The End of an Era: A Guide to Mad Men’s Final Season

Whether or not you’re ready for Mad Men to end (you’re not), tonight is the premiere of Season 7B: the second half of episodes comprising the show’s last season. They have the potential to be some of the best aired on television, period – and you know me, I’m not usually prone to histrionics. Here to debrief you on this once-in-a-lifetime cultural phenomenon is myself: public Mad Men debater, obsessive, and recent rewatcher of Season 7A. Let’s ride this zeitgeist together. Do you want some ice in that?

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Different TV shows call for different modes of analysis and enjoyment. You have to set your mind at a certain frequency in order to really GET a show (this is why I had such a hard time on Sunday nights in 2013 – very difficult to shotgun Breaking Bad followed by The Real Housewives of New Jersey). The thing that I find most groundbreaking and mesmerizing about Mad Men is that it operates on many more levels than the average TV narrative – even The Sopranos, to which it’s historically been compared most often. Like SopranosMad Men is a series of complex interweaving character studies. They’re both period pieces. They’re about male anti-heroes. And they’re epic poems – full of rich allegories and cultural callbacks.

But there’s something very special about Mad Men that really differentiates it and makes it so of-the-moment: it’s art about making art. It’s more meta than any television drama that’s come before it, with perhaps the exception of Six Feet Under. But while SFU only occasionally touched on the creative process, Mad Men‘s an ode to it (and if it’s taught us anything, it’s that advertising is the most romantic and important creative outlet there is). It’s an excavation of the creative mind and the human impulse to weave and consume fiction.

I think it’s an extraordinarily special piece of work – and I really mean piece of work. It takes a metric fuckton of brainpower to absorb Mad Men in all its glory. So let’s reset our minds to Season 7A. Here’s a review of where the last half-season’s going to pick up:

Themes to keep in mind…

The first half of Season 7 took us in a (blessedly) new direction from a strange, frightening, and often aimless 6th season. 7 had a few core themes that sewed it together and began to steer the show into its final harbor.

  • Sentimentality. From Bert Cooper’s touching musical farewell to Peggy’s Burger Chef epiphany about family, the show played up what has always been one of its greatest strengths. The ad work, and the characters, were at their best when they spoke from the heart, and Don and Peggy’s strained relationship was seemingly resolved with one tender slow dance. 7 started off sad and ended up kind of triumphantly sappy. Mad Men believes in love.
  • Cycles of change. Back in Season 4, a man from Heinz told Don that “food is cyclical: there’s a time for beans and there’s a time for ketchup.” In Mad Men, there’s a time for dreams and a time for fuck-ups. Season 7 has deeply explored the way we helplessly repeat ourselves (i.e. Don blowing up his marriage to Megan in the same spectacularly slow, coolly cruel way he did Betty) and also how the mistakes of the old echo in the lives of the young (Sally is now, psychologically, a frightening composite of Betty and Don). Talk about a carousel.
  • Time. Probably the most crucial theme of the entire show. Mad Men is a hyperreal depiction of aging, learning, growing, and dying – for everyone, not just Don. From the commonplace time jumps to the more recent aesthetic markers of Season 7 (Pete Campbell’s bitterly receding hairline) it’s clear that this last season will deal with the inevitable march. Death is this show’s sexiest and most interesting recurring bedfellow.

Where are they now?

In case you haven’t caught up (even though Season 7A is now on Netflix, FYI), here’s where we left the primary players and various bit characters.

  • Don is back as SC&P’s de facto head of creative, after a demeaning season of writing coupons for his replacement Lou Avery (and a hurt, vengeful Peggy, who memorably served as his direct superior for most of 7A). He briefly struggled with a relapse of his ever-latent alcoholism, connected with the collapse of his bicoastal sham of a marriage – and a long struggle to rebuild his professional relationships after the infamous Hershey Pitch of Season 6. Don found his groove by the end of 7A, his creative zest sparked by the emotionally overwhelming moon landing of 1969, shown in the finale. This half-season humbled him greatly, and his Wild West iconoclasm of earlier seasons has given way to a practicality and a Dick-Whitman-like commitment to hard work. He now seems to fully support Peggy as the heir apparent to his crown, and in a show of maturity, agrees readily to a deal that will make SC&P a subsidiary of their long-hovering rival agency McCann.
  • Peggy spent a lot of 7A fighting Lou Avery’s poor leadership of the SC&P creative team. She’s now Copy Chief and thisclose to pushing out one of the Creative Directors – my money’s on Ted, considering that the half-season ended with Don convincing a very reluctant Ted to keep his job. Peggy also struggled with a lot of working-woman insecurities, exemplified by her attachment to her young neighbor Julio and her tearful admission to Don that her single, childless status makes her wonder “what she did wrong.” I’m not a huge fan of this trope with Peggy, but whatever. This is a recap. Peggy is otherwise starting Season 7B with sizeable power and confidence: she absolutely murdered the Burger Chef pitch, with a performance that evoked Don’s classic conference room magnetism. The show is beginning to figure out that Peggy’s journey towards finding her voice has less to do with the novelty of her female perspective in a male-dominated workplace, than with the fact that she’s simply a genius.
  • Roger took a bit of a backseat this season, offering his usual workplace wit without much growth or character development. He experimented with free love (it was 1969, after all) and spent a confusing, sad 24 hours with his lost daughter at a commune upstate. His most notable role was as office peacemaker, arranging for Don’s return to SC&P and eventually brokering the deal to join McCann and eliminate his rival partner Jim Cutler. Bert’s death hit him hard. It’s my belief that he and Joan will be endgame in 7B.
  • Joan continued to soar to new heights in her relatively new position as partner. She’s a little older and wiser and has largely outgrown the corporate missteps that plagued her after she sexed her way into the job (as evidenced by a quick scene in which she mistakes a financial expert’s proposition for a, well, proposition). She spares no love for Don, angered by his disregard for the consequences of his actions, which constantly “cost [her] money.” Thrillingly, Joan completely transitions out of her role as office manager towards the end of 7A, handing off the job and the awkwardly placed cubicle to Don’s secretary Dawn. She’s essentially the new Lane now. Personally, however, Joan’s starting to exhibit a hard edge and a panic in her romantic life – she turns down a desperate marriage proposal from her Gay BFF Bob Benson. In one of her most beautiful and vulnerable moments on the show, Joan declares: “I want love…and I’d rather die hoping that happens than make some kind of arrangement.” Seriously. Joan and Roger are endgame.
  • Pete spent most of 7A finding inappropriate places to sex up his smokin’ real-estate-agent girlfriend, a perk of his lucrative work as SC&P’s dedicated LA account man. He’s evolving into an ever-savvier, ever-seedier character: he now sports a deep tan, a growing bald spot, and a lascivious twinkle in his eye. In my opinion, Pete has experienced very few narrative missteps throughout the entire show – his evolution into a rich sad sack has been steady, sure, and blackly humorous.
  • Megan is (hopefully) beginning to be phased out of the main narrative, as of the conclusion of 7A. We left her at an uncertain moment in her acting career – not starving but not even close to famous – and she’s visibly hardened as a result of the slow but inevitable decline of her marriage to Don. A mechanical threesome involving her actress friend, and a jealous rebuff of Don’s niece Stephanie, were not nearly enough to salvage the wreck of romantic idealism that the two of them created. Megan is not a mystery anymore, nor is she a fantasy or a blank creative canvas. She’s a girl who’s had a very rude awakening, and has been left to muck through it alone in the Hollywood Hills.
  • Betty and Henry are useless. I’m sorry, but they are. It’s not really Mad Men‘s fault, when there are so many more interesting characters and places to be than Senator’s Manor. Betty is still a terrible mother, keeping the Season 5 weight off but plagued by food issues. Although she occasionally chafes at her role as Henry’s gorgeous Stepford political wife, she’s still as well-adjusted as we’ve ever seen her.
  • Sally has grown into a beautiful cipher, the mutant superhuman you’d expect when you combine two slightly sociopathic and very attractive parents. Her jaw-dropping teenage debut in 7A – all short skirts and cynical, morbid digs at her mother – was coupled with a welcome character evolution, separate from her relationship with Don. We spent a lot of time with Sally at boarding school and at home, getting some fascinating insights into the cultural and sociopolitical uncertainty that molded baby boomers (what Sally is destined to be). More and more, she has been presented as the embodiment of the passage of time, indicating that her role in 7B will be crucial and probably disturbing. She’s very much in the throes of darkness and budding sexuality.
  • SC&P players like Harry, Jim Cutler, and Ginsberg had a lot of great spotlights in 7A. The season saw the introduction of an office computer, a huge and humming behemoth that many employees interpreted as a harbinger of doom and the automated destruction of creativity. The computer drove all three men to distraction: Harry used it as leverage to change the face of SC&P’s media division; Cutler drove it as a wedge between himself and the rest of the partners; Ginsberg tipped over the edge with his latent mental illness and made the computer his enemy. Ginsberg’s descent into madness was frightening and poignant, concluding with him handcuffed to a hospital cot, being wheeled out of the workplace that fostered his talent and broke his spirit. At least he managed to coin “Free The Nipple” before his departure.

Moving forward…

So yeah, I’m pretty goddamn excited for 7B. There was so much going on in 7A, and yet it retained the tightness and emotional immediacy that had really made Mad Men great in the first place. The show has returned to its groove with a vengeance, and Matthew Weiner’s writing and direction has been reassuringly confident so far.

Can we expect lots of twists and turns in 7B? Methinks…yes and no. Based on old flame Midge’s very satisfying episode arc in Season 4, and Paul Kinsey’s surprising return (as a Hare Krishna monk!) in Season 5, I’d put my money on one or two more familiar faces showing up for Mad Men‘s swan song. Like I said, Mad Men is both a narrative and a meta-narrative, and the theme of sentimentality includes you and me as viewers. I almost don’t want to jinx the return of Sal Romano, but it’s a callback that I’m really hoping for and that would delight all of us, a small nod to the more buttoned-up and quietly poignant days of the show.

But Mad Men (to quote Paul Kinsey/T.S. Eliot) will end not with a bang, but a whimper. It’s a show that, for all its abrupt and disorienting time jumps, and philosophical flourishes, and weirdness – moves at the speed of life. The best things in life are free, and simple. Laughter. Sorrow. Love. Hate. And so on. Mad Men‘s legacy was transforming the soulless – the advertising industry – into the very vessel and medium of the soul.  It began as a stylish drama, but has evolved into a genre-less manifesto, a kind of microcosmic portrait on the modern condition. Season 7B will have things to say about capitalism, but it will also tell us about the feeling of watching ourselves decay. Mad Men is a snowglobe, and when we look into it, we see confused normal people who don’t know they’re beautiful, and crucial, and indelible. Whatever happens in Season 7B…we are going to feel it, and so much of it.

Starting tonight, let’s start living like there’s no tomorrow. Because there isn’t one.

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