Well, I feel foolish. One hazard of writing about a show while it’s happening, especially when the current season was planned out entirely in advance, is that our understanding of an episode is rooted in that particular episode and so we lack the context to properly make sense of what’s happening. I don’t mean to throw my lot in with David Simon on this, as I think the episode-to-episode reading is entirely legitimate because it lets us dissect a real-time emotional experience while letting us reach and consider what will happen next, which adds a sense of intellectual exhilaration to the story’s unfolding. I mean instead to echo Nabokov’s sentiment (he is apparently one of Cool Medium’s patron saints) in saying that “A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” Any story worth its salt should gain—rather than lose—its emotional and intellectual magic once we have become acquainted with all its details and tricks, once we can see the artistry of its construction.
To a degree this season passes the test. Though in the moment, it felt like a long, boring slog, it landed gracefully on its feet during the final episode. With the benefit of hindsight it seems like a bold move on the part of Weiner et al. to strip Don, a beloved asshole, of his glamor. By making us sick of him, he was recreating in us the feeling that he was slowly coaxing out of Don himself. Yes, perhaps it could have been done a bit differently, with a bit more levity, but would this episode have felt as exhilarating, as hopeful otherwise? I think not. The season was messy and certain parts didn’t quite work, but it all landed in the right place. There is artistry in that.
If you haven’t already noticed, my reading of this episode skews toward the optimistic.
Greg, I’m so glad you asked if Ted’s relationship with Don acts as a loose proxy for Ted’s relationship with his father. First because, yes I do think so now that you’ve mentioned it, and second because the question acts as a perfect introduction to a theory that I had about the episode as a whole, that the parent/child relationship acts as a sort of emotional key. I’ll risk being too Freudian: Much of what Don does in this episode can be drawn back to his not being loved as a child. This is not to say that he has a single repressed traumatic experience that led him to act this way, but rather that his childhood was a traumatic experience—born to a prostitute, unloved by a cold father, reviled by his stepmother. The only love he felt growing up in the whorehouse was from the whore who bought him a Hershey bar if he stole enough money, and maybe from the Hershey bar itself.
It may seem overdetermined or a lazy way to instill meaning (I do remember the Nussbaum piece, Greg) but want to make the case that Mad Men decision to present a set of childhood conditions that could give rise to an adult like Don does not somehow rob the character of his complexity. In other words, it explains some things about Don, but the show hardly uses it as a psychoanalytical crutch to explain everything—for instance, much of Don’s current state results from the damage of living the life we’ve witnessed over the past six seasons. Some may want more ambiguity in the storytelling, but I am perfectly satisfied with what is already there. Perhaps I’m alone in this, but I am taken by the idea of Dick Whitman’s transition into Don Draper and I will defend its validity to my grave. In fact, I see it as something of an origin story, but that’s a pet theory for another essay.
And so, more or less predictably, more or less reductively, I see the performance of Don as the means that Dick developed to draw attention and affection to himself. Erinrose, this is why I agree when you posit that all Don knows of intimacy is performativity. The tragedy of the situation is that Don, the persona that grew out from a lack of love in young Dick’s life, is the very same persona that prevents this man from loving or being loved as he has grown up. After all, what kind of love can Dick have when he loves while wholly and aggressively inhabiting a performance? How is it possible for anyone else to love him they can only direct their love toward is that same performance? Though Don was born out of a lack of love, Don ensured that Dick would never receive that love.
This brings us to Don’s confession after seeing Planet of the Apes with Bobby earlier in the season. As I read this speech, Don is expressing that he wants to love his children but can’t, and this is precisely because he has always been Don with them and rarely—if ever—Dick. As a result, the most touching part of this finale for me was watching him bring Sally and Bobby to the whorehouse he grew up in. Don, it seems, is realizing that to love and be loved is to risk being known as an imperfect thing not as a grand, sparkly performance of what he imagines perfection to be (but what is, in practice, horrible and shitty). When he and Sally exchange glances in the final moments, I see him as making himself known to her as Dick, letting himself be known at his worst and most pathetic, in an attempt to foster love between them. It’s a delicate and risky thing to do, but a hopeful one.
So, it follows that Don’s abrupt confession during the Hershey pitch in this episode struck me as another intentional stripping away of the superficial and emotionally stunted performance. By confessing that his strongest memory of the Hershey bar was of eating them in a whore house, he is actively giving the lie to the idyllic life that stood at the basis of his entire too-good-to-be-true Don Draper act. By claiming that, if he had his way, Hershey would never advertise, he is denying the value of the career that allowed him to sustain that act. He is also ensuring that this career at Sterling Cooper and Partners will be going the way of Freddy Rumsen’s. As my good friend Troy Patterson has put it, Don is starting to reconcile be and seem.
Is this arc any different from Don’s other moments of truth? I think so—previous arcs featuring moments of truth all showed him rising again as Don but in slightly different form, and this one shows him attempting to reconcile with the self he has spent the show up until this point running away from. I am optimistic for his future as long as he gets the fuck out of NYC. It won’t be easy, it is likely to be messy. There is no certainty, but there is hope.
For a quick change of gears, I’ll move onto another enduring mystery, the death of Mrs. Campbell, something I too remain uncertain about. There is a part of me that believes Matthew Weiner must have been hip to the Tom Ripley comparison (Manolo makes another interesting Ripley proxy). In thinking about Manolo and Pete’s mom on the boat, I can’t help thinking of the murder scene in Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, which also went down on a boat. I imagine Manolo wearing a cardigan, his pants rolled up just below the knee, thwacking Mrs. Campbell with an oar and dumping her off the boat tied to an anchor. If Weiner ever wanted to write a series about a Ripley-esque character, I could guarantee him at least one viewer.
There’s one more thing about this Bob/Manolo fiasco that has been bothering me—I feel like I’ve been hoodwinked, too. I had assumed when Pete threw a fit about Manolo and his mother, he was simply being a prat, but it looks like he could have been right in his assessment of the situation. Was I being too harsh on him? This whole storyline, in retrospect, seems to have a sly way to soften us to Pete and develop his character by underlining the torturous relationship he had with his mother and family (he believed he was owed something for his family name but also resented it). Pete is, again, Don’s foil—a man who is perhaps fundamentally decent but trapped by the constraints of the life he thought he was meant to build. He has half a chance at happiness, too, and wouldn’t it be wild if he ended up the happy one? Zoller-Seitz has a theory about how that might come to pass.
And what of Peggy? More pant suits, please. I have nothing to add to what you’ve already said, guys, only that I saw the first episode of Mad Men with my dad the other day. Peggy was hardly recognizable.
I’d tell you to go to hell, but I never want to see you again.