Mad Men's penultimate season is over, and except for their making a guest appearance on this blog as my dream writing group, I haven't been writing about them here. There's too much other good commentary on the web (Tom and Lorenzo, Alan Sepinwall) to read out there, and also a lot of clueless commentators (really? draft status as "A-1" instead of "1-A"? Didn't you watch the series at all? It's a draft status, not a steak sauce.). There was a lot to like this season (Kenny tap-dancing! A merger caper episode!) and a lot that was intended to, and did, make us cringe.
Here are a couple of additional observations about the last episode:
1. Set design for the win: As Pete and his brother sit contemplating their mother's death when she falls overboard on the SS Sunshine, all that's between them is a desk. And a model ship. And assorted other nautical knickknacks that signify old money but become humorously ironic given the circumstances.
2. Tom and Lorenzo probably have this one already, but when Pete and Bob are on the elevator--you know, the "Not great, Bob!". elevator--Bob is holding what's probably Pete's garment bag. It's in a Black Watch plaid that Pete wears often, including in his scarves, and Bob doesn't usually do plaid. He's holding Pete's future, is he? Yes. Yes, he is.
3. When Pete gets in the car at Chevy, the whole thing about going backward if he doesn't know how to drive stick didn't ring true to me. First, if he didn't engage the clutch, which he wouldn't have because he doesn't know how to drive a standard transmission car, the gear would just make a grinding sound and not go anywhere. It takes practice to get the gas/clutch foot action right. If he did engage the clutch but didn't give it enough gas, he'd get the same sound, or the car would stall. The Chevy guys would yell the traditional "Hey! Grind me another pound of those gears" before looking disgusted by his ineptitude.
Also, first gear is easy to find, as Bob tells him. Reverse is always trickier. On every four- or five-on-the-floor standard car I've driven, it's always a little outside the standard H-pattern of the gears (sort of like a subscript of the H) and is harder to engage than the rest: you have to push backwards a little harder. That's to keep nimrods like Pete from engaging it, I suppose. That Pete could find it, get the gas/clutch ratio right, and go backwards without stalling is kind of miraculous, though it made for great unspoken theater. "How are you at driving a stick shift, Pete?" "Not great, Bob."
4. Lots of commentary out there has focused on the poster (double Dons) and on all the doubling: Bob Benson/Don Draper, Sally and Peggy as "daughters" whom he disappoints, Ted Chaough as "good Don" to bad Don, Jim Cutler/Roger Sterling (and what a bonus both of them are to the show). One of the best may have been the TV in the bar tuned to Bewitched just before Don punches the preacher. It was focused on Larry Tate, an adman whose sole character trait was being pathologically fearful about what clients would think. Our Don? Not so much.
But what about Duck Phillips as another double? Don brought him in to Sterling Cooper and then forced him out. The two shared Peggy, Don platonically and Duck physically, and both have tried to poach her on occasion, Don for SCDP and Duck for his own agency after he'd been dismissed for drinking. Duck roams the SC halls and has a fight with Don, which is just about equally matched--two men of about the same age, war vets, alcoholics, with families that they've deserted. Don brings a dog home, and Duck leaves one behind. Both have a scatalogical reference moment, Duck when he goes into Roger's office and Don when Roger yells at him after the meeting.
But Duck is a survivor, a redemption story. Even after he drunkenly tries to get Peggy back to start his own agency and seems absolutely out for the count, Duck resurfaces as a reasonably successful headhunter. He calls Pete and tries to get him to look for another position, and he checks the references of Bob Benson. He's brought in --going up--on the elevators with the new candidate as Don is going down.
5. There's a trend in television now that I think of as Misery Theater: how much can you punish or torture the protagonist for his or her sins and still keep the audience's attention? For you Game of Thrones fans, let's call it the Theon Grayjoy rule, or maybe we should just call it Degradation Limbo: "how low can you go?" I know that Don has to be punished mightily for cheating, lying, drinking, gluttony, avarice, lust, and whatever else is going on this season, else why would he have been reading *dun-dun DUN!* Dante in the first episode?
But come on, Matt Weiner. It's getting to be too much. We want to see more pitches, maybe, or some more mergers, or maybe just to see Don get a clue or Peggy and Joan catch a break. We don't want this to turn into Breaking Don or Game of Accounts. Season 4 was grim and had Don hitting bottom and being redeemed, or so we thought. Then--fooled ya!--he's back hitting bottom again, doing the same things that destroyed him the first time. I don't think we can take another season of this kind of destruction without relief.
6. Speaking of injustice, in what world is it right that Jon Hamm has never won an Emmy for this role? He is brilliant in this series.