It’s the Real Thing

Let me start at the finish, and, like one of my favorite episodes of Mad Men, with a kind of montage. Don on a hilltop that takes us back to “The Mountain King” in Season 2. Peggy, well on her way to ...

Let me start at the finish, and, like one of my favorite episodes of Mad Men, with a kind of montage. Don on a hilltop that takes us back to “The Mountain King” in Season 2. Peggy, well on her way to becoming the woman people will brag they have worked with. Pete learning—as Duck had predicted in Season 6—that “the wellspring” of a man’s “competence” is his family. An indomitable Joan, finding her partner within herself, because “you need two names to make it sound real.” Roger, about to embark on his third marriage: a man who will never be tempted to live in motels with just his wallet and a paper bag. And finally Betty, sucking on a cigarette, determined to accept her fate and go gentle into that good night. These are some of the many ways Mad Men reminded us in its final episode that, all along, the show has wished to be something more than a pretty face or a mid-century coffee table to die for.

As someone allergic to predicting, I’m not sure if some viewers have for a long while been shipping Peggy and Stan, a character who arrived on the scene in Season 4 without much fanfare and whose most memorable role, up to this point, has been the sporting of outré male fashion (like the fabulous jacket borrowed in Season 6 from Joe Buck, the iconic character from Midnight Cowboy).

That said, in my house last night, at least two of us smiled when Peggy found her soulmate on the phone with the guy in the office next door.

But before I dig in, a few choice words about Mad Men’s form. When it first took the world by storm back in 2007, Mad Men was unlike anything else on television. Whereas The Sopranos, the show that elevated Matthew Weiner to a writer of note, had cultivated a hybrid postmodernism, Mad Men’s continuous narrative arcs and multi-plot ensembles evoked the serialized realism of the nineteenth century. And whereas The Wire recalled Dickens in taking the modern city for its subject, Mad Men has always been more focused on its characters than on New York City, Madison Avenue, or even the Sixties. Then too, in a way reminiscent of Flaubert, Mad Men has combined “a relentless exposure of social pathology with a surface allure culled from the most glittering self-representations” of its period palette.

Mad Men, in many respects, has stayed true to all of these formal impulses. On the one hand, its influence on contemporary aesthetics is so strong that much of the world now looks more like Mad Men than Mad Men looks like itself. On the other hand, the advance toward 1970 never stamped out the style of characters like Joan or Peggy in the way some had feared. And while Pete, Stan, and Roger have borne the brunt of a hairier masculinity, the show’s leading man stayed recognizably dapper almost to the last. It was not sideburns or wide lapels that found Don living rather less glamorously in the final episodes, but, rather, that deep pull toward the road which has long tempted Dick—the boy from Illinois and Pennsylvania—toward the romance of the hobo, the shabby chic of the fix-it guy, and, most of all, that “dream of another life in a California that, if it ever existed, exists no more.” For much the same reason, when we last saw Betty last night, she was hardly the luminous young wife who spurned the aging Joan Crawford back in Season 1 when we first sensed she might die early.

But if Mad Men has deliberately shed some mid-century glamor, what cannot be doubted is that, from first to last, Mad Men has been as multi-plot a narrative as any novel by Anthony Trollope or George Eliot. (Compare this, for example, to the way that AMC’s other flagship serial, Breaking Bad, so closely hewed to the telos of its own cancer victim, that the question came down to how Walter would manage to “Rage, rage against the dying light.”) At 92 episodes it is arguably longer than Trollope’s Palliser series—though hardly the monumental feat of Balzac’s Comédie Humaine. While I can’t help but wonder if the specs for Holloway-Harris aren’t already on some exec’s desk at AMC, for the moment at least, “Person to Person,” the 14th episode of Mad Men’s seventh season, has brought the process of bidding farewell to its characters, described by Lilya Kaganovsky as “sitting shiva,” to a graceful close.

Helen Gurley Brown and David Brown

So now let me confess that it was me who demurred last night—not because I’m against soulmates and certainly not because I doubt that ambitious women like Peggy can find lasting relationships, in the office or not, either now or in 1970. After all, the world’s best-known Mad Woman, Helen Gurley Brown, was married to her soulmate for 51 years before he died at age 90 in 2010. Nor was my problem that Stan’s character is underdeveloped: I am not the kind of person who complains at the end of Middlemarch that Will Ladislaw is not good enough for Dorothea! No, my demurral is entirely to do with the way Stan and Peggy’s otherwise sweet declaration of love is entwined with Joan’s business proposition and the consequent break-up with Richard.

Now this, of course, is the kind of thematic layering that Mad Men usually does brilliantly—just as it did when it nicely paired the Stan-Peggy denouement with the mariage of Marie and a newly francophone Roger (hereafter to be pronounced Ro-jay). No doubt Peggy’s newfound love is likewise aligned—this time by way of contrast—with Joan’s decision to launch her own firm even if it means losing Richard—the real estate developer who having already proved himself in business is now keen to spend the rest of his days snorting, snorkeling, and shopping his way into a ’70s cliché. Good riddance, Richard—you’re the true Dick of this episode!

Still, while Peggy is unsure she wants to leave McCann to co-found Harris-Olson, who doubts that she speaks the truth when she says she’d relish the chance to be her own boss with her name on the door? After all, didn’t Pete predict that it would be another decade before Madison Ave was ready for a female creative director? Of course, since Stan is now smoldering with love for Peggy, we understand his wish to deter her by means fair or foul. But his reasoning—“Stop looking over your shoulder at what other people have. You’re just excited about being in charge … There’s more to life than work”—is not only flawed, it is also creepily reminiscent of Richard’s reasons for wanting Joan to prove her devotion to him. “What’s wrong with you?,” Richard asks, “Don’t you want to spend time with me?”

In fact, all of these swains—including le jaloux Rojay—want more control over the women in their lives than the women want from them. To be sure, none of this fails the plausibility test: “It’s the real thing,” as they say over at Coke. The problem, however, is that Peggy buys in: I think you were right,” she tells Stan, I mean, I’m going to stay.” Peggy’s reason for declaring herself in love—“Because [Stan is] always right”—thus affirms the notion that she was somehow wrong to desire, even for a day, the autonomy, recognition, and female partnership that Joan’s tempting offer proffered. Granted, we know that Stan is the more laid-back of the two (“There’s plenty to go around,” he tells her when they nearly lose the Chevalier account, which she then proceeds to regain.) But can he really be “right” when he tells her, “I’m just very happy being good at my job. I’ve got nothing else to prove”? Hasn’t the show’s best insights always been that it’s different for girls—different especially from dudes halfway to a Star Wars coiffure?

For me at least, this false note cast some doubt over two added measures of this pivotal scene. I’ll come back later to “You’ve got to give him up”—that is, to what Stan tells Peggy when she worries about the depressed-sounding Don who has called her “person to person.” For now let’s take a moment to contemplate “I don’t even think of you”—that is, what Peggy tells Stan when she ponders if she may actually love him. Yes, I know that this is the character who did not realize she was pregnant in Season 1. But even granted a certain tendency to tune out the body, do we really want Peggy—a woman who was visibly hot for Duck in Season 4 and positively lusted for Ted in Season 5—to find happiness in the arms of a man she never thought about? This is less about Stan, who seems a nice enough guy, than about Mad Men’s parting portrait of Peggy: the woman it singles out for “having it all.” Does anyone think for a second that Dorothea never thought about Ladislaw? And that was in 1872!

With that out of my system (phew!), let’s now go to the opening shot of Don racing down the salt flats of Utah. Having lost Megan at the end of the first half of Season 7, our leading man has spent most of this demi-season looking for a woman to save. In this way, Mad Men seemed to foreclose the kind of deeper redemption it had glimpsed at the end of Season 6, when Don, having outed himself as the child of harlotry, looked like a man seeking salvation in the kind of parenting he never experienced himself. Instead, Don spent much of this season in what Corey Creekmur aptly described as “dogged pursuit” of a waitress named Diana—she being one of those wounded birds (reminding my mother of “Birdie,” Don’s nickname for Betty) whose ostensible need for saving provides Don with the comforting illusion that he was born for a reason. Once it becomes clear that Diana has eluded him, Don gives himself over to the kind of classic American trajectory that he first learned back in Season 1’s “The Hobo Code” and that Season 7 ties to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road—as Sharon Marcus noted two weeks ago.

But when Don calls Sally “person to person,” she provides him with a chance to morph back into Draper Man! That is, the news of Betty’s illness prompts him to imagine himself aloft to New York in time to save Betty from cancer, his children from the hell of life with the Hofstadts, and perhaps even Sally from the hassle of canceling her trip to Madrid. But Sally will have none of it: “You have to take me seriously!,” she tells him with the kind of maturity unique to kids who grew up with unreliable parents. (I know this because my own husband grew up as such a kid and made careful note of this point last night.) Fittingly, it is Betty who reminds Don that he has not seen his kids in many a moon. But this “born to run” version of the American hero has been hardwired into Mad Men’s vision of Don from the start: explored through flashbacks, never-ending business jaunts, and road trips too numerous to detail. As Rachel Menken, another archetypal grown-up, told him near the end of Season 1, “You don’t want to run away with me, you just want to run away.”

So what’s a poor Don to do? Well, what does any red-blooded Matthew Weiner character do when his chips are down, his kids don’t want him, and his dying ex-wife tells him to take a hike? He goes to California with an aching in his heart (to paraphrase a great Led Zep track from 1971 that might have made a fitter, if slightly premature, tribute to the music of this era than, “Hello, I Love You,” the somewhat profitlessly inserted Doors number from 1968).

Ah, California. My co-editors on this project must surely have laughed when Don made his inevitable way westward last night: laughed since my dread of Mad Men’s enduring romance with California goes back to the moment in Season 4 in which Anna Draper’s niece, Stephanie, made her first appearance in an episode that marked my personal disenchantment with some of the elements of Mad Men’s later ’60s imaginary. But Stephanie is played just right in this episode, providing Don (now Dick) with another chance to become Draper Man, this time by offering to rescue her from the guilt of abandoning her infant son. Instead, like Sally before her, Stephanie will have none of it! “You’re the one who’s in trouble,” she tells him. Instead, she will save him, by taking him to a mysterious commune somewhere in California. It is at this point that I began to relax, suspecting that “Person to Person” was becoming yet another episode that, like “Time & Life” (probably my favorite of this demi-season), was about how Don’s old strategies have ceased to perform in this brave new world (as when McCann’s CEO stops him midway through a passionate pitch).

Yet here I must pause to take up the bigger picture. As anyone who has been reading the Mad World blogs knows all too well, I have been noting for several years (often with the aid of wonderful co-authors) that Mad Men’s status as historical fiction necessarily changed when it transited from an early ’60s show that preceded the cultural revolution to a late ’60s show that encountered it (see, for example, here, here, and, most recently, here). Mad Men, I think, has tried in Season 7 to manage this challenge by dialing down the references to world-historical doings like the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in Season 6—events much harder to embed in a story world still resolutely committed to its white middle-class characters in an era fabled for its social movements. This has not doomed the show to artistic failure: but it has raised the bar for success. In some cases, Mad Men has fallen into the habit of using smart dialogue to tell us things that its most memorable episodes had typically opted to show us.

Perhaps the best-known case of this televisual artistry is the Season 1 finale, “The Wheel,” in which Don’s pitch tells us about a brilliant ad campaign for the Kodak “carousel,” while Mad Men shows us something very different indeed. Precisely for that reason, my chapter on the show argued that Mad Men, “however playfully coy, knows the difference between advertising and its own serial realism.” By the end of Season 1, I wrote, Mad Men’s viewers can see for themselves that Don has exploited the slow-motion tragedy of his own deteriorating family to produce a brilliant ad campaign. That said, “The Wheel” is not advertising—and while the episode operates on many levels, one of its most poignant effects is to articulate the link between Don’s pitch about a “time machine” that “goes backwards and forwards” and the experience of Mad Men’s own Season 1 viewers.

This makes it all the more significant that Mad Men’s producers (one imagines with Weiner’s blessing) embedded a nod to “The Wheel” in the vignette constructed to precede the finale. With Paul Anka’s “Times of Your Life” in the background, this pre-episode publicity cycles through some of the series’ most memorable images, as though making the point that Mad Men’s moments have been our moments too. Notably, in making that case, the producers chose clips in which a facial expression here, or body gesture there, articulated something beyond what words could tell. To invoke a different idiom, these are “Kodak moments” of the kind displayed in this (later version of the) 1975 commercial for which “Times of Your Life” was the jingle (and from which the opening image for this blog is drawn).

Note that Anka’s recording of “Times of Your Life” followed after the jingle—when the singer decided to release a full-length song synced with the popular ad campaign. AMC’s vignette thus marks one of many instances in which publicity for Mad Men (and sometimes commercials for it as well) have offered knowing winks to the show’s diegesis. Such playful postmodernism is somewhat distinct from the more naturalistic realism that dominates most of the episodes. While realist narrative of this televisual kind strives to offer viewers the “real thing,” it does so through the artful assemblage of recorded words, sounds, and moving images. When successful, the end effect is a fictional reality that feels real at an emotional level—not because viewers believe they are watching documentary footage of real-life events, but because they feel themselves immersed in what Henry James called the “Art of Fiction.” In a serialized format—paced out over many months and years—viewers have the opportunity to amplify this fictional experience by discussing it with friends, and thinking about it at dinner.

So let me say now what I liked best about Don’s multi-scene encounter in the Cali commune. First, much though he is not the Dick of this episode, who could not love the gray-haired partner’s push when she is called on to show rather than tell? It’s the kind of priceless Mad Men moment that, throughout the show’s run, has leavened generic high seriousness with elements of comedy and surreality. And is it just my imagination, or is Don’s manspreading at the group session one of those subtle nods to our present moment (just as Stan and Peggy’s telephonic love-in nods to our latter-day habits of texting our way through the times of our life)?

But the upshot of this plotline, of course, is Don’s embrace of an eminently ordinary man after Stephanie abandons him. In what has become a kind of motif for this half-season, Don is left in the paradoxical condition of a man on a road trip without any wheels. “People are free to come and go as they please,” he is told, but his only recourse is a desperate call to Peggy for help. Alas, Don’s truest friend since Anna’s death can no longer save him as she did back in Season 2 when a road trip with Bobbie Barrett landed him in jail. Having now landed himself in a kind of EST-like environment, we know that Don will either learn something new about himself or come to the tragic ending many have all along anticipated—some literal or figurative hitting the bottom in that seasons-long freefall that Mad Men’s credits immortalized.

The problem is that Don’s continuous quest to embody Draper Man obstructs anything new. Notice, for example, how the wish to save Stephanie yields the same fantasy of transcendence that led my colleague Rob to subtitle his chapter, “It Will Shock You How Much This Never Happened.” You can put this behind you,” Don tells Anna’s niece; “It will get easier as you move forward.” But though Stephanie cannot yet hear that she is harming her son, neither will she heed Don’s old mantras. “Oh, Dick, I don’t think you’re right about that,” she says, before taking off on a road trip of her own.

Who could have guessed that Don’s transformation would come through the experience of a man named Leonard whose cross to bear is that he’s never been interesting to anybody.” “People walk right by me; I know they don’t see me,” he says, expressing the kind of problem that Don, despite decades of selling to the world’s many Leonards, has seldom been called on to imagine or feel. Yet, by the time Leonard imagines himself as a kind of product, relating a dream of sitting on a shelf in a refrigerator and being passed over, he has revealed the potential to stand for Everyman in profoundly revelatory ways. “You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it,” and yet “you don’t even know what it is.” Here is an insight Don can feel as a man who has spent an entire half-season—in some ways his life—passed over by the very loved ones he yearns to save. Only Anna and Peggy have seen the potential for the better man that Don has often aspired to but rarely achieved.

By the end of the episode, Don has quite clearly rejected the penitent predicted at the end of Season 6 in favor of a New Agey vision of the 1970s that is Jesus-free. “Ommmmmmm,” he intones with a smile that is, perhaps, two parts Mona Lisa and one part Cheshire Cat. Will Don tune out for a while, till he hitches a ride to his next destination on the hobo’s trail (a hobo, that is, with access to a never-ending stack of cash)? Does he leave Peggy to carry the weight at McCann just as he left his children to “land on their feet” like his secretary Meredith? Or is Don’s meditating epiphany precisely the moment he realizes that he’d like to come home and teach the world to sing?

I wish I could trust that Mad Men’s closing with “Hilltop,” a world-famous Coke commercial, is the ultimate sign of ironic self-consciousness. If it is, it’s the counterpoint to the pre-credit Kodak moment that sets the stage for the finale. Ironic or not, Mad Men’s finale is bookended by two famous songs that began as advertising jingles. Of course, like the campaign Don designed for the Carousel, there is nothing at all ironic about Coke’s vision of a commercial universality—stretched across boundaries of gender, nationality, ethnicity, and race. Nor, for that matter, did Kodak intend to ironize the notion that idealized images, abstracted from lived time and space, are the “real thing.” One is left to ponder: does Mad Men, however playfully coy, still know the difference between advertising and its own serial realism?

It would, of course, be easier to trust the potency of Mad Men’s knowingness were the show more committed to the multicultural ethos that Coke put to use selling products. Instead, the show seems to take pride in its stubborn fidelity to its core white characters, turning even an underdeveloped figure like Stan into the Man of the Hour. To my mind, it still seems hard to believe that 92 hours of high-quality television opened no viable space for a character of color to move into some comparably significant role.

But I have gone there before and the Man is not listening (not Stan but the Man of the Hour named Matt Weiner). Whatever, Big Dub. You already know that there’s no pleasing the viewers who ask for the moon. But when you get round to introducing Holloway-Harris, will you please be sure that Peggy Olson makes at least one guest appearance? And when she does will you be certain she shows that Stan was wrong when he said, “You’ve got to give him up”—as though Peggy’s allegiance to Don had somehow held her back from something. Though Peggy was never lucky in love, her pull toward Don, like her decision to leave him, was never about sex or even the need to be loved. It was always about the need to be recognized as his equal.
A few acknowledgements: on this wonderful if somewhat tiring occasion, the author of this post wishes to thank all of the bloggers with all her heart, to thank Cindy Eisenberg, Ellen Moodie, Mark Sammons, and Jeremy Varon for their wonderful input on the writing of this post; to thank Sharon Marcus and the Public Books team for their warm welcome and help; and to thank Esti Ezkerra for her invaluable help in bringing these posts to the light of day! icon