Sweater Manifesto

A blog about American zeitgeist and other things.

Category: Miscellany

Still in Mourning for Mad Man? Try Bingeing on “Banshee”

 

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A man with an appropriated identity.   An existential contemplation of what it is to be human—and whether we can change what’s in our stars and become different people, or if the past is destined to be prologue.   Strong women whose substance and magnetism sometimes overpower the men, including in their ranks a supporting female character that is the beating heart and soul of the series.   A darkly handsome, baritone-voiced, thirty something journeyman actor who creates an iconic character in a star-making role.

Sounds suspiciously like the justly-celebrated, ground breaking AMC series, “Mad Men”, and it might have been, if Don Draper was transported to the present day in Pennsylvania Dutch country as an ex-con jewel thief with a knack for a fight and putting people he loves in physical, not just psychological, danger.   Add to it his trading in his tailored Brooks Brothers suits and cigarettes for a sheriff’s uniform, badge and an arsenal of weapons, and you might have the Cinemax hit series “Banshee”, which returns for its fourth and final season on the testosterone-laced cable network on January 29.

At first glance, Banshee could be construed as yet another kinetically-driven action series, featuring morally compromised criminals operating in a state of nature with a distinct lack of resident law enforcement, particularly during enough balletic scenes of violence so as to make famed action director John Woo swoon with envy.   And, on one level, it certainly is that. Just like “Sons of Anarchy” in that sense, without the Shakespearean overtones, but rather with quiet Amish folk in the background who operate at the margins and provide a stark contrast to the action taking place in the foreground.

But Banshee, like “Mad Men”,  is up to something that’s richer and more complex, which became particularly apparent in the second season, when the series takes the time necessary to fully develop the central character, the enigmatic Sheriff Lucas Hood, played with a world-weary, charismatic lethality by 40-year old New Zealand native Antony Starr.   Like Hamm’s portrayal of the iconic Don Draper, Starr crafts an indelible portrayal of a man trying desperately to create a new identity while shaking off his past, with the latter unfortunately sticking like particularly stubborn lint to his creased olive drab khaki pants. While Draper causes psychic damage, getting too close to the simmeringly violent Hood is a real health hazard for friend, lover or foe.

The Starr character comes to Banshee to reclaim his lost love after going to jail for 15 years to ensure her safety. She’s the lithe, seductive and self-possessed daughter of a Russian mobster (the latter played with almost regretful yet delicious malevolence by veteran actor Ben Cross).   The object of Hood’s affection has changed her name to Carrie Hopewell (spoiler alert—not much hope to be found there, at least for the first three seasons) and is played with a sense of dangerous grace by the formidable Croatian American actress Ivana Milicevic.   She wants no part of a reunion—he with a new identity after a shoot out fells the real Sheriff Hood, who comes to town only to be cut down by henchmen of the town sociopath Kai Proctor (played with complex, understated and tortured menace by Dutch actor Ulrich Thomsen) before reporting for duty, and she living an ordinary life as a district attorney’s wife with two kids in tow.   While Lucas and Carrie are in and out of each other’s orbits for much of the series, the amount of collateral damage they wreak is enough to populate the body count of several small wars.

It would make my head hurt to try to cycle through all of the twists and turns of plot over the first three exhilarating and addictive “Banshee” seasons.   Plus, I’d like you to check it out and let me know if you think I’m crazy for falling for this show the way I have.   But this is literate, well-crafted, albeit unbelievably bloody and violent entertainment, and you’ll quickly figure out why I arose from my blog-writing torpor to write about this show.

What motivated me in particular to get behind the computer was the sixth episode of Season Three, entitled “We were all Someone Else Yesterday”, an exercise in wish fulfillment that rivals Don Draper’s revisionist Thanksgiving at the end of Mad Men’s brilliant season one.

The episode is essentially “It’s a Wonderful Life”, Banshee-style, where the fake Sheriff Hood fantasizes about what life would have been like had the real sheriff lived and the fake one had simply left town in a convertible with his brilliant transvestite friend Job (a magnetically articulate Hoon Lee), rather than stayed to reclaim his lost love.   Like Mad Men, Banshee’s best moments are memorable set pieces that sear the brain and batter the soul.   Watch the last three poignant, unutterably sad minutes of this episode (which I will not mar by spoiling the plot), and I dare you to not end the hour crumpled in the corner in a fetal position while dampened in a puddle of your own tears.

I played that black and white dream sequence over and over, just to indulge my emotions while marveling at the economy with which Starr delivers an honest and conflicting set of emotions across his battered yet attractive face.   It’s a marvelous, minimalist piece of acting that intimates his rueful understanding of his real circumstances with such ambiguity that you are left wondering whether his character in this fantasy sequence is living in that moment, or whether he understands and acknowledges his true fate and is sadly consigned to it.   Or, perhaps a third scenario– that he is projecting what life might be like if he just stayed around a while to see what might unfold.

It’s also refreshing to see a show runner with enough integrity to know when the string is running out.   Series creator, Jonathan Tropper, is calling it quits after the eight-episode fourth season, despite stellar ratings and the loud, anguished protests from Banshee Nation.   Given that it is Cinemax’s highest rated original show, Banshee could have gone on to at least a season five.   But Tropper believes the show is close to being played out, and he has plans for an insane finale that I’m sure will pack an emotional wallop and leave Banshee fans wishing for more (unlike, for example, “Dexter” fans, who, if they’re honest, know that the once fine Michael C. Hall vehicle survived at least three seasons past its sell date).

Matt Servitto, the witty character actor best known as FBI Agent Harris on the seminal HBO series “The Sopranos”, said in a recent interview that “Banshee” had its “jump the shark” moment in the first episode of the series when it asks viewers to suspend their disbelief about the very premise of the show, so the rest of the run has been gravy to him.   It is true that his character, Deputy Sheriff Brock Lotus, and his fellow Bansheeans seem unusually incurious about the new sheriff’s antecedents. And, evidently, social media sites must be blocked, at least within the city limits.   In an era of Facebook and Snapchat, it’s hard to believe that at least the FBI agents swarming around town as the bodies pile up wouldn’t be able to figure out that Sheriff Lucas Hood is a lot of things, but he’s not really Sheriff Lucas Hood.

But Sheriff’s Hood’s deputies, including Servitto and the compelling Trieste Kelly Dunn, who plays Siobhan Kelly, the woman who first wins Hood’s admiration and ultimately his bruised and heavy heart, seem for the most part happy to have the guy around.   Particularly given his obsession with bringing the dangerously amoral Proctor to justice, which is something the small yet tough as nails Sheriff’s department appreciates in their sheriff.     They and Banshee viewers have willfully and greedily suspended their disbelief for three wild seasons.   So will you.   Buckle up and binge—you won’t regret it.

 

Harlan R. Teller

 

 

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

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

 

The Forecast for Don: Bleak and Getting Bleaker in Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Ten

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“Mad Men” has always been marinated in the past—the raw wounds of nostalgia, betrayal and the cumulative lives of each character living ghostlike alongside the present. So, it’s no surprise that it’s main character, Don Draper, has such difficulty finding something to say about the future.

That’s what he’s tasked with doing by Roger Sterling, one character who lives totally in the present and who is being asked to address the future at a McCann Erickson management meeting in the Bahamas.   Don spends most of the episode trying to borrow future visions from his coworkers and ultimately his sardonic daughter, Sally.   When asked what she wants to do in the future, she demonstrates that she’s a Draper by answering “to have dinner”.   Of course that rejoinder happens after she has been sitting for too long at a restaurant, while having to watch one of her teenage friends flirt with her father.   Don’s response to the youngster is just ambiguous enough to recall for the troubled younger Draper her father’s flagrant indiscretions.

In fact, the future is such a conundrum for both Don and Betty Draper, because the past is always staring them in the face.   In Betty’s case, it’s in the form of the lean, mean (and still strangely creepy) Glen Bishop (Marten Weiner, still in need of acting lessons), who saunters back into her life only to announce that he’s joining the army.   The furious Sally (the remarkable Kiernan Shipka), considering his decision a betrayal, storms away from him as she contemplates the termination of perhaps the most durable relationship of her young life.

January Jones as Betty may do her best work in this episode, as her moments alone with Glen betray a jumble of emotions, as she copes with her own sadness and sense of foreboding for the young man (not to mention a moment of terror as she contemplates the possibility that he enlisted as a means of impressing her). At the same time, she evinces a vague attraction to him that is certainly a shade more than maternal.   When she raises Glen’s hand to her cheek prior to his leaving for the last time, you literally don’t know what she’s contemplating or where the scene is leading. It’s a tender, nuanced and a bit cringe-inducing moment from a main character that has been pushed largely to the side, and it demonstrates that while Don and Betty’s relationship is long over, they still have more in common than meets the eye.

Most of the rest of the episode involves Don taking abuse from all quarters, as this entire semi-season could be rebranded “Piling On…with Don Draper.”   He turns Peggy’s request for a performance evaluation (one that Ted can’t bring himself to give) into an annoying, bantering duel about what she wants out of life.   When Don challenges her aspirations, she storms out, telling him that she’s hoping to be in a position one day to “s-t on all of your dreams” (the irony here is that he has none).   Don’s moral authority has eroded to such an extreme degree that he’s even taking abuse from the young copywriter who is arguably the most obnoxious character in the show’s entire run. That scene is a foreshadowing of the later encounter between Don and Sally, when Sally expresses her justifiable contempt for both of her parents, and Don’s only rejoinder is to remind her that he’s her father (and that she’s more like him than she’s willing to admit).   Cold comfort for Sally, who has seen enough strange parental behavior in her short time on earth to merit a do-over.

Even Don’s realtor gets in on the act, telling him what a challenge she’s going to have in trying to sell his apartment, given the palpable aura of sadness and failure in each room.   When someone can walk into the Draper abode and actually feel the bad vibration of a failed relationship, you know the owner is headed for trouble (and perhaps a low-ball offer).   And that’s the problem with Don’s contemplation of the future—he has to live off the visions of others, because for him, the future is just more of the same.

At the end of the last show, he’s faced with the desolation of a cleaned-out home.     In this one, he’s literally locked out of that home and his past life by the realtor, who against all odds has found a buyer.   He’s again on the outside looking around, trying to figure out his next move, with no place to go, and no one left to talk to about what the future holds.   It’s a haunting scene.   You kind of expect at the end of the next episode he’ll be out on the street, looking up at the building.   And, then ultimately, out of the frame altogether.

One person with potentially a more hopeful future is Joan, who finds more than she bargained for during a business trip to Los Angeles, where we are a bit surprised to find that our favorite cartoon strip creator, Lou Avery, still has a job.   Joan finds perhaps the one person in the entire cast who has a firm idea of what he wants out of the future—a West Coast real estate mogul (played by the durable Bruce Greenwood) with a penchant for bad looking leisure suits (was there any other kind?) who envisions a life of travel and recreation and is looking for someone who shares his vision.   When Joanie admits she’s got a son, it’s too much to absorb and he drives her away from him. By the end of the episode, he’s reconsidering, and we’re left to wonder whether he’ll stay or Joan will chase him away.   The answer to that, of course, is in the future.

Submitted by Harlan R. Teller

Editor’s Note: The most disappointing and underwritten role of this truncated season is that of Ted Chaough, who has come back from the West Coast essentially a shadow of his former self.   He was heartsick for Peggy and ready to leave the ad business, and now all he wants in his future is a large pharmaceutical account.     Who is this guy?   And will there be any closing of the loop between he and Peggy, other than his refusal to do her performance evaluation?   The only thing that stands out about Ted in these episodes is his mustache, as well as his strange passivity in Don’s presence.   There’s got to be more to Ted than this after all this time.     Kevin Rahm does what he can with the character, but he’s not getting much to work with.

The Lives of Others Dominate Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Nine

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It doesn’t seem so long ago that Don Draper was the central character and driving force behind everything that happened on “Mad Men.”   While Jon Hamm as Draper still soaks up the most camera time in this final season, the Draper character has become a strange cameo player who passes through the lives of others.

He’s almost an accidental tourist who has come back to survey the wreckage he has wrought on those lives, in this case most particularly and painfully with his second wife Megan, who left a promising soap opera career in New York for a life with the damaged Draper in Los Angeles that never happens.   In the ironically titled “New Business” (really more about old and unfinished business than anything new), Don is seeking redemption through a relationship with the waitress Diana, a damaged amalgam of every brunette that Don has tried to love, which is doomed to extinction like all the others.   Diana has a secret that is as tragic and buried as the former Dick Whitman, and when she reveals it, Don first tries to comfort her and be there for her, as if this latest attempt at salvation will be the one that sticks.   But in an odd and poignant scene (with the fine Elizabeth Reaser as Diana), Draper passively gives up the ghost and passes out of her life, as he has with others so many times before.

As in “Severance”, Don again plays voyeur, as we see him ruefully viewing the road not taken in the Francis family tableau at the beginning of the episode, and later experiencing the rage, contempt and hurt of his second estranged wife as they seek an ending to their marriage.     Money can’t buy love, but a million dollar check (made out to Megan by her wayward soon-to-be ex-husband) seems to have a palliative effect.   Don is out of excuses for his behavior and doesn’t even have the heart to defend himself against Megan.     Her observation of him as an aging, boozy creep goes unanswered, other than by halfhearted “I’m sorry”.   In between, Don has a glimpse of Sylvia and Dr. Rosen, still together, with her clearly contemptuous of Don and him blissfully ignorant of what when on right under his nose and in his bed.

These are all women—Betty, Megan and Sylvia—whose lives have been breached by the inconstant Draper, with the common denominator being that they’re all better off without him. And, in a visceral way, he knows that. Which is perhaps why after desperately seeking Diana, he gives up on her without a fight. He knows at the end, he’ll betray and disappoint her, adding to the ache of the old wound she carries.   So the relationship (at least seemingly) ends, with a whimper and not a bang.

The episode ends with some heavy symbolism—Don, having been cleaned out of Diana’s life, comes home to find his own bachelor pad cleaned out as well, through the machinations of the furious Marie (Julia Ormond, again in great form), who steals everything with the exception of the kitchen sink in revenge for her daughter’s blasted life.   She’s aided and abetted in this bit of thievery by the ever-malleable Roger, who trades the money she needs to pay off the movers for a last tango in Don’s crib his French Canadien amour.   The last shot is of a surprised but resigned Draper, surveying not wreckage but desolation as he wanders through the empty canyon of his once furnished home.

The episode also features a curious side plot involving Peggy and Stan, and a bi-sexual poseur/con artist photographer (played by the seldom-seen Mimi Rogers, never better, by a long shot) who comes into their lives looking to triangulate them.   This is part of the Continuing Education of Peggy Olson, as Peggy begins as an admirer of the older woman, ultimately disillusioned by the woman’s manipulative behavior.   The Stan/Peggy relationship continues to be multilayered and complex, with Stan being one of the series’ marginal characters that has been given 3D treatment as the show has evolved.     These are two mature adults with complicated feelings about each other, both professional and personal, and the Rogers character is there as a catalyst to draw them out further.   It will be interesting to see where their arc ends.

Harlan R. Teller

Editor”s note: Is any one besides me interested to see how Betty Francis’ patients fare under her ministrations?   While it may be true that people like to talk to her, it’s a bit of a stretch to go from there to assuming she’ll be a good therapist.   Betty’s intention to go for a Master’s in psychology recalls her own time on the couch with the taciturn and sexist therapist from the first season.   Still, it strikes me that saying that you want to be a therapist because people like talking to you is a bit like wanting to go into public relations because you like people, or enjoy going to lunch.   Betty’s quick banter with Don is a brief light interlude in a series that is heading for its own heart of darkness.

Is That All There Is? Money Can’t Buy Love in “Mad Men”, Season Seven, Episode Eight

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The first of the last seven episodes of Mad Men begins with a beautiful woman in a mink, looking like veteran ad man Don Draper is seducing her. In reality, she’s auditioning for a Wilkinson razor blade commercial, and Draper is coaxing a performance out of her while his rapt co-workers look on.   The episode ends with Draper, jolted out of his sex and alcohol-fueled torpor, sitting quietly and solemnly at the counter of a diner that looks like it’s right out of a dystopian Edward Hopper painting.

The contrast couldn’t be more telling—our protagonists, flush with McCann Erickson cash, can buy whatever they want, but love and contentment is still elusive.   Draper obviously didn’t take to heart Bert Cooper’s final song and dance, to the tune of “The Best Things in Life are Free”.   When it comes to Bert’s advice, Don’s not buying.   Which is what seemingly leads Don to double down on his libertine lifestyle, even employing a Richard Diamond-style receptionist to take messages for him, largely from beautiful women bearing red wine bottles in the middle of the night (one of which leaks in a blood-like pool all over Draper’s bedroom rug).

It’s a sad group, strangely disconnected from each other and increasingly bored with the business and their lives.   Other than the sex- and alcohol-medicated Draper, perhaps the saddest case is Joan Holloway, now a full-fledged client services professional and really good at it.   However, she still at the core is wracked by doubt about how she made partner and became a millionaire, and her insecurities are revived by three boorish McCann bozos that spend much of a meeting with her making innuendos about her physical presence (an over-the-top scene whose lack of subtlety in its presentation of an almost cartoonish chauvinism was one of the episode’s false notes).   Joan’s form of self-medication is to go on a clothes buying binge at the department store she once worked at, and even that stung, as the sales person remembered her and thought she’d appreciate a price break.

The emotional core of this disturbing and somewhat uneven contribution to the Mad Men oeuvre is the death of Rachel Menken Katz, the department store heiress who was perhaps the one woman in Don’s life other than Anna that he may have truly loved.   He has his assistant reach out to her to help a client, and finds out that she left the department store awhile back and shortly thereafter passed away.   Don’s reaction to the news—sorrow, longing, regret, befuddlement—harkens back to the series’ legendary scene in the first season, when Don uses the emotion of nostalgia (a “dull ache”) to sell Kodak execs on his approach to marketing Carousel projectors.  (It’s no surprise that the best promo for this season featured Don’s voice over from this iconic performance).

Rachel comes to Don in a dream, in much the same way that Anna comes to him, both already dead and reaching out to the emotionally damaged Draper.   (Rule of thumb for Mad Men—if Don dreams about a woman, hopefully her life insurance has been paid up).     Rachel comes to Don as another ingénue, auditioning for the Wilkinson commercial in a chinchilla that slides suggestively down her shoulder.   (Kudos to Matt Weiner for having the beguiling Maggie Siff reprise her role as Rachel in a breathtaking two-minute star turn).

Don attends the shiva to pay his respects, and confronts Rachel’s sister (the estimable Rebecca Creskoff), who is clearly not happy that he showed up, having years ago tried to talk Rachel out of seeing him.   It’s a heartbreaking scene that emphasizes the otherness of the rootless Draper.   He has no past, no family and no ties to anything that would provide a sense of community.   He’s even rejected as a kaddish participant since he’s not Jewish and he just fades away.

Don’s ennui and Joan’s discontent is mirrored by the other SCP principals—Pete, wearing pinstripes again after coming back East, complaining to Ken Cosgrove about how ephemeral the ad business is; Roger wearing a ridiculous white mustache that makes him look ten years older while trying to act twenty years younger; Ted, back from the West Coast, after gaining a mustache and evidently losing his family, a seeming shadow of the hotly competitive dynamo he used to be.   This is not a fun group.   You’re thinking that at some point they might all sing in unison the haunting refrain from the Peggy Lee song that frames the episode, “is that all there is?”

The only real winner of the night was Ken, who is axed from McCann by a vengeful senior manager, only to come back to the office as a client, having been hired as ad manager at Dow Chemical in the wake of his father-in-law’s retirement.   (One of those scenes that rings most true and demonstrates that Weiner has had some real help from some agency veterans—Roger and Pete are more alarmed about Ken keeping them on as his agency than they are about the prospect of his firing them.)   It’s Ken’s story line that gives the show its name, “Severance”, but there seems to be a severing of relationships across the Mad Men landscape. And, there’s a further severing of the past, in the wake of Rachel Menken’s untimely and tragic death.

Maybe Peggy gets to share honors with Ken, as she has a great first date with the brother-in-law of one of the copywriters, keeping her ego in check at dinner during a potentially awkward moment, and ending up with a drunken vow that the two will head off to Paris together the week after next.   Perhaps Peggy’s story will turn out to be a happy one, after all, but I wouldn’t count on it.

The question of the night: who is the mysterious waitress (a compelling Elizabeth Reaser) who starts out the episode with a ninety dollar tip from Roger and ends up behind the building having sex with Draper during her cigarette break? She looks familiar to him—perhaps someone from his hardscrabble past.   Or a reminder of the brunettes he has had affairs with—the freewheeling Midge, the smart, self-possessed Rachel, the warm and earthy Suzanne Farrell.   Or perhaps she’s an intimation of his mortality—someone who’s come into his life to either end his life or turn it around. Whoever she is, she’s not saying.

And so we watch on.     The nostalgia builds. I already have that dull ache that Draper so memorably conjured.   Six episodes to go.

Harlan R. Teller

Roger Takes a Giant Leap, While Bert Steps off the Stage in “Mad Men”, Season Seven, Episode Seven

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If we can put a man on the moon, then surely at least some of the major characters on “Mad Men” can finally, at long last, demonstrate some personal growth. That seems to be the theme animating “Waterloo”, the midseason finale episode, as Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk—and a cross section of what passes for the characters’ families watching this seismic event with a sense of wonder, awe and the opening of new possibilities—is the framing device for most of the episode.  

 

As Peggy Olson says to the Burger Chef execs during the pitch that most Mad Men devotees assumed that Don Draper was going to make, things will never be the same after this.   And the same could be said for many of our protagonists.   Take Peggy herself, whose nascent maternal instincts bubbled to the surface during her heartbreaking scene with Julio, when we learn how much she truly cares for the taciturn little boy and how much he cares for her in return when she learns that he’s the latest in a long line of men who will be bailing on her.  

 

Take Don Draper, who has been humbled by his demotion to copy jockey and in this episode finally given his walking papers by his once-devoted wife, whose love for him has been purged out of her by his faithlessness and inattention.   Don willingly and gladly takes a back seat to Peggy at the pitch, and watches with pride as his protégé does a brilliant, Draper-like presentation that weaves together the moon landing with what’s happening to society at the dinner hour and then delivers a winning concept with emotional resonance.  

 

But then there’s the surprise of the night- Roger Sterling, the wise cracking Peck’s Bad Boy who has made a career out of living off his charm and his preternaturally adroit client relationship skills, stepping up and making the giant leap that not only will save his friend Don’s tottering career, but also make all of the SCP partners exceptionally wealthy. And, doing it in a way that outsmarts his nemesis Jim Cutler and foils Cutler’s attempt to remake the agency in his own image, starting with ousting the problematic Draper and then elevating Harry Crane to some kind of savant status when it comes to buying media.     John F. Kennedy had a vision of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade; Jim Cutler has a vision of selling data mining services to other agencies’ clients.  

 

Roger takes matters into his own hands, after being stung to the core by long time friend and mentor Bert Cooper’s harsh but true assessment of his less than stellar leadership skills, and later heartbroken by the older man’s demise.  He works out a deal to sell 51 percent of SCP to McCann, in return for his remaining president and keeping autonomy as a subsidiary of the larger ad firm.   And, he stipulates that Draper be part of the package.   Then, he outmaneuvers Cutler in the partners’ meeting, as the dollar signs in the partners’ eyes assuage any ill will they may feel toward Don.   Whether working for “The Man” again will be close to being as romantic as starting your own business and working for yourself remains to be seen.   But while Bert Cooper’s ghost at the end of the episode may say “the best things in life are free”, money still talks, and sixty-five million dollars with 1969 buying power speaks very loudly indeed. Loud enough for the conniving Cutler to vote with the rest of the partners for the deal, once he sees that his bloodless coup has come to naught.

 

What starts out as Don’s “Waterloo”—returning from exile to rally the troops, only to lose, and ostensibly be sent back to the furrier business where he started as a copy editor (perhaps a bit more prosaic than ending up with Napoleon at Elba)–becomes Cutler’s, when his brazenness at unilaterally sending a separation letter to Draper based on the latter’s busting in on the Commander cigarette meeting (and ostensibly thereby breaching his contract)—becomes a bridge too far for the other partners.   Even Joan, who supports Don’s ouster, tells Cutler ominously that he shouldn’t have done it.   Cutler’s gambit animates Roger and leads to his bold move—he’s no Neil Armstrong, but perhaps he has more leadership potential in him than old Bert was willing to admit.  

 

However, Roger would lose and Jim would win, were it not for the one pitch that Don does take on during the partners meeting before the vote on the McCann merger.   It’s the pitch of Don’s life, as it keeps him at the firm and makes him very wealthy at the same time.   His one-time nemesis, Ted Chaough, is the tie-breaking vote, and he is a broken man, clearly miserable about his marriage and his estrangement from Peggy and burned out by the advertising business.     Earlier, Ted essentially threatened to kill his Sunkist clients by purposely crashing his plane on Route 66 with them in it, and seems to have no passion left for anything or anyone.     Don trots out a variation of the Freddie Rumsen “do the work” pep talk that ended the first episode of the year, and strangely enough, it works.   The work—and all that comes with it—may be the most genuine aspect of Don’s character, his evocation of what the work means to both of them seems to resonate with his miserable partner.   Ted votes against Cutler and for the third time in eight years, SCP will change ownership.  

 

But Roger’s Armstrong-like seizing of the day is far from the only surprise in the episode.   For at the end of a fast paced (for Mad Men, that is) 47 minutes Matt Weiner demonstrates that he not only has a firm grasp on the period in which his characters exist, but also the history of his own star performers.   For those of us who remember Robert Morse as a young, boyishly good looking and energetic song and dance man in the late 50s and early 60s, his parting scene was more than appropriate.   Morse pulls off a version of “The Best Things in Life are Free”, complete with dancers from the secretarial pool, and he does it in character and in his stocking feet.   It is an inspired bit of business, and a fitting tribute to both his character and Morse himself.   It’s a very considerate and entertaining way for a consummate pro to exit from the Mad Men stage.  

 

After Bert’s death, it becomes “game on” for the principals who Bert leaves behind.   Even more fitting is the timing of the old man’s death—he has just watched the moon landing and heard Armstrong’s immortal words, uttering “bravo” in response to the astronaut.   Now that he’s heard what he may have considered the perfect line of advertising copy, all that’s left for him to pass gently into the night.     There have been more shocking and emotional departures from Mad Men, but this particular one was handled with great sensitivity and panache.  

 

As always, there are questions that linger at the end of this mini-season, some of which tantalize this reviewer more than others, to wit:

 

Why is Don so dejected after Bert finishes his song and dance number?   Is it sinking into him that he’s about to go back to working as a captive of a larger agency, once again losing control of his own destiny?   Does he think Roger won’t sustain his own interest and they’ll miss the old man more than they think?   Or did he just have some bad pizza for lunch?

 

Will Mona and Roger get together and become surrogate parents to their grandson? Or will Joan and Roger reunite and become a nuclear family with their son?   With Roger’s big move, it’s highly likely that the free love-fest that has taken up residence in his hotel is history.

 

What happens if SCP doesn’t get the Chrysler business?   Jim from McCann is seemingly buying them based on the promise that they’ll get the business, which is really an odd basis for forking over more than 30 million dollars to a group of people.   Never underestimate the machinations of Bob Benson, who is already upset at Joan’s rejection of his marriage proposal, and is the new ad director at Buick.

 

Will someone take Ted’s pilot’s license away from him before he kills someone, possibly himself?   Will his return to New York resurrect his career, as well as his relationship with Peggy?

 

Will Megan finally land a part? She was reading a script when she had her “Dear Don” phone call. She’s getting dangerously close to her “sell-by” date for a starlet, and Don has offered to put her on the Draper payroll until she starts to see some money coming in. But perhaps there’s more than going to movies and hanging with her various actress friends in her future.

 

Will General Motors remain the colossus of the automobile industry? Will NASA continue to up our lead in the dominance of space? Will Burger Chef redefine the family dinner experience for a new generation of Americans? Sadly, we don’t have to wait until next year’s final episodes to know the answer to these questions.

 

Since this is my last post for a very long time, here’s a bit more for your blogging dollar, based on some additional observations:

 

  • Roger watches the moon landing with his ex-wife Mona (John Slattery’s real life wife, Talia Balsam), his son-in-law and grandson, rather than the hippies who have been cohabitating with him.   Perhaps this is another sign of Roger’s belated maturity.   It’s probably also a sign that Marigold (Margaret) isn’t coming back any time soon.   
  • If Megan’s unexpected but long overdue kiss-off of Don is the last we see of Jessica Pare, she, too, will have had a great exit. Her pause to take a gulp of wine before saying goodbye to Don was expertly played and exactly the right touch.   We all held our breath for just a moment, along with Don.  And then, all of us (including him) were relieved.
  • I’m sure the irony is not lost on anyone that the two people with the most screwed up family situations were the ones pitching the creative for the Burger Chef pitch (actually, throw Harry and Pete in there, and you’ve got a foursome of family dysfunction).   It does underscore the point– driven home by the four of them watching the moon landing together in their hotel room– that families are indeed changing.

 

  • In area of personal growth, Betty continues to be left behind.   She’s a perplexing character, who doesn’t deepen with continued familiarity.   Here in this episode, she’s given very little to do, other than dish with one of her college pals about Don being like an old, bad boyfriend. Where we are going with this character is anyone’s guess.   Probably nowhere.

 

  • Speaking of Betty, raise your hand if you saw a flash of her in daughter Sally’s insouciant, off-handed and self-conscious cigarette smoking at the end of the great telescope scene with the smart, nerdy kid staying with the Francis’s.   The has a bit of Betty’s style, and more than a touch of her mother’s manipulative side, as she knows exactly what she’s doing when she kisses that star-struck kid.  

 

  • Note to Henry: the 50s is calling and it wants its short sleeved polo shirt back.

 

  • Meredith’s clumsy and inappropriate pass at Don was more than a bit ridiculous. Taking her in small doses is fine, but that scene was beyond the pale. I suppose this passes for comic relief for the series.

 

  • I wonder whether Roger’s gambit was as much about denying the annoying Harry Crane a partnership as it was outmaneuvering Jim Cutler and saving Don in the process.   It appears that other than parenting a child that doesn’t know that Roger is his father, the only thing that Joan and Roger share these days is a visceral dislike of Cutler’s favorite media buyer.  

 

Back at you next year!   Please post!

 

 

Submitted by:

 

 

Harlan R. Teller

 

 

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Peggy Does It Her Way, Finds “The Strategy” in “Mad Men”, Season Seven, Episode Six

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It was all going so well. Megan and Don, back in their Manhattan pad together, making love and eating breakfast on the deck and acting for all the world like the happy couple they were a the beginning of their tempestuous and maddeningly inconstant marriage.   Don might have been keeping the fact of his marriage so far under wraps that the new employees at SCP don’t even know he’s married, but no matter. He still seems newly engaged and determined, yet again, to make things work with his French Canadian siren.

 

And then, at the end of a long and frustrating day, Peggy Olson utters what is undoubtedly the most cerebral come on you’ll ever hear on this or any other day, when she invites erstwhile mentor Don Draper to “show me how you think.”   After she follows his advice, which is essentially to drink many scotches, lie down on the couch and then try to come up with something better than she’s got, she figures it out—just in time for Frank Sinatra singing “My Way” to waft into her office.   Perhaps a bit heavy on the symbolism, given that she’s a working woman who is meeting life on her terms and, rough patches notwithstanding, is winning.   But with just a bit of ambiguity, because, after all, she came up with the new idea doing it Don’s way.

 

What happens next will undoubtedly be the subject of intense and conflicting conversations all across Mad Men Nation, at least until Matt Weiner settles for all of us what actually happened.   It’s a scene that literally blotted out the previous, excellent 40 minutes of an episode just packed with meaning for so many characters, representing a profound meditation on the nature of family and relationships in the remaining embers of the tumultuous sixties.  

 

Just before the light goes on in Peggy’s creative brain, she and Don have a prescient conversation about the breakdown of the nuclear family, even then showing the signs of fraying that has become endemic in the modern era and the omnipresence of the television that has disrupted the family dinner.  Peggy and Don turn to themselves, with Peggy confessing that she just turned thirty and is starting to become one of “those women who lie about their age.”   Peggy asks Don whether he ever sat down to dinner with his family, and after Don deflects what is surely a painful recollection of his joyless family past, he tells her that he worries about a lot of things, but never Peggy.   The younger woman smiles at that—protégés tending to enjoy the approval of their mentors, no matter how many unflattering and compromising situations they have found them in over the years—and then asks the older man what he worries about.   And, then all the pretense of Don’s dalliance with marital fidelity falls away, as he confesses that his worry is about never having done anything and not having anyone in his life.   From that very personal and uncomfortable confession from her reflective creative partner, Peggy shifts somehow to the core creative idea that sticking her head into the cars of women homemakers across three states and asking them probing questions about their meal preferences couldn’t help her with.   Cue Sinatra, and then cue the slightly worn and rumpled (and a bit out of shape) Draper.

 

Don asks Peggy to dance, and after she hesitates slightly, she rises to the bait and he begins to squire her around the office, Frank doing his immortal voicing of Paul Anka’s song (written expressly for the Chairman of the Board) in the background.   It’s all very awkward, like a couple of adolescents at a school dance who have never held each other before and are a bit embarrassed about it.   And then, it happens.   The booze and the relief of having unlocked the key to the Burger Chef creative strategy having relaxed the increasingly prickly and frustrated copy chief, Peggy lets her head fall onto Don’s chest.   Don, a bit surprised by this, has a wave of emotion pass ever so slightly across his face and then—in a gesture reminiscent of his impromptu (and unscripted) kiss of Peggy’s hand years ago—he bends down and kisses her head.     As the camera moves out and away from the two, we are left to wonder what comes next, because if Don Draper loves anyone other than his struggling and sassy eldest child Sally, it is certainly his thirty year-old protégé Peggy Olson.

 

This is great artistry, done to perfection by two consummate professionals (Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss) who literally have come to inhabit these two characters and the complicated relationship they have enjoyed from the very beginning. It is also something that is only possible on episodic television, where the twists and turns of their relationship have been given ample time and room to breathe, ripen and mature.   And, still, the scene is played with such nuance that by the end, we really still don’t exactly know what we’ve just seen. For those of us who have been perplexed and a bit stymied by much of what we’ve seen this season, the Don/Peggy scene, coupled with the final scene of Don, Peggy and Pete in a local Burger Chef, in essence making Peggy’s point about family being where you find it, is truly a money shot.  

 

When the three ad pros sit in a booth and the camera pulls away to show that the restaurant décor is a facsimile of a house, you realize that Peggy is onto something.   The burger chain, which closed its doors in 1996 but was still going relatively strong when SCP was pitching the business, does seem architecturally to share Peggy’s intuition about the changing dynamics of the American family and how places like Burger Chef (and its far more successful competitors) were appealing to this dynamic.   We of course know that whatever great creative Peggy was able to come up with, wouldn’t ultimately save Burger Chef, which fell behind, was ultimately rebranded as Hardee’s, and disappeared from the scene in 1996.  

 

This is a kinder, gentler Don Draper during this episode, and it wears very well on him.   He is trying very much to be a team player, so when earlier at Pete’s behest he sits in on Peggy’s highly polished yet somewhat banal reenactment of a domestic scene featuring a mom buying Burger Chef for her family, he lays back despite obvious doubts about the premise of the campaign.   But he can’t help being Don Draper, and in an effort later to provide a thoughtful suggestion to Peggy (actually a bad idea, which is to focus on the kid rather than the mom), he inadvertently plants a seed of doubt in Peggy about the validity of her own handiwork.  

 

What makes Peggy great—and Draper such an admirer of her—is that she won’t settle for what’s convenient or easy, in contrast to her boss, Lou Avery, who is smitten with the original campaign because it reinforces his own prejudices about what an American family should be.   Don and Lou are from the same generation, but while Don is allowing himself to be dragged kicking and screaming into a new era, Lou is very comfortable being stuck in time, which is why Peggy’s paean to 50s domesticity, represented in her original work, is so appealing to him.  

 

We also find out in this episode that Pete is still in love with his wife and willing to let his smoldering girlfriend, Bonnie Whiteside, cavort alone and unescorted around Manhattan (dirtying up her sandaled feet in the process) while he lies in wait in his former suburban house for Trudy (the great Alison Brie) to return from a date.     It seems that everyone acts differently when they’re back in New York, perhaps yearning for a time when things were different, and Pete is definitely in a New York state of mind.

 

But Joan seems much more interested in Bob Benson’s news that SCP is losing the Chevy account than in entertaining the younger man’s proposal of marriage, clearly a marriage of convenience that the possibly well-meaning but manipulative Benson sees as his ticket to upper middle class bliss as a newly minted executive at Buick.   (If his offer of a Platonic relationship were not unsettling enough for the still vibrant Joanie, his exhortations about the joys of living in Detroit would probably be enough of a turnoff, even if back then they could have afforded a mansion and now could probably buy an entire city block).  

 

But the big winner of the night is the absent Harry Crane, who is voted in as partner as a response to the loss of the Chevy business.   Jim Cutler proposes the idea, and it’s right out of the Don Draper playbook- as he has said many times, if you don’t like what’s being said about you, change the conversation.   Cutler wants to change the narrative about SCP, from struggling mid-level firm that can’t keep a car account, to forward looking visionary who has a new computer run by its favorite nerd.   I still struggle to see how focusing on media selection in a creative business is a winning new business strategy,but Don- along with most of the other partners- votes Harry in, based on his “loyalty” (an irony, since Harry showed more loyalty to Don than to the firm in the last episode), and Roger and Joan find common ground in thinking it’s a bad idea.   But they’re both compromised- Roger missed the signs given off in the sauna by the McCann guy about potential changes at SCP involving a key person, and Joan failed to give Roger a heads up that she knew about Chevy.   Roger dismisses Joan in a way we’ve never seen him do after retreating to his office for some liquid reinforcement, and she stalks off.   Obviously, the New York state of mind does not extend to these erstwhile lovers, although it remains to be seen whether they end up teaming up as allies as the firm begins to fracture into blocs.  

 

Meanwhile, Don and Peggy will always have Sinatra, and Burger Chef.   And in a world that is upside down and starved for love and affection, doesn’t that feel like some consolation?

 

 

Submitted by:

 

 

Harlan R. Teller

 

Writer’s note: Did anyone else see the irony in the use of “My Way”, given that one of Burger King’s more successful ad campaigns years ago was “Have it your way?”, focusing on the difference between it and McDonald’s?   And, will Kevin Rahm have anything more to do by the end of next week’s episode than look forlorn and kibbitz a bit on transcontinental conference calls?   Might a potential Don-Peggy coupling break him out of his season-long torpor?