Before we begin, there are two very important bits of business that need to be dealt with.
First and foremost, if you aren’t doing so already, I implore you all to read “Mad Style,” Tom and Lorenzo’s breathtaking analysis of Mad Men from the point of view of the styles of the period. If you aren’t reading it, you’re missing some of the best analysis of the show out there, period.
And I strongly encourage reading it now as tickets have gone on sale for vita.mn and Jake Rudh’s Mad Men series finale party on Sunday, May 17 at Jax Cafe in Minneapolis. Not only will the evening feature vintage commercials and a retro soundtrack, it will also feature a three-course dinner, commercial breaks with trivia from Trivia Mafia, and a post-show cocktail set with Vic Volare and his quintet. Tickets are on-sale right now and can be purchased online.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get into it, by starting at the end with the iconic ballad “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” The reason I’m starting with this song is that the song itself has a wild and weird history that ironically mirrors where the story of Mad Men has ended up. Originally written by British political singer/songwriter Ewan MacColl and recorded by his lover Peggy Seeger in 1957, the song would be a staple in the mainstream with The Kingston Trio’s version in 1962, and subsequent covers by Peter, Paul and Mary, The Brothers Four, The Chad Mitchell Trio, Gordon Lightfoot, and Elvis Presley, among many others.
In 1969, Roberta Flack would release her version of the ballad as part of her debut album First Take. While she was hailed at the time as part of the 1960s R&B pantheon (with critics comparing her as the necessary midpoint between Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone), there was a mellowness to the crystalline vocal delivery that served as a tonic to the respective gospel shouts and musical protestations of Ms. Franklin and Ms. Simone; particularly when this song would be used in Clint Eastwood’s 1971 directorial debut Play Misty For Me, which would cause the song to be the #1 song of 1972 on the Billboard Pop and R&B charts (and would basically create soft rock as we know it). And in a way, this is a nifty parallel of what America in general, and Mad Men in particular, is dealing with: after a quiet start, everyone entered a decade that shook everyone and everything to the core, and has now left a sense of ennui and mistrust that permeates everything.
For Don, that sense of ennui has permeated his behavior at work; his scenes in the office eerily parallel his scenes in the first episodes of Season 1. Roger’s request for a forecast of the company’s future for the McCann Erickson overlords is something that Roger expects Don to just sneeze out over lunch. The problem is that Don’s best work always happend when was fighting to either (a) keep himself in the business, or (b) to keep the business solvent, so he is unable to write from a position where he and everyone else is in relative stability. Even when he picks the minds of Ted and Peggy, he sneers at their limited thinking (a pharmaceutical account for Ted, being creative director and developing a lasting commercial catchphrase for Peggy). But if Don is wallowing in ennui, then there are others whose anger are willing to pierce through it. Peggy is having absolutely none of it when she thinks he’s making fun of her ambition (““Why don’t you write down all your of your dreams so I can shit on them?”). Mathis, after using his advice with a client and failing spectacularly, lambasts Don about coasting on his good looks (“You don’t have any character. You’re just handsome. Stop kidding yourself.”); a theme that Sally picks up later in reference to both of her parents’ narcissism (“Anyone pays attention to either of you – and they always do – you just … ooze everywhere.”). Even Melanie his real estate agent, who barely knows him and was trying to sell his apartment, was able to spot his underlying issues (“This place reeks of failure. It looks like a sad person lived here. And what happened to him? He got divorced, spilled wine on the carpet and didn’t care enough to replace it, not even for himself.”). It was weird that everyone in the episode was talking about the future and yet Don himself can’t see one for himself.
Conversely, Sally is clear-eyed about exactly what she wants for her future. “I want to get on a bus and get away from you and mom and hopefully be a different person than you two!” she states, eerily sounding like a young Dick Whitman. In other words, Sally Draper has HAD IT with certain people in her life. She’s had it with Glen Bishop going to Vietnam and going against his principles (and then not calling to say goodbye, though to be fair she did rip him a new one about his decision). She’s had it with her mother flirting with Glen, and Glen’s creepy obsession with Betty. And she’s had it with her father’s flirting with anything that moves. We have been patiently waiting for Sally’s return all season, and once again Kiernan Shipka was on fire; finally letting Sally’s well-earned fury out to those who’ve earned it. That said, as Don is discovering, you can’t run away from you past wholeheartedly (witness her charming joke with her mother about being late for her period, which is the kind of insouciant joke Don was once able to get away wtih). Fortunately he had some sage advice for her. “You’re a very beautiful girl. It’s up to you to be more than that.” While I don’t watch Mad Men for any sort of happy ending, I really want one for Sally, given all the suffering that Don and Betty have laid at her feet.
Speaking of happy endings, Joan seems to be getting one, or at least that’s what she thinks she’s getting. Richard is something that the Joan of Season 1 would have dreamed of; smart, rich, divorced, and utterly enchanted with her. (Another way to look at it would be that he is Joan’s idealized version of what Roger Sterling should have done way back when.) Not only that, he recognizes just how smart Joan is. But then reality sets in; he’s a divorced man who’s already had the family, and she has become an unlikely working mother. On the one hand, her shriek of “You’re ruining my life!” was at her babysitter, but on the other it was towards her son. It’s not that she doesn’t love Kevin, she absolutely does. But for a second there, she got to experience what was her original dream of being someone’s trophy wife and it felt good. Thankfully she snapped back to reality and was able to remember herself. That being said, I think there’s some major potential with Richard. Could this be a glimpse into the future?
– Well, we finally know what happened to SC&P West; it’s still going and now Lou Avery is in charge (continuing the long standing tradition of exiling people to Los Angeles from the mothership company). That is, when he’s not trying to pitch Scout’s Honor to Hanna-Barbera who was having a boom period at the time. Click HERE about my feature on Hanna-Barbera.
– That scene between Betty and Glen in the kitchen was so awkward, yet so right for both characters, and kind of a fitting endgame for both of them in this inappropriate dance that they’ve done over the decade. But I do have to say that Glen has gotten kind of awkward hot.
– While Betty throwing the toy gun in the trash wasn’t the most subtle of images in the show’s history, it does tie into the fact that it was around 1970 that Nixon’s “silent majority” that got him into the presidency (which Betty and Henry were part of) were starting to get fed up with the Vietnam War as it was finally reaching the upper middle classes.
– Finally, we get a reference to The Brady Bunch. And as a bonus we get the first peek into Sesame Street.
– In addition to Kiernan Shipka’s many great attributes as an actress (great comedic timing, the ability to incorporate the physicalities of Jon Hamm and January Jones into her character, etc.), it has now been revealed that she can serve up some mean side-eye shade that would make the ladies of RuPaul’s Drag Race envious.
– After last week’s surprising cameo by Mimi Rogers, now we have the great Bruce Greenwood as Richard. It’s kind of shocking that they’re pulling out all of these amazing cameos at the end.
Photo Credit: AMC Television / Lionsgate Television