“No man has ever come back from leave – even Napoleon.”
Mad Men is usually the most understated drama possible, much of its plots conveyed by subtext, implication, Don Draper staring enigmatically at nothing in particular. Every so often though, an episode startles you by bringing that subtext to the fore, making it… text, I suppose, with events that carry a real dramatic charge. A rape, a pregnancy, a suicide (or two) – all these are like a shock of ice-cold water to the face after a lengthy bathe in the nice warm water of the show’s usual near-ambience.
This week was one of those episodes. Carly Wray and Matthew Weiner’s script gave us the usual subtleties, to be sure; but there was also a near plane crash, an attempt to oust one of the founders of the company leading to a genuine shouting match and some very underhanded dealing from Roger Sterling; and to cap it all, one of the main characters died. Then came back, and did a musical number. It’s fair to say, this mid-season finale (if you can call it that with the next half not on for another year) certainly delivered the dramatic goods.
As has often happened in previous finales, the drama was neatly entwined around a momentous historical event. In previous years, it’s been the likes of the Cuban Missile Crisis or the assassination of JFK. This year (unsurprisingly) pretty much everyone in the show was preoccupied with the launch of Apollo 11, and humanity’s first steps onto an alien world – all televised live for the whole family to gather round and watch.
Before we got to that, though, there were shenanigans aplenty at the SC&P offices as Jim Cutler made his final moves towards total domination. This has been building all season long, and he’s particularly been placed as an antagonist towards Roger. That makes sense, as prior to the merger he was shown very much as Cutler Gleason and Chaough’s equivalent of the matchless Mr Sterling. But he also saw Don as a massive obstacle, and has been instrumental in ostracising him.
Trouble is, Cutler had a point about Don – he was being a liability. Just because the viewer may sympathise with him (some of the time), doesn’t prevent that from being objectively true. Cutler’s attempt to finally get rid of him was a reach though, and being done behind the backs of the other partners; one couldn’t help but remember similar underhanded dealings, such as keeping Don out of the loop when the strategy of pimping out Joan was agreed, or Lane Pryce’s increasingly frantic attempts to cover up his embezzlement.
Lane’s death at the end of the show’s fifth season was one of the most traumatic events in the show, and it’s clear that his ghost still stalks the halls of Sterling Cooper & Partners even now. Not only has Don been installed in his old office, Bert and others have called him to mind several times. But then, mortality (and the dread of it) is an ongoing theme of Mad Men. This week, it was Ted Chaough’s turn to suffer existential dread and get compared to the hanging corpse in the office, as he professed an apparently genuine desire to die before sending his plane into a near crash to the horror of the Sunkist execs flying with him.
As pathos goes, this would have worked better if we’d actually given two hoots about Ted. Since he was shunted off to California at the end of the last season, the writers seem at a loss for what to do with him, leaving him seeming like a spare part in the drama. Even this week, his alcoholic despair seemed like a hollow echo of Don Draper; and in fact served little more dramatic purpose than as a mirror for the disillusioned Don to gain an epiphany from.
Also in the pathos stakes, Don and Megan’s marriage breaking up over the phone was quietly tearful. It would, however, have been more effective if this hadn’t been at least the third time their marriage appears to have ended. True, they did seem to have been going through the motions these last few weeks, and this time had the ring of finality. But then didn’t the last time, and the one before that?
Still, as a mid-season finale (ish), the ep had a lot to pack in, and encompassed virtually all the characters and their subplots; it’s hardly surprising that some seemed to get short shrift. Rather better handled was the ongoing theme of Peggy’s lost chance for motherhood, as her tenant’s son Julio announced that his mother was moving him away to be greeted by a tearful hug that, under other circumstances, might have seemed like an overreaction.
That it didn’t – and that we knew exactly what Peggy was feeling – was testament to how well this ongoing theme has been handled. At no point has anyone mentioned that Peggy had an illegitimate child, courtesy of Pete, who was adopted. And yet that knowledge has hung heavy over so many of her scenes this year without the need to reference it at all, a triumph of the writing and of Elisabeth Moss’ nuanced performance.
Still, for all the pathos, this ep had a tone unusual for this most nihilistic of shows. It was, in point of fact, uplifting. From the central theme of the Moon landing to individual triumphs for so many of the characters, it felt uncharacteristically like a happy ending.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and some of these characters, however flawed, are so likeable it feels like they deserve a bit of happiness. Peggy’s came as a newly altruistic Don handed her the pitch to Burger Chef, and she gave a masterclass in having learned from her mentor. Even the sweaty slobs from the fast food company were moved to tears by her skilful use of the Moon landing as an emotional hook.
For Roger, finally striking back at the pretender to the throne, the triumph came with his cunning plan to sell the agency to McCann Erickson ,undercutting all Cutler’s Machiavellian plans. Cutler’s dismayed look and Roger’s smile of victory was a punch the air moment (and there’s not many of those in Mad Men). That Cutler himself sheepishly joined the rest of the partners in voting for it was a laugh out loud moment: “well, it is an awful lot of money…”
For Sally Draper, perhaps a bit of triumph as she forsook the hunky Sean (who must have known what he was doing wandering about the house half-naked, not that I minded) for his more soulful, geeky brother Neil and his stargazing – the sort of magic that a man’s first step onto an alien world can inspire. And after all, he had the same name as a certain Mr Armstrong. Mind you, his befuddled response to her kiss (“Er…what do I do now?”) suggests to me that she’ll eat him alive. She may be getting beauty tips from her mother, but the seduction technique showed that she’s still Daddy’s girl at heart.
And for Don Draper? His marriage may be over (though I’m yet to be convinced of that), but his purpose in life is renewed, the crumbling Ted having given him a look at how he could end up. Given that said purpose is centred on the job he’s plainly so superb at (ie lying to people), your mileage may vary as to how much of a happy ending that is. But unusually for a season finale (ish), he looked happier and more fulfilled than he has in years.
And yes, even the death of a major character gave us an uplifting moment. For all his apparent geniality, we perhaps shouldn’t forget that Bert Cooper was unapologetically racist, sexist and an Ayn Rand-loving Republican who gave his agency’s services to Richard Nixon for free. He was the very essence of a bygone era, and his death, in the transformative last year of the 60s, significantly came just after Neil Armstrong set foot on the alien sand of another world, ushering in the future. His reaction to Armstrong’s classic line – “that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” – was truly that of the seasoned advertising pro: “Bravo.”
Despite his failings, his hidden ruthlessness, and his right wing tendencies, movie veteran Robert Morse made Bert impossible to dislike. So it was a gasp-worthy, totally un-Mad Men – and yet totally fitting – moment when his smiling vision appeared to Don in the empty office and immediately performed a full-on song and dance routine to perennial 1927 classic ‘The Best Things in Life are Free’. A song, which, obviously but charmingly, opens with the line, “the Moon belongs to everyone…”
Well… the Moon landing, obviously.
Not only did we see the historic footage of the landing and Armstrong’s first step on the moon, More significantly we saw how the Americans of 1969 watched it; together, live on TV, breath held as the Saturn 5 rocket roared off the launch pad, gasping as Armstrong’s boot touched the surface, wracked with worry in case the astronauts didn’t return. The Francises were united by the spectacle, as were the Sterlings, Bert Cooper and his maid, and even Don, Peggy and Pete were raptly glued to the TV in their Indiana hotel room. And I have to say, I’d have been glued to it too. Forget Presidential inaugurations or Royal Weddings; that was real history, beamed live to your living room for perhaps the first time.
Oh, and Megan went to see a new movie called The Wild Bunch. Sam Peckinpah’s best-known film, this classic Western ushered in a new style of slo-mo, stylised violence. It was an interesting counterpart to last week, when characters were busy watching new benchmarks being set in media depictions of sexuality.
Dedicated Followers of Fashion
Sexy Sean (Charlie DePew) looked great in his striped trousers as he reclined on the floor of the Francis’ living room. That said, he looked pretty good in anything, or next to nothing.
But the real revelation was Sally Draper, who’s never looked so good. Taking a few leafs out of Betty’s book, Kiernan Shipka looked stunning in a lilac ensemble, her hair newly bouffant and actually wearing lipstick, as Betty acidly pointed out. Quite how she didn’t turn Sean’s head is a mystery – perhaps he’d prefer Bob Benson. His loss is Neil’s gain.
And for a bit of a change, we got to see downtime Peggy, in a floral housecoat and rollers:
It has to be said, this week’s episode wasn’t quite up to the standard of last week’s. There were too many perfunctory nods to some important characters and plots, and some of the happy endings seemed perhaps a little contrived. That said, for an ep of Mad Men to be so uplifting and actually full of joy was out of character but not at all objectionable; this is a show that, after seven years, is still capable of surprising me.
Bert’s unexpected musical number was so out of left-field as to leave me gasping, but smiling too. If you thought Ken Cosgrove’s impromptu tap dance last year was unexpected, this was something else, and beautifully performed by Robert Morse (who, lest we forget, was the star of 60s musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, a sure inspiration for Mad Men).
Of course, to say that this ep of Mad Men is not as good as some other eps of Mad Men is setting a pretty high benchmark, and this was still a brilliant piece of TV drama. It’s been a good season (so far) that seems like it may be working towards an actual conclusion to the characters’ journeys. In fact, it actually felt like this could have served as an ending in its own right – but would Mad Men really leave its characters on such a happy note? One thing you can say for sure, any respected TV drama that can pull off an unexpected musical number – and make it work – is at the height of its powers. For better or worse, I’m looking forward to reuniting with these guys for the last time next year.