After seven seasons, it ends May 17: Mad Men, that sartorially splendid, slow-burning show from AMC, will wind down its clock. What will become of the lusty, booze-swilling ad man, Don Draper? Every week, Adrian Lee, Colin Horgan and Sonya Bell quickly recap what most stood out from each of the final episodes and, in true Mad Men fan form, finds one detail to obsess over, analyzing its many prisms, as the Mad Moment. There are spoilers ahead, for those who have not seen the latest episode. You can read last week’s panel here.
ADRIAN LEE: Mad Men is being held back, if you’ll believe the critics. There are, after all, only three episodes left in the season, and we keep seeing digressions and B-stories in lieu of resolution—or even progress—on what may come of protagonist Don Draper at series’ end. Appropriate, then, that the entire episode is about characters being held back in some way. Every one is: Peggy is held back by her ambitions, the kind of damn-the-rest laser-focus on her career that Don realized he was fatally dependent on when he was suspended by the agency in the fifth season (without hesitation, Peggy tells Don that she wants to be “the first woman creative director at this agency”). Joan is held back by her son Kevin—after her new developer beau decides that he’s not interested in being with a woman with a child (“You can’t go to the pyramids. You can’t go anywhere!”) Joan has a Freudian moment as she leaves her house, telling her tardy babysitter that she’s “ruining” her life, and even though he comes back to her with his tail between his legs, it’s hard to see this as anything but a capitulation from Joan. Sally is held back by Don’s reminder that even though she hates the idea, she is her parents’ daughter. And Betty is held back by perhaps the weirdest relationship in a show festooned with them: her teasing, uncomfortable one with the boy-next-door Glen, who was once caught with a lock of her hair (that she gave him!) and who comes back a svelte 18-year-old about to ship off to Vietnam. When they nearly hook up in Betty’s kitchen, the only excuse she offers to stop the Mrs. Robinson fantasy is that she’s married: she’s held back by her wedding ring. And the proof that she regrets not going through with the tryst? The forlorn look in her eyes when her sons ask to watch The Brady Bunch, a nod to her saying once that Glen “would look like Greg Brady one day.” (Irrelevantly, the fact that Matthew Weiner is the father of the actor who plays Glen adds a new weird sheen on the whole affair.) The only one who isn’t locked down or held back? Don. He manages to sell his house. And if the look at the end of the episode is any indication, he is terrified about not knowing what comes next. He’s untethered—and sometimes, tethers can be comforting.
COLIN HORGAN: As Don began to dictate his speech (for Roger) in his office, I was reminded of those moments in Season 4 when we had to endure a reading from his personal journal. Lying back on his couch, he mused about the Gettysburg Address and about knowing where we’ve been, where we are, how we know things have been good, but that they need to get better. Does Don know he’s repeating himself? He tried selling the same sort of lines earlier to his real estate agent when she told him she was having trouble selling his empty penthouse apartment. Don tells her to try telling potential buyers that the former occupant invented the Frisbee and had to quickly pick up and move to France – to a castle. That, too, sounded a bit weak. Even the real estate agent clearly wasn’t buying it. Don used to be able to sell this stuff. But that was back when he believed in what he’d done his whole life – move up, to better things.
SONYA BELL: It’s true, Don is stuck in a rut and for once it has nothing to do with “bottles and models.” He simply doesn’t know what’s next. Sally’s teenage friends have far more concrete ideas about the future than he does: One wants to work for the UN and another wants to be a senator. Even Glen, who returned with sideburns and sans a top button, has a plan: He’s joined the army to impress Betty. The 1970s just don’t seem to agree with Don. (Maybe he should grow a moustache?) It’s hard to count the people who have cut him down since this season resumed. My favourite one in last night’s episode was when copywriter John Mathis told him, “You don’t have any character! You’re just handsome!” The outburst got him fired. I would argue that Don is being held back, perhaps more than anyone else, and it’s because he’s out of the one thing that once made him a star: imagination.
THE MAD MOMENT
Every week in this segment, our Mad Men experts find one particularly fascinating detail to analyze deeply, reading into it for its clues and its contexts. This week’s Mad Moment: Don’s realtor explains to him why she can’t sell his apartment, stripped of its wares by Megan’s mother. “Don’t blame your failure on me. This place reeks of failure,” she says. “A lot of wonderful things happened here,” retorts Don. “Well, you wouldn’t know it,” the realtor spits back.
ADRIAN: “If these walls could talk.” It’s a fairly rote refrain, particularly when you’re moving from one house to another. And why not: a house becomes a home by suffusing itself in lived-in memories. Here, you might say, the nook where we ate meals and shared laughter; there, where the bed we shared used to be, next to the space where our nightstand once stood, the one that you stuffed with your dog-eared books of poems. Nostalgia sits there, like the chalk outlines of dead bodies, and it’s all the more stark in an empty, transitioning space—like the one that Don is leaving behind, the bare $85,000 penthouse suite he shared with Megan and manages to sell by episode’s end. Don, though, doesn’t really have any memories there. In an episode rife with sharp, witty rebukes, the realtor nails him exactly: “It looks like a sad person lived here.” So what makes it sadder still, then, is the fact that Don seems to genuinely believe he experienced “wonderful things” there. What could he mean by “wonderful things?” Very little has occurred within those walls, much less anything wonderful. There was Megan’s purring birthday rendition of Zou Bisou Bisou in front of Don’s friends and coworkers—a performance he loathed. It’s the same apartment building where his daughter caught him bedding the married upstairs neighbour. There was the sad takeout meal he shared with the waitress Diana. It was the site of “Grandma Ida’s” robbery. Mad Men, as I’ve written before, has always been less about events and happenings and more about sentiment and symbolism. Memory, though, is formed by both: events creating feelings that leave a deep impression. In a way, it helps to explain the “next time on Mad Men” closing teaser and episode descriptions, these deliberately opaque clues that Matthew Weiner leaves behind. Here is, for instance, the one from this episode: “Roger pawns off a project onto Don. Joan goes on a business trip. Peggy and Pete clash over how to deal with an account emergency.” That all happened, true. That would be the bare-bones tale of the tape, the equivalent of someone asking how your day was. After all, when that happens, you rarely do more than recite the events. You had lunch with Bill, you had a good meeting with a client. You rarely, right off the bat, tell the the asker about the spiralling consequences, the feelings felt, the emotional impacts. Not to harp too much on the classic “Kodak Carousel” scene, but it’s like Don says in that meeting: ” ‘nostalgia’ literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ ” You need to have the pain—the feeling—and the event that caused the wound. All Don has is the pain, the feeling, nothing to moor him. And the fact that Don calls the feelings he had in that penthouse suite wonderful, on top of it all? That’s a devastating moment.
COLIN: Two bizarre interactions between adults and teenagers highlighted (low-lighted?) Episode 3. The first, as Adrian mentioned, was between Betty and Glen. The second was a similarly flirtatious conversation Don has with one of Sally’s friends, as they set off on a school trip through 12 states in 12 days. Sarah, Sally’s 17-year-old friend, asks about Don’s penthouse apartment before telling him that the adverts are her favourite part of television. Hint hint. Then she lets him light her cigarette. Ew. These were both uncomfortable scenes, mostly because both Glen and Sarah are so young. But all four of them (Betty and Don included) are pushing the boundaries of proper social etiquette, the basis of which goes something like this: Know your place. I wonder a little whether Sally missed something in her criticism of her father and mother before she got on that Greyhound bus. She sternly tells Don that he and Betty are both the same: someone gives them a little attention and they can’t help themselves. That’s partly true. But I’m not sure Don and Betty are necessarily as attracted to these young kids as much as they’re attracted to their ambition—if only subconsciously. That’s really what Don and Betty recognize in other people as attractive. Earlier, John Mathis, the failed underwriter, scolds Don for just being handsome but characterless because he thinks that’s all Don needed to get where he is. Mathis, too, is only partly correct. There was that, but Don—as he hopes Sally will—really did, at one point, push upward. He jumped spots. Peggy bristled when Don asked her about her life goals during her performance evaluation. First, she said, she wants to be the first woman creative director of this agency. Then, “land something huge” and then “have a big idea, create a catch phrase.” Don pushes her to give him something more. It seems like he’s trying to get her to admit to something like wanting a family, but perhaps not entirely. Peggy used to be like Don. She aimed higher than the rung on which she stood. Now, she just delivers standard ladder-climbing answers. Why Don wants to see ambition from others might reflect the fact that he knows he can’t shoot much higher anymore. His managerial handling of the Pete-Peggy dispute was striking solely for just how managerial it was. Is this what’s become of the great Don Draper? As you say, Adrian, that apartment was the episode’s anchor, and the lasting image we’re left with, during a wonderfully slow pull-back, is Don standing alone, framed by the closed door of his home. His real estate’s last comment is still ringing in his ears: “Now we have to find a place for you.” Indeed.
SONYA: I wish we knew what Don’s realtor finally said to sell that empty apartment. It must have been ’60s-Don-Draper-level good. My primary interest in Mad Men has never been Don, which is maybe why I’m taking so much delight this season in watching the rest of the cast rise up around him. I like that it’s now Joan who’s taking off on business trips, indulging in room service at the Beverly Wilshire and bedding attractive Californians. I like that it’s now Peggy who has a clear idea about why she’s in advertising and what she wants to achieve. Adrian and Colin, I know you weren’t impressed with Peggy’s performance review, but I didn’t come away from it quite so pessimistic. I don’t think she’s doomed to live out Don’s crash-and-burn plot at the firm. I mean, she was strictly there to talk about her work, and her answers suggest she still cares about it, which is more than we can say for her boss. It will be telling to see where Don moves to next. A hotel? I can’t shake the feeling that Matthew Weiner is lining every character up for some sort of resolution, except him.