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Mad Men Season 5 finale episode 13 recap
I really wondered why they had cast Alexis Bledel as the object of Pete's misplaced affection. She's the right age, of course, and has that slightly other-era look, but I'm so used to Mad Men actors being utterly new to me (Elisabeth Moss was totally unrecognizable as far as I'm concerned) that it seemed incongruous. But now I understand: she has that innocent, childlike face going on; only that face could be quite as disturbing when you realize it's no longer connected to a grown woman's conscious memory. The treatment is twisted and gruesome, sure, but it's worse because she had signed on for it willingly. That was what really horrified Pete - not enough not to sleep with her, of course; that though he was as miserable as she, or at least believed himself to be, he couldn't conceive of willingly wiping her memory, becoming helpless and malleable. Even if he wanted to do it, he couldn't. He has an obligation to continue being Pete Campbell...doesn't he? But notice his face when Trudy said they could, after all, get him an apartment in the city. That wasn't happiness. That was sorrow. If only there were checks and balances in place to keep him from the horrible man he's becoming! If he'd never had to take the train into the city, he never would have met Beth Dawes and her husband. He wouldn't have had to cheat if they weren't in the city, because Trudy would have had her family nearer to help her with Tammy so she'd be more of the love he needed and she'd appreciate his work successes more and....sigh. Poor Pete Campbell. The only thing he wants is to get out of his own depressed head - but the price he would pay, the price Beth paid - is too much.
It seems like a hack move to compare this season to a toothache, but we were practically begged to do so with last night's imagery, so let's go to it, quickly. Something's been bothering us, we didn't know exactly what. Don's disinterest in the business? His odd rises and falls as per Megan's moods? His inability to find fire and “save” himself at the last minute? Now that the end of the season is here, the bad tooth has allegedly been extracted - leaving in its place, what? Empty space? See? It's an unsatisfying metaphor.
It's unsatisfying because the whole season has been so. Those are the wages of Mad Men. The conclusions aren't going to be drawn neatly, and only make sense in retrospect. The beginning of each new season answers the questions we held from the last season, although the implication always seems to be that we know the answers, if we look closely enough. The most foregone conclusion - that Peggy and Don love and respect one another, and will value the chance to work together again, we kind of knew - and not just because E. Moss is second in the credits. So it was nice to see them together, but that doesn't tell us anything revelatory.
That Joan is partner - but still doing things that Joan, Office Manager might do - well, that's not surprising either, is it? Even if in 30 years she's giving interviews to Forbes about what it was like to be one of the first female ad execs, she'll point out that many of the “traditionally female” things fell to her to do. Still, I'm going to thumb my nose at those who said it was a bad move for her to gamble on the partnership - first because, as she said, the money keeps rolling in (yes, yes, for now) and second because she is already carrying herself better and standing up for herself in a way she wasn't able to when she was simply the office manager. The good far outweighs the bad. "It will shock you how much this never happened."
That the company is doing better in the quarter since Lane died, well, that's just insult to injury. Though his chair is notably empty, I thought it was a sorry truth that they don't seem to need him. They did, once upon a time, but nobody misses now what he brought to the company, especially when his role is being filled by Joan, who is far more direct and able to get the results she needs. When Don asked her what Lane wanted and she explained with one look? That's a kind of directness they didn't have. The kind they need. Oh, and for good measure, shut up, Harry Crane.
I've never been a huge fan of Mad Men's forays into hallucination, even when they're topical - and as much as I see the similarities between Lane and Adam, two men Don couldn't help, two men he might have urged to kill themselves because he wouldn't, or couldn't, give them what they wanted, it seems a little thin to me. Don's struggles have never truly been about helping others, giving them what they want. Specifically, not about treating men this way. It's always been about trying to figure out what he himself wants, and how not to fall out of love with it once he has it. As such I didn't necessarily buy that Adam was the spectre of much more than past regrets...or maybe foreshadowing. But I can't truly believe that either. Don's proven himself over and over to be a survivor, a master at starting over. He can reinvent himself knowing the next time will be better “because it always is”.
So what if it's not himself he's worried about? Marie clearly points out, several times this episode, that Megan's “artistic temperament” is going to be a problem because, she implies, she can't back it up with actual talent. This is, in sequence, harsh, great, and terrible all at once. Harsh because of course it is. Marie believes Megan doesn't have the ability to make it. If she did, she'd have done so already. Even if she weren't on Broadway, she'd be wrapped up in some consuming writer's play, convinced it would someday make it out of the village. Or she'd write a show just to have something to do. Part of the reason Megan isn't working, Marie implies, is that she isn't struggling. There's not enough sheer hunger. As Don points out, other girls do commercials for the money. But Megan doesn't need the money, so she isn't considering them (this part was unclear, as was the part where she signed up for a demo-sending service. Does Megan not have an agent? Is this not the first problem?), so she'll never really walk the path of an artiste.
Her despair at this realization is real enough, and the part where it's great is that this is the kind of parenting I'm used to. At press time Lainey and I hadn't discussed this episode, but this is part of what our carping about immigrant parents is about: they will tell you the truth even when it hurts, especially when it hurts. Because if it's the truth, you need to know. My parents used to say "we're telling you these things because nobody else will. Because we love you". If it's not true? If Megan really does have what it takes? Then she'll be so energized and enraged she'll drag herself up out of bed to prove it to her mother. But she didn't do that.
She didn't have to. Instead she asked her husband for a favour. Many, many people have grumbled that they “hate Megan” and I wonder whether this episode will alleviate some of that, since she proved herself to be imperfect. I think part of the irritation with Megan was that so much came so easily to her, so begging for a role - for someone to take care of her, since Marie made clear that she won't, not for Megan OR anyone else - was her downfall. She did it. And Don caved.
Because Don is too terrified of someone else blaming their fall on his failure to help. He couldn't handle it if his bright, cheerful, talented wife turned into a depressive, emotional mess over something that, in truth, he could help with only a minor compromise of his ideals. So he does it - and really, nothing changes. His beautiful bride is happy and smiling again; Don's status as an important man is unchanged.
But when asked if he's alone, Don looks up, interested.
These are the wages of living like a trailblazer. These are the costs of being a man who doesn't flinch in the face of difficulty, who plows forward no matter what. You realize the people alongside you are going to be tested and might not be able to keep pace. These are the wages of yoking yourself to others, knowing they may not be able to keep up. It would be simpler to live a solitary life, never getting involved with anyone, happy with yourself and your own mind (and being blissfully, happily naked in front of all of Manhattan). But the most curious thing about Don is that he's never wanted to live that way. He's not necessarily good at having real human connections - even though his professional success is all about making those connections for the public - but he keeps trying anyway.
It makes him human.
As always, thank you so so much for reading, for your thoughts and comments and emails. It's been a rough one, and we made it through together. Season 6 is a long, long way away. I recommend a from-the-beginning rematch. How can you appreciate how far they've come if you don't remember where they've been?
Photos courtesy AMC