The End of an Era
A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
“Now it feels like a dream but at the time it felt so real.”
Mad Men is coming to a close and with it an elegant, elegiac chapter of television history is as well. There will never be anything quite like Matthew Weiner’s energetic chapter of the tumultuous trials and tribulations of a 1960s advertising agency, not in character, or understanding, or story. The bustling busyness that was at seeming contradictions with the show’s pacing might be the show’s landmark trait that gave it the depth it truly needed to survive. There is always something going on in each frame of the camera and certainly almost none of it by accident and nearly all of it thematically connected. Mad Men’s emphasis has never been on plot, which became its strength as well as its weakness. It has always focused most emphatically on the characters residing within the walls of its pages, allowing for their shifts to ripple throughout the story and let it move thusly. There’s a quiet, subtle beauty to that approach of storytelling that ultimately works tremendously in the show’s favor. Over the course of seven seasons, Weiner and company have crafted such memorable characters whose lives have at times been displayed with such open honesty it feels voyeuristic. Each subtle expression registers so much not just because the audience can effortlessly read the characters in their current circumstances, but because we can understand the emotional odyssey that brought them there to begin with. Knowing the end is near only makes those moments that much stronger.
In tonight’s hour, as Mad Men prepares for its severance with its audience, each character is forced to confront their own severances as they arrive at quiet (or loud) realizations of where their lives truly lie in juxtaposition to where they had thought they would be. Don’s severance has always been ensnared by the duality of his existence, between his ambition that is personified in Don Draper and his past in Dick Whitman. He’s never been truly able to sever one facet of his life and move on with the other. Don has always been adrift at sea, throwing in anchor after anchor but always anchoring his existence in the shallowest of waters. And even when he finds an anchor that may be steady, he rips it out and goes back out to sea. The first true relationship we found Don in outside of his marriage with Betty was a department store owner named Rachel Menkens. In season’s one seminal hour Babylon, Don reaches out to Rachel to try and understand how he can create marketing material for the Israeli Tourism Department. It’s a quiet little scene, but it speaks volumes about the overarching cleverness about Mad Men’s writing, but who Don Draper is. “Look, Jews have lived in exile for a long time. First in Babylon. Then allover the world, Shanghai,Brooklyn–and we’ve managed to make a go of it.” Rachel’s experience is a decidedly different one from what Don so unabashedly assumes. She is Jewish, but in a fashion she’s no more anchored to Israel than Don is. In her worldview, she is an American above everything else and Israel is more of an idea than a place – a utopia, if you will.
That quiet dinner with Rachel stirs something within Don. He can understand that search for a homeland, that yearning for a place that could be his. But the anchor never stuck, uprooted time and time again until tragedy struck. A utopia is what Don has been looking for his entire life and indeed a plethora of characters on this show share that dilemma. But utopias don’t exist. It is of little coincidence that Weiner decided to circle back around to Rachel as the series began to come to a close. At a seemingly innocent dinner with Roger (rocking a new mustache, or trying to anyway), Don spots a waitress who looks like Rachel. As the hours tick on by, he can’t get the waitress out of his head, going back again and again to rediscover that anchor that had been ripped away so long ago but remains adrift in his memory. But that seabed doesn’t even exist anymore. Meredith informs Don that Rachel has recently passed away and Don’s face crumbles. Don quietly arrives at Rachel’s memorial, but he can’t find a home there, either. He’s the one disconnected from everything, beginning with his lack of Jewish heritage that prohibits him from participating in a key memorial ceremony. Rachel’s sister recognizes him immediately, but she gets right to the crux of the circumstance with “I’m sorry. I don’t know what you’re looking for here.” Nor does Don. Quietly he glances towards Rachel’s children, the understanding that Rachel moved on significantly without him and made herself a home only reinforcing his isolation. “She lived the life she wanted to live. She had everything.” Leukemia had cruelly cut that life short, but Rachel before her death had managed to sever Don out from her future for a cleaner path ahead. Don has yet to do the same.
Joan and Peggy themselves are looking back at the decade before them, trying to understand where their own lives have arrived at versus where at the beginning of the 1960s they thought they would be. Don isn’t the only one to find himself adrift at sea. There’s always something missing, something that gives one a feeling of emptiness. Sexism has been a core component of Mad Men’s exploration of the cultural crossroads that defined the 1960s decade. Chauvinistic misogyny permeated nearly every office, something that hasn’t improved nearly as much as it ought to have. The acquisition of McCann that made the partners rich at the end of Waterloo came with a double-edged sword. It’s as despicable of a workplace as the name had been associated with throughout the series, embodied in a panel of three men whose sexism is ubiquitous in every sentence that comes out of their mouths. As Joan and Peggy enter the elevator together, Joan is seething from their conversation as Peggy takes a far more matter-of-fact approach to the entire endeavor. The sequence calls back to their elevator ride in Summer Man, where a similarly framed scene starts out innocently before it devolves quickly. Peggy accuses Joan of dressing more brazenly, to which Joan responds harshly with “What you’re saying is I don’t dress the way you do because I don’t look like you. And that’s very, very true.” “You’re filthy rich,” Peggy snaps. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.” That sentence alone is rich with irony, indicated by the slow loss of color on Joan’s face. To get where she is today, she had to of the very thing she didn’t want to. Christina Hendrick’s eyes change subtly, her expression conveying the trip down memory lane to that fateful moment. Had it ultimately been worth it? she seems to be asking herself. At a clothing store where she used to work, Joan steps confidently in as a client to buy expensive items of clothing to perhaps put the conversation with Peggy out of her mind, but the clerk asks her if she wants the employee discount because she could probably still get it. Joan’s face is ensnared by a shroud of sadness as she wonders how far she truly has come.
Peggy’s rise at times has seemed meteoric in comparison to the other women in the office and at times it has come across as being remarkably stagnant. Tonight she goes on a date with Stevie, having a good time until she drunkenly suggests that they go to Paris right then and there. It’s the most loose we’ve seen Peggy, a woman described aptly by Johnny as being funny and fearless. But when she gets back to her apartment, that bitterness with Joan reflects itself in another fashion. Peggy is a bit bitter, bitter at Joan for her wealth and in some corner of her heart bitter at not being where she thought she was going to be when Don first hired her as a copyrighter. Her face clouds with an instant sadness as she realizes that her passport is empty, that she has spent the last decade climbing up and up but has yet to become the Peggy she had wanted to be. She tries to pass off Paris later as that place “where margarine was invented,” but the melancholia in her voice is hard to mistake. In a sense, that moment seems to ask the question of what she truly has to show for all of her immensely hard work and ambition over nearly the entire decade. She has never taken a vacation, instead choosing to spend her time constantly working. At last she’s realized that if she hadn’t searched for that passport in that drunken moment, she could have easily spent another decade working away without ever truly living. It’s a sad realization of how much Peggy has been unable to sever herself from her work to find an existence of her own. It’s a jarring realization for Peggy, who is at a professional precipice where she had wanted to be yet finds a startling emptiness staring her right in that face. She had climbed the ladder for so long, only to find that she had been enveloped by a box that had stagnated so long ago.
If Peggy is standing at a precipice, Ken certainly finds himself at the cruel mercy of fate. Having left McCann earlier in the series, it seems that McCann certainly hasn’t forgotten Ken’s departure that took four million dollars in billings along. Before that uncomfortable firing, he is sitting at home with his wife Cynthia, at first seemingly bellowing about in marital bliss. The job with McCann is wringing Ken through and she implores him to leave the job. They’re well-off enough that he could take a decent amount of time off and work on his novel. But Ken is oddly reluctant to take up that opportunity, perhaps because of a combined fear that he may not at the end of the day be very good at writing and what if loses his income in that supposed delusion? Then he gets fired because of an old grudge from McCann. Ken is righteously furious at Roger selling him down the boat with the promise of a severance package if he gives all of his prior business to Pete. Ken has a short-run in with Don, who immediately offers to go to the bat for Ken. In that moment, Ken sees that firing as being absolute fate so he could work on his novel, which Don naturally doesn’t understand. In an absolute surprise, he later takes a job at Dow Chemicals as Head of Advertising. Roger wastes no time in asking if Ken was going to get back at them. “It’s going to be way worse than that. I’m going to be your client.” Ken snarls as he slams the door behind him. Perhaps he has given up on his dream, letting that manuscript float away, drifting across the water. There are many moments for the characters in Mad Men that in the present feel real, even though they were little more than dreams. Sometimes those dreams transform into reality and at other points they simply don’t. Irregardless, how do those changes affect lives at critical junctures down the road? How do those changes manifest themselves as time goes on? And at some point, as one stands at the precipice of a dying decade, what do those changes ultimately mean for one’s existence? As Peggy Lee sings, everyone is standing at the precipice of their lives, wondering “Is That All There Is?”
Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+“Show me how smooth your skin is.”
+The $100 bill
+The bombings line was a subtle reference to a string of bombings that took place at the end of the 1960s in various department stores. The solution: Keep shopping.
+The wine spilled on don’s carpet looks like blood – Don simply covers it up
+Harry Crane is Mr. Potato Head
+“You’ll be second, which is very far from first.”
+“You want a raise? Stop acting like a secretary.”
+“You know, you’re a catch.”
+“I tried to arrange a meeting, but Meredith informed me how much work you have to do.”
+“What is our solution?”; “We don’t have one.”
+Ed can cook Pop-Tarts
+“You gave them your eye, don’t give them the rest of your life.” Cynthia for the win.\
+“Casting always starts on time. Can’t you smell the cheap perfume?”
+“There are three women in ever man’s life.”
+“Johnny said you were the type of girl who doesn’t put up with things.”
+“It’s so old-fashioned.”
+Nixon’s Vietnam Address in the background, conveying the irony of Nixon severing American involvement in the Vietnam War while simultaneously increasing it
+“Thank you, Roger! I appreciate your loyalty.”
+Sex with the waitress in the alleyway
+Peggy: “I had too much wine and I totally embarrassed myself.”; Stan: “Sounds like you had a good time.”
+“I want you to think very carefully about when you really had that dream, because when people die, everything gets mixed up. … Someone dies, you just want to make sense of it, but you can’t.”
Written By: Matthew Weiner
Directed By: Scott Hornbacher
Image Courtesy: The Hollywood Reporter