Standing Athwart the Mad Men Fifth Season Finale
Modern TV writers must envy their golden age counterparts. They never knew the pressures of a season finale. In their days, the last episode of a season was just that. Nothing to wrap up, nothing to leave dangling. Mission: Impossible didn’t end with Cinnamon in peril; Hawaii Five-0 didn’t have McGarrett driving off a cliff, frozen in mid-air while the credits played. Shows ended. Everything was self-contained. Now popular shows have to Do Something, and the pressure must be enormous.
Mad Men usually ends with ambiguity, if I recall the previous years. Season 3’s conclusion had some zing; the founding of the agency and the midnight relocation of the customer files felt like a little caper film. But most of Mad Men’s season finales have been let-downs, and I’m waiting for someone to say that’s what makes them so good! They’re playing with our expectations. The climax of the story arc is usually in the penultimate episodes, don’t you see? Why, they’re redefining the genre of the season finale.
Perhaps. I just don’t think they know how to end it, which might explain why the end of this year’s run felt underwhelming. It was a brilliant season, short-stories in an anthology that has the heft and scale of a novel, but apparently the writers really ached to do a bad Twilight Zone episode mashed up with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Can a Mad Men Season End with Relief?
Reviews of Mad Men’s fifth season have a constant theme: This has been so dark. Really? Remember Don Draper living in an apartment that looked like it was painted with fryer grease, where he paid hookers to slap him? Granted, Season 5 had a hanging in the workplace, with poor Lane auto-garroting after he failed to auto-asphyxiate -- literally -- but the scene where Don chokes Maddy from Twin Peaks was a dream, and it had a happy ending. There’s nothing like waking up and realizing you didn’t kill someone and put them under the bed. The relief is enormous.
But can the season end with relief? We’re trained nowadays for hard landings, cliffhangers, shocks and deaths. Judging from the message boards where people obsess over every detail of the show, half the audience thought Pete would shoot himself this season. Really? Over what? He’s unhappy, yes. He chafes and seethes and aches; he had a brief affair with a pick-up artist who worked the kiss-and-ride lot. He got decked by a Limey and punched by a cuckolded husband.
Well, that’s life; that’s what they say. The idea he’ll paint the kitchen with his brains in the last episode because he was shown cradling a shotgun in a previous season would be understandable if Mad Men was regular TV, but it’s not. Now and then there’s a break: Joan gives Dr. Rapist his discharge; Peggy uses the Magical Escape Elevator that’s denied to Don Draper. But mostly the show is like life: one damned thing after the other. It’s most telling when it says little: they spent a quarter-million dollars to show how Don Draper has a hard time getting into the Beatles, because it’s late at night and he’s middle-aged, and what is this stuff, anyway.
This is why it’s silly to expect much from the season finale. Everything just goes on, with a few minor adjustments. People get along until they don’t.
Some notes on the finale, jotted as it happened:
● Don needs a root canal. It’ll go away. It always does. Hmm. This might be symbolic.
● Joan, grieving for Lane, says maybe she should have given Lane what he wanted. Don, having pegged Lane for an effete and sexless nonentity, wonders what that might be. Her look. You of all people.
● Megan drawing a bath after failing to get her husband to put her in an ad because she’s failing as an actress: tell me you didn’t think she wasn’t going to open her wrists.
● Megan getting a gentle introduction to reality from her mother: the world cannot accommodate so many ballerinas, my child. We learn the other side of the season’s subplot: she’s just not that good. It’s New York, dear. You’re out of your league. Just as Betty was pretty enough to be a model, but lacked the snap and crackle to bewitch the camera, so your skills are good enough for the first round. Thank you for auditioning. Next!
● Roger wants to take LSD with Sexy French Mom, and you think: so he’s going to have a bad trip and throw himself out the window. C’mon, the show’s half over. Someone has to go.
● Ah hah! The tooth is symbolic. In the dentist’s chair, Don gets nitrous and see his dead brother, Adam. This is not that unusual; he’s seen him the last few days, in the elevator, in the office. That’s what toothaches do: you see dead relatives. Add the nitrous, and they get chatty and tell you things about your character. Look: I had a hot tooth last month, and I remember the electric pain, the timpani throbs, the strange zen detachment as the dental sedatives soaked in. Dead people in my office, not so much. There was nothing remotely plausible about this. You don’t imagine dead people unless you are mentally ill or appearing in an M. Night movie. It’s there because the writers loved it, and no one took them aside and said “the client is going to hate it.”
● Pete’s speech to the post-shock-treatment lady was very sad, and everyone felt touched when he smothered her with a pillow, then threw a water cooler through the wall and escaped. It was a pathetic little speech, but he’s a pathetic little man, and I have no sympathy for him.
● Don and Peggy meeting in the movie theater didn’t feel forced AT ALL, did it? “So, why are you here?” “It’s in the script. And you?” “Same deal.” Peggy’s working on cigarettes now, and it looks like she invents Virginia Slims. The music that plays when the lights go down is the score for Casino Royale, the dreary Bond spoof from 1967. Which sets up . . .
I sat up straight when the opening notes of "You Only Live Twice" started crawling up the scale -- it might be the best of the Bond themes, and it’s certainly one of John Barry’s finest. A better singer than Nancy Sinatra might have spoiled it. I thought: they haven’t earned this. And: a song about the dual nature of identity, on Man Men? That’s a stretch.
You drift through the years, and life seems tame / then one dream appears, and love is its name.
Doesn’t exactly apply to James Bond. Perhaps it’s meant to describe Don Draper’s life before Megan showed up, but he doesn’t seem to have a distinction between waking and dreaming; his real-life job is selling dreams. Perhaps it’s meant to suggest that the women’s dreams are coming true: Peggy is on a business trip for her cigarette client, happily alone in a motel in the South -- we can tell it’s the South because there are dogs copulating in the parking lot. Megan is stuffed into a silly costume, happy to trade on her sugar-daddy’s influence to get her the jobs her talent cannot. Joan gets to stand equal with the other partners in a poster-friendly moment as they look out from the vacant space the growing firm will inhabit.
The guys? Mixed bag. Pete gets his dee-luxe apartment in the sky so he can put some distance between the only good things in his life. Roger’s tripping buck-naked, spinning through an ecstatic reverie. Don walks away from Megan’s commercial, away from the light to the dark -- foreshadowing? This way, sir. He ends up in a bar, where a girl asks him if he’s all alone.(I almost wished she’d ask if she could join him, so everyone on the message boards could say it’s a reference to the old joke: “why, am I coming apart?”)
The season ends with the suggestion that Don might cheat on his wife, which isn’t exactly the definition of suspense. He might draw breath, too. All in all, it’s the type of finale that starts to seem better when you think about it later, when you’re not leaning forward waiting for something to happen. And then it’s over and you realized that things happened after all along the way. The writers would probably agree. That’s life; that’s what they say.