‘Girls’: The “Goodbye Tour”

Girls is, essentially, over. There’s still one episode left to air, but according to several sources the season finale may be a sort of fast-forward coda. If true, this annoys me, as I have always disliked series-finale time jumps. I prefer it when a show closes the doors on a world I am familiar with, on characters I understand (if not love) – as opposed to a future that I barely recognize. So this past Sunday’s episode “Goodbye Tour” is essentially Girls‘ true swan song. Like the rest of the series before it, it is frustrating, funny, uneven, annoying, and often gut-punchingly poignant.

I think it’s fascinating to go back to the start of this show, when Girls was more of a millenial ethnography. It took a more detached view of Hannah, her world and her friends, while simultaneously exploring their flesh and blemishes and cramped apartments with such an intimate camera gaze. Lena Dunham unapologetically wrote social commentary and diary-like confessions into the mouths of the characters, and that expository self-portrait style is what made a lot of people really hate the show. I think Girls has many, many problems, but the first season is very unique in its approach to character-piece television, and it’s grown on me more and more as a modern classic.

Then Girls began to change. More and more, it moved away from representing realism through dialogue, situations, and tangible bodies. The show evolved into a more HBO-ish series: plot-based, forward-hurtling, with “very special episodes” and an emphasis on the visual aesthetic of quality. There’s nothing realistic about the people and the stories on Girls anymore, if you’re using the rubric it began with. Kathryn VanArendonk wrote an excellent piece for Vulture that explores this point:

Girls has always had a fraught relationship with realism. It’s been a fundamental part of both the show and the critical response to it — is the series trying to argue that this is what millennial life is really like? It’s a show that’s laudably and unusually grounded in elements of realism you don’t often see on TV, especially stuff to do with women’s bodies, with how it feels to break up with someone, with the kinds of jobs someone might have in her mid-20s, with the food people would actually eat, with what sex might actually look like between two people who feel awkward with one another. Its realism is physical, bodily, fleshy…Hannah’s writing is all about gritty physical realities…It’s a realism born out of conceiving of women as both bodies and minds. It is not a realism that’s grounded in economic or social reality.

In reflecting on the episode “Goodbye Tour,” I think Girls‘ evolved, warped concept of “reality” is at its most obvious. The plot literally makes no sense, from Hannah’s pregnancy to her improbable new job as a professor of Internet studies at an upstate New York college. Shoshanna denounces every choice she’s ever made during the course of the series, essentially erasing all character growth. Ray is nowhere to be seen at the engagement party for his ex-girlfriend and, presumably, closest friend.

I don’t believe all this sloppy wrap-up writing is intentional, but juxtaposed with the absolutely beautiful final scene and montage (above), it does achieve a striking “late ’20s” feeling. The story makes no sense, but there is still a moment of transcendence reached through style and feeling. I was really touched by the sensory editing and heart-rending soundtrack (Julia Michaels’ “How Do We Get Back to Love” and Banks’ “Crowded Places”). Very telling are the cuts between Hannah’s gaze and Marnie, dancing for the delight of anonymous men; Shoshanna, goofily reeling in her fiance; Jessa, mocking fancy cupcakes with strangers. I’ve had a lot of moments like this, when I look around and see, with sudden clarity, where I and my loved ones might be in 10 years – who we’ve always been and who we will be. What was Girls doing for the last 6 seasons? What was I doing? I can’t remember for the life of me! But suddenly, all at once, we (and these characters) are closer to 30 than we ever thought we would be. I love the way this last silly, sad, joyful dance represents this show’s final grab for girlhood; it’s a moment of emotional realism that is internal and beautiful, and representative of all this show achieved.

Girls wasn’t perfect, but it was always better than bad, and it was sometimes very f*cking good. I’ll really miss it.

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Mad Men S7BE1: “Severance”

“Is that all there is?”

Peggy Lee, you said it. This premiere episode was a tough nut to crack – a lot of unsteady philosophical meandering leading to a casual ending. It was a visually dazzling hour (What color! What mustaches!) but…inscrutable. What just happened? What does it all mean? How is this episode going to set up the finale? Is that all there is?

I have oodles of faith that the rest of Season 7B will be vastly more enjoyable. The Mad Men premieres have always been weird and uncomfortable and slightly creaky under the weight of theme introduction (remember “The Doorway”?). So let’s talk about this strange episode – its fast-paced structure, strained dialogue, time-jumping, and sense of cheerless nostalgia.

“Severance” followed four major storylines: those of Don, Joan, Peggy, and Ken. Let’s start with the big D.

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The opening scenes give us a full blast of voyeuristic discomfort, without the usual pleasure that used to come with watching Don go all Draper on some girl. It’s an audition for a fur campaign, a very intimate roleplay – and, the camera reveals, it’s happening in front of a roomful of other men. At this, I admit my heart sank. After the tenderness of the 7A finale, I wanted to believe we’d advanced past Don’s super gross side. He’s always needed to dominate and decorate women in order to define himself; this first scene is meant to prepare us for a disappointing Don rewind. It’s an interesting way to begin the half-season; a faithful callback to what we first loved about our protagonist. But now, in 1970, in this clinical brown office, it’s not so sexy anymore. It’s a regression. It’s pathetic and it’s sad.

Don goes through a lot of back-cycling during “Severance.” It’s an episode that interrogates the way he’s built an identity through sex and intimacy, a cobbled-together Perfect Man built from the dreams and projections of so many women, so many loves, so many first kisses.

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Two women from his past confront Don in a compressed period of time. One of them is Rachel Menken – we all remember her from Season 1 (and I screamed out loud when we first saw her because I’d missed her so much) Rachel was the first woman in the series whose emotional magnetism truly prompted Don to consider abandoning his facade and starting anew. She’s a powerful symbol of nostalgia in Mad Men, as it was Rachel’s presence that brought out the Don we first came to love – his iconic poeticism (“Love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons”) and his wild romanticism.

But Rachel’s already dead by the time she reappears (in a dream sequence which, no matter how beautifully it’s done, always makes me feel betrayed). Her avatar in Don’s mind is pretty on-the-nose – she smiles mysteriously, glimmers in her fur, and tells him, “I’m supposed to tell you you missed your flight.” She wasn’t his only chance to live passionately and authentically, but she might have been his first. When Don attempts to reconnect, inspired by his vision, we find out that she’s only just succumbed to leukemia a week before. The cosmic devastation throws Don off for the rest of the episode. He attends shiva at her apartment, struggling to make sense of the loss, staring at her young children knowing that in another life, they could have been his. He’s frightened and needing answers about the coincidence of her reappearance in his subconscious. She was gone as quickly as she returned. Is that all there is?

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Don’s assisted in his existential crisis by a sad-eyed waitress named Di (I mean, talk about on-the-nose). He’s convinced he knows her from somewhere, and they share a soulless quickie behind a diner. Di does look like a lot of girls Don’s pulled over the course of the series – she’s got the hawkish beauty of Midge, the mysticality of Rachel, and the uniform of the dozens of waitresses he’s winked at for decades. For God’s sake, Don’s already shtupped a random flight attendant during the course of this episode! He’s deep in the throes of dark neediness, repeating his romantic cycle. Don doesn’t know Di, but he knows how this starts and how it ends. He’s fucking a memory.

It’s an extremely depressing setup for the rest of 7B.

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Another character who’s grasping for a do-over is Ken Cosgrove, who makes a really welcome return in this episode. The title alludes to Ken’s unceremonious firing by Roger and the head honcho at McCann. Said honcho is an Irish brute named Ferg, who’s long had a professional vendetta against the company-hopping Ken.

Kenny has always been a unique character on which to map the war between creativity and pragmatism. He’s a rare kind soul amongst his colleagues, who hid his idealism and writerly spark in order to advance in the accounts department. Although he’s Head of Accounts, his wife thinks he ought to go back to penning beautiful science fiction novels and leave the ad game altogether. And just as he’s made the decision to bow out gracefully and follow his dream, he’s canned by McCann. Ferg is cruel about it and Roger is cool about it, and both approaches fill the normally level-headed Ken with bewilderment and rage.

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“The life not lived” is Ken’s succinct restatement of Don’s problem (and Peggy’s as well, but we’ll get to that in a moment). Ken could just walk away from this sour turn of events and begin to build the existence he always wanted – a farm, a family, a writing career. But it turns out that for Ken, the best revenge isn’t living well, or living differently. It’s just revenge. His corporate maneuvering provides the absolutely high point of the episode, a fun bit of comeuppance that’s quick and lively and a phenomenal hint of a very amusing storyline to come.

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Let’s move on to Peggy and Joan.

First of all, Peggy’s on a bit of a backslide as well. She’s back in a mental place of ennui and self-pity – single but too busy to mingle. She’s set up on a date with her coworker Mathis’ brother-in-law. WHO IS BRIAN KRAKOW. PEGGY’S ON A DATE WITH BRIAN KRAKOW. I know the rest of the internet shares my delight.

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It’s a cute storyline, but frankly not one I feel like spending much time on. Their chemistry is easy and fun, and Stevie (that’s his actual name) seems to like Peggy for all her stubbornness and brilliance. It’s nice to see Peggy’s flirty side, because both she and we have forgotten that workplace satisfaction isn’t quite the same as happiness. Her “life not lived” is the life of a girlfriend, a mother, a second fiddle – and although that’s never going to be her style, Peg seems to enjoy roleplaying once in awhile.

Peggy’s trouble in “Severance” stems from the fact that she’s unable to be spontaneous and fly off to Paris with Stevie at a moment’s notice (because her passport is in an office drawer, surprise surprise). She finds every excuse in the book not to trust this stranger or the genuine connection she’s made with him.

It’s hard to be sympathetic towards Peggy, though, because of The Elevator Scene. A watershed moment for the episode.

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Some background: Peggy and Joan are tasked with pitching Topaz pantyhose to their superiors at McCann, who are a bunch of sexist assholes. Their crude jokes are nothing new to these two, but this is the first time they’ve been working together as a team in a professional setting.

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Unsurprisingly, Peggy handles the toxic atmosphere much better than Joan does. She’s been in conference rooms for years enduring similar blows to her dignity, and has learned to emphasize her “masculine” side to cope – more conservative dress, a harder exterior, swift judo chops to halt any small talk.

But that’s simply not the way Joan is built, so to speak; Joan thrives off her own sexuality and finds power in deploying her femininity and emotional instincts in business dealings. We, as fans, love to see Peggy and Joan find common ground and use each other as lifeboats in their male-dominated war ground of an office – but this is 1970. This is not a time when women lived their personal truths in the workplace and lifted one another up. And Peggy and Joan’s heated conversation in the elevator as they leave that meeting is a short, terrible microcosm of that. Peggy basically calls Joan a slut, and Joan tells Peggy she’s too ugly to even be a slut. It’s a saddening interaction that recalls their Season 1 relationship in all the worst ways.

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As a coping mechanism, Joan engages in a little retail therapy – playing up her assets rather than taking Peggy’s harsh advice to hide her curves and bury her sensuality. In this scene, Joan also shows us the narrow gulf between her life and the life she could have lived – as the salesgirl points out, Joan’s spending thousands of dollars in the same dress department she once managed (forced, by her rapey ex-fiance, to quit Sterling Cooper in disgrace). “You must have me confused with someone else,” says Joan coolly. No one’s going to write her story, ever again. Is that all there is? If so, she’s damn well going to be dressed to the nines for it.

Loose ends…

  • I mustache you a question, Roger…WHY?tumblr_nmdab07a401qhmg1fo1_1280
  • Ooh, Pete’s former secretary Clara is now pregnant out of wedlock! Juicy.
  • Speaking of Pete, he’s living a new/old life too. He’s back in New York, and says of his long and lovely LA vacation: “At the time it felt so real…”
  • Ken’s father-in-law Ed (who memorably once told Don that he’d never get hired again after he screwed Philip Morris) has an amazing advertising voice. He could sell me Pop Tarts any day.
  • Stan. Looks. So. ’70s. Hot. That beard is BITCHIN’.

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So, what did you all think of “Severance”? Did you feel confused and kinda bitter (like I did, and apparently the rest of Tumblr)? Did you love the episode? What DOES it all mean?

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.