Mad Men: The quagmire stares back |

TV | Mad Men

Mad Men: The quagmire stares back

(Michael Yarish/AMC)

Don Draper is freewheeling west, destination unknown. Joan Holloway is out the door with half her fortune and her future unclear. Roger Sterling fiddles with his organ while the small empire he built burns, and Peggy Olson is migrating between offices, bravely faking an image of cool that hides her blurry-eyed hangover. With two episodes remaining, the characters of Mad Men find themselves lost in space…or trekking into new frontiers. Depends on your interpretation of the song that concluded last week’s episode, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” I suppose. The exceptions: Pete Campbell and Harry Crane, who appear to be happily assimilated into the soulless, inhuman world-eating Borg collective that is the McCann-Erickson network of conquered companies. 

With Sterling, Cooper & Partners now dismantled, Mad Men’s heroes are in flux, their identities as individuals and relevancy to their world as hazy as their future is uncertain. (Leave it to Mad Men to turn a group of rich, privileged white people into a potent allegory for cultural disenfranchisement.) A question posed by research wonk Bill Phillips in last week’s episode, “Lost Horizon,” applies to them all: “What is your brand?” A joke ad for Dow Chemical produced by outgoing Ed sums up their murky condition and their urgent need: “Cleans Up Quagmire.”

In this unsettled, transitional space, I’m reminded of the words of Lane’s father—the British bully with the big stick, ordering his wayward Hamlet to resolve his existential crisis. “Put your home in order, either here or there. You will not live in between.” Will Mad Men end with its struggling strivers docked in their final tomorrowland places? (Brace yourself for that fashionable finale play: Time jump peaks into the future?) Or is the moral of the story that life is to be lived on the road, getting lost, getting found, helping each other as best as we can along the way?

To hobo, or not to hobo: Such is the existential question of Mad Men. One thing is for certain: There won’t be an abrupt cut to black during Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” to make some grand philosophical point. Kinda been done.

The early episodes of this climactic chapter – Season 7B, technically – frustrated some viewers with their lack of driving plot (not unusual for early-season Mad Men, but surprising all the same given the endgame circumstances), emphasis on peripheral characters that didn’t need the attention (Megan, Megan’s mom, Creepy Glen), and Don’s fixation and fornications with a sad-eyed Dos Passos-reading waitress named Diana, a personality not unlike himself, a damaged, damaging runaway human tornado, a grungy femme fatale to Don’s bluesy lady-killer. She may or may not have been real.

In the immortal words of Scooby-Doo: Huh? Why was Mad Men wasting its last few hours on phantoms? I can accept a good Sideways-world denouement from some shows about lost souls, but not this one.

It wasn’t until McCann-Erickson enacted a plan to dismantle SC&P—a thinly-veiled wink at Mad Men’s de facto cancelation, but more on this later—that the narrative has gained traction. These last five episodes have worked together to set up a climax where the stakes are spiritual, the plight is philosophical and existential, and the power is found more in character resolution than plot. What do I want from the last two episodes? I want a finale that provides a fresh way of looking at the quagmire ‘60s-turned-’70s yet also resonates with our current-day quagmire. I want Peggy, the show’s most aspirational character, to continue modeling an example of ambition and cultural engagement without compromising herself. I want Don the affirmation addict to tame, manage, and even make peace with his chaos; I wish to see him humbled toward grace.(I’m avoiding the word “redemption.” Cleaning up his self-made quagmire in some permanent, once-and-for-all way might be as unwinnable a war as Vietnam.) I want Joan—having moved from accommodation and resignation toward a sexist, misogynist society that has exploited her, degraded her, and literally cheapened her (a 50 cents on the dollar buy-out!) to full-on rage and resentment—to find a way to keep fighting the fight. Turn that surrender around, Joan! And I want Roger to shave off that goddam pornstache.

“What is his brand?” There are many ways to look at Mad Men and many narratives within Mad Men. I love how the language of Don’s profession—specifically, the philosophy of brand marketing—explains Don’s rise and wither, and in turn, how Don’s ironic arc reflects the marketing challenges many older brands (specifically, the so-called “legacy brands” of old media) are facing as they fight to remain relevant in the digital age. In Sterling, Cooper & Partners—which dead-ended itself and lost its place in the media firmament by voting against Jim Cutler’s bolder plan to reinvent itself as a cutting edge, computer-driven company—I see the trials and possible fate of so many newspapers, magazines, and TV networks. In the agency’s rank and file left mad and muttering, displaced and unemployed as a result of their bosses’ lack of vision, I see a lot of people I know.

The 20th century has been called by some “The Marketing Century,” usually by those in the marketing business. The golden age of this era was, arguably, the span of time and life surveyed by Mad Men, the late ‘50s and ‘60s, in which companies embraced and reinvented the philosophy of branding to distinguish themselves from the competition. This required creating identities for their products that were authentic, unique, and timeless, able to survive and thrive during changing times while able to speak to any time. 

The sad ballad of the ad man formerly known as Dick Whitman has been the story of a hustling marketer trying to make himself into a vital, venerable brand. Don Draper was a slick modern roadster built to win the race of life; it was his Jaguar. He was doomed to fail, and not just because all cars fall apart over time, and not just because the principles and disciplines of brand management make for shallow, insufficient life management. There was nothing genuine about the “Don Draper” brand. In some profound ways, original formula Dick resisted the repositioning even as it represented everything he thought he yearned to be.

There was ultimately nothing vital or timeless about him, either. That “Don Draper” succeeded as long as it did was something of a lucky strike—but eventually, it proved as unhealthy to himself and to others as the cigarette brand that was once his agency’s lifeblood. In fact, Don’s relationship to many of the iconic brands on the show—Kodak in season 1; Hershey in season 5; Miller Lite here at the end—kept calling him back to confront his past, kept confronting him with his hypocrisy and his fraudulence, kept nudging him to surrender his addiction to his less-than-fulfilling bogus brand. Dick’s strategy to reinvent himself as Don reminds me of another schizoid anti-hero of the age, Bruce Wayne, and his perspective on the Dark Knight, as articulated in Batman Begins: “As a man, I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored, I can be destroyed. But as a symbol… as a symbol I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting.”

In the end, though, the symbol corrupted the man, nearly killed him, invited an escalating amount of trouble for himself and his culture, and left him stripped of all identity, homeless, and exiled… with millions of dollars and Anne Hathaway. I digress. My point is that Dick to Don was as bone-headed and doomed as Coke to New Coke, as Prince to… whatever that glyph was.

Don has never been the same since the Hershey apocalypse forced him to confess the horror of his inauthenticity, and the incoherence of his identity. His best marketeering since his meltdown was backing Peggy’s Burger Chef play. Way to build up her brand, Don! His worst? Backing Roger’s play to sell the agency to McCann, a vain, futile bid to preserve their waning, increasingly obsolete personal brands (and the brand of the agency). 

The final episodes of Mad Men have seen beaten, beaten down “Don Draper” lose its remaining power as a vehicle for Dick Whitman. We’ve seen him stripped of his roles, powers and romantic illusions. Husband. Father. Business owner. Homeowner. Lady-killer. Artist. Hero. His first day on the job at McCann-Erickson was supposed to be the beginning of happily ever after in advertising heaven. Instead, it was a humbling that cut the former Dick Whitman to the quick and blew up “Don Draper.

 Ferg Donnelly’s none-too-flattering impression of Don—casting him to Richard Nixon—gave voice to a comparison many of us have made over the years, and that was suggested by the show itself in the season 7 premiere, set against the backdrop of Nixon’s inauguration. Don clearly didn’t like being likened to Tricky Dick, because it was proof that he’d lost control of his image. Because it was too on-the-nose. Asked to attend a meeting about Miller Beer, Don arrived expecting to be the lone superstar creative director in the room. Instead, he found the room crowded with superstar creative directors. The meeting was led by a research guru with imagination and patter to rival Don in his prime. A complex reaction took place. Don—a man who needs to feel extraordinary to feel even a little bit good about himself±suddenly felt very ordinary and unnecessary. But Bill Phillips’ vivid word picture of the prospective Miller Lite drinker—the Heartland man—clearly stirred something buried inside Don, namely, a guy named Dick.

“Don Draper” died there, I think. During a pitch, no less. His identity of inflated upscale masculinity was popped by an exultation of the common man he never wanted to be. 

Don caught a glimpse of a jet steaming west, pulling on his flight trigger. He walked out of the meeting, taking his deluxe yet just-like-everyone-else’s box lunch with him. Ted Chaough smiled a smiled that could be interpreted any number of ways. Was it: Way to go, Don? Or was it: There he goes again?

The remainder of “Lost Horizon” doted on the latter. Don tried to shore up his flagging, fading Draper-ness by going where he was needed. He tried to play good father, driving Sally to boarding school—but she didn’t need him. (She had independence!) He then tried to seduce his lonely ex-wife… but Betty didn’t need him, either. (She had Freud!)

Then, masquerading as Bill Phillips—a new stolen identity; a new stolen brand; “Don Draper,” more dead than ever—Don tried to save dream girl doppelganger don’t-need-nobody Di Bauer. But she wasn’t there (if she even existed at all). Her Christian ex-husband saw through Don’s ever-shifting ruse and cast him out like Christ driving the tax collectors and merchants out of the temple. He told him to quit playing redeemer and find a savior for himself. Namely: Jesus. That’s certainly one way for a dying brand to reposition itself. And it’s not like Don doesn’t know how Christian conversion works. If anyone knows anything about being born again by taking on the identity of a dead man, it’s the former Dick Whitman.

We left Don last week playing Good Samaritan, picking up a hobo hitchhiker on the side of the road needing a ride to St. Paul, Minnesota. Where will he go from there? And once there, what will be his brand? For years, I’ve been saying Don will wind up in Hollywood, making movies. A couple weeks ago, seduced by McCann chief Jim Hobart’s promise of “advertising heaven,” I wondered if Don was destined to create the classic 1971 Coke commercial “Hilltop: I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke,” sticky with sweet ‘60s idealism that never stuck. 

But today, I’m thinking Don is migrating back to the only place in the world where he could be his true self, the only place where Dick Whitman left a lasting mark of any sort: the former home of Anna Draper in San Pedro, the house where he left his name on a wall. “Dick + Anna ‘64.” I think our rolling stone stops there, and lives out his days there under his given name. He’ll find rich new life being totally irrelevant, an exile off the Main Street of Mad Men USA. To borrow from Mick and the boys: May Don “stop breaking down” and finally get “happy.”

The ‘60s According to Mad Men. Pop culture tends to turn the ‘60s into an American fall myth—fom Camelot to Quagmire, from the Can Do! spirit of the Space Race to the Please, Stop! of Vietnam. Mad Men has followed suit in a many ways. Here at the end, we see Sterling Cooper & Partners, our microcosm for American culture, as lost heroic agency. Their deflated members reflect that legacy. In Joan, we see the disillusioned. In Ken, we see the sell-out. In Don and Roger, we see the indicted Nixons who screwed a culture with a power-mongering blunder. “You were supposed to look out for us,” Peggy told Roger, who brokered the deal to McCann in a mad bid to remain relevant to and in control of his world.

History tells us that the ‘60s gave way to narcissism (dig: “the Me decade”) and malaise (see: Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech of ’79); the ‘70s was the energy crisis decade, in more ways than one. I can see ways in which Mad Men leaves us bumming. (Especially if Don winds up a literal bum.) But I wonder if Mad Men might be less interested in conforming to the same old, same old ‘60s narrative than responding to it with an exhortation to let it go, and to hope. I’ll be looking to Peggy and Sally for the show’s final statements on this subject. I loved how Peggy went all Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt last week, refusing to let the prospect of building her life, brand, and relevancy all over again get her down. I hope she can keep it up.

See You In The Funny Papers: Mad Men as metaphor for itself and the future of television and media. In the first episode of Mad Men, Don introduced himself with an alienating declaration that didn’t exactly portend his destiny as a beloved TV icon. “What you call ‘love’ was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons,” the ad man explained to a woman in a bar. We now know the womanizer doth protest too much: As with most things concerning Don, the statement is ironic. The truth is found in the words and behind them. “Don Draper” really is that cynical, but the man behind the mask desperately wants to connect to something as invigorating and timeless as true love. 

The deeper irony of the line is that you can say the same thing about television. All shows, even Mad Men, aren’t created to be art; they’re made as marketing delivery systems, and/or as advertising to enhance or promote their networks. See what House of Cards has meant to Netflix—or what Mad Men has meant to AMC. This is a cynical thing to say, I know, and especially now, at a time when television has elevated its artfulness and the medium has gained in prestige. But Mad Men contains this narrative, too. The pilot episode saw Don, show-running yarn-spinner, score a hit for the agency’s top client, the aptly named Lucky Strike, with a bold pitch to distinguish the brand from its competitors while also changing the conversation about its industry. Don’s “It’s toasted” pitch is basically “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.”

If comparing television to cigarettes makes you queasy, remember the businesses have a few things in common: They both aspire to be addictive; they’ve both fought epic cultural wars to improve their image in the eyes of the public; they’re both constantly accused of amusing people to death. 

This half-season has been fixated on the themes of cancelation and legacy. Follow the cigarettes: The opening episode began with a scene of Don being Don, pitching woo and spinning a yarn, but it ends with him extinguishing his Lucky Strike into an empty coffee cup. It was April 1970, the month and year that cigarette spots were retired from TV. When McCann shuttered Sterling, Cooper & Partners, Don came up with an idea that any not-ready-to-quit TV producer of a fading hit show might mull: a spin-off. He proposed that McCann keep the franchise alive with Sterling Cooper West, a lighter version of the current agency, possessing the same spirit as the original if not the same heft. With his business breaking bad, Don pitched Better Call Saul.

If McCann represented AMC, the answer would’ve probably been yes: I’m sure the network would throw a guy out the window to have Mad Men: Los Angeles premiering this fall. But Jim Hobart said no. In a scene that can be interpreted in a few different ways, McCann’s top dog played a number of metaphorical roles: Tempting Satan. Angel of Death. Even Matthew Weiner himself. Or at least, the part of Weiner capable of recognizing when enough is enough. The saga is finished; all that can be achieved has been accomplished (save an Emmy for Jon Hamm); it’s time to let go and move on. “Stop struggling,” Hobart says. “You’ve won.” 

Mad Men belongs to an extraordinary period in television history that has given us much innovation and many great shows. Where do we go from here? Is the golden age still unfolding and evolving? Or have we reached the end of something? I wonder if Mad Men is wondering, too. At a time when all of pop culture is giving itself over to comic book properties and transmedia franchises, Mad Men is giving us Lou Avery chasing fortune and fulfillment making cartoons, and Hollywood Harry—the TV tub-thumper turned computer evangelist—kissing off old media Roger with this line: “See you in the funny papers.” 

The myth of new-century television would have you believe that the revolution in quality was catalyzed in large part by networks granting writers the freedom to let loose with auteur visions. What to make, then, of SC&P losing its independence, or idiosyncratic, accomplished Don forced to assimilate into—and compete with—a proverbial writers room, working on pitches for tasty if less filling brand extensions of existing franchises? At the very least, it represents that Team Mad Men knows that they are unlikely to ever have it better, or duplicate their creative success elsewhere.

Recent television has been golden for white guys, especially if they want to play anti-heroes or superheroes. For everyone else? Not as much. I think of the scene in “Lost Horizon,” when Shirley, Roger’s African American secretary, declined her spot in McCann’s so-called “advertising heaven.” (“Advertising is not a very comfortable place for everyone.”) I think of the scene in “Time & Life” when Jim Hobart awarded all the male partners with glamorous franchise opportunities – Jon Hamm scored himself the Superman of timeless American brands, Coca-Cola – but gave Joan nothing. Her reward? Playing sidekick or love interest or redemptive agent to McCann’s piggish, mistake-prone iron men. Basically: Joan is The Black Widow. And according to Twitter, being Black Widow ain’t all that cool. Perhaps the great television that will (hopefully) keep coming after Mad Men leaves us for good will clean up that quagmire once and for all.