Monday, October 27, 2008

Mad Men Season Finale: Great Leaders Don't Blink

Mad Men on AMC ended its second season Sunday night, and as usual, I recorded the episode. I watched it tonight, and I wish I hadn't. There is a terrible hollow feeling when a series this brilliant ends, and there is nothing left to console me in its absence but the long wait for the boxed set on DVD, and even longer drought until Season Three.

Episode 13, "Meditations in an Emergency" had all the hallmarks that have made this series great, weaving the real life drama of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis into the Sturm and Drang of Sterling-Cooper's takeover (so relevant 40+ years later) and the timeless angst of betrayed families and broken promises. This final episode was all about power, leadership, and the redemption of confession.

The amazing and always riveting footage of JFK on TV in the background served as a litmus test and catalyst for Mad Men's characters, who always seem on the brink of something. A power grab, a nervous breakdown, a furtive and hopeless tryst in the back room of a dark bar. The looming nuclear apocalypse causes different reactions for our cast of mad men and women. Panic for some (who cares about the bomb...what about my JOB?), indifference for others. Peggy the budding star who gained a new office after landing the Popsicle account, fears for the loss of her soul. She confesses, finally, bringing last season's cliff hanger full circle. But the truth is told to a bewildered Campbell, and not to her weasel faced priest.

JFK draws a line in the sand for the Soviets, on a fuzzy black and white television. Don Draper draws a line in the conference room at Sterling Cooper after Duck (the darkest character of all to be sure...who could forget what he did to his beautiful Irish Setter) says creative will no longer be a part of the agency's primary directive. Don Draper, back from his A.W.O.L. Southern California sojourn, wants no part of it. He's gone. "I don't sell advertising", Don says, cool and measured as a fighter pilot. "I sell products. If the world is still here on Monday, we can talk".

This final episode was a poem to the subtle but essential qualities of leadership, at a time when we all yearn for its example. Don't blink. Don't stand down. Watch Mad Men.

And for heaven's sake...don't forget to vote.

Below, JFK's address to the nation in 1962.


Lisa said...

Wonderful assessment of a terrific episode. Watching both the country and Sterling-Cooper face their possible annihilation was mesmerizing and so well played by all. Thanks to AMC for sticking with this superior series and also "Breaking Bad". There is nothing predictable or easy about either of these shows, and AMC has made them work.

Bret said...

The first thing worth mentioning about the season finale is the title: "Meditations in an Emergency", which refers back to the first episode when Don sent a book by that name to an unknown friend. Later it is revealed who he sent the book to. Meditations in an Emergency was written by the sixties American poet Frank O'Hara. The key passage is from the poem Mayakovksy, quoted by Don in a voice-over from the first episode:

Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.

So the first and last episodes really bring home the overarching theme of Mad Men: Don's anomie, the erosion of societal and personal norms which he experiences. He is conscious of standing outside his life, trying to get in. He can't connect with society, or himself. To a lesser extent, the other characters also experience this, but Don is by far the most disconnected, obviously, due to the false identity he has assumed.

But Meditations in an Emergency also refers to the key theme of the episode: The Cuban Missile Crisis. We see everybody's reaction to the very real fear of a nuclear attack. All of the characters really are afraid they won't live to see the next day. Very true to life... the people who lived through that really did think they were going to die.

The first major plot point is Don's oblique, Clinton-esque confession of his infidelities. Betty seems to accept this, and we see that Don evidently made the right decision by coming up with some manner of confession. I think many in the blogosphere had debated whether he should confess or continue to stonewall. Now we know-- he wasn't getting anywhere by continuing to insult Betty's intelligence.

Later, we see the creepy Father Gill delivering a sermon exhorting his parishioners to prepare themselves, blah, blah. You have to wonder why Peggy keeps going to church, since she obviously doesn't buy into it. Later on, when he starts getting on her case, her reaction was basically the same as mine: Mind your own frikkin' business. Ugh.

Of course, Betty is pregnant. When she was bleeding in the previous episode, I kind of knew something like that was up. Typically, a tv show would foreshadow that by having someone throw up. That's too obvious for Mad Men.

Does Betty's 'Looking for Mr. Goodbar' moment come as a big surprise? Probably not, although at first I thought it might be a flashback to when she first met Don. Given some of her previous flirtations, you could probably see that coming. And it doesn't seem like she has too much to feel guilty about, given Don's behavior. I have a feeling we might see more of this kind of thing from Betty when we jump two years ahead next season.

Possibly my favorite scene from the last two seasons: The meeting to confirm the merger, Duck's big moment. He will be president of Sterling Cooper, or so it appears. Seems like the alcohol made Duck a lot more assertive, and possibly a lot stupider. His main point is that a larger company will get better prices on advertising, making Creative irrelevant. And Don will have to find another profession if he doesn't like it. Oh, wait... Don doesn't have a contract? Oops! If Duck wasn't drinking so much, maybe he would have known that. I loved the way Saint John Powell just dismissed him--"He never could hold his liquor". I'm guessing that the merger will go through, and that Duck is history. But I just loved the way Don handled that. He didn't blink, just like Kennedy didn't blink during the missile crisis.

Also, looks like Pete made the right choice. You could tell he was uncomfortable with Duck, and that he respects Don. The key point is that Pete wants to succeed, but on his own merits, and not as Duck's sycophant.

Something else that you could see coming- Pete getting real with Peggy. But what she said in return will have a lot of implications for next season. My guess is that Pete will somehow manipulate it so that he and Trudy can adopt Peggy's illegitimate baby. But who knows?

No doubt it's sad that the season is over. But it was good while it lasted, and there is always next season to look forward to.

Jane said...

Bret, this is an awesome recap of the final episode. Thank you so much for sharing your comment with The Flaming Nose. Here at TFN, we live for comments from the "outside". I had completely forgotten about the reference to the Frank O'Hara (who I adore) poem at the start of the season. Excellent catch.

It's good to know there are others out there just as captivated with this series as we are. For me, it's personal. I've worked in the TV-Media-Advertising biz for many years. It's great to see them get it so right.

I did find one little continuity error in this episode, too small to mention in my post. Early on, one of the secretaries is talking about the possibility that some folks will be let go with the pending merger. She uses the word "redundancy". I would be willing to bet that that term, used now to justify downsizing, did not exist in that context in 1962.

Wonderful comment, thanks again!

Juanita's Journal said...

I would still want someone like Duck Philips running the company, because he has an eye for the future. Don Draper does not. The only times Don has every cast an eye on the future was when he was forced to do so, or when he was in a desperate situation. That is not the hallmark of a good businessman.

Don should stick to being creative and allow someone like Duck run the company.