Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mad Men 714: Person to Person

Don Draper dresses better, talks better, works better, and plays better than anyone you'll ever know. Paired with that blessing is his curse: He makes more and bigger mistakes than anyone you'll ever know. We knew that in Season One, and it's carried him through to the finish. We've seen him fall down, pick himself up, and fall again. It's a credit to writer-creator Matt Weiner and his team that the cycle could stay fresh enough that Don standing on a cliff in the show's final minutes could tease the possibility of a leap and turn into something completely different.

Everyone got their send-off. For some it was love; for others it was career; for Betty it was the grave. That plot seemed to set up Don's fate: If the Draper kids were going to lose their mother, maybe Don would become a full-time father. As Betty saw it, that's not a role the otherwise omni-talented Don Draper can fill. And so, his high-speed dash across the desert led him not East, to home, but West, to the house of the original Don Draper, whose name Dick Whitman stole. There, he found Stephanie, whom we last saw a year ago, pregnant and broke, sent packing to Oakland by a lie told by Megan. Stephanie was far from a major character on the series, but here she filled a particular role: Her abandonment of her child, and the shame she feels for that put a focus on Don having abandoned, at one time or another, absolutely everything. Faced with this, Don offered to become some sort of partner in her life, a ludicrous misplacement of the energy he'd withdrawn from all of his existing responsibilities. Stephanie runs from the resort (clearly filmed at, and representing, the not-named Esalen Institute) and leaves Don with a temporary transportation inconvenience and a hole in his conscience big enough to swallow him inside. Don's frustration ends with the outburst, "People just come and go and no one says, 'Goodbye.'" He's far too intelligent not to see his own sins in that line.

The title of the episode, "Person to Person," is a manner of billing telephone calls that no longer exists. The episode has six telephone calls, most of them showing modern technology as a way to keep people apart when they really should be together. The fragility of telephone conversations is demonstrated in the first call when Sally ends her call with Don and he can't do or say a thing about it. (Incidentally, a similar but more futuristic kind of "hanging up" victimizes Jon Hamm's character in the Christmas episode of the BBC's Black Mirror in which he starred.) Soon, Don – who placed a call to Peggy to try to make up for his own coming and going without saying "Goodbye" – inflicts the same punishment on her, cutting off their call and leaving her worried for his sanity and his safety.

That was the episode's fifth phone call. The one before that was one that ended a relationship, with Joan choosing to talk to someone distant, about business, and shut out Richard, who is present, about love. And so she loses him, for better or worse, for richer or poorer.

But the episode's final phone call goes the opposite way. Stan and Peggy start by talking about business, but soon, and stunningly (and probably with too little build-up) pledge their love for one another. Stan realizes the absurdity of a phone taking the place of human contact, and runs down the hall to kiss her.

In a show about modern media (print, radio, or television) blasting opinions unilaterally into people's brains, the telephone is an apt metaphor. It's another form of long-distance communication, although it works in both ways instead of just one. In that sense, the old landline more closely resembles its mobile offspring that have more completely taken over our world than anyone could have foreseen in 1970, mediating our interpersonal relationships as well as serving up corporate ads. The Mad Men finale may say more about the devices that keep us apart in 2015 than it does about 1970.

But Stan is twice the voice of reason in the episode. He also realizes that Don's flight and escape are temporary. "He always does this, and he always comes back," Stan tells Peggy. He's exactly right.

Steve Jobs was vocal about alternative forms of consciousness having enhanced his creative powers, and there's some of that in Mad Men's final two scene. Don, having shed the New York coat and tie for a meditation circle on the Pacific coast, hums "Om" the last time we see him. And then, the gut-punch ending is the 1971 Coca Cola television ad that anyone who lived in America in the Seventies saw countless times, and we realize that Don's epiphany along the Pacific was not an escape from work, but ultimately just an inspiration for his greatest success, as he went on to return to New York and write that ad, the single most prominent television ad of all time. Don Draper gets credit for the commercial, "Hilltop," that belongs in real life to an ad man named Bill Backer, and in so doing, achieves the fame that he always had the potential to achieve.

In the first episode of Mad Men, Don sits across a table from Rachel Menken and, en route to winning her as a lover and a client, tells her, "I'm living like there's no tomorrow, because there isn't one." And now, the show is over, and for Don Draper, there isn't one.


  1. Just finished watching the episode and this was the first place I immediately turned to. Thanks for posting this, and in such a timely manner.

    This episode (and that ending!) was a lot to digest, your reviews make it a little easier to chew on.

  2. Thanks, sakei! I couldn't maintain the momentum of blogging about every Mad Men episode, as I did in Season 4, but I didn't want to miss writing up the finale.

  3. It occurred to me how much the Mad Men finale actually mirrored the close of Morrison's Batman run.

    In both cases, our typically self confident hero is finally ensnared by the behind the scenes machinations of an antagonist at the head of a powerful organization (Jim Hobart/McCann-Erikson)(al Ghuls/League of Shadows). They both bear witness to the loss of everything they built and stood for (SCDP/Batman Inc.). Capped off with the unbearable loss of the mother of their child (Betty/Talia). They both have one "final" goodbye with the lone confidant who understands them (Peggy/Gordon). They both escape to far away places (Esalen/Nanda Parbat) to meditate and confront their greatest fear (admittedly this happens at the beginning of GM's run but work with me here.

    And finally we see both give up and try to deny their true calling (advertising/the cape and cowl) and live the lie of a quiet life only to come back. Because as Stan points out, 'they're both survivors. And they both always come back.' Stronger and better than before, because you can never change who you really are.

    They're stories may be over, but they remain out there, doing what they do best.

  4. sakei,

    Along the lines of the post I made once comparing Batman, Don Draper, and Tony Soprano, they were all imbued with inalterable personalities. For Don and Tony, whose stories have ended (after about 90 episodes each), they veered off-course, for better or worse, then kept coming back to who they were.

    You might say those series ran their course, and I might even conclude that Mad Men ran a little long as far as Don's character development went. Don cycled through various forms of self-destruction, came back to his true nature, and after four or five times, could it be a surprise anymore?

    Yet, Morrison worked the same with Batman, as you point out. But not only in terms of his character and personal decisions, but in terms of events forced upon him: Morrison really got people thinking that Bruce Wayne might be defeated and lose, but then wrote a story where he was never down and out for more than a couple of days. It really made RIP work, because Batman's usual victory was a surprise, for a (refreshing) change.