Unless you’ve been in Antarctica for the last several months, “Mad Men” has finally come to a conclusion. After all the eulogies, interviews, panel discussions, symposia, fashion shoots and miscellaneous soul searching, a show so firmly rooted in the 50’s and 60’s faded out on a California cliffside with Don Draper meditating, New Age style.
It was a fitting end. “Mad Men” has always been a series about reinvention. Dick Whitman becomes Don Draper, Sterling Cooper becomes Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, then Sterling Cooper & Partners, then ultimately nothing as Don’s powers to reinvent the business one more time are finally exhausted. It’s Don’s realization that you can’t really lose your past which causes his breakdown at the California retreat. When he hears himself giving the same “put it all behind you” speech to Stephanie that he gave to Peggy after the birth of her son so many years before, it all comes tumbling down. How fitting that phone call to Peggy was, as he most likely severs his last link with the Don Draper we knew, pushing him back into the cocoon for yet one more reinvention, evidently from King of the Road back to Madison Avenue Ace.
I’ve been engrossed with “Mad Men” from its first episode, though not as enthralled over the last two seasons as I had been earlier. After two stupendous back-to-back episodes in Season 5 in which Joan slept with the Jaguar rep in order to secure the account for the agency, and Lane committed suicide when Don discovered his embezzling from the firm, a significant amount of energy seemed to seep out of the show. An excessive amount of time was spent on Megan, Don’s failing marriage and his increasing navel-gazing at the expense of our enjoyment of Peggy, Stan and the latest advertising campaign. It was always the office goings-on that gave “Mad Men” its pulse; departing from this premise gave this show anemia, at least until the final three episodes.
“Mad Men” will be remembered for a number of things, not the least of which is its depiction of the fundamental change in women’s roles in the workplace and society as a whole. It wasn’t just the evolution of Joan and Peggy that caught the imagination—it was the manner in which they traded roles that always kept the show interesting. At one point Joan takes Peggy to task for firing an assistant for being insultingly sexist, saying she’s done herself significant damage–now they’ll think she’s nothing but a battle-ax. Yet in the end it’s Joan who waves the ACLU and NOW in Jim Hobart’s face when he refuses to take her complaint of sexual harassment seriously. Ultimately Joan and Peggy end up where they’re perhaps most suited—Joan, who’s always been a fixer, spearheading her own business, and Peggy, without Joan’s means (courtesy of that settlement from McCann and Roger’s assuring her son’s future), sticking with the security of corporate life. At least for now.
But what will remain of “Mad Men” is superb drama. TV critics and bloggers have spent the last month drawing up lists of the best and/or their favorite episodes, but to me “Mad Men” is a series of memory flashes:
Bobbie Barrett’s counselling Peggy on “Don’t be a man, be a woman,” Joan’s correctly telling her “They’ll never take you seriously if you continue to dress like a little girl,” and Peggy’s finally asserting herself by calling her boss “Don” instead of “Mr. Draper” for the first time. All in the same episode.
Pete and Trudy’s Charleston and Roger (leave it to him) in blackface.
Every Don and Anna Draper scene, especially when he goes AWOL on his California business trip.
Roger taking LSD and seeing Bert’s picture on the bill he gives the cabbie.
Harry losing it during the meeting in which Don pitches his campaign for the Kodak Carousel.
The British partners’ visit to Sterling Cooper, ending with the unfortunate tangle with a John Deere lawnmower. Roger’s comment offered as comfort to Harry and Ken: “Believe me, somewhere in this business this has happened before.”
Peggy, eyes full of “What!?!,” walking into Joan’s office after Don announces his engagement to Megan, and Joan’s faux-innocent: “I wonder whatever could be on your mind.” Only this could have topped Roger’s classic “Who?” when Don drops Megan’s name as his fiancée.
The evolution of Peggy and Stan’s relationship from sworn enemies to workplace husband and wife to “Now that I think about it, I’m in love with you.” The growth of this over several seasons was particularly well written as we were shown, not told, how well suited they were for each other.
Bert’s farewell in the form of a production number. If anything, “Mad Men” amply demonstrates that the best things in life are not free, but it was great to see Robert Morse become J. Pierrepont Finch just once more.
Don and Peggy’s working after hours, whether on Samsonite or Burger Chef (and learning via Roger’s tape, of Bert’s–er–condition and Miss Blankenship’s notorious past). Not to mention the extraordinary scene when Peggy tells Don she’s leaving Sterling Cooper. Equally memorable, though perhaps the ugliest scene in the show’s history: his throwing money in her face.
Roger calling Joan after that bust of his daughter’s wedding reception on November 23, 1963. After dealing with all those uneaten dinners, a drunken wife and a dead President, his first words to Joan as she answers the phone: “So what’s new?”
Duck Phillips turning Chauncey out on the street (gulp).
Freddy Rumsen zipping out the rhythm of “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” on his fly.
Lee Garner, Jr. forcing Roger to play Santa Claus.
Miss Blankenship. Enough said.
I’m sure people will spend acres of print hashing over the finale and pointing out what Matthew Weiner could/should have done in ending “Mad Men.” I for one am satisfied, though I do wish we had seen more of Anna Draper during the run of the show. And a return visit by Sal Romano in at least one episode in the final season. But these would have been icing, not the cake itself, which I feel Matthew Weiner baked very well indeed. Bravo.
P.S.: Yes, I have a favorite “Mad Men” episode, though it’s almost impossible to pick just one. The first photo in this post will tell you my selection: Season 3’s finale, “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” works on so many levels it’s ridiculous. We see Don’s admiration of Peggy, how essential Joan and Pete are and once again, the premise of “Reinvent or die.” Not to mention Peggy’s perfectly flat “No” in response to Roger’s request for coffee during the marathon raid to steal the firm’s resources from the Brits.
Good times indeed.
A postscript is in order at this point: I loathed that Coca-Cola commercial when it was new, and I certainly haven’t grown any fonder of it over the years. It strikes me as the height of corporate cynicism, which no doubt is the reason why Matthew Weiner wanted to use it. Although I don’t buy the idea that this was Don’s creation, Weiner’s ending the series with this is a great piece of snark. The commercial’s goal of peddling product in the name of peace and harmony strikes me as something Roger would have thought up, had he been in the creative end of the business.
As always, your mileage may vary.