Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mad Men: The Final Episode

Well, I wasn't going to write about Mad Men because I've written about it a lot before, but it seems like everyone else is, so why not?

Note: Spoilers ahead

Mad Men is a fairly solid part of our cultural zeitgeist at this point, but it's possible there are plenty of those who aren't familiar with the program. Mad Men just ended its run of seven seasons, stretched out unnecessarily over eight years, garnering all sorts of well-deserved awards in the process.

Mad Men is a show about advertising executives, initially set in the 1960's, eventually landing us in 1970. The show was really about three things: it was about advertising, it was about characters, and it was about history. The show managed to meld all three of them more or less seamlessly, while we watched a core group of people evolve in the turbulent 60's all under the backdrop of a relatively familiar industry.

Specifically, the show centers on Don Draper, a good-looking and highly successful creative director at the middle-range firm of Sterling Cooper. Draper is, to mangle a metaphor that probably doesn't fit, the executive all companies want and other executives want to be. It's established early on that Don is a legend in the industry, and every so many episodes someone makes an inquiry if he's willing to jump ship. He's a hot commodity in more than one way--he easily beds many women in many different stations, from the beatnik artist to the rich daughter of a high-end department store owner. He is, of course, married, to poor, unassuming Betty. 

It's easy to think of Mad Men as simply The Don Draper Story, but that would be a mistake--the show is definitely an ensemble production, with a core group of highly interesting characters supported by a ring of other highly interesting side characters. You have Pete, the young, ambitious blue-blood who resents Don's success and, early on, has difficulty balancing the cache his name has with earning a reputation on his own. There's Roger, a partner and head of accounts trying to fill his father's shoes (and act as an enabler to Don's drinking and womanizing), the epitome of second-generation wealth. There's Peggy, the fresh, young face in the secretarial pool who manages to transition to creative (a woman! In creative!). And you have Joan, the office manager who tries to balance using her sexuality to advance her prospects and trying to establish her needs in spite of it.

There is, of course, more to it: there's Don's kids, Sally, Bobby, and (eventually) Gene. There are other workers, such as Harry, the head of media, Ken, an account manager, and Bert, the eccentric but practical senior manager. Some early characters, such as progressive Paul and art director Sal, also get an early exit, while other, new characters (like Megan, Don's new wife, new artist Stan, and Lane, the new financial manager) are slowly introduced. Mad Men excels in weaving all of these characters into believable story arcs that are told in 13-episode-season efficiency.

Of course, it's not long in the series when we discover some new things. Don has a deep, dark secret that no one knows about, not even his wife. Everybody in the cast effectively leads two lives, which is portrayed as being standard for the time; the show, however, does show a spectrum of reactions. Don shamelessly sleeps with pretty much any woman he can find, while Harry has a drunken one-night stand and feels incredibly guilty about it.

Mad Men spends a few seasons reveling in scotch-soaked assignations and history porn, but eventually settles into a few comfortable arcs. The ever-evolving nature of the corporation (mergers, acquisitions, firings, and restructurings happen frequently) as well as using advertising to highlight the changing social landscape start to take focus. Of particular note is the story arc of Peggy, who begins as a mere secretary with little knowledge of the real world and ends up one of the more successful and happy characters. It's a fascinating journey that is not only believable but also does an excellent job of showing the progression of the women's movement in the 60's without pounding it in your face with a frying pan. It's extraordinary subtle.An honorable mention goes out to the character of Lane Pryce, a tragic figure in a show with plenty to choose from. And let's not forget Roger, who just seems to be having a blast the entire run of the series.

Let's be honest here: Mad Men can be a hard sell. It's not a particularly engaging idea (ad execs?) and boardroom antics are famously difficult to make interesting on the screen. And there's no violence or explosion or all that much steamy sex, either. This isn't Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, both similar character-driven shows that still had the benefit of pulling out a gunfight when necessary. Still, somehow, they were able to not only make it interesting but engaging.  

Of course, the series isn't perfect. The biggest issue I had was that there are a few story lines that never really seem to go anywhere. They don't advance the plot, they don't develop the characters, and often seem to be simple time-fillers. The plot involving Conrad Hilton, for example, never really went anywhere, and some of Don's affairs were particularly cringe-worthy in their uselessness. Who cares about Sylvia, or the waitress, or that teacher whose name no one cares to remember?

Anyway, on to the final episode. I enjoyed it, more or less; the final few episodes kind of wrapped up a lot of the story arcs. Betty getting cancer was certainly a downer, but to see Sally mature was satisfying. Roger is Roger; nothing less could be expected. It was very nice to see Peggy actually be so happy being with Stan; the sexual tension was never palpable and it could have gone either way, but I'm glad it went the way it did.

While I enjoyed what happened with both Joan (starting her own production company) and Pete (reconciling with his wife and moving to Kansas to work for Learjet), both seemed rather abrupt. Joan had never once indicated any sort of interest in being a producer, and Pete was a smarmy slimeball right up until the final three episodes or so where he became a saint. It would have been nice to see some sort of catalyst of change for both--it's certainly believable--but it just sort of happened. I do wish we had gotten a more solid resolution with Harry and Ted (the latter not showing up at all) but they were secondary characters and it's understandable.

I'm still conflicted on Don. While Don has always been one to go on his own for some soul-searching--he had run off to California earlier in the series--the whole retreat seemed forced. It was very much out of character for Don. At least they led up to it (Don leaving the meeting, him traveling across the country, etc.) so it wasn't as abrupt as Pete and Joan, but still. In the end, the implication that he came up with the Coke ad is perfect (they don't explicitly say it, but it's pretty obvious--the girl who worked at the counter also resembles one of the girls in the commercial); Don, the man who finds enlightenment and then goes and makes a boatload of cash on it.

Mad Men was a rare show, indeed; period dramas are expensive and hard to make without coming across as trite. It will be a long while before we see something like it again, I suspect.

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