By: Daniel Reynolds
Welcome to the final stretch of the Mad Men Monday Recap. A show as deep as this one needs some diverse commentary so jump in and enjoy our irreverent breakdown of each episode.
What’s Happening on Madison Avenue?
It is worth taking a minute to discuss what happened in each episode. If you’re looking for some straight talk on what we just saw on Mad Men, read this section (and then read the other sections because, why not).
How do you summarize a decade? Is there a song, a movie, or a TV moment that captures it? Can we point to a specific political flashpoint that makes us remember? Or, as Mad Men suggests, can a decade be reduced to a single jingle, a rotating idea forever stuck in our head, playing on a loop? Let’s join hands and think about this.
Matthew Weiner said he wants his characters to be “a little more happy than they were at the beginning.” For Mad Men, that’s meant finding some sense of fulfillment, but also a sense of belonging, of love. With last week’s episode focusing so squarely on Pete, Betty and Don, we needed to know what would come of the last remnants of the old Sterling Cooper troop. Where would they end up?
We see the original three (not the Three Muskateers) of Peggy, Pete and Harry briefly together at the end. Peggy is now fully in command, Pete is moving on, and Harry remains unctuous. Pete’s change here feels the most dramatic. For all the jokes we’ve slung at young Campbell’s expense, he looks genuinely pleased to see Peggy succeed. He believes in her power now and moreover, he’s grown up. (Unlike Harry; goddammit man, just eat your cookies and shut up.) I can believe in a thing like that. While nothing is really “missing” in Peggy’s life, there has definitely been the feeling for awhile now that the thing she’s wanted most was right in front of her all along: Stan. Their coupling won’t get her that promotion she craves, but it will make the intervening years far more tolerable.
Joan meanwhile could have most any man she wants, but finds herself seeking fulfillment by herself. We see her level of commitment to this personal goal play out in real time as she answers that ringing phone while swallowing tears. The ups and brief downs of her relationship with Richard have been a joy to watch. (For its last installment? Cocaine!) But Joan has not, and never will be, merely some man’s arm candy. She wants to be able to say she built something for herself. And while, yes, Roger will leave her money to take care of their son, Joan wants to be able to say she did more than raise a child. It feels like the ultimate bit of ironic justice that she uses both Harris and Holloway in her new company’s name; Joan has been different women to a host of different men, but now she’s doing it all for herself.
What felt sure to be our most heartbreaking scene (Joan watching Richard leave) was easily eclipsed by Betty and her cancer. While Don’s been gallivanting across America (he stares at the mechanic’s girl, and then she is Don’s girl; the power of Draper is never-ending), his family has been disintegrating. Betty has the upper hand here, and it is clear from Don’s mournful “Bertie” and his tears that he knows it. He can no longer come to her rescue in any meaningful way. It feels safe to say that while Henry grieves, and Don drives off into oblivion, Sally will pick up the pieces of what her mother left. She’s not going to Madrid any more, but her life will still be an adventure. Sally’s strength is reassuring but their happiness may be harder to find, however.
As for Don, his trip to the hippie commune with Stephanie, his last connection to mother figure Anna Draper, is pure Mad Men. It was a weird, sad sojourn filled with all kinds of strange emotional reckoning from others (mainly Peggy and Betty) and from himself. Don got pushed by an old lady, and saw Stephanie’s life break apart before him. There was a naked man in a lawn chair, and an extended description of a dream involving a fridge, its light coming on, and the feeling of being wanted. I’m not even sure what else to say about it. Not all trips involve drugs.
I also, truth be told, may not know how to summarize a decade, but I do know the best way for a TV show: a montage. And with that we get the reunited Campbells, the new Holloway-Harris production agency, a content Roger and Marie, Sally taking care of a dying Betty, a super content power couple in Peggy and Stan, and Don ambling across his hippie commune.
So then what is that last image? Is that the idea of Mad Men distilled to its essence? Is Don Draper smiling because he’s found enlightenment? The perfect commercial idea? The future? As always with Mad Men, the truth remains elusive and slightly unsatisfying. This is not the end of these character’s lives. While Don’s smile today will inevitably turn into a frown and vice versa, he does seem a bit more happy than he was at the beginning. And for our part, we got to keep him and the rest of the cast company for a little while.
The Symbolism Rankings
Enjoy, with minimal comment, the weekly rankings for whatever symbolism Matthew Weiner has heavily stacked into each Mad Men episode. A show set in the world of advertising is only as good as its symbolism, right?
1) Coca-Cola bottle
2) Engagement ring (again)
Back in the Day
Remember the 1960s? Mad Men really values its sense of place. To that end, here’s where we make mention of whatever historical element popped up this week.
According to the internet, it was a man named Bill Backer (alliteration!), working for the real life McCann-Erickson, who came up with the idea for the now-famous ad. Gather a bunch of people on a hilltop in Italy. Have them sing about buying the world a Coke and keeping each other company. Slow pan up to the sky. Some words from your friends at Coca-Cola. And, instant immortality.
The “It’s the Real Thing” slogan was apparently around since 1969, but this commercial (and song) got going in 1971. Just in time for Don Draper to race back across the country (and break land speed records across the Utah salt flats) to pitch this idea of community. It’s the perfect union of commercialism, globalism and hippie logic that you’re likely to find. And as Mad Men’s end note, you couldn’t ask for a better bit of synergy. It feels like the real thing because it is the real thing. Kudos, Weiner.
This Week in Ken! (Cosgrove. Accounts.)
As the most likeable guy in the entire series, Ken Cosgrove deserves his chance to shine. Here’s where we discuss what everyone’s favourite earnest moonlighting sci-fi writer was doing or not doing on the last episode.
We jumped too soon to end the Ken Cosgrove era! I let out a yelp of surprise when he appeared as it felt particularly unexpected. Ken looked happier don’t you think? A little more chipper in word and deed, and of course, always thinking of his true friends. In this case, it was Joan who got to bask in that youthful Cosgrove glow.
Yes, Ken brought about some positive change in the finale of Mad Men. He found a new business opportunity for Joan (and almost Peggy), and despite working for Dow Chemical, seems to have found some measure of peace. He’s the happiest looking guy with an eye patch you’ll ever see.
Aaron Staton, the actor who plays Ken, is probably not going to have much of a big career after the show. He’s got a bit too much of Ben Foster’s looks, with not nearly any of the unhinged energy. As Staton proved with Ken, he’s a character actor, a good guy, a friendly presence. There were dark times, sure, but Ken always persevered.
I just hope his son Eddie is all right.
Know Your Role
Since so much of Mad Men is predicated on minute character interactions, here’s where we discuss the top conflicts that happen in each week’s episode and decide on a winner.
Admit it. You wanted it to happen, but couldn’t believe when it did. When Peggy and Stan got started on that phone call, you were not expecting much; just another scene of the two of them bickering like an old married couple. We’ve seen it since Stan was first introduced on the show way back in Season 4. Peggy and Stan have been at each other like cats and dogs, like oil and water, like some other male/female combative cliche.
There are some that will say that the scene felt almost too abrupt. Earlier in the episode, Peggy accuses Stan of being a failure, of merely accepting life as it comes and not working harder for more. Stan, meanwhile, values being good at his job and cautions Peggy that there is more to life than work. (This of course is another cliche: the uptight female vs. the laidback man-child.) But we know that no matter the anger, these two will work it out. They’ve been gradually growing together over the past three seasons, even as both have been in long term relationships (RIP Abe Drexler). They were meant to be, even if it felt sudden in its final timing.
When Stan came galumphing through Peggy’s door it was a special TV moment. The gradual zoom-in on their kiss felt a touch too familiar, but then again: cliches are cliches because they work.
Winner: Peggy and Stan, finally.
Between bouts of drinking, sometimes the people of Madison Avenue actually do some work on advertisements. Here is where we sit in the seat of the client, trying to figure out what the hell these ad guys are talking about.
This section now feels like a homework assignment on the last day of school. We don’t need to know how the next ads will turn out. But we’ll also never know where the advertising world will take Peggy, Stan, Don and the others.
In honour of the final episode, let’s rank the cast on a 10 bottles of Coke scale to see how well they did in the advertising game.
Peggy – Rose up from naive secretary to boss bitch; On path to being the Creative Director of a major ad agency; In love with man she’s meant to be with. 9 bottles out of 10.
Stan – Has every combination of hair and beard working for him; Ascot game on point always; Punching way above his weight by landing Peggy. 8 bottles out of 10.
Teddy – Just happy to have made it to the end of the decade. 5 bottles out of 10.
Pete – Reconnects with love of his life; Accepts hair line; Last seen boarding personal private jet. 9 bottles out of 10.
Roger – Does not care, does not care, does not care what you think; Meets his match in Marie; Somehow survives the decade. 10 bottles out of 10.
Harry – Insufferable right to the end; Disliked by everyone; Awful; Prescient enough to seize TV gig in the mid-60s and ride it to great, impossible success. 8 bottles out of 10. (This one hurt.)
Ken – Honestly probably wishes he was doing something else; Writing career on indefinite hold; Inexplicably following in his father-in-law’s footsteps in the chemical industry. 4 bottles out of 10. (Ditto this one.)
Joan – Loses a tan Bruce Greenwood but gains real independence; Still looks like she does – yes, blessing and a curse and all that; Caught in Sterling financial safety net. 8 bottles out of 10.
Don – May or may not have found inner peace and come up with timeless Coca-Cola ad; Totally not sure what to make of his career arc. 7? bottles out of 10.
(Not mentioned: Sal, Paul, Ginsberg, Mathis, Ed, Bob, Lou, Jim or any of the dead characters, for obvious reasons.)
Next Episode Predictions
This is where we watch the totally opaque preview for next week’s episode and make wild guesses as to what will happen next.
Believe me, it feels very strange to sit here and realize there are no next episodes of Mad Men to predict. This will be my 27th episode recap, which is not much in the larger 92 episode sense of things, but feels significant to me anyway. What are we supposed to do now?
Mad Men was always a special show. Unlike most of its contemporaries or predecessors, it did not have extreme suspense or thrills to fall back on, it could not summon scenes of wanton violence to shock us, and while it had its share of sex, it could not or did not do anything gratuitously. What it had were characters, and a mood, and some of the sharpest writing ever seen on television.
What began as the study of a man (with a mysterious past) became a broader examination of a specific era. And while the 1960s in America is not exactly a period lacking in reflective media, Mad Men found new stories, new ideas and new angles from which to look at that period of change. Weiner and company found charming, beguiling, alluring and meaningful ways to get at those new things. And we the audience were hooked right to the end.
The criticisms of Mad Men are easy: it took itself too seriously, it felt boring at times or aimless, seriously what the hell was the deal with Diana the waitress? But that almost started to feel besides the point. The show, like life, sometimes worked and sometimes eluded definition. Each season of the show would zig and zag across various offices and living rooms (and beds). Episodes would be self-contained or begin arcs that sprawled across multiple hours. There was always something to be amazed by; a well-timed zinger, a beautifully composed tableau, an emotional climax. Mad Men had it all.
And now we’re at the end. There are no new episodes to predict. We’ll never again tumble along with that man in black as the theme music plays before a new episode. We have just Don Draper’s smile, a Coke ad, and the memories.
Thanks Mad Men.
(And thanks to all of you for reading! Yes, I realize this column is late by a week. I was on my own Draper-esque journey, though it involved more Cuba and less existential terror.)