Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Look at the End of Mad Men

I watched the last episode of Mad Men yesterday.

I kept replaying the episodes over and over in my mind, looking for meanings, hidden or overt.

The show didn't go out with an explosion or a grand death.

It simply passed away, like any other decade. The 60s faded away and the characters moved forward. Onward in their pursuits and endeavors, with the same strategies they had used in the previous years.

The most revealing moments about Don's self was perhaps in his interactions with the young conman in Kansas. He says to the young man, "You think this town is bad now! Wait until you can never come back."  What does that mean??? He reveals himself as a conman. He sees himself as a conman. In each decade, he takes on the incarnation of the perfect man of the decade. He is the embodiment of each decade's virtues and flaws. And we embrace his long con, because he thrills us with his ability to play the part we only wish we could play ourselves.

Roger Sterling is the ultimate patsy of the con. He looks to Don to con him and to help him feel his life's pursuits are as exotic and exhilarating as he had hoped. But he grows beyond the con and we see him laugh contentedly with a woman whose age, passions, and foibles match his own.

Sterling is the man we believe we're trying to be if we see eye to eye with Don. But we're deluding ourselves if we think the story can really be viewed from Don Draper's perspective. We're observers of Don's story--but never participators. We can interpret Don's ways with the rest of the characters--but we'll never really have his inside eye. If anything, our perspective matches up best with Roger Sterling. Naive, optimistic, happily delusional about our own flaws and our future.

Peggy believes in her work. She believes in the message. She is the ultimate disciple. She traded in Catholicism for Madison Avenue. She embraces love because it is the ultimate assurance that her life's choices were not actually a complete waste of time. Which is why I didn't quite buy it. And if you're honest with yourself, neither did you. It didn't quite sit well. It was like watching a really sappy commercial. The product? The choice to choose work over all other pursuits in life. I wish she would have gone to Paris.

Joan's evolution is perhaps the most obvious. She is offered everything she ever wanted ten years ago, and very astutely rejects it in order to choose a path that will be more fulfilling. Her work is not a means to an end. Her work is the end. Men will come and go. She revels in the satisfaction of doing things well. This is something she's done from the very start. The biggest change is her ability to enjoy her preference.

At the end of the episode, we see Don's face shift. The song plays. We wonder at the change. I found it fake and disconcerting. I found his change inauthentic because of the man I had come to know throughout the 60s.

Then it hit me, he is literally changing into the ultimate man of the 70s. He is altering his con to adhere to the needs of a new decade. He is not the cold, aloof, calculating man of the 60s. He is the vulnerable, open, spiritually ready man of the 70s. His values are no longer Madison Avenue. They will evolve through the leisure suits and the tumutuous economies of the 70s. He will inspire the men stuck in the rising tides of the 60s to embrace self reflection and to ride the chaos. He will continue to be a man of that decade. As the 60s came to a close, we anticipated the end of his influence. We felt his age. We felt his energy slip and we felt the world moving forward without him.

And then it switched. He didn't fall prey to the machinations of the spiritual retreat. He embraced the machinations of the spiritual retreat and evolved his long con.

And voila! He was no longer old and irrelevant. He was a man of a new decade. Unrecognizable in comparison to the man we saw in 1960.

New decade, new Don.

So is he really a con man? Or is he just really good at being what the world needs him to be? Are we all con men? Is it easier to embrace the maxims of the day-admit that we're loving it and head to McDonald's and taste the sensation of the cola of our choice?  Where does real honesty lie? Is it a problem to find our way happily through life's obstacles by embracing the slogans of our time? Is it any more truthful to cling to past incarnations of ourselves, long after the trials of youth have passed?

The show passed softly, smoothly, from one decade to another. Will we? How will we move through time?

Oh sweet magical box. TV has been a medium of greatness for storytellers this past decade. Hopefully that tradition of greatness will continue for years to come.

Thank Matthew Weiner. Well done.

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