If you had told me two episodes ago that this mini-season of Mad Men was going to end with the hopeful, whimsical, after-death, song and dance number by Bert I would never have believed you. And that ladies and gentlemen is why Mad Men is one of the greatest tv shows ever. I rest my case.
But there is still so much to talk about in this episode!
It's hard to see in obvious ways where the themes of this season are present in more than one episode because the writers are so good at weaving in small ideas in small places. But when we break the themes down to brass tacks we can see general recurrences. There is the hope versus scepticism idea that is present in almost all the story lines, but plays out most dramatically at the office as Jim plots the overthrow of all creativity, art, and the human element of advertising for the number crunching, impersonal touch of the IBM. The idea of family, what binds a character's family together and how they have failed in many aspects of family life, comes out again at the office where surprisingly Roger and Don fight for the preservation of each other and the common goal of everyone in the office. As the unknown consequences of technology have everyone tentative or frightened at some level this season, most noticeably sending Ginsberg off the edge, in this episode the moon landing has the surprising effect of bringing the whole country together and creating a human connection through shared experience of something inspiring and wonderful.
The episode's overarching hopeful tone was one that has been so missed in this season and most of last season as well. It felt satisfying to finally see genuine growth in positive directions especially in our main characters. Peggy and her odd relationship with Julio is such a sweet, intimate scene where Peggy's maternal instinct hits the right note; a skill she has such difficulty with when it comes to men or at the office. It's interesting that this is the first positive moment of a maternal nature she's experienced, and after she asked what she could be doing wrong last episode. There has been a lot of discussion about the idea of Mad Men redefining the family last week, but in another light I think of it more as a rediscovering of what family really means since every character has had such bad experiences involving family. Peggy hasn't dealt with her motherhood for almost ten years, to finally have a glimpse of maternal feeling may be a step to a deeper realization about the fact she is a mother, even though she isn't raising her child. I can't help but feel this was an important episode for Peggy both professionally and personally. She even capitalizes on this maternal view in her poignant pitch for Burger Chef, jumping in to deliver the pitch with panache and confidence, thanks to Don's selfless act of giving her the pitch.
This passing off of the pitch to Peggy is the first thing Don has done for someone else when times get tough. He usually is reactive, searching out people to stomp with his advertising genius, flexing his creative muscle, or finding another woman to sleep with, or bottle to empty. But an act of selflessness is completely contrary to his earlier behaviour. It's this selflessness not only towards Peggy, but to the whole agency to which he now recognizes loyalty towards; even though they have been actively trying to push him out, that signals personal change for Don Draper.
As Roger tries to defend Don to Bert, Bert comments that Roger is no leader. It's a stinging remark even though it was meant in Bert's trademark kindly sage/uncle manner. Roger has never really shown leadership, he's cruises merrily through life and even psychedelic orgies; at work he likes to go where the money is and does what it takes to keep his name on the door. But after Bert's death Roger springs into action to save SC&P from the soulless agency of Jim Cutler's dreams. Roger's genuine friendship with Don is the impetus for him to pursue a takeover from McCann, and he finely crafts a subsidiary agency of which he'll be president and Jim only a lowly partner. The catch is everyone must sign a 5 year contract, including Ted Chaough, who is clearly going a bit off his rocker when he cuts the engine in his plane while flying with Sunkist. Don quickly smooths things over with Ted, promising the creativity both he and Ted can't live without with none of the hassles of running the company.
After this seemingly happy conclusion of winning Burger Chef and saving the company by selling to McCann, Don turns to see a Bert apparition standing be-socked in the office, calling Don "my boy". Bert's lilt into "The Best Things in Life Are Free" complete with dancing secretaries was one of the best moment in tv ever. I thought it was a hilarious, whimsical ode to a character the show has always valued, if used sparingly. To have Bert come to Don singing the praises of a life not built around material wealth and Don so visibly touched was a moment that was revealed to contain so much meaning. Don must recognize this truth spoken to him from beyond the grave, and yet he has just signed up for more money and 5 more years of work. Is his happiness to be found through his work? Can he find and maintain hope for ever really knowing love? Will the office continue to find human connection in each other or does this hopeful mid-season ending spell doom and destruction for the finale?
Even though this show has great writing, fantastic acting, and impeccable costume and set design, I believe that what makes the show inherently great is Matthew Weiner's creation of a truly human story. Don is journeying through the question of "Who Am I?" but also "Who Are These People in My Life?" These are the questions we've been asking throughout history and in every great story and piece of art. As a Catholic I believe that this human story ends in hope, but we will have to wait yet another year to see if that is how Mad Men will finish.
Wrapping up with some quick notes:
- Sally and the older shirtless boy. I don't really buy what has been floating through the blogosphere about Sally wanting to be Betty and trying to find a test subject of a boyfriend. I think it was more of Sally flexing her teenage charms, but then realizing the nerdy boy with the telescope may be more interesting than the boy she wants to impress. All the domestic scenes of the families watching the moon landing were perfectly done, I really appreciated the glimpse of awe and wonder.
- Joan! I don't think Joan got good shift with the writing this season because her anger to Don just because he's costing her money doesn't seem to warrant her cold reactions. I believe that she's a good business woman, that she deserves all that she gets, but it's harder to believe that she can so easily toss Don under the bus.
- Harry Crane - No millions for you! Muahaha!
- Megan - I was somewhat disappointed she wasn't the one dying this episode. Just because I was so tired of her I hoped for a dramatic ending to redeem having to sit through her storyline all season. And the shameless last scene in a bikini?!? Really?!? If all she does all day is sit around in the California sun in a bikini then the writers never really wanted us to feel bad about this breakup. Let's all collectively cross our fingers she doesn't come back when she hears about Don's new millions.
- Meredith was so hilarious. How she beckoned Don to sit next to her on the couch? I may have been laughing so hard tears were streaming down my face.
Well, thanks for putting up with me. I wish I could have written better, deeper recaps but then they wouldn't get posted until next season! Maybe next year I'll give it another whirl!
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