“Shut the Door”
November 8th, 2009
“I’m not going…I’m just living elsewhere.”
Every episode of television is a collection of scenes, individual set pieces designed to present a particular moment or to evoke a particular emotion or feeling. The scenes serve one of many potential purposes, whether it’s establishing a standalone plot within a particular episode, calling back to a previous scene or event in another episode, or even simply being placed for the sake of foreshadowing. A scene can change meaning as a season progresses, an awkward encounter with an overly touchy politico turning into a legitimate affair by the addition of new scenes that speak to the old one, for example. And, at the same time, other scenes are simply brief thematic beats designed to give the viewer the sense of a particular time or place, with nothing more beneath them than the aesthetic value apparent in the craftsmanship involved.
A great episode of television, however, is where every single scene feels purposeful, and more importantly where there is no one type of scene which feels dominant. There can still be scenes designed to engage with nothing more than the viewer’s sense of humour, just as there will be scenes that feel like the culmination of two and a half seasons worth of interactions. In these episodes there is a balance between scenes which unearth feelings and emotions from the past that have been kept under wraps all season and scenes which create almost out of thin air entirely new scenarios that promise of an uncertain future.
In a season finale in particular, this last point is imperative. A great season finale assures the reader that, as the quote above indicates, the change which is going to take place in the season to follow is both fundamental (in presenting something which surprises or engages) and incidental (in maintaining the series’ identity), both chaotic (in the context of the series’ fictional universe) and controlled (within the mind of the show’s writers). It is an episode that must feel like the fruit of the thirty-five episodes which preceded it while also serving as the tree for the twenty-six episodes which will follow. It is the episode that, for better or for worse, will be more closely scrutinized than any other, and for which expectations are exceedingly high.
“Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” is more than a collection of scenes. It transcends the concepts of script and screen to capture characters in their most vulnerable states, in the process tapping into the viewer’s emotions with a sense of purpose that the show has never quite seen. Where past amazing episodes have sometimes hinged upon a single scene or a single moment, or on the creation of a particular atmosphere, this finale is like a never-ending stream of scenes that we have been clambering for all season: characters say everything we wanted them to say, do everything we wanted them to do, and yet somehow it never felt like puppet theatre where the characters would follow the whims of Matthew Weiner more than their own motivations.
It is a finale that never wastes a single scene, and which marches towards an uncertain conclusion with utmost certainty. Somehow, in a finale which does not shy away from scenes which are both disturbing to watch and destructive to the show’s tempestuous sense of balance, it maintains a cautious optimism by demonstrating that not everything will fall apart at once, while retaining the right to have everything in shambles by the time we return with Season Four. It’s a singular achievement, an hour of television which sits perfectly in the gap between the past and the future while never feeling as if it takes us out of the present, the moment in which these characters are captured in these scenes.
So, shut the door and have a seat: we’ve got some discussing to do.
There’s so much going on in this episode that to boil it down to a single image seems false, but I’m going to follow the episode’s lead on this one. In this, the show’s third season finale, two families are fundamentally changed: the Draper family becomes the sort which has two Christmases, and Sterling Cooper becomes the sort who wakes up and discovers that their parents and some of their siblings have left them behind to fend for themselves. At the heart of both families, as the finale crystallized but has been clear of all season, is the fact that neither of them was secure to begin with. For all that we are meant to care for the Draper family and hope they stay together (as we, like the State of New York, don’t want divorce), and for all the ways we enjoy the dynamics of Sterling Cooper, from the beginning of the season they have been shells of their former selves simply waiting for their expiration date.
I think, to some degree, this explains why the season as a whole felt off in certain ways. Last week, especially, felt less dramatic than it should have: JFK’s death destroyed the fabric of a nation, and yet somehow its impact on the Draper family didn’t feel organic, didn’t feel real. The reason isn’t that the episode was a failure, but rather that it had been broken long before that moment, and Betty’s decision is more a delayed reaction than a sudden realization. The season has used a baby and the truth about Dick Whitman to patch up a relationship that was perhaps shattered the moment Betty slept with Captain Awesome, or perhaps even back when Don first began keeping a mistress. In fact, it is entirely possible that the marriage only exists in a hotel room in Rome where the original infatuation still lingers, and where Don’s idea of the marriage is something more than providing all that Betty ever wanted while retaining the right to satisfy his own needs outside of the marriage.
When Don and Roger are leaving Sterling Cooper for the final time, and Roger asks when they’ll ever work in an office like this again, Don points out that he never expected he would ever work in an office like this one. It’s one of the moments where the parallel between his two families becomes apparent, as the Dick Whitman we saw witness his father’s death by frightened horse is not the Don Draper who stands beside Roger saying goodbye to Sterling Cooper. He bought into the lifestyle of being an Ad Man, and the lifestyle of being a Husband/Father, because he was doing what society expected, and what allowed him to continue living a lie. And yet, as the episode quite clearly points out, his limitation has always been his ability to deal with people: Roger argues that Don doesn’t value relationships, and that this is why he isn’t an Accounts man by any stretch of the imagination.
This, ultimately, was the point of the Conrad Hilton experiment. The season’s largest flaw, in my book, is the out-and-out replacement of Connie Hilton with Miss Farrell, Don’s latest mistress. There is something fascinating in the Hilton relationship, especially the idea of Don being placed into the same category as a self-made billionaire and being pulled under his wing. When that story effectively died and became an excuse for Don to be spending time away from home, it seemed as if an important part of Don’s journey this season died with it. Don has always been stuck in the past, but what Hilton offered was a future. Even after they part ways on less than amicable terms, Hilton having dropped the news about the sale of PPL and Don having questioned Hilton’s manipulative treatment, Connie notes that some other time they might try again. This implies that at some point in time things might be different, and that Don might perhaps some day be ready for something beyond his current station. It’s an impulse that has Don trying to control his future as opposed to suppressing his past, the exact opposite of his affairs (which are about evading the present).
You could argue that Don throws himself into his plan to leave Sterling Cooper behind because he has no other family to go home to, sleeping in Gene’s room with a broken alarm clock and being told that he needs a divorce attorney. And there’s evidence of this in how he starts the project off with the sense that he has something to prove, and with an assurance that he isn’t just doing this because he doesn’t want to go to McCann Erickson. It’s important to make the distinction, however, that Don is not evading Betty and the kids, and the episode doesn’t seek to so either. Even as the project ramps up and things go from harebrained scheme to actual reality, the episode does not present it as an escape for Don. In fact, far from an escape, in many ways his departure from Sterling Cooper only heightens his emotional response to Betty’s decision. Don initially responds to Betty as if she were crazy, even suggesting that she repeat the first season’s trip to the doctor’s office, but his passive approach disappears to the point where he allows his emotions to burst to the surface.
And when they do, the episode becomes all about the juxtaposition of the electrifying feeling of building something new and the horrifying glimpse into something falling apart. When Don discovers that Betty is not simply responding to his own infidelities, but has in fact committed her own of sorts with Henry Francis, he becomes unhinged. Yes, he was drinking, but the scene was nonetheless the most lucid perhaps we’ve seen Don within this marriage in quite some time. He’s spent so much time keeping his own secrets that he never quite bothered to ask whether Betty had any of her own, and seeing him wrench her from the bed (as if pull away the covers to discover the truth) so violently was painful. And then we have the tragedy of the next morning, as Don and Betty sit and tell their children that there will be two Christmases. Bobby was right: the living room is never good news, and unfortunately Sally is more acutely aware of what this particular news means. She knows that Don isn’t just leaving but rather being told to leave, and while Bobby mourns the loss of a father Sally mourns the loss of a family (which isn’t new for Sally, who had to deal with both Gene’s death and baby Gene’s disruption of the existing family unit). And we, as the audience, are left giddy with excitement over the potential of Sterling Cooper Draper Price while nearly in tears over the dissolution of our central family.
There are an absolutely ludicrous number of amazing scenes with Don in this episode, to the point where I will be absolutely shocked if this episode doesn’t win Jon Hamm an Emmy. However, what makes the episode so stunning is how we can see the changes in Don within those individual scenes. When he first calls Peggy into his office, his worth has been placed under the microscope and he has something to prove, which leads to his arrogant presumption that Peggy will simply follow him like a poodle. In that scene, Peggy says everything we’ve wanted her to say, standing up for herself and her worth while challenging Don’s assumption that she is an extension of him more than an individual person. Peggy’s character has always been one for brooding, for having to deal with things in her own way (like going to Duck as a new surrogate father of sorts) and not being able to come out into the open, but Elisabeth Moss perfectly captured just how much Peggy has changed. Perhaps it’s sleeping with Duck that finally gave Peggy the perspective to be able to speak her mind, a connection I wish had been made more clear in previous episodes but which was nonetheless subtly indicated here.
And yet, beyond Peggy’s own story, her two scenes with Don are important bookends for his character’s change in the episode. When he shows up at her apartment on Sunday, he is a broken man who finally understands what Peggy brings to the table: she is someone who, like all of these people who have taken JFK’s death to heart, has lived through adversity and managed to persevere to the point of being able to see how they’ve changed. This, Don senses, is what he has been missing. Peggy was brought on as a copy writer because she had good ideas, and Don latched onto her in some ways because he knew it would piss other people off and he got off on that. However, the argument he makes here is that he kept her in some ways because she is able to rewrite his own past, having experienced a life-changing event but managing to continue on living with a new sense of self-awareness. Don never got that chance, forced to live a complicated lie to the point of losing some sense of his own identity, and between their two conversations he seems to have come to terms with it. He seems to have lived far enough on the edge, and seen deep enough into the precipice that is his family’s demise, to understand that he needs Peggy because she understands how people respond to things in a way that other people, including in many instances himself, do not.
However, as noted, the chain reaction of events resulting from Connie Hilton breaking the news that Putnam, Powell and Lowell will be sold as of January 1st is both an exercise of Don Draper’s emotional turmoil and an absolutely thrilling ride for the audience. There was something electrifying about the entire storyline, as it played into the sense that the Sterling Cooper drama has been somewhat lacking ever since a lawnmower ran over someone’s foot. As opposed to creating more drama, it was as if that event halted it entirely: Lane Price remained in charge, the status quo was maintained, and nobody talked about how the company was not the same was it was before. Even Roger and Don’s relationship, once so foundational to the setting, is in shambles when we begin, so the opening plays into all of that tension. Don doesn’t trust Roger, nobody trusts Lane, and someone like Pete is downright disgusted at the whole operation.
But yet when all the pieces start to fall into place, it becomes almost (I probably already used this word, but it’s what kept popping into my head while watching) electrifying. It’s not often that a show like Mad Men has you on the edge of your seat, but this story was hitting all of the right notes to have me legitimately excited. I’ve loved Jared Harris in the role of Lane Pryce, so seeing him be spurned one time too many by London and joining forces with the turncoats was worthy of a cheer had I not been afraid of waking up others, and the moment when it becomes clear that Roger is going to call Joan in for service I’m pretty sure that I was downright giddy. Heck, there was a beat where the Art Department being locked felt like an opening to bring Salvatore back into the fold, and the way the episode was going I half expected him to get called into the office. Some on Twitter have compared it all to a heist film like Ocean’s 11, and I think that’s a fair comparison: there was definite tension in whether the plan was going to be successful, and yet to some degree you always knew that they would make it in the end.
What I loved about the story were the little moments, like Peggy refusing to get Roger coffee, or Cooper freaking out over the moving of his precious office furniture, or Trudy bringing everyone sandwiches at the new office. The storyline, by necessity, introduced some levity into the proceedings. While there was a definite sense of retribution in Pete’s recruitment scene, as everything Don said about him being ahead of the curve and seeing the future are the kinds of things that we critics have been writing about all season, there was also the sense of humour of him being in a robe, or Trudy standing within earshot and getting a goodbye from Don. As much as what Don said was true, appealing to Pete’s ego is very different from appealing to Peggy’s, and the episode used this distinction to its advantage. I loved scenes like the awkward elevator ride where Pete isn’t sure how much Harry knows, leading to the great “Hey everybody, Harry Crane is here!” delivery from Vincent Kartheiser where he talks as if he’s worried the bug planted on him won’t pick up his normal speaking voice. I love that Harry, when told the plan, has to ask his wife about it first. And while I was always somewhat paranoid there would be a leak (like Duck finding out about the plan, or something else fouling things up), the sense of fun within the storyline kept turning me back into an excited kid at Christmas waiting to see what happens next.
There is a sense of sadness in the storyline, without question, considering that this means that people like Paul Kinsey and Ken Cosgrove were left behind, along with the entire secretarial staff and Moneypenny. I don’t quite know what to think about this, especially considering the episode played it both for comedy (“We’ve been robbed!”) and for drama (Kinsey’s anger at discovering that Peggy, too, is gone with the rest). The episode gets away with the airy idealism of the journey from idea to reality because the news won’t break until Monday morning, and in some ways the conclusion is all about the way Monday morning feels: one moment you’re remembering the weekend that was, and the next you’re stuck facing a new reality. For Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, it’s the fact that their clients have jumped ship to an agency running out of a hotel and that their only phone call is their Head of Media wondering what room they’re in, and for the former remnants of Sterling Cooper it’s a ship without a captain, a rudder, or a sail (take your pick of who best represents these particular parts of a ship amongst the departures).
The finale is very careful not to paint a picture in its conclusion that is in any way dire. The tension in the conclusion is drawn not from a sense of failure but by testing unknown waters in an effort to see if one should, or can, swim in them. This is not a show to create action-packed finales where characters are taken to wit’s end and placed in some sort of cliffhanger, which would have resulted from the plan failing. Instead, it wants its characters to have to live with their actions, and it wants the series to follow their efforts to do so. As such, we find Don Draper walking towards his temporary apartment as he starts a new life to the sound of Roy Orbison’s “Shahdaroba.” It is a life where he is still a father but no longer a husband, and a life where he is still an Ad Man but no longer one who can say that he is safely employed.
And, as such, Mad Men is now a show about a man who is still a father but no longer a husband, and about Ad Men (and Women) who are stepping out into uncharted territory. The show’s challenge moving forward is finding its axis, discovering how to have a character like Betty Draper (on a plane to Reno with Gene and Henry Francis to ensure the divorce goes through) remain central, and how to potentially keep the remnants of Sterling Cooper (Kinsey, Cosgrove, etc.) within the series. Or, perhaps, it could excise elements of them all together and adopt an entirely new structure that reflects this new period in their lives. What it does make clear, though, is that unlike the second season finale’s complete uncertainty there is now a clear setup for the fourth season, and while there will still be speculation over how far forward in time we leap (joining the new agency in progress down the road) there is no question that the central question will be the success of this new venture within a changing global climate.
But for this hour, there was little sense of the global climate, and no scenes that felt (relatively) wasted on historical reference or period setting. This was a finale that told a story about characters and which delved into their past, present and future in order to create an almost seamless experience. From one conversation with Conrad Hilton came a series of events which managed to solidify themes that the season had perhaps overlooked, depict scenes that we knew have been coming since perhaps the show’s first season, and also gave us a glimpse into the future that was both tragically uncertain and, perhaps best of all, legitimately exciting. “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” is simply a masterstroke of storytelling, elevating both the season and the series to foreseen, but still stunning, heights.
- Don’s treatment of Betty, calling her a wore and pushing her around a bit, is not the first time this has happened, and evokes a scene like the one with Bobbie in the restaurant. However, that was Don being in control, and Don is never really in control in this scene: he is broken down, and it shows in the explosiveness behind his anger.
- The idea that it is the death of Dick Whitman’s father that has been the purpose behind all of this season’s flashbacks to Dick’s childhood made sense in the context of this episode, where Don has to question the impact of a father on a child’s life considering his family is leaving him, but at a certain point the flashbacks became a bit strange in the context of the season. I think they work in the premiere and the finale, but their overall impact in the middle portion of the season was negligible.
- Any Canadian viewers get a total “Heritage Minute” vibe from the Wheat Co-Operative sequence?
- It’s interesting that the new agency never once considered Ken Cosgrove. I don’t disagree with the decision, but we never saw why Don’s thought process went right to Pete (although the evidence is there in the fact that Pete, unlike Ken, has reason to be upset with his current station). It seems like they chose people based on how close they’d be to the chopping block within a merge, to some degree, with makes sense.
- Lane Price’s phone conversation with London, in particular “Happy Christmas!,” was stunning. Seriously, while I’ve been missing Jared Harris in the back half of the season, he was so darn great in this episode that it’s like he’s been around forever. The only thing we were missing was a glimpse at how his homesick wife is going to deal with the decision, although I understand why the episode didn’t go out of its way to answer that question.
- Between this episode and “A Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency,” John Slattery might as well submit in Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy.
- You can check out other great reviews from Alan Sepinwall, James Poniewozik, Keith Phipps, and Mo Ryan (who gets props for “Sterling Coup”).