Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mad Men: Thoughts on the Finale, or Confession is Good for the Soul


So what did you think of the Mad Men finale? This is my only break (of a day!) between more stressful travel and stressful conferences, so here is the only thing I actually want to do today, besides maybe go to Big Sur:

  • I wasn't doing Mad Men predictions, but I was happy to see two things come to pass: the Coke commercial and Don/Dick's time at Esalen: "Don renames himself Werner Ehrhard, invents EST, starts leading seminars for Stan the FBI agent and Philip on The Americans." I'm too culturally ignorant to know the difference between Esalen and EST, but that was what I was going for. Matt Weiner, you planted those clues just right.
  • The Coke commercial: confession time--I had hoped for this ending early on, when Coke became the Big Cheese for Don to land, but didn't think that Matt Weiner would dare to do it. I have always liked the song and even have the non-Coke version on my iPod, proof positive that commercial culture has entirely infected my brain and that I have no musical taste. Note: The Coke version is actually better.
  • Fun fact: the Doors' "Hello, I Love You," which was playing in the garage where Don apparently worked, was a huge hit, and it's well known that the fuzz bassline is almost identical to the Kinks' "All Day and All of the Night." The Kinks have apparently dropped into "Hello, I Love You" on occasion in concert to mock/protest/acknowledge/kid/riff on this similarity.
  • Speaking of confessions: this was the last of Don's confessions, and, from the perspective of one who was raised Catholic, it was phrased exactly like a confession. We saw this earlier with Peggy's sister when she goes to confession: there's are set phrases and then what you might call the enumeration of sins before the penance and absolution.  
  • Look at Don's language in this segment, how oddly formal in language and I-focused it is, which leaves him all the blame: "I scandalized my child. I took another man's name and made nothing of it." Since when does Don use judgmental words like "scandalize"? It's reminiscent of "I took the name of the Lord in vain," which is one kind of common confessional formula.
  • Now look at how this scene is framed: He's framed as if he is in a confessional booth, a space of plain, dark wood where people can speak freely. He's in a
    partially open, partially framed public space, speaking to an unseen listener.  
  • The old confessionals had a screen separating the priest from the person confessing (maybe they still do), so that they could not see each other. He slumps down, spent, after his confession and says he can't move.
  • But Peggy, acting as his confessor, absolves him: "Come home. You know McCann would love to have you back. Don't you want to work on Coke?" Earlier in the series, she refused outright to confess to Father Gill.  Now, she is acting as Father Gill, a nonjudgmental one, in absolving Don. 
  • Then another woman comes by and says, like Peggy, "yes, you can move. Come with me to my seminar.  I'm late." After all he's done to women, they are the ones who save him.
  • Don's prayer of absolution?  If you watch him, he isn't saying "om." He's saying "home." 
  • Yes, we're meant to think he returns, reconnects with his family, and writes that commercial. Look at the clothes on the young women he talks to at Esalen (?), all red-tied braids and embroidery (h/t Tom and Lorenzo) and one of the women in the commercial.  
  • The big debate on the interwebs seems to be whether this is horribly cynical--great feelings exploited to sell us Coke--or sincere--Don actually achieves a measure of peace and learns that love is not an illusion. The jury's still out, but wouldn't you love to have seen that Coke pitch meeting?
  • Speaking of Coke, remember what Steve Jobs said when he recruited an executive at Pepsi to run some early incarnation of Apple: "Do you want to stay here and make sugar water or do you want to come with me and change the world?" He divided the two pursuits; the Coke commercial doesn't, for good or ill.
  • Don's not the only one who confesses. Of course there are all the "seminar" confessional scenes, in one of which Don breaks through his wall of isolation and hugs the man who feels as if he's in a refrigerator and is not being chosen by his family. But the one we've been waiting for is this one: Stan confesses his love to Peggy (on the phone), and she confesses in turn, first on the phone and then in person, the third or fourth use of the episode's title.  The sour commentators over at Slate, whose columns I skimmed in the airport yesterday, apparently wanted more misery for Peggy and less rom-com.  Not me. I'm happy for those two crazy kids.  If you want misery, go watch Game of Thrones.
  • What about the rest?
    • Joan is not ready to retire and be a plaything. Starting Holloway Harris in her apartment recalls the Season 3 finale when they all worked out of a hotel room. Even Kevin's caregiver sounds more professional.  Joan knows how to run things and especially how to whip underlings into shape. She'll do fine. Roger's visit: there's still a little bit of wistful "the one who got away" in Joan's comment about some woman finally getting the timing right.
    • Roger and Marie--Hilarious. Finally, someone who'll be crazy and imperious enough to give Roger the excitement he craves.
    • Pete and Peggy. "A thing like that!" is Pete's catchphrase, even more than "What is going on?" Peggy listened to him, maybe the only person at SCDP who did, and says it back to him. To paraphrase what Peggy said, very anachronistically, when she smoked dope with Paul back in an earlier season, they're in a very good place right now. 
    • Speaking of catchphrases, did you see Sally channel her mother when she wanted to talk frankly to Bobby and Gene was in the room? "Go watch TV!" Gene says his only word in the series except for "Bye, Daddy"--"No!"--but he goes anyway.  
    • Just realized also that Stephanie calls Don out on his catchphrase and overall philosophy of "This never happened."  "I'm afraid you're wrong about that, Dick," she says, sadly, and this time he hears it.
    • Pete and Trudy. It's amazing to look back and see how much Pete has always been enamored of aviation.  Sure, Secor Laxatives paid the bills, but what he wanted and could never quite get was American Airlines and Something Aviation.  Now he's got Learjet, Trudy, Tammy, and Wichita. 
  • Edited to add: One thing that has always confused me is this:  Betty has a dishwasher in Ossining, and she has one now in her goth mansion (the appliance with the big lever). So why does she do the dishes by hand, wearing rubber gloves, and why is Sally doing the dishes by hand, when they have a dishwasher? I can see if she's washing crystal wineglasses or something, but she and Sally do this for regular dinnerware.
  • Also, various sites keep talking about Anna's "wedding ring." It's not. A diamond solitaire is (or was in those days) an engagement ring, not a wedding ring, although maybe fashions have changed. The fact that Stephanie calls it "Anna's engagement ring" when she gives it to Don/Dick is also a clue, wouldn't you say?
Enough!  Back to the stressful part of my life. I've been waiting for my suitcase (delayed in yesterday's travel) to arrive so I can do a wash before heading out at the crack of dawn tomorrow, and it just got here. But I hope you enjoyed the finale as much as I did!


Flavia said...

Loved it. And I don't see the ending as cynical (though pleasingly ironic, sure). The show has always demonstrated how Don and Peggy (at least, though I think it's true for the noncreatives, including Pete) get real fulfillment from their work, and I've never seen it as cynical about work as a source of fulfillment. It's not naive about advertising as an industry. . . but seriously: don't most of us derive satisfaction from things that aren't 100% virtuous, that don't save the world? And how much creative work really IS uncompromised, anyway?

Don is a limited person, who may or may not have received some lasting personal insight or whatever in California. But though he fucks up most of his one-on-one relationships, he's always been good at extrapolating from his own emotional experiences to those of others--at least when he's trying to design an ad campaign. That's a real talent. Not one that will save the world, no, but the rest of us aren't doing that, either. If he's got joy in his work, that's still real joy. We should all be so lucky!

undine said...

Flavia, you're absolutely right about the work and the place it has in Don's and Peggy's lives. Everybody's work is compromised by something, ours included. I'm thinking of a line from The Devil Wears Prada, where Adrian Grenier says, "I make port wine reduction sauces all day. I'm not exactly in the Peace Corps." Your suggestion that Don's real talent is helping others by connecting to their experiences sounds right.

Flavia said...

LOVE THAT MOVIE--and that's really the part of it I love, too: the insistence that work, even in "shallow" industries, can be enormously complicated, require tremendous skill and knowledge, and be fulfilling and worth sacrificing for (at least for some people, who are willing to accept the trade-offs). Never read the book, but I appreciate how complex a character the movie allows Miranda Priestly to be.