Sunday, June 10, 2012

Mad Men: A Retrospective

Sometimes I think about what it would have been like to see a movie like Gone With The Wind or The Godfather when it was originally released in theaters.  I like to wonder what the experience would have been like for someone like myself back in those days, before years and years of history continually affirmed each of the movies’ greatness within the annals of filmdom.  I like to think about what was going through people’s minds, say, when Scarlett O’Hara cries the now-legendary line “If God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again!” or when a young Michael Corleone pulls off a double-murder in the famous Italian restaurant scene, thus beginning his dark descent into a life of corruption and power.  My guess is that in many cases, the reaction was something like this: “I don’t know how this movie is going to end, but right now this in unlike anything I’ve ever seen...I’m watching something truly special right now.”

And that brings us to where we are before tonight’s Season 5 finale of Mad Men.   

Fat Betty and Other Fun Season 5 Adventures

A show that simply refuses to stop getting better, Mad Men has given us everything we could have asked for in its fifth season.  Perhaps due to Netflix and the ability to watch the first four seasons, it seems like people are finally catching on (the ratings are higher this season than ever before) to Don Draper & the gang.  This season has given us “Zou Bisou Bisou,” Fat Betty, Pete becoming as close to a villain as the show’s ever had, Don & Joan and a Jaguar, Lane’s unfortunate demise, Roger taking LSD (more on that later), and Peggy’s tearjerker of a resignation.   More than in any season before, the show has been appointment TV for everyone I know who watches it, and I’ve had more discussions, email and twitter conversations, texts, and phone calls about all the events I’ve just mentioned than in the first four seasons combined.

And although these events have been fun to dissect and discuss, I keep thinking about them in terms of the larger picture.  When the season 5 promotional banner came out (picture on right), there were obviously tons of bloggers and writers flapping around like schoolgirls over what the meaning was.  The answer has been fairly clear from the beginning of the season: more than ever, women are having a large impact on what is happening in the show, and are far more powerful than they’ve been up until this point, and all in different ways.  Megan is finally reeling Don in (and is also very career driven and apparently good at everything she does), Peggy finally took her life under control and, for better or worse, got out from under Don’s wing, perhaps forever.  And let’s not forget that without Joan (who is now a partner), SCDP doesn’t land Jaguar. 

This 1967 view of women is a far cry from where we began in 1959, with oblivious Betty, skanky/flirty Joan, and sheltered Peggy.  The paradigm shift is significant, and for all of the time we spent hoping for the “Don is BACK!!” storylines this season, perhaps something as simple as the promo banner could have told us it wasn’t in the cards.  Are we so naïve to believe that the titular Men of Madison Avenue will one day catch up to this world when all of the signs point the other way? 

And that’s one of the underrated great things about Mad Men—you sometimes forget after five seasons where we came from.  It has such slow, calculated shifts (not only the one I just mentioned but several others as well), that much like in real life, you have to take a step back and remember where you started for it to register its full impact on you.

A Brief History of My Favorite Episodes

It’s also part of the reason that Mad Men, for me, has gotten better with every season. Every season features at least one episode that becomes my new favorite episode of the series.  Season 2 features a compelling duo of episodes in which Don spends some time in California with his “wife,” Anna, which gives us a glimpse into Don (or, Dick) as he truly sees himself.  Season 3’s finale, “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” topped that, when Don successfully makes his bid to start the new ad agency.  Then it happened again in Season 4’s “The Suitcase,” a brilliant bottle episode on the eve of the Ali-Liston fight in which Don and Peggy go a few rounds themselves trying to come up with an idea for a Samsonite campaign.

And then there was “Tomorrowland,” Season 4’s completely enraging finale. In retrospect, the episode is one of the smartest unexpected turns the series has ever taken, culminating in Don’s unlikely proposal to young Megan Calvet after a season of wooing the much-preferred Faye, causing me and millions of people across the country to yell at their TV screen “WHAT ARE YOU DOING YOU IDIOT?!?!!!” over and over and over again.

Far Away Places

And finally, Season 5 gave me yet another favorite episode of the series, “Far Away Places.”  Three concurring storylines involving Don, Peggy, and Roger are spread across this episode, yet we get to see each one evolve separately.  This artistic measure was one of the best that the Mad Men writers have ever come up with—the three-act structure it took on contained very different plots, but all with a similar tone and theme. Peggy’s story involves her frustrations at work—her Heinz Beans campaign is rejected, which causes her to go on a Don-esque tirade against the Heinz reps. In fact, the rest of her day goes just about like Don’s might—she skips out of work, goes to a movie, treats a random dude in the theater to a Peggy delight with a capital D (after sharing his joint), and heads back to the office to crash on Don’s couch. 

Don and Megan’s storyline starts with an unanticipated trip to a Howard Johnson, of all places, and ends in the legitimately frightening scene of Don chasing Megan around their penthouse, stripping Don down to his most primal state.  In between all of this, they get in a fight about orange sherbet, Megan disappears, Don doesn’t know where she went, and he spends the long night in the café of the Ho-Jo, alone in his thoughts about what he’s done (or rather, “Far Away” in his thoughts). 

Roger & His Magical Singing Stolichnaya Bottle

But Roger. Oh, Roger.  Roger & Jane experience a much different kind of trip than Don and Megan—they spend their evening in a psychiatrist’s home tripping on LSD.  This scene of Roger on a hard drug proves quite entertaining (but not over the top), and ends with a devastating shot of Roger and Jane on the floor in bath robes, wondering what happened to their relationship, not in an immature or selfish way—but rather, in complete and utter clarity, courtesy of that good ole’ acid they dropped some several hours before.  Then and there, they admit they don’t love each other anymore, and that their marriage is, for all intents and purposes, over.  And then Jane says these words: 

“I knew we were going somewhere, and I didn’t want it to be here.” 

Which, for me, sums up not just the episode, and not just the season, but perhaps even the entire series of Mad Men.  It’s an underlying feeling we all get when watching the show—we want all of these characters to change, to succeed, to find happiness; but we know in our heart of hearts there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, and that what awaits our beloved antiheroes is not success, but failure. Not change, but unrelenting stagnation.  Not happiness, but tragedy.  It’s the truth we all know we are headed for, though unlike Roger & Jane we don’t need to take LSD to prove it to us.  As with Scarlett O’Hara, a “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” seems a lot more plausible ending for these characters than a “they lived happily ever after,” doesn’t it?

The End?

Mad Men will end someday sooner rather than later.  I don’t know what will happen in tonight’s finale, and I don’t know the fate of Don Draper, Roger Sterling, or Peggy Olsen over the show’s final seasons.  I know that in real life there are ebbs and flows—last season we saw Don at his absolute worst, this season we see him at his best with Megan.  And I expect this up and down trend to continue.  But in the end, this is not a show about redemption—it is a show about people.

Whatever the outcome is, whatever happens tomorrow night or in the seasons beyond, I know that like those lucky enough to see Gone With The Wind or The Godfather when they were released, I feel similarly lucky to be watching something extraordinary unfold as its happening.   

Better shows than Mad Men may come along, but there’s never been anything quite like it, and there never will be.