Three Random Observations on the Mad Men Season Six Finale
Short version: nicely done. The obligatory animated gif is at the end of this piece.
Long version follows.
1. Pretentious Observations Written Before Watching the Exciting Conclusion
The season began with the face of a doctor looking down with concern, a lobby light fixture behind his head like a great cold modernist spider.
Some thought Don Draper had a heart attack -- not inconceivable, since numberless Lucky Strikes and rivers of liquor and the incessant stress of the office no doubt made his ticker thrum like the wings of a hummingbird. Everyone expected something bad for the show’s wretched hero; it’s been a bad patch for Don, and he isn’t looking good. Why, he’s sweaty. He barfed at a funeral. His position at the office is changing. True, but hardly different: recall the season where he threw up at the office, lost an account, left his suburban house, lived in an apartment that had one light bulb, furnishings from the Barton Fink collection, coupled with a hooker he paid to slap him, and had a really bad hallway.
That last item matters. Hallways. Don’t you see the importance of hallways in this show? People have business conversations in hallways; Don stops in the hallway of his swank pad and cannot go in to the house because . . . well, I forget why, but there were drinks and sadness and the wife-thing and the mistress. Oh! He used the back hallway to wait for his mistress. The Mammy Burglar came in through the back hallway. Sally tries to retrieve an embarrassing letter . . . by using the back hallway.
What is series creator Matthew Weiner trying to say with all these hallways? Could it be, perhaps, that he sees the sixties as a corridor through which his characters pass, unsure what waits behind the door at the end? After all, when Don goes to California for a wild party and dies for a while and sees dead people, it’s in a modern house with no hallways in the traditional sense.
California, and the sixties, represent the future of America. You’re free to chose your path; you’re not limited to the doors that line the hallways. There’s no binary state in this world, where you’re outside the room or inside. This, of course, raises the other theme of Mad Men: the public face vs. the private face, another binary concept. Bob Benson is two people. Megan is two people -- a boring wife and a boring soap star. Pete Campbell is two people -- a fellow full of prissy fury in private, and a fellow who expresses smaller amounts of prissy fury in public. And so on. Don’t you see what this show is about? Identity. And Hallways.
If I may step back a bit: all that is nonsense. I don’t believe a word of it.
This is not a show about any of that stuff. There’s no theme, no message, no moral, no point to Mad Men. This is an exceptionally well-written, well-acted, well-directed story about talented people in a creative industry with a dress code and a need to conjure fables to generate money. Before seeing the finale, I can say with assurance that no one dies, shoots himself, has a heart attack, asks for a divorce, or any other soap opera trick. Everything will just go on for better and for worse, like life.
Remember the end of last season? Megan is getting successful! Don leaves the set and there’s James Bond music, “You Only Live Twice.” And then he’s in a bar and a girl asks him if he’s alone. Don -- Draper -- Is -- Back. Uh huh. Well. What’d we get? An affair. Been there done that. A few brilliant ad pitches, because he’s good at that: been there done that. Betty complications: been there done her, and while the sequence added to the story of those two and called back to the early days, A) it didn’t mean anything, and B) the scene where Betty and Don enjoyed their son’s happiness at their mutual presence reminded you of early scenes of domestic happiness, which also didn’t mean anything in the end. Don Draper’s life consists of powerful emotional interludes that do not add up to anything except retrospective remorse.
He’s making it up as he’s going along. Perhaps the writers are, too. Mad Men observes its characters with affectionate contempt and selective indulgence. It lets the viewers find meaning and symbolism and recurring motifs in the banal elements of daily life -- say, hallways -- and this makes viewers construct plots and arcs where none exist. It’s a Rorschach blot. It’s not a soap. It’s not Dallas. It’s not a novel. It’s a series of connected short stories, each with its own tone.
2. A Side Note
The reason this show caught on quickly wasn’t just the unapologetic celebration of the Era of Smoking and Hats; it was the ad-agency setting. A look into the laboratories of the Hidden Persuaders, as Vance Packard called them. You know, the secretive, manipulative geniuses that made you think you wanted a car by showing you an ad with a really great-looking car. Much has been written about the new wave of advertising that changed the industry in the Mad Men period, how it was a time of incredible creativity that broke all the old paradigms, and brought stark, witty, sophisticated concepts to an industry that previously showed women swooning over fridges like St. Theresa in the Bernini statue.
All true. But by 1968 -- the year in which season six was set -- magazine ads had gotten quite ugly. There’s a proto-70s cheapness to the ads; the wit is strained, the attempts to be “with it” are embarrassing. The counterculture in advertising had already run its course, and there wouldn’t be a new idea until the 80s.
The best episode that actually concerns advertising -- nice, that, for a show about advertising -- was the face-off between Peggy’s team at that other agency, and Don’s pitch. Each was perfect. One made the product prominent by its absence; the other exalted the product by defining Heinz as the Ur-Ketchup, the Platonic ideal.
What Heinz actually ran in ’68 was something that could have run in ’49 -- except it would have been more colorful, had illustrations instead of photos, and copy that assured you how wonderful things would be if you let Heinz into your life.
The second-best episode about advertising concerned the creative flood that swamped the office when everyone was jabbed in the buttocks with vitamins and meth. Don, high as a kite flown by a stork on the Empire State Building observation deck, comes up with a grand meta-campaign for EVERYTHING based on a woman with a mole on her cheek, like the woman in his flashbacks.
Abe and Peggy think he’s nuts. We’re meant to side with Abe, the Unhappy Jewish Cliché, and Peggy, whom all the viewers root for because she has a scrappy side! and she’s better than everyone, even though her personality can be boiled down to a furrowed brow and suppressed irritation. But Don’s right. Advertising is about feeling validated and accepted by the arbitrary mother-figure in a chaotic whore-house. Watching the scene was like talking to a good friend who’s taken a lot of . . . something, and has this brilliant idea, and the more you listen the more you think he’s probably right, but it’s so big, so bright, so broad, it’s useless.
But what if Don had convinced every client to tie into his uber-theory? All the disparate brands and products, from cars to OJ to cigarettes to lawn darts to airlines bound together under the kind gaze of Big Mother? It would have been a branding mission unlike any other, flowing from the fevered genius and damaged soul of one man who grasped the truth of advertising: it’s the biggest lie of our lives, the least harmful, the happiest, and the only lie we know has some truth. A day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine. That new car will make you happier the day you drive it off the lot. That cigarette is milder than the other. There are so many truths no one would bother to believe unless they were wrapped in a sweet shiny lie.
A lie in a hallway! Okay, let’s get to the finale.
3. Don Has Difficulties
That was the DirecTV summary of the episode. Let’s just write this up scene by scene.
Scene 1: previous iterations of sweaty desperate Don are mocked by the return of cool, controlled, clean-shaven Don. Unfortunately, a conversation with Sally, whose contempt stabs the pith of his essence and makes him realize his failings, provides a chance for the scriptwriter to send him to a bar, where a stranger’s theological assertions lead directly to sweaty desperate Don waking up in a jail cell. That escalated quickly, as they say.
Bonus: Roger deals with Bob: “you’ve got a hand on every rung.” That’s one way of putting it. Oh, and Pete’s mother apparently jumped overboard right before the first commercial. Annnnd we’re off!
Scene 2: The idea that people do not change is seriously undermined by the sight of Don Draper pouring out all the liquor in the house. He wants to go to California; makes sense. That’s where he was the best person he was. Also the dead guy in the pool, but those things happen; doesn’t mean it’s the end of your career. Just ask William Holden in Sunset Boulevard. He was dead in the pool and still managed to narrate the opening scenes of the movie.
Line of the scene: “Dawn, get me a carton of cigarettes.” A CARTON.
Insight about where Pete is on the pecking order of the show: his mother’s murder is being played for laughs. But we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Pete is being taunted by Bob to drive a car in an office building. I’ve just paused to contemplate what could possibly happen. Bob’s revenge, expecting Pete to put it through a wall and scotch the account? Pete declines to turn the key, knowing what Bob’s up to? Okay, pressing play . . .
Well, close. Backed it up and knocked over a sign and broke some glass. Beefy buzz-cut Deeetroit client: JESUS, YOU CAN’T DRIVE A STICK? Bob smiles. (He can.)
Scene 3: Ted and Peggy. Okay. Couldn’t care less. Cut to Betty calling Don: now your daughter’s a drunk. Back to Ted and Peggy post tryst. Attention to Detail Dept.: after Ted gets up to go home, there’s the sound of the shower turned on. Half a second, maybe. Ted goes home to loving wife -- smart, beautiful, loving wife who bore his children. He’s better than Don, we’ve been told. Because?
Line of the scene: Roger’s secretary. “Ralph stopped drinking and little Ralphie’s spastic.”
Scene 4: He’s better than Don. Because? He wants to walk away from the new thing to save his family, that’s why. And he asks Don Draper for help. Alas: “They’re writing my wife off her show. It’s too late, Ted.”
Then Don makes a pitch. It’s a great pitch. All-American. Hershey! The currency of affection. The son having his hair tousled by benevolent dad. A reward. A connection with the pure truth of love and life and, of course, chocolate manufactured on an industrial scale.
And then Don makes the best pitch of his life. Truth is, he was an orphan who grew up in a whorehouse. He got a Hershey bar if he stole enough money going through the pockets of men who left their pants on the floor. He blows up the meeting, gives California to Ted to save his marriage, and leaves.
Now what? Is he going to leave his wife? The agency? Soap-opera questions, yes, but since the general theme of this finale is “reclaiming Don Draper after all the viewers decided he was irredeemable, but hadn’t realized that he was not consciously malevolent, and had the writers on his side at the end,” the last scene could be powerful.
Wasn’t Megan supposed to be dead from Manson wannabees because she wore a shirt from a Sharon Tate picture? Also, Rosemary’s Baby. Surely that was referenced for a reason, because this is smart TV, and everything has to mean something. Don was reading “Inferno” in the first scene of the first episode, for heaven’s sake -- ergo down into hell he’ll go. Right? Or maybe, just maybe, the writers were chumming the waters. “Inferno” ended with Satan encased in ice, gnawing on the tortured bodies of conspirators and traitors. Ingratitude, that was the worst. Will Don be disloyal to someone at the end? Hey, it could happen.
Scene 5: Well, well. Megan didn’t get murdered by hippies gibbering ACID IS GROOVY KILL THE PIGS. Don didn’t have a heart attack. Nothing anyone predicted happened. Don got better. Don got put on administrative leave, so to speak. He took his kids to the place where he grew up and Sally looked at him, seeing the man behind the father for the first time.
Let’s sum up the season: a man in the advertising agency drank too much and suffered the consequences, within the parameters of his class, but he pulled back and started to improve himself.
Next season: Don Draper resolves, as best as he can, the various traumas that shaped his creative drive and ruined his interpersonal relationships. While he will always be flawed, and while his demons will never be slain, he endures an interval in limbo -- the space between season 6 and 7 -- and then, gradually, with effort and work, gets to a better place. Dante had a name for it as well.
Or, he’s just trapped in a cycle: he falls and rises. Falls and rises.
I guarantee you this about the next season. Fewer hallways. More staircases. Read into that what you will.