[Before I go any further, a strong word of warning. This post will discuss a LOT of things that happen in the third season of Mad Men. The whole post is one big, throbbing spoiler, so if you're not up to date with the show and wish to remain unspoiled, please go no further. I won't even put a spoiler picture from the season up this high, just in case an image is enough to wreck things. I'll put a generic one here instead. One from last season, with Joan and Sal, my favourite characters.
That's the stuff. Now, on with the spoiling!]
I could kick Matthew Weiner in the shin. Throughout the third season of Mad Men I have mocked online commentators for bitching about the pace, a complaint voiced so often that it began to seem like an official comment from God or Crom or something. It’s the same sort of received wisdom as “The Lost showrunners are making it up as they go along,” or “Dexter is just so deep and morally complex”. Raging in my seat like an affronted parent watching their child’s behaviour be picked apart by snarky assholes, I shrieked “Too slow? But in this episode Betty met up with a guy in a diner and then came home. And Don was mean to Sal! That shit is seismic!” After a debut season of crashing unsubtlety, the torrential flow of information about Mad Men‘s characters became a dripping tap of clues, vague hints, and ambiguous behaviours. To any viewer who loves to patiently pan for gold (Lost fans have become experts at this), Mad Men’s third season was, for the most part, a gift.
And then Matthew Weiner comes along and gives us a final episode that — compared to the rest of the season — races forward, hurlings big events at us, all with the cool style of Lewis Milestone’s original Ocean’s Eleven, though with none of the smug tedium. Season three had seemed to be a delicately paced conundrum, but in fact was a set-up for a gargantuan upheaval played out like a rebirth for a group of characters who appeared to have hit an emotional and psychic dead-end. Coming from a showrunner who has, in the past, talked about how organic his writing is and how he doesn’t think in terms of season arcs, this fake-out was just as beautifully played as the sneaky tricks played in the formation of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
Who would have believed that a season of such depressing revelations and upsetting events would pave the way for the thrilling and utterly satisfying final episode? Most notably, this season had seen anti-hero Don Draper brought low by his own existential panic. The first episode of the season shows a relatively happy Don, excited about the birth of his new child, unusually attentive to his wife Betty, mostly uninterested in continuing his philandering, and considerate of Sal’s homosexuality (the “Limit Your Exposure” line being one of the highlights of the season). Yes, Don still ends up in bed with another woman (flight attendant — or should I say stewardess — Shelley), but her pursuit of a disinterested Don is relentless, and he almost seems to be trying to get away from her for much of the scene. As she is not an equal for him — like Rachel Menken or Midge Daniels — he orders her around, obviously bored by her playful attempts to excite him.
Compare that to episode 9 — Wee Small Hours — with Don’s regretting his decision to sign a contract that leaves him even more mired in the petty politics of his office. His frustration boils over as he angrily fires Sal for an act of self-preservation that jeopardises the firm…
…and then father-surrogate Connie Hilton rejects his big pitch (with the heartbreaking line, “What do you want from me? Love?”). His job, his lifestyle, and a truly meaningful and fulfilling relationship all in doubt, Don’s old habits rear up as he chases teacher Suzanne Farrell, aggressively and testily flirting with her until she surrenders to him. In a season where he seems to fall into both good and bad luck without expending much effort, this unusually desperate move stands out, but as his life revolves around keeping an exit strategy at hand, it’s understandable that this symbolic escape — which has helped him forget his troubles and feel free — would appeal to him so much.
Though his connection to Suzanne seems as honest as his previous dalliances with confident brunettes (who are obviously his type), Don’s panic is only temporarily held at bay. When Betty finally discovers his birth name and Don unburdens himself to her, the collapse of his marriage sends him into such a tailspin that he barely even registers the assassination of JFK. As everyone else responds with shock and sadness to this event, Don skulks around as if looking for someone to blame for revealing his secret. As he was the fool who kept mementos of his former life in a drawer in his office, perhaps he wanted to be found out. The cost to him is his marriage, as Betty takes this long-time betrayal as the perfect excuse to jump out of one marriage and into another. Funnily enough, her new love — political adviser Henry Francis — is as much a father figure for Betty as Connie is for Don. Though Don’s relationship with Connie slowly disintegrates as he fails to live up to his impossible standards (Don literally fails to provide his deranged employer the moon), Betty gets her man by playing hard to get.
In the final episode of the season, Don is given a chance to reclaim something of himself. In previous seasons it always looked like Don would thrive in the 60s. Though he has the look of the stereotypical Brylcreemed businessman, with a glass of Scotch and a teeny-tiny cigarette (are they filterless? Is it a Lucky Strike?), Don has seemed to be a secret bohemian, responding to poetry, foreign cinema, and jazz. There has been evidence that he values the opinions of ethnic minorities, women, and homosexuals, three groups that are about to fight back against the oppressive mores of Sixties America. In the third season this beatnik streak seems to vanish as he is hemmed in by responsibilities he had previously been able to avoid. He treats Peggy and Sal — two people he had seemed willing to mentor in the past, as much as someone as solitary as Don would ever mentor anyone — with disdain and disrespect, with the consequence that Sal vanishes from Don’s life entirely and Peggy almost turns her back on him for good. Don also rejects Roger’s friendship, ostensibly because he finds his new marriage — and possibly his blackface routine — distasteful, but possibly because he envies him for jumping out of an unhappy marriage and chasing his dream.
To be honest, I feel stupid for thinking that Don would take this restrictive situation lying down. Though obviously in a paralysing depression, Don would have to escape this trap, otherwise the last two seasons of the show would have had little to offer other than variations on this soul-crushing sadness. Why tune in to see this once vital man sitting in a corporate office, watching the world change around him? Though it might be a fitting end for someone who can be as morally unpalatable as this, we forgive Don most of his trespasses because he is a fighter. There’s only one thing in fiction more appealing than a character who can save their own ass, and that’s someone who can save others too, which made this finale even more satisfying as Don faces up to the possible break-up of his marriage and realises that with that tether gone he has more freedom to reclaim his place in the world, bringing others up with him.
Throughout the season Don is haunted by flashes from the past: an imagined conception and birth scene, reminders of his step-brother’s suicide, visions of his father taunting him, and finally a memory of that man throwing away the help of a farming co-operative to go it alone. That decision might strike Don as noble, but it turns out to be ultimately foolhardy as his father is badly hurt by a horse during a storm, throwing their plans for self-sufficiency into turmoil. Nevertheless, these visions guide Don to find a third way between dependence and independence. With the help of a select few Sterling Cooper employees — including Sterling and Cooper — Don inspires the formation of the new firm of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, with a staff/family composed of the few people he respects, including the third season addition of the initially sinister and eventually adorable Lane Pryce.
That said, while Don is in cahoots with others whose abilities he now depends upon, he is so much his own man that he brings no accounts to the new firm. He just brings himself. While Bert brings money, Roger brings American Tobacco, Pete brings his accounts (note that he proudly displays his account acquisitions but won’t admit to getting the Clearasil account back from his father-in-law, as this lessens his moment of victory), and Lane brings a canny business mind and some sneaky pre-operation planning, Don is just Don. He’s there because he is the self-made man that he thinks Connie is. He could well bring the Hilton account — Connie mostly rejects Don at the start of the episode because he doesn’t want to deal with McCann Erickson, which would not be a problem with SCDP — but he doesn’t as that would tarnish him. He would be beholden to Connie, that little dependence holding him back from satisfying himself both professionally and emotionally. He has moved on from his father’s solitary ethos by creating a co-operative with the others, but has given them only his brain — the sweat of his brow — not his connections.
This is one possible interpretation of Don’s motives, and seems to fit with his visions of the past, but there is also the possibility that Don finds Connie’s pro-American stance a little distasteful. As we have seen with his trip to Italy, his interest in foreign cinema, and his encounter with European aristocrats in season two’s The Jet Set, Don seems to relish encountering other cultures, and would see Connie’s insular politics and worldview as restrictive and unpleasant. This will, of course, play out as the season goes on and America’s military begins to expand its operations in Vietnam (a conflict that is metaphorically alluded to with dark humour in the notorious lawnmower scene)…
…but is a love of world culture really Don’s main motivation in severing ties with Hilton? No matter what the cause, this act of intentional sabotage propels Don into the rest of the decade in a position of real power, and hopefully with the respect of the others. Knowing his own mind, Don becomes the persuasive and appealing businessman he once was, able to quickly win over the people he has hurt over the course of this season. Pete, Peggy and Roger are mad at Don for his actions, but it only takes him a few minutes to win them all back to his side, such is his enthusiasm and energy. Only Peggy really resists, but then his betrayal of her seems more personal and unexpected. Of course this works metaphorically as well, as Peggy stands for the rising tide of feminist thought. More than any other female character in the show she seems to be the one who instinctively follows her own path, though all the while dismissed and snubbed by the men who run the world.
An aside: I’ve often felt that she is growing into a Randian heroine, though Ayn Rand would probably have argued that you are born great, that you don’t become great over time. I suspect this association looms large in my mind for a number of reasons — including the continual exploration of the theme of individual responsibility, especially as expressed through Don’s arc, but I’ve also wondered if Peggy is modelled on Rand.
This connection with Peggy — which may or may not be intentional — is not the only time Rand has been referenced on the show. As the show dramatises many characters’ quest for self-determination, Rand’s philosophy seems to have affected Weiner’s thought processes as much as Rand’s fiction would have affected the belief systems of a group of affluent white men in the Sixties. These are the men who have the best opportunities laid at their feet and yet pretend that everything they have accomplished is thanks to them and them alone — a belief that would be bolstered by reading Rand’s fantasies. Bert Cooper is a big fan of Atlas Shrugged, though his semi-retirement at the end of season two seems to have more to do with torpor than an attempt to deprive the world of his wisdom. There is also a connection to The Fountainhead: Don has always struck me as a less-confident Howard Roark figure, and Jon Hamm even reminds me of Gary Cooper, who played Roarke in King Vidor’s adaptation.
Of course, Don is less steady than Roark, who is a typical Randian heroic figure, more god than man, flawless and honourable and utterly dismissive of all who do not live by his creed. Don does many things Roark doesn’t do, such as give advice to others out of a sense of altruism, which is of course the worst crime a human being can commit, according to Rand. However, though Don does seem capable of being vulnerable around the women in his life (another thing Rand would frown at), he can use sex as a weapon, as shown by his despicable treatment of Bobbie Barrett in season two. Of course, this is not quite as bad as the Sex-As-Actual-War-Between-Two-Gods scenes of Roark raping Dominique Francon.
Which character is worse? Is it possible for there to be grades of awfulness? Oh God, one of the few bad things about Mad Men is that just when I think I’ve suppressed memories of the craziness of Rand, the show brings it back up again. Well, this show and idiot teabaggers with their banners talking about Going Galt. Yes, the world will tremble once the right-wing bloggers of the world pack up their Macs and go hide in a cave somewhere. As the characters in Mad Men are very human, and capable of a full gamut of emotions, let’s just say that these guys are as influenced by Rand as anyone in the Sixties would have been (i.e. as much as people nowadays are superficially influenced by whichever dreary hot-topic book is riding high at number 3 on the best seller list after Twilight and The Lost Symbol), and then just forget the comparison I just made ever happened.
Back to Peggy, who is nothing like Rand and I’m sorry I brought it up. She’s a sexually open, confident woman who is unwilling to be treated as second-rate by the men she works with. She’s even in front of the curve on this, as other women on the show seem less able to find their own way than Peggy. Only Joan seems to be moving in the right direction, though with less haste and confidence than Peggy. While Peggy is now going after what she wants and confronting men about this (up to and including finally saying “no” to a request for coffee from Roger, who accepts this), Joan is still at the beck and call of the men in her life, a fact that seems to frustrate her enough that she will snap and crack a vase over your head if pushed to breaking point:
Her return was still the result of a hand-out from her former lover Roger, which blunts that moment of triumph, but even though she has yet to reach her full potential the way Peggy has, that entrance was still something else. I doff my cap to Christina Hendricks for that glorious sashay of victory, and to the showrunners for manipulating the feelings of Joan fans everywhere. It was possibly the best moment in the whole wonderful episode, with Lane’s final phone-call to St. John Powell a close second. Even so, Joan remains perhaps even more of a mystery than Betty. What do we really know about her? That her ambitions have been crushed? That she has embarked on a relationship with the man who raped her simply because you’re supposed to marry a rich man, and he seems like a good enough match? That she can rock the accordion like Sexiness Incarnate?
In comparison, Betty is becoming an open book. By now we’ve seen how she reacts to her family, the death of her father, and the breakdown of her marriage, we have more of an idea of how she views herself. In one of the few mis-steps of the season, in The Fog we see Betty hallucinating a meeting with her parents and, bafflingly, recently assassinated civil rights activist Medgar Evers:
That entire episode was shaky, with some of the worst on-the-nose dialogue in the show so far (we’re talking season-one-esque lack of subtlety), but even if it was obvious, the image of Betty staring admiringly at a butterfly unable to escape its cocoon is memorable. She has no urge to expand her horizons the way Peggy and Joan do, possibly because she has no real idea of what it is to become her own person. Though she has finally thrown Don out of her life on her terms, she has just moved from one relationship to another, with Henry taking control in social situations while she sits passively at his side.
There are hints that she might one day move on from dependence on the men in her life, such as a quick shot of her in an earlier episode reading the proto-feminist novel The Group. That said, if she does indeed love Henry, is this dependence or finding her own way? For much of the season it seemed like she was falling for him as a side-effect of the emotional fallout following her father’s death, but she does seem to genuinely feel something for him (though this affection is barely noticeable considering that “Nordic” affect she has). Maybe this is enough for her, and it’s unfair to compare her happiness with Don’s, which comes from his independence. Bear in mind the last time we see her she has symbolically left her previous life behind, flying to Reno with Henry and her new son Gene, while Sally and Bobby remain in her old home with Carla. Her eagerness to run away from that life might have disastrous consequences.
It’s also telling that she is courted by Henry on her terms. Her idea of romance involves a fainting couch bought especially as a focal point for her erotic and romantic fantasies. Poor Henry cannot fathom this kind of mindset. When he clumsily tries to seduce her she pushes him away, driving him to ask what exactly it is she wants:
Even someone who seems more understanding than Don cannot figure out why blunt come-ons aren’t working the way they should. Eventually he realises she wants their relationship to be built on something more “noble” than the trysts that her husband embarks on. Once he has raised the possibility of marriage to her, she accepts his advances. In the final episode Don grabs her and calls her a whore for taking another lover, but in her mind she has behaved more honourably than he ever has. Instead of being intimidated she holds his gaze long enough to make him release her. Does he let her go because the baby wakes up and begins crying? Or is he rattled by her confidence? I’m willing to bet he didn’t expect his quiet wife to threaten him with blackmail, and her defiant glare was the thing that convinced him to get the hell out of the house.
It’s tempting to feel happy for her and even for Don — who seems a little lost without his trophy wife but nevertheless as free as he always wanted to be — as long as we forget about how hard their break-up is going to be on their children. Baby Gene won’t even notice, but Bobby and Sally are already distraught. Sally especially seems to be the one who will come out of the whole affair with the most damage. Betty seems unable to understand her daughter, who acts out after the death of her grandfather and whose emotional outbursts and rebellious nature terrify her mother. Don seems to understand and accept her now that she seems like a human being with needs of her own and the drive to fulfil them, but he is now out of the picture.
Sally’s arc seems to be heading downwards, and of all the characters on the show, she is the one I feel most sorry for. Everyone else has their own tribulations to contend with, but even when they are trapped with seemingly no way out (as many characters seemed to this season), they can at least rely on their wits to regain their autonomy. Of those chosen by Don to work at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, Harry is an innovator, Roger knows his own mind and dares to get a divorce even though such things were taboo at the time (unlike using blackface in a scene of such colossal WTFness that no one who has seen it has recovered yet)…
…and Pete has shown more ambition than Ken, who just follows everyone else like the chummy idiot he is. Paul has no imagination, unlike Peggy, and none of the receptionists seem to have any clue about what is going on around them (and can be so foolish as to drive a lawnmower over someone’s foot, as was seen in the memorable episode Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency). Until Don rallies his new team and harnesses their drive and imagination, they are doomed to a life of unsatisfying drudgery.
There are so many threads to the Mad Men tapestry that even though I have rambled on at horrible length I’ve barely touched the surface. The rest of the Sixties looms over the show, with the rebellious acts of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce mimicking not only American independence in the 18th Century (if we are to take the American/Brit divide so literally) but also the forthcoming youth movement, casting off the staid ways of their parents (with stuffy Brits with their upper-class accents here metaphorically representing the trad parents of hip young things). We’ve seen drugs infiltrate the hallowed offices as Paul tries to kickstart his malfunctioning imagination with marijuana, though unfortunately for him he only succeeds in bonding with an old college friend while Peggy is inspired to save the day, as ever.
There’s also the changing relationship between sex and guilt, with one character embracing her sexuality and another learning a lesson. Peggy learns to love her libido, seducing a young college student early in the series and pretty much accepting it, though being much more mature about birth control than she was in the past. We also see Pete –wracked with boredom while his wife Trudy is away — “seduce” (i.e. blackmail and coerce) his next door neighbour’s German au pair into sleeping with him, but after getting confronted about it by the neighbour…
…he does something Don would never do: he realises the error of his ways and phones Trudy to beg her never to leave him alone again. Is he doing that because he was caught? Considering how he didn’t learn his lesson after sleeping with Peggy — an act, let’s not forget, that ended with Peggy secretly pregnant — it’s odd that this tryst rattled him, even though his actions were technically forgiven by the neighbour who only seems mad because he has to deal with an upset maid, and then gives Pete advice on how to conduct his affairs in future. I’d like to think Pete has finally learned a lesson and appreciates Trudy and her selfless support. Of all the couples in the show, Pete and Trudy end the series in the best shape, acting as a team to first conspire against Sterling Cooper, and then help Don and his gang of rebels.
So we’re seeing the notoriously transformative Sixties shake up this WASPy, Republican world. We’ve seen how JFK’s assassination has shaken them up (in an episode sensitively written by Weiner and first time writer Brett Johnson, and brilliantly directed by Barbet Schroeder), but what next for the show? If the usual timejumps are anything to go by, the show will be set around 1965-66, before the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., before Woodstock, around the time of the Watts Riots and the escalation of the Vietnam War. By then I hope that Matthew Weiner has found a way to bring in all of the regular characters from the first three seasons, not just because I like Paul, Ken (Cosgrove! Accounts!) and Sal, but because without them in the show there will be no more appearances by the gang (plus LeVar Burton) on The Soup:
In the meantime, we’re looking at another sweep of the Emmys and Golden Globes. I’ve been annoyed in the past when other shows I love don’t get awards thanks to the usual shut-outs by Mad Men, but this year there’s a good chance I won’t mind at all. How can the amazing work from Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, John Slattery, and Jared Harris not be rewarded, or the superb direction from Phil Abrahams, Lesli Linka Glatter, Michael Uppendahl, and Daisy von Scherler Meyer, or the crack writing staff headed by the perfectionist Matthew Weiner? In the past, even when I’ve liked the show, it’s been a superficial respect. I had never embraced the show the way I have The Shield, or Lost, or Friday Night Lights. Perhaps that’s the thing I liked most about the third season. Finally I have come to think of the characters as imaginary friends, and the offices of Sterling Cooper as a kind of playground that my mind can run through. At last I am a Mad Men obsessive, with both mind and heart. It was a triumph, then. An absolute 100% triumph. And for those who think the show is po-faced (as if any show featuring the comedy stylings of Roger Sterling could ever be truly po-faced), here is a screen capture of the Art Department door.
A fart joke! On the classiest show on TV! Paradoxically, that makes the show a little classier.
(Thanks to Daisyhellcakes, Cat Vincent, Anne Billson, and all the other Twitter Mad Men fans I have similarly pestered. Their conversation throughout this season has helped crystallise the millions of disparate thoughts inspired by this thoroughly challenging show.)