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Series Finale: Mad Men – “Person to Person”

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“Person to Person”

May 17, 2015

“A lot has happened.”

I spent part of Sunday afternoon watching the Mad Men marathon on AMC. I haven’t written about any of the seventh season thus far, which means it’s been nearly two years since I’ve . And the marathon made me glad for this, in its way: I realized that I hadn’t really properly oriented myself to the first half of the season before diving into the first, struggling at times to connect what we were seeing to the big picture.

That was definitely the biggest issues with these final episodes, which often spurned traditional seriality. The show has always been a balance of episodic and procedural engines, but the jumps in time and the revolving door of characters has made these final seven episodes scattered. However, it has also made them distinctive, such that revisiting them reminded me how much each had connected in some way or another. Although the purchase of SCDP by McCann-Erickson has ostensibly been the season’s arc, we never saw its initial implementation, and when the characters tried to turn it into an arc on the level of SCDP’s founding McCann-Erickson stepped in to tell them it wasn’t going to happen. This wasn’t going to be that season. Don, Peggy, Joan, Roger, and everyone else are not going to ride off into the sunset on stallions—they are more likely to fade into the distance like normal people, living normal lives.

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Present and Past: “The Phantom” and Mad Men Season 5 in Review

“The Phantom”

June 10th, 2012

“This may be our last chance.”

I was having a conversation with some friends the other night, and we were discussing the character of Paul Kinsey. My colleague Alyx expressed an affection for Paul, but admitted that the character simply wasn’t talented enough to meet his aspirations, directly alluding to the character’s return this season. However, while she was aware of what was happening this season (albeit through reading weekly reviews as opposed to actually watching it), the other friends at the table were at least a season behind, which meant that we didn’t get a chance to continue the conversation.

I found myself returning to it watching “The Phantom.” Paul Kinsey got left behind by the narrative, becoming a symbol of the consequences of the development Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency and eventually returning as a man chasing dreams of love and fame without the means to achieve either. But while Paul is in a pitiable situation, off to Los Angeles on Harry’s dime with nothing but a terrible Star Trek spec script to his name, are we exactly meant to pity him?

Or is our pity instead for Lane Pryce, the man who had the means for success but did everything he could to sabotage it? He’s the man who got swept up in this agency when he could have instead been sent to India, who was given this opportunity to be a name partner long before he could have dreamed, and yet he ends his life a broken man whose choice to hide his shame and suppress his desire to life the live before him results in his end. Is it a greater shame to lose the life you want to lead and aspire to something greater, or to live the life you want to lead while denying yourself the pleasures and thrills that come with it?

Of course, it’s hard to avoid the specter of Lane’s death (especially compared to Paul’s futile journey to Los Angeles), and “The Phantom” could in fact refer to his empty chair at the partners meeting (which the camera lingers on). But on a larger level, this season of Mad Men has been (for me) an investigation of those moments that give us a tinge of doubt, those moments that won’t leave our minds except with the help of electroshock therapy, and those moments that make us ask ourselves when our last chance might be. In other words, it’s about the characters treating their own lives like we treat the show they’re a part of: just as we look back to piece things together, to ponder over narrative moments and psychological motivations, so too has Mad Men’s cast of characters taken to viewing their actions as matters of cause and effect.

It’s a dangerous game for them to play, and it results in a finale that is not quite subtle in its thematic material. My notes for the episode are filled with lines and details that scream out to be applied to the characters’ storylines as the season comes to an end. After sitting out much of the season, I could easily spend hours poring over those notes and pulling out every thematic thread, but I want to focus on a single question: what does it take for us to be able to turn the present into the past, to forget something or someone? It’s a question that drives much of the season, calling attention to the weight of what happened in a season light on plot but heavy on consequences, and a season that builds rather impressive momentum for a show entering its sixth season.

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Season Finale: Mad Men – “Tomorrowland”

“Tomorrowland”

October 17th, 2010

“Are you kidding me?!”

I’m extremely glad that Faye Miller actually said this during the episode, so I could pull quote it instead of saying itself myself. But, seriously: is Mad Men kidding me?

“Tomorrowland,” like its namesake, was supposed to be about potential: it was supposed to show us a way for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to survive, and a way for Don Draper to reconcile his identity crisis and move forward. It was about charting a new path after tobacco, working with the Cancer society and making plans for whatever the future might hold.

Instead, “Tomorrowland” drops us off with ten weeks of no business, a vacation conundrum, and a series of circumstances which is precisely the opposite of last season’s closer: instead of building excitement, “Tomorrowland” builds nothing but dread, creating scenarios that test our patience with these characters, and even the show itself.

Unless you’re a huge fan of total uncertainty and absolute chaos, chances are “Tomorrowland” was more disturbing than enlightening – the question, of course, is whether it is still good television.

And I think that answer, despite my frustration, is yes.

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Mad Men – “Chinese Wall”

“Chinese Wall”

October 3rd, 2010

“I thought in the end you wouldn’t want to throw it away.”

The balance between business and personal affairs forms one of the central tensions of Mad Men, but the show’s characters all approach the issue from different perspectives. For some, it takes the form of large-scale conflicts, such as Peggy’s pregnancy back in season; for others, it takes the form of family conflict, such as Pete’s relationship with his father-in-law; for yet more, it takes the form of the simple fact that a dinner out is interrupted by a colleague who stops by with news about the business.

For Don Draper, however, it has always been an elaborate balancing act: desperate to keep his true personal affairs out of his business, he created the ideal life for a businessman: wife, two and a half kids, house in the suburbs, etc. And yet that was never Don’s personal life, not really: if anything, Don’s lack of identity meant that he had no true personal life, and what he had was lost when Ann Draper passed away earlier this season.

The tragedy of “Chinese Wall” is not the loss of Lucky Strike hitting the fan, or the departure of the client who brought Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce its greatest honour. Instead, the greatest tragedy is that Don’s search for a personal life has become indistinguishable from his business one. While I would argue that “Chinese Wall” is almost as consistently themed as last week’s “Hands and Knees,” what sets it apart is that it is a theme that has been central from the very beginning, and in the “last days of Rome” it becomes more important than ever before.

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Mad Men – “Hands and Knees”

“Hands and Knees”

September 26th, 2010

“Everybody has bad dreams once in a while.”

In a Twitter discussion, Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall had a discussion about the role of theme in Mad Men: to boil it down for you, Seitz suggested he was on the fence about “Hands and Knees” due to it being a “theme episode,” while Alan argued that every episode is a theme episode (while acknowledging that this may be simply because he, as a critic, looks for themes to inform his review).

The distinction I offered is that there is a difference between “theme episodes” (which I would argue “Hands and Knees” is) and “episodes with themes” (which is the majority of Mad Men’s run). The series is too thematically rich to go without themes in any particular episode, but “Hands and Knees” stands apart in terms of actively tying nearly every single story into that theme: instead of one bad dream, it’s a collection of bad dreams that happen simultaneously (insert Inception joke).

What makes it, and all good “theme episodes,” work so well is that the episode itself acknowledges that the consistency of this theme is ridiculous: everything that could go wrong does go wrong in the episode, as if every worst case scenario and everything they want to keep secret rises to the surface. The episode asks us to join Roger in laughter when we realize just how screwed these people all are, while emphasizing that everyone has a good reason to go on pretending as if none of it has actually happened.

It’s a very straightforward thematic episode, though, and writing out the same thing as everyone else seems like a waste of my time – as a result, I’m going to outline my thematic read of the episode very briefly before discussing some of the more ancillary elements of the story which may not clearly connect with the central theme.

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Mad Men – “The Beautiful Girls”

“The Beautiful Girls”

September 19th, 2010

Based on its title and a number of the discussions which emerged within the episode, “The Beautiful Girls” feels like a particular gesture towards the women who are often central to the series. And yet, because the episode was so fractured, it doesn’t present itself as a sustained glimpse into any of the female characters central to this story. While Joan, Peggy, Faye, and Sally all face down challenges put before them, all of them end up back where they began: trapped in a loveless marriage, apolitical in a political world, face-to-face with tough choices, and a sad little girl living a life she no longer wants to live.

Regardless of the episode’s argument regarding each character’s struggles, the fact remains that the female characters are the heart of this series, and “The Beautiful Girls” comes together as a sustained statement on their centrality if not a substantial step forward in their individual storylines.

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Mad Men – “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”

“The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”

August 22nd, 2010

Ted, the Don Draper-equivalent over at rival agency CGC, is not in Don Draper’s league: he is neither visionary nor genius, and yet by virtue of his insistence that he is a competitor he has been elevated to Don’s level. It’s the ultimate example of self-definition, of putting something out there (in this case, to the New York Times) and then turning it into reality. It doesn’t matter that Jai Alai went with another agency because its owner is delusional, or that Clearasil was a conflict rather than business lost: as it would appear to the outside world, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce lost two accounts and CGC (under Ted’s leadership) gained both of them.

“The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” is filled with various examples of situations where appearance becomes reality, to the point where it even becomes a meta-narrative when the series’ positioning of Betty as a child-like figure becomes rendered in three-dimensions. It’s not the most pleasant or subtle of episodes, but it ends up making some fairly interesting observations regarding Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as an agency, as well as the series’ general approach to simulating the past.

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