Spoilers. I’m traveling this week, and I am pretty sure that I’ll be way too busy to blog, but I didn’t want to miss out on “Mad Men” blogging after the season finale.
I’m sure y’all are thinking the same thing I am—that was possibly the most optimistic episode ever of this show, much less most optimistic season ender. I had moments where I worried that we were seeing something close to fan service, having all these great characters (some who are not great people, though) suddenly decide to take a massive but satisfying risk. Joan and Pete glowed with the joy of finally having things go their way, and even Don was pretty happy, even though his marriage is ending. Burt seemed the liveliest he’s ever been, and Roger seems to have remembered why he likes business. Peggy got the esteem she deserves, and she’s finally standing up to the men who are only too happy to work her like a copywriter while treating her like a secretary.
I say it almost felt like fan service, but not quite, for a few reasons. The first is simple—these characters have been put through the wringer so often that it veers close to unrealistic to never give them a victory. Price especially comes by his revelation honestly. He was never a genuine stooge, but a smart guy who reached the end of his rope. But it’s also realistic, because each character came to the place to take this risk in very believable ways. (I imagine Sal will be coming back, too.) Don’s marriage is ending, and Peggy was always married to her job. Pete’s own myriad humiliations at Sterling Cooper softened him up, and we already knew he was very close to leaving SC. Joan, as you know, was out of options. Harry was the only hard sell, and they dispensed with that by putting him in a no-win situation.
In a way, the one that’s most interesting is Roger’s choice to go off with the new firm, instead of just letting the new agency ease him out of his position and on to the golf course. I should have realized that’s where they were going, showing his relationship with Jane sour a bit. Roger realized that he really can’t fill up his entire life being a cad married to someone who has just reached voting age. But had they caught him even a couple weeks before the assassination, he might have been singing a different tune.
This is far from fan service, because I also think that the glow of optimism that the characters exhibit now will soon give way to further troubles. But as Roxanne noted last week in comments, the Beatles are coming—there is a reason to see daylight after the grim events of last week’s episode. There was reason for joy and optimism in this era, and the show would be remiss to avoid it. But it wouldn’t be “Mad Men” without complication, and I can’t wait to see what happens next season.
The one dark cloud in this episode—and probably a hint of things to come—was Betty’s story. The shot of her on the airplane holding the baby was dark and sad compared to the pleasure exhibited by the other characters as they ransacked Sterling Cooper’s offices for client files. I think we’re meant to believe Betty traded one trap for another; certainly what we saw as she essentially fled the scene is the old way of the American nuclear family exiting stage right as the new players, the Americans who live for work, take the stage. Betty is becoming a dinosaur, and she never had a chance for anything else.
Now it’s time to gloat. I called it. (With Marc’s ample assistance.) I never had a chance to address the doubters from weeks past on the issue of Don’s contract, but it was obvious to me that they only introduced the contract for ye ol’ storytelling reasons. You have to give your protagonist obstacles to overcome, you know, or things get boring. The whole business with the contract existed so that we could have the pleasure of Don, Roger, and Burt convincing Lane to fire them. It was obvious, from the way they’ve been shedding characters from SC, that they were heading for this. But it didn’t take away from the pleasure of seeing Don kick in the door during the ransacking.
The contract was a plot function, but it was also a sign of the evolution of the corporate workspace that “Mad Men” loves to explore. All season, we’ve seen the corporate ransacking of the social compact, the attempts by the big bosses to stack the deck to leave their employees in their thrall. That this sort of thing happened is a historical fact, but what is also a historical fact is that professional workers reacted. Not by unionizing, sadly, but by abandoning any pretext of loyalty. Watching Lane Price get off the phone with his boss and join forces with the new firm was a miniature version of what happened across white collar America. People change jobs regularly nowadays, abandoning loyalty almost as quickly as their companies abandoned them. The interesting thing is that Don genuinely showed more evolution in himself than he has in three seasons of this show. The ransacking of Sterling Cooper caused him to realize exactly what happens when you stack the deck against your own people, and he started giving back in order to get.
It’s brave of the writers to blow everything up like this and start over. Brave, but necessary. This is the payoff for last episode. Focusing on the JFK assassination was a way of saying, “Everything’s changed, and nothing will ever be the same.” If you say that and don’t follow it up with a massive change, then you’re playing to cheap sentimentality. But by trashing Sterling Cooper and making it impossible to come back, they’ve legitimately raised the stakes. It’s what Don told Peggy she understood better than everyone else. Everything’s changed, and nothing will be the same again.
It’s been a great third season with all of you. Thanks for the awesome discussions. I’m going to miss “Mad Men” blogging, but I’m fairly certain we’ll be back on the horse next summer. So what do you think? When we come back, will it be months and maybe years into the transition to this new company? Are we going to open to a SCDP in 1965? Will Betty be remarried and living in Albany? Will Don have a new girlfriend, or will he accept that monogamy isn’t really his thing? Will Peggy start to gain fame outside of her offices, and will they start using her name as the marquee to bring in new clients? Or will SCDP be a failure?