“…Or So It Seems.
One Life For Yourself, And One For Your Dreams…”
Mad Men Season Five Wrap Up
Love, Grief, Hauntings, and The Dark Shadow of Don Draper:
“Love is a stranger who will beckon you on”. The heart doesn’t know time. You can think that you have run all the way through the acute grief of losing a loved one, have suffered it and made the uneasy peace of setting it aside on a nearby shelf, after doing your level best to compartmentalize the pain in the most necessary and healthy sense of that word. But with the changing of a season, or the turn of a phrase, there it will be. As if you never kicked the shit out of it, as if you never tenderized it to an almost palatable shape. On the satisfying Season Five finale of Mad Men, the show makes a tender and graceful return to form of its poetic best of earlier seasons by gracefully unspooling one of its most poignant themes: the isolation of unspeakable grief. And how to live with it.
Arguably the series really hit its’ stride mid series three, when audiences collectively learned the stark, measured phrase “Meditations in an Emergency”. Here the show’s protagonist lost his only real friend in the world, Anna Draper, just when their shared back story was revealed. At its heart a mystery story about identity, survival, and an interrogation of core human values (especially the notion of happiness) Don Draper’s most shocking face was revealed in flashbacks and a detour to hazy California with Anna, the only person who knew Don’s essential truth and also the only person to love him anyway.
Anna later appeared to Don in a vision upon her passing in a devastating sequence that could be easily dismissed as Soap Opera to anyone who has never experienced something eerily similar. In our cultural tropes about ghosts, whether we believe in them or not at all, there is a notion of the watchful, guiding spirit, which Anna is for Don. Then there is the malevolent, restless or fraught presence that superstitiously accompanies thoughts about people lost to suicide. In the course of the series, most recently at the end of Season Five, Don has now advised two men who sought him out in moments of desperation for guidance and the brilliant ad man failed utterly in the only two pitches that ever truly mattered on a grand scale, propelling them to fatal consequences. Don is now visited by the dark spirit of the dead brother he rejected and tried to pay off, as he appears around the office in a chillingly benign way, so unlike Anna’s spirit.
Don knows only one way to survive. He has only tool in his essential toolbox: to cut and run, and start over. Don’s code to cope with impossible pain, loss and tragedy is brutal and as precise as a knife edge: “this never happened. It will amaze you how much this never happened.” When it works, as it (sort of) has for Don and Peggy who is mentored in his ways and shares a similar survivalist streak, it is probably a life saving, critical measure. When it fails – when fragile people are unable to get crucial support in times of shame and despair – the Hobo Code Don quite literally lives by leaves first his only brother, and now, a partner in the firm, with only a Final Exit. Both men have now shown us the horrible bruises of hanging on their necks, and have made Don, by degrees fairly or unfairly, complicit in their deaths.
Goodbye (Good God, Let’s Hope) Megan?
In the final episode, most of the central characters’ stories are given a nice amount of equal time, as the story takes their temperatures and stock of where they are on their individual searches for meaningful lives juggling fantasies and realities of work and love. John Hamm’s Don, who often carries the bulk of the show on his superhero-like, impossibly suave shoulders, carries less of the finale episode , but still hits pitch perfect marks of anger, frustration, sadness, emotional fatigue and grief that we have come to know like the bags under his eyes. For his newest model bride of around a year, (Megan, given far too much screen time this season as a character spinning her wheels as a dilettante wanna be actor) we can finally check that box- Don, Megan’s brutally elegant mother, and the entire casting community of New York reach an agreement that the bitch cannot act. To put some honey on it, she, Don, and the audience has suffered so all year because “she has the artistic temperament – but is not an artist”. (A million arrows hit home for a million viewers about our own frustrated lives too, and we wonder if we relating to Don’s recent advice to Lane about the benefits of airing secrets (that light headed feeling is relief, we can drop the lie). Yet Don, perhaps (momentarily, one hopes) outmatched in his formidable skills of salesmanship, charm, and will by his immature wife’s penchant for temper tantrums (that go far beyond any displayed by his three young children), breaks a number of his own good sense rules about business and commits an act of cheapness dirtier than much of his past sexual debauchery: he shortcuts everything and gives a lie to all of Megan’s artistic talent and pulls strings to get her a part in a commercial.
The final scene of the finale episode is as impressively designed as anything in the show’s impressive history. Megan is done up in a perfectly silly sixties version of a fairy tale princess, in a room set oppressively overstuffed with more brocade and velvet than Liberace’s wildest dream, a child playing dress up, pleased she got her way. Don visits the set, which is a small blight on an otherwise massive, dark soundstage, and walks away from it and Megan while revealing a series of emotions- flickering shame, resignation, fatigue, (in a display of some fine acting) and into a familiar meat market type bar where he slips back into the only place he can go now: to his old drink of choice (Old Fashioned) and is soon surrounded by the firefly-like presence of beautiful women who he can have with a nod, or ignore with a tip of the hat. The temptation is stronger than it has been all season, the one and only season of Don’s faithfulness that has not led to happiness in his marriage.
Dedicated watchers of this show know that beyond the recent hype, it is best appreciated beyond the carefully constructed surface of its period gloss that cleverly hides home truths and meditations on life that are transformative and timeless, urgent even in our increasingly nihilistic society. Fans who like to think about their entertainment, and who like to wait, are devoted to a narrative that picks up threads slowly unspoiled over five years, Evoking a strange modern sort of anxious happiness to be in a strange community that collectively laughed out loud, nervously, at the blackest joke in recent memory about a car’s unreliability to provide the means of a suicide. All this in the midst of the horror of watching a great actor fall on his sword for our entertainment, and gasp in human despair over a fictional character’s suicide that is haunting for the sensitive viewer, but in a way that elevates television far above the sickening ease with which countless other tv programs of all genres and qualities pile up their body counts. The best possible treatment of death in television drama makes a single life matter and remind the viewer of human frailty and strips away the collective numbness we learn too early from countless fake tv deaths, devices to move the plot forward, in many cases necessary for an entire series to exist, to give cops and doctors something to do, to coldly look on, and project their own gallows humor or chilly professionalism.
While the important character death at the end of Mad Men Season Five will continue to drive the plot forward for the business of the firm, and for the karmic burdens that trouble Draper’s and his surviving partners worldviews, fortunes, and lives, it is one of only a very few in five years of the show, and it matters existentially and resoundingly for a community of fans who will not easily get over the naked, stark despair of seeing someone we know snap his glasses in half as a final act that is more chilling than seeing a very realistic corpse or its bruising. It touches a nerve of the real, the sense that we’ve seen too much, and feels like a violation of some real man somewhere. The snap of glasses, the most carelessly essential tool in life represents one of the most chilling details about a death I can remember in a lifetime of film and television viewing.
Questions to ponder for Season Six:
What will be the outcomes of the big changes at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce that occurred with its key players, three of whom have moved up, out, or left permanently?
Will Don Draper continue on his recent path of honest living if it means facing a dying marriage with grace and honor? Will the real Don/Dick meet the veneered surface and allow a long fractured identity to become integrated? Who is Don Draper (now?) This cutthroat survivalist with his own code is really, under it all, an unloved farmboy, a “whoreson” who can never get too far from his small dreams of indoor plumbing. Luxury, wealth, and success are measures that fail to heal the troubled and fatally lonely child within him, whose own means of survival is so specific and so brutal that it turns into a threat when applied to his wives, his estranged family, or his peers. Don Draper is dangerous. Whether hero, anti hero or blank silhouette free falling into an abstract sky, we can’t look away.
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