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  • If you are in a movie theater, you can look two people down and they are laughing while you are laughing or you can look three people down and they love that song that you love. It is living proof that you are not alone.

  • Mad Men: Series Finale

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    The Pain from an Old Wound

    (Season 7, Episode 14: “Person to Person”)

    by Erika Schmidt

    Mad Men ends on an inhale, with the ping of a brilliant idea.

    “The new day brings new hope. The lives we’ve led, the lives we’ve yet to lead. A new day. New ideas. A new you.”

    I’m reluctant to write about this. Part of the fun of finales like “Person to Person” is that we get to keep thinking about them forever. We can project ourselves onto them over and over again. We can think about them in the context of the book we’re reading, the play we just saw, or that crazy moment we had the other day with that stranger on the bus. We can let them wash over us again and again.

    Mad Men as a series functions in the same way. It never offers a simple answer. It always contains multiple, sometimes competing truths, and it always keeps us on our toes. It remains more devoted to exploring the inner lives of its characters than perhaps any other show in history. How fitting that its final moment would leave its main character, Don Draper, in the middle of what looks to be a wholly internal revolution. It’s cathartic. It’s sad. It’s hilarious. It’s expansive. It is surprising and inevitable. It is roiling and peaceful. It is incomplete and complete.

    I wonder if I should feel bashful at how profoundly highly I regard this show. With the exception of one notable flaw (its frustrating and uncharacteristic lack of interest in minority characters), I’m hard pressed to receive it with anything but gratitude. I don’t watch it looking to decide whether I agree or disagree with how it was written or executed. I don’t try to guess what will happen, and I don’t rebel against what does. And yet I don’t only love it. I watch it actively, trying to understand what’s happening, and why and how. Watching this show has made me smarter. It has helped me articulate what I most value as a writer. I care deeply about its characters, which makes the end more painful for knowing I can’t know what will happen to them next. Like the complicated people in my life, I will forever be trying to figure them out. And I mean that in a good way.

    I guess I’m going into all of this because I’m not particularly in the mood to pick apart this episode. Watching it was an emotional experience for me; I’ve found myself resisting trying to put that reaction into words, not least because I want the freedom to reinterpret repeatedly. I don’t want to be quoted on this. On the other hand, there’s so much to talk about! My brain whirs with the lovely details, the surprises, the implications and the hopes of this final hour of my favorite show. I suppose I just don’t want this essay to mark the limit of my dialogue about Mad Men. Can you blame me?

    With all that in mind, here are a few things I can’t wait to keep thinking about forever.

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    Don Draper and the real thing

    “Be open to this. You might feel better.”

    We’ve seen Don Draper break down before. Indeed, more than once, his body has literally broken down, rebelled against him, the stress of his deception and his shame too much for him to bear.  

    “Person to Person” takes Don to the brink one last time, with the most significant women in his life guiding him to the precipice. Sally, our impossibly grown up little ballerina, granddaughter of Gene, speaker of truths, breaks Betty’s news to her father. She calls him “Daddy” here, and she makes a valiant effort to steer him in a preternaturally wise direction: Bobby and Gene should not go to live with William, as Betty wishes. Nor should Don come to sweep them away. They should stay with Henry. “They should at least be in the same bed and at the same school.” Sally is the adult on this phone call, and she seems to have steeled herself to play that role for some time to come.

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    Next up is Betty, in the most painful scene of the show’s history. Betty’s treatment of Don here is something new. It’s a bit of a callback to the night she confronted him about his true identity and, shocked by the depth of his horror at being exposed, became as solicitous toward him as we’d ever seen her. But this is different. This is Betty almost beyond Don. When she says, “Don, honey,” we know she’s about to get real. “I appreciate your intentions, I really do. But I’m not going to waste the rest of my time arguing about this. I want to keep things as normal as possible. And you not being here is part of that.” The weight of this statement hits him visibly, her loving delivery sharpening rather than softening the blow. In the silence, they both acknowledge that these children, in a very real way, don’t have a father. “Birdie…” he says, and all that remains between them hangs in the air. “I know,” she replies. There’s no “everything’s gonna be okay” this time.

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    When Stephanie takes Don (still stunned and hungover from his call with Betty) along to “some kind of a retreat,” he enters as a skeptic. As the leader coaches the group to walk around the space with “no aiming, no purpose other than to move your legs,” Don walks around with his arms crossed over his chest, eyebrows raised. He couldn’t be more closed off. With his khakis and his fitted shirt and his perfect hair and his smirk, he couldn’t be less open. He is presenting himself in the role he’s been playing his whole adult life: Don Draper, White American Male. I found myself wondering as I watched him whether he truly felt uncomfortable or whether he was just indicating discomfort because he’s so used to pretending.

    There’s always been an element of Don that I didn’t quite buy. The aggressively masculine element: whenever he gets rough or commanding sexually, for instance, or when he so cruelly denies Betty when she calls him out on his cheating. Something about his affect in those moments never seems right. He seems uncomfortable in his own skin, as if he’s trying too hard to “be a man.” He acknowledges it himself when Betty pressures him to use force to discipline Bobby, and he confesses that the beatings he suffered from his father when he was a child have made him reluctant to beat his. The same dissonance is recognizable here, as he stands in the circle and, rather than engaging with his partner, watches Stephanie play with hers. Whatever Don is doing, whoever he is playing, it’s enough to make the old lady across from him want to push him with all her might. Maybe he makes her feel anger. Or maybe she just wants to wake him up, to shake him out of the performance in which he’s trapped himself.

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    Don gets shaken again, watching Stephanie testify during their second seminar. She speaks of feeling judged by her parents, by the world: “You shouldn’t have dropped out of school. You shouldn’t have been with a low life. You shouldn’t have gotten pregnant. You should have loved being a mother.”

    That last sentence seems particularly resonant to Don, who we know told Peggy to leave her child and never look back, who spoke openly to Megan about having to pretend to love his own children, who has just been told by Betty that he is essentially not a father to them. In a season that has returned repeatedly to the theme of parents abandoning children, Mad Men’s final hour refuses to reunite Don with his. But it does take him in a new direction. When he follows Stephanie outside and desperately delivers his worn-to-shreds pep talk (“You can put this behind you. It’ll get easier as you move forward.”), it’s clear that’s he’s as concerned with his own life as with hers. And Stephanie’s response (what a remarkable delivery from Caity Lotz) is totally, heartbreakingly new: “Oh, Dick. I don’t think you’re right about that.”

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    Someone’s finally telling Don to try another approach. Today’s truth is, “Your baby is going to spend the rest of his life staring at the door waiting for you to walk in.” We’ve come a long way from, “It will shock you how much this never happened.”

    Speaking of which, when Don wakes up to find Stephanie gone and himself stranded at the retreat, he calls Peggy. The show makes beautiful use of the distance between them here, with Peggy looking like she wants to jump into the phone and drag Don back to safety. Don is on the verge of collapse, and she senses his distress quickly; this is as maternal as we’ve ever seen Peggy. She tries granting permission (“You can come home.”), coaxing (“Don’t you want to write for Coke?”) and finally commanding (“Don: come home.”), but she can’t reach him. We share her alarm. In this moment, it feels like anything could happen; we’ve seen Don brought low before, but this is the nadir.

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    “What did you ever do that was so bad?” Don is devastatingly ready with his response: “I broke all my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man’s name. I made nothing of it.”

    In the end, Don is saved by strangers. What a stroke of luck: to completely fall apart in the middle of a hippie retreat. Whatever Don was resisting before, he has no more strength to resist now, in his third seminar. In his vulnerable state–paralyzed, panicked, flattened–he forgets to pretend. He lets the curtain drop, because he’s surprised by someone else. In “The Suitcase,” Don loses it when he looks up and sees Peggy sympathetically watching him. In a similar moment of unexpected release here, he clicks into what this other, very different White American Male is saying, and Don lets his body lead the way, driven by desperation to live fully in the moment.

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    Anything could happen next for Don. Maybe this breakthrough is the permanent one. Maybe he returns to New York, at peace, ready to be himself and no one else, to care for his children. Maybe he writes that Coke ad, having finally genuinely lived the thing he’s selling. Or maybe he doesn’t. We’ll never know.

    All we can know is that the last time we see Don Draper, he’s sitting crossed legged, chest up, back straight, open to the universe, breathing. Smiling to himself. Something is happening within him, and he’s paying attention to it. That can’t be a bad thing. 

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    Joan and Holloway Harris

    Here’s the thing about Joan: she seems like she’s having great fun with Richard (only Joan could be so utterly charming on cocaine), and it remains refreshing to see her in such a frank and respectful relationship with a man. But we don’t see her come alive until she sits down to a business dinner with Ken. As she later tells Richard, “I can’t just turn off that part of myself.” He reminds her that this isn’t just happening to her, that she is making a choice–which is true, and wonderful. Joan lets him go (off to invest in Studio 54, probably), and we see her, one last time, gather up her heart and put on a brave face for the sake of business.

    Joan’s proposal scene with Peggy (get ready: I’m about to make a statement) is the most exhilarating moment in Mad Men history. I was fortunate enough to watch “Person to Person” in a sold-out movie theater, and I didn’t even catch Joan’s line, “You need two names to make it to sound real,” because everyone was still cheering deliriously over the heaven-sent “HARRIS. OLSON.”

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    Christina Hendricks and Elisabeth Moss are having a lot of fun here, with Moss delivering the deeply-felt reaction of our dreams. She is into this, man, and she gets how much it means coming from Joan. These two women have been antagonists in the past, even as their professional trajectories brought them closer together, the moment in history and their natural allegiance getting harder and harder to deny. We have very rarely gotten to see them as the ass-kicking feminist duo that a less nuanced show might have let them become. This moment feels earned and realistic, laden with the characters’ history, which makes it all the more romantic. Whatever comes next, their mutual admiration and their very real potential for success is a giddy reward for an audience who loves these two women as if they walked among us.

    And then: Joan ending up in business on her own is even more right. “Holloway Harris.” All I can do is shake my head and cry. I ask you.

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    Peggy and Chevalier and Samsonite and Joan and Stan

    This is how to feel good about Peggy’s finale regardless of your thoughts on Peggy and Joan, Peggy and Stan, Peggy and McCann:

    Peggy has decisions!

    Slowly but surely—she’s still realizing it herself—Peggy has come into her own. Pete’s summation: “Someday people are going to brag that they worked with you.” (Let’s not get into Peggy’s response, which was another shake-my-head-and-cry moment for me. I may also have made an embarrassing noise in the theater.)

    Peggy’s decision to stay at McCann isn’t the most glorious choice she could have made. But we’ve been given good reason to believe that it’s a solid one. The headhunter predicted she’d be out of there in three years, her salary quadrupled. We see in this episode, with her deft handling of the Chevalier shuffle, that she’s not going to have trouble working the system to her advantage at McCann. (Notice the two accounts Peggy mentions in this episode: Chevalier, which prompted Don’s throwing money in her face back in “The Other Woman,” and Samsonite, the account Don kept Peggy to work on in “The Suitcase.” Don is never far from her.) Peggy is never going to be just a cog in this machine.

    And, perhaps most importantly, she seems to hear what Stan says: “Work isn’t everything.” This idea cuts right to the heart of many of Peggy’s past difficulties: “I mean, I know what I’m supposed to want, but it just never feels right, or as important as anything in that office.”

    Work has always been everything to Peggy, not least because she genuinely loves her work. It’s fair to imagine that Peggy, like Don, wouldn’t enjoy being a partner. She has never seemed to click as a manager of staff, so focused is she on the work and her own relationship with it. While Joan was clearly put on this earth to wrangle, manage, and lead, Peggy has always seemed ill at ease with it. As intoxicating as the idea of Joan and Peggy going into business together is, Stan has a point: it’s a bit of an arbitrary move for someone who has been so very clear about her dreams and goals from the beginning. To Peggy, copywriting has always been art. She does have a rare gift. You guys, maybe it’s Peggy who writes for Coke.

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     I’ve rarely dared to imagine a life for Peggy where she can have the commitment and passion for her work without the personal pain, loneliness, and confusion that has come with it in the past. Maybe that’s what this is. Don and Peggy’s relationship is one of my favorites in television, movies, literature, you name it, ever, but Stan arguably knows Peggy as well if not better, and he provides a convincing counterbalance to her beloved brand of insanity.

    Speaking of insanity, the Peggy-Stan love scene is joyful bordering on nuts. Even through my lovelorn haze for Mad Men and my deep wish to see Peggy happy, I felt a twinge of incredulity here. But the closer I looked, the more I bought it. As with almost every moment of this show, this scene works because it is some combination of well earned and well executed. It is packed with payoffs from characters we’ve loved for a long time. Stan’s confession rings true as one of those conversations that turns serious suddenly and accidentally. Stan knows Peggy well enough–and so do we–to let her work through her realization slowly rather than giving up on her when she opens with, “I don’t even think about you.” Their words might seem a bit on the nose, but not one of them is false to these characters or the history that’s been delicately woven between them over the years.

    Like many of the best moments in this show, we experience this happy one layered with all the sad, difficult, and hilarious memories from before. Peggy spurned by Pete; Peggy struggling to be included in the office; rejected by her mother; searching for a roommate; clashing with Joan; stripping with Stan; stabbing Abe; embarrassing herself with Ted; dancing with Don; drinking with Roger. This is a character so fully drawn that every gesture means something to us. And this scene is a gift to our continued hunger for her, our abiding love.

    There are other things to think about. The phrase, “I scandalized my child.” How Joan says, “Harris. Olson.” the same way Jim Hobart says “Coca. Cola.” Betty’s perfectly manicured nails as she sits smoking in the dark kitchen, Sally doing the dishes behind her. Peggy’s “Octopus Pleasuring a Lady” painting hanging on her office wall, festooned now with decorative Halloween kittens. The implications of Don’s years of work selling cigarettes. Sally’s haunting delivery of “Gene, go watch TV,” Betty incarnate. Poor Bobby’s grilled cheese. Roger and Marie and the way fighting is like a dance for them. Roger and Joan and their “little rich bastard.” Trudy’s outfit. A thing like that! But let’s leave it for now and come back to it later, when we’ve mellowed.

    There will always be more to think about. What a gift that is. What a joy this has been.

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    Erika Schmidt would’ve asked if she’d known you needed to know, man. You can read her other work at whaterikadoes.com.

  • Mad Men: The Final Season

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    The Sunset of Promise

    (Season 7, Episode 13: “The Milk and Honey Route”)

    by Erika Schmidt

    I was always a little afraid Betty Draper might grow up to be Livia Soprano. When I tried to imagine her future, I came up short. I couldn’t quite concoct a fantasy scenario for her. Like Joan and Peggy, she seemed ill-suited for the role she’d been raised to play. But unlike them, Betty never seemed to be reaching for much. She didn’t engage with the world. She always seemed like a supremely disappointed woman, stuck in the body of an angel. She wasn’t happy, and though she sometimes had plenty of reason not to be, the question also remained: what exactly would make her happier?

    Seventh and eight grade were rough years for me. I hated school. I felt out of place and hopeless. It was hard to get out of bed in the morning. I constantly felt like crying. I started dreading Monday mornings as soon as I’d left school on Friday afternoons. Sunday nights, with the school week ahead, were almost unbearable. My mom was good to me during those years, understanding and gentle. She concocted an arrangement that allowed me to leave school early each day and study with my grandma, a recently retired English and Spanish teacher. My grandma and I read Shakespeare aloud together, and she taught me how to diagram sentences. My mom took me to the movies and snuggled with me and made sure I got to do theater and helped me try a million ways to make things work. I have one really clear memory of her giving me a popsicle on a Sunday night. Neither of them ever told me to “get over it” or "be happy". Now, I see that depression for what it was, and I see that those two women were my saviors and my champions.

    I still feel close to that suffocating feeling. “The Sundays,” we call it, though the day of the week doesn’t matter anymore. When it visits now, the difference is that I know, at least intellectually, that it won’t always be acute. I didn’t know that then.

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    I’m afraid Betty never learned that. She didn’t have the language. She was raised, like Joan, like a generation of women, to be admired. She was told that her heart should be fulfilled by her beautiful home and healthy family. When we first meet Betty Draper, we’re struck by the clarity of her beauty, then by her childlike manners beside the jaded Sterlings, and finally by the fact that something’s wrong with her. Her hands are shaking and she can’t stop them. She has a slight, almost imperceptible stutter; she’s almost a little breathless. She’s in mourning for her mother, she’s short with her kids, petty with her friends, consumed by her husband. She has nothing to occupy her mind, and it’s a mind that needs occupying. Most of Betty’s ugliness over the years– disappointment, contempt, irritation, desperation, jealousy, cruelty–has always looked to me like “depression talking.” She lets an innocent mistake by her son, trading away her sandwich because he didn’t think she wanted it, ruin her entire day, lets herself recklessly ruin his as well. She holds a grudge. She sees the worst. She is cynical, unforgiving, and sour.

    Betty’s husbands, in their own ways, try. Don Draper is constantly unfaithful, and essentially dishonest. When she accuses him of cheating, he shuts her out and ridicules her. But if it’s possible to put that aside for a moment, it’s worth remembering that Don worries about her. He tries to help her make things work. He’s just not equipped for it. The analysis, the modeling, the trip to Rome, the “everything will be okay” approach. It’s all he knows to try, and it doesn’t work.

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    Henry’s house is calmer, but the darkness still accompanies Betty. Without any champions with the proper instincts to buoy her, without a society that invites her to find purpose, without the knowledge to understand herself, Betty sinks. She is paralyzed and, finally, warped by her melancholy. “Incapable of experiencing joy.”

    I’m not calling Betty a victim. I’ve just always had a hard time calling her a bitch. That guy from “Revenge” was right: she is profoundly sad. And she doesn’t ever figure out how to deal with that, so her life never feels quite like her own.

    Lately, I’d started to hope. Betty seemed serene and good-humored in the past few episodes. With Glen, she was more like an adult than she’d ever been with him. She treated Sally with some patience. She appreciated Don uncomplicatedly, but kept him at an appropriate arm’s length. Betty’s decision to go back to school, to study psychology, slayed me. I thought, “Yes, Matt Weiner. You’ve found the solution to Betty.” I started allowing myself to imagine elderly Betty not as a “poor you” black hole, but as one of those rather twisted but not ineffective therapists, her own issues still percolating and plaguing her family but not holding her back from living a fulfilling, active life. I found the idea hilarious and miraculous.

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    But it wasn’t to be. Things change in an instant. Betty won’t be following that road.

    In “The Milk and Honey Route,” Betty sits in the exam room, staring at her blighted X-ray, and listens to the doctor tell her husband–her husband, not her–her prognosis. The camera focuses on Betty from the side, Henry and the doctor out of focus behind her. I couldn’t help but think, in this moment, of Season 5’s “Tea Leaves,” when Betty has her first cancer scare, and her friend tells her, “It’s like you’re way out in the ocean, alone. And you’re paddling. And you see people on the shore, but they’re getting farther and farther away. And you struggle because it’s natural. Then your mind wanders back to everyone normal….and then you just get so tired. You just give in and hope you go straight down.”

    Silent and still, Betty is already leaving. While Henry “chases his tail,” she remains stoic, almost unsurprised–a very Livia-like way of reacting, I suppose. She is mercilessly blunt with Henry, exasperated by his hope. (Also very Livia: “In the end, you die in your own arms…It’s all a big nothing. What makes you think you’re so special?”) Her mercy toward Sally comes not with any motherly comfort, but in her insistence that Sally not have to watch her die. It seems cold, but it shows a certain amount of care and attention to formality that is so very true to Betty’s nature.

    The best “way in” to loving Betty has always been the details. Her character is realized so beautifully through them. Singin’ in the Rain is her favorite movie. She likes hot dogs. She reserves her most genuine smile for when she gets a compliment or feels a sense of power.

    “Only boring people are bored.”

    “It’s just, my people are Nordic.”

    “Daddy used to fine us for small talk.”

    “And put my hair up, like this.”

    “I’ve fought for plenty in my life. That’s how I know when it’s over. It’s not a weakness; it’s been a gift to me. To know when to move on.”

    It’s Sally she trusts, in the end, with the important details of her death. Her instructions reveal a woman still heartbreakingly preoccupied with earthly things, but softened by the comfort of those same restrictions. She knows what to do, because this is what one does in such a situation. She lists these details lovingly:

    “I’ve also enclosed a portrait from the 1968 Republican Winter Gala. The blue chiffon I wore is my very favorite. I hung it in a gold garment bag in the hall closet beside the mink. Please bring them the lipstick from my handbag, and remind them how I like to wear my hair. Will you show them the picture?”

    And, at the last possible moment, Betty becomes Sally’s champion: “Sally, I always worried about you because you marched to the beat of your own drum. But now I know that’s good. I know your life will be an adventure. I love you. Mom.”

     In her final act, Betty reaches for something. When Henry asks why she’s still going to class given her condition, she says with a smile, “Why was I ever doing it?” I hope she means that she was doing it because she’s always wanted to, and that that hasn’t changed. I hope she sees each excruciating step up the staircase as the victory it is, because she is finally fighting for something she knows she wants.  

    This is how Betty escapes Livia Soprano’s fate. She won’t have decades of disappointment to come. And she’s taking charge of the details of her own end, which is no small thing.

    Knock ‘em dead, Birdie.

    ***

    Who could ever have predicted that, in the penultimate episode of Mad Men, it would be Pete Campbell pulling a Don Draper?

    And the craziest part is, I’m buying it. Trudy Campbell is perhaps the only woman ever portrayed on Mad Men who might actually want to inhabit the role she was raised for. Her marriage fell apart because she refused to tolerate blatant infidelity, but it had been crumbling for awhile because Pete didn’t want what she was offering. He didn’t want the beautiful home and family yet. He wanted the city, and success, and power, and to be desired. But he’s over that now. He calls the city “a toilet.” He’s spending time with Tammy. He’s content in his work. He is considerate and respectful of the women in his life, both professional and personal. When he asks Trudy to come to dinner with him, he puts it to her as an equal. This is a new dynamic between them. His proposal is, as he puts it, “supernatural,” but when you think about it, it’s been a long time coming. We might just be seeing the real thing here: change. “I’m not so dumb anymore.”

    “We both know that things can’t be undone,” says the ever-reasonable Trudy. “Says who?” replies Pete. He makes the case for starting over, tells her all the things we’ve always wanted him to, his voice almost unrecognizable with emotion. It’s very hard not to believe in what he’s saying. This is a type of speech we’ve heard before, more than once, from Don to Peggy, Betty, Megan, Lane, Ted, and from Pete himself, to Peggy. But this is the most convincing version of it. It’s more grounded, more earned. The language is romantic, and yet the frills are somehow stripped away. Pete wants to start over not by “always looking for something better, always looking for something new,” but by finally appreciating what he had from the start. We believe it. And, with Betty on our minds, we very much want it to work.

    I kept it pretty well together until this scene. In the face of death, a wild, hopeful grasp at life by the most unlikely candidate. Pete Campbell for Most Improved Player. May his streak continue.

    ***

    The episode’s title –"The Milk and Honey Route" – refers to a 1930 study called The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man:

    “Any railroad running through a valley of plenty may be called a milk and honey line. But this is a transient term; what may be a milk and honey route to one hobo may not be so to another. A hobo may fare well on a route one time and another time fare ill. Again, it may be milk and honey for a road kid but not for an old timer.”

    The last time Mad Men openly referenced hobos was in Season 1’s “The Hobo Code,” in which we see flashbacks of Dick Whitman’s father cheating a hobo who did some work for him at the farm. The hobo teaches young Dick the symbols hobos carve on fence posts outside of houses to communicate to each other about the inhabitants. When the hobo leaves the Whitman farm, Dick sees the carving he left: “a dishonest man lives here.” The memory drives Don Draper home to wake a sleeping Bobby and assure him urgently, “I will never lie to you.” Bobby, confused and sleepy, sits up and gives his dad a hug.

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    “The Milk and Honey Route” finds Don, apparently weeks after his escape from McCann, still on the road. He’s in touch with his family; he shares a light-hearted, fatherly call with Sally about sporting equipment and school trips. Talking to Sally, he echoes the words Betty used when she first found out about Dick Whitman, and she told him she’d always known he’d been poor: “You have no idea about money.”

    Don and Sally’s relationship here is easy and honest. In an interview with The Nerdist, Matt Weiner spoke about the moment in The Sopranos (Season 1’s “College”) when Meadow asks Tony if he’s in the mafia. The understanding between the two of them is earth shattering because, Weiner explains, it blows what the audience expected would be a series-long story arc out of the water. She knows. She already knows. Now what? As Weiner put it, “I have another story to tell you.”

    He goes on to say that the same thing happens in Mad Men when we learn that Megan knows about Dick Whitman. And now, in a more gentle way, the same thing has happened with Don and Sally. Sally knows about Dick Whitman. She knows Don cheats. She knows Don was fired. She knows he’s traveling right now, that he’s aimless. Don isn’t on the run: Mad Men has another story to tell us.

    I’ll pause here to make a little confession: this week’s recap is the hardest for me to write, because I find myself wanting to escape from the sadness of it all. Don’t get me wrong. I’m completely on board. This was utterly beautiful. “It’s something I couldn’t have imagined, yet exactly what I expected.” I feel equal parts devastated and grateful for the gift of this show, and the clearly dear thought that is put into every moment. I’m ready for next week. Don’s misadventure at the Bates-like motel is loaded with stuff to think about, but digging in feels more overwhelming this time. I’m fighting the urge to go binge watch Parks and Recreation and work on remembering that this is all fiction.

    In Kansas (which is, incidentally, where Pete wants to move), Don continues to let parts of himself drop away. He sees a beautiful woman at the pool, traces her body with his eyes, and then passes her by without breaking stride as he realizes she’s with her family. That never comes back. He tinkers and fixes things around the motel, like he did when he stayed with Anna in California. He allows himself to be drawn into a fundraiser at the local VFW and speaks aloud a truth we’ve never heard him voice before: “I killed my C.O.” And thus, the final secret of Dick Whitman is revealed. It’s received like any other old war story, with a slap on the back, another drink, and a chorus of “Over There,” which Don joins in lustily. It’s a surreal picture; Don belongs but doesn’t belong. And when the money goes missing, of course he’s the first suspect. Is it because he’s an outsider? Because of the secret he revealed? Is he once again being rejected after telling the truth? He doesn’t fight the charge; he knows who took the money, and he simply gets it back, returns it, and leaves.

    Finally, Don lets the rest go. He passes on what knowledge he feels like sharing about how to start over, about the hobo life, to the clumsy young con man who stole the money. Pulling up to the bus stop, Don gives the road kid his Cadillac. “Don’t waste this.”

    Back home, Sally is reading Betty’s letter. Betty is climbing the stairs. Pete is wishing Trudy a “good morning” (how very poetic, and yet how very Pete Campbell: it is morning, after all). Who knows what will happen next? But something tells me that Don’s shedding of his possessions, his career, his secrets, doesn’t mean he’s headed down a route that leads away from reality.

    We leave Don sitting at the bus stop, alone. What a valuable and rare thing, to spend as much time with a character in solitude as we’ve spent with Don Draper. Right now, he looks like a little boy, a Sears bag balled up next to him, nothing else for miles around. Buddy Holly sings, “Every day, it’s a-gettin’ closer.” And Don smiles, unaware of the darkness awaiting him.

    Go home, Don. You have one, and your children need you. You’re ready. Don’t waste this.

    “The road the real hobo follows is never ending. It is always heading into the sunset of promise but it never fully keeps its promise. Thus the road the hobo roams always beckons him on, much as does the undealt card in a game of stud. Every new bend of the road is disillusioning but never disappointing, so that once you get the spirit of the hobo you never reach the stone wall of utter disillusionment. You follow on hopefully from one bend of the road to another, until in the end you step off the cliff.”

    Proposed ending of the week: Don gives Anna Draper’s ring to Sally. Don and Peggy interact in some brilliant way. Honestly, I’m exhausted and have no doubt that whatever happens will be exactly what needed to happen: just show me what you got, Weiner. I wish I could keep learning from you.


    Previously:

    Now It’s Time To Leave The Capsule If you Dare (Season 7, Episode 12: “Lost Horizon”)

    The Transition Will Be As Smooth As Possible (Season 7, Episode 11: “Time & Life”)

    So We Beat On, Boats Against the Current (Season 7, Episode 10: “Forecast”)

    That Should Be Fascinating for Everyone Involved (Season 7, Episode 9: “New Business”)

    It Won’t Be Cinematic (Season 7, Episode 8: “Severance”)


    Erika Schmidt still hasn’t forgiven Duck Phillips for hiding JFK’s shooting from Peggy until after they’d had sex, but it was still good to see his lying mug in the midst of all this heaviness. Read more of her writing at whaterikadoes.com.

  • Mad Men: The Final Season

    brightwalldarkroom:

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    Now It’s Time To Leave The Capsule If you Dare

    (Season 7, Episode 11: “Lost Horizon”)

    by Erika Schmidt

    I once had vertigo for twenty days straight. The dizziness was worst when I had to look up–to reach for something on a high shelf, for instance. That was the only time I actually felt like I might fall over. This–looking up and getting dizzy–is often referred to as “losing the horizon.” And it’s what our beloved gang is up to this week on Mad Men. Starting at McCann Erickson, everyone is thrown off balance, to say the least. Roger can’t bring himself to leave Time & Life. Don’s nothing special. Peggy doesn’t even have an office. Joan is starting from scratch. Once they step inside that new building, they can’t help each other anymore. “And the stars look very different today.”

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    DON

    “I’m riding the rails.”

    We’re lulled into a false sense of complacency as Don starts off seemingly well: he has an apartment, an office, a Meredith, and McCann claims to be rolling out the red carpet for him. I love how Don has no poker face when it comes to being unimpressed. He clearly dislikes Jim Hobart and Ferg Donnelly, and has no use for Ferg Donnelly’s bogus Don Draper impression. Who wants to bet that Ferg Donnelly does the same impression for every Creative Director, since they’re all the same?

    Perhaps the cruelest tease for Don in these early scenes is the mention of Conrad Hilton. Connie, that mysterious and exclusive client who called Don in the middle of the night and demanded the moon from him and only him. However he feels about working with Hilton again, the name certainly evokes the type of magic and independence Don prefers in his work. As it turns out, that couldn’t be further from his new reality. “He bought you a gift.” Pardon me for feeling skeptical about whatever that means. Even if they’re saying all the right things, these guys are fucking ghouls. And Don, even though he knows it, even though he presses against the window in his new office as though testing the bars of a cell, is giving this the old college try. “I’m Don Draper, from McCann Erickson.”

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    It doesn’t take Don long, after he arrives at the Miller Beer luncheon and sees a room full of nondescript Creative Directors, to catch on: he’s one of many. A man in a grey flannel suit with a boxed roast-beef sandwich. As “Bill Phillips from Connolly Research” launches into a pale imitation of vintage Don Draper (this is actually the same question Don was trying to answer in the very first scene of the pilot: how do we get smokers to switch from their chosen brands?), time slows down for Don. After all this season’s “is that all there is?” brooding, we may just be witnessing Don being through with advertising here. That’s how significant the moment feels. He watches the identical motions of identical hands opening identical research packets, marking them with identical pens. He looks out the window and watches a plane cross the sky. It’s another neat callback to the Don Draper of the pilot, watching the fly caught in the fluorescent light. This time, there’s no Lucky Strike pitch waiting. No account to save. No Dick Whitman to hide. Just a room full of people failing to surprise him.

    So Don gets up and leaves in the middle of the meeting. Which we’ve seen before, of course. Roger calls it “swinging your privates around in the boardroom.” But this time feels different. Don moves quietly, instinctively. He takes his boxed lunch with him. He’s not making a point: he just has to get out of there. And no one even cares! No one, that is, except Ted Chaough, the tired sheep, who watches him go looking exactly like Ben Affleck at the end of Good Will Hunting when he realizes Will’s gone for good.

    The next time we see Don, he’s interrupting Betty’s afternoon studies over in the Francis kitchen. Betty’s reading Freud, y'all; dreams do come true.

    The treatment of post-divorce Betty and Don always resonates in a bittersweet way. Somehow, this show manages to put us in the position of feeling nostalgic about them being together, even though we know damn well how unhappy their marriage was. It’s like we’ll always continue to mourn the life they both wanted to have when they started out. There are parts of each of them that only activate when they’re together, and it’s always a painful pleasure to see them connect.

    Bonus picture I took of my television when I paused to feed the cats and accidentally caught this excellent freeze frame:

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    There’s an awkwardness here, too: Betty may be destined to forever be gently reminding Don that he doesn’t belong in her home anymore. It’s sad but, in a nice echo of the “Time & Life” SC&P love fest, neither of them seems to mind too much. They seem to truly wish each other well. They are, fantastically enough, on each other’s teams.

    “I’ve always wanted to do this.”

    “Knock ‘em dead, Birdie.”

    What a punch to the gut.

    The rest of Don’s adventure in “Lost Horizon” is rather eclipsed by the fireworks of the Joan, Peggy, and Roger storylines. Diana–and Don’s investment in her–is less interesting to me than the idea that Don is, once again, unmoored. As Roger says, “He does that.” He processes things by leaving. He’s searching for something right now. We don’t know what it is, and neither does he. Bert Cooper, with the sublime logic of dreams, reminds Don that he’s never read Kerouac, then recites: “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”

    By episode’s end, Don, in his Cadillac, letting a hitchhiker determine his path, might actually be in the most enviable position of anyone.

    “How do you get him to open his mind? You better have something more. Or in this case, less.”

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    JOAN

    “I’m here and I’m doing my job.”

    Well: Joan sure saw this one coming, didn’t she?

    In “Time & Life,” Joan told Pete, “We both know they’re never gonna take me seriously over there.” As it turns out, that wasn’t going far enough. Lou Avery is someone people don’t take seriously–that’s a luxury compared to the treatment Joan gets. For Joan Harris, the men at McCann Erickson reserve a special kind of disregard. They actively hate her. Indeed, this is “hatred” defined. It’s not new, nor is it limited to McCann. Over the years, Joan has been continually undervalued, undermined, belittled, humiliated, and violated by the men in her life. This is just the most blatant version of it. Now it’s right out in the open, in an episode so full of disgusting lines I’m not quoting any of them, because where would I even begin? Joan having predicted it doesn’t make it any less enraging to watch.

    A common response to a situation like this is to ask questions. Questions like: Do they maybe know about Jaguar? Is that why they’re treating her like this? Should she have given Hobart specifics about Donnelly’s treatment of her? Would that have helped? It sometimes feels better to try to rationalize unfair treatment; we might not even realize we’re doing it.

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    But here’s the thing: all those questions do is shift the responsibility onto Joan. In any case, none of the answers matter. Hobart doesn’t seem to know about Jaguar. But guess what? He has no trouble hating Joan even without that tasty nugget to fuel his contempt.

    This is not only about sex, what we see these men do. This is about territory and power.

    How dare you? How dare you have a job? How dare you be good at it? How dare you have a roommate and an apartment of your own—and how dare you prefer it that way? How dare you be good at sex, because how dare you have fucked anyone before me? How dare you be 30 years old? How dare you aspire to more? How dare you command respect? How dare you make an executive decision? How dare you look and dress the way you do? How dare you expect me to respect you? How dare you come here to do work? How dare you expect to do your job the way we do ours? How dare you not be fun?

    My heart is pounding right now. Because people have been telling me to smile since I was in elementary school. Because I worked at a restaurant for five years and took money from men who felt free to comment on my hair, my body, my boyfriend, my education, my life decisions. Because I’ve been heckled on the street. Because I’ve been evaluated based on my personality rather than my job performance. Because I’ve been told, during a hiring conversation, that I should think twice before asking about salary range. Because my sister’s been told not to get her panties in a twist. This shit happens all the time, still. And what happens when a woman calls it out? There are plenty of words applied to that kind of woman: difficult, emotional, hysterical, etc. “The kind of gal who doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

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    This is all about putting men at ease. Joan is usually a master at that. Her skill in that arena, combined with her intelligence and competence, makes her excellent at all of the jobs we’ve seen her do. But it may also have worked against her, because, as Don and Pete have each made clear to her this season, people assume she can her handle anything. She exudes control. It’s easy for those around her—especially those who have any status of their own—to mistake that for her having real power. No one sticks their neck out for Joan, because they assume, with her dark feminine magic, she can take care of herself. She has cultivated that image deliberately, and manages to maintain it in the face of even the worst behavior from the men in her life–often at the cost of sticking up for herself. She has a lot of pride and rarely asks for help, but look how utterly alone she looks when Don leaves her in that elevator. I hesitate to say I wish a man would speak up for Joan (and of course Roger thinks that’s what he’s doing here). I just want someone to say something about all this bullshit, and I know that, fair or not, it can be more powerful coming from someone other than the one it’s happening to.

    In the end, it’s Joan herself who finally says something. She brings her usual armor; she tries honey with all three of the McCann men, but she gets it flung back in her face. So finally, she shows Hobart what she’s made of. She knows what she’s talking about, and she isn’t going to work this way anymore. My dad always told me not to ask for a raise unless I was ready to quit if I didn’t get it. That’s what Joan does here. She’s ready for battle. And, amidst the horror of it all, it’s a perverse thrill to see Jim Hobart drop the Kind Poppa act and show his true, ugly “binders full of women” colors. Joan loses the war here, but she also triumphs: she gets all this out in the open, finally. She stops pretending it’s okay.

    We’ve been waiting seven seasons for this.

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    PEGGY

    “I am a copy supervisor. I am not setting foot in there until I have an office.”

    Joan and Peggy have always had one thing in common: they don’t quite fit the soft, accommodating ideal of the 1960s woman. They both want more. A major distinction between them is that Peggy is mostly incapable of faking it. Joan knows what the world wants from her, and it’s taken her until now to refuse to give it. Peggy has never been able to hide her discomfort with the role she’s expected to play.

    When Roger tries to give Peggy Cooper’s old painting of the “octopus pleasuring a lady,” Peggy is clearly drawn to it, but balks at the idea of putting it in her office, rattling off, “You know I need to put men at ease!”

    “Who told you that?!” Roger replies.

    Of course, we all know the answer: Joan taught Peggy that. Peggy has never been good at it. Everything about her rubs most men the wrong way: her devotion to her work, her unreliable sense of humor, her refusal to be left out, her tendency towards negativity. Joan knows how to appear soft; for Peggy, that’s more of a struggle. The upside of that? Peggy has found other ways of succeeding. She’s like the 5’5” basketball player who gets really good at ball handling and defense. Peggy has learned to thrive even if she has to be a pain in the ass to do it. For Joan, that isn’t an option.

    Did that music playing over Peggy’s badass entrance into McCann sound familiar? It’s from Season 1’s “Babylon,” in the scene where the men of Sterling Cooper watch through the two-way mirror as the secretaries try on Belle Jolie lipstick. Joan, the only woman aware of an audience, walks deliberately over to the mirror, turns around, and bends over the desk. Ken Cosgrove stands in a salute, and Roger looks like he might keel over.

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    Then, as the theme kicks in, Paul Kinsey says, “What’s with Mouse Ears over there?” And we see Peggy, sitting quietly at her place, not touching any lipstick. She’s watching the other girls, and we see what she sees: women trying on lipstick, tossing the tissues into the wastebasket. A basket of kisses.

    It’s Peggy’s defining moment, the confirmation that she’s different. It comes directly on the heels of Joan’s display of 1960s feminine power, expertly playing a game she knows well. Joan is the best woman of all the women; the trouble is, that still leaves her a woman.

    Over the years, Peggy’s progress is often shown in direct contrast to the degradation of Joan. In “The Mountain King,” Peggy gets her own office moments before Joan is raped by her fiancée, Greg. In “My Old Kentucky Home,” Peggy smokes pot for the first time, creatively bests her fellow copywriters, and tells her concerned secretary, “Don’t worry about me. I am going to get to do everything you want for me.” Meanwhile, Joan is coerced into playing the accordion for Greg’s boss to save him from the embarrassment of his own professional inadequacy. During a moment alone, the boss’s wife confides to her, “The fact that Greg can get a woman like you makes me feel good about his future.” Then Joan makes this face:

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    Six seasons later, we’re still comparing Joan and Peggy, gauging their successes and failures, their polar-opposite navigations towards power. As Joan heaves a world-weary sigh and takes fifty cents on the dollar to disappear from McCann, Peggy’s the one in slow motion, strutting in with shades on her face, a cigarette in her mouth, and a strange pornographic heirloom under her arm, facing out. She’s evidently through with trying to put men at ease, and so far it’s working for her. She’ll need all the momentum she can get, walking into this meat grinder where the female copywriters claim to be “happy to share the crumbs” and the company has already mistaken her for a secretary. I know better than to worry about Peggy–but I don’t envy her road ahead.

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    ROGER

    “I just needed a push.”

    Our sad clown seems physically incapable of transitioning to McCann Erickson. John Slattery is an exquisite actor, and here we get to see Roger in one of his lowest moments, connecting with an unlikely cohort, and allowing all of his humor, pain, and even love exist peacefully in the open. He is not innocent where this business is concerned, and especially not where Joan is concerned (he so clearly loves her that it’s easy to dismiss just how profoundly he’s undermined her over the course of the series). But his depth of sadness, genuine remorse about losing SC&P, and his series-long search for meaning keeps him richly human. The monsters at McCann certainly put things in perspective.

    Roger effectively, if not knowingly, chooses a horse to back here. With Peggy, he spends a surreal afternoon drinking, philosophizing, and, apparently, choreographing. He treats her with bemused affection and respect, as though she’s a Martian he has a good feeling about. They cut through each other’s sarcasm and acknowledge the nostalgia of the moment. With Joan, he plays the role of “The Other Woman”-era Lane Pryce, delicately nudging her towards the move that’s most prudent for her finances but most crushing for her soul.

    Call me naive or thin on my knowledge of the historical situation, but it really seems that one person standing beside Joan could have made the difference, even if she ended up folding anyway. Roger obviously thinks he’s helping her, but there’s no way to sugarcoat the fact that he’s once again hanging her out to dry. I wonder how much of that he understands. When he delivers the final blow, he speaks more urgently than is his wont, telling her it’s all his fault and that he’s trying to fix it. When he pleads, “Take the money and be done with them,” he makes it sound pretty appealing. He isn’t wrong about that part. I can’t help but think he wishes he could do the same. Shirley is right, after all: “advertising is not very comfortable for everyone.”

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    Proposed ending of the week: Peggy and Roger burn McCann-Erickson to the ground. Birdie rocks grad school. Everyone gets the push they need.


    Erika Schmidt has always dreamt of roller skating around an abandoned office. Read more of her writing at whaterikadoes.com.

  • Mad Men: The Final Season

    brightwalldarkroom:

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    The Transition Will Be As Smooth As Possible.

    (Season 7, Episode 11: “Time & Life”)

    by Erika Schmidt

    Yowza.

    When you’re already cheering during the opening credits, you know it’s gonna be a good one.

    “Time & Life” is an utter knock out. Director Jared Harris plays joyfully with moments of sweeping momentum, hushed attention, and surprising warmth. It’s a relief to return our focus to the work lives of our characters, and it couldn’t have happened in a more enjoyable way. In the end, things aren’t exactly looking up, but the whole thing has been so fun that it doesn’t matter.

    In “Time & Life,” things aren’t working how they should be. Don’s answering service are a bunch of “bird brains,” giving him messages he wasn’t intended to receive—messages from Diana without return numbers, good for nothing but haunting him. Peter Dykeman Campbell’s family name, for the first time ever, works against him. Peggy straight-up short circuits when she has to interact with children—and Stan notices. McCann-Erickson botches (was that a mistake or a power play?) the announcement of its game-changing news. Tammy has failed her Draw-a-Man test. And Scout’s Honor has been purchased. SCOUT’S HONOR HAS BEEN PURCHASED!

    Of course, I’m leaving out the most profound disappointment, the most disruptive fly in the ointment. But let’s get to that later.

    As we moved through this episode, I couldn’t stop thinking about Peggy’s Burger Chef pitch. I was lucky enough to write about “The Strategy” last year, and in that recap I wrote about family in the form of colleagues. Don, Peggy, and Pete sitting in that clean, well-lighted place, laughing over burgers and shakes, content for a moment in each other’s company, and in the knowledge that they’d done good work. “Time & Life” hits this concept over and over again: the value of the unlikely family. It hits it so hard that by episode’s end, even in the face of an inarguably depressing turn of events, we are positively swooning.  

    The relationships we see here have quieted over time. They’re now more loaded with history than angst. The characters are remarkably accepting of each other, in a simple, steadfast way that we’ve rarely seen on this show. The years behind them are present in every moment, and the man who gave us Lane Pryce (director Jared Harris) makes sure to let those moments breathe and pop so they bring peace and depth rather than treacle. If that’s all there is, well, that’s not so bad.

    Forgive me, but I’d like to go through these moments by focusing on each longtime pairing that comes into play. We only have three episodes left: let’s indulge.

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    Joan and Roger

    • History: They have a secret son. Roger has a history of professing deep love and esteem for Joan, but, when it counts, he tends to abandon and degrade her. He humiliated and undermined her with Jane. He didn’t object to the role Pete asked her to play in winning Jaguar. Jim Cutler, not Roger, recognized her value and made her an Account Executive. Last year, Joan let Roger into Kevin’s life, but not into hers.
    • “Time & Life”: When Roger receives the letter notifying him of the failure to pay the lease, he stands at his desk, yelling for Joan. (She rightfully saunters in in her own damn time and tells him, “Don’t do that.”) But Roger, childish as his reaction is, isn’t exactly summoning a secretary here. His tone is desperate, and he’s calling the person he hopes can fix everything. He might as well be yelling, “Help!” In turn, Joan takes one look at the letter, intones, “I’ll take care of this,” and marches out. Later, when the bad news comes, they huddle together, Joan listening in on the call. Afterward, she rests her head on his shoulder as he says, “What do I do?” They look not like lovers, but teammates. This snuggle is collegiate.

      Later, when the Sterling Cooper partners cap off an afternoon of drowning their sorrows with a toast to Bert Cooper, Joan rises to leave. It’s Roger who entreats her to stay longer, come back after her plans. She says, “Don’t be a baby—I’ll see you tomorrow,” and puts her cheek against his.

      You see? Quiet. Affectionate. Accepting. History without acrimony. Time and life.
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    Roger and Don

    • History: Roger once came on to Betty, so Don tricked Roger into climbing thirty flights of stairs after a giant oyster lunch, causing him to puke spectacularly on some clients’ feet. Roger left his wife for Don’s secretary. Roger went along with the plan to put Don on leave after his Hershey pitch. Roger also fought to bring Don back.
    • “Time & Life”: After Don comes mighty close to helping Roger pull yet another “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” they end up alone together, the last two at the bar. The revelation of Roger’s relationship with Marie Calvet comes gently. The two are mind-blowingly adult about it. There is no subtext here. They tease each other a bit, and then Don says, “For the second time today, I surrender. I’m happy for you.” And we believe him. Roger grabs Don’s face with both hands and kisses his cheek like a grandma. “You are okay,” he says insistently, absolvingly. Don looks back in surprise. Oof.

      Genuine absence of negative feelings. Fondness. Regard. Good wishes. Time and life.

    Don and Ted

    • History: Perhaps the most acrimonious history of all. Don essentially ruined Ted.
    • “Time & Life”: Don and Ted talk openly about ex wives, Ted’s new girlfriend, and what California means to Don. They’ve both had profound disappointments, and each bears some responsibility for the other’s recent implosion. But now they’re just talking. They are friends. This is happening, and we believe it.  

      No heat, no competition. They’re on the same team. Time and life.

     Don and Joan

    • History: They once seemed like the two voices of reason in the room. Their mutual respect and knowing banter was dreamy (“But that’s life: one minute you’re on top of the world, and the next minute some secretary’s running you over with a lawn mower.”) Their relationship has seriously soured over the years: Joan resented Don’s shock at her actions regarding Jaguar and was deeply bitter about his recklessness where their shared business was concerned. Joan wanted Don out, and she wanted him to stay out.

    • “Time & Life”: THANK GOD, it seems Joan and Don are back together again. Joan gives a resigned, “You can’t just tell Don, Roger,” as she parades the rest of the partners into Don’s office to tell them about the McCann development. She doesn’t love this dynamic, but she knows it inside out and is confident she can deal with it. Now, they are squarely united, fighting desperately for the same thing. They speak as equals as they strategize the California plan. When he says she needs to stay at McCann for Avon, he’s not telling her what to do; he’s pointing out a fact that they both know is true. As she tells him at the bar, with a lingering hug (so many cuddles and kisses in this episode!), “We went down swingin’.”

      There is love here! These people love each other!
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    Joan and Pete

    • History: If Ken Cosgrove had been alone at that meeting with Jaguar, no one would have ever heard anything about it.
    • “Time & Life”: When Joan confides to Pete that McCann will never take her seriously, Pete responds, “They don’t know who they’re dealing with.” This moment feels huge, less for what it says about the relationship between Joan and Pete than what that it means for each of them individually. This is the first time we’ve seen Pete express genuine regard for Joan as a professional, and we know he means it. Given their history and his record, we know it cost him something to say it. It’s also worth noting that, for Joan, this is likely a compliment that could only be meaningful coming from a coworker. She has an evidently supportive partner in Richard, but the truth is Richard has little idea who he’s dealing with either, because he can’t see her at work.

      This moment never could have happened before now. Time and life.
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     Pete and Trudy

    This one doesn’t quite fit, but I’m going there anyway. Because Alison Brie is back and Trudy Campbell slays me.

    Pete and Trudy’s marriage certainly struck all the wrong chords for a modern audience, but gender inequality, infidelity, and the suburbs aside, they’ve always knocked “being a team” out of the park. At least in the professional realm, Trudy was the savvy, well-trained partner Pete needed to progress, and she seemed to relish her role. Remember their dancing at Roger’s garden party? That wasn’t spontaneous. That kind of social finesse represents two lifetimes of preparation for a very specific kind of partnership. Though the Pete-and-Trudy act doesn’t buy Tammy a spot at the right school, it’s great to see them back in business together. Seeing Pete treat all three of the women in this episode with respect, and even tenderness, is quite something. He leaves the bar because he “should call Trudy. She had quite a day as well.” What?! Since when does Pete think about Trudy’s days? And his “You’re ageless!” I’m still not over that.

    You can’t tell me anything but time and life could have wrought such a change in the man whose treatment of women has so often turned our stomachs. As with many of these examples, there is an element of loss and sadness to the characters’ growth. It wouldn’t be Mad Men otherwise, would it?  

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    Pete and Peggy

    • History: You know. As the years have gone by, Pete and Peggy have developed a relationship that is, above all else, knowing. They’ve always understood each other pretty well, at least professionally. As antagonists or allies, they carry their history in every moment they share, sometimes lightly, and sometimes not.

    • “Time & Life”: Pete’s first action after learning about the McCann absorption is to tell Peggy. They are eerily synchronized here, right down to their conversing cream, brown, and blue diagonal stripes (I haven’t spent years gobbling up Tom and Lorenzo’s Mad Style for nothing). It’s a sweet callback to another couch conversation, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Pete declared his love and Peggy revealed her pregnancy. Now, they are in their own worlds, processing the news. But they are considerate of each other. He thought to tell her, and he’s strategizing her next moves, however vaguely in the face of his own concerns. She clicks into secretary mode for a moment, assuming that old role with him, comforting him softly: “You’ll do great.”

      Who would have guessed they’d end up here? Friends.
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    Peggy and Stan

    • History: You know! Let us never forget the glory that was Peggy calling Stan’s bluff and forcing him to strip to his underwear while they worked. They’ve come a long way. Their relationship has been intimate and loving (there are many expressions of love) for awhile now.

    • “Time & Life”: Stan takes most of the episode to catch on that there’s something deeper behind Peggy’s unease with children. Finally, Peggy lays it all out: “No one should have to make a mistake just like a man does and not be able to move on. She should be able to live the rest of her life, just like a man does.” After that moment, very little more is said between them. Stan doesn’t make Peggy say anything explicitly. They know each other deeply at this point, and his caring for her is apparent. (I’ve never had much of an opinion on whether Stan and Peggy should “be together;” I love their relationship, whatever it is, and I don’t feel the need to see Peggy paired off before this show ends. This episode was the first time I wondered: have we been watching these two people fall in love this whole time? They stay on the phone with each other while they work, for Pete’s sake.)

      This storyline is a knock out in itself. THANK GOD this moment got its due. I’ve wondered before whether Peggy’s arc actually ended last season, with her Burger Chef pitch. What else could possibly be resolved for her, in seven episodes, that would top that?

      I stand corrected. Peggy was confronted in “Time & Life” with questions she likely doesn’t often allow herself to ask. She’s alluded to her baby only once or twice since she gave it away. (In “The Suitcase,” to Don: “…it comes up out of nowhere. Playgrounds.”) She wears the weight of his loss beautifully here. “I don’t know, but it’s not because I don’t care. I don’t know because you’re not supposed to know, or you can’t go on with your life.”

      In any case, Peggy and Stan are family. No question.

    So, the good news is, the fire’s gone out. People are mellowing, and they may even be growing more compassionate as they do so. In “Time & Life,” they seem more willing to look each other in the eye, to live and let live.

    The bad news, unfortunately, is the same: the fire’s gone out.

    In an episode full of surprises, the biggest shock comes during the partners’ meeting with McCann-Erickson: Jim Hobart interrupts Don’s pitch.

    When Don Draper gets up in front of a room, we relax. We trust him to take us somewhere. You can see that trust on the faces of his partners when he begins this presentation: they sit expectantly, tiny smiles creeping onto their faces as he speaks. He’s got this. We’ve seen it a million times. It’ll be a good show.

    And then, like it’s nothing, Hobart interrupts. Not only that, he shuts down the conversation, dismissing the idea and the motivation behind it. “Stop struggling; you won,” he says, chillingly.

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    So even though they have indeed “done this before,” even though we know they can do it, no matter how much like “Shut the Door, Have a Seat” this episode has felt up until now, it’s not happening this time. It’s over.

    As the partners sit and listen to Hobart detail how lucky they are, we see the energy drain from them. They do stop struggling. But they don’t look happy.

    What’s so bad about going to McCann-Erickson?

    To start with the obvious: it’s selling out; their snot-nosed executives treated Joan like shit just a couple of episodes back; they tried to snare Don years ago by taking advantage of Betty (there’s no way that “COCA. COLA.” Hobart directed at Don was inadvertent); Roger won’t have his name in the lobby anymore; Peggy probably won’t become Creative Director there (though she’ll surely move on—and up—quickly, elsewhere). They are a fish that Hobart has wanted to catch for a long time, and chances are working for him will feel like it. But other than that, what’s going on here? Why are they struggling?

    This team has always been at its best when it’s fighting for survival. From sneaking out of the original Sterling Cooper, to teaming up with CGC, to selling to McCann, to this very morning’s dreams of California, they’re all addicted to that let’s-put-on-a-show romance. We see it most clearly and enduringly in Don, of course, and this final swing is his idea. But it touches all of them. Even Ted, with his new subdued-but-not-unhappy vibe (“Because you’re a sheep!”), was ready to make this happen. Even Joan, the eternal pragmatist, probably with the least to gain, wanted it. Roger and Pete, sometimes in spite of themselves, have always loved throwing themselves into Don’s romantic aspirations. As Roger says to Don later, “I always envied that. The way you’re always reaching.”

    image

    We’re addicted, too. What’s more exciting than watching our gang break from the conference room and set about trying to collect their clients? Who wasn’t already daydreaming about Don and Peggy running the California office, with Roger and Pete tan and bickering, and Stan scribbling in the background? Maybe Don can help Stephanie raise her baby! Maybe Joan will break her contract and find a new, fabulous job outside of advertising and move there too! Maybe they’ll all have picnics on Sundays, and Richard and Roger will become best friends! I have a good feeling about things!!

    But it isn’t to be. Not even Don Draper and his team of rogues can pull this one off. So they sit and listen to what their lives are going to look like now. Someone else is going to drive.

    This is why Peggy is deflated when her headhunter recommends she go to McCann. She’s addicted to the magic, just like everyone else. Putting on a show—especially when you barely have the money and the stakes are high and the feelings are profound—is magical. McCann-Erickson isn’t magical.

    image

    A few years ago, in a parking garage in Baltimore, I watched as my dad had trouble figuring out how to work the payment machine. He’s not old, or unintelligent; he just wasn’t getting that machine. The people behind him—mean-looking teenagers on a shopping trip—started mumbling. They were making fun of him. He never noticed, but I did. And I wanted to run. I hated, hated, hated seeing my dad look ineffectual, and seeing other people dismiss him. That’s exactly how I felt watching Don spout his tried-and-true spiel—“This is the beginning of something! Not the end!”—as all the young people of Sterling Cooper walked away, buzzing with resentment and disinterest. They’re over it. They don’t trust him. There’s no magic here; he can’t spin this. Meredith, over the course of this season, has gone from flirting with Don to chiding him. It’s easy to imagine how she sees him now: as an aging, inconsiderate, privileged man who needs his secretary to run his life and tell him when to call company meetings. She is serving him, but she’s not on his team.

    Who is on Don’s team? The people standing beside him, looking just as perplexed and crestfallen as he does. The ones who’ve shared his triumphs, failures, and, now, whatever this scenario is. Who’ve seen him at his best and at his worst, who learned his worst secret and let him back in anyway. The ones who know him and accept him—finally—for what he is. “You’re okay.” Whatever happens next, “Time & Life” is the first episode in Mad Men’s final season that doesn’t end with Don by himself. If that’s not family, then what is? Peggy really knew what she was talking about with Burger Chef.

    I’m painting a pretty picture here. But it’s not wrong, is it?

    image

    Proposed ending of the week: Pete and Trudy reconcile. Pete, chastened by his receding hairline and the intervening years, finally appreciates Trudy for the queen that she is, eventually funding her successful run for Congress. Once their contracts with McCann run out, Peggy, Stan, Joan, and Pete start their own firm with Peggy as Creative Director and Don as Independent Consultant. Joan has to save her ass a few times, but in the end Peggy stops treating her like a secretary and learns a few more things about feminism.


    Erika Schmidt understands the complete psychological situation. She is recapping the last seven episodes of Mad Men for BWDR. You can read more of her writing at whaterikadoes.com.

  • brightwalldarkroom:

    From the new issue: Erika Schmidt on Whiplash (2014):

    “When Andrew finally triumphs at the end of Whiplash, the experience is between him and his teacher as much as it is between him and his music. While it’s beyond satisfying to see him mouth, “Fuck you” to Fletcher as he goes off book, it’s a bit of a shame to know that this moment is as much about confronting a charismatic bully as it is about achieving an artistic breakthrough. Andrew’s performance is revelatory, but we’re certainly not seeing an adult mastering his craft. It’s hard not to wonder what happens next. Where does Andrew go from here, after focusing all of his passion through the lens of a monster?

    Let me be clear. I don’t believe that pursuing life as an artist should always be easy. It is categorically not so. I understand Andrew’s impulses: to focus relentlessly on getting better, even at the cost of other parts of his life, to beat himself up, to shrug off the comfort repeatedly offered by his father (Paul Reiser). It is hard to be an artist of any kind, and you constantly have to make yourself do things that frighten you; it doesn’t help to have a parent hovering with a warm blanket, tempting you to choose a smoother road. That can be as useless as a slap in the face, because it’s not helping you learn how to function in the world you’ve chosen. Discomfort is part of it. Fear is part of it. You have to learn to live with those things. But I know now, over a decade after I let that first teacher scare me out of acting class, that there is a difference between a pursuit being extremely difficult and a teacher making a student’s life hell.”

    (For subscribers: full essay/issue here)

    Or read the full essay here.

  • (via KQED Pop )

    Erika Schmidt’s “Why Degrassi Still Matters, 35 Years Later”:

    Empathy is hard to teach. In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells his daughter that “you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.” She discovers it for herself when she stands on the Radley front porch, seeing the world — her world — through Boo’s eyes. She imagines what his life must be like, and thus her life is changed.

    Empathy requires imagination, vulnerability, courage, and dedication. It’s a quality that’s too often missing in our public discourse and our political leaders. It’s a muscle we too often neglect, so when we find a tool that can help us acknowledge our shared humanity, we should grab it and run with it.

    Enter Degrassi, just a little Canadian sensation you may have heard of…

  • Illustrations courtesy of Hallie Bateman. Read the full essay here

    brightwalldarkroom:

    Erika Schmidt’s “A Gentleman’s Guide to Surviving North by Northwest:

    "So you’re on the run. The bad news: you’re being pursued by both international spies and by the American police. The good news: you’re a wealthy, white, American male with a snappy tongue and a certain God’s-gift panache about you, so even with a couple of strikes against you, you’ll likely still come out smelling like a rose. Congratulations on that! Still, there are some essentials you’ll do well to remember if you want to escape with that chiseled mug intact.

    Do carry cash. You never know when your day is about to be interrupted by a potentially deadly case of mistaken identity. You’ll need to be able to buy tickets willy nilly, hail cabs, bribe bellboys, and execute all sorts of other spur-of-the-moment maneuvers. An empty wallet just won’t do, and with your pedigree, there’s no excuse for having one.

    Don’t trust women. Anyone who looks like Grace Kelly but isn’t Grace Kelly and uses that many double entendres is probably not your friend. Some things are too good to be true.

    Don’t go out to the field. If someone tells you to go out to a remote field of some sort in order to get important information, don’t do it. Seriously: why would you do this? This should go unsaid. Haven’t you ever seen Seven? This never, ever ends well. Just don’t do it.

    Do close the bathroom door and run the shower so your mortal enemy will think you’re occupied. Works every time.

    —-

    You’re looking at a preview of an article from Bright Wall/Dark Room Magazine. To read the rest of it, please subscribe: monthly subscriptions are just $2, and annual subscriptions are $20. Your money will be directly used to support the writers, editors, and designers of BW/DR.

  • brightwalldarkroom:

    THE AUGUST ISSUE OF BRIGHT WALL/DARK ROOM MAGAZINE IS NOW AVAILABLE!

    Issue #15:

    Tess Lynch on American Movie

    Elizabeth Cantwell on Jaws

    Brianna Ashby on Fried Green Tomatoes

    Chad Perman on Joe Versus the Volcano (full version of this essay available on RogerEbert.com)

    Erika Schmidt on North by Northwest

    Bebe Ballroom on Rocky

    Katie Zimolzak on The Godfather

    Andrew Root on An American Tail

    Summer Block on O Brother Where Art Thou?

    and a new poem on Gun Crazy, from Arielle Greenberg

    Subscribe now, for just $2/month or $20/year, and read Bright Wall/Dark Room magazine on ANY device, tablet, or computer.