Sunday, June 07, 2015

[TV] The Last of Mad Men

My first thought on the finale was "That was some weak tea, dude." Upon further reflection, I've had second thoughts. The finale was all about character resolutions so let's go through them and see what we've got. (I am going to refer occasionally to Matt Weiner's recent interview on the topic.)

Peggy/Stan - This came out of the blue for me. At first viewing I thought it must be some kind of dream sequence. They were always fast friends and occasional frenemies (a word I hate) but I never sensed anything romantic between them, then all of a sudden…face-sucking devotion. Weiner said he had to be sold on this idea, and was, but I'm not. I think they would have been better served leaving their final exchange about being defined by work as their ending.

Joan - Joan is still awful. I know, she has become something of a feminist icon and is in some eyes symbolic of all the terrible things men have done to women, and so her final act -- doing exactly what she wants in defiance of yet another man who can't let her be her own woman, or something -- is probably supposed to be heroic. To this end they had to demonize her ex-husband one last time with an offhand comment lest we think she may be in the wrong for passing off the child of his cuckolding as his own. As you know I'm allergic to politics, so I just look at her personally. She treats people terribly and has since the very first episode. She tries to fish Peggy into her movie production scheme, which Peggy rightly wants no part of. She has always done exactly what she wanted and thought of her own fulfillment above anything else, including her own soul -- even now, when she has enough money to not live in fear and insecurity, she still has a need for authority and control above all else. Yes, I know I am probably the only one who sees it like this, but she's awful. Nice rack, though.

Betty - A true tragedy; something we rarely see in television. She finally found her footing in life -- going back to school. She is still cold and distant to her kids, although she had made minor strides to connect with them more. She was improving and learning. Then her life ends. There's really no lesson I can see in this other than bad things can happen at any time. No silver lining. No symbolic logic. Just flat out tragedy. That in itself took some dramatic courage, but also from a dramatic standpoint, I think she came to peace with dying a bit too quickly. We maybe could have used another episode to dramatize it rather than reducing it to "I watched my Mother die and I won't do that to you." (On the other hand, if it was extended I might be complaining about it dragging on. Sometimes there's no winning with me.)

Pete - came to the realization that his inescapable dissatisfaction with everyone and everything was the source of much of his problems; the key conversation being a dinner with his brother where he saw that it was a legacy from his father. (If there is an ongoing lesson from Mad Men, it's a Gatsby-esque the-past-is-always-with-you sort of thing.) He gets out of advertising and rebuilds his family and seems to finally be on the road to the success he's always wanted now that he's turned his back on everything he thought would bring him success. In contrast to Betty, this is the one true happy ending. Not sure if Pete deserved it, but it was nicely coherent and built up well over the final episodes.

Roger - seems to have finished up by marrying someone more childishly neurotic than himself. My guess would be this marriage is as doomed as his others. It's hard to say how Roger comes out in the end. I do hope he rids himself of that ludicrous mustache.

Sally - turns out to be the most successful of all. Faced with a dead Mom, an absentee Dad, and an uncertain future in the care of relatives, she is more defined by what she doesn't do. She doesn't follow Don's pattern and check out and disappear to Europe as she had planned. She doesn't follow Betty's pattern and distance herself emotionally and take it out on her brothers by spewing hostility. She simply starts caring for them and decides to help however she can. In that, there is hope that she has broken with her emotionally dysfunctional inheritance. This is the most uplifting of the endings.

Which brings us to…

Don - Where to begin? The past few episodes have seen him stripped of everything. Perhaps as the result of his perpetual habit of fleeing when things get uncomfortable. Or perhaps he purposefully (subconsciously) stripping himself of everything just to see what was really there. At the Esalen Institute he is even stripped of his charisma as they are not the sort to be influenced by his looks or his charmspeak. When his niece is facing having given up her baby, a situation essentially identical to Peggy in Season 2, he gives her the Peggy speech about how she must put it behind her and move on, how she will be surprised how much it will have "never happened." Unlike Peggy, his niece isn't buying it, offering a simple, "I don't think you are right about that."

Now Don has nothing. His job, so important to his identity, has been abandoned. His family, in the midst of the worst possible tragedy, doesn't want him involved. And now he cannot even move someone with his words. All the striving of his life, all the constructs he labored to build, and the relationships he tried so deftly to manage, and he is still Dick Whitman, terrified and desperate for any amount of real love, security, and acceptance. All his life he has been beating against the current, borne back ceaselessly into a childhood in a whorehouse.

Then he is in group with the Bald Guy. The Bald Guy has a great nuclear family, his job is stable and steady, and he is the least charismatic man alive. In other words, he's Don's exact opposite ( a truly inspired moment by Weiner). Yet he puts into words exactly how Don has felt his whole life -- on a shelf in the cold dark refrigerator, occasionally there is beautiful light and warmth from the outside, but it never takes. You always end up unselected and back in the cold dark. (I would cynically point out that while it might be nice to be chosen to be removed from the fridge, it just means you're going to get eaten.) And in this image of his opposite expressing his exact feelings, Don sees that he is not really alone in his angst, the bulk of humanity is in the same boat. In the being-middle-aged industry, we call this an existential crisis.

And so we get the Coke commercial, and there are a few schools of thought about it. In the dumbest school it in indicates Don has rejected his previous life completely become a hippie of some sort. I'll ignore that. Then there are two variations of Don returns to McCann and creates that commercial. One is that his journey was for naught and all he got out of it was a new, cynical angle to sell sugared water. That kind of invalidates the entire final season, if not the whole series. The school I adhere to is the one that says the journey from "It's toasted" to teaching the world to sing was a personal one. Don once described advertising as convincing people that they are OK. He didn't really think people, including those in his life, were OK. He knew he was not OK: all along he had felt as though he was not part of the world, that his loneliness and alienation were personal. Yet he discovered that the wars inside himself are the same sort as the wars inside everyone else, and so maybe people really were OK, and by extension so was he. Or if not OK, at least qualified to sing a happy song on the side of a mountaintop.

Throughout its run, the world has tried to box Mad Men into whatever social context it felt was urgent. Matt Weiner always defied them. He always saw the disconnect between the mythology and the reality of the times he was portraying. The reality is that the time of Mad Men, like all times, was personal, not political. There are no great societal lessons from Mad Men; it was a simply bold vision of life and lives, of people on their journeys. And because of that, in the tradition of great humanities, it shined a light on us.

That is some seriously potent tea, dude.

  • To expand on the pitfalls Weiner dodged, when you turn your series into a socio-political commentary it ceases to be about the time in which it is set and become about today. It's no longer about the characters and their relationship to their world, it's about our world's judgment on them. It also becomes shallow and small-minded and outright pompous. Fall into that pit and you get Masters of Sex or The Knick -- shows that create a minor splash then fall off the radar when it becomes clear they exist to just bolstering our progressive social mythology. On the other hand, the one historical series that hasn't tripped up on this account yet is AMC's Halt and Catch Fire, which I don't think has ever been on the radar. So go figure.
  • It's going to be interesting to see what happens to the actors involved in Mad Men, and if they ever escape the glow. Hamm has scored a couple of commercial films and probably has a leading-man-in-a-rom-com future. Elizabeth Moss looks on track for a career of "serious" roles after her work on stage and on Top of the Lake. But what about the others? I don't see any of them breaking big. Slattery and Kartheiser seem more like second banana character actors to me. Will Christina Hendricks ever be anything but a bombshell? This is not a comment on their acting skills, which are certainly top notch, but the Hollywood machine doesn't really care about that. It cares that when people look at you they see Pete Campell or Roger Sterling or a nice rack. As fine as they were, it's going to be a struggle for them to get a role outside their image, and if they do they are going to have to really nail it.