Sweater Manifesto

A blog about American zeitgeist and other things.

Month: May, 2015

Happiness is the Real Thing in Mad Men Series Finale

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While writing the final episode of Mad Men, Matt Weiner must have been listening to some Neil Young.  Given the darkness of the previous episodes in Season Seven, he decided that “this much sadness is too much sorrow”, and authored a complete tonal shift in the series’ ambience in the finale.   No one falls from a skyscraper or hijacks a plane.   Everyone seems to get something they either want or need; even the terminally ill Betty gets to put her affairs– and her kids– in order her way, when she dissuades a stricken Don Draper from leaving his picaresque journey that has taken him most recently to the Bonneville Salt Flats to come back to tend to Sally, Bobby and Gene.

One critic has opined that the shift from impending doom to sunshine was due to Weiner falling in love with his characters, and deciding that he wanted a better end for them than what was justified.   I’m not so sure of that.  While all of these characters had their issues, they also had their redeeming qualities and it was the latter that dictated the end of the series.   Roger grows up just a bit and marries a woman in his age cohort who is bright, articulate and headstrong– the tempestuous Marie, who promises to make his life rich, full and turbulent.   The fact that he’s willing to go so far as to learn how to say “lobster” in French is certainly a sign of personal growth—perhaps the most we can expect from Roger.

Stan and Peggy realize they’re in love with each other in one of the most stunningly romantic scenes we’ve seen in the seven years of the series’ run.  Peggy’s personal arc proves that women, even back in a more unenlightened time, could be brilliant at the office and happy at home.   The relationship between the two creative types has been one of the more compelling to watch as it has matured over the years.   The two of them kissing in the office was a truly cathartic moment for Peggy devotees (and, let’s face it, who isn’t?).

Joan loses her man but finds herself, choosing the start-up of her own business over being an appendage to Richard, the real estate mogul.   Turns out that Richard wants a traditional relationship and Joan needs more in her life. We could have predicted this relationship coming apart after Richard’s first reaction hearing that Joan had a child several episodes ago.   Christina Hendricks as Joan lights up every scene she’s in during the finale.  Her intensity is palpable once she meets up with Ken Cosgrove, who has come to her with the idea of her producing an industrial film for him.   Joan, ever the classic networker, realizes that there’s good money in film production, and she’s got just the kind of stuffed rolodex that’s needed to be successful.   The break up with Richard is brilliantly played– they both know that once she answers her phone to take a business call, they’re done.   When she does pick up the receiver, her struggle to regain her composure, and then the poised way she finishes the call, puts a punctuation point on a brilliantly played scene by both Hendricks and Bruce Greenwood as Richard.  Later, Peggy makes the right decision in turning Joan’s offer of a partnership down, showing the first signs of knowing herself well enough to remain true to her dream of becoming a creative director.   That same sense of self-awareness allows her to realize later that she’s in love with Stan.

These are all characters learning about themselves– their limits, their foibles, but more importantly, what it will take to gain some kind of fulfillment out of their lives.   Whether it’s reconciling with your ex-wife in Pete’s case or journeying across the country and into the heart of New Age narcissism to rediscover your inner ad man, as in the case of the prodigal Don Draper, seeking happiness is a legitimate human condition.

For a hot moment toward the end of the episode and the series, I thought Don might be heading for a new career as a self-help guru, and I started to panic.   When he hugged Leonard, the sad sack of a guy who tearily confessed to considering himself an invisible man (Evan Arnold, hitting the character actor mother lode by taking on one of more high-risk and unexpected cameos in recent memory), it looked like Don was going to never leave the hippie grifters who “niece” Stephanie had bequeathed to him.

But Matt Weiner had one move left up his sleeve. As Don sits yoga-style, with a beatific smile spreading across his face, the screen dissolves to one of the most famous (and annoying) minutes in the history of advertising—the “I’d like to give the world a Coke” ad, featuring a group of shining, happy faces who for all the world look like the members of the Esalen-like enclave that Don has fallen in with.   And leaving no mistake that, for whatever revelations Don found in the hills overlooking Carmel, at the end of the day (and the series), he’s still an advertising man, putting his life experience through his mix-master of creativity in the service of Madison Avenue.   Maybe that’s what you get when you strip Dick/Don clean away—a Mad Man at the core.   Hippie culture translated into Madison Avenue gold—a somewhat cynical but perfectly fitting coda to the seminal series.

Why Weiner chose to have the pivotal scene focus on a new character, and one as anonymous as Leonard (both in fiction and reality) is somewhat of a mystery.   Perhaps at this point Draper/Whitman is as anonymous, and as atomized and lonely, as Leonard is. And perhaps Draper/Whitman was just waiting for a vehicle for his catharsis to come along, and this was as good as it was going to get.

The episode is called “Person to Person”, and an argument can be made that the most compelling scenes in the hour were the three person-to- person calls Don makes to the three women who are the only sources of continuity in his life. There’s his first wife, who he now affectionately calls “Birdie” while he has what he knows is going to be his last conversation with her (January Jones’ brilliance as Betty over these final episodes has had to have made at least some converts of those who have been critical of the beautiful actress’ acting chops).

That conversation is right after Sally spills the beans about Betty’s illness, in yet another great scene from Kiernan Shipka, looking older and more mature by the episode, as she takes on the adult role in her conversation with her father.   As she demands to be taken seriously by her wayward dad, we can sense her assertion of authority and the likelihood of her becoming a surrogate mom to her two younger brothers.

The best phone call is the last, and it’s what we’ve waited for—Don reminding himself of his unbreakable bond with Peggy, whom he calls in the depths of his despondency, and to whom he desperately wants to confess.   Don says to Peggy that he’s not the man who she thinks he is, but we know better, and so does she—Peggy knows exactly who he is, warts and all.   But he has believed in her for all these years, and she tries to pay it forward now, the voice of reason and calm, urging him to get his act together and come back to New York.   When he says goodbye, we think it’s for good. But then, there’s the Coke ad, and we know that at some point, Don and Peggy have reunited.   That would have happened in Season Eight.

Final episodes are tricky things.   Viewers want catharsis, but they often get ambiguity.   When shows are wrapped up neatly, like Breaking Bad, there’s a sense of closure, but it can feel too pat and predictable, as it did with the death of Walter White.   The Sopranos ending took ambiguity to the limit, as people still debate today what the meaning of the final, abrupt cut to black.   The best thing you can say about the Mad Men wrap is that it was appropriate, and in character for the series. Not really an end but perhaps a new beginning, at least for Don, in a new and perhaps wiser (but still jaded) incarnation.   And perhaps that’s enough.   Whether or not it is, it’s going to have to be.     As we leave our favorite characters, let me invoke what Marie Calvet Sterling might have said at this point—“bon chance, mon amies.”   Good luck to all.

Submitted by:

 

 

Harlan R. Teller

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All Roads Lead to Kansas in Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Thirteen

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Don Draper could have been the creative director on the Coca Cola account on Madison Avenue, but instead opts to help fix a Coke machine in the middle of Kansas as a way of passing time on the way to nowhere in this strange, disjointed and ultimately heartbreaking penultimate episode.     When he gives up his Cadillac to a young, Draper-like grifter—the totemic American luxury car that had once upon a time demonstrated that he had “arrived” as a hotshot ad man—it appears that he’s shedding all of his worldly possessions like a snake shedding his skin.

We leave Don sitting at a bus stop with a Sears plastic bag filled with clothing, with nowhere left to go and no one waiting for him. It seems clear that McCann has already given up on him—Pete assumes that Duck Phillips is coming over to McCann to take on the search for Don’s replacement.   Don uncharacteristically passes up a chance to hit on an impossibly good looking woman sunning herself at the rustic motel he’s staying at, leaving us with two questions: how did a woman like that end up in a place like this, and who is this Don Draper of whom we speak?   Another question might be, how did he cram into that bag a perfectly tailored, impeccably ironed and pressed sports jacket?   The unanswered questions are piling up like flotsam, and there’s only an hour left for any answers.     My prognosis is that very few are forthcoming.

Meanwhile, for Pete, Kansas is a destination, not another stop along the Kerouac road.     Doing the sales pitch of his life (after a half-in-the-bag Duck does a sales pitch on him to accept a corporate job with Lear Jet), he sells his estranged wife Trudy on the joys of life in Wichita and she accepts his proposal.   Thus the first married couple of the show gets back together on the second to last episode of the series run, and it feels right—although it’s hard to see how a couple of dyed-in-the- wool East Coast preppies will be able to cope with the heartland of America.   (I can see the spinoff series now, called “The Campbells”, about how Pete and Trudy try to bring civilization to Kansas while finding fresh arugula, a decent private school for Tammy and some fellow Scots descendants without the surname MacDonald).

But the saddest, loneliest destination belongs to Betty, the character that has perhaps displayed the least amount of emotional depth. She meets her death sentence with a sense of grace and selflessness that perhaps underscores how little we knew about her.   My wife and I thought for sure that the surprise was that she was pregnant, and the actual diagnosis (revealed in a dialogue between the doctor and stricken husband Henry, talking about Betty like she wasn’t in the room) brings a finality to this character that we’re not likely to see with the others.

Reactions to an impending death are always instructive. In this case, Henry’s behavior is the most problematic.   His plea to Sally to talk sense to her mother, followed quickly by a emotional breakdown that puts the confused young woman into the position of consoling him rather than the other way around, is a case study in selfishness—no matter how heartfelt or well-intentioned.   Sally finds some needed maturity, as she immediately settles in to the role of surrogate mother at the dinner table after her mother in a fit of petulance storms out of the kitchen.

While my prediction that we saw the end of Don last week was off-base, it may be true that we have seen the last of him interacting with the other major characters.   As Bert Cooper’s ghost said last night, Don likes to play the role of “stranger”, and perhaps he becomes a Dr. Richard Kimble without the cops out looking for him; someone who passes through towns, gives a bit of himself to the locals, performs feats of heroism like reviving an old Coke machine and giving some hard-won wisdom (and a luxury set of wheels) to a young would-be Don, and then heads off into the sunset. Or toward the bus stop.

Again, I don’t see any big reveal in the last episode, only the quiet, intense moments we’ve come to expect from Mad Men.   We all want some kind of emotional release that would come with Don confronting one more time the two women in his life that he may truly love, Sally and Peggy, but don’t be surprised if he’s just hanging out at another bus stop while life goes on as the screen fades to black.   Or, perhaps he ends up sitting down on the plane he’s about to hijack, per some aficionados of the “DB Cooper” theory of Don’s identity.

And perhaps some more jarring notes, like the elderly veterans beating up on a groggy Draper when they think he’s robbed them of their five hundred dollars. Showing up at that VFW event was always a calculated risk for a man who is an impostor, who at any time could run into another veteran who knows he’s a phony.   That’s why the scene between Don and the Korean veteran had such resonance; Don acts like an escaped convict in his reluctance to show his face.   He’s so guilty for what he’s done that he assumes that anyone will know who he really is at a glance.   It was good that the man didn’t recognize him; that would have been perhaps too pat a plotline. What was somewhat surprising—and poignant—was the vets’ reaction to Don’s reveal about killing his CO.   They get it—you do what you have to do to come home, whether it’s killing a nest of unprotected German soldiers or taking on the identity of a dead comrade.     Don seemed to find some solace in that reaction, although it was quickly blunted by the vets’ untimely nocturnal visit to his hotel room shortly thereafter.

The vets seemed to get the memo—this entire set of episodes has been open season on Don Draper.   That he is still standing, or at least sitting at a bus stop, is a testament to his survival instincts.   And after seven seasons, ten historical years , at least two identities, three incarnations of Sterling Cooper, two marriages, three children and countless affairs, that may be the punchline, the falling man in the credits notwithstanding.   Don Draper survives.

Submitted by:

Harlan R. Teller

Can You Hear Me, Major Don? Horizons Lost and Found on Mad Men Season Seven, Episode Twelve

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Well, it looks like Don and Joan aren’t going to have that lunch the two of them promised each other when getting off the elevator at their new home in McCann Erickson heaven.   Joan is walking away from McCann with a quarter million dollars and permanent disdain for her one-time lover (and father of her child) Roger Sterling, who counsels her to take Jim Hobart’s offer of emancipation from the mega-ad firm despite the satisfying prospect of taking McCann to court on the basis of a flagrant (and very winnable) case of sexual harassment.

Meanwhile, Don leaves a meeting of a gaggle of the most uncreative looking creative directors ever assembled in one room, who have been summoned to a research meeting involving what will evidently become the new brand Miller Lite.  Accompanied by the ghost of Bert Cooper, who tries to counsel him otherwise, Don doesn’t stop running until he gets to Racine, Wisconsin, desperately seeking Diana, the one woman who he thinks he can save—and in the process be saved himself.   Cooper’s ghost essentially tells Don it’s a fool’s errand, but he leaves Don to find that out for himself.

When Joan leaves her office for good, we assume she’s heading back to her real estate magnate boyfriend and ultimately to a life on the West Coast, as far away from Ferg Connolly and Jim Hobart as she can get.  Meanwhile, his scam detected by Diana’s suspicious ex-husband, Don heads out of town and toward parts unknown, which becomes Minneapolis-St. Paul when he picks up a hitchhiker headed in that direction.   As Don’s latest Cadillac heads north down the highway with David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” coming up in the background, we’re left to wonder whether this is it, and we are leaving Don to figure out the rest of his life.  Like Major Tom, perhaps Don is destined to wander high above the earth, hurtling aimlessly among the stars while losing contact with all of those he has loved and lost.

In viewing the infuriating riddle otherwise known as Mad Men “coming attractions”, it’s notable that there’s no sign of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) to be found.  If this was Draper’s (and by extension, Hamm’s) swan song, we need to pause briefly to commemorate one of the most complex, nuanced and intriguing– and underappreciated– dramatic performances during this second golden age of television.

To say that Jon Hamm has inhabited this character and made it his own is to understate the obvious.   The Racine scenes are indicative of the remarkable range of this actor and the psychic territory he can traverse.   It is symbolic that once again, Don is impersonating someone else, this time the condescending researcher who was giving the Miller briefing the previous day.  Draper assumes that this midwestern family will fall for his line of BS about Diana Bauer winning a competition for a new refrigerator loaded with Miller beers– echoing the condescension that the researcher demonstrated toward the beer drinking rubes in “flyover country”.

While the new wife seems to fall for the bait, Don quickly shifts gears when Diana’s ex-husband sees through the ruse; he shifts gears to become an officious bill collector seeking his deadbeat prey.  By the time he reaches the door of his Cadillac, he has dropped his façade and looks defeated, without the heart to stand up to the abuse heaped on him by the ex-husband. It’s a virtuoso five minutes and performed so seamlessly that you barely detect the artifice behind the performance.

It would be highly unorthodox for the lead character not to be involved until the very end of a series, while going out in such a seemingly abrupt and perfunctory manner.   But for Mad Men, I don’t believe there’s not going to be any big reveal or major emotional catharsis.   Maybe just driving away, followed by a fade to black with David Bowie in the background, is an appropriate way to say goodbye to its compelling and iconic lead character.

The episode is called “Lost Horizon”, but it could have more likely been called “Narrowing Horizons”, as the partners spend most of their time figuring out how to deal with their servitude to their new corporate masters.   Ted Chaough seems perfectly comfortable being a cog on a creative assembly line. Joan is being marginalized and made to feel unwelcome at best and the object of sexual predation at worst.   Don sees his world narrowing, not widening, and the people in his life continuing to pull away, or even worse, becoming indifferent.  There was a time when a Draper shoulder massage would do more than just elicit a fraternal pat on the hand from his ex-wife, but that’s what Betty does when he tries to comfort her after a day of lugging textbooks around campus.   I’m sure Freud, who Betty was reading at the time, would have a name for that.   Sally is more than indifferent; she doesn’t even wait for her father to come around to pick her up and take her to school.

The biggest surprise of the episode comes from the unlikely pairing of Roger and Peggy, the last two people standing in the Time Life Building– Roger delaying the inevitable and Peggy waiting it out until McCann has a suitable office for her.   The scene between Roger and Peggy is a bit of shocker, first, because they’ve rarely shared screen time during the entire series, and second, because it’s Roger and not Don who shares this defining moment with Peggy. Matt Weiner has chosen to keep Don and Peggy apart for the entire half-season, as their separation throws into sharp relief g the “A Star is Born” trajectories that the two seem to be taking.  Don is heading downward– or northward, as the case may be– but Peggy continues her confident build toward agency stardom.  She sees McCann as an opportunity to take one more step up the ladder, and her banter with Roger as they both get half in the bag on vermouth (featuring a surreal vision of Peggy roller skating while Roger plays organ) seems to make her bolder and more sure of herself.

Peggy arrives at McCann at roughly the same time that Joan takes her leave, and she does it with a level of panache that demonstrates how far she has come.   There’s Peggy strutting down the hallway at McCann, wearing sunglasses and a cigarette dangling from her lips, demonstrating an attitude that oozes with sass and confidence. Armed with Bert Cooper’s obscene octopus painting—a parting gift from a nostalgic Roger—she heads toward her new agency home.  She has morphed into a female Draper, reminiscent of her mentor’s strut and too-cool-for-school style.

Ironically, she’s the one who took Don’s advice in Season Two to “move forward” after giving birth, while he’s stuck in the past and adrift in parts unknown.   Peggy’s metamorphosis is a hopeful end to what has been a sad, elegiac hour of farewells.   For now, my money is on Peggy emerging as the only clear-cut winner of the Mad Men crew.   While other horizons may be lost, hers may have been found.

There’s a Coke but no Smile in Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Eleven

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The five surviving SCP partners finally got a glimpse of their future, and the only one who seems intrigued by it is Ted Chaough, who lands the global pharmaceutical account he lusted after in last week’s episode (“The Forecast”).

The partners find out that SCP’s life as a conflict agency—and the firm Ken Cosgrove loves to yank around—is about to come to an end, as McCann CEO Jim Hobart reveals that they’ve been auditioning to become senior-level cogs in the McCann global account machine.

That means that the slick-on-the-verge-of-oily Hobart has finally gotten the fish he tried to hook back in Season One, when the world was much younger, Betty Draper was trying to revive her modeling career and Don Draper was still bringing some real heat on his creative fastball.   Betty’s brief re-emergence as a model came to an end when Don turned Hobart and McCann down, and the spurned Hobart fired her from a commercial shoot.   But more than ten years later, Draper has been bought lock, stock and barrel, and he’s powerless to stop Hobart from bringing him into the fold.   The McCann CEO’s lure for Don is the Coca Cola account, which he pronounces as if it were a holy sacrament.   Don may find Coke at least a bit intriguing, but he’s not smiling.    In fact, in the next scene, in a familiar position (e.g, prone on his office sofa), he’s scheming.

The rally of his fellow partners that Don initiates in a vain attempt to keep SCP out from under the thumb of McCann is a pale imitation of past efforts—in particular the audacious, daring and ultimately successful gambit to win their freedom from Putnam, Powell and Lowe.   This time, Don isn’t scheming for his freedom and to run his own show and call his own shots; he’s just trying to keep the SCP nameplate on the door, which is pretty small beer in comparison to the high stakes he played for in the past.

We’re ready as usual for Don to wind-up into presentation mode and intrigued with what he’s come up with to persuade his corporate parents to let SCP emigrate to the West Coast.   But in mid-pitch, Hobart calls him off. There will be no “Carousel” pitch that awes agency and client folk alike, no new tagline thought of on the fly to revive a cigarette brand, or even a Hershey pitch that for sheer shock value, was worth witnessing.   Don is simply asked to sit back down, while Jim Hobart tells him and his partners how it’s going to be.   An advertising dowry of $18 million in billings means literally nothing to McCann—they bill that as an agency before lunch.

Here we have the final reckoning and acknowledgement of what SCP really is—a mid-tier advertising agency that services second-tier brands, albeit very well and with an upstart type of panache, but in a pre-Internet age simply doesn’t have the critical mass or market muscle to do much more than take what the big firms may not even care about.   Think of the client roster- Frontier Airlines, not United or American; Topaz, not L’eggs; Secor Laxatives, not Ex-Lax.     The firm’s one dalliance with a major consumer company, General Motors, netted no major car brand and lost Ken Cosgrove one of his eyes in the process.   It also created the monstrous mystery that was and is Bob Benson.   It’s clear that Hobart was buying talent, not an agency or even the agency’s clients.   And now, it’s time to collect.

While this episode focused on the agency’s future, there were two intertwined personal subplots with great resonance. One was Peggy’s admission to Stan that she had given birth a boy years before, and the other being Pete’s alliance with Trudy over their daughter’s rejection at a posh private school attended by generations of Campbells.

The Peggy-Stan relationship continues to intrigue, and is now as close to a mature male-female friendship that the show has to offer.   The impetus for Peggy’s confession is the neglectful behavior of a stage mother, who has left her daughter at the agency for the day on an audition, without much thought about when she would pick her up to take her home. Peggy’s disgusted by her carelessness, but when Stan expresses his doubts about her suitability for motherhood, Peggy comes to her defense, putting herself in her shoes and demonstrating empathy for her plight.   Stan’s surprise is nothing compared to the shock he experiences a few minutes later when Peggy reveals her secret.

Meanwhile, Pete and Trudy commiserate with each other after being unsuccessful with the school headmaster in changing the verdict on daughter Tammy, who evidently has rejected the Campbell daughter because of some centuries-old blood feud between his family—the MacDonald’s—and the Campbell’s.     It’s a  descent into a bit of farce for a show that doesn’t tend to engage in much of it, and it just seemed a bit forced–it served primarily as an excuse for Pete to once again take a punch at someone and for Trudy to come to his defense.   After that episode, the estranged couple seem to remember what it was that brought them together in the first place. If there are two people who appear to be made for each other in the series, it is Pete and Trudy.   Both are seemingly out of options and perhaps the best choice they can make at this point is each other.

The most stunning moment of the show is in the final scene, when we witness just how far Don has fallen in the eyes of those who may not have liked him, but were always a bit awestruck by his talent, charisma and good looks.   As Don tries to rescue a flailing Roger during the all-hands meeting to announce SCP’s integration into the parent company, people simply tune him out and walk away.   Like Jim Hobart, the bemused employees of SCP are not going to let Don swing into his pitch.   The world around him has been inoculated against Don Draper’s powers of persuasion.   There’s only three episodes left for him to find the antidote.

Submitted by:

 

 

Harlan R. Teller