Season five of Mad Men ended with what has to be THE perfect half-joking, period song choice to serenade the tragicomic duality of Don Draper/Dick Whitman. And Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice” obviously gets bonus points for being a Bond theme.
So I was surprised when last year’s season six found exit music even half as clever or hand-in-glove.
Dick Whitman, newly stripped of his persona(e) as a successful ad exec and happily married man, stood with his children on Thanksgiving before a rotted, broken-down old whorehouse in Pennsylvania while the sweet sound of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides, Now” played in the background.
“This is where I grew up,” said Whitman.
Showrunner Matthew Weiner has framed Draper’s journey as a battle between the desire for self-reinvention and owning one’s past. Such American woes, both, and there’s always been something almost paternal (like a glowering Uncle Sam poster) in the way the show wishes Jon Hamm’s skinny-tied womanizer would clean up his mess, or at least stop fertilizing his worst instincts
Quite the surprise, then, when season seven opens with one of its more optimistic plot lines concerning Don grasping at the tatters left from that mess. On paid leave, Mr. Creative is still being creative.
A mere two months have passed from Thanksgiving to January 1969 (very little time for a Mad Men break) and Don hasn’t given up on making Sterling Cooper and Partners see his value. He’s feeding “home run” material to Freddy Rumsen over bratwurst sandwiches and hoping he’s stays inevitable.
We hope so too, of course, though as ever other characters have bigger problems on their plates than to notice an absent, high-maintenance talent. Peggy alone (so alone) might be in the best position to miss her bourbon-guzzling mentor and vote to bring him back. Roger, Ken, Ted, Joan, heck, even Megan, barely seem able to give DD any mental space.
The young Mrs. Draper — who, yes, rocks a slow-motion entrance like none other — looks, at this point, like she could take a divorce in stride, and wouldn’t you know it, California was the first state to make it no-fault. When even Don Draper admits he’s a terrible husband, it might be time to ditch him.
Joan looks great, too. She’s still finding ways to make herself professionally relevant. This, for me, was the most enjoyable plotline of the night. Ms. Harris’ self-actualization at the office has taken some serious hits over the years (the heartbreak TV marketing episode, the soul-stink of prostitution), so it’s always good to see the wheels turning effectively under that flame-red hair.
Peggy, however, whom I personally expected to find flying high, is romantically abandoned, domestically put-upon, and professionally frustrated. The new creative director is both rude and a total square, a hack in every sense of the word, and he doesn’t know good work when it chases him down the hall. The Peggy Olsen reduced to tears by the lack of solace in her life does seem to be one Draper could help.
Roger, similarly, finds himself in stasis, living the rich-but-unconventional life. The oldest little boy on Madison Avenue is hosting drug-fueled sex parties of the type he would have been too old for way back when the show started.
Roger’s daughter, Margaret Hargrove, the rare fictional character who can make you think of Salinger short stories in a bad way, wants something from him. But what? This and more mysteries must wait for the weeks ahead, of which, sadly, there are but six this year.
Normally divided final seasons offer up MORE episodes for making audiences wait until next year for the very very end (the final season of The Sopranos was 21 episodes in two batches, instead of the usual 13 in one), but we’re only getting seven and seven. Perhaps they wanted it to sound like a drink order. In any event, I’m looking forward to them…
No Bob or Betty this week, so the two creepiest will have to wait. Very little Pete, either, but just enough to see that more updates will be needed.
A final note: our ghost of the week was Lane, alluded to with a pair of signifiers in that way MM loves. The “Commissions and Fees” conversation between Joan and the prof points the episode we lost poor Lane, and the book that guest Neve Campbell (!) and Don discuss on the plane: Tom Sawyer. Our resident Brit didn’t like his funeral the first time he heard it; one can only imagine how disappointed he must have been the second time.
This season, however, seems more concerned with life.