Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Mad Men Finale: the last word

In a long-ago television show called Yes, Minister a politician asks a public servant for advice on how to undermine someone he doesn't want to appoint to a position. The public servant, Humphrey, advises him to begin by praising the person. When the politician is puzzled by this, Humphrey adds, "It is necessary to get behind someone in order to stab them in the back."

What Mad Men did was to get behind the sixties idealists in order to stab them in the back. It told a story of the 1960s that appeared to support what boomers believed and what boomer parents taught their millennial offspring to believe but kept failing to quite come through for that vision. The end result is that it is now no longer to believe the sixties mythology. What's wrong with peace, love and understanding? Well, quite a few things actually. For starters, it's just empty piety.

One of the best ways avoid upsetting  people who demand that you adhere to conventional pieties of your era is to get behind them and then disappoint them. You come out with an argument defending some ruling piety and then, well, you heart is in the right place but your argument isn't as good as might have been. It looks like it's not your fault. Maybe you made a bad argument. Maybe you got a few facts wrong. Maybe you went so far overboard in your praise as to undermine the very cause you appear to be supporting. People will be disappointed but they won't be able to accuse you of actually fighting for the other side.

In that regard, it's staggering how many people loved but simultaneously felt disappointed by Mad Men because it didn't do as good a job of promoting their pet causes as they expected it to do. And this was particularly evident after the finale.

Matt Zoller Seitz thinks the message is good but has to acknowledge that it was somewhat undercut by being too sentimental:
I’ve been reading descriptions of Mad Men’s last few minutes — a meditation followed by a Coke ad — as “cynical,” confirmation that all Don really learned in season seven, and at the retreat in particular, was how to hug and get his job back. 
I couldn’t disagree more strongly. I think the optimism is sincere, bordering on maudlin. The whole episode fits that description. The Coke ad — a Madison Avenue incantation insisting that the momentary happiness of soda is the Real Thing — undercuts this a bit, because it’s ironic and funny, and consistent with the rest of Mad Men.
Yeah, and you can, as Zoller Seitz goes on to do, just slide right by that and not let it bother you.

Allan Sepinwall is one of many people to notice that the Peggy-Stan romantic scene was unconvincing:
Peggy and Stan's phone call was about as sappy and wish-fullfillment-y as "Mad Men" has ever gotten, yet if there was one character I wanted nothing but good things for at the end, it was Peggy.
But he really, really, really wants to believe so he will. Good thing to as he finds everything else about the show very cynical.

Ed Driscoll loved the show and watched every minute of it but was disappointed that it didn't do more:
Mad Men could have been the perfect show to comment on what drove the fast-paced radical change of the 1960s, just as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street explored the financial industry of the 1980s, but instead, producer / creator /primary writer Matthew Weiner was far more interested in the interpersonal relationship of his characters rather than social commentary.
He also wishes there had been more of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the JFK assassination and Vietnam. Well, the show at least name checks all of those. But that's all it does. A Beatles song is almost played but then Don gets up and pulls the needle up of the Beatles record, clearly bored out his gourd by it and everyone is disappointed that he didn't like it more.

John Swansberg thinks it was all a little too neat:
Then along comes the finale, a 75-minute exercise in bow tying. Mad Men has rarely been sentimental, even when it comes to its heroes, but last night everyone got their exciting new job, their longed-for loved one, or, in the case of Pete, both. I don’t mean to suggest that I wished ill on any of these characters, not even Pete. But I preferred the sense of possibility, and precariousness, that each character brought into this episode to the sense of dreams delivered with which they left it.
Well, he's absolutely right about that (except Betty, of course, ba ha ha ha ha ...). It was all too neat. And he's just smart enough to realize that he goes, as he puts it, from "too saccharine" to "too bitter":
As you noted, Hanna, if we believe Don is the author of the Coke ad, that would suggest that he’s taken the idealism of the ’60s—represented here by the coastal retreat, a hippie-enclave cut off from society (the poor transportation options literally a function of Charles Manson’s end-of-an-era violence)—and turned it into a jingle to sell a soft drink.
Well, that would be horrible wouldn't it? But we can rest assured that the man who created the series would never do this because he really believes in the idealism of the 1960s as demonstrated by the following quote:
All of that leads to the era Weiner witnessed as the child of a liberal father in the 1980s, by which time the activists of the ’60s had flipped and become the “greediest—can I say mother****ers in The Atlantic?” When he talks about individual characters, Weiner is a gentle creator, reserving judgment about their sins. But when he talks about society at large, he is a god of vengeance, and doesn’t hesitate to condemn. “I was 18 years old, watching the world being run by a bunch of hypocrites, is what it was. And at the same time, they were telling us how they had invented sex, how great it was to do all those drugs, they had no responsibilities, they really believed in stuff, they were super-individuals. Then along comes this incredibly repressive, selfish, racist, money-grubbing …”
Oh my! What a surprise, Matt Weiner feels very bitter about the sixties idealists. He believes not that sixties idealists were subverted but that they themselves went bad. But all those who believe in 1960s idealism can get a good night's sleep because they still think Mad Men is a show about how bad other people were back then and how the sixties idealists saved the day well, until Carter came along and screwed the pooch or Reagan stole the presidency or whatever your favourite explanation of how it all went wrong is.

Hanna Roisin thinks the treatment of women's issues on the show is just wonderful except for one niggling doubt,
Jessica Winter wrote last week that the great subject of Mad Men was not masculine self-reinvention but women in the workplace. I agree that Matt Weiner took this on as a central and recurring theme but I also think, in this finale and elsewhere, it was somewhat dutifully executed.
Well, yes, he does rather just go through the motions and give us storylines right out of a how-to-teach-feminism-in-middle-school manual. But his heart is in the right place so all we can do is wish the show had done a little better.

Julia Turner got everything she wanted but, as so often happens, wasn't happy with it once she had it.
The finale was kind to Don, and kind-hearted generally. Watching Matthew Weiner dole out so much redemption, hope, and love, after all his years convincing us that people are bitter, cruel and self-defeating, that they can never escape their own foibles and sins—well, it was what I said I wanted before the season began. In practice, it felt a little weird.
Theirs, by the way, is the best analysis you'll find anywhere but right here this week.

You get a powerful foreshadowing of where they are going in the word "unlikeliest" in that final sentence. And they're right: the morality and logic of this Esalen-like place where Don and Stephanie go is beyond dubious. The whole sequence there is meant to signal the shift of sixties idealism to vapid self interest that so angers Matt Weiner.

The biggest hint of this is the moral reversal we see in Stephanie. How do you feel about her dutifully accepting the shame the woman in the blue denim overall dress (a singularly ugly fashion choice that could only have come in the 1970s) lays on her? When Don confronts her she says, "It's true. You think I don't want to hear the truth?" And she says to Don of his proposed solution, that she can "put this behind you as you move forward", "Oh Dick, I don't think you're right about that." And then she runs away making further dialogue between them impossible. Okay, you can agree with Stephanie or not but, either way, another question should hit you in the face: What about Peggy?
No one should have to be able 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. 
The whole discussion between Stan and Peggy in the Time & Life episode goes the exact opposite direction.
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.
You can't square Stephanie's decision with that. She doesn't choose to go back to her son because it's what she really wants to do. She chooses to go back because a woman in an encounter group shamed her into it. And, as Tom & Lorenzo rightfully point out, if you want to believe that Don achieves inner peace in that final scene, you have to believe that he did it thanks to that poisoned apple morality.

Matt Weiner (assuming he's not a closet conservative) sees the 1970s as a cultural tragedy resulting in the Reagan presidency.  His intention was always to be cynical. The final point of the show is not that Don actually wrote the Coke ad but that this was exactly where this kind of morality would lead. The show has come full circle: in exactly the same way that Don realizes that the regulations governing tobacco ads have inadvertently created a situation where advertisers can now say anything they want, he now realizes that the 1960s idealists have created the same opportunity for cynical exploitation. That is what all this abolition of the word "should" (with the powerful exception that other people should love you evoked by Leonard) and all this emphasis on what you feel instead of what you believe has done. Put that narcissistic selfishness together with fact-free feeling and you have a great ad for Coca Cola. (PS: Watch the ad again and notice how only white women get closeups while other races are used for background "colour", then come back and tell me how it's a step forward.)

 When the show debuted, we were in the early days of the Obama presidency and Obama had explicitly stated that his goal was to reverse the Reagan revolution so Weiner probably started off feeling less cynical than he does now because he, like so many others, thought that something like sixties idealism was coming back. No one, progressive or conservative, can be so foolish as to imagine that now.

But whatever Weiner believes it is not that the 1960s was subverted by cynical ad men like Don Draper. He believes that some disease infected the idealists and that they went wrong. There is a powerful metaphorical hint of that this episode when Joan switches the TV from a report on the then-exploding gonorrhoea rates when she and Roger enter her apartment. That and Joan and her boyfriend experimenting with cocaine are powerful foreshadowings of all that was about to go wrong. And it did go very, very wrong. You can believe that Reagan saved the day or you can believe that he was the ultimate symptom of the decline but, either way, the people who made it go wrong were the sixties idealists and that is the deepest message Mad Men has for us.

Okay, you may say, but how is that this esoteric message is going to have any effect if it's so well hidden that all the critics I cite above, all of them very smart people, missed it? Think of how this show has changed the way the 1960s are represented. Think of the typical PBS documentary—the kind they used to show at fund-raising time to get all those aging boomers to donate—and how differently it told the story. THose documentaries always went from smug, complacent 1950s squares to the Beatles, to civil rights struggles and victories, to Woodstock to anti-Vietnam war and the sexual revolution. Thanks to Mad Men it's no longer possible to tell the story of the 1960s that way anymore.

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