Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Mad Men: Season 7 (Part I)

Creator: Matthew Weiner
Starring: Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery, Jessica Paré, Kiernan Shipka, Robert Morse, Kevin Rahm, Ben Feldman, Rich Sommer, Aaron Staton, Jay R. Ferguson, Christopher Stanley, Harry Hamlin, James Wolk Allan Havey 
Original Airdate: 2014

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

             **Spoiler Warning: The Following Review Contains Plot Spoilers For This Season And Previous Seasons of Mad Men*

With so many questions going into the seventh and final season of Mad Men it almost seems cruel of AMC to make the controversial call to give the series a Breaking Bad send-off, splitting it in two halves and forcing viewers to wait a year for the resolution. While it was obvious how milking the season monetarily benefits a network looking to fill a void left by two of television's all-time greatest dramas, less clear was how it would creatively affect the series, hamper pacing or compromise showrunner Matthew Weiner's vision for its end. At the risk of stating the obvious, Mad Men isn't Breaking Bad. It's a much slower burn, with a character-heavy focus that rewards viewers who watched from the pilot. And that number, as Nielson figures indicate, has dwindled considerably. Despite all the seasons streaming on Netflix, it's unlikely to enjoy the eleventh hour popularity surge BrBa did. But the faithful who are still hooked know that the show's gotten better as it headed into the more compelling historical backdrop of the late 60's, only strengthening our ties with characters we already feel a long-term connection to. This may only be a half-season, but a lot happens to set the stage for the end.

Megan's memorable entrance in Ep.7.1, "Time Zones"
When we last left selfish, womanizing, alcoholic ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm) he appeared to have lost everything. After picking exactly the wrong time and place to come clean about his impoverished childhood as Dick Whitman, he gives a disastrous Hershey's pitch that cause the other Sterling Cooper partners to send him packing. While Don's not officially fired, it's clear his services are no longer needed and the majority of the season will focus on him trying to crawl and scratch his way back into the company. He's also attempting to repair his marriage to Megan (Jessica Paré), who fled to California for acting opportunities when it became clear he wouldn't be joining her. Straddling both coasts without a job and barely a marriage we see the character as we've never seen him before. Not as a slick ladies' man or anti-hero, but defeated and desperate. But more importantly, humbled.

We saw signs of this newly humbled Don at the end of last season when he felt comfortable enough to give both his kids and co-workers a brief glimpse into his real past. It was also evident when he sacrificed a California relocation to Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm), potentially destroying his marriage so a friend could have shot at saving his own. Even the terms he must agree on to return to the agency is something the Don Draper of the first six seasons would never go for. Without work, he's completely lost, still attempting to repair not only his fractured marriage, but his relationship with daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka), who's still emotionally traumatized after walking in on his extra-marital affair.

Don's still married as we start the season, but barely, as he and Megan are not just on opposite coasts, but orbiting different planets entirely, as she throws herself into a bohemian hippie lifestyle that's definitely not in his wheelhouse at this point. The penthouse apartment they once shared doesn't even look the same, taking on a cold, deserted quality that's far removed from Megan's "Zou Bisou Bisou" days.  He can't even bring himself to drink as much, or even cheat on her (with guest star Neve Campbell nonetheless). Desperate enough to get back in the game, he's hired a now clean and sober Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray) to secretly pitch his ideas and most of them prove he's still got it.    

Don visits with Pete "California" Campbell
For all the focus on the agency having a bi-coastal presence it's kind of surprising just how little that aspect plays into the season. Sterling Cooper and Partners is an East Coast outfit and always will be since this has quintessentially been a New York series from day one. Excursions to L.A. have proven to be just that: Excursions. If the idea of all the action (or even half of it) moving out there was a red herring, don't try telling that to Pete "California" Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), who enjoys a fake reinvention of sorts with a new preppy wardrobe and a hot blonde realtor girlfriend, both of which fail to conceal his collapsed marriage with Trudy (Alison Brie) and the fact his daughter literally has no idea who he is.

Joining Pete out there is Ted, who's not only become a non-entity this season, but is apparently depressed and suicidal enough to draw comparisons to the late Lane Pryce, who's referenced quite a bit, especially in relation to Don, who ends up occupying his office. While that development  provides mileage for those already convinced the opening credits hint at a Don suicide jump, after this somewhat hopeful half-season, that already far-fetched theory seems unlikelier than ever. The obvious lack of screen time for Pete and Ted might be the only true disappointment of these seven episodes, even if certain agency developments promises a return to form for both soon. Especially Pete. 

If last season's finale promised Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) rising to prominence and even poised to take Don's seat at creative director, this one sees her crashing back to Earth, reminded at every turn that even as good as she is, she's still very much viewed as a woman in a man's world. Still distraught over Ted, her personal life's a mess, it's sole highlight a 10-year-old neighbor who comes to watch TV in her lonely apartment. To add on to the insult of being the most qualified passed over for Don's suddenly vacant position, it's filled by an incompetent moron who never met a pitch or client he wasn't apathetic toward. A terrible boss and an even worse creative mind, cardigan wearing Lou Avery (Allan Havey) is really just holding Don's office until he returns, but it's still fun watching his ridiculously pathetic behavior in the meantime.

Lou Avery's "Scout's Honor" sketch
Havey's performance as Lou is one of the best things of the season, with the veteran comedian expertly skirting the line between an out-of-touch, uncool relative you avoid at parties and that annoying superior who can't help but be insultingly offensive to everyone in sight. His treatment of Don's star secretary Dawn (Teyonah Parris) is reprehensible while his aspirations of becoming a cartoonist (with his "Beetle Baley"-inspired "Scout's Honor"comic strip) would probably seem noble if anyone else but him had them. Peggy loses more than a few steps working for someone who couldn't care less.

With an office not only been split into two coasts, but two warring factions, Roger Sterling (John Slattery) is losing control of his own company to nemesis Jim Culter (Harry Hamlin, in full smarmy villain mode). Roger's been phoning it in for a while now and this season is no different, opening with him in a similar state of arrested development and serial womanizing. But now he's finally forced to step up. Between scheming to get Don back into the fold, attempting to rescue daughter Margaret (Elizabeth Rice) from a hippie commune and forge meaningful relationships with both his grandson and illegitimate son with Joan (Christina Hendricks), he might finally be beginning to outgrow his mid-life crisis and come to terms with his absenteeism as a parent. The coup he stages at the end of this half-season only proves that when Roger's on and motivated, few are smarter.

Joan's having issues of her own, aside from a mean streak and nastiness that's developed from getting the least respect (and money) of all the partners, she's in her late thirties slumming it with her overbearing mother in a small apartment trying to raise an infant son. To an extent, things begin to change at the office as she's given her own accounts and a voice in important company decisions. One of the most interesting developments of last season was her friendship with the mysterious corporate suck-up Bob Benson, brilliantly played by James Wolk. He unfortunately only appears in one episode this go-around, but it's important in conveying the pressures facing a closeted gay man in the 60's and what Joan is willing to sacrifice for her own happiness. But her coldness and greediness really shine through this season, especially in her interactions with Don.

A 2001-inspired shot from Ep. 7.4, "The Monolith"
One of the nagging questions from the 1968-set Season 6 was why Weiner and his writers made no mention of that year's release of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even amidst incorporating The Planet of the Apes and Rosemary's Baby, it seemed odd they'd miss an opportunity to reference one the greatest films ever made or put it into some kind of historical context with these characters. Now we have our answer: He was saving it.

The idea of computers taking humans' place in the workforce is just the latest example of these characters being left behind in an era that's rapidly changing and outpacing them. Those who can adapt and roll with this change buy themselves some more time. Like Harry Crane (Rich Sommer), the office goof who's now suddenly invaluable. Those who can't will be left behind. Of course, we now know that computers didn't replace people in the workforce (at least not yet), but there was a huge shift, and back then no one had any idea what would happen with those giant, noisy IBM machines.

Cutler and Avery's dismantling of "creative" was bound to adversely affect everyone, but it's Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) who's sent off the deep end. Stifling the creative energy of someone wrestling with mental issues is like playing with fire and it's Peggy who ends up getting burned when he finally loses it. And by losing it, I'm not just talking about his mind, but also his nipple. Ironically, the precipitous for this bizarre event is a clever nod to 2001, in which Ginsberg reads the lips of his conspiring superiors, just as HAL 9000 did before he snapped. He theorizes that the new computer is turning everyone gay but unless by "everyone"  he means Bob Benson, then yes, he's going crazy.

Ginsberg is stretchered away in Ep. 7.5, "The Runaways"
The events leading up to Ginsberg being stretchered to a mental hospital features some of Elisabeth Moss' finest acting work on the series, which is really saying something. The same goes for Ben Feldman, who often popped in and out of the show with little regularity. Now it's easier to fully appreciate what he brought within the confines of that, much of it uncomfortably piercing the surface during this sequence. Even the usually stoned and jovial Stan (Jay R. Ferguson) turns deadly serious, deeply concerned for the health of his good friend.

If the changing culture is passing anyone fastest, it's Don, who returns to an agency not at all the same as he left it. It's the rare chance to see him, not only powerless, but nervous and zapped of confidence. The idea that he'll have to work for his former protege Peggy is just an added slap in the face. Having to eat crow and like it, it's of little surprise that it takes him about a week in show time to violate the ridiculous terms of his agreement, which the partners knew he had no chance of upholding.

If not for Roger, Don really would have been completely out of a job. He's certainly short a wife, as his on again, off again marriage with Megan appears to finally be off for good, though you could argue it was really off the second she left advertising and decided to (unsuccessfully?) pursue acting full-time. No longer under his control, the distance and generational gap between the two only grew, to the point that neither was worth the others time anymore, with Megan now shooting an attitude back at him just as good as he gives it. When not even a three-way with her friend can entice him back into this marriage you know there's trouble. Has he ever looked more bored?

A jealous Megan buys off Don's pregnant "niece" Stephanie
The last connecting thread between Don and his past as Dick Whitman rears its head when Anna Draper's niece Stephanie (Caity Lotz) returns as a pregnant, homeless hippie. Her abrreviated reentry into Don's world ends up being the death knell to his marriage with Megan, as she'll never know the "Dick Whitman" side of Don as intimately as Stephanie does, even if nothing ever happened between the two. Realizing that he lives to be the protector, she takes revenge the only way she can. By writing a check and condescendingly sending her on her way before he tries to again assume that responsibility.

It's interesting to observe how Mad Men portrays hippies. Stephanie's a real one while Megan's clearly an actress attempting to live a hippie lifestyle despite being extremely well off. Almost out of necessity, the usually likable Megan is the most unlikable she's been, as the fights with Don give Pare probably the heaviest acting to do of any season in which she's appeared. It remains to be seen whether she'll be on the show at all for the final episodes, or shuffled off to the sidelines in favor of more pressing developments once she's officially divorced from Don. If nothing else, Megan at least has to stay around long enough for the Manson murders, which are almost literally right around the corner. The extent of her involvement is still a question mark but her dancing with a Charles Manson lookalike certainly hasn't done much to dispel speculation.

The idea of family, or the evolving definition of it, could easily be considered the theme of the first half of this final season. With the entire country gathered together and transfixed by the moon landing, Don has to consider who his family is. The good news is that he's slowly repairing his relationship with Sally by simply telling the truth and her realizing that while her father isn't the man she thought he was, at least he'll never come close to inflicting on her the long-term psychological  abuse Betty (January Jones) has. And now it's being repeated with her brother Bobby, further solidifying her incompetence as a parent. It continues to astonish just how much of Betty and Don's mannerisms Kiernan Shipka works into her performance as Sally, especially when putting her obnoxious mom in her place.

Even Betty seems sick of herself at this point, gradually realizing that she went from being a trophy wife to a political trophy wife, as she's required to dutifully and silently stand by her husband Henry (Christopher Stanley) as he attempts to further his career. It turns out he's just as controlling as Don, only in a more passive-aggressive way. A basketcase not the slightest bit cut out for marriage or motherhood, Betty discarded her own life and identity for a white picket fence so how she handles coming to that painful self-realization could make for an interesting closing arc for a character who  still has some gas in the tank story-wise.
Don and Peggy slow dance to Sinatra in Ep. 7.6, "The Strategy"
The family Don is left with may be a dysfunctional one, but it's still a version of the real thing. One of the most touching moments of the half-season (and possibly the series) sees Don circling back around to Peggy and guiding her, finally comfortable enough to take on the role of mentor and encourage her success. After a rocky professional reunion, the two realize there's no sense fighting the fact they're cut from the same cloth. That their relationship isn't romantic and most likely never will be somehow makes it the purest connection on the series, stretching all the way back to their Season 4 classic, "The Suitcase." Peggy's pitch to fast food chain Burger Chef rivals Don's infamous Kodak Carousel presentation from the first season in terms of how the show uses advertising to not only reflect cultural shifts in society during that time, but make us think about how those shifts have carried into the present day.

Seeing Don, Peggy and Pete reunited as a family of their own at a Burger Chef table is a reminder of just how far removed each of those characters have been from ever being apart of what the outdated Lou Avery describes as the "nuclear family" of the 40's, 50's, or 60's. By the late '60's all of that was coming to an end, and the Apollo 11 mission represents possibly the last time Americans gathered together in a way reflecting it. The notion of the American family was certainly changing with women now working and meals being enjoyed at a Burger Chef table instead of a dining room. It's carried on to this day, making the pitch Peggy delivers as timely now as it was then. And that's why the image of the three (Father, Mother, Son?) eating at the table as the camera pulls back is one of the most enduring images the series' has given us. Here are people who couldn't be more different, yet know more about each other than maybe anyone else ever will. It's the new definition of family.

These rapidly changing times are solidified in the mid-season finale "Waterloo," with the death we've been prepared for, but didn't exactly envision playing out as it did. For many, the character of Bert Cooper outlasted his usefulness at Sterling Cooper a while back, popping in occasionally to make ignorant, old fashioned, and sometimes even flat-out racist observations. If anyone, aside from Don, had become a walking symbol of a bygone era it was Bert. And yet there was always a certain warmth and humor actor Robert Morse brought to the character in even the smallest doses that made him likable. Only beloved Bert would have the timing to die minutes after watching the moon landing. And it's special seeing Morse given a fitting series send-off with a crazy, afterlife musical number that proves the 83-year-old star of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying hasn't lost a step.

Bert Cooper says goodbye in Ep. 7.7, "Waterloo"
We've seen Don hallucinate and even "see dead people" before but him hunched over and teary-eyed as he imagines Bert (clad in his trademark argyle socks) singing "The Best Things in Life Are Free" definitely takes the cake. Yes, it's ridiculous, but also really moving and joyous, emblematic of the biggest moments this show always nails. In terms of what it means for Don, maybe he can finally breathe a sigh of relief knowing that his personal and professional stresses have subsided and it's time to appreciate that the best things in life, like his children and friendships, are free. Bert's death hits him. All at once. And Hamm is ingenious in silently conveying that.

Breaking Bad changed the rules for final seasons by proving that a series finale doesn't necessarily have to be the greatest or most important episode. It just has to close the deal. And most of the work should be done before that. But that series was telling one story with a finite number of ways it could have ended given Walter White's situation. With Mad Men, that number is practically unlimited and it's easy envisioning more than a few of them being letdowns. This show doesn't have a definitive end point since it could reasonably keep going, following these richly drawn characters into the 70's, 80's and beyond if Weiner wanted to go that route and AMC let him. But that's not how things work, and as comforting as the show's been, it's the right decision to bow out while it's still creatively strong.

How this split season would impact the parsing out of plot was a question mark, but by the finale, it becomes clear Weiner had a game plan: Tear Don down before redeeming him, while also tying up all the loose business ends at Sterling Cooper and Partners. But sticking the landing will be tricky. With Don suddenly facing a more hopeful future and SCP business taken care of, what's left? Will he fall back into a downward spiral or successfully reconcile his two identities? Will he continue mentoring Peggy? Will Stephanie return or have we really seen the last of Dick Whitman's past?

The gang sits transfixed by the Moon landing
With Woodstock, the Manson murders and the '69 Mets right around the corner, there's also the big question of what era the show will end in, with many assuming 1970 was always set to be the cut-off. While that still may be true, if any finale situation ever lent itself to a massive flash-forward giving us a glimpse into the characters' futures, it's this one. As we get closer to the end, it's hard not to think back to Matthew Weiner's comments about tying the show and its events to the present day. It's a worthy goal, but also one you can argue the series may have already reached.                                            

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