If (and the work will always be there)
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Mad Men Series finale recap (Season 7 Episode 14 recap)
If that’s how the story ends, then Dick Whitman is dead forever. Don takes himself to California to find and feel all the things that aren’t Don – the things that are from another part of his life – but Don keeps resurfacing. Don pulls him back East. Don knows that when being authentic is too hard and too raw, you can put the realness on some packaging and sell it. That’s who Don is. That’s who Don will always be. He’d like to buy the world a Coke.
If that’s what the smile was – his getting the idea for the commercial – then the true question of the show is not ‘who dies’, or when, or whether Harry Crane is horrible to the very last frame of his existence. The question, which has hovered over Don and Joan and Peggy and Pete, and sort of Roger peripherally all these years, is not whether, as Stan says, ‘there’s more to life than work’, but whether the work will always be there for you. The work will always be there for Don. The corporate bullsh*t got him down, but remember how excited he was when there was that last-minute pitch to keep SC&P West going on? He was thrilled. East Don and West Don married. It would have been the death of him, though. That Don would have fallen out a window.
But think about it. All the time, when people really get excited, when they change their lives, when they turn things around or accept horrible restrictions on their workplace behavior or go back to their wives to rekindle the life they had, it’s because of work.
Joan comes to Peggy with the pitch of a lifetime, even though she’s clear she’s not looking for just anyone to work with – ‘the partnership is just for you’. Joan did need two names, indeed, to make it sound real, but they weren’t hers and Peggy’s or, God forbid, hers and that dude’s. I have too much going on in my life to retain his name and the show doesn’t want me to either (it’s Richard). He didn’t want a woman like Joan who had a life and aspirations and got more and more excited about doing things even when she didn’t need the money; he wanted a blow-up doll.
I have to assume that, since everybody has flaws in life that they don’t fix, that Joan will continue to sleep with men who are incompatible with her life, but I assume the difference is that she no longer tries to see them in the daytime. She did need two names in the end, and she had them both. She’s earned them both. Holloway Harris.
The work will always be there for them. It will always be there for Pete, who has performed the greatest trick in the world, because he does not exist anymore as the monster who spurred so many occurrences of “shut up Pete” in my household. He is a somewhat sensitive delight who maybe has earned that success. I don’t know when I twisted around to being on Pete’s side most of the time, but I am genuinely excited for him, and for Trudy to wear that hat more often. Sadly given that Trudy and Pete are so delightful, though, I think Tammy is going to become boring. Sorry.
And, you know, as for Peggy…
Creative Director by 1980. “A thing like that.”
She will be, too. Peggy has spent the last 10 years learning how to navigate the things and just… keep going. She falls down, that’s fine. She says the wrong thing on occasion, although not that often, really. But she took everything so seriously. She was so earnest about the fact that the rules are the rules, in an effort to understand how things work. In that way, actually, she and Joan were always of the same mindset, with incredibly different ways of going about things.
But she’s finally got it figured out. For me, that scene in the boardroom where she gets her account back without lifting a finger was the most satisfying of the whole episode. She has finally managed to figure out how things work in those goddamn offices, and now she’s going to walk away (even for a partnership with Joan)? No. Now, finally – finally – she knows how to run things. Work will always be there for her. And while I’ve never really been a big symbolism person, she’s dressed in red and white when she has that win. Peggy wins, early and often. That’s the other thesis on this show, and they show us because she and Pete, who started so utterly imbalanced in power, have a lot of mutual respect. He never knew, of course, and she’ll never tell – but he knows something. He knows she grew. He did too. God help me for loving Pete Campbell.
You know who does know, though? Stan. Stan who says there’s more to life than work. Now – this whole thing kind of caught me by surprise, which it was supposed to do, and while I’m not sure I buy it, I’m also not sure I don’t buy it. The thing is, yes of course. These two have had a great relationship for years. They know how the other one thinks. They know each other’s secrets. That’s not the same thing as love, but it’s definitely present in love. So – is it?
If it’s love for both, then it explains Stan’s tirade and why Peggy felt so bad. It’s the reason he finally felt he had to tell her – on the phone, no less. It’s because he knows how much she cares for Don, that he needs to let her know there are people who feel like that about her.
That scene, where Peggy begs Don to come home, is also one of the ones that will stay with me. It was just gorgeous, mostly on Peggy’s part. Don is a mess, and Peggy becomes as intuitive as she was back in 1960, when she tended to his drink-and-phone-call needs. Pulling Don out of the worst parts of himself. She was, in a way, the best secretary he ever had.
But I love the feeling she has when she’s talking to him, simultaneously panicky and calm. It’s such an absent feeling to be on the phone, where you’re doing something but also not. Someone says something life-changing, and you’re sitting there resenting that you’re looking at your ordinary walls and your ordinary stupid clothes and your phone feels like an object in your hand and all you need is to not be in such mundane surroundings when your life is about to be over. That’s something they somehow managed to portray without saying it. It’s almost gone, too, now that we don’t use the phone that way anymore.
But back to Stan. I don’t know. The relationships on Mad Men remind me of working in television, where because of long hours and long confessions about our lives, my close coworkers and I feel sibling-y. It’s not a stretch to change that intimacy from familial to romantic.
I don’t know if it’s going to last, though, because the show has told us seventy-five different ways, especially last week, that Peggy is a boss. Soon to be the boss. And so I appreciated most the shot where she finishes something and Stan kisses her at her desk. That’s what she wants – someone who loves that she works. But love, or partnership, or marriage, is a whole other thing that happens outside work. That’s Stan’s point, and it’s a good one – but one of Peggy’s flaws is that she’s never been good at things that happen ‘outside work’. She told Joan so several times tonight.
The fact that the characters’ flaws stay flaws, of course, was the last triumph of this show. I was furious with Don all episode, and a little disgusted. I was furious that he didn’t want to be a parent until Betty said he couldn’t be. I was furious that the story of the fridge made him sob, and not the one about the parents who left. But in the subversive glory of this episode, we learn for good that Don is not a better-than-most guy. He’s just flawed. He may not have seen Betty. I don’t believe he fought for Bobby and Gene to stay with Henry. The montage in the end is in November, so the fact that Sally is at home doing dishes is a decent nod to the fact that she’s not at college. She’s caring for her mother, as Betty wanted her not to have to do. Don wasn’t able to change that.
For someone we knew so well, we don’t spend a lot of time with Sally in the finale. She is a little like Don – unsentimental but unjudgmental, where Bobby’s sandwiches are concerned and a little like Betty. She knows Don’s magical words are just words. He says he’ll come home and doesn’t. He says he cares, but he can’t actually help. He tries to give a version of his ‘it will shock you how much this never happened’ speech to Stephanie, his proxy for Sally, and it falls flat. Sally knows Don is desperately flawed.
He won’t get better, either. If the ad was, indeed, inspired by the yoga at Esalen (and the pigtails are pretty unimpeachable evidence), then actually Don is incredibly cynical about the ways ‘getting in touch with a new you’ works for him. The same is true if you believe Peggy was the one who created that genius, or that they did it together – it’s making fun of hippies. It’s making them into marketing. Don’s talent is taking that which could seem trivial and making it feel important. Good thing there were no brunettes at Esalen to throw him off the track.
I do find myself thinking about the fictional next decade, though. So Don is back up on mega-top, like he was with Kodak – and then…another slow descent? More women and drinks? How do the 1970s go? Does Peggy keep him employed and on his toes, allowing his ever-increasing absences? Or are we meant to believe that last campaign changed Don forever?
The only place Don is really himself is when he’s manipulating real emotions to make people feel things. That’s Don. There is no greater ‘authenticity’. There is no Dick. That’s maybe fine. Is there more to life than work? Yes - but ironically, work will always be there. People leave, but there will always be work, even if it won’t hug you. You learn to hug yourself. That’s maybe the truest thing Don could ever come to learn. People leave, but the work will be there.
This show was a joy to write about. My first recap for Laineygossip references not being able to talk on the phone because the show was starting. So it’s been a while, and such a pleasure. Thank you.