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“Bravo.” Josh Bids Farewell to Mad Men!

May 20th, 2015
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Mad Men season one was, I am pretty sure, the first TV show set I ever owned on blu-ray.  It was a gift, given to me soon after I bought my first blu-ray player.  At the time, I’d heard about but had never seen this new cable show, and also I wasn’t sure if I ever intended to own any TV shows on blu-ray (as opposed to the at-the-time far cheaper sets available on DVD).  Mad Men season one made me a fan of both the show and the format.  (Lord did that gorgeously filmed first season show off how beautiful a blu-ray image could look!)  It’s hard to believe that was almost a decade ago.

I was immediately captivated by Mad Men, and I was impressed by how complete a piece of work that first thirteen-episode season was.  In 2007, I feel like the idea of a short season of a cable show (as opposed to the usual 20-24 episode run of a network season) was still a fairly new idea (though of course the Brits had been doing short “series” of their shows for quite a while), and Mad Men dazzled me in how effortlessly it used that compact length to tell a complex story with a definitive beginning, middle, and end.  Had there been no more Mad Men after that first season, I would have been completely satisfied.

But, of course, luckily for us, we got a lot more.  I watched seasons two and three the same way I had watched season one — all at once when those seasons were released on blu-ray.  Season four was when I found I couldn’t wait any longer and started watching the show as it aired on AMC.  I’m not sure if it’s connected, but season four is also when I truly fell in love with the show.  I had always enjoyed it, and intellectually recognized the greatness of the show.  But I also found it difficult to watch in those early years.  With so many unpleasant and unhappy characters, I found Mad Men to be a tough show in which to invest.  There were few characters I found I could really root for, and whenever I found such a character it was painful to watch unpleasant things happen to him/her, or to watch said character brutally sabotage him/her-self in the way that so many Mad Men characters so often did.  So it took a little while for the show, and its characters, to really grow on me.  But by season four I was well and truly hooked.  I found I could love watching even the most scoundrel-like character on the show.  I also found myself discovering and enjoying the show’s wicked sense of humor, something that didn’t land as solidly for me in the early seasons when I was a little more wrapped up in the wrenching drama of it all.  (One day I look forward to re-watching the show in its entirety, and I suspect I’ll find there was a lot more humor there in those early years than I’d originally noticed.)

It’s been a hell of a ride since then.  I’ve read some complaints on-line, over the years, about the show’s back half, but I don’t feel Mad Men ever had a bad season or even a lengthy stretch of bad episodes.  I found the show to be remarkably consistent.  More than that, as I started to suggest in the last paragraph, the show had a wonderful cumulative effect in that as it continued, I found that I loved it more and more, and I became ever more deeply engaged with its stories and its characters.  In this past season, I’ve felt hyper-alert to, and engaged with, even the show’s more minor characters.  (What a great little story-arc Don’s latest unfortunate secretary, Meredith, has had in this final season!)

I have found this final season of Mad Men (stretched out year into two short mini-seasons by AMC) to be a particularly strong finishing lap.  I’ve enjoyed the way so many of the show’s rich ensemble of supporting characters were given a chance to have a time in the spotlight over the course of this final season, so that we could feel some sense of closure to their stories.  Bert Cooper, of course, got a phenomenal send-off half-way through the year (in the episode that ended the first batch of episodes, “Waterloo”), and the show also took the time to give some resolution to the stories of Megan Draper, Ted Chaough, Trudy Campbell, Glen Bishop, and many others.  I loved seeing Freddy Rumsen and Duck Phillips again in these final episodes, and I was pleased to see some attention paid to several of the important women who had passed through Don’s life, from Sylvia Rosen (Linda Cardellini, who was so central in season six), to Dick Whitman’s niece Stephanie Horton (who played a surprisingly central role in the series finale), even going back to season one with the revelation of the fate of Rachel Menken (Don’s season one mistress).

Heading into the series finale, I found myself with absolutely no idea how this series was going to wind up.  Would we get a happy ending for some of these characters who we’d been following for all these years?  Or would the show end in a more naturalistic way (though one perhaps less emotionally satisfying), with many of these unhappy characters still stuck in their unhappy circumstances?  Would the show end with dramatic changes-of-situations for the characters, or would it be more of a life-goes-on type of thing?  Back in season one, I was convinced at the time that the season would end with Don’s life in ruins and his committing suicide.  I thought that was what the image of the Draper-like man tumbling out a window in the show’s opening credits was heralding.  Obviously that didn’t turn out to be the case, but in the final weeks of the show I found myself returning more and more to that idea.  As one after another piece of Don Draper’s life was stripped away in the final run of episodes, I wondered more and more: would the show end with the literal death of Don Draper?

(Friends, I am now going to discuss the series finale, “Person to Person,” so if you want to avoid spoilers now is the time to stop reading.)

Mad Men is fortunate in that it was a show whose time-of-ending was determined by the creative men and women responsible for the show.  Creator and show-runner Matthew Weiner had the rare opportunity to end Mad Men at the exact moment of his choosing.  This gave him the opportunity to craft a true finale to his show in a way that should therefore (hopefully) give a satisfying sense of closure to the story that he was telling.  On the other hand, crafting satisfying series-finales to long-running shows is excruciatingly hard.  (Click here for my list of my ten favorite series finales, ten shows that got it just right.)  I have found myself disappointed by many recent finales to much-loved, long-running shows.  Lost’s finale is the most dramatic failure of recent memory.  (Click here for my review, and let’s note here that I actually quite liked the actual final episode of Lost.  It’s the entire final season BEFORE that final episode that was a huge, show-ruining failure for me.)  I was also not-quite satisfied by the finale of Battlestar Galactica, one of my favorite shows of the last twenty years and yet a show that stumbled a bit in the end (by settling on a too-simplistic ending with everyone willingly giving up their technology, and never quite satisfactorily answering all the mysteries about final five Cylons).  (Click here for my review of BSG’s finale.)

I desperately want to watch Mad Men’s finale, “Person to Person” again very soon, but I am so happy to report that, on first viewing, I was deeply satisfied by the ending Mr. Weiner & co. gave to his show.  Great job sticking the landing!!  What a relief!!

As I have written before when discussing series finales, for me one of if not the most important aspects of a series finale is whether I feel the show is able to give a satisfying resolution to all of the characters I have been watching, and growing to love, over so many years.  I don’t insist on a happy ending for everyone, just an ending that feels “right” for each character.  I want to feel satisfied by the place in which the show leaves all of the characters in the moment when we see them each last.

In this most important aspect, I was so relieved by how well Mr. Weiner & co. handled things in “Person to Person.”  I loved seeing Roger happy with Marie, and I loved Joan’s sweet comment about Roger’s finally getting his timing right.  I was bummed that Richard turned out to be such a dick (should have been expecting that based on his name, I guess) and that the moment in which it looked like Joan would be happy in love AND work wound up being so fleeting, but still, I loved that Joan ended the show financially secure and also happy (and hopefully successful) in business.  (I loved the touch of her using both of her last names in the name of her business, after Peggy turned down her offer of being a partner.)

That crazy phone call between Peggy and Stan might have been a bit of a Hollywood-like stretch for the show, and maybe a slightly too-simplistic piece of fan-service, but boy did I love it.  When Stan stopped talking, my wife and I said to one another “he’s running up to her office, isn’t he?” and then sure enough, there he was.  What a great pay-off to the sexual tension that had been there ever since the two characters first met and wound-up playing strip poker in the artists’ work-space.  In recent years I’d begun to doubt my earlier certainty that these two would wind up together, so I was thrilled to see that sharp turn in the finale.  As much as part of me wishes that the last shot of Peggy from “Lost Horizon” was the last we’d see of her (that glorious moment in which she strolled into McCann, wearing sunglasses, a cigarette dangling from her lips and Bert Coopers’ profane octopus painting under her arm), I was deeply satisfied by the actual final glimpse of her we got here in the finale: hard at work in her office, being tenderly kissed on the forehead by Stan.  It was so satisfying to see Peggy achieve happiness in love and work.  I was exciting when Joan offered Peggy a partnership — I was tantalized at the idea of these two women, so different and so often at each others’ throats — finally working together as equals, and it was sad for Joan when she realized Peggy wasn’t going to jump at her offer.  But it was also great to see Peggy able to succeed in the area that she so loved: advertising.  She’s become as talented as Don Draper without all of his hang-ups and personal failings. (I also have to refer to the talented TV-reviewer Alan Sepinwall, who noted in his review of “Person to Person” how interesting it was that Peggy adopted a Don Draper-like cadence to her voice when she tried to talk him down of his devastating spiraling-into-depression phone call, so similar to the tone Don had so often adopted to Peggy when he wanted to drag her from her own rambling trains-of-thought and back to where he wanted her to be.)

I wish Pete Campbell had more to do in the finale, but I’ll have to be satisfied by the attention he got in the penultimate episode, “The Milk and Honey Route.”  What a turnaround for Pete, long the show’s sleaziest and most unlikable character.  I was actually happy for him and for Trudy that they got back together.  And his one scene in the finale was amazing.  I couldn’t believe how warm and tender his farewell scene with Peggy was.  How incredible it is that Pete was able to praise Peggy, and note that no one had ever said such things about him, without any of the bitterness and envy that was always so central to his character.  That is tremendous character growth.  That scene was rich with the backstory these two characters had shared, going back to their romantic entanglement in season one, but it was played beautifully under-the-surface without getting too schmaltzy or soap-opera-ish.

The cancer diagnosis for Betty was a huge shock for me in that penultimate episode.  Thinking back to how much smoking Betty has done over the run of the series (going back to that iconic moment of her shooting her neighbor’s birds in her nightie while smoking a cigarette, back in season one), I wonder how long Mr. Weiner has had that plot-twist planned.  That was the most tragic character development in these final episodes, and especially devastating coming off of the moment when it seemed that Betty had finally gotten back to the type of life she’d wanted for herself in the days before we met her back in season one.  But what struck me in the finale was how well-adjusted Sally Draper was, and how mature she was in handling her two selfish, crazy parents and in acting as a mom for her younger siblings.  Hitfix‘s Drew McWeeny joked a few years ago, in writing about Mad Men, that the show was actually the secret origin of psychotic super-villain Sally Draper.  And seeing how much Sally has suffered over the run of the show, I often thought Mr. McWeeney was exactly right!!  And so it was a surprise, but a pleasant one, to see in the finale that Sally appears to have rounded the bend of her difficult childhood and grown into a smart, sensible young woman.

Which brings me, at last, to Don Draper itself.  The finale — and this whole final run of episodes — took a risky road in focusing so much on Don’s journey through America.  We spent a lot of precious time seeing Don with characters we’d never seen before.  I was a little worried, watching this all unfold, that Mr. Weiner was wasting time I’d have rather spent with the show’s other main characters.  But I was captivated by the story and my wondering: was Mad Men going to make a statement that Don was incapable of growth, that eventually he’d wind up back in his old job, pretty much as he’d been?  Or was Don going to have a breakthrough, and we’d see him finally grow past the mistakes he’d been making and re-making his whole life?  Or a third option: Don would collapse and end his life?  (That latter looked mighty likely in the final moments of the finale, and especially during that devastating phone call with Peggy.)  I found myself uncertain where the show would go, and uncertain where I WANTED the show to go!

As the minutes ticked towards the end and we got to Don sitting cross-legged on a field, humming with the other hippies, I couldn’t believe it.  THIS was where Don Draper ended up?  But then we smash-cut to that Coke commercial, and I was bowled over by the genius of Matthew Weiner.  Don’s whole journey, all of the pain and suffering he’d endured (and caused for others) and the result was his eventually winding up right back in advertising, getting to work with Coke (as tantalizingly promised to him by Jim Hobart), and being responsible for one of the most famous real-life Coca-Cola ads of all time?  Genius!!

I love the enigmatic nature of the finale, and that Mr. Weiner didn’t give us definitive answers as to where Don’s journey ended up.  There was no montage of Don picking up the pieces of his life and work, there are the end.  There are a lot of ways to interpret the finale’s final moments.  But that’s how I see it.  There are still questions of course, even within my interpretation that Don returned to advertising.  Has Don returned from his journey a better person?  Maybe he’s not the jackass he was before?  Does his ability to create such a heartwarming and successful ad indicate that he is also more whole and healthy as a human being?  I’m not sure.  I love the mystery.  I’ve been thinking about this for two days, ever since watching the finale, and I’ll be thinking of it for a long time to come I am sure.  For now, I am very satisfied with my interpretation.  (One last bit of evidence that Don did wind up back in advertising, responsible for that Coke ad?  Stan predicted to Peggy that Don would somehow pull himself together and be able to walk back into his old job at McCann.  And as Peggy said, Stan is always right.)

The bottom line is I am deeply satisfied by my sense of where the journey ended up.  I love that it feels both absolutely expected, while also having the thrill of that final-seconds twist when we smash-cut from Don’s blissed-out face into that famous Coke commercial.  Wonderful.

Some other quick notes, looking back at the end of Mad Men:

My one lingering regret about Mad Men’s otherwise excellent final season was that we never got to see Sal Romano again.  Sal was one of my very favorite characters of the show’s early seasons.  I am still bummed that he was so abruptly written off the show in season three.  And since Mr. Weiner was so attentive in bringing back so many of the show’s characters in this final season, I wonder why we never got to see Sal again.  That’s a shame.

Such a bummer that sweet Meredith got fired in the finale!  But I share her self-confidence that she’ll land on her feet.

I wish Dawn had gotten a nice final scene somewhere at the end.  She was an interesting character I’d have loved to have seen more of.

Looking back, I’m also a little bummed that the funny, nutty Jewish artist Michael Ginsberg was written off so unexpectedly, early in this final season.  I wonder if Mr. Weiner didn’t originally have more planned for that character when he was introduced?

I’m also somewhat surprised that Harry — such a major character in the show’s early seasons — had so little to do in the finale.  All he got to do was eat Pete’s cookie!  It’s funny how Harry — who I found so likable and sympathetic in the beginning — turned into such a jerk in the later years.  I kept waiting for an episode to spotlight him and show us his inner life, so we could see a contrast to the way everyone else in the office saw him.  But that never happened.  I guess he did just become a jerk!

Was Shirley (Roger’s secretary) secretly the star of Mad Men all along?  The saga of the many secretaries of Mad Men is an epic saga all its own.

Ok, let’s wrap this up.

I am deeply sorry that Mad Men has ended, and deeply thankful for the journey.  I am thrilled that the show was brought to such a satisfying conclusion.  To Matthew Weiner and to all of the hundreds of talented men and women responsible for Mad Men, both in front of and behind the camera, let me quote that one perfect final spoken word of the weird, wise, often-shoeless, pornographic-octopus-painting-owning elderly fellow, shrewd businessman and secret lover of Ida Blankenship, Bert Cooper:

“Bravo.”

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