It's the beginning of the end, which means things are as they always have been.
The final season (or the first half of the final season, whatever you want to call it) of Mad Men started on Sunday night. I had been anxiously anticipating the season premiere, an episode called “Time Zones”, for months. Last week I’d read as many “season premiere first impression” articles as possible in an attempt to quench my thirst for all things Mad Men. I was primed and ready for Season Seven.
However, I wasn’t in front of a TV when “Time Zones” aired on AMC. I was riding on Interstate 87 outside of Albany in the passenger seat of a 2013 Jeep Wrangler, slugging coffee, chomping on gum and listening to old Whiskeytown songs.
You see, I was on my way back from visiting one of the great friends of my life, perhaps the great friend of my life in Enosburg Falls, Vermont. I had gone up with another buddy of mine for a long weekend.
My friend works as a first responder at the ski mountain Jay Peak and lives on a farm in Enosburg. Chaz and Olga, a friendly and lively couple, run the farm. They harvest sap from maple trees to make maple syrup. They also sell eggs and Olga—of Russian descent—arranges flowers for weddings. Their son, Lucas, lives on the property and helps them wherever possible.
In mid-March and early April, when the temperatures rise and the snow begins to thaw, the sap in the maple trees starts to run. This is known as “sugaring season.” All along the landscape of rural roads in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, sugar houses—small barns with their roofs raised slightly in the middle—pour smoke out into the mild, lavender air. If the sugar shack is right, people gather around with beers and watch logs loaded into large, burnt-black, furnaces; stand on wood platforms and look at boiling sap; walk in dull, hay-colored woods and look at lines and lines of blue, black, and grey line run amongst maple trees—dry lines, wet lines, vacuum sealed tunnels in the quiet, bare woods.
My friend helps with the sugaring operation. He lives in a wood cabin without insulation or plumbing. He uses an old iron, wood stove to stay warm during the winter when the temperature drops to negative twenty degrees. He and his girlfriend listen to records and distant radio stations on terrific sounding wood speakers and sleep in a lofted bed. They can walk through the woods and hear when a sap line is leaking. They have an outdoor shower that is gravity fed by a small pond up on a hill on the farm. Their life, the things they know, the way the communicate and endure and understand so deeply the tendencies and speaking patterns of the people that populate their world amazes me and makes me sip beer in awe while I spout absurdist one-liners; using humor to shield my insecurities about the life I lead.
When it was time to leave my friend, to take my mud-stained boots, sweating corduroys and red, spring-sunburnt face away from his life on the farm, I felt a great sadness. We’d had fun skiing and drinking and joking and I had so enjoyed immersing myself in his life—and reveling in his presence in my life—for just a few short, forty-eight hours, that I couldn’t help but mourn the end of my little trip.
We said goodbye in the golden afternoon light of Sunday afternoon along the ridge that the farm rests upon, the dogs padding around our feet and rolling in dirt and old snow. And it was time to get on the road.
When Mad Men’s final season premiered on AMC, I was sitting next to my buddy as he drove down 87. I was buzzed on caffeine and feeling shitty that I didn’t know how to handle a manual transmission and thus couldn’t help with the driving duties. I looked out the window at the full moon and made a vow that my life back in New York would be different. That I’d wean myself off my addiction to information; fight my compulsive need to be reading something about something at all times—even while I’m watching something else! I’d stop being so petty with my jealousies and hang-ups; my creative competitions with friends; I’d stop feeling shitty about work.
I felt a sense of victory, but that feeling faded and I was left with my life.
Mad Men is my favorite show because that’s what it’s about. You think things are going to change and you try to change yourself or your position in life, but all you are left with is your life. It’s decisions, it’s desires, its learning how to be happy with what is in front of you. And victories turn to status quo in a second.
When Peggy fell to her knees in her apartment at the end of the episode, I was right there with her. There are so many times when I’ve left work after a ten or eleven hour day and stood in the subway and felt so completely dissatisfied with myself and my life that I’ve wanted to cry. I’ve questioned every decision I’ve made. I’ve wondered what I could have done to bring myself to this place.
I only feel that way because I fail to understand that life is just decisions. They won’t always be the right one or the best one, but they leave you in a certain place and all you can do is make the meaning of that place as you go along. Don and Megan were half asleep on the couch in Los Angeles when that Disney, fairy tale show came on the screen. Don’s face was basked in the TV’s glow and he looked at the fairy tale font on the screen, some tale being told from an old book—a television prop.
There is no story or narrative for your life. You make decisions and you are left facing the consequences. You can try to hide in some kind of communal sex family like Roger, but you’ll be left lying awake, wondering how you just came from a breakfast where your daughter told you that she “forgives” you; you can try to hide in work like Peggy, but sometimes you are going to work for a boss you disagree with on a base level; you can watch TV all night like Don does in New York, cast an unsatisfied look at your bottle of Canadian Club and only find some small level of solace in the harsh discomfort of sitting on a frozen, high-rise Manhattan balcony.
Life doesn’t have a final season. Things aren’t cleaned up for us. We make decisions and end up in Enosburg Falls, Vermont or Cobble Hill, Brooklyn and we continue to have the same problems—those problems being solely the uneasy way we exist with ourselves. And all of our decisions begin to turn inward and we ask if we’ve ever done anything right ever.
We’re only one episode into Season Seven and this is already the stuff we’re dabbling in. Mad Men is the best show on television. There is no room for discussion.