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It was all about the ads.

Posted by christinkeck on May 18, 2015 at 6:35 PM

For many years now, I’ve been enjoying MadMen for the singular reason that it so accurately reflected the days leading up to the Big Change in our lives—the transition from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. Of all the things this show did well, that was probably my number one delight; the show so poignantly portrayed these times, and the ways our lives, our attitudes and our psyches changed, that it was almost scary—like looking at a crystal ball in reverse.


But sadly, the series finale showed us something else entirely. It turned out that this show wasn’t about the changes at all. It was about the ADS.


I confess to extreme disappointment in the finale. I’m disappointed that Matthew Weiner and company treated the massive changes in our culture with such shallowness at the end. To think that after the heartbreaking emotional epiphany of Don Draper, that the best he could do with his life after was go back and create the “I’d like to Teach the World” ad for Coca-Cola—really? It felt like that soul breakthrough had been diminished, as if everything he (and we) learned at the retreat was reduced to mere salesmanship. We learned nothing about Don from watching him break down completely. All we learned is that whatever changes took place within him, and whatever breakthrough there was, it was ultimately just SALABLE.


And no one else really changes either. Not Betty—in our last view of her she is shown sitting morosely at the kitchen table, smoking away, while Sally does dishes. Sally doesn’t; she still struggles between youthful dreaming and duty, and you can tell that’s going to be no different for a very long time. Pete says he’s changed, but probably not; we only see him triumphantly boarding a Lear with wife and daughter, but nowhere in the lead-up to this does it show how life has worked on him or why; he remained irascible and tightly wound until the very last scene with Trudy. Peggy doesn’t change despite that arrogant, sunglasses-sporting teaser during her delayed entrance into McCann. She’s settled in so happily to her new office and diminished responsibilities that she can’t accept Joan’s fabulous offer of a partnership where she would be her own boss. There’s only a hint of Peggy’s resilience in the brief scene where she claims her account back from the female shark who stole it, and even then, she invokes “Bob” as her shield and sword.


Roger doesn’t change, not really. He still considers his life worthwhile only as long as it is wrapped around a crazy woman, and a child who will never call him “Daddy.” There was nothing different about this Roger and the previous Rogers, only the name of the woman is different. And it’s just like he said to Joan—no one really cares. The only person who really grows—who uses the wounds that the era had inflicted and who lets the scars define her new persona, is Joan—and thank goodness for that one—because of all the characters who needed the changes that the 1970’s brought along, she was at the top of my list. No other character in this series showed with as much eloquence and infuriating frustration what a woman had to go through to get ahead in the 1950’s and 60’s, and I was thrilled to see her outcome. Kick the rich guy to the curb, start up your own business. YES. It’s about damned time.


The big change we were all praying for was Don’s. And it seemed like the episodes that led up to the finale all pointed to a gradual foreshadowing of what had to come eventually. Nearly everyone gave Don their “honest” opinion of what made him insufferable, from Mathis (“you're just handsome!")  to Sally ("you both just ooze.")  and even, gently, Betty (“I’m younger than you—always was, always will be.") and of course, Megan (“you ruined my life." )   Even the symbolic and not-too-subtle broken Coke Machine scene at the Kansas motel, led to the eventuality that Don would have to confront himself and his shortcomings fairly soon. But we had to wait until the very, very end which gave short shrift to the entire event by compressing seven seasons of repressed emotion into a 30-second hug with a stranger.


Then, we find out it wasn’t really a change at all. Not really. Not one we could build on. What we got instead was the AD FOR IT.


There was Don, broken Coke machine of a man. He’s just had—finally—a breach over the thick , nearly impenetrable wall that has defined his “mystique” all these years. He’s allowed himself to look in the mirror and what he has seen is the monster he really is. He’s summed himself up to Peggy, of all people, who suddenly has nothing to say about it, but who keeps urging him to “come home” and resume working, incredulously letting us all know that McCann would take him back in a heartbeat (Really? Really???) The wall crumbles. The flood begins—then it ends abruptly. We don’t ever get to see this “new” Don, the “new” peace he has found except for the silly “om” scene and a Mona-Lisa smile. Don. Draper. Chanting. OM. Yeah.


It was just too pat, too easy. And the result—that iconic singing commercial that made Coke into both a Titan and a joke at the same time—is that what we should expect of a life-change that broke the unbreakable, flooding the desert of Don Draper’s soul? A change that swept away all the past mistakes and promised redemption at long last? That’s what we get? Cue Peggy—not Olsen--LEE. Is that all there is?


Yup. That’s it. That’s all there is.


It was always just about the Ads. Not the change. Not the people. Just the Ads.


Is that how we ought to be remembering these pivotal times? By the ads? By what got sold? It is according to Weiner. We can reduce everything we went through, everything we felt then and feel now and even our nostalgia about it, to a calendar determined by which commercials were on the air. It was never about the characters—it was always about the ads. The people didn’t matter.


This was, in a way, foreshadowed when Don asked everyone to imagine their future and the future of SC&P: both Peggy and Ted both said they hoped for a big account. Peggy wanted to “create a catchphrase.” Ted wanted a big pharmaceutical. Don, presumably unsatisfied with these ambitions, could only gaze out the window or press on the window pane, as if testing it to see how much pressure it would take to break, while supposedly pondering these ideas. And he cannot echo the sentiments expressed, as Peggy so eloquently reminds him, but shits on their dreams. Then, when he is given the box lunch at the Miller meeting, he sits through what was undoubtedly the most truthful and hurtful mirror to date: another ad exec being him—painting the picture, selling the image and the life that would be the ideal consumer for Miller’s impending “Lite” beer launch. And that, as it turns out, he cannot stand, so he takes his box and walks out, heads for Racine, Wisconsin to rescue Diana; imagining himself as Jack Kerouac to the ghost of Bert Cooper, who promptly shoots down this self-projected image. The next dream Don will have is of being “caught up with.”


But caught up with how? Will Don’s past catch up with him—the stolen identity he has been walking around with all these years? No, apparently not; not even when he exposes his crime to the VFW. Don soon discovers that there were far more odious war crimes than his identity theft and killing his CO. Don acted impulsively—but his VFW drinking buddies tortured and murdered deliberately. He can feel almost elevated. And when they mistake him for the thief, beating him up with a phone book and taking his car keys until he returns the cash, he can even play the flawed hero again—by giving away his car and some sage advice to the young conman who actually took the money. The odious Don becomes the hero Don, if only for a few moments at a bus stop.


Or, will he be caught by his children who must loathe his absences and his lack of involvement over the years? No. He finds that his children still love him and even admire his behavior, no matter how ridiculous it is. Sally tells him it’s almost as if she’s taking the trip with him. They boys still take his calls. And even though she is told not to, Sally still confides in him about Betty.


Will his agency hire lawyers to pursue him for breach of his contract? Hardly. They just want him back., which I find incredible. But we know it’s true. They worked that entire deal just to get him on the payroll. Of course they’ll put up with temperament.


However, despite his dream, Don find that no one wants to really catch up to him. Not Betty, who could use the help. Not Peggy. Not Roger. And his agency is willing to let him have his corner office—as long as he returns someday.


What he will never face is the fraud he is, the fraud he was. Apparently he gets a pass on that, even though he gets no points for trying to comfort Betty,  or for wanting to give back Anna’s ring to the person who rightfully should have received it. He gets no points for anything, but they still want him home. Even when Betty tells him she doesn’t want him to step up and take responsibility for his own children because it just wouldn’t be “normal” for them. Another comeuppance. Sally doesn’t want his help. Diana has disappeared. Peggy is managing on her own. Roger is happy with Marie. Peter is moving out at long last, and even Harry Crane seems to be nicer. Why face anything when there are no rewards? No accolades? No welcome home?


This isn’t redemption, and it isn’t peace. In the end, it’s only about what gets sold. And Don is the master of sales here—the guy who sells his past for the pot of gold. The guy who turns his pain and shame into assets for the company. For some reason, this never makes him expendable. Nothing seems to.


I suppose Weiner and company might have just been showing us how some scoundrels manage to become heroes. Or that those fated to rise, like cream, will do so no matter how sour the milk is at the bottom of the bucket. But I think that what we actually get is that our lives are up for grabs by the world manipulating us; the ads we watch are not so much our mirrors, they are no more than raw material to be used for someone else’s gain. Don certainly proves that over and over again. But didn’t Anthony Burgess show us that we’re all just “Clockwork Oranges” earlier? Didn’t Albert Camus tell us who “The Stranger” really is? And didn’t Kerouac show us how being “On the Road” wasn’t all it was cracked up to be? At least in these masterworks, the characters learn from their mistakes—and don’t try turning them into commodities.


But not Don. He will do almost anything for that very thing he ran from: the Catchphrase, the Clio-winner of an ad that, although it changes nothing, sticks in the memory, the mind, and the psyche forever. He can’t love, because as he learns from poor, benighted Leonard in the seminar, he doesn’t even know what it IS. But he can USE. Boy can he use.


We’ll never forget that ad ever. It was always just about the ads.

 

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