Friday, May 22, 2015

Exploring the Mad Men Finale, Season 7, Episode 14: Person to Person

"A thing like that."

Our decade-long peek into the lives of Don Draper, Peggy Olson, Pete Campbell and the rest of the characters who came in and out of their lives ended with a commercial.  We shouldn't have been surprised.  A TV show after all is just another medium for selling a product.  It is what is sandwiched between pitches for cars, airlines, insurance and, yes, beverages.  In the end, the production companies, distributors and broadcasters don't really care who lives or who dies, who gets married, who gives birth, whether they live happily ever after or walk off into oblivion.  All they care is that enough people watch the show to make it worth their sponsorship dollars.

But we the viewers do care.  We commit our time in getting to know these characters.  We are invested in them and want their story to end in a way that is gratifying.  That is why the last half of this season of Mad Men has been so frustrating for so many fans of the show.  We see the clock ticking down and are concerned that there's not enough time to get the characters where we would like them to be.  When a show is done well, and Mad Men is and always has been done very, very well, the characters become so real to us that we have strong feelings about how we'd like their stories to end.  A bad ending can taint the entire viewing experience; a good ending can bring satisfaction, comfort and closure.

This was a very good ending.

Don Draper is racing cars at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.  This harkens back to Ep. 4.03 The Good News when Don, stripping away his white collar, Manhattanite persona, stops by to chat with some guys building hot rods one lazy Southern California afternoon.  It was one of the few times we saw Don dressed casually and speaking not with the weighty timbre and precision of his ad man voice, but in a relaxed, friendly, conversational tone.  This, we know, is Don channeling Dick Whitman, the poor country boy who was used to working with his hands.  Don was testing their car and giving the guys tips on how to set her up for a land speed record.  But he was also doing what Dick Whitman could never do, financing their endeavor with some of Don Draper's wealth.

What to make of Don's leisurely cross-country odyssey?  Back in Ep. 1.09 Shoot, Don has the following exchange with Roger after he decides not to accept Jim Hobart's offer to join McCann Erickson (a deal which was sweetened with a Coke commercial for Betty to relaunch her modeling career):
Don: If I leave this place one day, it will not be for more advertising.
Roger: What else is there?
Don: I don't know. Life being lived? I'd like to stop talking about it and get back to it.
That's what Don has been doing since he walked out of the McCann offices.  He is living life, unhurriedly, aimlessly, with seemingly random stops along the way.  But this is not a joyous adventure.  Don is alone and lonely and each stop brings new experiences and brief encounters with strangers but no real emotional interactions with anyone.  Anna Draper told him back in Ep. 2.12 The Mountain King, "the only thing keeping you from being happy is the belief that you are alone."  Yet this trip has only confirmed his deepest fear - that he is deeply, profoundly alone.

 But the first of three phone calls jars Don from his wayward fog.

At night, back in one of the many hotels rooms which now substitute for home, Don calls his daughter Sally.  This seems to be a ritual while Don is on his retirement journey, staying connected by having these weekly calls with Sally and also with her brothers.  But Sally is having a hard time engaging in small talk and she eventually tells Don what Betty had asked her not to tell him.  That she's dying of cancer.  Don is shocked and goes straight into Superman mode.  He will come home, take care of everything - Sally, the boys, whatever needs to be done.

But Sally doesn't want him to. Instead, she wants him to help her convince Betty to let the boys stay in their own home with Henry.   Because what the kids need now is not Don, but stability and what's familiar - and he provides neither of those.  It must be devastating to hear from your own child that at the moment they are about to lose their other parent, you are not wanted.  You will not make things better.  What will be better is if you just stay where you are and don't come home.

Don makes the second of three calls next, this one to Betty.  Their relationship has been complex to say the least.  They loved each other, they betrayed each other, they had three children and a beautiful home together and yet they were strangers who could not communicate until it was too late.  Don has never stopped loving Betty, we can tell in the way he looks at her and the nickname he still uses, and perhaps Betty shares that feeling (deep beneath her hatred and resentment at how he destroyed their marriage).  In this call, Don is struck again by the realization that he is not needed.  He can't help, he can't make things better, and things will be better if he stays where he is and doesn't come home.

Later, we have a poignant scene at the Francis residence as Sally, the head-strong daughter of Don and Betty, puts her plans on hold as she comes home to help take care of her mother and brothers.  She is perhaps the most level-headed, mature one in the family and the one who best reconciles what she wants and what's expected of her.  Betty, for all her faults, has matured as well and is living out the rest of her life on her own terms.  And if that's yelling at Don to listen to what she wants, or smoking the same cigarettes that are cutting her life short, she'll do it.  Because she's no longer that scared, anxious woman-child we met in the beginning.

The double-fisted rejection by Sally and Betty sends Don into another tailspin of heavy drinking.  He wakes up the next morning with the two car enthusiasts asking for the stake he promised them. Don asks them to take him to California, which was inevitable.  Don always goes to California when he's in trouble and he is in trouble, whether he admits it or not.  He goes to see Anna Draper's niece Stephanie, trying to relive the past, connect with his west coast "family," hear someone call him "Dick."  But Stephanie has her own problems.  She gave up her child - he's being raised by his paternal grandparents.  Her parents are mad at her and she's about to head up north to go to a retreat.  She doesn't want anything that Don has to offer - not money, not Anna's ring, and pointedly not a familial connection.

Stephanie had planned to deal with her shitty life by going on a retreat and, seeing that Don looks even worse than she feels, she tells him the next morning that he's going with her.   Don is suspicious at best about the retreat, not surprising considering Don showed disdain for the younger generation (Ep. 2.01 For Those Who Think Young), doesn't appreciate counterculture (Ep. 1.08 The Hobo Code) and doesn't believe in talking about your problems or feelings (Ep. 4.05 The Crysanthemum and the Sword).  So he goes in with his Don Draper cynicism and participates reluctantly, with great disdain, in their exercises.  As he walks around, arms crossed firmly across his chest, eyes rolling, a bemused look on his face, he is above his surroundings and everyone else there.  This is just a big joke.  But when he and the others are told to stop, turn to the person nearest them, and convey their feelings non-verbally, he gets shoved in the chest by a motherly looking, white-haired older lady.  She certainly picked up on Don's vibe.

Don and Stephanie also attend an encounter group, where they sit in a circle and share.  There, Stephanie opens up about how she's feeling, telling the group about how she feels judged for what she's done in the past - dropping out, hooking up, having a baby that she left.  Rather than nonjudgmental support, Stephanie heard judgement and disapproval and was forced to face the truth of who she was and what she's done.  Hearing the repulsion of the woman in the group, she ran out.  Don wanted to tell her to ignore their beliefs, their disapproval of her choices.  He could help her forget the past and move forward.  But that's not what she wanted to hear; his words rang false.  She knew the woman in the group was right and she knew that she could not run away from the truth.

The next morning Stephanie is gone.  She left hopefully to go back and fix things.  Don wants to follow her, but he has no car.  And the cute girl at the front desk tells him there's no way off the island no car for him and no way for him to get back to LA any time soon.  Stuck in some town he doesn't even know the name of, alone, he reaches out and makes the third call of the episode.  To Peggy.  The scene is short but perfect as she goes from anger, to encouragement, to worry:
Peggy:  Where the hell are you?  Don: Somewhere in California.  Peggy: Do you know how angry everyone is?  Don: Did everything fall apart without me?  Peggy: It's not about that. You just took off. People were worried. What have you been doing?  Don:  I don't know.  I have no idea.  Peggy:  Look I know you get sick of things and you run, but you can come home.  Don: Where?  Peggy:  McCann will take you back in a second. Apparently, it's happened before.  Don't you want to work on Coke?  Don:  I can't.  I can't get out of here.  Peggy:  Don, come home.  Don:  I messed everything up.
I'm not the man you think I am.  Peggy:  Don, listen to me.  What did you ever do that was so bad?  Don:  I broke all my vows.  I scandalized my child.  I took another man's name and made nothing of it. Peggy:  That's not true.  Don:  I only called because I realized I never said goodbye to you.  Peggy:  I don't think you should be alone right now.  Don: I'm in a crowd.  I just wanted to hear your voice.  I'll see you soon.
After he hangs up from Peggy, Don had a panic attack, like he did back in Season 4's  Hands and Knees when he thought that his past was going to catch up to him.  Because his past was catching up to him and what was worse was he was convinced at that moment that he couldn't get away from his past and couldn't get out of his current circumstance.  He was lost and would stay lost.  Peggy recognized that he was alone but Don didn't even see it.  "I'm in a crowd," he tells her.  But being in a crowd is not the same as not being alone.

Nearly catatonic, Don is plucked from the depths by the leader of one of the encounter groups.  She asks Don to come with her, smartly wording it not as her helping him, but him helping her not come to her own meeting late.  Don can't take of himself but he loves trying to save the day.  He sits in the circle, looking wrung out and unresponsive.  We expect when the talking seat opens that it will be Don who goes there an spills his guts.  But instead, he stayed still, unable to move.

While Don sat in the circle he listened as a sad sack Everyman open up:
I work in an office.
People walk right by me.
I know they don't see me.
And I go home and I watch my wife and my kids.
They don't look up when I sit down.
It's like no one cares that I'm gone.
They should love me.
I mean, maybe they do, but I don't even know what it is.
You spend your whole life thinking you're not getting it, people aren't giving it to you.
Then you realize they're trying and you don't even know what it is.
Leonard went on to describe this recurring dream of being on a shelf in the refrigerator when his family opens it up, reaches for something, only for him to stay there as the door closes and it's dark. You live your life and hope for love and you never get it and you die.  That's what his dream is telling him and it's what Don Draper has been saying since the pilot. "You live alone and you die alone."

But it doesn't have to be this way.  All you need is to find someone who cares that you're gone.  Someone who loves you.  And to do that, you have to be open to it and accept it.  Because it may be out there, it may have been yours all along, but maybe you refused to see it.

Through Leonard (which some anagrammers noticed was "Real Don"), Don saw maybe a reflection of himself.  How he had mocked the very idea of love, not because he doesn't believe it's real but because he doesn't believe he's worthy of receiving it.   Or maybe he saw for the first time that other people have the same feelings as he does - that many people walk around feeling alone and unloved. Whichever the case, and we can debate that for years, something moved inside of Don.  He was not alone, the only person who felt unworthy and unloved.  He got up and walked over to this stranger who spoke words that resonated with him and embraced him.  The two men cried together, not alone for once.  Don, by hugging Leonard, said, I notice you.  I feel what you feel.

The next time we see Don, he looks like many million of bucks.  He's rested, clean-shaven and tranquil.  He's sitting, lotus style, on the cliff overlooking the Pacific and he's chanting.  Ommm, (like the sound the watch made in the Ep. 7.01 commercial that Freddy Rumsen pitched).  A smile crosses his face. Is this happines? Is this nirvana? We hear a bell ring.  Is this satisfaction?  Inspiration?  An idea?

Fade to the most memorable ad in history, the mountain top Coca Cola commercial from 1971, done by McCann Erickson.  Don followed Peggy's instruction. He went home.  And he created something lasting. 

Roger Sterling has settled in nicely at McCann.  He's busy and happy and his only problem is how to let poor, sweet Meredith down easy.  While the focus is on Roger's love life, it's really nice seeing him busy and important at McCann.  It was sad to see him lose his company and legacy, no longer having his name on the wall, but it was gratifying to see him roll with it and go to work (with Caroline who he claims to hate but kept anyway, twice).

Roger's scenes with his new love, Marie Calvet are priceless.  She is his equal, not only in age but in spunk, intellect and humor.  He wants her to move in with him in New York, she bristles at leaving her children and her life in Canada.  She lets slip that she recently reconnected with her ex Emile and Roger is not happy about that.  They bicker, she kicks him out of bed, and we realize that Roger is never as happy as when he's sparring with a beautiful, spirited woman (a la Joan).  We later see Roger dropping Kevin off with Joan after a day out (with pancakes!) and the two of them discuss the future.  Roger wants to make sure Kevin is always taken care of and Joan accepts his offer.  She then learns that Roger has found happiness with a surprisingly age-appropriate woman and she wistfully says to him, " I guess somebody finally got their timing right."  With that our fantasy of Roger and Joan riding off into the sunset together is gone.

Instead, we get a glimpse of Roger's future as he and Marie are dining out and he orders - in French no less - for the two of them. Himself...and his mother.  Roger will go out as sly and witty as we'll always remember him, but hopefully to live a long happy life with Megan's crazy mother.

When last we saw Peggy Olson, she was walking into her first official day at McCann, like a boss.  It was total bad ass swagger (courtesy of a hangover, a pornographic painting and a perfectly placed cigarette).  Now, in the cold reality of life at McCann (especially after what we saw happen to Joan) how would our Peggy fare.  Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good.  After a meeting assigning accounts, Peggy notes that (now that Pete is gone) she and Stan were not assigned to Pete's old Chevalier account.  Stan tells her to chill, but Peggy Olson does not chill.  She marches up to Lorraine and backs her into a corner and gets her to give Peggy what she wants.  Like a bad ass.

Peggy was supposed to go out with Pete for his goodbye lunch, but she's swamped with Samsonite.  Instead, they have their last onscreen conversation and it's a doozy.  Pete is charming and supportive and full of happiness for himself but also pride for Peggy.  He gives her the best compliment he can think of ("Someday people are going to brag that they worked with you.") and a small token to remind her of him - fittingly a prickly cactus.  I don't see the cactus as a symbol of their child together, but as a symbol of their relationship.  It sometimes bears a flower, sometimes it hurts if you get too close, but it's resilient and indestructible.  

If Peggy's ego wasn't stroked enough by Pete, Joan calls her to offer her a job writing a script for a corporate film and when they meet (and she gets a hefty check from Joan for her work) Joan offers her a partnership.  The fans' fantasy pairing looks like it might finally happen and Joan and Peggy will get together, kick ass and take names, well into the next decade and beyond.  Perhaps it was Pete's words about her becoming the first female creative director, or people bragging some day how they knew her when, or maybe it was Stan telling her  but she eventually decides not to go off with Joan and to stay at McCann and (as Freddy told Don in Ep. 7.04) "do the work."

Peggy may not feel she has any motherly instincts, but her words to Don  "come home" as well as the forceful tone of her voice was as parental as anything we've heard from her in a long time.  In fact, their whole phone conversation was reminiscent of the time Don broke down in front of Peggy, after learning in Ep. 4.07 The Suitcase that Anna had died.  Once again, Don is a broken man and Peggy is the one lifeline for him to grab onto. She told him then that he was wrong that no one knew him and she tells him again that he is wrong that he's ruined everything and done nothing.

She leaves the conversation with Don shaken and calls her closest friend Stan.  Over the years, we have seen how much Peggy relies on Stan, what a comforting presence he is in her life.  Especially on the phone.  In person, sometimes, maybe often, he gets under her skin and the two bicker worse than pre-kiss Sam and Diane on Cheers.  She's worried about Don and feels another Lane Pryce situation developing, but Stan calms her down.  He tells her Don will be okay and she believes him because Stan is always right.  And then, the moment we've all been secretly (and some not so secretly) waiting for.  Stan confesses his feelings to Peggy and Peggy slowly comes to realize her feelings for Stan and he runs down the hall and into her office and they embrace.  Peggy and Stan are in love!

Our last shot of them is at work, with Peggy typing away, and Stan giving her a kiss.  He likes it there and she likes it there and they like it together.  Hopefully, she'll be a creative director before 1980 and they'll still be together.  Not so sure how well the cactus will hold up, though.

Joan is living the life - trips to Key West, snorting cocaine with her rich boyfriend.  But she wants more.  And when Ken Cosgrove asks for her help on the Dow Chemical account, she uses her trusty Rolodex (which we saw her take with her when she left M-E) and gets to work.  She contacts Peggy to help with the copy for a script for an industrial film and puts together a team to produce the film for Ken.  This gives Joan an idea, to gets an idea.  She wants to go into business producing these types of promotional films for big corporations.  Companies like Dow have big budgets and they need someone who can do this work efficiently and cost-effectively and she has the contacts and the know-how.   She asks Peggy to join her, Harris-Olson, since "you need two names to make it real." "We won't answer to anyone.  It'll be something of ours with our name on it.

To Joan's surprise, Peggy does not jump at the offer. She fails to realize that their experience at McCann is not the same.  Peggy went toe-to-toe with Lorraine about getting staffed on an account, Pete pumped her up about how talented she is, she's not the victim of the leering attention of Ferg.  So Peggy wants to think about this.  Does this discourage Joan?  Not in the least.   She's setting up business meetings and arranging a "few little projects' and sees this as a way to perhaps build something.  She's excited about this new potential business and shares it with Richard.

But Richard is not interested in dating someone with their own business.  It was hard enough for him to accept that Joan was a mother first and that his playboy lifestyle would have to be adjusted to accommodate a child.  But that was a living, breathing human, this is a business that doesn't even exist yet.  Joan is choosing add this to her life, knowing it will take a huge chunk of her attention. And Richard is not looking for that at this stage in his life.  If he's painted as the bad guy, that's unfortunate.  How I look at it is she made a choice and he made a choice and that's how it should be.

So Joan chooses a new career path instead of love.  You've come a long way baby.  Last thing we see, she's set up the new production company "Holloway and Harris" (since you need two names) and becomes her own partner.  Her last scene, running her business from her kitchen table, with her babysitter acting as receptionist, was a beautiful callback to when SCDP ran out of a hotel room back in Ep. 3.13 Shut the Door and Have a Seat.  It also tied back to when Harry gave the job working on marketing for TV shows to some other guy after Joan had done such a bang up job on it.  Joan may not have found love, but she found the respect for her many talents and an opportunity to finally be her own boss.

I'm going to Wichita. Far from this opera for evermore
The very last shot of Mad Men focuses, as it should on Don Draper.  We first met him almost ten years ago when he was working on an ad.  He wasn't in his office, he was out in the world, talking to people, observing his surroundings, and taking it all in looking for inspiration.  Later that episode, he threw the research about the product in the trash.  Advertising wasn't about data or numbers, facts and figures, it was about a feeling.  As Don finally closed in on that first successful "Mad Men" pitch, he focused not on selling Lucky Strike cigarettes, but on selling "happiness."  And so it goes back to where we started, around and around like a carousel, and Don is inspired by his own personal journey of self-discovery to find a way to once again sell "happiness."  And he is okay.


Bye to Harry Crane.  We first met Harry on an elevator, where he, Ken, and Paul Kinsey spied a new secretary coming to work - Peggy Olson.  He makes a little joke, "not right away" suggesting the elevator operator take his time getting them up to their floor so he can enjoy the company of the new girl.   He's not the most boorish of the three - that honor goes to Ken.  By the end, he's an insufferable boor who dabbles in sexual harassment (he'll fit right in at M-E) and drops names like an Extreme Weight Loss contestant drops pounds.  Unlike nearly every other character, he gets no closure - just a mouthful of cookies as he goes offstage for the last time.  Trust fund baby Kevin gets more of a resolution to his story than Harry does.

Peggy repeated what Pete told her back in Ep. 1.08 The Hobo Code when he heard that Freddy Rumsen was going to present her copy to the Belle Jolie people.  "A thing like that!" (He also used that line in Ep. 2.11 The Jet Set after telling Don he thought he saw actor Tony Curtis in the men's room at the hotel).

When Joan first escorted Peggy around the Sterling Cooper offices, she said to her about her job, "if you really make the right moves, you'll be out in the country,|and you won't be going to work at all."  Ten years later, when given her own long overdue chance to be out in the country (on a permanent vacation with Richard) for the rest of her life, Joan chose to go to work.

Teddy Chaough told Don that there are three women in every man's life (in Ep. 7.08 Severance, in the context of trying to sell Wilkinson razors) and in this episode Don had phone calls with the three most important women in his life.  Betty, Sally and Peggy.  Three women who have tried, in their own ways, to love Don and three who he, in some ways, failed.  Betty and Sally each tell him to stay away,  That everything would be better if he didn't come home to them.  Only Peggy tells him to come home.  And by home she means McCann.  She lets him know he's still welcome there.  It is not a surprise, then, that when he reaches nirvana on the cliffs of Big Sur, he decides to go home.  Which he described, way back in Ep. 1.13 The Wheel, as "that place where we know we are loved."

In Ep. 7.10 The Forecast, Peggy comes in for her performance evaluation.  The discussion get redirected by Don who want to discus her hopes and dreams for the future.  When pushed, Peggy says she'd like to create something of lasting value.  Don, snorts. "In advertising?"  She gets mad and counters, "This is supposed to be about my job, not the meaning of life."  Don challenges her.  "So you think those things are unrelated?"  They are related to Don and he can finally admit that.  Happiness and satisfaction at work can lead to personal fulfillment and could even create something of lasting value.

While in the real world, Don Draper did not create the famous Coke ad, it did come from McCann Erickson in 1971.  Like with the "It's Toasted" ad for Lucky Strike in the pilot episode, Mad Men used real commercial pitches to show the creative genius of Don while playing around with the true origins of the work.

There was a nice juxtaposition of Don encouraging Stephanie to run from her past - and the months on the road of Don running from his - and Stan Rizzo running to his future with Peggy.

Joey Baird predicted the Peggy-Stan ending back in Ep. 4.08 The Summer Man.  After Stan made a joke about Peggy, "Peggy Olson, pioneering the science of wet blanketry."  Joey responds, "You love her."

The Coke commercial was filmed on a hilltop in Italy.  Italy was the only place we ever saw Don and Betty on vacation together and so in love.  It was also where Betty studied after college.  And it was in the title of the book the woman by the pool was reading in the last episode.  Plus, Betty is not stupid, she speaks Italian!


Roger:  Are you trying to kill me? 
Marie:  I'm trying to make you happy.

Marie:  You are the one that will throw me over and leave me for your secretary.  ...
Roger:  Yell at me slower or in English.

Pete:  Someday people are going to brag that they worked with you.
Peggy:  What am I supposed to say to that?
Pete:  I don't know.  No one's ever said it to me.

Peggy:  A thing like that.

Stephanie:  Be open to this.  You might feel better.
Don:  She took my money.  That's a good sign.

Joan:  Greg had twins with some nurse.  As far as he's concerned, Kevin never happened.
Roger:  So he knows?
Joan:  No, he's just a terrible person.

Joan:  Are you ill? Is everything okay?
Roger:  For the time being, but I'm getting married.
Joan:  Well, those skirts are pretty short at McCann.
Roger:  Nah.  I met her through Megan Draper.  She's old enough to be her mother.  Actually, she is her mother.

Joan:  I guess somebody finally got their timing right.

Joan:  That's the tip of the iceberg, Peggy.
Peggy:  I never know if that's good or bad.

Peggy:  I really thought you'd be on a beach by now.
Joan:  I've been to the beach.

Stephanie:  You're not my family.  What's the matter with you?
Don:   I just know how people work.  You can put this behind you.  It'll get easier as you move forward.
Stephanie:  Oh, Dick, I don't think you're right about that.

Stan:  You have such a rare talent.  Stop looking over your shoulder at what other people have.
Peggy:  You don't think I can do it.
Stan:  I said the opposite.

Stan:  There's more to life than work.

Don:  People just come and go and no one says good-bye?

Don:  Did everything fall apart without me?

Stan:  He always does this and he always comes back.  He's a survivor.  He's going to be okay.

Stan:  You've got to let him go.  It doesn't mean you stop caring about him.

Peggy:  I'm going to stay.
Stan:  Good, because I didn't want you to leave.
Peggy:  Then why didn't you just say that?
Stan:  Because every time I'm face to face with you, I want to strangle you.  And then I miss you when I go away.  And I miss you and I call you on the phone and I get the person I want to talk to.

Stan:  I don't even know what to do with myself because all I want to do is be with you.
Peggy:  What? What did you just say?
Stan:  I want to be with you.  I'm in love with you.
Peggy:  What?

Meditation leader:  The new day brings new hope.  The lives we've led, the lives we've yet to lead.  New day, new ideas, a new you.  

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