthy is on the all-time top tier of Reprehensible Crane Moments.  Never change, Harry, you thoroughly entertaining perv!

In the end, Megan’s guilt-tripping of Don leads to him scratching her a check for a cool million (albeit before he discovers the cleaned-out apartment, so the first off-camera move he makes is probably to stop payment ASAP!) and Marie leaves her husband for Roger.  Chances that Roger sticks around with somebody infinitely more annoying and frankly, less attractive than his two ex-wives and many paramours that he discarded: zero.

The other main subplot was, quite frankly, simply bizarre.  Talented and sensuous celebrity photographer Pima Ryan (played in very fine fashion by Mimi Rogers) works with Peggy, Stan and the crew on a campaign.  Knowing that the Sterling Cooper folks are in awe of her stature, after critiquing Stan’s work, she seduces him in the darkroom – and she begins to make an unreciprocated move on Peggy.  Both Stan and Peggy seem hurt by the revelation that Pima was apparently toying with the both of them.  Honestly, though, Pima’s games don’t seem like they’re going to leave a permanent imprint on any of the characters and, with five episodes left, the time for providing any resolution is fading away.  Of course, that’s assuming that resolution is on the agenda and, as previously explored in this corner, that belief cannot be taken for granted.

Rarely is the reaction of a program on social media noteworthy enough to be chronicled here, but 7.9 proves the exception to the rule: fans and critics were scratching their heads about the insertion of new (Pima and Megan’s snotty sister), relatively new (Diana), thought-to-be-done (Megan) and hoped-were-forgotten (Marie) females into a story that is literally comprised solely of loose ends at this point.  Some of the reaction seemed a bit over the top, but credit must be given to everyone who sounded the note of alarm: if Weiner tries to build a serious, all-consuming sense of resolution in the final five episodes but seems to run out of time, then New Business will be a missed opportunity.  And if his artistic choice – which would be brave, but broadly unsatisfying to many – is to reject the notion of resolution itself as unrealistic, then New Business will serve in retrospect as the sign of Weiner’s path.  Everyone who loves Mad Men is rooting for it to end “the right way.”  In a perfect world, Weiner’s vision aligns with those who love the show.  Will it happen?  The smart money right now says that we won’t know until the curtain comes down on May 17.

 

This is another of the ongoing episode previews for the final batch of Mad Men episodes, focusing as always on the Top 5 developments coming out of the previous episode.

Mad Men Episode 7.8

Photo Courtesy of AMC

Warning: Spoiler Alert

Say this for Matthew Weiner.  He does it his way, completely and unapologetically until the end.  Other shows in the “new golden age of television,” such as Breaking Bad, Justified, The Shield and Sons of Anarchy all had a clear direction heading to the end of the run, with the lead character ending up in an entirely different place than where they started the series.  If there’s such a thing as a format for shows like these, then that element is an unmistakable part of it.  But not on Mad Men.  Barring a very late-series change of direction, it’s actually going to end up much near where it started, surface dissimilarities about eras aside.

If you can figure out where Don Draper is headed after Episode 7.8, Severance, then your crystal ball is certainly shinier than any others in circulation, because it’s more rinse-and-repeat with another apparent existential crisis in his life.  For that to be a deliberate creative choice on Weiner’s part – and since the man is anything but oblivious about the trajectory of his own characters, it has to be – is very brave on an artistic level, because most viewers yearn for a more obvious path of resolution.  The Dick Whitman part of Don that is seemingly less buried with every season is a very decent person and it’s easy to imagine Don learning the lessons that he needs to learn to bring that persona to the surface full-time and earn everyone’s love and affection.  After Season 6, he began the process of atoning for his sins with Sally by showing her a piece of his troubled childhood, the period that screwed him up worse than he had ever allowed himself to admit prior to that point.  But then, in the first half of Season 7, he became unhinged by his hanging-by-a-thread status at Sterling Cooper and he began drinking heavily even as he somehow managed to remain on his best behavior sexually with his wife out in the Hollywood Hills.  That journey concluded with Don’s redemption at work, but a divorce from his wife.  Would that begin another downward spiral?

Well, while this regression is less severe on the surface than those in the past – since he’s more sober than in Seasons 4 and 6 and he’s keeping it in his pants around the office unlike Season 4 – it’s clearly there.  One aspect of Don’s state-of-mind involves extracting opportunities via casting calls and other advertising “meetings” to leverage as much sex as he can from nubile young women.  Cue the Facebook “comedian” reacting to a high school student having sex with his teacher by bellowing “I wish I had those ‘problems!’”  But we know that Don’s conducting himself this way precisely because he’s not in a good place, because the behavior on an ongoing basis is not something that he values – having earned a disdain for it with his childhood in the whorehouse.  When Don isn’t in a serious relationship, then he does not have the boundaries and the limitations that he’s been seeking his whole life in the form of the perfect nuclear family that he was denied when he was young.

In the midst of this lifestyle, however it happened, Don conjures up the image of Rachel (Menken) Katz appearing at one of his casting calls in very sexy fashion.  With Ken having dropped the phrase “the life not lived” to Don – more about that later – and the song “Is That All There Is” wafting through the episode, the fact that Rachel comes as close as anyone to being Don’s “one that got away” leads you in the direction of thinking that somehow she’s going to come back into his life.  But this is a show that specializes in cruel twists – think the last days of Anna Draper, the Lane Pryce suicide and other heart-wrenching moments – so the gut-punch of Rachel having actually passed away at about the time of Don’s vision carries the trademark impact.  Don was so certain that she had been at the Sterling Cooper office and, earlier, in a diner with Roger, he thought that he recognized a waitress – although he couldn’t place her completely and it turns out that she simply reminded him of Rachel.  Of course, this ties into his downward spiral because Roger leaves a $100 tip for being a rude customer and this waitress ends up with it by accident and assumes that she’s supposed to service Don when he shows up again.  So she does and his self-loathing has to be reaching new heights.  He does reach a bit of closure at Rachel’s wake, however, when her sister – who clearly disapproved of their dalliance – nonetheless warms up enough to talk about Rachel’s children and just how great her life was before contracting leukemia.  And by the end of Severance, he’s about to talk to an executive at Rachel’s old department store about obtaining their advertising.

This came about because of a fascinating sub-plot with Peggy and Joan.  Early on, their efforts side-by-side in a meeting with Topaz find them on the same page, but frustration erupts when their client is unhappy with their efforts and an attempted salvage meeting with McCann Erickson – to try to get Topaz into department stores, the development that leads to Don’s subsequent meeting – goes in the toilet when the parent company employees spend the entire meeting sexually harassing Joan.  Peggy’s lack of empathy for being treated as a pure sex object leads to some great back-and-forth – apparently, Peggy feels that Joan dresses to show off her body and that Joan is now rich anyway and undeserving of great sympathy and Joan feels that Peggy is a hater with cankles – and Joan submerges her unhappiness in some high-end clothes shopping in grand, imperious fashion.

As for Peggy, the encounter with her oldest office frenemy leaves her vulnerable to the well-meaning set-up attempt from underling Johnny Mathis.  A blind date with his brother-in-law, Stevie Wolcott, starts off poorly, but veers from the depressive to the manic quickly, as she proposes that they end the adventure in Paris.  Her inability to find her passport in time leads cooler heads to prevail – with Stevie’s “little head” lagging behind somewhat in clarity – but the two seem on somewhat solid ground.  But there is a hint dropped about him taking a job out of town, which may lead her to second-guesssing her decision not to be recklessly impulsive and getting waist-deep into a relationship with him ASAP.

Peggy’s possible new beau is between jobs, a status that also befalls Kenny Cosgrove once his father-in-law, Ed Baxter, decides to retire from Dow.  Saddened that her father waited so long to enjoy a peaceful post-work existence, Cynthia badgers Ken to consider leaving Sterling Cooper and throwing himself into writing – reminding him that her nest egg is substantial enough to underwrite their family for quite some time.  Surprisingly, Ken, who has no great love of the game, resists her suggestion, only to find that the new corporate overlords at McCann Erickson have a long memory.  His departure years before with a lot of business for his return to Sterling Cooper upset them and now, with no need for Ken’s continued presence on the Dow account, they have no more need for him.  Roger, who had promised in the midseason finale (circa July 1969) that he would be able to run the new Sterling Cooper subsidiary as he saw fit, was unable here (circa April 1970) to hold off the revenge firing.  In a philosophical moment with Don, Ken sees the timing of events as a sign that he should heed Cynthia’s advice, although the betrayal that he feels burns him inside.  And eventually, the cycle of revenge continues, as Ken appears to sacrifice what would be a happier life for a job at Dow (whose status in the war machine leaves him disdainful), where he will linger as a thorn in the side of Sterling Cooper – who will be forced to jump for him on command to keep the account.

Throughout all of this, Roger and Ted manage to rock some truly righteous ‘70s ‘staches and the firm seems to be running more efficiently than in the previous half-season – albeit with the increasing specter of being dominated by McCann Erickson.  Between Sterling Cooper ending up – AGAIN – under the thumb of McCann Erickson like in the end of Season 3 and Don finding another excuse to backslide into personal excess, a cynic might argue that Weiner has engaged in Simpsons-like plot recycling to carry Mad Men down the final stretch.  It’s entirely likely that we won’t know until the very end of the finale whether that is the case or not.  Again, it’s one thing for him not to give us the ending that so many of us want.  That is his right.  But it’s all in the execution.  Whether or not Don and the other characters make tangible progress in their lives, we need something more than the explanation that “these characters tend to take one step up and two steps back.”  Matthew Weiner is an extremely intelligent and creative writer, so he’s clearly going somewhere with this.  It’s going to be a wild trip to find out exactly where that is.

Mad Men End of an Era poster

Photo Courtesy of AMC

Warning: Mild Spoiler Alert

Throughout its 6 ½ seasons, Mad Men has been about many things.  It has been about the ongoing existential crisis of its lead character, Don Draper.  It has been an examination of the changes in the workplace in the 1960s through the eyes of its “secondary lead,” Peggy Olson.  It has been about the advertising world at the end of its vaunted “boys will be boys” era of debauchery in the workplace.  And it has been about the Sixties on a large scale, the most transformative decade – in at least a sociological sense – in American history.

Borrowing from the successful Breaking Bad formula, AMC decided to have the other great Founding Father of its scripted division broken into two halves for the final “season.”  As such, it’s Season 7, Part 2 that begins on Sunday, April 5.  But unlike Breaking Bad – the super-focused story of one man’s journey to the dark side – Mad Men doesn’t have nearly the amount of loose ends to tie up after their midseason finale.  Now, that’s not to say that more closure can’t be provided to the ensemble and that new questions won’t be asked and answered before the series finale.  But Breaking Bad left off on a huge cliffhanger going into the end and it had a very clear direction to the finish line.  Characteristic of a show that sometimes seems to mirror the decade’s psychedelic music in structure, answers are in very short supply about the developments that will wrap up this epic series.  And that’s just how showrunner Matthew Weiner wants it.

While the Sterling, Cooper and Partners agency is being captained by Roger Sterling (played by the outstanding John Slattery) in the wake of the sale to McCann Erickson in the midseason finale, the real creative – and polarizing force in the agency is Don (played by Jon Hamm).  His run to the end of the series will involve working with others in creative, including his protégé Peggy (played by Elizabeth Moss), fellow partner Ted Chaough (played by Kevin Rahm) and stick-in-the-mud Lou Avery (played by Allan Havey).  The top salesmen interacting with creative include the maturing-but-still-occasionally-immature Pete Campbell (played by Vincent Kartheiser) and pirate-patch-wearing Ken Cosgrove (played by Aaron Staton).  Others adding flair to the office include pompous TV division head Harry Crane (played by Rich Sommer), office minx Joan Harris (played by Christina Hendricks), far-out art guy Stan Rizzo (played by Jay R. Ferguson), and big fat jerk Jim Cutler (played by Harry Hamlin).  Don’s family ties play into the show as well, with ex-wives Betty Francis (played by January Jones) and Megan Draper (played by Jessica Pare) on the fringes of the main action, along with Don’s children Sally (played by Kiernan Shipka), Bobby (played by Mason Vale Cotton) and Gene (played by Evan Londo).  Betty’s husband Henry (played by Christopher Stanley) is a rising star in the Nelson Rockefeller machine.

Most of the characters have become happy and satisfied on a professional level by this point, but almost all of them are yearning for unfulfilled personal happiness as well and the best bet is that the remaining seven episodes will address these journeys in great detail.  Characteristically, Weiner has played coy about all details of the show, so the longtime theory that the show will wrap up at the end of 1969 remains theoretically in play – even though the last episode touched on the immediate aftermath of the July 1969 moon landing.  This would leave no space for Weiner to insert the “time jumps” that he loves to insert between seasons, so it seems likely that the show will touch on the early days of the Seventies as well.

We will be featuring weekly audio commentaries on the show, analyzing the biggest developments from the previous episode, as well as our weekly recap columns.  As a taste of that, here is our audio preview for the final seven episodes.