Sunday, February 22, 2015

TV Watch: As the final run of "Mad Men" draws nigh, the question becomes, how much does Don Draper have to pay for his sins?


The official "first trailer" for the final episodes of Mad Men. The first of the final seven episodes airs April 5.

by Ken

I have paid abundant tribute to the tight-lippedness of Vince Gilligan, the creator-overseer of AMC's Breaking Bad, which has carried over into Vince and Peter Gould's Better Call Saul. But Matt Weiner, the mastermind of AMC's other great series, Mad Men is no slouch in the keeping-mum department either. As the air dates approach for the final half-season's worth of episodes, which launch April 5, Matt knows he has to feed the insatiable publicity machine. But by now he's done this often enough that he knows he can tease the faithful with still pics and video glimmerings without giving away much of anything -- certainly my strong preference.

Already, with the release of this first official trailer for the final episodes, the Mad Men faithful are analyzing and dissecting, trying to torture out information. One category of information that presumably can be gleaned is characters whoa are "in" for the final lap. If they're in the clip, logic says they're going to be around for at least a little while longer. The manipulation of evidence becomes trickier when we try to read significance into the absence of any character from the clip. This could certainly mean that the character is history, or it could mean that the character just wasn't included in the clip. Your call, if you dare to make it.


I don't think it's my imagination that audience enthusiasm for Mad Men has been slipping. I seem to recall a distinct slide in the ratings for the "first half of Season 7" (as this split "final season" is being styled, in the grand tradition of such pay-cable parting seasons as those of The Sopranos and Breaking Bad), accompanied by a general assumption that the series itself has been slipping. This hasn't seemed to me at all the case, and it certainly didn't seem so when I did a complete repeat viewing of Seasons 1-6 in anticipation of that "first half of Season 7." I do think it likely that a portion of the audience has grown grumblier over the directions the show has taken, though those directions seem to me to make perfect sense, and again especially seemed so in that grand repeat viewing.

It was pretty clear at the time that the tone of the show was growing noticeably darker -- oh, around Seasons 3-4. But isn't it abundantly clear that the seeds for this were already in place? Looking back, for example, should we have been surprised by the collapse of the marriage of Don and Betty Draper (Jon Hamm and January Jones)? Creater-mastermind Matthew Weiner has always shown a lot of tenderness toward the very different but equally unfortunate forces in their lives which made Don and Betty who they became -- and Don especially can't do anything about the Great Secret by which he became Don Draper; it turns out to be little help to him each time the Secret becomes less of a secret. The monster that Betty became (my response; you're welcome to yours) was a natural evolution from the horribly damaged girl (damaged in such different ways by both her parents) she was and the unsurprisingly just-as-damaged young woman she grew into. It's possible to feel worlds of sympathy while still feeling horror at the price paid by her kids.

And as for Don . . . Wasn't there always a sense that at some point he was going to have to pay for his sins? There was always, of course, the Great Secret, which involved legal issues from which there might not be any available escape. But beyond that, there was, well, Don being Don, or at any rate the Don he invented.

And here I wonder whether it's possible to separate this response from sheer jealousy? And while there are lots of reasons why an audience might come to resent Don, let's boil it down to the big one: All That Sex. So let's be blunt. Are we so sure that if we looked like Don Draper, and the opportunities for sex were literally everywhere around us everywhere we went, can we swear that we would exercise any more restraint, or any more commitment to monogamy? My provisional answer, based on a certain amount of pondering: No, I don't think we're that sure at all, and it's quite possible that we resent the heck out of Don for taking advantage of opportunities we're never going to have.

And that, all by itself, seems to me an utterly brilliant dramatic theme, which Matt W has developed quite brilliantly over the course of the show -- but one that not all viewers may be interested in pursuing.

Then throw in the question of how it's possible to live over a long period of time with the way Don makes a living. And then it turns out to be possible for him to be undone in good part by the fact that underneath the minimally principled exterior has has more principles than are helpful for a person making his living as a master of advertising.

Put that all together, though, and the unravelilng Don underwent in the course of Season 6, finding himself by the end more or less out of a job, and on his way to being out of another marriage, it seemed as if we were really were seeing him pay for at least certain of his sins. And then came the (to me) great surprise of those first seven episodes of Season 7, when instead of seeing Don bottomed out, we see him already having gotten a grip of sorts on himself, at least professionally -- and it turned out not to make a damned difference. Refusing to grasp that the leave he was forced to take from the agency was meant as its easiest way of saying "bye-bye" to him, and forcing himself back into his job, he found his reimproved self subject to a drumbeat of humiliation from a replacement, the weirdly fascinating Lou (Allan Havey), who has maybe half of Don's professional ability but has just enough of his own to get by, coupled with way more than twice Don's understanding of the politics of the business, and who he has to cater to above him and browbeat below him. Naturally he understands what a threat Don could be, and so far has proved quite adept at squelching it.

And suddenly, or at least as it seemed to me, Matt W had turned the question around, from "Doesn't Don have to pay for his sins?" to "Is there any limit to how much Don has to pay?"

I guess you could say that one of my bedrock principles as a, shall we say, "abundant" TV watcher is that I want to see great story-tellers tell stories their way (with, it should go without saying, the collaboration of great teams in all departments and at all levels). It's worth remembering that when HBO saw the original Mad Men pilot script, they didn't get it all -- though apparently another of the great TV story-tellers, David Chase, did, and on that basis hired Matt W to work on the great late seasons of The Sopranos. (Let's not dwell on the boatloads of crap the HBO programming geniuses have put on the air since they turned thumbs-down on Mad Men.) Give AMC credit for "getting it" enough to want to put it on its air.

And for all the difficulties there have been in Matt W's relationship with the network (and maybe a really great creator can't be a creator without fighting through difficulties), they've let him tell his story mostly his way, and together they've produced one of the great achievements in TV history. I don't know how the story is going to end for the characters of Mad Men -- all of them brought to such vivid life by the writing and acting and directing -- but for viewers there could hardly be a happier ending.


Meanwhile, it has been so long since the "first half" of "Season 7 that I for one has grown distinctly murky about just what happened. I've got Seasons 1-6 on disc, and as noted did a hugely productive as well as enjoyable complete retraversal before the first half of Season 7. I'm happy to see that AMC has made those seven episodes available via "On Demand," though with CCs [UPDATE: I'm watching Episode 2 now, and it has CCs; 2nd UPDATE: but now I'm watching Episode 3, and it doesn't], and also via online access, though you have to supply a user ID and password for your AMC-carrying cable company (which I didn't remember, and couldn't be bothered to check). Do watch the pull dates, though. Episodes 1 and 2, for example, only have another two weeks of online access, and later episodes also have "retirement" dates.

So far I've only rewatched Episode 1, and I appreciated it a lot more and in interestingly different ways this time through. I know I always yammer about the importance of being able to see a show once without any previous information. But that doesn't mean I don't also value the often-enormous gains to be had via repeat viewings.

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