Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Mad Men, the Postscript

This season of "Mad Men," which concluded last Sunday with an episode called "The Phantom," has been more enigmatic, shocking, unbalanced and maddening than ever. As this look at the Madison Avenue advertising culture of the past and the men and women who toil in it moved past the mid-point in the 60s, "Mad Men" has changed up some of its personnel, their wardrobes, and the pace of the show to reflect the new themes rocking America at that time. The Beatles, go-go boots, the Generation Gap, Hare Krishna, LSD, miniskirts, Vietnam and race riots have all played a role this season.

And not all of it has made fans happy. Like Don Draper's new wife, Megan, and the amount of screentime spent on her. Or Peggy Olson, played by Elisabeth Moss, one of the show's franchise characters, leaving Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in episode 11 ("The Other Woman') and making everybody wonder whether Moss would be coming back to the show at all. Or the plotline involving Christina Hendrick's Joan, the Office Manager, in that same episode, with slimy Pete Campbell pimping her out to a Jaguar bigwig so they could score the account. Or Lane Pryce, the agency's CFO, getting caught forging a check to bridge a gap in his perilous finances, and then, in a final gesture of desperation, hanging himself in the office.

And then there was Pete, played with a full coat of slime by Vincent Kartheiser.  Not only did he act like a procurer with Joan, but he also lusted after a teenager in his driving class and the depressed wife of a fellow commuter, played by Alexis Bledel, Rory Gilmore herself, displaying more plastic acting skills than January Jones (Betty) and Jessica Paré (Megan) combined, while Pete left his adorable wife Trudy and their baby daughter at home.

Of those controversies and the outrage expressed by fans, I am definitely down with the first. Megan did get an inordinate amount of attention, and it did seem to come at the expense of more important characters like Joan, Peggy and little Sally Draper, and even interesting newbies like Ginsburg, the eccentric new hire in the copywriting department. I didn't mind at all that Don's previous wife, chilly, unpleasant Betty, was reduced to a very minor role this time out, however. Her struggles with her weight or the inadequacies of her new marriage were quite ho hum, as most things involving Betty seem to be.

I do have to wonder about "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner and his taste in actresses, given the fact that all three of those major ladies (Betty, Megan and Beth) were played by actresses who came off wooden and rote in the roles. They're all beautiful, however, and maybe he was going for beautiful, shallow characters, and Jones, Paré and Bledel are really fantastic actresses who can convey the superficial thing like nobody's business. Plus, of course, many of his other actresses, like Elisabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks, Kiernan Shipka, Alison Brie, Peyton List, Maggie Siff, Talia Balsom, Deborah Lacey, Carla Buono and Melinda Page Hamilton, aren't wooden at all, imbuing their characters with all the warmth and energy missing from the other three.

Meanwhile, even allowing for the general dislike of Megan, Don's relationship with her, and his second try at love, formed the main throughline of the season, and I did find myself interested in that. Not Megan herself, so much, but what she represented to Don, and how long this relationship, based on an impetuous decision to get married after one fun trip to Los Angeles, could possibly last.

For me, the last episode, that "Phantom," provided the answers on the Megan/Don relationship. She was a phantom, a figment of his imagination. At a point in his life when he was reeling, Megan swooped in, young, beautiful, seemingly perfect in ways that made Don's life easy, and also seeming to demand nothing of him. As he felt old and uncool, Megan was a way to be young again, in exactly the same way Roger tried to go backwards in time by hooking up with his own secretary, Jane. But then Megan's youth became a liability, when she acted like a brat over orange sherbet, when she sang a sexy song ("Zou Bisou Bisou") to him at a party, embarrassing him, when she made him listen to a particular track on the Beatles "Revolver" album and he hated it, when she hobnobbed with people of her own generation across a crowded room, Don ended up feeling left out, unhip and ancient.

See that Season 5 poster up there at the top? Jon Hamm's gorgeous Don is outside, looking in.

And what about the undressed mannequin? For me, she's Megan as the fantasy women, the blank slate that Don could attach a lot of positive attributes to, creating a perfect woman who was gorgeous, sexy, malleable, talented, and adoring. His very own toy wife. Over the course of the season, as Megan acted out and eventually decided she didn't want to work at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, but instead wanted to pursue an acting career and then used Don to get her a role in a commercial, the facade has chipped away, bit by bit.

For me, that was what Don watching Megan's black-and-white acting reel was all about. He sees that she is beautiful on film. This image, this lovely girl with the incandescent smile, is what he feel in love with. And it's as unreal and unsubstantial as any other phantom.

So when Don walks away from the set where she is recording her commercial, looking all dapper and James Bond perfect himself, I think he knew the marriage and the fantasy were over. A season ago, he chose the illusion (Megan) over the real person (Faye, the girlfriend he had when he went to California, the psychologist who had his number from the get-go, who had flaws and inadequacies like everybody else). Now maybe he's realized how foolish it was to go chasing dream girls who are half his age.

That's my take on Season 5. It's about people trying to reach for happiness but finding out that one thing, that one Obscure Object of Desire they thought would fix everything, still leaves them hungry, as Don pointed out in an ad pitch to Dow Chemical a few episodes ago. Love and happiness, even financial success, are phantoms. There's Peggy, unhappy and unappreciated at SCDP, going for a job that offers more respect, more responsibility, and finding that her exciting trip out of town involves poodles humping in a crummy motel parking lot, not a view of the Eiffel Tower. There's Pete, so unsatisfied with his marriage and his house in the suburbs, thinking clandestine hook-ups or a pied-à-terre in the city will cure his woes. There's poor Paul, the new Hare Krishna. And Roger, momentarily enlightened on LSD, out of his marriage to Jane, but now settling for meaningless sex with Megan's nasty mom. And Joan, out of her marriage to the odious Greg, more financially stable because she got a partnership out of the whole "Joan Is Jaguar's Whore" deal, but everybody knows what she did and why she's now a partner. And Lane... Gone but nor forgotten. His wife came right out and told us the other partners shouldn't have tempted him with so much, or let him reach for what was beyond him.

After all, these people work in a world of phantoms, of actors and models selling products they don't use, of made-up benefits cloaked in pretty picture and catchy jingles, of marketing messages that twist bad into good, malignant into seductive, and bombs into peacekeepers. Why should we expect any of what they yearn for to be real?

One of the last images of the show was beautifully composed, of our current five partners (from left, Pete Campbell, Don Draper, Joan Harris, Bertram Cooper and Roger Sterling) perfectly arrayed against the windows of their new, currently blank, space. They've got money rolling in, enough to expand, they've reached a new height in the agency's short history, and what happens next is all up to them. And yet... And yet. Who thinks these business successes will make any of them any happier, more content, or more complete as human beings?

I'll be there, first in line, to see how that translates in Season 6, whenever we get it. Just like the characters inside "Mad Men," I'm already hungry for more.

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