Paradise by the refrigerator light

Perfect harmony?
Perfect harmony?

 

The Mad Men finale was overstuffed and all over the map, emotionally and geographically. Peggy did get to have it all, more or less (a generous nod to Peggy/Stan shippers). Joan chose her career and lost her eleventh-hour, too-good-to-be-true boyfriend, but who cares about him anyway? Roger and Megan’s mother lived happily ever after (I never could get behind this weird and pointless coupling). Pete flew off to become the King of Wichita.

And Don … His story, and the series, could not have ended more perfectly. In the previous two episodes, Don plunged deeper into the Dante-like symbolic death that began in the first episode of season 6, “The Doorway”. In “Lost Horizon,” he disappeared from McCann-Erickson as if he was shedding his skin;  in “The Milk and Honey Route,” his stolen identity in shambles, he headed out on a road trip searching for salvation in the form of the elusive Diana, but ended up in an Oklahoma motel that practically screamed “Purgatory.”

As the finale, “Person to Person” opened, it was late October 1970 (only a few weeks after the action in “The Milk and Honey Route”) and Don was racing a test car in the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Apparently, some time after we left him at the Oklahoma bus stop in “The Milk and Honey Route,” he hooked up with a couple of car racers who agreed to take him to California in exchange for his staking their expenses. We soon see him talking on the phone to Sally, who betrays her mother’s confidence and tells her father that Betty is dying. In one of several moments that teased viewers’ hopes for “closure,” Don tells Sally, and then, in another collect call to Betty, that he’s coming home to care for his kids. Could it be that Don is going to finally get it together and be a selfless, responsible family man?

Nah. You could almost hear Matthew Weiner chuckling “Gotcha!” Both the resolute, resigned Betty and the newly grown-up Sally reject Don’s attempt at reconciliation. Betty tells him that she wants the boys to live with her brother and sister-in-law. So Don, a.), gets drunk, and, b.), continues on to California with the racer boys.

It’s no surprise that Don is headed for California. That’s where his lives as Don Draper and Dick Whitman converge. In the finale, he washes up on the doorstep of Stephanie, the hippie niece of the original Don Draper’s (now deceased) widow, Anna. When last seen, Stephanie was broke and pregnant, asking Don for money. Now, Don wants to give her Anna’s wedding ring, last worn by Megan. But Stephanie rejects the family heirloom. She tells Don — she calls him “Dick” — that she doesn’t understand or need his concern for her welfare. She’s heading out to a “retreat up the Coast” — probably the Esalen Institute in Big Sur — and Don tags along.

Don is an amusing fish out of water at Esalen, scowling through encounter groups as earnest, emotional souls try to reach their “human potential.” At one point, when Stephanie confesses her guilt over having hated being a mother (she gave up the baby), Don tells her the same thing he told Peggy after she gave birth to her out-of-wedlock child — to “move on,” “pretend it never happened.” Indeed, a heartbreaking, if somewhat conservative, thread that runs through the finale and the series itself is the depiction of children as collateral damage of sexual freedom and divorce amid the social upheaval of the ’60s (poor Sally and her brothers). Don and Stephanie argue and she leaves, taking her car and abandoning him at the retreat.

Once again, Don has been led to a place he doesn’t want to be, by a woman from whom he sought salvation, love and family, and he’s been left in limbo. He’s been rejected by his Draper family. He’s been rejected by his Whitman family. If he had sought to shed “Don Draper” and return to being “Dick Whitman,” that path has been closed off. He calls Peggy collect and breaks down; she tells him to “come home” to McCann. “They’d take you back in a minute … Don’t you want to work on Coca-Cola?” He hangs up and falls to the ground immobile.

But then along comes another women to guide him, an earth mother-y Esalen instructor who picks him up and coaxes him into the encounter group she’s heading. Don sits in the circle, looking lost and glassy-eyed. And then a middle-aged man named Leonard — pale, average-looking — starts talking about feeling invisible in his life, about wanting love, but never quite getting it. The man tells a story about a dream in which he was on a shelf in the refrigerator, waiting in the dark for the door to open and the light to come on and to be chosen. Don watches with increasing sympathy. When Leonard begins to sob, Don unexpectedly goes to him and hugs him, sobbing with him.

The scene is rich with imagery. Leonard wears a light blue sweater the color of holiness and healing; Leonard’s story of being ordinary, unwanted, unloved resonates with Dick, the whore’s unwanted child who grew up craving family and love. When Don embraces Leonard, he’s embracing his Inner Dick Whitman. He becomes whole.

If Don’s descent into Hell began with his affair with Sylvia, and if Oklahoma was Purgatory, then Esalen is Paradise. It just takes him a while to realize it. In the final shots of the episode, Don is standing on a cliff overlooking the ocean, haloed by the sun. And then he’s dressed in white, eyes closed, cross-legged on a bluff, greeting the morning with retreat-attendees of assorted age and race. As the camera pans in on Don’s face, the meditation leader guides the flock to give gratitude for “the lives we’ve led, the lives we’re yet to lead, a new day, new ideas, a new you.” A bell tinkles. The group, including Don, chant “Om.” Don gives a slow smile, a bell dings again. And then we see the famous “I’d Like to Teach the Word to Sing” Coke ad from 1971, with young people of all races and nationalities standing on a hillside, equating world peace with Coke. The episode ends with the last line of the jingle: “It’s the real thing.”

The only ambiguity in this ending is in its intent. Read one way, Don/Dick’s smile suggests that he has made peace with himself, has survived the traumatic ’60s and will enter the ’70s as a more enlightened person, a “new you.” Maybe he went home to McCann, sober and self-aware, and used his Esalen experience to create the Coke ad, because he genuinely wanted to teach the world to sing. (See photo below.)

But read it another way, and the tiny bell that rings after Don smiles becomes the cha-ching of a killer advertising idea. Don has finally made peace with his past, and in doing so, it cleared his brain of self-doubt, absolved him of his bone-deep shame; freed from these distractions, Don is now cleansed of outdated ideas about how to speak to the desires of the consuming public. The juices are flowing again. And, if we really want to take the cynical road about the result of Don’s epiphany, the Coke ad in its time represented the end of whatever was authentic about the hippie ethos. It co-opted “love and peace” to sell sugar water.

I’ll take the latter interpretation, in all its bittersweetness and complexity. Sure, Don Draper didn’t really create Coke’s “Hilltop” ad in real life. But in the Mad Men universe, it has Don Draper written all over it. Don spent the series searching for “the real thing,” needing to believe that it existed; he based his greatest ads, which hit the mark like spare, poetic arrows to the soul, on that need. In the end, what he takes from his journey is that his emptiness and loneliness is not unique, but his talent for reinvention is. But has he really changed? Maybe the smile is Don welcoming back his true self, the lie that is the real thing.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

Left: Front desk employee at Don's retreat. Right: Girl from actual "Hilltop" Coke ad.
Left: Front desk employee at Don’s retreat. Right: Girl from actual “Hilltop” Coke ad.

 

 

 

 

 

Peggy, for the win

I am woman, hear me roar
I am woman, hear me roar

Mad Men is as much Peggy’s story as it is Don’s. She’s not just his protege. She’s both his conscience and his opposite. Don is ultimately a negative, defined by a void filled with all the things he is not, a pantomime of a kind of Scotch-swilling manliness rapidly becoming extinct.  Peggy is the positive image, a vivid Kodachrome snapshot of a woman shaped by the emerging feminism of the times.

At the beginning of the series, Peggy is Don’s secretary, a wide-eyed, pony-tailed girl from a strict Catholic family. She tries to want what she’s supposed to want — basically, a job until she snags a husband — but it isn’t enough. Peggy is ambitious, but she’s so naive that she doesn’t understand what that feeling is, bottled up inside and clawing to get out. She mistakes it for sexual hunger, and has a tryst with a drunken Pete that leaves her cluelessly — and secretly, even to viewers — pregnant. As the first season continues, Peggy begins speaking up with ideas for tag lines, and guilelessly tells Don that she wants to do what he does. When the baby is born in the final episode of season one, Don counsels her to give up the kid for adoption, to “pretend it never happened.”

That episode, “The Wheel,” was also the episode where Don promotes her to junior copywriter after she shows her skills behind the scenes on the Clearasil campaign (which Pete steals). In a sense, her pregnancy was like a chrysalis, and out of it emerges a tougher, more assertive Peggy. She gives up her son for adoption (her married sister initially takes him, but then he’s adopted out), and refuses to be shamed by the disapproval of her mother and their priest. Like Don, Peggy sees a clear path to reinvention and grabs it.

As she grows into her career, Peggy inevitably clashes with Joan Holloway, the highest ranking woman at the agency. Joan was “raised to be admired”; she’s beautiful and smart, but she’s disastrously slow to change with the times, still using her looks and “feminine wiles” to go after what she wants, asking rather than taking, pinning her future on the whims of powerful men.

Both women assert their ambitions in the season five episode “The Other Woman,” both come up against entrenched sexism. Joan agrees to have sex with a sought-after Jaguar client in exchange for a partnership in Sterling Cooper; in the saddest scene in the series’ entire run, she undresses for the piggy client, he puts a jeweled necklace around her throat, and we see in her eyes that she knows exactly what she has become.

In the same episode, there’s a horrifying moment when Peggy clashes with Don over her request for more autonomy and he responds by throwing cash in her face. By the end of that episode, Peggy has accepted a copy chief position at a rival agency for more money, and Don is kissing her hand, with tears in his eyes. It’s a courtly, almost fatherly, gesture. But as poignant as their truce is, it’s also another signal that Don is out of step with a changing society. He is unable to relate to women as equals. And it’s clear (to both of them) that, in ambition, creativity and nerve, Peggy is his equal. There is only room for one of them at Sterling Cooper. But in moving on to a newer, younger, agency, Peggy outstrips Don. He’s the relic, and time is increasingly catching up with him. Peggy is the future.

That future comes to fruition in the beautiful, brilliant ad campaign she devises for Burger Chef in “The Strategy” from the final season. All of the previous Burger Chef ideas, including Don’s, were rooted in shame, fixated on masking uncomfortable truths about societal changes pulling at American families. Who resorts to fast food for dinner? Working mothers. And whatever happened to the ideal of a family sitting down together, without Dad working late or the kids glued to the TV?  Peggy’s breakthrough on the campaign comes when she stops trying to shoehorn the family reality of 1969 into nostalgic ideals of the past. She creates a campaign revolving around the notion that every table at Burger Chef is “the family table” in an oasis of calm. She takes what was once looked down upon as a sign of slovenly housekeeping and turns it into a positive. These families are not “broken.” Our idea of what constitutes a family is.

As a woman who has chosen work over motherhood, but has a psuedo-mother-son relationship with a little boy in her apartment building, Peggy gets it. Family is where you find it. And the episode’s last pullback shot of Peggy, Don and Pete sitting down to a meal at Burger Chef glows with the prescience of Peggy’s vision: Work families, friend-families, unconventional families are no less a family.

In the episode “Lost Horizon,” Peggy and Don have parallel moments where they face down their secrets and make peace with them. Peggy tells Stan, her platonic friend, about her out-of-wedlock child; she may never have another, and it hurts, but maybe not every woman has to be a mother to be fulfilled. Maybe there’s no such thing as having it all. Meanwhile, Don is in the process of shedding the armor of his false identity. On the same night, Don has a ghostly visitation from the deceased Bert Cooper, while Peggy has a surreal encounter with Roger Sterling in the emptied, half-dismantled offices of Sterling Cooper. The founders are passing their respective torches, and it’s fitting that Don appears on his way to disappearing, while Peggy, after an inebriated pep talk from the non-conforming Sterling, emerges as the surviving soul of the defunct firm.

In an indelible scene (Elisabeth Moss absolutely nails it), Peggy shows up for work at McCann-Erickson the next morning, wearing dark sunglasses to hide her Sterling-sized hangover, a cigarette dangling Draper-like from the corner of her mischievously grinning mouth. Her hips sway as she strolls down the corridor holding a cardboard box of her possessions, with Bert Cooper’s prized erotic Japanese painting of a woman being pleasured by an octopus under her arm. Peggy is the unconventional creative spirit of Sterling Cooper gearing up to raise hell inside the advertising factory that is McCann.

What’s ahead for Peggy in the series finale? I’m betting that there’s a jump in time and when we next see her, she’ll be running her own agency. Olson, Holloway anybody?

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

 

 

The death of Don Draper

The artist formerly known as “Don Draper”?

“Lost Horizon,” which aired on May 3, would have made a terrific final episode of Mad Men. There are two more to go, but that episode felt like we were seeing the character known as “Don Draper” evaporate before our eyes.

Ever since the series’  season 6 opener “The Doorway” (the Hawaii episode), Mad Men has been about Don Draper losing his carefully constructed sense of self. Money and success do not bring happiness. In episode 10 of the current season, “The Forecast,” Don sells his penthouse in the wake of his divorce from Megan (her mother has had her revenge by selling off all of Don’s furniture), and the realtor tells Don that it’s a hard sell, because his empty living room looks sad. Don counters, “A lot of wonderful things happened here.” But I can’t think of a single one, can you? That line might have been the last shriveled leaf of self-delusion clinging to the wintry branches that are Don Draper.

Ever since it began in 2007, Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men has told a beautifully intricate story about transformation and reinvention. On one level, it portrays an era — the 1960’s —  when the world took a giant leap into the new, when American society and culture underwent a sea change. It was still a white man’s world in which to pursue the American Dream, but women, minorities and youth, were knocking at the gates of privilege. The meaning of the American Dream, the sureness of the American purpose and individual ideas about right and wrong, about expected life paths, were all in flux.

Mad Men used advertising as the lens through which to view the pop culture-driven ’60s. It gave us advertising as the purveyor of the American Dream, the great tempter, the seller of false aspirations, but also, advertising as an art form, a kind of poetry attaching desires and emotions to objects, making those objects symbols of deep, inarticulate yearnings.

But at its core, Mad Men was about Don Draper, the ultimate self-made man. Born with the inelegant moniker “Dick Whitman,” “Don Draper” is a Gatsby for our time. Don spent the greater part of Mad Men running away from himself. Dick Whitman was raised in a brothel, unwanted and unloved. He was a coward in the Korean War, a deserter who stole the identity of another man killed in the war. Dick was a hermit crab of a man, hiding inside “Don Draper.” Freed from the shame, insecurity and self-loathing of his early life, Don Draper is Dick Whitman’s American Dream made flesh. Draped across Dick Whitman’s frame, Don is an advertisement for himself; he is a masterpiece, a performance piece, and he’s dazzling, tall and handsome and manly, with just the right touch of mystery, so that people look at him and see the archetypical American hero. Inside Don Draper’s skin, Dick is free to express his poet’s soul, and to pursue his longing for home, roots, family, love — all the things little Dick never had. And Dick/Don’s story meshes perfectly with the stories that advertisers need to tell. Don is a walking lie telling beautiful lies to a culture hungry to hear lies.

But inside the impeccable gray-suited prince of Madison Avenue, all was turmoil. The great achievement of Jon Hamm’s acting is his ability to play a man acting as if he’s supremely comfortable in his own skin — virile, in control — and then slowly, through the smallest of changes (like that thing he does where he shows you fear in his eyes and his face suddenly looks ravaged), lets his character’s uncertainty slip through. Inside Don Draper, Dick Whitman will not be still. He sabotages his marriages, he cheats, he lies, he drinks. Enough is never enough to silence the self-doubt and the urge to self-destruct. In the ’60s, America was coming apart from within. And so was Don Draper.

The long unraveling begins in the long opening sequence of “The Doorway,” in which Don doesn’t speak a word, as if he’s sleepwalking through his dream life. He woos Sheraton officials in Honolulu, he smokes dope and makes love with his young wife, actress Megan Calvet. He stares inscrutably at the surf. Toward the end of the episode, he pitches a strange and disturbing ad campaign for the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. His prototype shows a drawing of a beach, a man’s clothing discarded on the sand, footprints leading to the ocean, with the tag line “Hawaii. The Jumping Off Point.”  It was suicidal, in every sense of the word.

That scene (as well as the “falling man” imagery of the show’s opening credits) was echoed in “Lost Horizon,” when Don is shown to his new office at McCann-Erickson (Sterling Cooper has been subsumed by the parent company) and he touches the skyscraper window and it unexpectedly rattles. Startled, Don jumps back. It would be so easy.

I have the feeling that everything from Hawaii on is Don Draper wrestling with Dick Whitman for control. Don begins to show his age, looking tired, haggard. He loses Megan because he can’t rein in his desire for new romantic conquests, can’t stop following his Dick. Don drinks, messily, spectacularly. His hands shake. He sabotages a pitch meeting with Hershey’s by blurting out a confession about his hidden past, recounting how, as a child, he received Hershey bars from the whores for good behavior. Is it Don, trying to patch up his facade, who subsequently humbles himself to accept his suspension from Sterling Cooper, and to pledge sobriety and re-dedicate himself to Megan? Or is it Dick, trying to come clean? It’s unclear who means to obliterate who.  But one thing is clear: Whether metaphorically or literally, “Don Draper” is not going to get out of this show alive.

In the first of the seventh season’s final episodes, “Severance,” Don — or perhaps, Dick — considers the road not taken, as he becomes simultaneously obsessed with a depressed, cryptic waitress named Diana (like Don/Dick, a runaway from her life), and Rachel Mencken, the department store heiress with whom he had an affair in earlier seasons. While pursuing Diana, Don dreams of Rachel, and when he tries to track the latter down, learns that she has recently died.

The timing of Don’s interest in Diana/Rachel is interesting. Separated from Megan, Don appears to be flying on automatic pilot in his attempts to quickly replace her with another brunette. He seems genuinely shocked when he hears of Rachel’s death; his desire for a do-over with the brunette not taken hits a dead end. And so he woos Diana harder, but his wealth and charm appear to have no affect on piercing her aura of profound sadness and mystery.

There’s a comical moment in “New Business,” episode 9 of the current season, where Diana calls Don in the middle of the night, waking him from a sound sleep. He asks her to come over, but in the next scene, he answers the door of his apartment fully dressed in his usual crisp suit and tie, hair perfectly groomed. At least, I thought it was comical when I first saw it. But the more this half-season has progressed, the more haunting and significant that scene now seems to me. Don — or should we call him Dick? — is desperately trying to keep up appearances, to keep being Don Draper. The suit is key. It’s always been his “Don Draper” skin. But now, Diana takes a look at him and laughs.

In “Lost Horizon,” there’s another resonant “suit” scene where Don’s boss at McCann tells him that he’s expected to turn on the dazzle at a big meeting with Miller Beer, and Don automatically produces the Don Draper smile and announces, “I’m Don Draper from McCann Erickson”. Except that Hamm perfectly calibrates the moment, overdoing it just the tiniest bit, so that it feels and looks as if Don (Dick?) has to work harder to sound convincing to himself. Don is not quite Don anymore, and all the outer trappings of being Don Draper are revealed as mere costumery. He is an empty suit.

In the extraordinary Miller pitch scene that follows, Don looks around at his McCann peers, all with pens raised, an identical white, male, necktie-sporting mass. He (and we) see advertising for the first time on the series not as a juicy, brainy creative endeavor but as a cold calculation, a predatory activity. Detached, Don  turns to gaze out the window at a plane flying over the Empire State Building, and something springs to light in his eyes. He gets up and slips silently out of the meeting, leaving that room as if he’s shedding a skin.

Don goes to visit ex-wife Betty, intending to drive daughter Sally to boarding school, but Sally has already left, and his sons are out at their little-boy activities. He has no place there and is unneeded. He’s also homeless;  he’s living at a hotel while his realtor and secretary find and decorate his new apartment. Diana has disappeared, with no forwarding address. And Sterling Cooper is no more. So Don does what he does best — he runs away.

Driving on an impulse to Wisconsin to track down Diana’s ex-husband, Don has a bleary, night-driving visitation from the deceased Bert Cooper, who last appeared to Don as a ghost singing “The moon belongs to everyone, the best things in life are free” — quite a statement for a man who founded a firm dedicated to selling and consumption. I think “Lost Horizon” is Don’s Road to Damascus moment. Don appears to have lost his religion for advertising, appears to be considering Spectral Cooper’s newfound renunciation of the material world.

When Don gets to Diana’s ex’s house, he bluffs his way in by claiming to be “Bill Phillips” of Miller Beer, there to inform Diana that hers is the winning entry in a contest for a new refrigerator. But the ex-husband is not fooled. Don’s (last?) attempt at identity-assuming, something he has previously been so successful at doing, falls flat. In the episode’s final shot, Don picks up a hippie hitchhiker and agrees to take him to St. Paul, and they drive off down the straight, open, empty highway. My wild guess is that we’ll never see Don among his Sterling Cooper cohort again. We may well have seen the last of “Don Draper,” entirely. The question is, does this man have one more reinvention left in him?

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

(Thoughts on Peggy to come …)