Warning: Spoiler Alert
NOTE: Assuming that Mad Men answered its definitive question in its final episode, the previously-intended headline was “Who Don Draper Is.” And while the conclusion definitely provided a strong hint, it was not a definitive statement.
Out of all of the trademark shows of TV’s New Golden Era, Mad Men may be the most unlikely. Sure, it’s wrapped in the glamorous coating of the advertising business at the time when it was becoming truly ascendant in modern society and it covers one of the three or four most divisive/colorful/consequential decades in American history, but at heart it’s about the existential journey of one troubled man. That’s unlikely territory for a pop culture phenomenon.
The question “Who is Don Draper?” from an episode near the midpoint of the series (actually, the opening line of Season 4) has always been right near the surface and the answer has seemed, at times, frustratingly inconsistent. He’s a man who cares about maintaining a marriage to Betty – and later Megan – until he doesn’t. He’s a man who, although softer than Betty, keeps an emotional distance from his children – missing birthday parties and confessing to Megan about the children evoking numbness instead of love from him – until he realizes that he loves them (although he continues to make grave mistakes). He’s a man who values his standing as one of the most respected creative minds on Madison Avenue – until he doesn’t, throwing away his career more than once. And he’s a man who maintains good relationships in his professional orbit – until he doesn’t, disappointing others with bursts of selfishness, ego and unilateralism.
Just as the other show that helped put AMC on the map for prestige dramas (Breaking Bad) did, Mad Men preceded its series finale with a marathon that lasted several days, taking viewers through the journey of Don Draper and the world around him one last time. For Breaking Bad, the marathon served to remind everyone of the signature moments in the transformation of Walter White into Heisenberg. While it might have highlighted some moments that would prove significant in the end, viewing the marathon didn’t serve much of a purpose beyond entertainment, because the stakes were clear and there was little of a revelatory nature in this re-airing.
But the chance to revisit Mad Men in this format actually proved useful in terms of tracing the journey that Matthew Weiner intended the viewers to witness. Dick Whitman was wearing the skin of another man, the “real Don Draper,” peddling the alternate reality of high-level advertising. His quest for authenticity in his life has been omnipresent, even when it seemed otherwise. The writing of Don may have seemed inconsistent in terms of his happiness when solving his problems (many of them self-created), but the lesson learned when approaching the finale with a revisiting of the full history is that previously, Don was never to be believed when he professed joy at turning a certain corner. Even on the rare occasions when he was attacking a single root cause – such as the trauma in his childhood in the whorehouse at the end of Season 6 – by not stripping his life down to the core and re-examining everything from there, he was papering over the other issues that shaped him so profoundly. From this perspective, it seemed clear that Don’s search for real life answers was incongruent with a life in advertising, which taught him that the secret to success was cynicism. Think back to the pilot, when Don boasted “What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.” Surely, Don was never going to find his elusive authenticity in that business – or so we’ve thought. Your perspective on that issue alone will be enough to shape your interpretation of the finale’s conclusion.
As such, Don’s extended road trip through the stretch run of the show almost seems inevitable in retrospect considering his previous experiences. He had to get out of that Greater New York bubble, away from all friends and family, to learn about what direction his life should take.
Rarely does a finale benefit from the showrunner ruling out a certain path, but Weiner stating last week that Don does not become DB Cooper is one such instance. Sure, creating an iconic television series that ends with the lead character shockingly becoming America’s most mysterious legendary criminal would be very clever. But it would really betray the soul of the show, especially in the aftermath of the death sentence that Betty received from her doctor. While Don’s children seemed to be doing just fine without him before he left, circumstances have changed in a way that would render his desertion – the second one of huge magnitude in his life – as the furthest note possible from a feel-good ending.
Let’s put a pin in the subject of Don, however, since Weiner made the fan-pleasing decision to feature a large part of his cast in the finale, even characters that could have plausibly been considered to already have closure. For example, Ken pops up at lunch with Joan to try to recruit her to help him obtain better-quality industrial films for Dow. Before you know it, old Joanie’s looking at coming out of retirement to start a small production company and she tries to bring Peggy on board as a partner and the chief writer. While Peggy – a bit frustrated with some matters at McCann already – considers the offer, the show’s signature redhead deals with the two older men in her life. Roger, who has decided to marry crazy Marie after a wicked fight, wants to put Kevin in his will and Joan accepts after some consideration. And adventurous retiree Richard (who shared a toot with her near the top of the episode) is none-too-pleased with Joan being tied down to New York by her new company and he dumps her. Peggy declines the job, but for all of the turmoil involved in the situation, Joan seems to be doing just fine in the end.
For Peggy, a number of factors play into her staying at McCann. A departing Pete tells her that he is certain that she’ll be the creative director at the mammoth company by 1980 (which she considers to be a long way off!) and Stan wonders if the allure of becoming her own boss rather than accumulating power in the big firm might be based on ego. This leads to a vicious fight between them and the wounds are still fresh when she talks to Rizzo coming off of Don’s “goodbye” call from California – much more about that below. When she apologizes for her earlier tirade and indicates that she’s staying, a relieved Stan comes clean with the reality that he is in love with her. Peggy is stunned, but as she talks through her feelings, she realizes that she feels the same way. Keep in mind that this entire conversation is taking place over the phone in the office and they aren’t in the same room until Stan comes down to her office and they kiss at the end of the scene.
Back to Don, who never physically appears back in New York during the episode, although his final moments surely tell the tale of where he lands. At the outset, on the surface, he’s living the free and easy life of a “retiree” from the ad business (as the 45-year old man laughably calls himself), testing rocket cars in the desert and consorting with women of ill repute, but it’s clear that he remains enmeshed in a downward spiral. It’s interesting that his road trip had been previously pointing in the direction of him re-embracing his Whitmanesque qualities, but the boozing and womanizing point more in the direction of his Draper life – with the accompanying self-hatred that underlies all of his breakdowns.
During a phone conversation with Sally, she predictably informs him of Betty’s fate and he resolves to come home and take full custody of the children upon her passing, but her disagreement and another phone call with Betty convinces him otherwise. Her final wishes, she informs him, involve her brother and sister-in-law handling the primary raising of the children with Don continuing in a secondary role. He is crushed, but understands her point of view. Meanwhile, his children are having to grow up faster than he wanted, with Sally deferring her European trip and Bobby telling her that he’s overheard everything about Betty’s grim news.
Still grasping for some authentic connection in his life, Don looks up Anna Draper’s niece Stephanie. She takes him to some kind of hippie self-help commune/seminar series, where she admits to her lack of interest in reclaiming her baby from his grandparents. This creates much emotion in the room and when Don later tries to comfort her, she throws his role-playing as “Don Draper” back in his face. She’s right, he’s not really her uncle, but he cares nonetheless and he is shaken that his advice about putting the matter behind her – previously delivered to Peggy on the exact same subject with much greater effectiveness – is so effortlessly rejected by her. When she has vanished the next morning – leaving him stranded in a remote area without a ride – the reality of his present circumstances bears down on him with full force. First his young daughter Sally and now screwed-up Stephanie are seemingly showing more of a grasp on adulthood than he ever has. This is absolute rock bottom.
Feeling resigned to his fate, he calls Peggy to apologize for not saying goodbye when he left and to try to achieve some closure with her. She starts by chewing him out for running away again, scaring people as he is wont to do (and, although she doesn’t mention it, costing poor Meredith her job without having Don to employ her anymore – although perhaps that development proves reversible in the end). Don states that he has a lot more to feel badly about than that, confessing to having screwed up everything in life, including stealing a man’s identity and making nothing of the chance. He declares that he’s not the man that she thinks that he is. Peggy is puzzled by many of these statements, although troubled by Don’s state of mind and she tells him that it’s not too late to turn everything around. Even his job can be salvaged, as apparently McCann has forgiven worse than this. Don doesn’t want to delve further into matters, having completed his mission of trying to make good with his star protégé and he ends the conversation. Seeing his pain, a woman asks him to accompany her to one of the remaining seminars.
In the final segment, amidst a montage of wider final developments – Pete and Trudy getting on a Learjet, Joan answering a new work phone line at home, Roger and Marie cavorting on what appears to be their honeymoon, Betty smoking (!!!) morosely at home as she waits for the cancer to finish her and Stan approaching Peggy in the office to kiss her – Don remains at the commune and he is moved by the words of Leonard, a man living an average existence and feeling invisible to and isolated from all who are around him. In short, this man is the exact opposite of the Don Draper who has commanded every room for seven seasons, but they are bonded in that moment by the pain of their self-induced loneliness. A crying Don embraces the man as we are left to wonder what it all means in the final moments of the final show.
The build to the finish of the program was one of the stranger ones for any epic show on television, because leaving Don amidst the self-help folks at the very end would have been a conclusion even stranger and more random than the legendary Sopranos one that Weiner helped to craft. [Side note: the nature of the self-help hippie gaga that Don was immersed in is actually more commonly associated with the mid-‘70s than 1970 itself, but California is usually ahead of most trends, so it’s possible that the setting was not unrealistic.] The final scene of Don shows him as part of a group meditation doing the “Ommmmmmmmmmm” chant along with everyone else, but the tiniest, barest hint of a Cheshire grin grips his face … as the final scene pops up, the iconic “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” ad from 1971. Of course, that campaign was created by none other than McCann Erickson!
So the crystal-clear inference is that Don Draper, having spent the past three episodes fully marinating in the juices of his inner Dick Whitman, found a way to get back into the good graces of McCann while presumably maintaining his rediscovered true values. With the real-life McCann having been responsible for other big-time successes in the 1970s, such as the previously-teased Miller Lite launch, the stage has long been set for this fictional character to be assumed responsible for so many huge productions yet to come. And yet, his cross-country wanderings in the endgame seemed certain to preclude this course.
Still, the ending was enigmatic, but that word is practically a signature for the Weiner style. Because the last few episodes had been spent establishing the advertising business as antithetical to the authenticity that Don needed so desperately, the Coke campaign could have been crafted by the mind of a man who backslid into his old patterns and would spend the 1970s and beyond as the same inconsistent presence to those around him that he always had been. Perhaps Weiner himself will feel compelled to shed additional light on his vision – which his Sopranos boss David Chase has always been loath to do about his final fade-to-black – but until then, the bet in this corner is that Don was meant to be seen as someone who had finally figured out how to balance being a great creative presence with his very human Dick Whitman qualities. Otherwise, if he merely figured out how to leverage the pain of Leonard and others who shared his suffering into big money through a phony “togetherness” ad campaign, then he is revealed as a truly repugnant person.
Additionally, and this won’t necessarily go down as one of the bigger swerves of the finale, McCann Erickson proved to be a more durable home for the old Sterling Cooper crew than previously anticipated with Don almost certainly rejoining old partners Roger and Ted, as well as Harry, Stan and the sticking-around Peggy. Nevertheless, the impetus of Sterling Cooper being swallowed up – as well as Betty’s shocking health news – drove the action of the last half of the half-season in grand style. It’s difficult to compare Mad Men’s ride on an apples-to-apples basis with those of a more transparent nature, such as Justified, Breaking Bad or The Shield. Every one of those shows was barreling down a pretty clear path. Don’s story could have ended in so many different ways without Weiner seeming to have betrayed his vision. In the end, the path he chose was a satisfying one that seemed to leave everyone involved with a logical start to their “post-show canon” lives. More so than most of the aforementioned programs, you’re left with a sense of wanting to know the alternative ideas that were batted around, because it’s possible that some of them could have been better (although it’s probable that many would have been worse). But in the end, this final episode worked and any praise beyond that would be superfluous. Good job, Matthew Weiner.
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.
Warning: Spoiler Alert
A quick note, first: there are a great many people for whom this Mad Men episode hits a little too close to home to be able to rate impartially, airing as it did on Mother’s Day. When the episode revolves in large part around a mother receiving a fatal cancer diagnosis and having to confront the notion of leaving her children behind … well, one might have hoped that AMC could have worked the schedule in such a manner to leave this episode a week earlier or later. It certainly undercuts the “TV drama as escapism” motif, that’s for sure.
Frankly, though, so much of the penultimate episode of the series was a complete downer and yet, because of the unique nature of these highly-acclaimed television dramas, somehow that description is not meant as a criticism – merely an observation. Matthew Weiner is such a master of evoking the exact tone that he is seeking that it has to be assumed that he intended to leave us 70 minutes of storytelling that would make us want to slash our wrists out of despair. Toward what end … well, (presumably) the series finale will provide us with that answer.
The predominant source of angst for this bottomless pit of depressing material was Betty’s cancer diagnosis. Having fallen down at school and broken a rib just as she’s beginning to pursue her postgraduate degree, X-rays reveal the full scope of her real problem: lung cancer that has metastasized to her bones, lymph nodes and other vital organs. While Henry jawbones the doctor about fighting through with state-of-the-art approaches (circa 1970), the devastated look on Betty’s face says it all. This is one fight that was truly over before it started.
Unable to get Betty to spend her exceedingly short – 9 ½ months to a year – time remaining utilizing all of her energy in a futile fight, a desperate Henry tries to play a volatile trump card: Sally. A surprise visit to his teenage stepdaughter to break the news at first appears to break her, but soon it’s Henry who’s sobbing and wondering what he’s going to do if Betty dies. This steely girl, on the eve of adulthood, is proving yet again that she’s stronger than her elders.
Betty is upset when Henry brings Sally home to lobby her, leaving her daughter alone for dinner with Bobby and Gene. Sally intuits that she’s about to become the woman of the house, sitting Gene on her lap in Betty’s chair and looking after him tenderly. Later, Betty delivers Sally a note with her wishes to be administered after her passing. She explains to Sally that she watched her own mother suffer horribly and that she will not inflict that on her own children. Betty’s manner is not cold, but definitely stiffer than you’d hope for in such a situation. But later, as Betty musters the energy to return to school in her remaining days, Sally cracks the envelope open for a look and finds a more personal, truly motherly expression than Betty has ever delivered before. Even through Sally’s tears, you can find her relief that her mother truly loves her.
Of the three main storylines of the night, the sole hopeful one went to Pete, who seems to be truly growing up at long last. Although he’s fitting into life at McCann seamlessly, a visit from Duck triggers an examination of his own state of affairs. Duck tricks him into interviewing with an executive at Learjet (on the pretext of simply having an informative discussion with him) and Pete’s satisfaction with his current state of affairs is not enough to ward off the persistent Duck. Through certain machinations, a package is assembled that would provide Pete with everything that he would ever want at Lear, including a replacement for the million dollars that he’s due from McCann by 1974. Pete tries to get a sense of what his brother would do given such an opportunity, but instead he ends up observing the emptiness of Bud’s pursuit of extramarital fun. Seeing his own personal failures mirrored in Bud’s affairs, he realizes that he’s not a slave to his mistakes just because he and his brother have imitated their father’s behaviors to this point. Undeterred by Trudy’s brushoff when he had waxed sentimental about their life together earlier, he comes to her house in the middle of the night to tell her of the job offer and to beg her and Tammy to move to Wichita with him. Still feeling burned by his profound marital failures, she is resistant, but when she admits that she still loves him, the ice is shattered. If there was only one happy ending to go around, would anyone at all have bet on Pete being the recipient?
OK, back to the aura of truly repressive depression, this time with Don. Driving through Kansas and then Oklahoma, his car breaks down and he spends weird, lonely several days in a tiny-town motel awaiting the completion of repairs. As he’s about to leave at the end of the week, the motel owner beseeches him to attend a fundraiser with him at the local American Legion hall. At the affair, Don’s generosity makes him popular but he is loath to join in the sharing of war stories because of his own traumatic experience. He is visibly nervous when a fellow Korean War vet comes to make his acquaintance, but just when you think he’s going to escape the function without any kind of exposure … he voluntarily bares his soul. Moved by the confession of a fellow vet that he massacred surrendering German soldiers in World War II, Don admits to accidentally causing the death of his commanding officer and exploiting the circumstances to get sent home. The understanding and warmth of his fellow veterans makes you think that Don’s purpose for enduring this small-town purgatory was to find a way to make peace with the death of the real Don Draper … until Weiner winds up and throws one of those characteristic curveballs right down Broadway.
Don’s episode-beginning nightmare about being discovered as a fugitive by law enforcement manifests itself – sort of – when he is awakened at the motel and confronted about stealing the $500 raised for the poor man who burned part of his house down. Don protests his innocence and is beaten for it, with the threat of more violence if he doesn’t cough up the missing cash. He quickly realizes that the motel’s shifty (male) maid, who was also working at the Legion event, was the culprit and he indicates in no uncertain terms to the kid that he’d better produce the money. Even as he is stern with the youngster, it’s clear that Don sees something of his younger self in him as he lectures about how such an incident can cause you to enter a damaging, lasting race from your true self. After Don passes along the refunded five C-Notes, he accedes to the young man’s request for a ride to the bus stop. As Don pulls over, you’re waiting for the kid to bop him in the head with a tire iron and make off with all of his money, but then Don surprises us all by simply offering the kid his car. At the end, a bemused Don, sitting on a bench, has just added his vehicle to the long list of possessions that he has shed since the midseason finale: his marriage, his apartment, his career in the advertising business (referred to in the past tense by both himself and Duck) and indeed, his very interest in being big-city Don instead of country mouse Dick anymore.
But Don’s still got three entities left in his life and they’re named Sally, Bobby and Gene. Until Betty was revealed as terminal, the consequences of Don going Kerouac seemed fairly minimal with his kids enmeshed in a comfortable household with an attentive stepfather. But a shattered Henry’s not going to be any use to anybody and indeed, there’s no substitute for your actual father anyway. With only one episode of the series remaining, word needs to quickly reach Don about the fate of his ex-wife so that he can begin formulating an actual plan to take care of them – and provide for them, now that he’s apparently booted the big money back to McCann. Speaking of that, will Megan’s million-dollar check bounce now? One can only hope. But the fates of Don, those crazy star-crossed kids Stan and Peggy and wealthy-but-unemployed Joan hang in the balance with the series finale looming. Mere weeks ago, Justified faced the seemingly-impossible task of tying all of the threads together in the final episode and they actually accomplished 95% of that in the first two-thirds of the story. There’s no way that Matthew Weiner will do that, because we know that’s not what he’s after. Hopefully, though, resolution itself in a grand, over-arching sense isn’t going to be too much to ask. We’ll know all the answers in six days.
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.
Warning: Spoiler Alert
Apologies for the self-indulgent headline – a staple of this corner, granted – but Matthew Weiner was just asking for it by rolling some Bowie over the final scene of Don going AWOL (yet again!), giving a ride to a hippie hitchhiker in the middle of Flyover Country. In terms of what led up to that, suffice to say that McCann’s investment in Sterling Cooper – which was subtly hinted to be going poorly in Episodes 7.8-7.10 and was flat-out revealed as such in 7.11 – isn’t working out well for any of the major players. Granted, in his brief moment on-screen, Pete seemed to be getting by, spineless Ted has given up and Harry was glad to be going to a place that he thinks will indulge his pomposity, but the professional saga of these characters isn’t front-and-center at this stage.
In Episode 7.12, Lost Horizon, the stragglers to the new office are Roger and Peggy (not counting Ed, a redundancy in the move who spends his last week in the Sterling Cooper offices ringing up huge long-distance charges), with the Silver Stache hanging around SC a bit longer on the pretext of fully gathering his belongings and Peggy left without an office by the McCann crew – who seem to mistake her for a secretary. And based on what was mentioned in a brief aside to Joan, Peggy’s not going to be the badass copy chief over in the big leagues, but don’t anyone try to tell her that. After venting her frustrations to Roger and bonding with him over some vermouth and stories, she struts like a bad mofo into the new agency in shades, puffing on a cancer stick and clutching a saucy painting from Cooper for her office. OK, then!
Roger’s musings, comparing Sterling Cooper to his World War II experience of going swimming off of his naval ship – “this was a helluva boat” – set the right wistful tone for the nightmares being experienced by everyone getting sucked into the McCann Erickson whirlwind. The person who has it the worst by far is good old Joanie, who continues her pattern of being sexually harassed by everyone and their grandmother at McCann. She makes the prison-like mistake of complaining to an executive who she will now owe “a favor” and wonders aloud to her new boyfriend Richard about how to handle the situation. Richard, who didn’t get to be a millionaire developer based on his gentle good charm, implies that he invoked Cosa Nostra connections whenever intimidation was needed and plants the seed in her head about the white-collar equivalent thereof. When she is summoned to meet with an unhappy Jim Hobart, she has her enforcers in mind: the EEOC, the ACLU and anybody else concerned about the plight of working women in the “times-are-a-changin’” year of 1970. Extremely put off by what he sees as her insolence, Jim makes a bottom-line offer that he warns her will never improve: 50 cents on the dollar of what she is owed in the buyout so long as she never darkens the doorstep of McCann ever again. She defiantly refuses, but later, she is convinced by Roger that she is fighting a war that she can never win. Perhaps with the realization that she is a most imperfect warrior given the circumstances of how she first obtained her partnership stake at Sterling Cooper, she accepts the terms of her defeat.
But for Don, the most prized aspect of the takeover, Jim Hobart’s “white whale,” everything looks like it’s going to be fine – at least initially. Against all odds, Meredith is showing greater competency, even the aptitude to decorate his new apartment. And while Don is displaying some subtle discomfort with the big new surroundings – glancing out the windows distractedly – he is invigorated by the challenge presented by Hobart with a new potential Miller Beer account. Hobart explains that McCann purchased the agency with the Miller account so that they could put Don on it, with the promise of working on a revolutionary new product that even the densest dummy watching the show could tell you is going to become Miller Lite. But the intimate meeting that he imagined with Miller – in the mold of his entire previous professional history – turns into a big cattle call that he and Ted are obliged to sit through while a research company honcho drones on endlessly about the challenges inherent in pitching a “sissy” product to a blue-collar audience. Unfortunately for everyone involved, when the state of Wisconsin is invoked, Don’s latent dissatisfaction with his current state of affairs collides head-on into his quest for answers about Diana and he takes off driving to the Badger State, departing mid-meeting without any explanation. Granted, he stops in on the kids (who’ve made other plans) and chats up Betty about pursuing the education that she’s always wanted, but that just seems like a time-filler until he hits the road.
As he’s driving through Cleveland and digesting what seems to be a radio ad for Higbee’s (a North Coast shoutout on Mad Men and it only took seven seasons!), it turns out instead to be the dulcet tones of Bert Cooper, having been conjured by Don’s overly-tired mind. Bert’s sardonic advice about searching for Diana being a bad expenditure of his time and energy sounds like what the old coot would have actually said, but to paraphrase that era’s most celebrated diplomat Henry Kissenger, “It had the added benefit of being true!”
Don’s bright idea is to show up on the doorstep of Diana’s ex-husband and impersonate the research doofus who literally bored him out of the Miller confab. He finds out that her ex-husband remarried and in short order, his cover story about being there to present a sweepstakes award is blown. It seems as if he’s going to preserve a shred of dignity by changing his story to being a collection agent trying to track Diana down, but the ex-husband merely plays along with the charade to spare his new wife any further discomfort. As Don’s about to drive away, he is confronted with the knowledge that the collection story is not believed and furthermore, he’s not the first jilted lover of Diana’s to come to town looking for answers. Don is chagrined, but based on his decision to drive further out of the way to take the hitchhiker to St. Paul at the end of the episode, it wasn’t enough to jolt him back to his day-to-day life yet.
And that’s going to be a problem, as Hobart has punched his foot down harder and faster on the “Don Draper Zero To Disillusionment” scale than anyone ever has before. He questions Meredith on whether her missing boss is on a bender and he vents about his prize acquisition to Roger. For all the duplicity of the McCann buyout and the unfair treatment of many Sterling Cooper mainstays, Hobart wasn’t lying about the opportunities involved. Miller Lite (and their iconic Seventies ad campaigns) are about to become a thing, along with the “Buy the World a Coke” slogan that owned 1971. It’s too late now for Joan, but everyone else still has the opportunity to grasp the world by the nards and make it happen on the big stage. But, to varying degrees, it doesn’t seem as though that is what any of these characters want and, with only two episodes remaining in the series, the time to change all of these minds is expiring. Fitting all of the jigsaw pieces together on the board in a coherent fashion will be an incredible challenge for Matthew Weiner in his last 120 minutes with the show.
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.
Warning: Spoiler Alert
Attention Mad Men fans: all of the chirping about how Matthew Weiner’s been overseeing a final stretch that doesn’t feel like the endgame – well, he heard you! Episode 7.11, Time & Life, actually felt in many ways like a series finale – with three episodes behind it that didn’t carry much urgency and with three episodes still in front of it. Give the creative crew credit, they’re going out with one very unique sense of pace.
However, the strongest sense that Weiner had anticipated the way that fans would feel going into the “pivot” episode of the final seven actually came right before the start of the show. A Mad Men promo aired with the various actors talking about major plot points through the series and about how everything with the show always makes sense in retrospect. It would take a voice even more cynical than the one found in this corner to accuse Weiner of putting words in his actors’ mouths even outside of the show, but it was an interesting touch, however mischievous it may have seemed.
To the actors’ points about show logic, the dominant storyline of 7.11 sowed a seed that was planted in the midseason finale and followed up on hints that were dropped in the first three episodes of this half-season – hints that were noted in this very corner, it must be (immodestly) noted. Namely, the acquisition of Sterling Cooper & Partners by McCann Erickson in Episode 7.7, which was painted at the time as a panacea to block the machinations of Jim Cutler, was a disastrous miscalculation that would end up swallowing the vaunted agency whole. Now, one might argue that the breadcrumbs that were sprinkled in Episodes 7.8-7.10 contradict the picture that was painted at the end of 7.7, when objections to the deal were cast aside decisively and Don was left to survive in his agency after the threat of being purged. After all, weren’t Roger’s assurances of autonomy put in writing? If so, McCann Erickson must have delved deep into their supply of invisible ink, because at this point Sterling Cooper is helpless against anything that their new evil overlords have planned for them.
The callback to last year’s final episode wasn’t the only one, however, as one of the all-time classics, the Season 3 finale came into play with the same kind of caper overtones: trying to get clients to protect them against their own business consequences. But fittingly, for a show that’s about to go off the air permanently, the pattern wasn’t duplicated and the partners came up empty this time.
Everything starts when Roger learns that the lease for two floors at the Time-Life Building (hence, the episode name) has been allowed to expire in an apparent mistake. But this is no miscue: McCann is planning to move them all in, ostensibly to save on the rent. But the Sterling Cooper partners, who are trying half-heartedly to keep the secret (Pete clues in Peggy, who clues in Stan, while the secretaries are having their own little gossip circle about the matter), quickly realize the full implication: complete absorption into the corporate machine, the loss of their identity as a company and now being stuck completely under the thumb of their masters at McCann.
However, when Lou Avery’s goofy maneuvering actually lands Scout’s Honor a deal – in Tokyo, with the makers of Speed Racer, no less – that will take him away from the company’s West Coast office, Don spies an opportunity. He eyeballed California hungrily at the end of Season 6 and only Ted’s pathetic last-minute begging spree dislodged his commitment to move (ironically, Ted’s intention of rescuing his marriage with the move did not work and Don’s decision to stay in New York doomed what was left of his marriage). Now he sees another chance to make it work: if enough clients with McCann conflicts will “only agree to stay with a quasi-autonomous Sterling Cooper West Coast branch,” then McCann’s hand could conceivably be forced.
With Ken’s McCann conflict as a sticking point, Roger and Pete decide to see if their new tormentor will help them when push comes to shove. Just as he seems to indicate that he will, he demurs and walks out on them, leaving them scrambling. However, Pete’s 11th-hour arrangement with Secor Laxatives provides them with four accounts and $18 million in billings to plop down on the table during the fateful meeting. Don’s fanciful presentation is short-circuited by McCann head Jim Hobart, unsurprisingly so. How is a Don Draper pitch supposed to work on his peers in the advertising business, after all? Hobart tells them, “You won,” name-dropping major clients like a Big Pharma firm, Buick, Nabisco and Coca-Cola. And in terms of the level of business that they’ll be managing, the partners are all in the Big Time now (well, with the possible exception of Joan, who again wasn’t being given an indication of being taken seriously by McCann). But it’s at the expense of their company name and their own professional identities, which are intertwined with the lineage of Sterling Cooper.
The post-meeting drinking session is anything but celebratory, because they’ve been sucked into the pit that they so narrowly avoided in December of ’63. Oh, what a night, Don Draper. He does learn, before setting off to renew his quest for Diana, that Roger and Marie are indeed an item and he puts aside his cynicism about his former mother-in-law and congratulates Roger on his age-appropriate happiness. In searching for Diana, Don has little to go on, since she called his answering service twice and apparently thought better of leaving any contact information for him. He shows up at her old apartment only to find it being occupied by two gay guys now living there.
Absorption into McCann is unsettling for Pete, who’s never worked anywhere but Sterling Cooper. It accounts for a tremendous part of his identity, with his distant parents now gone and his ex-wife and daughter living in Connecticut. Speaking of them, Pete is summoned to a meeting at Greenwich Country Day with Trudy, where it is made clear to them that their daughter Tammy will not get off of the waiting list. Her test scores were low and, heartbreakingly, her absence of a real father figure manifested itself in an incomplete drawing that she furnished when asked to picture a man. However, the real breaking point for Tammy was the ancient McDonald/Campbell feud – apparently, the WASP preppy version of the Hatfields and McCoys – and the presence of a McDonald in the decision-making role at the school. Pete consoles himself by punching the jerk and later, Trudy confides that Tammy didn’t have a backup school because the man in charge of another one was hitting on her. That apparently has been happening a lot, since Trudy is pretty hot, albeit haughty and bossy.
It’s apparent that this matter is weighing on Pete as he addresses the OTHER woman to bring a Lil’ Petey into the world, namely, Peggy. He tells her about the McCann plan, figuring that she can get a start on job-searching, but her headhunter urges her to stick with McCann and she eventually seems inclined, as does Stan when she tells him. As this is unfolding, Peggy is interacting with children who are auditioning for commercial parts at the agency and Stan notices her stiffness with them, remarking “You hate kids.” But in the aftermath of a brutal argument between Peggy and the mother of one of the children about who was at fault when kiddo shot a staple into her hand, Peggy reveals to Stan the turmoil of putting Pete’s spawn up for adoption years earlier – although Pete’s name isn’t referenced. Stan sees this woman, always trying so hard to come across as professional and sufficiently steely, in a new light.
Just as the episode featured callbacks to epic moments of the past, so too does the ending of it reference the beginning. Inasmuch as the entire matter started with the questioning of company secretaries about why the rent wasn’t paid, worried chatter is running amok in their ranks and, predictably, Meredith is the one volatile enough to escalate into forcing a conversation with Don. He confirms the matter to her and assures her that she still has a job with him, but she resists his urge to brush off the matter from there, sensing disaster in the partners’ futile determination to keep the situation under wraps. For the first and probably only time in the series, Don recognizes Meredith as the adult voice of reason in a situation and he convinces Roger to convene all employees to unveil the move.
Roger’s announcement is an exact echo of the end of 7.7, when the acquisition by McCann was first put on the record. But here again, the comparison to an earlier moment is subverted, as his initial words are drowned out by employee chatter about the implications. Roger tries to regain their attention, to no avail. Harry Crane shouts that everything is going to be fine and is ignored by everyone, to the surprise of only Harry Crane. And then Don, the man who can command any room, calls out “This is the beginning of something, not the end!” His inability to refocus the employees is emblematic of the meta-reality: we know that this very well IS the end of something, nay everything in this on-camera world, after three more episodes. But at least now, everything is beginning to take shape. Last week, Don was forced to acknowledge his existential quest and the need to fill the void within, symbolized by his empty apartment, dead marriages and part-time fathering. This week, he found out that he actually did have one big thing left to lose, the company that he has essentially been the face of for well over a decade. His whimsical question to Roger “What’s in a name?” after the disastrous McCann meeting was a nod to his Dick Whitman past, which is known by only Roger and a few others. Don’s clearly pointed in a direction of big change as the final curtain readies to drop, but how he gets there in the final three episodes remains a massive mystery. Matthew Weiner wouldn’t have it any other way. But clearly, he also wants you to keep the faith that it’s all going to make sense. Let’s hope that it does.
Warning: Spoiler Alert
Cynics might question if the line cited in the headline, which was uttered by Joan’s new beau Richard, is emblematic of showrunner Matthew Weiner’s seemingly in-no-hurry approach to wrapping up the Mad Men universe – or is perhaps his defiant rejoinder to such questions. Coming the week after his old boss on The Sopranos, David Chase, felt the need to flush out the ending a bit more for public consumption, it’s natural to wonder if Weiner is going to deliver something as polarizing of a finish to this series.
However, a hopeful sign for some kind of concrete resolution at the end materializes in Episode 7.10, The Forecast, when Don’s new assignment from Roger brings his existential crisis to the surface. A Don Draper who’s facing a situation head-on is always preferable to the one who hides behind booze, affairs or other distractions. Don is openly starting to question what it’s all about and as such, there can be hope that he’ll discover the answer in the show’s final four hours.
Now that the McCann Erickson mothership has trimmed his sails and diminished his expectations of being a true leader as Bert Cooper once was, Roger has returned to full “hey, you can do this better than me” mode [side note: at no point did Roger reference a new full-on relationship with Marie, lending credence to the notion that her side of that story from the last episode was false]. As such, he fully intends to take advantage of the McCann junket in the Bahamas – but his 2,500-word speech on the future of Sterling Cooper will be passed off to his subordinates. Of course, Roger makes such a fine example that Ted follows in his footsteps, allowing Peggy to do her own employee evaluation after agreeing to perform those and telling Roger that Don, not him, would be the creative executive best able to handle the futuristic heavy-lifting.
Don seems nonplussed by the request, figuring that a little basic research, including the firm’s initial 1963 press release, might carry the seeds of a forecast about the future of the company. However, the firm’s resident creative genius is digging one dry well after another and before long he’s flipping through magazines doing their beginning-of-the-1970s pieces hoping to crib some thoughts from there. Still no luck. Those around him aren’t helping, either, as Don is unimpressed by Ted’s “grand ambition” to land a large pharmaceutical account and also by Peggy’s ambitions for herself and the firm. In the latter case, though, Don inadvertently picks a fight, as Peggy found herself wanting a real evaluation and wanted her mentor to deliver it. However unintentionally, Don’s search for some kind of greater meaning in the project, for himself, for the company, for whatever, hurts Peggy’s feelings as she complains that he defecated on her vision.
Distracted by his quest and his growing dissatisfaction with the inability to find answers, Don has trouble getting fully engaged in a fight between Pete and the copywriters. Pete is angry that a meeting with clients to work on branding for the new Peter Pan/Tinkerbell cookies deteriorated into chaos, with Mathis dropping an F-bomb on Ed. Seeking to get out of the company doghouse, Mathis seeks out Don for advice. The creative director relates a time when he screwed up in a meeting with Lucky Strike and showed up at the next meeting with bravado aimed at Lee Garner, Jr. The ploy was seen as charming and Don was back in everyone’s good graces. Of course, someone prone to fumbling moments like Mathis cannot be counted on to execute a sensitive strategy in a sound manner and his subsequent attempt at jocularity alienates everyone further. He storms into Don’s office, angry about having been removed from the account and having – belatedly – done his homework on the Lucky Strike incident. According to Roger, Lee Garner, Jr. had a thing for Don and the handsome ad man was forgiven simply for his ability to charm – Don would never say flirt! – his way out of the situation. Mathis further rages that somebody like Don pretty much has a hall pass for anything by being a handsome, charming empty suit. By the time that Don fires him, it’s pretty much just a formality after Mathis firebombs that bridge. But although he tries to laugh it off, the tirade is just one more piece of the puzzle for Don to try to piece together about the universe and his place in it.
The emptiness of his $85,000 (in 1970 dollars!) Upper East Side penthouse, which has remained in its post-Frenchie-looting state, serves as a metaphor, however ham-handed, about a side aspect of Don’s questioning: namely, what exactly he still has. When the early attempts to sell are unsuccessful, he and his realtor quarrel and point fingers and his defensive reaction when she proclaims that would-be buyers smell “failure” in the place clearly proves that she hit a nerve. He remains defiant on the point of not buying furniture that is only going to have to move with him, taking the ad man’s stance that those surveying the property need to use their imaginations and project their own hopes and dreams onto it. His statement, however delusional, at least does not carry the harm of his final conversation with Lane when he is berating the suicidal Brit about how easy it is to start over in life. So at least that’s progress! In the end, it’s a surprise when a buyer materializes out of nowhere and Don is left to contemplate where he goes next. Again, not the subtlest of metaphors about how he and the series resolve the remaining questions, but it does work.
His advice to Sally about becoming more than the beautiful young woman that she is – or, although he couldn’t say it in those words, progressing past the point that Betty ever did or perhaps even the point that he did, if Mathis is to be believed – is on point, however, but she’s too bollixed-up by recent events to digest it properly. While she is an increasingly confident young woman, she also feels that she’s still in the sexual shadow of both of her parents, as Don appears to flirt with a “fast” friend of hers and Betty is clearly regarded as the Alpha Sexy Woman of the family by old friend Glen when he visits to tell her that he’s going into the Army and, thus, Vietnam. While Sally uses the recent Kent State shootings to lash out at him, her own words to Don later prove how much she was rattled by Glen’s appreciation of Betty and indeed, she leaves him a message later to profoundly apologize. Glen comes back later to see Betty and given their past together in Connecticut, there’s a creepy vibe in the air. Sure enough, Glen, no longer a minor, finally makes his move on Betty and surprisingly, she lets him down in as gentle and humane a manner as humanly possible. Horrified at the thought that he’s going to ‘Nam simply to impress her, Betty asks what he’s thinking and he confesses that he flunked out of school and that it was the only way to keep his stepfather from evicting him. Betty genuinely tries to assure him that he’s going to be OK, but they both know that no such promises can be made. Later, still shaken by fears for Glen’s well-being, she stops Bobby from playing with a toy gun because it upsets her too much. Right now, Weiner is laughing at everyone who didn’t have faith enough to get down on the 500,000-to-1 proposition about Betty developing a shred of humanity in the final episodes that was no doubt being offered by fine online casinos everywhere.
And now to the aforementioned Joan-Richard angle. While on a trip to LA to interview job candidates with Lou Avery – making his first appearance since the McCann takeover – she is displeased by the notion that his dealings out there with Hanna-Barbera might be more about his own cartooning aspirations than anything of benefit to the firm, but she is distracted in this thought by her encounter with Richard. He is a handsome older millionaire, divorced after a long marriage. Their whirlwind relationship doesn’t appear destined to last beyond her trip, but when he unexpectedly pursues her in New York, they continue their fun. Given his suspicion that the situation is too good to be true – surely a catch like Joan must be married or have something else wrong – it seems that he’s going to be relieved when her revelation is “merely” her four-year old son, Kevin (by the way, she claims to have been twice-divorced, which is strange, but perhaps a backstory to cover the child having been fathered out-of-wedlock by Roger). But he’s not relieved! He’s been there and done that, he tells her, and he’s past the point in life to be raising kids – much less somebody else’s kid, although he’s tactful enough to leave that part unspoken. Just as Joan’s dealing with the heartbreak, though, he shows up at Sterling Cooper with flowers, remorseful and looking to make it work with her – and Kevin. She is receptive and as such, she may become the first of the show regulars seeking a happily-ever-after to find one.
What about Don and the rest? With only four episodes remaining, time’s running out (although this past week’s Justified finale showed how much can be – artfully – jammed into a single episode) for resolution of the different stories, but Episode 7.10 at least felt like progress by lifting Don’s profound life questions from his subconscious to the light of day. Diana appears to be gone, at least for the moment, and as such perhaps she’s completed her role on the series creatively as one final repository for Don to pour everything into to avoid his real issues. Remember, he’s already done that once before: in Season 5, when Bert complained that Don was on “love leave,” he was perfectly content to throw himself lock, stock and barrel into a marriage to a woman that he married on the most sudden of impulses. And the revelation that actress-at-heart-not-ad-woman Megan didn’t fit every preconceived notion that he had of her sent him tumbling into his Season 6 abyss. So Diana wasn’t “the answer” in the grand sense and in all likelihood, no woman is going to fill that role as he first has to figure out his own issues before joining with someone else. Don’s earned his sympathy from the viewers, even after a host of unsympathetic actions over the years. The fanbase, by and large, is rooting for him to find happiness and it seems increasingly that he might, even if it’s just a tiny, torturous hint of it that the audience sees him experience in the end. If it goes down that subtly, surely David Chase will be proud of his old associate.