SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, call up some old friends you haven’t seen in a while and watch last night’s Mad Men.
“You’re not good at relationships because you don’t value them.” –Roger Sterling
Don Draper finally got it all, and he finally lost it all. The two sides of Mad Men’s outstanding season three finale rolled on different tracks, the office revolution and espionage playing almost like a light comedy while the dissolution of Don’s marriage was wrenching. But both involved Don having to confront, and put into words, why he needs the people around him, and what their value is to him.
Independence has always been a big issue to Don. We’ve always had a sense of where that came from, but in his flashbacks–to his father’s death, which he’s alluded to before–we see the primal cause. He saw his father literally die before his eyes, because he was broke, dependent–because somebody else owned him. Drunk and beaten in that stable, Dick Whitman’s father bought the farm; Don Draper is now determined to own his.
So Don has lived at home with one foot always out the door; at the office, he worked for years without a contract, because he knew that with the ability to “come and go as he pleased”–as he says Connie does–came power. But for Don independence has always come at the cost of aloofness and distance.
As long as Don wanted to be a quasi free agent, this worked just fine. But as he prepares to swipe Sterling Cooper out from under McCann, he realizes that being a solo artist will only get him so far. To take it to the next level, he has to do something Don Draper doesn’t do: commit.
So we watched the unusual experience of having Don vocalize to people like Pete and Peggy things that we have known implicitly, but never saw him acknowledge: their value. He apologizes. He tells Roger that for all their problems, he does what creative Don cannot. He tells Pete that, as we’ve seen, he’s been the only forward-looking person at Sterling. He tells Peggy that he sees himself in her, and has been rough on her as a result.
It’s an unusual position for Don. He’s placed in a desperate situation, and rather than get out of it by lying, he has to serve his desperate interest by telling the truth.
The way it played out was delightful, beginning to end, with one applause line and scene after another: Lane Pryce finally growing a pair and turning on PPL (and dissing Moneypenny to boot); Peggy refusing to fetch coffee for Roger; Joan returning from exile. (Though the get-the-gang-back-together storyline was a bit weird, as if we were watching a Mad Men Christmas Reunion Special 20 years after it went off the air. “I can’t find anything in this office! Say, does anyone know what Joan’s up to now?”)
Incidentally, I’m as bummed as anybody that, with Mad Men hitting the reset button on the office, Sal didn’t end up coming back (though you’d assume they need a new art director). But I realize that it’s appropriate: Sal left Sterling Cooper under much different, much more hateful, circumstances than did Joan. For him to come back and make everything all right would have been a cheat; for him to be approached by Don and tell him off, on the other hand, may not have been in his character. I would have liked to have seen where he is now–and I assume we’ll get there–but I’m very glad Mad Men didn’t just use this game-shift to bring him back that easily.
At home, meanwhile, it’s a different and much more harrowing story, as Don’s marriage ends exactly as his professional life is beginning again. Like Don, Betty finally struck out for her independence this episode. Although she may have done it in a way that has put her in a new, crippling kind of dependence from the get-go. As she and Henry visit the divorce lawyer, he counsels her not to get in a fight with Don for his money–saying that he should let Henry take care of her rather than worry about getting situated to take care of herself. I’m thinking mistake, and I’m thinking she may find herself wishing she had her own money before long.
Over and over again in this episode, Don has to swallow his pride and tell the people important to him why he needs them. And yet he can’t do this with Betty. It may be too late, in any case, for that to make a difference. Instead–finally in the role of the one cheated on–he lets his resentment boil over, telling her devastatingly that she’s a spoiled rich girl who decided he’s no longer good enough for her; Betty just as devastatingly answering back that that’s right, he’s not. (“All along you’ve been building a life raft.” Says the man with the desk drawer full of $50 bills!)
The scene of sitting with the kids and breaking the divorce news is one we’ve seen plenty of times, but this one was moving and tough, as much for what wasn’t said as what was. Determined, as we’ve seen, to protect his kids above all, Don can’t explain himself, can’t say that he wants to stay, and therefore has to sit and take it when Sally calls him a liar. (Which of course is right in the general sense even if it’s off in this particular.) Betty, meanwhile, can’t explain herself as Sally accuses her of driving Don away.
Even Betty had a hard time keeping it together as Don clutched Bobby to hug him goodbye, and so did I. And dear God, aren’t you glad you didn’t have to see the kids meet their New Uncle Henry?
In the living room with the kids, Don is still half in denial: “It’ll just be temporary,” he tells them. It seems as though setting up shop in the hotel room–saying goodbye, once and for all, to that gorgeous modernist Sterling Coop office–is what convinces him it’s all over. At which point–and Jon Hamm sells this marvelously–he does something entirely un-Don Draper-like. He stops running. He admits that it’s over. And he calls up Betty to tell her “I’m not going to fight you.”
Don and Betty have both won independence at a price, and in a way that leaves them newly dependent and entangled. Something very big has ended. Something very big has begun. So where does this leave this season of Mad Men?
Over the season, I’ve generally tried to avoid was-it-a-good-episode-or-a-bad-episode assessments in each writeup, because I think rating individual episodes is beside the point in a very serial show. (This came up, I remember, when I ranked the ten best episodes of The Sopranos when that series ended–the episodes that were best individually, like “Pine Barrens,” were often not characteristic of what I loved about the series overall.)
But now that the season is over, how does it stand up? I reserve the right to change my mind after I’ve processed the finale, but offhand I’d put season 3 a notch behind season 1 and ahead of season 2. It didn’t have the phenomenal run of one staggering episode and scene after another like the first did, but this season built confidently to a climax and did an outstanding job of both capturing the sweep of history and how it related to the characters’ lives. (Even in the JFK assassination episode, which was tough to do anything original with.)
It’s notable, and not surprising, that so many of the episodes early in the season in which “nothing happened,” like “My Old Kentucky Home,” a personal favorite, actually set up stories (Connie, Henry Francis) that paid off in a big way. Some of those middle episodes did suffer from too little of the office plot, which gave the story a natural source of drive and momentum in “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” Some characters got a little lost in the shuffle this season, but I’m considering that a feature rather than a bug, at least partly; Mad Men has a big enough sweep of characters that some of them have to take a back seat sometimes.
Finally, I’ll say this for this finale: though each of the last Mad Men seasons left me wanting to see the next one as soon as possible, this one left me with the most intense desire to simply see what happens next. That despite, or maybe because of, the wrenching ending of Don coming home alone, having told Betty something that would have been tough to imagine from him earlier: that he hopes she’ll be happy.
So Don Draper puts his borrowed surname on his business—Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce—even as Betty is handing that name back to him. Don gets everything. And he loses everything. And in the process of losing everything, may be in the process of finding his identity–a real one this time.
Now for the hail of bullets:
* As I said, this episode was full of fan-service, stand-up-and-clap lines, but for some reason my favorites were Lane Pryce finally finding the courage in that little British tea cupboard of a heart. “Well, gentlemen [arches eyebrow], I suppose you’re fired.”
* “Very good! Happy Christmas!”
* Speaking of finding courage, Rich Sommer hasn’t had a lot of moments this season, but he did a very nice job of showing Harry’s discomfort and decision, as a man who may have never made a brave move in his life finally forced to step up.
* And finally, it was a pleasure to see Bert Cooper embrace his lion in winter role, wryly threatening to lock Harry in the storeroom until morning. Not to mention finally telling Roger how he really feels about his wedding: “You sold your birthright because you wanted to marry that trollop.”
* John Slattery, by the way, had plenty of expected comic-relief moments, but it was also touching to see, behind Roger’s veil of wisecracking, how badly he wants to reconcile with Don–to the point that he’s pained, rather than slyly delighted, to have inadvertently told Don that he’s being cuckolded. And I’m going to find ways to work the phrase “golden porkchop” into conversation.
* Loved Trudy’s off-screen effort to save Pete from himself as he vents at Don and Roger: “Peter, may I speak to you for a moment?”
* Maybe one of the most interesting things that Don said in assembling his team was his remark to Peggy that she understood the mindset of the consumer right now: that “something terrible” happened, and people really won’t be the same. Don’s always resistant to the idea of change in his business and skeptical of it in the culture, as his dismissive reaction to the seminal “Think Small” Volkswagen ads showed. But he’s often drawn from his personal life to understand his business life and vice versa. Could his divorce be the thing that persuaded him that things really are different now out there?
* I’d be curious to know how the rest of you read the showdown between Don and Connie. On one level, of course, it was ironic to hear Don dressing down someone else for using him and moving on without committing. But was Connie telling Don that he was disappointed in him, or was he daring him to strike out on his own?
* Poor Ken Cosgrove! He wins the Accounts job race only to lose the plum position for season four. (I would have liked to hear the discussion, by the way, as to why Don and Roger felt that he—or his accounts—were less valuable than Pete’s.) And who will support Paul Kinsey’s countercultural affectations now? It’ll be interesting to see how permanently finished the show is with the characters left behind.
* Speaking of the future, it will be even more interesting to see how firmly Don and Betty’s divorce takes—how “temporary” this thing is—and if it is over for good, how the show manages to keep Betty and the kids in its focus.
* Liked the choice of Roy Orbison’s “Shahdaroba” as the closing-credits music. As we get into the Beatles era, it’ll be interesting to see how the show manages to make non-obvious period music choices.
* And I’m sure it was no coincidence that the credits began on the line, “In the future you will find a love at last.” Everybody, especially Don, suddenly has a chance to begin again. Can Don build himself something authentic this time? Your predictions for season four?