The finale of Mad Men on AMC looms and the largest question is what will become of Jon Hamm’s Don Draper? Don’s fall from grace has been stunning.
However, can one really say that about something so predictable and well deserved? And his redemption, if ever, has been slow, painful and has just barely started. You don’t hear the words “fink” and “cad” much these days, but in the retro-world of Mad Men on AMC they could be well applied. Applied to Don, that is. But that is obvious. If anything, Mad Men is Don’s little world, a mean-spirited, drunk, philandering world. But Don isn’t even Don, so what does one really expect?
One of my initial objections to Mad Men was the simple notion, that was so obviously rammed down your throat as viewer, that Don is the most handsome man in the world and the most talented ad man on Madison or any other avenue. This recalls another phrase from yesteryear, “gag me with a spoon.” Erp. In fact, this notion is jammed down your throat so consistently in the earlier years of Mad Men on AMC, maybe not so much now since poor Don tripped and fell, that the script would actually have the well-dressed, affluent, and beautiful women of New York City constantly and literally gushing in fact, and in effect, “that is the most handsome, gorgeous, desirable man in the world.” Their vapid little Stepford minds were programmed to vomit this out at every mere glimpse of the admittedly impeccable Don as if witnessing a miraculous wisp of deity. As for the men, you would think they would be a tad bit more suspicious of a guy like Don, his kind is never well liked by other men, but no, they swoon at his feet, let him walk all over them, gobble up the flights of fancy that roll off his silver-tipped, if forked, tongue, and agree to do business and make mergers just because he asked, bombed as usual. Is advertising and business that easy? Me thinks not.
It is a very feminine point of view, Mad Men’s little world, that has everyone going gaga over Don in the tart repartee of this rarefied little comedy and drama of Manhattan manners. Most of Don’s philandering seems to be with sophisticated women, yet his marriages are to little more than immature, but very pretty, teenagers grown old. He tires of them quickly, so it is off to more and new philandering. Betty Draper (January Jones), now Betty Francis, is such a baby one would almost root for Don to get rid of her. One cannot help but cringe along with Don when she makes one of her incessant, new crisis phone calls to him. And listening to her give advice to her children or manage their lives as a parent, please. She lacks the credibility, vision and experience to tell anyone else what to do, and should probably stick to what she knows best which is getting fat and wallowing in bed.
As for Megan Draper (Jessica Pare), plucked from the secretarial pool at Sterling, Cooper, Draper and Pryce at an almost tender age to be Don’s next wife, there once seemed hope. At Don’s birthday party hosted in their expensive Park Avenue highrise residence, Megan’s French rendition of Zou Bisou Bisou, a complete and very tantalizing song and dance for Don in front of the whole party, was possibly the highlight of the entire series. Not only did this rev Don’s engine well beyond the red-line, but it worked for the entirety of the red-blooded American males of Sterling Cooper in both water-cooler talk by day and fevered, and explicably French, dreams by night. Thus said, Megan will always have a place in my heart, too, even as pitiful as she is. Alas, Megan has fallen by Don’s wayside, too, more or less, bored and boring, a baby, complaining and dreaming all at the same time. If the world of New York is too hard, maybe California is the doubtful cure.
Of much more interest, however, was Megan’s mother, Marie Calvet (Julia Ormond), Continental, French, French Canadian, Quebecois, that should cover it, she knew how to handle the men of Sterling Cooper, or at least Roger Sterling (John Slattery), and her husband alike, and at the same time. A deft juggler in the European tradition, Marie, and Megan could certainly have learned a thing or two from her, but her Marie’s conclusion that Megan was something of a joke was ultimately likely shared by dear viewer, too. Amusingly, the IMDb character biography of Marie Calvet http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0320046/bio says simply, “Marie Calvet is the mother of Megan Draper. She lives in Montreal with her husband and projects an air of general discontent.” I just had to share.
All that leaves is young Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka), Don’s daughter, as about the only one I could take of these women and girls and girl-women closeted closest to Don. She is about the only thing good about Don. Whether she can see right through Don, or not, remains open to debate as does the ever present question of will she turn out okay? Her rebellious phase at the boarding school, reconciliation with Don over dinner notwithstanding, seems a prelude to a kiss. Or a kiss-off. Just what New York City needs is another tart little, cigarette-smoking, fashion-plate heartbreaker. Only Time will tell. After peering into the abyss that is Don’s world and seeing, perhaps, the dark and murky waters roiling below, can she she stay on the side of light and golden curls? Well, she has grown up very quickly and impressively on Mad Men. It is hard to know what awaits her in the ever expanding void, but one scene in Mad Men gives a clue.
She certainly did not seem to like what she saw when she caught Don, red-handed, philandering Sylvia Rosen (Linda Cardellini), the wife of Park Avenue cardiologist, Dr. Arnold Rosen (Brian Markinson). In my mind, that has to be the greatest scene of all in Mad Men. If you do not like Don, the so very likeable Don, then this scene was so very richly deserved. The lead up to this scene during the season through a number of shows provided a perfect prelude of exposition. Never has a show so aptly depicted a man so willingly walking straight into his demise as Don’s downfall with the sexy Sylvia. The Mad Men writers have to be given great credit for this slow unwind as Don spirals into his ultimate and inevitable denouement. The short version of this is Don’s peering from the precipice into an empty elevator shaft. Fortunately, for him, he does not step off. In the long unwind, he willingly steps off into the metaphorical abyss. You see, after all he has done, Don needed to suffer some. Getting caught by his own and only (presumptive, no?) young daughter put his caddish behavior in proper perspective. And, in the aftermath, his mealy-mouthed explanations to his daughter of what his daughter most assuredly saw was the first time is his silver tongue failed him. Now tarnished, his daughter saw that it was still forked. The simple scene of Sylvia pounding the bed in frustration, after getting busted red-handed, in my view was the best scene in the entire series of Mad Men. It was so richly deserved by Don and, well, it takes two to tumble. But Don was so weak he couldn’t even muster a frustrated punch into the bed or wall or, more appropriately, mirror. All he could muster was a wet noodle, incoherent, mumbling excuse that Sally most assuredly summarily dismissed.
As for poor Dr. Rosen, the charms of Sylvia were not nearly as enticing as those of cardiology, not when there were the pioneering advances of Dr. DeBakey to chase. Dr. Rosen, was clueless in ways of people like Sylvia and Don, a colorless schlub compared to the inebriated, but suave, Don Draper, no matter his professional success. Don kept him none the wiser with a distant camaraderie and the meaningless, to Don, gift of a Leica. It was not the first time the indigenous peoples of Manhattan were bamboozled. Somewhere Peter Minuit is blushing, such was the seedy shamelessness of Don Draper.
But other poor schlubs abound in the Mad Men universe, too. You see, in order to suspend belief for those magical hours of Mad Men, in order to actually believe (and remove the finger from your throat) that, yes, Don Draper is the most handsome man in the world and that, yes, Don Draper is the most talented man in the world, you have to surround him with all manner of foils and fools, schlubs and duds, nitwits and dunces. Yet, somehow, in Mad Men they are all super successful. Advertising and business is that easy in the 1960’s world of Mad Men. If you dress up nice and have a smarty comment on your lip, you are 21 carat gold on this Madison Avenue. BurrErp.
The main reason I was slow to start watching Mad Men on AMC was because in the initial commercials AMC ran for the show, Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) was portrayed as such a perfectly gamin little twirp that I couldn’t stand him just from the dang commercials. All I wanted to do was to punch him in his pretty little face. The definition of pure satisfaction, then, was to see a few seasons later that some of the guys on Mad Men where men after my own heart. An everyman conductor on the train home from New York City had enough of Pete and punched his face and him into submission. And, Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), the stuffy Englishman, anti-Don Draper, had enough of Pete, too, and beat his face and him to a pulp in the conference room of Sterling Cooper. And no one tried to stop him, either. Fair and square, roll up your sleeves and put up your dukes style. Seems that ol’ Lane actually had some boxing in his English background. These two poundings were also richly deserved and my favorite two scenes besides Sylvia pounding the bed and Megan pounding out Zou Bisou Bisou. The schlubby Lane, probably my favorite male character of the show, had real substance, something Don Draper did not, but he was nothing special to look at, and in the superficial world of sell, sell, sell, Don Draper was. Profoundly awkward and ill at ease in the Madison Avenue world, Lane remained reserved in his observances of others, a rare quality at Sterling Cooper.
Shlubs like Lane were necessary in order to make a Don Draper plausible. Don devoid of substance, dripped with sex and appeal. While Lane had real substance, it was not very sexy or appealing. Heck, Lane couldn’t even do suicide right. Although Sterling Cooper presented the public with the ne plus ultra Jaguar, Lane couldn’t even get his to start, much less produce carbon monoxide. A nod here to an unspoken truth in both the confines and public product of Sterling Cooper.
It is sly nods, like this, to the 1960s, that also make Mad Men on AMC worth watching. It really does bring back memories of another era. The moonwalk, a must-watch landmark event of the decade, marked the beginning of a new age and the end of an era for Sterling Cooper and Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse). One is left to ponder the future at the edge of a brave new frontier. Leaders gone in one assassination after another, there was a feeling in the sixties that asked, “when will this all end, one tragedy after another, the world coming apart at the seams?” The uncomfortable realization sweeps over one that, today, maybe we have not traveled so far after all. As the television drones on delivering another dismal death, Don Draper sits with us at the edge of his bed, dissipated and defeated, at one with the 1960s, devolving and dissolving into a dreary and dismal denouement. In this tart and sometimes comedic drama of 1960s’ manners and mores, one can only await Don Draper’s fate, and that of our own, dismal or not, in their own damning denouements.