Like Jim Jarmusch’s perfect Dead Man, which tells the whole story in its title, Mad Men gives it away in its title sequence, indicating that the show’s focus will be on (a) man in free fall. So now that we are midway through its last season, how many feet away is Don Draper from going splat? And do we actually need to see him hit the ground, knowing that it wasn’t Don Draper’s identity that Dick Whitman took on so much as it was his death? This is a story about a man who successfully generates feelings while avoiding his own, and perhaps as a filmmaker I connect because of the many conversations I have grinned through, hearing and saying what I thought needed to be said for a chance to share my own vision, to make my movie. Or perhaps this is what makes it universal, because at some point we have all kept quiet, smiling along.
While in the beginning I was also taken with its depiction of an era I hadn’t experienced, this waned after seeing a few scenes in situations I do know (like New York artists’ lofts, places I grew up in). Maybe all of it is just as off, who knows and who cares? Instead, this obvious misrepresentation freed me to experience the Mad world beyond haircuts, clothing and set designs, and to see characters and story twists in their connection to present-day reality. It left me thinking about what the show says that would be hard to say, perhaps impossible to say, if not cloaked in period garb.
Watching the new Godzilla, I must not have been the only one dismayed to see present-day American soldiers fighting and dying in battle and to realize how little I’ve seen of this, how disconnected I must be to be for such images to be news. The monstrous monster movies once embodying nuclear fears now reveal post-9/11 ones, but as PTSD spreads to perhaps every soldier, now killing themselves at a rate of 22 a day, one thing I learn about in Mad Men is how a previous generation dealt with – or did not deal with – its own war trauma. From Roger Sterling, who returns to work and must grovel (shoeless!) in front of a fatherlike figure who has taken on attributes of the enemy he has just been fighting in the Pacific; to Peter, who just misses the boat on The Love Generation but made the cut off to Korea (unless his blue blood allowed him to dodge); to Draper, who in flashback reveals, perhaps for the last time before his “breakdown,” a man of feeling, albeit fear, it’s war that underlies all scenes from the show’s inception and continues to hum towards its end. After all, Peggy successfully sells to Burger Chef on the idea of getting people away from the nightly news on Vietnam.
If PTSD is the diagnosis then it may not be only Madison Avenue that causes the madness barely controlled by the constant alcohol numbing that’s given the blame for Don’s firing/probation. But it is not the alcohol that causes Don to suddenly speak truth (to Hershey’s, of companies), it’s actually seeing his co-worker Ted Chaough sitting across the table, buying into’s Don bullshit family fantasy, sadly comparing it to his own life. These pitch meetings are the closest these ex-soldiers have to a support group, in which they sit around a table, their job being to come up with a new way to touch a (consumer) nerve. In this case, the lie was one too many for Don to handle and he had an urge to connect other than through the usual escapes of whoring and boozing.
So where does this leave the women of Mad Men, who we see coming forward in this last season – after most have been crossing frame in front of and behind the office action until now? The women who have not only been left by these men but left to pick up the pieces, to keep it together, expected to appear as content with it all as in the advertisements they produce? Joan says fuck you, Megan says fuck off (both to Don, unfortunately), as does Trudy to Pete. Sterling’s daughter, Margaret, tells him and her whole family the same. Even Betty is starting to speak her mind. Peggy Olson proves to us (and Pete), with just one simple line reading, that she can sell heartwarming sincerity with the best of them (read: Don). Given the opportunity to prove what she’s worth to the company, she delivers tenfold, to the audience in her room and in ours, even bringing a tear to the eye of one of the pig-like clients. Only moments before, she shared a space but nothing else with these men, not even time or sound, as illustrated in slow motion. This final scene impressed me no end, every gesture and glance from every performer, every camera move, the framing, and masterly precise cutting, that I could not help think of the crew behind it all, just as integral. My one and only personal connection to the show, its sometimes 2nd Assistant Director (including on this particular episode), Maria Mantia, was 1st AD on my own show. I remember her – almost parallel to what Don does for Peggy in the Burger Chef pitch – clearing the set, giving me the support and backbone so I could hopefully do my stuff, shape a vision.
So, to Mad Men, which exposes what lurks behind every handsome and beautifully cast family. Exposes the rest of us as well, war vets and all. Here’s to hoping that Don doesn’t actually hit the ground, at the last moment finding himself suddenly seated, finally in control of himself. Sounds wishful, though, impossible even, with death dancing (and singing!) right before him in the form of Bert Cooper. But, after all, it’s the hope Don has been selling all along.