Will We Ever Figure All This Out? – Mad Men Season 7 Finale
In the TV drama renaissance of the past decade or so, Mad Men stands out as one of the most important. Upon its debut in 2007, this saga of 1960s Madison Avenue advertising men gave AMC a reputation as an outlet for mature, quality drama. When people hear the network mentioned these days, they think of Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead, not the old movies that once constantly ran on the channel. So when Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator and executive producer, announced that the series’ seventh season would be its last, it was obvious it would be treated as a BIG TV DEAL.
AMC established the pattern with Breaking Bad: the last season of one of the network’s cornerstone series will be broken in half. Instead of one 13-episode season, two seven-episode halves to the season run instead. One year is not enough to contain that season; it must run in two consecutive years. The network’s transcontinental railroad saga, “Hell on Wheels” is next up for this treatment. This year, though, was it was Mad Men who had its day in the sun.
The final episode, Person to Person, ran on Sunday night. True to its last, abbreviated half-season, this installment was all about wrapping up storylines and giving endings to each regular characters. This approach was only moderately satisfying. Sure, we wanted to see what was going to happen to the leading lights of the old Sterling Cooper Draper agency. The multiple conclusions came at the expense of real, affecting drama. The result was slightly less affecting than it should have been.
This loss of real power could be felt at various points. Roger Sterling’s (John Slattery) story wrapped up in too pat a fashion: after years of occasional trysts with Montreal matron/hellcat Marie Calvet (Julia Ormond), they quickly and easily get together permanently. Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), after years of trying to be appreciated for something besides her voluptuous figure, finally strikes out on her own. She runs a commercial production company out of her home, finally finding security without relying on a man. While both were pleasant ends for the characters, neither one felt earned.
Worst in this regard, although it was quite cute to watch, was the sudden finding of love by senior copywriter Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss). The series started with Peggy’s first day at the agency in 1960. Hired as a secretary, she gets a jaded, detailed tour of the office by Joan. Over the decade in which the series has unfolded, she grew to fit into what was largely considered a man’s world at that time. She also stood as the show’s question of whether a career woman could have it all. She could never find love. In the finale, she finally does and it appears much more simple than anyone would expect. Joan has invited her to become her partner in the production company. She talks it over with Stan Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson), an art director at the agency. They argue and she insults him for not seeing things her way. The next day, she calls him to apologize. They end up admitting they love each other. The line goes dead. Peggy doesn’t know what to do when Stan charges into her office. Their embrace brought a rare moment of real, touching affection. Too bad it felt a bit tacked on at the end.
Any discussion of the episode’s uncharacteristic touches would not be complete without summing up the arc of the story of the main character, Don Draper. Jon Hamm has brought the perfect mixture of a commanding presence, wonderful speaking voice and movie-star good looks to imbue the mysterious ad man with a depth that even his hidden past and serial philanderer ways could not destroy. Two weeks ago, the agency was acquired by a bigger one, making Don, Roger, Joan and other partners rich. In the first partners meeting at their new agency, Don got up and walked out. No one knew where he went.
Turns out he was driving across the country, looking for something missing in his life. Maybe his true self. For his troubles, he was beaten up and nearly robbed by a bunch of businessmen gone wrong in Oklahoma. At the outset of the finale, he was driving a race car at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Much as he enjoys satisfying his need for speed, he cannot stay in one place. He takes off for California. Long a place of wonder to him (like many Americans of that time), he seeks out the daughter of an old friend. He agrees to take her to a retreat on the coast. This is a reference to the Esalen movement of the late ’60s, in which dissatisfied people sought out a stress-free, non-confrontational place to escape the pressures of their lives.
Don is little affected until he sits in on an encounter group in which a businessman is moved to tears over the fear that no one needs him or really even thinks much about him. Hearing his own story in this man’s, Don walks over and hugs him. The sight of the tears running down his own face is the the most uncharacteristic Don moment in the history of the series. It was followed by a typical one. In the final scene, Don participates in a group meditation, all the tension finally gone. He is at one with himself at last. Then what do we see? The 1971 “I’d Like to Teach the World to SIng” commercial for Coca-Cola. Did Don use his time-out to create it? Weiner seems to say, what do you think? It’s all up to you.
Person to Person managed to reclaim some of the program’s dramatic power. It did so by using Weiner’s favorite storytelling tricks: lingering shots with little dialogue (or very softly spoken lines) and moments whose meanings could be debated forever. You see, one of the most fun parts of being a faithful “Mad Men” viewer is debating What It All Meant. Every Monday after a new episode, fans could read detailed dissections and best guesses on websites from the New York Times to Esquire to any number of blogs. They all had their own interpretations of the final moment as they did so many others over the life of the series.
For my money, there was only one truly affecting moment and its meaning could not be debated. Don learns his ex-wife Betty (January Jones) is dying of lung cancer (only diagnosed after he fled west). The Drapers’ marriage fell apart in season 3 and Betty stayed in the storyline only because of their kids. Betty is now unhappy that their daughter told Don about her condition. Before long they are tearing up. Even over the phone, from opposite ends of the country, the regret over the loss is something they never got over. Each person’s second marriage was an unsuccessful attempt to do so, but neither can hide the truth anymore. That was a moment of raw emotion and real power.
In the end, though, none of the arguments matter. “Mad Men” went out in style if not quite at top form. It did not manage the resonance of, say, the “Justified” finale but it did not disappoint its many loyal fans. For such a quality program, that is not a small achievement.
– Louis Burklow (aka, Hollywood Country Boy), Senior Staff Writer, Phoenix Genesis
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