December 30, 2014 / Filmwell
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April 22, 2015
These last two episodes of Mad Men have felt either disproportionate or clumsy. This is, I think, because life is both disproportionate and clumsy.
It is common for critics to excuse the shortcomings of TV shows with this same logic. A script takes a left turn into fan service, or really fumbles some aspect of a series closure, and it gets written off as an effect of the same vicissitude we encounter every day in real life (such as the end of Lost). But this is different. The obvious departure from Mad Men‘s clinical approach to storytelling is striking – not because it represents an exhausted collapse of the show into mediocrity, or a misstep in the final lap, but a deft maneuver away from the kind of traditional storytelling the show has only ever flirted with.
As far as things becoming disproportionate: the intense interlude between Don and Diana, the constant swap of focus from main cast to minor characters during the home stretch, and unexpected rabbit trails with Don’s ex-wives. Things also feel a bit clumsy with Roger’s mustache, Don’s open philosophizing about the nature of time and desire, and both Peggy and Joan’s most recent romances.
But I keep coming back to this bit from Matthew Weiner’s The Paris Review interview:
“People would say to me, What’s holding this together? Or, How is this moment related to the opening scene, or the problem you set up on page 15? I don’t know. That’s where the character went. That’s the story.”
Which leads me to think that these odd movements in this final stretch of the show are encounters with the story, with the characters simply going places. In The Forecast, Don asks: “Do you ever think there’s less to actually do, but more to think about?” This little reflective moment is a mark of the new Don, the Season 7 Don, the one that seems to be undergoing a quiet reformation. And Don’s interior space has often provided formal cues for the show (such as the way Don’s final encounter with Bert morphs into a staged wonder). So now, the show moves formally with Don into a mode of reflection, a mood that accepts the luxury of rabbit trails, the movement of emphasis to unexpected places, jarring juxtapositions of time, and questions that may not have answers. There is just a lot to think about at this point.
The labyrinth of ghosts and symbols traced out in delicate glimpses of Don’s past. Diane appears on the menu of a local diner as an avatar of his past loves, which have always been bound up in the story of his mother and the wreckage discarded with Dick Whitman. But the wreckage appears again to Don, this time embodied in a mother who has abandoned her children – a mirror image of Don’s past. He is willing to accept her, but she refuses. Glenn shows up at Betty’s house. He has, like Dick Whitman, enlisted in an effort to reclaim some dignity. When Glenn breaks down with this truth in front of Betty, it is as if she is seeing a younger, more innocent Don. She puts his hand on her face. There is a catharsis present in both of these scenarios that never really materializes. Same thing with Don’s apartment, first stripped barren and now sold to a young couple. Don’s living spaces have always been a perfectly managed buffer between his persona and his true self. Now at the apex of this shell game he plays, he has lost the penthouse – the center of his symbolic universe. And he does not seem to mind.
“The first time… ever I saw your face.”
Weiner’s use of financial terms for the titles of these last few episodes. These terms of commerce (Severance, New Business, The Forecast, etc…) call to mind predictable transactions, little exchanges that are neat and precise. But our lives can’t be counted and divided so neatly. Accounting ledgers have no space for ghosts and symbolic versions of the real thing. Mad Men has always been a drama of commerce, of the imbalances present in social transactions and the ways Don Draper works to fudge the math in his favor. We are stepping out with Don, it seems, into something less manageable than these episode titles suggest. We are turning, character by character, toward their deeply felt, unmediated desires. I wish the show could somehow end in a flourish of this lurid, naked psychology.
“You’re a beautiful girl, but you can be more than that.”
Don’s forecast. I don’t know about you, but I was crushed by this admonition to Sally. We can hear the full weight of Don’s adulthood in this conversation with his daughter. It is a complex recognition of his own beauty, only slightly crumpled by time. Don understands the advantage of beauty, how to press it as a negotiation tactic, how to dial it up and down, how to package it for consumption. He also knows that while beauty has its own virtue, this does not mean it can be exchanged for the others. There is something about flourishing as a person beyond simply becoming an object of desire. This contradicts anything Don has ever told anyone sitting in his board room, but it rings true. Even if Don is ultimately still that little boy trying to figure out how to survive the fallout of other people’s tragically misdirected desires, Sally does not have to be.
Or from Augustine’s City of God: “Beauty is indeed a good gift of God; but that the good may not think it a great good, God dispenses it even to the wicked.”