Saturday, April 26, 2014

Short Term 12

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Starring: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr, Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Keith Stanfield, Kevin Hernandez, Melora Walters, Frantz Turner, Alex Calloway
Running Time: 97 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

You can just tell when a movie's telling the truth. When a movie's being completely honest, no strings are being pulled and no games being played. It's like you're disappearing into the lives of the characters, and only when the final credits roll is it possible to entertain the fact they're not real people. Going on description alone, Short Term 12 almost has no business being as great as it is. On paper, there's nothing particularly remarkable about the story. The cast is comprised mostly of unknowns, while writer/director Destin Cretton is similarly untested. And yet, despite a tiny budget and very little promotion, the small indie feels bigger than any blockbuster because all the cogs in the machine are working in perfect harmony. Despite being one of the best reviewed films of the year, it still somehow manages to overperform, exceeding those expectations by simply keeping it raw and real.

The theatrical poster captures a scene I was curious to see play out in the actual film to discover its context. It turns out to be its final one, but revealing that spoils nothing since all of the film's power is contained in each minute leading up to it. It's ultimately a story about stories. Stories people tell themselves and others to get through the pain and those they tell to conceal the truth of what they're actually going through. It's also a reminder how many trudge through life with all kinds of buried problems no one even knows about, somehow able to normally function. Until finally they can't. And at its core is the best performance given by any actor, male or female, in the past year. 

Grace (Brie Larson) is a twenty-something supervisor at Short Term 12, a group home facility for troubled teens. In most cases, it's just a short stop before they get where they're going. Hopefully it's home, even if for some that may not be such a hopeful scenario. Her co-worker and live-in boyfriend is Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) and the film opens with both of them showing quiet new employee Nate (Rami Malek) the ropes and explaining rules and procedures. Their job isn't to be these kids' friends or therapists, but make sure they stay out of trouble and keep occupied with various activities. It's more exhausting than it seems, as most are still wrestling with the emotional issues that landed them there, causing the job to sometimes more closely resemble that of a parole or corrections officer than a social worker.

If a kid escapes and leaves the grounds, they can be followed, but that's it. They're basically gone. The arrival of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a morose teen with a history of self-harm brings a painful personal event to the surface for Grace that she's long buried. Something not even Mason knows and she's willing to destroy their relationship to avoid talking about. Sensing a girl silently crying out for help in a way only she seems to recognize, Grace breaks the rules, reaching out to Kaitlyn, putting both her job and relationship in jeopardy, while painfully confronting her own emotional demons.

From the minute this starts, it feels as if we've been dropped in a documentary about troubled teens and the counselors who work with them. It looks and sounds that authentic, as if we're seeing non-rehearsed moments we shouldn't even be allowed to witness. Those who have worked in a facility like this would obviously have a better idea of how close to reality this veers, but considering Cretton spent time at such a facility for a few months (before turning his real-life experience into the short student film this is expanded from) it's safe to say it's probably pretty accurate. That Grace is the picture of competence and composure at her job makes all that comes later that much more powerful when she's unable to take her own advice. It's different when it's you. Her and Mason at work is a case study in itself since they use all these little tricks to control the kids and earn their respect, if even just temporarily. There are little nuggets of this in every scene, especially evident when they're training the newbie and we see all the things he does wrong, yet also some of the potential buried within those rookie mistakes. There seems to be a constant battle between following protocol and being there for the kids, but not too much.

When the bomb drops about Grace's past, the film doesn't treat it as a shock or surprise because it isn't. It was all there the whole time in Brie Larson's performance, which is what makes it such a tightrope walk. We know Grace because we know people just like her. One of the toughest things to convey as actor are hidden reserves of surprising strength or deep pain. In this role Larson is able to do both, sometimes at once, and because we start with so much respect for the character and her relationship with her boyfriend and to these teens, when she's forced to pull back the curtain on her life, the reveal is almost unbearable to take. Brought to her knees emotionally by her own past, we see her go from a pillar of strength to someone who barely has enough confidence to function.  After being the best thing in an already very good 21 Jump Street and bringing a little more to ex-girlfriend parts in Scott Pilgrim and The Spectacular Now, it seemed Larson was following a trajectory similar to that of Emma Stone, which wouldn't have been bad at all. But this changes things. It was hard to predict her capable of digging so deep this soon.

The film's centerpiece scene is the telling of a children's story, carried by the performances of Larson and a revelatory Kaitlyn Dever, along with some really great writing. There's something pure and innocent about the simplicity of a brilliantly conceived children's story, so hearing one delivered in the context it is here makes the revelation coming from it more heartbreaking than if it were presented any other way. Despite coming from the mind of a screenwriter, there's never any doubt hearing it unfold that it's from from the pen of a teenager reaching out for help the only way she knows how. More signs the script is firing on all cylinders comes in the depiction of Grace's boss, Jack (Frantz Turner), who can't act on her pleas that a girl's in serious trouble. It's not that he's an idiot who doesn't listen or an incompetent supervisor as would be the case in a lesser film, but rather because his hands are tied legally. He's a rational guy who cares about the kids and understands Grace's frustration, while also realizing he has to let a valuable employee vent a little and take it out on him. He's also trying to do the best he can, which is a surprisingly nuanced touch for a character that could so easily be a movie stereotype.

This isn't to say the entire film revolves around Jayden and her problems, or even Grace being forced to confront hers. 18-year-old resident Marcus (Keith Stanfield), is struggling with the fact he'll be leaving the facility and worried what awaits him on the other side. His situation is just as compelling as Jayden's, even if we know far less about it. Stanfield's the only actor from Cretton's original short to return for the feature and his frequently wordless performance carries enough quite intensity and vulnerability to tell us all we need about his past, as does the actor/rapper's unforgettable, self-penned song, "So You Know What It's Like."

There are are so many ways this project could have gone wrong. We've seen it before. Tackling this subject matter almost always leads to eye rolls when filmmakers completely bypass the cold, hard truth in favor of taking a sappy, falsely inspirational route. You can argue all day what exactly makes a "perfect" movie, analyzing the acting, writing, directing and cinematography until you're blue in the face, and while this surely comes up aces in those categories, it's always those unpredictable intangible factors that come together to create the total package. Most are invisible. Short Term 12 is listed as running 97 minutes but it could have been 80 minutes or three hours and I wouldn't have noticed the difference. When you're this absorbed, time disappears and the movie's over in the blink of an eye. You can almost hear the slam of a book closing, as the story reaches its logical conclusion, not because someone chose to end it, but because it's over. Cretton and his actors make magic and everyone should see it.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Denis O'Hare, Steve Zahn, Michael O' Neill, Dallas Roberts, Griffin Dunne, Kevin Rankin
Running Time: 116 min
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The generally held assumption when someone knows they're nearing the end of their life is that they reach some kind of peace or contemplative resignation, quietly accepting their fate since there's no choice to do otherwise. Then there's Ron Woodruff. He's a homophobic bull rider and electrician who in 1985 contracts AIDS after having unprotected sex with a prostitute. He's given a month to live and Dallas Buyers Club tells the true-life story of how he managed to stretch that 30-day death sentence to seven years by sheer determination and ingenuity. It also represents the crowning pinnacle of what's been called by many (including the actor himself) as the "McConaughssance" of Matthew McConaughey's career, earning him a Best Actor Oscar few thought could ever be within his reach based on his previous choices.

Of course, the running joke when photos first surfaced of the alarmingly thin actor on set was that he was sure to win an Academy Award. While there's definite truth in that, it short changes all the other things he does masterfully in the role aside from undergoing a dangerous physical transformation. Lost in this conversation is that the movie's also pretty good, as director Jean-Marc Vallée uses the complexity of this character and his lead actor's performance to turn what could have been a dated, sappy issue piece into something that at least feels a little different from other films in this genre.

It's 1985, in the midst of a seemingly uncontrollable HIV epidemic, made that much worse by the media playing it up as a homosexual disease that should have little impact on guys like Ron Woodruff (McConaughey), a man's man who rides bulls and downs beers with his buddies. Upon first receiving the diagnosis, he goes into denial mode, lashing out at the doctors trying to help him, all while being ostracized by everyone he knows and finding out first-hand it's a virus that very much carries a stigma. With his health rapidly deteriorating and AZT side effects taking their toll, he finds a way to smuggle an illegal AIDS drug across the border, working with and befriending a transgender patient named Rayon (Jared Leto). With the reluctant endorsement of Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), they take on the FDA and hospital beaurocracy, opening the "Dallas Buyers Club" to distribute drugs to  ailing patients that hopefully extend their lives.

That an angry bigot like Ron contracts the AIDS virus seems like a cruel twist right out of a Twilight Zone episode, and that irony is smartly played up in the script's opening half. It's fitting that one of the first images we see is a newspaper headline that Rock Hudson has AIDS, as Ron uses the word "fag" numerous times to vent his feelings on it. His reaction to that news and much of what happens before his diagnosis sets Ron up as being almost terminally unlikable. That McConaughey shows little fear in actually "going there" is why the rest of the film works better than it could have, especially when he falls victim to the prejudices and insults he's guilty of dishing out at the beginning of the film.

Arrogant and stubborn, Ron lives fast and plays hard, though it's clear very early from his emaciated appearance that something's drastically wrong. When the outlook is dire, the very same qualities we hated become almost a call to arms against the FDA and all the doctors in bed with them.Through this, McConaughey never loses the character's confident swagger and Ron becomes relatively easy to root for, even if circumstances drove to the point he's at. If anything, this is a more unflattering portrayal of Woodruff than expected, with the film's first half far exceeding its second. Once it gets into the details of the Buyer's Club and he and Dr. Saks' battle with Dr. Sevard (Denis O'Hare), it becomes more of a medical procedural. But it's a strong one nonetheless, backed up by our investment in a motivated protagonist fighting for his life. That's all McConaughey.

Receiving nearly as much attention as is Supporting Actor Oscar winner Jared Leto, whose role as a transgender woman gets less screen time than you might have imagined going in. The debate as to whether the Rayon role should have actually been played by a real transgender seems irrelevant to the actual performance, which accomplishes exactly what it should. As easy as it is to harp on the notion of Leto in drag, his very best scene comes when he's out of it, sans makeup and donning a business suit to ask his estranged father for money as he slowly wastes away. That the developing friendship between Ron and Rayon doesn't feel forced or play like a preachy lesson in tolerance is a credit to what both actors bring to the table. Garner also turns in strong work as the doctor who slowly realizes the course of treatment has to change if any patient is to have a chance of survival moving forward. 

Portrayed as neither a saint nor a hero, Woodruff was a desperate man with a great idea that happened to be illegal and a surprisingly restrained script doesn't attempt to paint Woodruff as anything other than that. While strongly executed by all involved, unpredictability still isn't likely to be singled out as one of the bigger selling points here, even considering it's based on a true story. The only thing anyone will remember about Dallas Buyers Club is McConaughey, but isn't that usually the case with performances that win competitive acting Oscars? It's always easier to name the actor than the movie they won for. But the good news for him is that it recently could have been a number of them.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Mad Men (Season 6)

Creator: Matthew Weiner
Starring: Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, John Slattery, Christina Hendricks, January Jones, Jessica Paré, Aaron Staton, Rich Sommer, Kiernan Shipka, Kevin Rahm, Christopher Stanley, Jay R. Ferguson, Ben Feldman, Robert Morse, James Wolk, Linda Cardellini, Harry Hamlin
Original Airdate: 2013

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

A while back there was this wild rumor circulating that Mad Men would conclude in the present day. It came from an interview conducted with showrunner Matt Weiner, who eventually clarified himself, even as the notion was dismissed by many as simply too far-fetched and preposterous to be true. The initial reasoning was that if this is a series about where we've come from and where we're going,  it's only fair we eventually find out where we've ended up. That's an interesting way to look at it, offset only by the improbability of an alcoholic, chain smoking Don Draper living to see the iphone and the fact that the series hasn't had a time jump much greater than even a year. But it's only in this sixth season that you could actually start to envision such a scenario. If not that, then perhaps something as equally mystifying or insane. Weiner wrote for The Sopranos and we all know how that ended so maybe it's time to prepare ourselves. All signposts point to the show hurling toward one of those polarizing conclusions and that's kind of exciting. And given how the series specializes in long term, novelistic storytelling, the groundwork for something like that would have been mapped out since the pilot.

A vacationing Don reads Dante's "Inferno" (Ep. 6.1, "The Doorway, Part I")
When I first started watching Mad Men I struggled to make it past the first season, finding it too slow and complaining nothing ever "happens." But a lot was happening. I just couldn't see it yet. The show's a slow burn. Slow enough that it's only now that we're fully reaping the rewards, knowing what the characters are thinking and feeling and being able to relate it to previous events. That's why it's so perplexing some have expressed displeasure with quite possibly its greatest season. And how could it not be? It's 1968. Putting these characters in that tumultuous year with the culture at a turning point is like capturing lightning in a bottle and Weiner wasn't likely to drop the ball. Many of our favorites are rapidly approaching (if not already at) middle age and time's speeding them by, leaving them as holdovers of an earlier era.

Slick ad man Don Draper's inner battle with his true identity of Dick Whitman (symbolically illustrated on the season's promotional poster) reaches a fever pitch, potentially claiming its most helpless victim yet: His own daughter. This might mark the first season we feel genuine sympathy for Dick, realizing that the true extent of his upbringing insured he'd never have a chance at becoming "Don Draper" for real. He had to adopt that persona, playing it to perfection up to this point. But now the cracks are showing. It's caught up with him, with the only glimmer of hope being that he now may finally be realizing it.

1968 finds not only Don (Jon Hamm), but the now two-floor ad agency of SCDP, at a crossroads. With Vietnam raging and the counterculture movement in full swing, all the characters are having difficulty adjusting to the times, both at the office and in the their personal lives, with the line between the two as invisible as ever. Everyone seems engaged in behavior that's cyclical, calling back to the first few seasons enough to make you wonder if any of them are truly capable of any kind of change or growth. Much how Don's affairs eroded and eventually destroyed his marriage with Betty (January Jones), the two-hour premiere ("The Doorway Parts I and II") reveals he's similarly grown tired of second wife Megan (Jessica Paré), just as her career as a soap actress is taking off.

Guest star Linda Cardellini as Sylvia Rosen
The timing of these marital issues isn't a coincidence since Don immediately loses interest in any woman he can't control, with the emotional abuse even extending to new mistress Sylvia Rosen ( Emmy-nominated guest star Linda Cardellini), the terms and conditions of their affair firmly in his grasp. Flashbacks to a young Dick Whitman growing up in a whorehouse set the stage for his toxic adult relationships with the opposite sex, viewing them as property, fit to discard whenever he's through. Not exactly the strongest foundation on which to build a life as a devoted husband and father, yet it's a lie he's still obsessively clinging to.

The scariest thing about Don's actions this season is how he can so casually compartmentalize the facets of his life to absolve himself the guilt of sleeping with his friend's wife. It's a new low, even for him. Don's cheated before, but never this brazenly, and certainly not without considering the ramifications that could eventually come from it. It's almost like he's testing fate and daring anyone to catch him. The days of Don walking into a room and winning over every man and woman in it with his confident swagger are slowly drawing to a close. And while he still shows flashes of brilliance, some of his pitches to clients now border on embarrassing, emblematic of a man who's given up lying to himself and others.

Don's legendary first season Kodak Carousel pitch (itself a beautiful pile of lies) has never seemed further away, as he's now centering a campaign for Sheraton Hawaii Resorts around death, discussing the politics of Vietnam over dinner with Chevy executives and sabotaging a Hershey account. This season truly is his "jumping-off point" and in season full of latent symbolism and conspiracy theories it's hard not to think that this Sheraton pitch about a man shedding his suit and disappearing gives only more credence to the wildest and most ambitious prediction yet regarding Don's final destination in the series. His reading of Dante's Inferno on the beach in the premiere suggests he's stuck in his own nine circles of hell, repeating previous sins like infidelity, while senselessly hoping for different results.

Roger mourns the death of...his shoe shine guy
Also trying to claw out of his own personal hell is Roger Sterling (John Slattery), who's been going through the motions for a while at work and discovering last season's mind opening LSD trip has done little to clean up the mess that's his life. As if coming to terms with his mother's death (and his shoe shiner) wasn't enough, he's essentially being blackmailed by his own daughter and son-in-law so he can see his grandson. Worse yet, Joan (Christina Hendricks) cuts him off from their love child, justifiably worried about his track record of sticking around. Slattery (who also directs standout episodes, "Man With a Plan" and a Tale of Two Cities") is, as usual, gold as Sterling, providing great comic relief while conveying the underlying tragedy of a character still refusing to grow up as he enters the Burt Cooper stage of his career, while wrestling with his own mortality. Roger's been phoning it in for a while now at work but there are points during the season where he actually seems rejuvenated and motivated to get new business, at least compared to Don, who's the laziest he's ever been.

Despite her promotion to partner last season, Joan is still viewed by her colleagues as somewhat of a joke, a partner in title only and treated as little more than a glorified secretary. Some of this is her fault for sleeping her way to the top, but more of it lies at the feet of the firm and the times. What choice did she have other than to offer herself up to the fat, sweaty Jaguar executive?  It's sad, but true, and Hendricks has always been skilled at depicting the fire inside Joan. The desire to be wanted yet respected, though this season her desires heavily tilt toward the latter. Trying to make major strides in being taken seriously for her intellect rather than her body, she finds an unexpected ally in former nemesis Peggy (Elisabeth Moss).

Having jumped ship to rival firm Cutler, Gleason and Chaough last season, a major merger ("For Immediate Release") drags Peggy back into the fold, while also introducing a dynamic new character who completely changes the game. Just when Peggy thinks she's done with Don, she's pulled back in and shoved right in the middle of a power struggle between her old boss and a new one, Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) of Cutler, Gleason and Chaough. Ted joins an increasingly short list of characters who can actually be considered a good guy, though less of one as the season progresses. Whereas Don never appreciated Peggy (or refused to show it), Ted appreciates her a little too much, to the point that it's clouding his judgment in both business and personal matters. Joining him is partner Jim Cutler, magnificently underplayed by guest star Harry Hamlin as a bizarro version of Roger, only far sleazier.

Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) reading copy
Peggy's emergence as the new Don has been in the works for a while, but this is the season where it starts to come to fruition, as she earns both the fear and respect of her employees. And now she's doing it under a boss who's actually promoting and fostering her creativity. It's common knowledge how good Elisabeth Moss is in the role, but this season Weiner gives her better material to work with than maybe any other previous season barring the first two. James Spader lookalike Rahm makes an Emmy-worthy debut as Ted, perhaps the only formidable adversary Don's had in the office precisely because of his polar opposite personality and management style. They rarely seem like partners at all, each trying to one up the other at every turn, their competition for accounts causing a war within the newly christened Sterling Cooper and Partners, just as a real one is ripping the country apart.  

If Peggy is evolving into the female version of Don Draper, Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) has always been the poor man's version of Dick Whitman. Unlike Don, when trying tries to wear a smooth, confident mask to hide his insecurities he comes off as a bumbling fool. In some ways his actions seem slimier and more pitiful because he's just so bad at it, using everything and everyone to get his way and rarely succeeding. Throughout the series he's raped a maid, serial cheated on his wife, tried to pick up an underage girl at driver's ed and taken a mistress who forgets who he is after electroshock therapy treatments. That all this pales in comparison to the hijinx he finds himself in this season speaks volumes. It also speaks for Karthesiser's pitifully comical performance that we still somehow feel sorry for him, emerging in these 13 episodes as something other than a Don wannabe.

Having finally attained what he thought would be the perfect life with a wife, baby, and home in Westchester, he's slowly come to the realization that none of that is him at all. The now balding Pete just wants to look and feel important and those are all just a means to an end. But unlike Don, he can't even successfully fake it as his savvy wife Trudy (Alison Brie) sees right through him  Having already torpedoed his marriage and rapidly losing traction at work, Weiner throws Pete into what's easily his funniest storyline since the show's inception involving his mother and a bizarre feud with the show's best new character. Pete finally meets his manipulative match, but the opponent carries an advantage he never will: Charm and likability.

"How are you?"
No one knows quite what to make of brown-nosing accounts man Bob Benson (James Wolk), but trying to find out exactly who he is and his motivations turn into one of the season's biggest mysteries and fodder for even more conspiracy theories. Since it seems impossible anyone could be so nice on this series without some kind of ulterior motive, red flags go up the second he arrives. As the clingy office climber, Wolk's performance is pitch perfect in how it's just disingenuous enough to generate intrigue that something's seriously off with this guy. FBI agent investigating Don? Time traveler? Murderer? The speculation is endless, despite this not even being that kind of a show. When we do eventually find out some major information on him, it still doesn't explain all of his bizarre behavior or begin to scratch the surface of what he's about. That Weiner has yet to do that is very good news heading into the final stretch, as the directions the character can go seem endless. Or it could all mean nothing. This series is famous for making us guess which.

More than perhaps any other previous season, historical events play an indispensable role in shaping the characters who are active participants in the social upheaval of the times rather than spectators on the sidelines. Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, civil rights and the counterculture movement are all front and center in 1968 and it never feels as though the series is checking boxes, instead integrating them into the character's lives and showing how the changing landscape is affecting everyone. New York City is changing as well, entering an era of crime it won't fully recover from until the 90's. And as usual, it's also the impressively accurate retro production and costume design, and the music choices that seem as important to the series as its characters. With the 60's ranking as arguably the strongest decade for music in American history, there's much to draw from as we get Janis Joplin, The Monkees, and Joni Mitchell among others, along with some key integration of pop culture with that year's popular film, the Planet of the Apes playing a small, but crucial role.

Target practice with Stan Rizzo (Ep. 6.8, "The Crash")
In what should rank as one the finest episodes, "The Crash," takes full advantage of the craziness of the time, as a "Dr. Feelgood" like physician injects the entire creative staff with a powerful stimulant on the eve of a major Chevy pitch. The result is an episode that unconventionally toys with time, contains much dark humor and results in new personal revelations for a sick and exhausted Don.  There's also a downright scary event involving daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) and her little brother that works on a number of different levels.  It also maximizes colorful supporting characters like bearded stoner Stan Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson), nerdy head of TV Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) and neurotic free-thinker Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman).

Ironically, it's the extremely likable, sometimes author Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) who not only makes the biggest impression in the episode, but takes the most amount of abuse (physical and otherwise) throughout the season for his role in the Chevy account. He joins Ted, Megan and Betty's politician husband Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley) as the only somewhat moral and responsible characters, with the latter stepping up to assume the responsibilities of husband and father that Don skirted. That Betty now emerges as the preferable parent--physically and emotionally returning to early season one form not long after an eye-opening visit to Greenwich Village in the premiere-- is a testament to just how far Don is falling and failing as a dad.

Betty, even at worst, has at least tried to give their kids a stable home, but this season Don may have permanently traumatized one of them in much the same way he was in that whorehouse growing up. It's nearly impossible to discuss the season without referencing the major event that occurs toward the end of it ("Favors"). It's here where everything Sally thought she knew about her dad is torn to shreds in one moment and Don's cyclical behavior throughout this season is given the ultimate payoff. In this moment is possibly the best acting the somehow still Emmy-less Jon Hamm has ever done on the show, staggering aimlessly through Don's penthouse lobby in a wordless panic, the character legitimately shaken for the first time. Mr. Cool finally has no idea what to do.

Sally makes a shocking discovery (Ep. 6.11, "Favors")
Since it hasn't been front and center on the series until now, it's been easy to overlook just how messed up Sally's life could potentially turn out having parents like this. If Weiner's end game is to bridge the gap between our past and present, she's the only character capable of doing it, observing these people's actions through the same shocked, impressionable eyes we've had since the show's pilot. She's also sharper than so many of the dysfunctional adults she's surrounded by, offering up one-liners and words of wisdom that make them look immature by comparison.

Sally's stay at a boarding school where she uses her friendship with the infamous Glen (Marten Weiner) to manipulate a pair of mean girls ("The Quality of Mercy") shows just how far she's come. Finally seeing her father for what he really is, it'll be fascinating to see what happens as Sally enters her rebellious teen phase, of which we've already gotten a preview. And how fortunate they've been to have an actress as good as Shipka playing her and not just reaching, but far exceeding, the lofty expectations of a constantly changing part. A good case can be made that Sally's the series' true protagonist, and when we do reach that highly anticipated final scene, it's a safe bet she'll be in it. Let's just hope she's not shaking a snow globe.

If there's a rockbottom, Don hits it at the end of this season, having seemingly lost everything. Or has he? The season finale ("In Care Of") shows a man who may have finally shed the skin of Don Draper, possibly ready to accept his past as Dick Whitman, if not fully integrate him into his current life. But we've teases of that before, only to have him slip back into his selfish, emotionally destructive ways. The idea of Don starting a new life with Megan in California is exactly what it first came to him as: A dream. While the agency briefly returns to California for business this season, Don's desire to escape to the west coast reaches as far back as the Season 2 classic, "The Jet Set," when he crashed at the pad of some wild bohemians. What he really wants to do is run away, not with Megan, but from her, since he can never return her feelings with the baggage he's carrying. There's also concern just how long she'll be around, as many have speculated that the Sharon Tate t-shirt she wore in Ep. 6.9 "The Better Half" marks her for death. I wouldn't be quite so sure, but as we know, even wardrobe details on this show are rarely unintentional.

Megan Draper wearing Sharon Tate's iconic t-shirt
A public breakdown and a sacrifice he makes for a co-worker suggests that while Don may be too late to salvage his own mess, he can help someone else from repeating his mistakes. This is the season everything comes full circle and Weiner throws all his cards on the table. Proof comes in the last image, which is strong and enduring enough to double as the series closer. But somehow there's more, and it feels like there should be. Contrary to popular belief, Mad Men is a much better now than when it started because we've gone through so much with the characters that we've reached kind of a shorthand with them, knowing their motivations before even they realize it, yet shocked by their actions just the same. The show isn't only about Don Draper anymore. It's grown bigger than that, with the complete picture coming into sharper focus with each passing episode.