TV Review: “Mad Men” Mid-Season Finale — Enjoyable, But Part of an Annoying Waiting Game

It’s sort of like someone snatching the epic novel you’re a few chapters from the end of out of your hands and subsequently run off cackling into the sunset, only to allow you to finish it in a year.

The final ending of "Man Men" -- AMC is making us wait.

The final ending of “Man Men” — AMC is making us wait.

By Matt Hanson

First things first, let’s get a gripe out of the way. As enjoyable as last Sunday’s mid-season finale was, the fact that Mad Men fans will have to wait until 2015 to finally watch the concluding chapters unfold is at best annoying. It was bad enough when Breaking Bad pulled the same stunt last year, but at least then the dead air served somewhat of a purpose. It even seemed to work in the show’s favor, since the anticipation generated by the countdown to the concluding episodes seemed to add momentum rather than distort the narrative arc, not to mention make room for all-important binge-watching.

At it’s best, Mad Men is all about subtlety and psychology and atmospherics. It’s got a pretty wide ensemble cast and a lot of period detail. Waiting six months to continue to follow a series of character studies is disappointing. AMC is recycling their catchpenny strategy with an eye, no doubt, towards Emmys and eyeballs and advertisers, which would be all well and good if it didn’t lead to an avoidable aesthetic disaster. It’s sort of like someone snatching the epic novel you’re a few chapters from the end of out of your hands and subsequently run off cackling into the sunset, only to allow you to finish it in a year.

At least we get to leave off with the gang at SC& P feeling relatively confident. Roger Sterling, usually more than happy to do little more than woo clients and bask in the pleasures of being a hedonist with an unlimited bank account, has maneuvered his way into keeping the future of the agency relatively intact. Because of Roger’s ace finagling, the partners (sans poor Harry Crane) will cash in handsomely and they won‘t have to lose their autonomy as an agency.

Cutler doesn’t dig it, of course, but why would he? He’s so obsessed with the monolithic new computer and the potential for new “surgical strikes” on advertising markets that he’ll stand outside of Bert Cooper’s now eternally-empty office and yammer about the ‘Future Of Advertising’ to anyone within earshot. He also apparently helped firebomb Dresden, another reason it was fun to see him lose, especially after he tries to boot our boy Don in such a pathetically duplicitous fashion and it backfires.

Don, surprisingly, seems to have grown up a bit in the last few episodes. Instead of stomping around with an alpha-male scowl and desperately hound-dogging it around town, he’s looking more and more like he has begun to appreciate the existence of other people. The secret identity that had shamed and tormented him for literally his whole life is now cathartically out of the bag and his marriage to Meghan was built on sand, anyway. Their breakup call was one of the most candid moments in their relationship: the fact that it was a brief and rather terse exchange only enhanced its sense of its dreadful inevitability. After all, if a spontaneous, spousal-approved threesome in California can’t save a marriage, what can?

Oddly enough, work and not play is where Don has found the greatest satisfaction. He quickly signed back up with the agency after his ennui-laced exile and was ready to play ball with a list of totally un-Draper-like demands. He was also able to look a mopey Ted in the eye and convince him that he didn’t want to know what retirement was going to look like. It seems that his relationship with Peggy has been the most satisfying female relationship he’s ever had. Betty was never half the competent and accomplished person Peggy has become, and his daughter only recently started to see her father’s vulnerability. Sally hates her mother, and rightfully so, but after she kisses a boy in the backyard she lights up a smoke and exhales just like her Mom. I couldn’t help wondering if she’ll end up being the porcelain party doll for a local politician or end up living in a muddy commune in upstate New York.

It looks like Peggy might be Don’s soul mate, at least to the extent that such a thing is even possible for him. Their bond isn’t sexual or even based on mutual respect any more. At this point, it’s far more than that. The Don and Peggy symbiosis came about because each truly finds themselves in the work, the hunger for acknowledgement that drives them. Their ambitions will ultimately force them to sacrifice everything else in the pursuit of the perfect pitch, which, at least for pros like Don and Peggy, is always going to be about more than taglines.

Peggy’s Carousel-worthy pitch for Burger Chef worked because it was a little bit of everything; expertly balancing social chaos with familial comity, cosmic wonder with earthly contentment, slyly referring to the boy who will be surely be eating supper at her house tonight who is not, in fact, her son and who she will shortly never seen again (nobody wants to go to Newark, let alone live there). It might well have been Peggy’s finest hour.

In the Mad Men universe the ontology is clear: I pitch, therefore I am. Presentations to clients are a chance for our often quietly desperate characters to become the people they’d like to be, living in a world they can control by articulation. Don’s unusual selflessness – insisting that Peggy do the presentation – was a chance for Peggy to undeniably take over his role without trying to emulate him. The look in her eyes before she launches in tells you how much has gone into this moment for her and the look in Don’s eyes when she’s done tells you where it all went. One small step for Peggy, one giant leap for womankind…

Is Bert Cooper still dead? The witty, eccentric old man who started the whole place has finally waddled shoeless into the great beyond. His last word (other than yelling at the housekeeper to keep the vacuum off) was a dignified and old-world “Bravo” as man landed on the moon. But that’s not quite right, is it? Don walks to the elevator and suddenly there’s old man Cooper in the middle of the office, doing a Broadway-style song and dance number complete with whirling secretaries. He warbles to Don a ditty about how the best things in life are free, and for everyone, even the moon. It’s delightful, it’s surreal, it’s de-lovely. And then, just like that, smiling and waving to the camera, he shuts the door. Did anyone else hear that? Was Don listening? Is what Cooper’s singing even true? At least AMC doesn’t think so, since they apparently stand a lot more to gain in making us wait until next spring to find out.

Matt Hanson is a freelance writer living outside Boston. His poetry and criticism has previously appeared in The Millions and Knot From Concentrate, He was a staff writer at Flak Magazine until its untimely demise. Ekphrasis, his poetry chapbook, was published by Rhinologic Press.

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  1. Glenn Rifkin on May 27, 2014 at 1:46 pm

    In an odd circle of response, I didn’t understand the fuss about Mad Men when it first aired so I chose to ignore it as best I could. Eventually, the clamor and hype got to me and my wife and I binge-watched all of it on Netflix, coming to appreciate the lure of the oddly drawn characters, especially the awful but compelling Don Draper, a train wreck of a human being but one you couldn’t wait to witness. Then this last truncated season began and I started feeling the emotions I had at the very beginning. I am thoroughly disappointed in this final season, the writing, the acting (Is there a worse actress in a major TV series than Jessica Pare?) and the aimless storyline. I’m just amazed at reviews and analyses like this one which focus on these individual moments but ignore the larger whole. Matt Wiener has done what most didn’t think possible: he made Don boring and annoying. He made Peggy whiny and annoying. He made me want to give it up and I may, given the very irritating AMC decision to break the final in two. All that subtle symbolism either eludes me or feels trite and amateurish. The final scene of magical realism with Bert doing his Broadway return just seemed out of place, inexplicable, and so out of touch with the tone and design of the series that it was odd more than poignant. At the end of the day, I don’t get it. If I muster up the desire to watch the final episodes in 2015 it will because of a short-term memory issue, not because the show deserves it.

  2. Rudbekia Goldstrum on May 27, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    And you think you have problems, Hanson. Try being a cableless lass who will have to wait until next year for the denouement and until 2016 for the conclusion of Mad Men on Netflix. And it does not help that I am a woman of weak character who cannot resist reading spoilers which sometimes totally fucks up the arc of the story, so to speak, for me. However, I understand your frustration. What a hype! It’ so…..Don Draper.

    So next year, host a day long party — the 2014 season for brunch and the Episode 1 of the 2015 season for dinner. Serve food that would be contemporaneous with the era — for instance, steaks and baked potatoes since Julia Child and then Michael Pollen’s influence will emerge in subsequent culinary eras. You will achieve a fusion of the character studies and start the concluding season on an even keel.

    Now that I have read your very excellent spoiler which mostly covers the dramatic interaction of the characters, I can with some authority (even though I have yet to see this season) comment on the script’s interaction of the events of the larger world with the personal drama of the characters. As the characters witness our mastery of outer space, our “giant leap,” the specter of cyberspace breathes down their necks. And now it is in that very cyberspace that pitching the product has morphed into building one’s own brand. Presenting one’s self rather than the product. Draper’s reinvention of himself. A smooth continuum indeed. American Exceptionalism, personal individualism, a dash of narcissism, from identity to brand, the human product.

    I am left wondering about not only the fate of the characters, but also which historical cataclysmic point of reference will bring down the curtain. After all, it is structurally impossible to end this series on September 11, 2001.

    Thanks for a prescient and engaging review.

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