Mad Men: The End of the Season

It’s impossible to gauge the effect of change without seeing its impact.

Which is another way of saying I’ve been busy, so I’m jamming impressions of the last three episodes of Mad Men into one jammed post.

This season ended by telescoping in on Don. We knew how he was reacting to the social changes around him — he was turning off Beatles records and trying to convince the Rolling Stones to appear in one of his commercials. If social networks existed in the 1966 of Mad Men, Don would be saying things like, “Why is Ginsburg always on The Facebook?”

Don lost Peggy, mostly of his own doing, when she quit to work at another agency. Their relationship, or at least their work relationship, ended emotionally, with Don holding Peggy’s hand and kissing it, tenderly. He’d obviously and always cared for her, even when he was acting like a prick in every other aspect of his life. He was the one who went to see her in the hospital, after she had her baby. But this happens, between bosses and the people who work for them. You forget things. You take things for granted. You think things don’t need to be said because things like fondness and respect, these things should be obvious. They weren’t for Peggy.

But the world moved on. After she left, we don’t see the agency talking about her. This happens. It is sad, but true. It happens. Don ends up bumping into her, quite by accident, at a matinee, something that he does to clear his creative cobwebs. Now, with a bit of distance between them, he could tell her that he wanted her to be successful, he just didn’t think it would be without him.

Another loss was more violent. Poor, doomed, nebbish, British Lane hung himself in his own office. Joan may have suspected something was wrong, Pete may have confirmed it, but it was Don who forced his way into Lane’s office and made sure they cut him down, so that no one would see him “like that”. When he tells Joan that she couldn’t have done anything, he is speaking from experience — this is the man whose brother hung himself — as it is of forgiveness for himself. Of all the partner’s, Don probably feels most responsible for what Lane did to himself.

Maybe the biggest loss is Don’s faith in his own abilities, especially when SCDP put it’s faith to win Jaguar in Joan’s ample cleavage instead of Don’s creative ability. That would explain his rather bare-knuckled pitch to Dow Chemical. I will kill myself for you, he says in essence. Because I want it all. But even if he had it, I don’t think it would be enough for him.

I read somewhere once — in the book, The Artist’s Way, I think — about ‘shadow artists.’ People who aren’t full-fledged artists, but who play at the edges. Like people who create advertising for a living. (Don’t look to me to solve the question about the balance between art and commerce.)

The final episode was called “The Phantom” and it could be just as easily be read to be about Don, the phantom artist, making his 30-second movies with no real credit or recognition beyond the trade magazines and a tight circle of competitors.

This read on what he does would explain his ambivalence to Megan’s career. While he toils in the shadows of the arts, she is trying to be an actress. Granted, her success has been limited. Her growing desperation and unhappiness even leads her to ‘steal’ one out from underneath a friend, who wanted Megan to pull a string with Don and get her an audition. Megan does ask, but for herself, in a move that was more calculated and opportunistic than I would have given her credit for.

After some balking — you don’t want it like this, you don’t want to be in a commercial — Don watches Megan’s audition reel. We see her later, on set, long enough to give Don a kiss and reaffirm that she loves him. He wears that tight-lipped smile of his, then walks off her set, either because he doesn’t believe she ever wanted him for anything other than what he could do for her or because he can’t stand to watch her pursue her dream. (That shot was a beauty, pure 1960s camera work, with Don striding in darkness as we watch the cube of light that is Megan’s set shrink behind him.)

That’s the kind of loaded symbolism that built to what passes for a cliffhanger in the Mad Men world view. Don, walking into darkness becomes maybe something more, as he considers a woman, in the season’s final shot, asking if he is alone. Will he become ‘old’ Don Draper?

We don’t know what he’ll do, but we’re left to consider it for the summer and fall. This season, we’ve seen him push aside such temptations. But domestic Don has always felt phony to me, a rare ill-fitting suit in his wardrobe.

We leave SCDP — will it become SCD next season, now that Pryce is no longer partner? — on an upswing, considering new space in the face of a wave of new business. But so much of the agency is heading in an opposite, emotional direction. Pete, thank God, is finally getting his. Joan is divorcing. Roger is lonely and rudderless. Don is Don, eternally unsatisfied.

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