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Season Finale: Mad Men – “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.”

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“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.

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