“I don’t know what I brought out in you, but I know there’s a good man in there.”
And so, another season of Mad Men draws to a close that is at once understated and powerful. Since the show is very much an ensemble piece, this season closer spent a little time on many of the characters whose plotlines have been in play this year. But once again, as ever, looming large over all of them was the dapper, tormented shadow of Don Draper.
Don’s been all over the place this year. While never as noticeably disintegrating a she was in the immediate aftermath of his breakup with Betty, he’s hardly been what you could call reliable. His recurring bouts of alcoholism have been in evidence (remember his blind drunk appearance at Roger’s mother’s funeral) as has his complete inability to remain faithful in any relationship for longer than a few weeks.
Once again, this season gave us a few glimpses into his past that served to fill in the explanation of how he became the utterly damaged human being he is. On the face of it, Don has everything; he’s a charming, good-looking successful businessman, with a partnership in a major company and a beautiful young wife. But Mad Men encourages us to look below the surface, and fill in for ourselves what isn’t so evident. In this case, that having everything means nothing to Don Draper, and that his often callous disregard for everyone around him – even those closest to him – can be explained but not excused.
He got in early with shafting his fellow man this week, when the excited Stan Rizzo came to him asking for a ‘transfer’ to LA, ostensibly to deal with the California-based Sunkist account. In actuality, Stan’s eyes shone with enthusiasm for building a new agency in uncharted territory, “one desk at a time”. Don dismissed it with the claim that LA was “just like Detroit, but with palm trees” (true enough), but you could see the gears whirring in his brain. Stan had given him an Idea. And before long, it was an Idea that was infecting half the office – to the advantage of everyone but Stan Rizzo.
This idea of California as the New Frontier is as central to American culture as the Cold War these characters are living through. The reality was nicely counterpointed by John Steinbeck in his tales of dispossessed farmers from the Midwest seeking the riches of that New Frontier, only to find just another kind of grinding poverty with better weather.
Mad Men’s take on the American mythos owes a fair bit to Steinbeck (and F Scott Fitzgerald, as the other great chronicler of the American Dream). The Steinbeck influence has never been more evident than in the flashbacks to Don’s youth, which were fleetingly in evidence again here. Confronted by a hectoring minister in the bar he was currently drowning his sorrows in (Don always has sorrows to drown), Don recalled a wandering preacher being thrown out of the rundown whorehouse he lived in as a child.
“The only unpardonable sin is to believe God can’t forgive you,” rasped this shambling, Bible-clutching wretch, much to teenage Dick Whitman’s interest. Fast forward to 1968, and Don was waking up in a NYPD drunk tank, having expressed his feelings to the minister with a punch in the mouth. But while hung over, he experienced one of his periodical epiphanies.
Don’s spent a great deal of this year being generally beastly to all those around him; in many ways, this ep showed him seeming to realise that, and try and atone for it. The first one he tried to make amends to was Megan, by co-opting Stan’s idea and suggesting they move out West. A challenge for him, a likely career advancement for an up and coming actress.
Megan loved the idea, of course, but when Don announced it round the office, Stan was less than pleased. So was Ted, who (justifiably) complained that anything Don wanted to do was never subject to discussion; it just got done. The fact that things might work any other way didn’t seem to occur to Don, which came back to bite him later.
First, though, there were others he’d screwed who needed amends making. One of them was Ted Chaough, going through his own Draper-paralleling dilemma this week about his relationship with Peggy. Their affair was continuing, so she was less than pleased that his wife turned up at the office and he virtually ignored her. One night of passion later, and he was promising a divorce and a new start with the oft-wronged Ms Olson.
So when he got wind of the California plan, he went to Don’s office and begged to be allowed to be the one to go, to get that new start. Only not with Peggy; unlike Don with Betty, Ted wanted to save his marriage, and the only way to do that was to get away from Peggy. Which didn’t please her much – Elisabeth Moss has rarely looked so angry with anyone other than Don.
Don demurred at first, saying it was a done deal. But a pitch to new clients Hershey’s, which started out with the typical Draper smoothness, went oddly awry when Don, noticing a (presumably alcoholism-induced) tremor in his hand was struck with an uncharacteristic bout of honesty, and unloaded the whole sordid, sad story of his upbringing to the clients and the partners. In one of his moments of self-realisation leading to self-loathing, tears glittering in his eyes, he concluded, “you shouldn’t have someone like me tell that boy what a Hershey bar is. Because he already knows.”
It was an incredible, emotional scene, delivered with power by Jon Hamm. I’ve often thought that one of the reasons Hamm is so good as the inscrutable Don is that he’s as ignorant as we are of what Matt Weiner is planning for the character, even down to his past. To compensate, he’s developed that enigmatic stare into the middle distance that Don’s so well known for. Here, though, we saw what he could do when given all the motivation, playing against the character he’s inhabited for six seasons now. It was like an emotional dam bursting.
Not that it did him much good. He can’t make amends to everyone without pissing off someone – particularly when he only has one scheme in mind to do so. So he let Ted have California, to save his marriage the way Don never could, which so disappointed Megan that it looks like that marriage is over now too. “I don’t know why we’re fighting for this any more,” she sobbed bitterly. “I don’t even know what this is.”
And having all but torpedoed the Hershey contract with his moment of truth, Don came in the next day to find the rest of the partners silently gathered in a darkened office, having already voted to suspend him for “a few months”. He may be seeking redemption, but he still looked fit to burst at the news. Plainly the idea that anyone would challenge the office’s alpha male had simply never occurred to him. And equally plainly, “a few months” was a euphemism for “indefinitely”, as Don realised when he crossed paths at the elevator with Duck Phillips, escorting his replacement. “Going down?” the replacement sardonically enquired. Yes, he is – and maybe further down than ever before.
It wasn’t all about Don, though. As usual, the other characters’ stories weaved artfully through his. Aside from Ted and Peggy’s doomed affair, he got another of his quiet, revealing chats with Betty, where the chemistry between him and his ex seemed so much better than either of their respective replacements. Sally had been (not unexpectedly) suspended from school for drinking; in despair, Betty confessed that she’d tried everything her own mother had done in bringing her up , and none of it had worked. Very telling.
Roger, meanwhile, was still being bled dry by his grasping daughter, who was still angrily demanding more. Obviously feeling a similar parental failure, he sought to make another try with his most recent child – little Kevin. And this time, Joan guardedly let him in. With caveats. How long, I wonder, will the irascible Roger manage before he starts ignoring them?
And, of course, there was Pete. Poor, poor Pete. But his story has become inextricably intertwined with someone else. So, for the last time this year, let’s ask…
Where’s Bob Benson?
Still, it seems, sticking like a limpet to Pete as his lifeline to success. He may be shrewd, but he seemed to be betting on the wrong horse there. Pete, though, had other things to think about than his working relationship with Bob, as a telegram turned up to reveal that, not only had his mother married the charming Manolo, but then gone on a cruise with him – and was now lost at sea.
Discovering that Manolo wasn’t even the charmer’s real name, Pete went ballistic at Bob, accusing him of complicity in a plot to obtain what was left of the Campbell ‘fortunes’. Bob, of course, denied everything – but is he as innocent as he seems? Especially considering the conversation he was having on the phone last week – who else would he speaking to in such flawless Spanish?
Pete, grudge-bearing as ever, promised to ruin Bob by bringing all this into the open. But Bob’s a sharper operator, and managed to ruin Pete first. In a make or break presentation to the Chevy execs, Bob (already their favourite) invited the driving-phobic Pete to have a go in their sporty Camaro Z28 – a stick shift. Pete, knowing exactly what was happening, had no choice but to give it a try – and promptly stalled the car, knocking over a giant display in the process. “We’ll pay for that,” promised Bob, and this time the smile on his face was one of triumph.
Checkmate – the Chevy execs now only want Bob, putting him in a position of some power at SC&P. Pete, on the other hand, ended the ep once again trying to emulate Don. He’s moving to Los Angeles.
Precious few this week, what with all that plot to be getting on with. The ep built up to Thanksgiving 1968, which was November 28 – Richard Nixon has already been elected President, but no reference was made to that aside from a tattered election poster in the bar where Don had his altercation with a man of God. Speaking to that upright fellow, Don acidly pointed out that Jesus hadn’t had a good year, which spoke volumes. We’ve seen the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, not to mention race riots, the DNC riot in Chicago, and a near-revolution in France, all while Vietnam continues to rumble tragically on.
Dedicated Followers of Fashion
Again, not many fashion faux pas this week – possibly because Harry Crane barely featured. Most eye-catching was the nearly non-existent dress Peggy wore to her date, parading it around the office to taunt Ted. I know miniskirts were in fashion, but this looked more like lingerie.
Joan, meanwhile, managed to look good even while wearing the seat covers from a 1978 Ford Capri:
It’s been another season of high drama played so subtly that, to those not paying attention, it could seem little more than a classy soap opera. But Mad Men is so much more than that. There’s so much to these characters, so many layers, and they’re portrayed in such an understated way that you can’t help but be impressed with the performances. Why use a line of expository dialogue when a lift of the eyebrow or a sideways glance can convey so much?
According to Matt Weiner, there’s only one season left now. Which year will it end in? 1970, to cap off a document of momentous change taking place over ten years? Where will the characters be then? Right now, Don’s gone back to the beginning. Having lost everything (again), he’s taken his kids to a ‘bad neighbourhood’ to look at a tumbledown, collapsing house that used to be a brothel. “This is where I grew up” is the last line of the season. As Sally seemed gripped by a new sympathy for him, you had to wonder if he actually had…