Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Men Season 8: "Person to Person"

Yes, it is the end of an era.



Well, I was wrong about so many things.

I didn’t expect Matthew Weiner to provide us with further resolution for each of his characters.

When Joan left McCann with her $250,000 dollars, we didn’t know what exactly was going to happen to her, but she got part of the money she always wanted, had an intriguing new love interest, and was heading into a future that was wide open with possibility.

Pete got his high-profile job at Lear Jet, reconciled with Trudy and was preparing to move to Wichita. Most likely, he was going to become bored in Wichita. His jet setting position would provide him with plenty of opportunities to stray from Trudy once again. Perhaps he’d make the same mistakes; or maybe, just maybe, he would have gained knowledge and perspective from his indiscretions and learned how to be a better husband and father.

For me, the end of Roger’s story actually occurred when he kissed Don goodbye at the bar in “Time & Life.” Roger has undergone the least amount of change since the series began; he’s constantly coasted on his wit and privilege, with a few attempts at emotional and psychological (i.e. LSD and therapy) along the way. We knew Roger Sterling would continue to live the way he always had.

Betty was diagnosed with lung cancer and given six months to live. We heard her farewell letter to Sally; and we saw how Sally was going to assume a role of leadership in her family since her actual father is unreliable and her step-father wouldn’t be able to handle the grief and added responsibility of being a widower.

When we saw Peggy strut down the hall—hung-over, wearing sunglasses—I thought that was our last glimpse into her world. How could you possibly top a moment like that for one of the most important characters on your show? As a viewer (or reader of the text) you have all of the information about Peggy to know what is going to happen from that moment on. She’s going to struggle at work, continue to strive professionally and learn to become a better manager—all while figuring out if there is a way to find some kind of happiness in her personal life.

All that being said, I was more than happy to have a chance to spend time with each of these characters again; to get even more amazingly written, true human moments—both big and small. Sure, there were plenty of fan service moments. Like the tease of Peggy and Joan going into business together; of Ken Cosgrove’s amazing assessment of his son (“He’s a little weird. I actually think there might be something wrong with him.”); Joan saying that Greg is “just a terrible person”; Roger giving Kevin part of his fortune in one last gesture of love toward Joan; Joan starting the Holloway Harris production business; and, of course, Peggy and Stan realizing that they were in love in a scene that only peak Nora Ephron could have matched for both sentimentality and earned character development. Many people either cringed or cried in joy over Stan and Peggy’s kiss. No matter how you look at it, the writing, from Stan’s introduction until last night, validated that moment happening. You can argue that we didn’t need to actually see it to know that it was true and there all along, but I am not upset that it happened.

I predicted that, with nowhere left to go on the road, the only place for Don to do his true soul searching was to return to his family. That notion was pushed aside immediately when the episode opened with him breaking speed records in Utah. He speaks to Sally on the phone, trying to brag about his adventures, while Sally is stuck on the East Coast trying her best to be an adult. Don, as always, wants to do things his way, but Sally knows what is best. Sally can see that Betty’s post-mortem wishes are not in the best interest of her brothers and she wants Don to convince Betty of the same. However, Betty will not be convinced otherwise, she believes that her kids need the stability of some kind of nuclear family. Don’s presence will only disrupt that and, besides, how long will Don remain interested in his children anyway, no matter what his intent may be?

And, though it was emotionally excruciating (but phenomenally acted), the goodbye between Don and Betty over the phone was another bit of fan service for those who believed that Betty and Don belonged together all along. “Birdie…” “I know.” Those two small lines of dialogue were earned over seven seasons of turmoil.

Instead of ending up back in New York, Don wound up at a New Age retreat in California. He remained separated from all of the important people in his life and found that, having stripped himself of everything material that made up the Don Draper identity, he was left with nothing. Stephanie leaves him behind. She tells him that he’s not her family. She asks what is wrong with him. When Don tries to make his classic Draper pitch about moving forward (the one that forged his deeper connection to Peggy back in Season 2), she tells him that he’s wrong, that he’s “not right about that.”

Don is left at the New Age retreat alone. He can’t leave or run. In one of the group exercises, an elderly woman expresses herself physically toward Don by pushing him away. Later, in a panic, Don calls Peggy. She tells him that people were worried when he disappeared. She asks him what he’s been doing. Don says he has no idea—an admission that all of his running and traveling are no match for truly looking inward and finding what truly makes him happy and give him meaning in life, instead of what can simply distract him from death—and confesses all of the things he’s done wrong. Peggy tries to bring him back from the edge, but he’s too far into his own depression and isolation. He is despondent and it truly seemed like he might kill himself.

Until the Leonard Moment. In the group meeting, a regular, self-admitted, uninteresting man named Leonard explains the loneliness and lack of love he feels from his family and from the entire world. When describing his family, Leonard says, “They should love me. 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.” He then describes his dream about being trapped in a refrigerator, which causes Don to completely break down. He steps across the room, embraces Leonard and cries.

Then, we have that final moment. Don sitting in a meditation session, listening to one of the New Age instructors says, “A new day, new ideas. A new you.” Don, his eyes closed, breathes in and out and chants, “Om.” A bell dings and the Coke commercial begins.

Many people have dissected that final moment for meaning. My take is that it can mean anything you want it to. I know that sounds like a cop out, but its true. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Don looked inward, had a cathartic moment—recognized that in his search for love he had turned his back on people who did genuinely love him—and found a sense of inner peace. That sense of inner peace allowed him to see that the one thing that made him happy was advertising.

Maybe the bell ringing was the sound of an idea. Don had internalized the experience of bottoming out, spending time at the New Age retreat completely alone and turned that into the Coke campaign. If he did, that strikes me as true to the character; that strikes me as something honest and earned. Stan told Peggy she was good at advertising, that she didn’t need to write scripts for industrial films with Joan. Don’s wandering across the country, his reluctant confrontation with his loneliness and inability to receive love made him realize that the one thing he was good at was creating ads; was using commerce to tell people that they are not alone.

To me, the more important thing was that the show was telling us, yes, everything is marketable—everything, even moments of enlightenment and healing, can be turned into a commodity. The Sixties have long been a product that we can buy. Anything you do, anything you believe is essential to your identity can turn into a BuzzFeed listicle, can be boiled down into a stat that is then collected and used to tell a beer, a soda, a detergent, a television series or political candidate.

“You weren’t raised with Jesus. You don’t know what happens when people believe in something,” Don tells Stephanie. Institutions bring people together, but they only exist to survive and expand. There is an element of every institution, every product that attempts to make you feel a part of something—“Take it. Break It. Share It. Love It.”—but that sense of community can be false or dangerous. Products are meant to provide us with a distraction from death, we want to feel the same feeling we felt upon our first purchase, our first sip or hit. Religion, with all of the positive virtues each system of belief contains, has historically been a means of controlling those that are afraid of death, of being alone in the universe and bringing them into a community. But that community, that fear, that system of belief is often perverted in the service of selling something else. I don’t want to push my personal beliefs any further, but that is what I took from the end of the show.

You may think that sounds cynical, but I don’t believe it is. Because the reason why I truly loved the show was the fact that I connected so deeply with its presentation of loneliness; of being suspicious of love; of feeling alienated from the world. In “The Mountain King”, Don told Anna Draper that he is watching his life. “I keep scratching at it, trying to get into it. I can’t.” Later in the episode, Anna is flipping tarot cards and she and Don have the following exchange.

Anna Draper[points to the World card] This is the one.
Don/Dick Whitman: Who’s she?
Anna Draper: She’s the soul of the world. She’s in a very important spot here. This is you; what you are bringing to the reading. She says you are part of the world. Air, water, every living thing is connected to you.
Don/Dick Whitman: It’s a nice thought.
Anna Draper: It is.
Don/Dick Whitman: What does it mean?
Anna Draper: It means the only thing keeping you from being happy is the belief that you are alone.

In the pilot episode, Don hits the high notes of his “It’s Toasted” pitch to Lucky Strike with the following bit of classic Draper poetry: “A sign on the side of the road screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is okay. You are okay.” I didn’t realize it until recently, but in “Time & Life” when Roger kisses Don at the end of their bar stool banter, he says to him, “You are okay.” Products can do that for you; sex, drugs and alcohol can do that for you. You can look around and say, this is how I should be because this what other people are doing are buying. But in the end, you won’t truly be all right until you accept the fact that all you have is yourself and that you have to be all right with that to truly embrace another person; to have a person to person existence in this world.

That theme has most resonated with me throughout Mad Men’s run. Perhaps it is the same connection many of you have, but for me it felt deeply personal. My own alienation from and inability to accept love from the people that actually love me was reflected back in this work of fiction. I started watching the show at 22 years old. My friends and I would watch the show every Sunday night in a sweaty apartment. Of course, I first used Don as a fantasy. I wanted to be as handsome and as good with women as he was. But I eventually realized that there was something much more important going on. People said he was a cipher of a character, but I saw in him a fundamental problem in myself (without the sex and alcohol addiction)—that ability to accept the fact that “you are okay.”

I am almost thirty now and I watched the finale alone in my studio apartment. The years have passed and I’ve tried to improve myself in a variety of ways: in accepting my friends and family for who they are; in understanding that your day job will never define you, that in a tough professional situation all you can do is take a breath and do your best work no matter how fucked up things are and no matter how much you want to change them for the better; for appreciating the value in the process of creative work regardless of the results; in understanding that an achievement or another person isn’t going to make me entirely happy—that only I can do that. And no matter what, happiness is only a fleeting feeling anyway; something that men try to bottle and sell in different forms.

Mad Men has been there the entire way. I thrilled when I recognized the show mirroring a professional dynamic I saw at work; I laughed at the masterful use of irony, comedic timing and the economical way the writers set up scenes to start on a joke (see the “Pig Latin” joke from the finale). I learned how to hear good dialogue and recognize when a character’s voice came off as stilted. Most of all, I just wanted to know what happened next. For someone like me who can only seem to write fiction that doubles down on mood, slow pacing and quiet moments, that was hugely important.


So, in the closing moments of “Person to Person,” when Roger Sterling made a joke in French about Marie Calvet being his mother, I laughed hysterically in a hot empty room. And then I began to cry uncontrollably. The television show that I have loved and will most likely love more than any other in my entire life was coming to an end. It was hilarious and sad, cynical and hopeful. It meant everything to me. Just like real life.


3 comments:

  1. Wow. So wonderfully written. So many parallels to what I thought as well, but you really dug deep. Thanks for this.

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  2. Thanks, Matthew. There's a TON of great recaps out there, so I gotta try and find that personal/philosophical angle; and also dig into the past episodes and bring back what I found meaningful.

    I appreciate you reading and leaving a note.

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