Are You Alone?
Well, we’re obviously a little late on this – but I know we’ve both been thinking about the Mad Men finale and trying to find the time to post…so I thought I’d get us started.
In the often overly-stylized world of this show, I nevertheless loved this shot – especially Burt’s posture! It was a foreshadowing moment, the partners all together but each still alone. It set us up for that final sequence, which didn’t even resonate fully for me until I was thinking about it later. Megan finds this cheap version of the thing she wanted, setting the whole thing off – the spotlight isolates her from Don, which was gorgeously pathetic and painful to see…a perfect illustration of an artless soul that wants to be an artist (what a scathing but dead on critique from the woman who has known her longest!). Then Peggy, for the first time on a lone business trip finds her joy at independence disrupted by humping dogs. Pete, grasps for some alone time with his headphones and finds he is more alienated from his life than he realized. Roger, afraid to do LSD alone earlier in the episode finds his solitude liberating (what a fantastic shot!). And Don, back in a sequence that evoked visually both the opening scene of the entire series with the drink being carried across the room, and the beautiful scene of the old Don from earlier this season between him and Joan with the lighting and setting) begins his philandering again. And I have no doubt here…whether his answer is yes or no to the question, that was the old Don we saw!
So we end the season with each of our main characters alone – some flourishing in solitude, some floundering, some compromising. Early this season we were intrigued by the political machinations swirling. How would liberation in all its late 1960’s forms impact SCD(P)? In fact, I’m surprised by how much those themes dropped out of the narrative. It’s as though they were there to set up the theme of how alienated our Madison Ave friends would be from this new world, but then, if anything, the sharp spin of focus back onto Madison Ave seemed to alienate all politics from the story. Megan’s path cut out the Bohemian actors and random gay characters; Dawn became little more than an extra in the background; even women’s lib, a central theme in this show, seemed crushed under the weight of Joan’s devastating arc. In the final sequence, then, it seems the show has returned to its most pervasive theme, this idea that the culture in which we live constantly alienates us from it and from each other. Are you alone? Yes, always.
Um, thanks Mad Men. Ouch.
In fact, if there’s a way in which we’re not alone in this Mad Men world, it seems most to be in our ability to be haunted by traumas and the past – Joan’s guilt over Lane’s death offers as subtle image of this, but the appearance of Don’s brother (who hung himself after being rejected by Don in the first season, to my recollection) throughout this finale served up a much more obvious version. You asked last week, Kathryn, if Lane couldn’t just start over? The comparison was to Don, who, we all thought in the penultimate episode was the master of reinvention – perfectly capable of wiping the slate clean and starting from scratch. But the way his brother hovers at the fringes of his consciousness reveals this reinvention might not be so complete. That which threatens the reinvention always hovers near, ready to disrupt. Perhaps in the end, Lane was the one who chose true re-invention – a clean cut end to the story that bound him, better re-invented as a dead man than a one whose failures would always haunt him.
One of the things that really struck me about this season, though, was the particular form of narrative. The more aesthetically compelling tv shows become, the more intellectually stimulating and provocative, the more they seem to risk losing their sense of story. I recall being quite struck when Lane cut himself the embezzlement because it felt like the first moment of pure narrative all season. In other words, we couldn’t say it was “about” anything – it wasn’t about gender or race or mother/daughter relationships or consumerism or….pick any one of Mad Men’s recurring “about” themes that tend to flatten the story from being “about” Peggy or Dawn or Betty and Sally or a really shiny ad campaign. Sometimes it feels as though Mad Men is working to enflesh concepts rather than trying to tell a good story that we might then interpret conceptually. Lane disrupted this, and for that reason (among others, of course), I’m going to miss him.
My only other thought about this season was that it let its self-referential ways get a little out of control by the end. Most of the time I enjoy the aesthetic coherence that comes from staging scenes the same way scenes have been staged before (the final shot’s recollection of earlier scenes that I mention above, but also the interaction between Peggy and Don in the movie theatre evoking Peggy’s early-season movie theatre experience – how glad are you Don didn’t get the hand job, though? – offer two such examples). But this season felt like it did this just a little too often for me. I felt like I was needing to draw on way too many resources of prior visual cues to read fully what was happening in any given scene. And it became a little exhausting at times. While I thought this season was pretty fantastic, my sense is that the show would do well to chill out a little on this. Loosen the structure – let us be surprised once in a while.
Can’t wait to hear what you thought!
Thanks for getting us started on this long-awaited conversation about the Mad Men finale. I think your analysis is right on: visually and narratively, the finale sent us into our solitude with a strong reminder that everyone on this show is, in the end, alone. No matter what momentary reverie over a night-cap colleagues might share – or even whatever transitory transparency and understanding spouses share when doing LSD or comforting each other in big life transitions – these characters do not have each other’s backs.
I suppose that has to be nuanced. Don did, after all, go against his scruples to land Megan the shoe commercial. But it was precisely this act of spousal solidarity/sympathy that seemed to push him out of Megan’s orbit and squarely back into his solitary prowl. That brings us to the biggest reason I couldn’t bring myself to write this post (besides a month of travel and interrupted internet): Megan. I have to admit, I felt played. All season I have been singing Megan’s praises: she is the emblem of a new generation, “the new woman,” the challenge to Don’s stodgy ways, the confident solipsist who isn’t going to take no for an answer and is going “to follow her dreams.” I was right there with Peggy: maybe Megan really was “one of those girls” who is good at everything and who is going to upset the neat conventional narratives of the post-war generation.
What the hell happened to “I feel better failing at an audition than succeeding at the Heinz pitch”? What the hell happened to struggle and toil and earning her place? Given her increasingly whiny, petulant, and impatient behavior, it is hard not to take Marie’s word that she is the worst of all monsters: someone with an artistic temperament but no artistic talent. Except, we had no clues of this until the end. We never saw Megan act so we could form our own opinions of her and the little hints we did have (her campy little sketches, rehearsed and improvised, for Heinz and Cool Whip) showed at least enough talent to pull off a commercial. Even Don’s reaction as he watched her screen test was ambiguous: was he moved by her strange beauty and winsome air in black and white? Did he see some promise if only she could get her foot in the door? Or did he feel sorry for her, certain that this was not a face for the screen, whatever her other charms?
I am actually inclined to assume the former. If not talent (because really, how can you tell from a silent screen test and what kind of judge would Don make anyway?), then at least ambition won him over. After all, he needed some help, or subterfuge, to get his own foot in the door of advertising all those years ago. I think he could see Megan’s desire and figured he’d help her reinvent herself. But I also think her need for his help (the fact that she didn’t come up with her own version of the Roger-con that Don pulled to get into advertising) also means that she fits in his conception of the world: a pretty woman who needs a husband’s help to make a career. This is a wife he knows what to do with. And that doing mostly involves leaving her to her close-up while he feels permission to strike up pseudo-philosophical dialogue with pretty strangers at the bar.
I don’t really mind that the episode was a bit of a let down compared to the two blockbusters that preceded it. I did feel the world-weariness of Don’s jaded stare seeping back into my soul and sighed: here we go again. There is nothing new under the sun. Just when it seemed there might be, if not something totally new, at least something surprising. Which is, perhaps, to say what you said so eloquently: come on, Mad Men, we don’t need a trip down memory lane or a best-of montage of significant scenes to allude to. There were many episodes this season (the two before this one most centrally, but others too) that did surprise, delight, horrify, and exhilarate. I have confidence next season can do the same. But like Don, I don’t think I can look at Megan in quite the same way again.
Thanks for a great conversation all season, Natalie (and faithful readers)!