Saturday, May 30, 2015

Mad Men: Season 7 (Part II)

Creator: Matthew Weiner
Starring: Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery, Aaron Staton, Christopher Stanley, Rich Sommer, Kiernan Shipka, Jessica Paré, Kevin Rahm, Christopher Stanley, Jay R. Ferguson, Alison Brie, Bruce Greenwood
Original Airdate: 2015

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

**Spoiler Warning: The Following Review Contains Plot Spoilers for Season 7 of Mad Men and its Series Finale, "Person to Person"**

It seems that whenever a beloved, long-running dramatic television series takes its final lap, a sense of urgency builds as we inch closer to the end. Our pulses quicken and our minds race with all the intriguing outcomes that could unfold, each seemingly crazier and more far-fetched than the last. And not being showrunners, most of our ideas are terrible, yet perfectly reasonable for fans caught up in the groundswell of finale hysteria. If a final season in TV is the equivalent of a freight train picking up speed and gaining momentum, Breaking Bad-style, as it speeds toward its ultimate destination, Mad Men would seem to represent the antithesis. With a structure more closely resembling a long-form novel, it was never dependent on its characters ever reaching an end point, as part of the fun was speculating the direction their lives would take after the last episode concludes.

Mad Men (2007-2015)
It's easy to envision creator Matthew Weiner stomping around the writers' room, resenting the very idea of a "series finale," arguing that no matter what he does, he can't win. To a certain extent, he'd be right. If Don Draper (Jon Hamm) only likes "the beginnings of things" as he was once told, you'd figure showrunners must love them. It's endings they hate. That's why the biggest surprise is just how much momentum this half-season builds in its last few episodes and how finale-ish its finale feels.

It was always assumed the ending would be more Sopranos than Breaking Bad. Not the culmination of a story with a concrete beginning, middle and end, but something more polarizing, sure to be open for varying interpretations and poured over for years. Knowing Weiner's history as a writer on The Sopranos, we suspected he had that kind of finale in him and my fingers were always crossed that he'd give it to us. And for a show that's mostly had its characters sidestep direct brushes with history like the Kennedy assassination, the Civil Rights Movement and the Moon landing, it managed to keep a big surprise up its sleeve for the final twist. Forget about whether Tony Soprano died, the new question is whether Don Draper really did change. Or rather, whether anyone ever really can.

The 60's are over and we've jumped in time to 1970, where there's no eleventh hour save for Sterling, Cooper and Partners. And no rabbit Don can pull out of this time to rescue the agency. Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) is dead and Roger (John Slattery) made a deal in last year's "Waterloo" that may have saved Don's job, but guaranteed the firm's eventual demise, albeit slower and more mercifully than expected.

The ax falls on Sterling, Cooper and Partners
Lulled into a false sense of security, they've been swallowed whole by McCann Erickson and even Don's idea to salvage the Sterling Cooper name with a smaller California branch seems like a desperate hail mary. His pitch to McCann honcho Jim Hobart (H. Richard Greene), while well executed, falls flat because he's so used to selling big. It's all over, and these remaining episodes explore how that carries a very different meaning for each character.

Despite Hobart talking a good game and repositioning the takeover as an exciting opportunity for all involved, the reality is far harsher. We know the expendable Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), who even in her best moments was never taken seriously because of her looks, will last only a matter of days in a corporate culture of sexist pigs at McCann, with Hobart and his sleazy right-hand man Ferg Donnelly (Paul Johansson) leading the charge. It turns out one-eyed Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) was right about these guys, even if he's no longer around to gloat about.

Roger will continue to coast along like he always has while Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), Ted Chaugh (Kevin Rahm) and Harry Crane (Rich Somer) should sadly fit in just fine. Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) is the wildcard, with every experience she's had over the course of her decade-long career preparing her for this shift. And by procuring Don, Hobart has finally caught, in his own words, the "Moby Dick" he's been chasing since he placed his then-wife Betty (January Jones) in a COCA-COLA commercial as a bribe to switch agencies. But we know Don doesn't like to be owned by anyone.
Don with mysterious waitress, Diana
Talking about the final seven episodes is really talking only about the last four. The season is built on "Time and Life,""Lost Horizon," "The Milk and Honey Route" and "Person to Person." The rest, while still as solid as Mad Men's ever been, is the preamble. But for a while there, it was easy to worry the series was spinning its wheels rather than gathering steam. Don's obsession with mysterious waitress Diana (Elisabeth Reaser) is really just an obsession with himself, albeit a far more depressing and less charismatic version. Having abandoned her family and living a lie, he mistakenly thinks he can save her, not realizing he's hardly the first man to be swallowed into her self-destructive vortex.

Joan's somewhat controlling new lover, Richard (Bruce Greenwood) is the series' latest and last representation of her struggle in choosing between life and career during a time where it was thought impossible for a woman to have both. On this show, characters always frustratingly come and go as they would in real life, and while quibbles can be made about introducing them this late, it's not purposeless. And you have to wonder if their presence wouldn't be judged as harshly if this were any other season but the last. It's also a fair trade-off since for every Diana or Richard, there's a long-time supporting character getting an expanded role, like Don's ditzy but extremely competent secretary Meredith (Stephanie Drake) and the aforementioned Ken, who finds a new way to continuously torment Roger and Pete. What I can't defend is the the time wasted on Megan's (Jessica Paré) family, and that's coming from a huge Megan fan.                     

Arriving at what looked to be some kind of epiphany after his tap dancing vision of the late Bert Cooper, you'd figure the second half of Season 7 would find Don in a better place, back doing the job he does best. Instead, it seems as if little has changed at all. Still mostly absent from his kids' lives, the drinking and womanizing continues as the material facets of his life are systematically stripped away in the closing episodes. Empty apartment. Empty Sterling Cooper offices. His divorce with Megan is finalized in a rare, caring moment of self-reflection and regret. But Don at McCann is a stranger in a strange land. This isn't him and he doesn't want to do it anymore.

Don looks to the skies for something more in "Lost Horizon"
The episode "Lost Horizon" (named after the 1937 film Don was watching in last year's premiere, "Time Zones") is the turning point and where all the fan theories start coming home to roost. Will he jump out the window like the falling man in the opening credits? What's with that plane Don's fixated on during the beer meeting? Will he become D.B. Cooper? Of course, we should have known these theories were crazy since Mad Men's just not that kind of show. And Matthew Weiner knows that, but it doesn't mean he still can't have fun subverting those expectations. Don would rather be anywhere but at that meeting surrounded by COKE bottles, so he just walks out. Only this time there's reason to suspect it could be for good.

Weiner also toys with expectations by redeeming who was possibly the most irredeemable character in Betty Francis (January Jones). And he does it while delivering a hilariously shocking conclusion to one of the series' weirdest storylines. The return of a nearly unrecognizable, 18-year-old Vietnam bound Glen Bishop (Marten Weiner) to finally follow through on his creepy, 10-year plan to bed Betty may as well be Weiner's version of Richard Linklater's Boyhood, but on acid. It seems like  only yesterday when Sally's (Kiernan Shipka) weird little friend from down the street was stealing a lock of her mother's hair, causing his ban from the Draper's Ossining household.

The fact that the childish, immature Betty resists Glen's advances is actually kind of a breakthrough for her, sparing Sally the indignity of walking in on a horrifying sight that would put to shame anything she's ever seen her father do. I know many don't like Weiner's son as an actor, but this entire storyline wouldn't have been nearly as entertaining with a trained professional in the role. His awkwardness and stilted delivery make the whole thing painfully, almost embarrassingly real in the most cringe-worthy way possible.

Glen puts the moves on Betty
The look of disgust on Sally's face as she watches both her parents bask in the attention paid to them by her smitten friends is priceless, as is her statement that they just "ooze" at the adulation that comes with being at the center of every room they enter.  It's so spot-on, as is most of Shipka's performance throughout the series, in which she always found ways to subtly convey through Sally the best and worst of Don and Betty's mannerisms and behavior.

With all the smoking and drinking that's taken place since the show's inception, it was almost a given that at some point a major character would die, but few guessed it would be Betty, or that her terminal lung cancer diagnosis would prove to be both Betty and January Jones' finest hour. As it turns out, the icy, detached qualities that made the character so frustrating serve as a source of strength and grace under the worst of circumstances. Betty's quiet acceptance of her fate and determination to take complete control of her own passing is evident in entrusting Sally to carry out her final wishes.

For once, Betty acts selflessly, refusing treatment to spare her children the prolonged trauma of watching her suffer. While Betty was never strong enough to handle her parents' death, she's now strong enough to manage her own, and realizes, as we have, that Sally's capable of handling anything. That she must comfort her usually stoic and stable stepfather Henry (Christopher Stanley) when he delivers the devastating news speaks to this. As is her putting Don in his place when he unreasonably expects custody in the first of many phone calls that take place during the finale. If there was ever a Mad Men spin-off, a coming-of-age drama centered around Sally in the 70's would be the only one worth watching.

A dying Betty's final instructions for Sally
Betty smiling as she hauls her books up the stairs, physically struggling, but determined as ever to make it to class is how we'lll now remember her. But the true mark of the character's transformation might just be her amusement at the other students' referring to her as "Mrs. Robinson." It's a sign that the vain former model no longer takes herself quite as seriously, and that Weiner and Jones' have taken our least favorite character and made her somewhat heroic, without betraying any of the qualities we disliked in her to begin with. Jones has rightly been regarded as the cast's most limited actress, but even her harshest critics would be forced to admit she really brings it in these final two episodes.

If his ex-wife's unexpected death sentence wasn't enough to pull Don back home to be with her and the kids, you have to wonder if anything would. Maybe the problem is that Don's still trying to figure out where "home" is and what it means. A stop in Alva, Oklahoma during which he fixes a COKE machine and attends a veterans' fundraiser, sees him again uncomfortably confronting Dick Whitman's actions during the Korean War that caused the death of his C.O., the real Don Draper. With him gifting his car to a young con artist, he's now completely rid himself of everything.

As Don sits at a bus stop on the side of the road in the closing seconds of the penultimate episode, "The Milk and Honey Route," it's hard not to be reminded of Walter White sitting on the side of the road at the end of "Ozymandias," waiting for his ride from the disappearer. But Walt's final destination was always crystal clear. Where exactly Don would end up at the end of this series was always murkier, with his eventual transformation destined to be more ambiguous.

Don at a crossroads in "The Milk and Honey Route"
Would it be New York or California? That was always the big question in regards to Don's destination. Ironically, it's Don's (last?) phone conversation with Betty in the highly emotional series finale, "Person to Person" that moves the needle west, as the shattering truth that he's never been there for his kids cuts him to the core. Conceding defeat and acknowledging the only constant has been his absence, Betty's demand for his his limited parental involvement for consistency's sake makes sense even to him.

Weiner made the right move having Don's journey take him To California given that some of the show's most creative moments have spurned from the jarring juxtaposition of transplanting the straight-laced Don into the laid-back, free-wheeling 60's counterculture. I nearly jumped out of my seat realizing he'd spend the final episode trapped at a hippie spiritual retreat in Big Sur since Weiner's handling of this kind of material has continually captivated me over the series' run. And it's only natural he'd use the trip to visit his "niece" Stephanie (Caity Lotz), the last thread connecting him to the real Don and the only person who truly knows him as Dick. Their relationship has always been an odd, uncomfortable one since she isn't his family, even as his own deep seeded guilt continuously convinces him otherwise.

Seeing what rock bottom looks like for Don Draper is scary, but what's more revealing is who he calls once he's hit it. Sloppily dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans, he calls Peggy in an utter state of hopelessness and despair, immediately needing a metaphorical lifeline to bring him back to shore. In the episode's first fan service moment, and harkening back to the famous Season 4 episode, "The Suitcase," she must attempt to get through to him with the same stern, no-nonsense approach he's taught her. And in the midst of a full-fledged panic attack, she has good reason to be concerned, as Don's arrived at such a dark place that the possibilities of him dropping of a heart attack or jumping off the side of that cliff no longer seem like fan fiction.

The kiss the world was waiting for
Peggy's most important phone conversation in "Person to Person" may not be with Don, but Stan Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson), whose increased appearances over the past few seasons have consistently emerged as a highlight, as this frequently stoned and impressively bearded comic character has slowly gained considerable depth through their friendship.

Sure, their declaration of love for one another over the phone reeks of fan service and is easily the most bizarre scene in the finale, but the fans are right, and damn if Moss and Ferguson don't absolutely crush it. Having to guess, I'd say it's unlikely Weiner had this pairing in the cards from the beginning, with Moss and Ferguson's chemistry together necessitating the decision. And I'm convinced Stan's the only character who could be dropped in present day with absolutely no adjustment, wardrobe and all, and work just as well.

For all of Peggy's talk, she could never leave advertising and the very idea of her going into business with Joan feels like the spin-off I wouldn't watch and thankfully won't have to since Weiner probably realized the pair would be clawing each others eyes out within minutes, mutual respect or not. But it was generous of him to throw it out there. Advertising runs through Peggy's veins whereas Joan has faced too much sexism and discrimination to not take advantage of an opportunity to start over, minus a man.

Peggy knows how to make an entrance
There were worries our last glimpse of Peggy would be when her rollerskating through the vacant Time Life offices or arriving at McCann with a cigarette dangling from her mouth and Bert's octopus porn painting under her arm. The latter might be my favorite single shot in the shows' history, perfectly encapsulating just how far Peggy's come since the pilot when she started as Don's mousy secretary. We're left with the impression that McCann will be eating all the Sterling Cooper alumnus for dinner. Except one. It's not possible to love Peggy or Moss any more than when we see her walking down that hallway like a bad ass, magnificently paying off what's been a ten-year journey for the character.

Even the smarmy Pete finds some level of redemption when the even smarmier Duck Phillips (Mark Moses) reenters his life with a potential job offer he can't refuse, try as he might. And he does he ever try since it's always hard to take the drunken, desperate dog abuser Duck at face value. Pete's building realization that he needs to reconcile with Trudy (Alison Brie) and actually be a real father to his daughter gives the viewers some degree of hope that he's finally taken the right path. His kind words of praise and encouragement for Peggy also signal what must be viewed as some kind of personal growth. But this is Pete Campbell we're talking about so it's impossible to underestimate the number of ways he could still screw everything up.

As Pete, Trudy and Tammy board their Learjet to start over in Wichita looking like the Kennedys boarding Air Force One, it's yet another reminder of how much time the hilarious Pete, played brilliantly by Kartheiser, spent trying to be someone else. Namely Don. There was a better man in there somewhere and maybe a total change of scenery with the only person who could ever tolerate him will help bring that guy out. But no more falling down the stairs, "Not great, Bob!" "California Campbell," or "The King ordered it!" Of all the characters, the endlessly gif-worthy Pete might be the most missed, if for entertainment value alone.

Roger watches Peggy skate through the Time Life offices
Having already suffered two heart attacks during the course of the series, Roger Sterling may have been high on everyone's "death watch," but the actual send-off Weiner gives him actually had me wishing for that scenario instead. Just about the only aspect of the finale I couldn't get on board with was that Megan's monstrous mother, Marie Calvet (Julia Ormond) was given any screen time in it.

Roger's had his issues with arrested development and serial womanizing so there's little doubt the need to pair him a strong woman is reasonable. But having him ride into the sunset with the show's most annoying recurring character doesn't seem like the answer, even if I'll just continue believing the relationship ended right after the final credits rolled. And one would hope fans who have unjustifiably complained about Megan's continued presence would be ten times more appalled by her mother returning to eat up any of the series' remaining minutes.

The need for Roger to mature enough to be with someone who accepts him for who he is was important, but not as important as his scenes with Joan and taking responsibility for his illegitimate child. Unfortunately, the latter was somewhat overshadowed by the Marie nonsense and it's arguable that him repairing the relationship with his estranged daughter should trump both. Then again, with only an hour and twenty minutes to fill, that reconciliation may be too much. But if it's okay, I'd like to pretend our last glimpse of Roger is him bonding and drinking with Peggy amidst the ruins of the Sterling Cooper offices two episodes earlier.       

A broken Don embraces "Refrigerator Man" Leonard
A character who does earn his few minutes of screen time, and proves to be anything but minor, appears in the controversial closing minutes of the finale. It's not Peggy reprimanding Don to "come home" to work on the COKE account that finally gets through to him, but a stranger at the retreat named Leonard, briefly and powerfully played by character actor Evan Arnold in a role Weiner has called the "most important in the series." And that statement feels fair.  Breaking down as he shares his emotionally devastating story of feeling as if he's on a shelf on a refrigerator, ignored and unloved by everyone in his life, Don is shattered as he gets to see and experience his story through the lenses of an unknown.

While Don's gotten love from many in his life (Peggy, Sally, Betty, Megan, Roger, the list goes on and on) he's never recognized it or felt deserving, pushing all those people away and leaving him as lonely as Leonard in the refrigerator. When he lets go and hugs this crying man, he's finally embracing and forgiving Dick Whitman, emotionally purging in a public display that would be considered shameful for men during this era.  Born in a brothel, raped by a prostitute, abused by his father and having stolen a dead man's identity, Don realizes, seemingly for the first time, he isn't alone. It goes without saying Hamm and Arnold are incredible in the scene and you have to wonder whether this is the episode that finally nets Hamm the Emmy. If this doesn't, nothing will.

It's while chanting and meditating on the hilltop that a bell goes off and a giant smile comes across his face, signaling his ultimate creation: The groundbreaking 1971 "Buy The World a Coke" ad. Of course, this leads to the big question of whether Don has even changed at all. Did he just take this life-altering experience and commodify it? Was this the moment hippie culture went mainstream and became commercialized? That's a very cynical reading, but when you consider details like the girl with the red ribbon braids at the front desk eerily resembling a girl in the commercial (more ingenious work from costume designer Janie Bryant) and the ubiquitous presence of Coca-Cola throughout the series and especially this season, it's one that can't be outright dismissed. But all it really proves is that Don came up with the ad, hardly explaining his thought process or intentions in doing so.

"People just come and go and they don't say goodbye?"
After being the architect of this moment in history, we're to assume Don returns to McCann. And it's quite possible he returns more or less exactly as he left. Slipping right back into his old patterns of neglecting his kids, drinking and sleeping around. That this supposed enlightenment only served as the catalyst to create the greatest campaign in advertising history and little more. That's what the show's about. No one ever changes. It sounds good and the facts support this reading, but the big problem is that our instincts don't.

As much as I want to get behind the cynical interpretation of this series' closing moments, it operates under one huge fundamental flaw: That advertising is evil and Don returning to do what he loves is somehow manipulative, or a return to the dark side. Don wasn't a bad person because he was in advertising. That had much more to do with the choices he made and the people he hurt, most of which stemmed from his crippling insecurity and guilt.

If anything, advertising was Don's salvation and most of the time the only thing that kept him from falling off the deep end. That bell noise we hear could easily be the light bulb going off in his head as he comes up with the Coke commercial, but I prefer to imagine it as the sound right before the elevator doors open and Don returns to McCann to give the pitch of his life, with Peggy by his side.

Don's moment of enlightenment
Unlike Don's infamous Kodak Carousel pitch in the first season built on a lie or the Hersheys presentation in the sixth season that exposed his past and torpedoed his career, this one won't be coming from a place of despair. That's the difference. He's been through too much to just simply walk away from that retreat unchanged. The change may be minimal, but it's hard not believing something clicked that went beyond the idea for that commercial, as monumental as it was.

During the Coke commercial I half-expected the camera to pull back, taking us into the McCann offices during the presentation until realizing Weiner's way too smart for that. He had to leave doubt and intrigue. If The Sopranos' finale was offensively ambiguous to the point of clobbering audiences over the head with a jarring stunt, this open ending is more thoughtful and measured. Like all great conclusions, it allows us to project what we want onto it, telling us as much about ourselves as the characters whose fates we've been so invested in.

The legendary 1971 Coca-Cola Commercial
Don's reluctant acceptance of Betty and Sally's wishes and his moment with the "refrigerator man" suggest a man who may be starting to come to terms with himself. It's a process, but undoubtedly the series finale is the closest he's come to the true convergence of Dick Whitman and Don Draper. The question is now whether it can be maintained, echoing the position all the main characters find themselves in when the show closes. Their lives continue as our viewing ends, perhaps slightly changing us all for the better.                                      

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