Sunday, June 01, 2014

‘MAD MEN’: HALFWAY THROUGH THE FINAL SEASON

AMC’s MAD MEN completed half of its final season last Sunday, and a lot has changed, but it’s still so hard to gauge where it’ll all end up. Let’s take a look at where these characters are at this point…


DON DRAPER
At the end of last season, Don Draper hit a certain realization. After years of keeping Dick Whitman hidden from the world, he finally let it all out. Accepting his ‘impoverished childhood’ (as Jim Cutler puts it in last Sunday’s mid-season finale), and how it affected him, was the only way he could remotely be happy, or probably simply be at peace with himself. Returning after a considerable amount of time, we saw Don keeping himself sober, leading a solitary life, doing his work. As much as I’ve hated his complete lack of commitment to relationships in the past and his extreme arrogance at work, I couldn’t help but find my heart going out to him. Yes, at heart, Don was always a loner—an onion that couldn’t be peeled. And stripped down to his bare reality, he seemed much more vulnerable, but still stronger than before. He did lose it a couple of times, when he got wasted again at the office, but he rose out of it almost instantly, again accepting where he was, with his new position at SC&P. He even goes on to gracefully accept that Peggy was his equal, and despite Lou Avery’s disregard, and Jim Cutler’s dismissive attitude, Don held his own. This almost Zen quality, to me, commanded a considerable amount of respect. However, the newfound attitude was not without emotion. The depth in Don Draper’s character has always been a driving force of MAD MEN, and that depth is probably at its most intense, currently, through the final season.

PEGGY OLSEN
I don’t see anyone drawing a parallel, but I’ve definitely thought of Peggy as becoming so much like Pete, as far as his cantankerousness is concerned. She’s been short, snappy, complaining about everything, and generally whiny. While it’s mostly hilarious in Pete’s case, I really feel for Peggy’s state. I don’t blame her for it, despite seeing her through her career high. (Remember the days when she was just Don’s assistant?) I get the angst of an unsatisfied person, unhappy in her personal life, being abandoned by everyone she cares for, including the neighbor boy who hangs out in her apartment. At the same time, despite having accomplished a lot by the age of 30, professionally, she still has this deep insecurity, especially when it comes to Don’s return. She became a big deal in his absence and she was threatened with his comeback, but she was soon to realize that Don could never have been a threat. He was her mentor, and while he might have used tough love to groom her over the years, his admiration for the long journey she’s made to this point is like that of a proud father. Yet, in her times of frustration, he won’t molly-coddle her. Their slow dance in his old office was one of the sweetest moments of the season.

ROGER STERLING
Roger Sterling has seemed to me as quite the vagabond since his divorce from Jane. He’s tried to be a father figure for Joan’s and his son, whom she’s raising as Greg’s, but he hasn’t been able to do what it takes for Joan to give in to anything he’s asked for. This season, embracing the energy of the late ’60s, he’s done things that aren’t really surprising for us, but just show us how he’s still nowhere close to being a guy who’ll actually grow up and have someone by his side in his golden years. Despite all of that, he tried to be a good father to his daughter, urging her to be a responsible mother, but that too backfired, and ended with him in a puddle of wet mud. His grief on Bert Cooper’s death was touching, despite the minimum expression. And at the end, despite all that’s not right and happy in his life, he’s adamant to keep the agency as it is, and his unwillingness to lose Don was expected, but still endearing.

PETE CAMPBELL
The angry, young man, who’s growing old, but still has nothing other than his work. His new look and his affectionate attitude (remember him hugging Don?) may have showed how happy he was in California, but even his hot, new relationship there didn’t last, because of his dead marriage, and his denial of it. It’s not even a bad romance anymore, but he doesn’t think once about how his attitude towards Trudy could jeopardize his chance to even remotely be happy with someone. He’s still a fan of Don’s work, and cheers him on through the Burger Chef pitch, and that’s really nice, especially when, at the end of that episode when Don and Peggy take him to Burger Chef, and they sit to understand the family dining concept that they’re going to pitch. In a strange way, they are the strongest version of a family any of them have. And not in a mushy, “aww” kind of way, but in a very practical, symbiotic way.



MEGAN DRAPER
It was probably the most indiscreet end of a marriage, but there was something so poignant about the way things ended for Megan and Don. This had been a long time coming. Since season six, when Don promises to Megan that they’ll move to California, and then decides to stay, and she leaves anyway, most of us probably thought that it was going to end. But despite all that was wrong in that relationship, I really thought that Megan was good for Don. Initially she had seemed like just a pretty young thing, who would enjoy being Mrs. Don Draper, but over time, with her decision to get back to acting and other moves to establish her independence, it became clearer that she wasn’t going to be just someone who would feed Don’s ego. In the beginning of this season, we saw her at her independent best, not willing to even let Don buy her a TV set. It became clearer that not only was their relationship too complicated to last too long, but even Megan was not in a place where she needed him. Still, seeing a new side of humility in Don, in the episodes that followed, made me want to see them stay together. But even though he was ready to be more for her, and probably even needed her, she’d already moved on, and that final conversation was just so beautiful and heart-breaking at the same time. I hope this doesn’t mean that we won’t see Megan anymore. They’ve developed Betty’s character significantly even after she left Don, and I hope the same happens with Megan too, even if there are just seven more episodes to go.

BETTY FRANCIS & SALLY DRAPER
Betty has been one of my favorite characters since the beginning of MAD MEN. She was always strong-willed, never took any nonsense from anyone, and I was happy to see her standing up for herself when she left Don. Since their marriage ended, I found her spiraling out of control, and she became a tad annoying, but it showed us a more vulnerable side of her, and soon enough, she was back to being the Betty I loved. Her snark and sarcasm have been at their best in the last two seasons, especially with her daughter. Sally has grown into a fine young lady, much like her mother, with her general demeanor and the tough exterior. The friction between mother and daughter has layers under the entertaining surface, and I see it as both of them being in denial of the fact that Sally is growing up to be just like Betty, and them fighting against that, but quite in vain. Betty’s marriage to Henry Francis has been almost perfect up until now. While they, most unnaturally, have ignored issues, and have stayed away from any confrontation, this season, it was quite apparent that he sees her as something of a trophy wife, and she was not going to stand for it. I never thought their marriage was completely solid, especially with Betty finding it completely fine to sleep with Don last season. And now, I doubt Betty will stay with Henry. I don’t really see her ending up with anyone. She and Don could have a dalliance in the final part of the show, and that would be fun to watch, but I don’t see them getting back together.

JOAN HARRIS
I feel for Joan when she tells Bob Benson that she deserves true love, and wasn’t going to settle for anything less. It was a time when Bob couldn’t be who he was, but Joan wouldn’t have him be untrue to himself or present a farce in the name of stability. Joan might be too strong for her own good at times, but I like that about her. I want to see her get her due, at work and otherwise. Yes, she’s a partner, but I still don’t see her shining through as much I would want to. In a strange way, I would really like to see her and Roger Sterling make a go for it, but she’s too much of a woman for him and I think they’d only work together if Roger really grows up now. Can that happen? Maybe. But then again, I don’t see the show ending with definitive happy endings with all loose ends being tied up for everyone.


And that’s not the way it should be either. While we have seen a strong character arc through the first half of the final season, for everyone, especially Don, I still can’t say where this will go over the last seven episodes. What’s the big end-game for creator and showrunner, Matt Weiner, if he has any? It’s still too soon to tell. But whether or not there’ll be a big closing chapter for MAD MEN, I am absolutely certain that however it ends, it’ll leave a lot of food for thought for us. With intriguing revelations at every level, it’ll all be done without the sensationalism, but definitely with the show’s typical quiet mysticism. 

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