Mad Men s7 ep 14

Don’s still on the road in ‘Person to Person’, the series finale, and as my enthusiasm for road-trip episodes of TV isn’t unlimited, my patience was wearing a little thin with this plot arc. However, he’s starting to feel the tug of home, and he has phone conversations with the three most significant females in his life.

images-25Firstly with daughter Sally, who tells him about Betty’s illness. His subsequent phone call to Betty is a thing of beauty throughout; their clipped exchange of “Birdy”, “I know”, was the sort of pared-down and hard-earned writing that works when you’ve had seasons to get to know characters. And then a call to Peggy, whose furious “Where the hell are you?” is borne out of year of putting up with Don and his ways. It’s significant that she’s in charge throughout their conversation; whatever their relationship in the past, it’s now her who’s the adult, telling him that he can come back to McCann Erickson and work on the Coca-Cola account, while he runs through his failings: “I messed everything up… I’m not the man you think I am… I broke all my vows, scandalised my child, took another man’s name and made nothing of it”. There’s a hint that he might be contemplating suicide, but it doesn’t come to anything, and might even have been fan service, as there’s always been a sizeable body of opinion which saw that as the show’s likely conclusion.

images-26These phone calls, though, are made while Don is at a coastal retreat with Stephanie, Anna Draper’s niece, who is, I think, the only person alive who knows him as Dick. (And for a second I thought that my suggestion in last week’s review was going to be Don’s endgame, sort of: Don “dies”, Dick survives.) I’m afraid that I found this kind of irritating: I can see that it illustrates the late ‘60s/early ‘70s counterculture, but putting a hippy commune on top of a road trip meant that I was never entirely on board with Don’s storyline in this episode.

Everything else, though, is terrific. Roger regretfully sacks Meredith, Don’s secretary, because it looks as if Don isn’t coming back. (And not for translating Roger’s speech into pig Latin.) “There are a lot of better places than here”, she reassures Roger, who has a great week: he tells Joan, who suspects that Roger’s playing with the secretaries again, that in fact he met his new lover through Megan Draper. “She’s old enough to be her mother… actually, she is her mother.”

2015-05-18-mad-men1And I wondered whether we’d seen the last of Joan a couple of episodes ago. I’m glad I was wrong, because Christina Hendricks was on drop-dead sensational form this week. She tries coke – the other kind – in Malibu with Richard, and although he foresees a life of leisure for the two of them she doesn’t want to be that person for the rest of her life; she’s got things to do, having been thwarted or demeaned throughout her career.

hqdefaultSo when Ken Cosgrove asks her to help out with making a short film for Dow, she sees the possibilities immediately, and asks Peggy to write a script for it, then come in as partner on a production company. “We won’t”, promises Joan, “answer to anyone”. And the path is smoothed when Roger, unprompted, promises to put their son in his will. Peggy ultimately decides to stay at McCann – I was actually quite surprised that the offer was made at all, given how spiky their relationship has always been – and Richard decides that if Joan’s starting a business then he’s just not going to be getting enough attention. This is, of course, staggeringly selfish, but it’s probably worth bearing in mind that Richard knows exactly how much work is involved in building a business from scratch. Anyway, he walks out.

images-22Peggy then recounts her adventures to Stan, who tells her that he’s in love with her. Peggy talks through her feelings, and somewhat to her surprise comes to the realisation that she feels the same way. They kiss, and it’s borne as much out of affection as lust; it’s an unexpectedly lovely moment, which once again works because we know these people.

Which takes us nearly to the end of Mad Men. We get closure of sorts on just about everyone. Pete manages a graceful farewell to Peggy, then heads off for his new job with Learjet, finally getting the professional and personal adoration he’s always felt entitled to. Joan starts her production company. Roger and Marie, on honeymoon, bicker amiably. Betty’s still defiantly smoking. Peggy’s at the typewriter, with Stan in her life.

images-23And Don’s still on retreat and meditating, then we cut to the classic 1971 “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing” advertisement for Coca-Cola. I’ve seen more than one interpretation of this, but as far as I’m concerned there’s really only one possibility: Don heads back to work – as he always does – and creates the ad (which was, in real life, also done by McCann Erickson). Any other interpretation is, as far as I’m concerned, stretching for something which isn’t there. I suppose one could argue about why it happened – did his encounter with the other unloved middle-aged man provide an emotional awakening, or did the atmosphere at Hippy Central fire his creative synapses? It doesn’t matter much. It’s a happy ending for Don, for everyone else, and for us; even if this episode wasn’t wholly successful, Matthew Weiner unequivocally stuck the landing as far as I’m concerned.

Which is good, because Mad Men – particularly in its first four seasons, but generally throughout – was a show which made a substantial contribution to the way in which TV is now regarded. It wasn’t just great TV, although it was great; it wasn’t just one of the best series ever – although it was that too. What Mad Men did, though, was confirm beyond doubt that TV can be regarded as an art form, and a sui generis one at that; not just an inferior long-form version of cinema, or a novel with moving pictures. For that alone, those of us who unashamedly love TV will forever be in Matthew Weiner’s debt.

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Mad Men s7 ep 13

images-4Don’s still on the road in ‘The Milk And Honey Route’; and, in a sense, on the run: as the opening dream sequence makes clear, he’s always worried that his Dick Whitman past will catch up with him one day. His car breaks down in Nowheresville, so he’s obliged to stay in a motel for a few days, where his room is cleaned by a young man on the make and, as we will discover, on the take. Before that there’s a lovely little throwaway: Don wanders out to the motel pool where a good-looking woman is sunbathing, her skin lightly anointed with oil. He appraises her, and we know, we just know, that within a few minutes she’s going to be astride him in his motel room… except her husband and children turn up, and the moment passes; as, perhaps, has the Don Draper we knew. “I was”, he says to the young hustler, “in the advertising business”.

images-3Don later accompanies the motel owner to a Legion fundraiser, at which he starts off by saying he doesn’t like to talk about his wartime experiences – understandable – and then panics when introduced to someone who was also in Korea, although it turns out they were there at different times. He tosses out a detail of how he killed his CO, although by no means tells the whole story. Then the money raised goes missing; the locals are suspicious of Don, the wealthy stranger, and smack him about a bit in the hope of getting him to admit to stealing the cash. He didn’t take it, but he knows who did, and he gets the money back from the young conman, before the two of them hit the road, with no obvious plans apart from getting out of town.

images-2One by one, though, the destiny of the characters is being revealed: a few major pieces have already been removed from the chessboard, and this week Pete is visited by an occasionally inebriated Duck (the great Mark Moses) who has a complicated plan which I didn’t quite follow, but the upshot of it all – whether by design or otherwise – is that Pete is offered a job with Learjet in Wichita. He asks Trudy to go with him and, inexplicably, she agrees. I must have missed the softening of her attitude towards him over the last couple of years; in fact, she seems to be won round in the course of a one-minute conversation, which isn’t always the best way to make important life decisions, particularly ones which involve getting back together with Pete.

images-5It isn’t impossible that we’ve seen the last of Pete. And for Betty, it’s a more harrowing end: she is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and opts for quality of life over aggressive treatment, a decision which Henry is unable to talk her out of. So he tries to enlist the assistance of Sally (Kiernan Shipka is, my God, still only 15), but she can’t budge her mother either. For much of this episode I thought Henry was behaving like a jerk, but I revised my opinion after his conversation with Sally at her college: from Sally’s pained incomprehension about what her stepfather wants her to do (“I wouldn’t know what to say”) to Henry giving Sally the go-ahead to cry, then breaking down himself, this was an exceptional scene. And as I’ve described January Jones as the weak link in the show’s cast, I should in fairness concede that she was excellent this week.

At the end of the episode, though, we’re back with Don: he gives his car to the young conman from the motel, and sits at a bus stop (a scene of Hopperesque beauty), in no particular hurry to go anywhere. The final episode will be shown later this week in the UK, but in a few hours’ time in America, and I’m writing and posting this before then so as not to be influenced by it; even with the best spoiler-avoiding intentions something will get through. (And once again we have to acknowledge how successful Matthew Weiner has been in keeping advance information to a minimum: no previews, no “teasers”, nothing. Well done.)

Pretty much since the first episode – perhaps influenced by the credits – there’s been a view that the show has to end with Don’s death. I’m not so sure. I think he’ll live, although it’s worth noting that the death of “Don Draper” doesn’t necessarily mean a funeral. I could, for example, see a dark, handsome man sitting at a bar somewhere in Middle America, turning to the good-looking woman next to him, and introducing himself as Dick Whitman: this episode was as heavy on the Whitman references as any we’ve seen over the past two seasons, so I have a mild hunch that Dick might not be quite out of the story yet. Anyway, we need a little closure on the two characters – Don and Peggy – who have been at the centre of Mad Men since the pilot, and a few Roger one-liners for old times’ sake. Otherwise, after this stellar episode, I’m good.

Mad Men s7 ep 12

images-19It’s starting to look, in ‘Lost Horizon’, as if McCann Erickson might not be a good fit for SCP. There’s a straw in the wind when Roger’s African-American secretary leaves, observing that the world of advertising isn’t for her. She describes Roger as “very amusing”, which if you think about kind of sums him up in two words.

As for the SCP women: Don’s secretary keeps herself busy choosing décor for his new apartment, but for Joan and Peggy it’s unpleasant. Joan quickly discovers that at McCann she’s really just a piece of tail: Dennis undermines her; Ferg openly comes onto her; and Jim Hobart brutally dismisses her. Taking Roger’s advice she accepts Hobart’s payoff offer, picks up her Rolodex, and sashays the hell out of McCann. We might never see Joanie again. There’s one shaft of light, though, and it’s an important one for Mad Men fans: she and Don bump into each other in the lift, and they’ve plainly put their animus to one side, because they have one of those conversations in which they amount, collectively, to awesomeness cubed.

640Still, at least Joan had an office; Peggy doesn’t, for most of the episode – although she’s offered the typing pool if she needs a place to work – and in consequence she’s reduced to haunting the more or less empty SCP premises for most of the episode. She shares the scene of the week with Roger, which possibly tips a little too much into whimsy when Peggy starts rollerskating around the deserted SCP office, accompanied by Roger on the organ. It has an important payoff, though: “I need to make men feel at ease,” says Peggy, to which Roger replies, “Who told you that?” Cue Peggy swaggering into McCann Erickson, shades on, cigarette drooping from mouth, and Bert Cooper’s painting of an octopus pleasuring a woman tucked under her arm. Mad Men has always been as much about Peggy’s journey as Don’s, and as of now it isn’t looking impossible that she’ll be the only SCP alum still standing at McCann when the show finishes.

Because Don’s restless again: despite Hobart’s evident pleasure at having landed his “white whale” after 10 years of trying, it doesn’t take long for him to feel like a cog in the McCann machine. He walks out of a client meeting and just takes off. At first it’s ostensibly to pick his daughter up, but she isn’t there, so he has an affectionate conversation with Betty instead. Then he heads to Wisconsin on the trail of femme fatale Diana, only to encounter her ex-husband, who tells Don that he’s just one of many who have been bewitched by her. I still can’t quite rule out the possibility that the whole Diana arc has been a figment of Don’s imagination, and that impression isn’t dispelled by his hallucination of Bert Cooper sitting in his car.

Meantime Hobart’s wondering where Don’s got to. It’s no big surprise to us that Don’s gone AWOL, because he did that at SCP often enough. “He does that”, Roger tells Hobart, but you can tell that Hobart, unsurprisingly, really isn’t impressed. And Don’s in no rush to return; on his way back to New York he picks up a hitch-hiker and heads to St Paul instead. If Don’s to get a happy ending, it might not involve McCann Erickson. It’s an elegiac episode, and it’s a good one; Mad Men might well manage to go out on a high.

Mad Men s7 ep 11

mad_men_7-11As Mad Men has moved out of its pomp and into its autumn years, the truly great episodes have become a little rarer. Still, though, every season always has a few occasions when you can exhale with relief and say “At last”. And ‘Time & Life’ is the first such moment of this mini-season. It’s absolutely brilliant from first to last. (And directed by Jared Harris, Lane Pryce himself, who is unsurprisingly adept at fitting into the Mad Men house style.)

At least in part this is because, after three episodes of scene-setting, this one is actually about something: the pace quickens, the stakes are higher, and with time running out on Mad Men the significance of what’s going on is heightened. It’s helped also by the fact that it focusses on the main cast, and on the ad agency which has been the engine for so much of the show’s drama. It sparks off when Roger accidentally discovers that the lease on their premises hasn’t been paid, for which he’s originally prepared to sack office manager Dawn. He finds out, though, that McCann Erickson have cancelled the lease; they’re going to move Sterling Cooper into their own building.

For the partners, this looks as if they’re being absorbed, swallowed up, which isn’t what they signed up for. And although they’re sworn to secrecy, as is the way of things word starts to get out: Peggy goes to a recruitment consultant to find out what might be available, and is told that her best option is to… go to McCann Erickson. Don and the other partners put together a presentation for McCann, in which they suggest that they could service some clients out of their California office while maintaining their independence, but are told that they’re missing the point; they’ve passed the test. They’re in the big league, with the big clients. They’re “dying and going to advertising heaven”, as Jim Hobart at McCann puts it, dangling Coca-Cola and Buick in front of them. Which is very tempting – and you can see that they’re tempted – but also means, on one level, giving up everything that they’ve worked for; which, with the show just about done, has a particular poignancy for the viewer.

images-3But it isn’t simply about the storytelling. For those of us who’ve been in from the start, there are callbacks everywhere. Lou finally gets to make his stupid cartoon, after being ragged by everyone in the office about it: “Enjoy the rest of your miserable life!” he crows to Don as he announces that he’s going to Tokyo. Joan, once again, has to reflect on the likelihood that she’s never going to be taken seriously in the world of advertising. As an aside, I wonder whether the people at McCann Erickson know about the circumstances in which she became a partner at Sterling Cooper; given how gossipy most professions are, it would almost be more of a surprise if they didn’t.

Pete and his ex-wife Trudy join forces to try and get their daughter admitted to a tony school, and although Pete can be somewhat contemptuous of Trudy he’s still protective – to the point of violence – if anyone else criticises her. (For Scottish Mad Men devotees like me the fight between Pete and the school’s headmaster turns on a nice point of clan history.) Ken makes Pete squirm and beg for business. And Roger and Don hit a bar to discuss the finer points of marrying your secretary.

The most affecting backstory, though, is Peggy’s; there are children in the office to form a focus group for some toy or other, and her manner with them is both awkward – after all, she’s never had to bring up a child – and heartbreaking. In every interaction with a child, we can see what it is she gave up; no matter what Don said to her all these years ago, it never goes away, and after Stan makes a few ill-chosen comments about the mothers of the children in the office she unburdens herself, just a little, while at the same time recognising that she’s got where she is because she hasn’t had to cope with working in a male-dominated profession and being a single mother at the same time. It’s breathtaking stuff.

In the episode’s closing scene, the partners finally tell their employees what’s going on, and attempt to present it as great news. The staff members, though, aren’t buying it for a second, and immediately start talking to each other, drowning Don and Roger out, then they drift away from the meeting. “Hold on. This is the beginning of something, not the end”, shouts Don. Which is a little meta: given that there are only three episodes to go after this one, we’re very close to the end of something. On any view, there can’t be many great Mad Men episodes to go; being pessimistic, this could be the last one. If it is, though, it’s a reminder of just how good this show can be.

Mad Men s7 ep 10

44a02656-ba16-c235-5bbc-f1473ca61491-mm-710-my-0506-1022jpg-a5bc8188d4cddec6Even by Mad Men standards of on-the-nosiness, Don’s storylines this week in ‘The Forecast’  are remarkably untroubled by subtlety: he’s selling his empty, wine-stained apartment (his realtor: “Looks like a sad person lives here. This place reeks of failure”), and he’s been asked by Roger to prepare a statement about where the agency’s going in the future, for which he tries to get ideas from Ted and Peggy. Yes, he’s letting go of his past and trying to work out what the next few years might hold.

For now, though, Don has the usual workplace crises to deal with: settling a petty dispute between Pete and Peggy, then providing advice to Johnny Mathis on how to bounce back from a failed pitch by making a joke. Unfortunately it doesn’t work and Mathis is taken off the account, whereupon he comes at Don with all guns blazing. Don suggests that it’s a test of character. Mathis: “You don’t have any character. You’re just handsome. Stop kidding yourself!” Now, we know the first sentence to be not a million miles away from the truth, since “Don Draper” is a construct, and the second probably has something going for it as well; Don has more about him than looks, but those looks have undoubtedly smoothed his path through life. Still, speaking half-truth to power isn’t going to go down well, and Mathis gets fired.

A potentially significant week for Joan: in LA for business, she hooks up with wealthy retired businessman Richard Burghoff (Bruce Greenwood). At least, he leads her to believe he’s a wealthy etc., and for now we don’t have any evidence to the contrary. He then visits New York, only to baulk initially at Joan’s revelation that she has a child, then presumably realising that this makes him the most stupid man on the planet – it is, after all, Joan – he does his best to unscrew the pooch. He might have succeeded as well. I can’t imagine that everyone’s going to get a happy ending. Perhaps Joan will.

images-15And as part of our farewell tour of Mad Men characters, Sally Draper’s back this week. Unfortunately for her, she has to watch both of her parents flirt with her much younger friends: her mother with off-to-Nam Glen Bishop (who will later make a pass at Betty), and her father with a “fast girl” at a meal with her and a couple of friends. Sally observes that her parents, in this respect at least, are similar: when receiving attention they “just ooze everywhere”. Once again, there’s at least a grain of truth in that. Glen, though, has now delighted us for long enough, and if we see him again I’ll start to wonder why he’s taking up screen time which could be used on someone we care about a little more.

In many ways this was a good episode; there was certainly a lot going on. I couldn’t help but feel, though, that much of it was a little… inconsequential, and I come back to the point I made in my review of episode 8: we really don’t have too much longer to go here, so pretty soon the punches are going to have start landing if Mad Men is going to go out with a bang rather than a whimper.

Mad Men s7 ep 9

images-14The start of this episode is almost self-referential. Mad Men, a show which famously evokes nostalgia for a particular place and time, has now reached the stage where Don is feeling nostalgic about the way things were a few years ago, back at the start of Mad Men itself; he’s round at Betty’s, making milkshakes for their children, but leaves when Henry comes home, pausing for a look back at the perfect nuclear family, the one he could have had.

In fact, taking ‘New Business’ together with last week, as we approach the end of the show it kind of looks as if we’re being given a summary of Don’s love life as seen through the Mad Men prism: last week Rachel and a big hello to Diane; this week Betty, Megan, Sylvia Rosen, and more Diane. Don is finalising his divorce from Megan, although she isn’t going quietly; Don “ruined my life”, claims Megan, and he’s an “ageing, sloppy, selfish liar”. Well, the latter might or might not be true; but she seems to have forgotten that when she met Don she was hardly at the peak of her acting career, and even at this late stage of the marriage her hand is out for more money. She cleans their apartment out as well, with the help of her mother (who takes the chance for an old-times’-sake bunk-up with Roger).

And then there’s Diane. Now, even though I’m very clearly being manipulated – she’s the archetype of the enigmatic but damaged femme fatale, rather than a living, breathing human being – I’m intrigued by her, and by her relationship with Don. Part of this at least is down to Elizabeth Reaser’s performance, both aloof and knowing; the scene in which she and Don encounter the Rosens in the lift is elevated by her tacit deduction of some sort of history between Don and Sylvia. Taken together with her choice of reading material last week, she’s evidently very far from dumb. Don’s clearly hooked; she, on the other hand, has decided to punish herself as much as she can, by declining to see Don again, because being with him makes her forget her not-so-Secret Pain.

madmendissolution3.0The scenes in the office provide the light relief this week: as well as Pete dressed up in golf clothes – which looks exactly how you’d expect him to look – there’s a bohemian photographer, Pima (a wonderful Mimi Rogers), helping out with an account. She successfully seduces Stan, then tries the same move with Peggy, who declines. And Harry decides to give reign to his fantasy that he’s a serious player in the TV world by offering Megan a casting couch opportunity, which unsurprisingly she passes up.

I probably liked most of this episode a little more than last week’s. The bits I didn’t like, though, were substantial enough; those of us who think that Megan (and Jessica Paré) have had a bit of a raw deal from the Mad Men audience would nonetheless find the scenes with Megan and her family difficult to defend; they’re boring and largely irrelevant. And given that even I thought we’d largely run out of interesting Megan material by the end of season 6, I can only hope that the $1m dollar cheque Don passes to Megan will mean that she’s now going to get the hell out of his life, and out of this show. Mind you, I thought that before, and it would probably be unwise to speculate about the limits of Matthew Weiner’s fascination for the character.

Mad Men s7 ep 8

mad-men-season-7-episode-8-christina-hendricks-elisabeth-mossWe’re into 1970, and as a result of the deal struck with McCann Erickson at the end of the last episode, the partners are all wealthy. There’s a new guy in the office – Johnny Mathis, I think? – trying to set Peggy up with his brother-in-law; Peggy goes on a blind date with him. Roger and Ted have moustaches. Ken is still thinking about retiring to write his Great American Novel, but when he’s fired by Roger, on orders from McCann Erickson, instead goes to work at Dow with the intention of being a difficult client for Sterling Cooper. Peggy and Joan are working together, trying to salvage the account of a tights-manufacturing client.

Don, meantime, is either divorced or about to be, and even by his standards is shagging anything that moves, with an answering service to cope with the deluge of booty calls he’s getting. But, as ever, with Don, he’s more intrigued by what he can’t have. He dreams about Rachel Menken, who has become more idealised in her absence from his life, but he discovers that she’s died.

And he becomes strangely fascinated with Diana (Elizabeth Reaser, who was Tammy in The Good Wife), a waitress at a local diner. He thinks he’s seen her before; she accuses him of using a line, but you can tell he means it. Their first sexual encounter strikes, perhaps, a True Detective-y off-key note; she believes that he left her a $100 dollar tip on a previous occasion as a sort of advance payment for a back-alley quickie, so accommodates him with minimal fuss. Women don’t actually do that, Mr Weiner. But Diana clearly isn’t prepared for the possibility that Don will come back, and he does. This storyline has the sort of dreamlike, surreal tone which Mad Men sometimes gets just right, almost as if it’s slipping in and out of focus – does Don know her? – and it’s intriguing.

But back in the real world Peggy and Joan have to endure a business meeting with three bros, which consists more or less of a string of sexist remarks aimed at Joan, who withdraws into herself while Peggy tries to keep things going. It’s what comes after that really stings, though: Joan is furious (“I want to burn this place down”); Peggy’s in go-along-to-get-along mode, and they spar a little. Then it kicks off. Peggy to Joan: “You dress like a ho.” (I paraphrase, but not much.) Joan to Peggy: “What you’re saying is, I don’t dress the way you do because I don’t look like you. And that is very true.” Peggy to Joan: “You’re filthy rich. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.” And this might, in turn, be behind Peggy’s spur-of-the-moment decision to take her blind date to Paris – why can’t she be spontaneous? – although after sobering up she starts to back away from it.

‘Severance’ is all beautifully shot and exquisitely acted, of course; sometimes it’s on-the-nose, and at other times it feels as if meaning and significance are just eluding the viewer’s grasp. Very Mad Men, in other words. But although it’s good to have it back I couldn’t help wondering, well, is that all there is? Those of us who’ve stuck around know that sometimes with Mad Men you have to play the long game; but with only a handful of episodes to go it can’t afford to be too long a game.