Mad Men began its final season Sunday on AMC with a somber, even opaque episode that was probably a case of holding its final hand close to the vest. You hope there are some sensational cards there. Creator Matthew Weiner, whose baby this is, can be sensational or sensationally drab, exactly as he chooses.
The show’s integrity is unmatched, admirable and every so often deeply irritating.
At any rate, I think it will be a while before anyone sings “Zou Bisou Bisou” again.
Last season ended with Don Draper (Jon Hamm) suffering a meltdown and/or moment of scorched-earth truthiness at a major presentation. He was fired from the agency and then, in what seemed to promise the beginnings of post-reckoning redemption, showed his children the shameful old house (a brothel) that he had once called home.
But things have not changed much for the better, if any, as the show reaches the near-end of the decade. There is no joy in Madville.
It’s January 1969, and Nixon is about to be inaugurated. Don, who curiously has always shared with Nixon a pronounced five o’clock shadow, is still unemployed, although apparently also still being paid as part of his contract. In a curious if nicely fraternal example of mentoring, he is spoon-feeding great ad concepts to former colleague Freddy Rumsen, now a freelancer. Freddy is enjoying a terrific success rate at various agencies, and impresses even formidably smart Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) with a pitch for Accutron watches.
Don jets out to Los Angeles, where his young wife Megan (Jessica Paré) is hoping to be cast on a network drama called Bracken’s World. Given that you can look up this show on imdb.com and will find no mention of Megan Draper, née Calvert, it’s unlikely she gets the job.
Don buys her a large television set, which is possibly to Don the same as bringing home a puppy: it’s something that a couple can bond over affectionately when other emotional connections are strained or dead. The marriage, Don believes, is one or the other of those things.
He returns to Manhattan and, in the episode’s best scene, is flirted with on the plane by Neve Campbell as the widow of an alcoholic.
Campbell was very alluring in a Mrs. Robinson way. You do have to wonder 1) how deeply that classic ’60s character is embedded as a female archetype on the show and 2) how intense must the hunger be to land such exquisitely crafted Mad Men roles, large and small.
In fact, there could be a kind of Hunger Games competition built around that concept. It would be gratifyingly hollow, desperate and sad.
But Don turns down her proposal. Instead he sits on his terrace in the dark, in the cold, inconsolable and alone.
Nixon will be in much the same situation by 1974, but that’s probably neither here nor there.
Peggy, now that Don is out, reports to Lou Avery (Allan Havey), a large, complacent executive who looks like something Dr. Seuss began to sketch but then found too dull to bother dressing up with colorful shoes or a bow tie. He’s the sort of man who tells coworkers he had a peachy weekend chopping firewood. Peggy’s talent gets on his nerves, not because he’s threatened by her talent, but because he has to listen to it and answer it.
Peggy, despairing because she is up against a brick wall that prefers to think about chopping firewood on the weekends, also ends the episode alone, sobbing.
The only ones having fun in the episode are Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), now working out in Los Angeles and dressed, for some reason, as if he were having a tennis weekend in the Hamptons, and Joan (Christina Hendricks), briskly and cheerfully pursuing accounts.
And Roger (John Slattery). We see him awakening in bed after a smallish orgy. They all seem to have had a nice night.
He meets his daughter for brunch and she tells him that she forgives him for being a class-A jerk. What once-trendy school of pop psychology is being alluded to here?
I got no sense where any of this narrative is going to go. Every so often, though, I had a sneaking wish that Mad Men would suddenly be about just Megan. She’s vivid and youthful and exudes the sunny, shimmery pop sexuality of the late 1960s. Standing next to her, Don looks like an old Frigidaire.
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