MAD MEN FINALE Recap

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I was not able to watch the Mad Men finale on Sunday night because I was simply too tired to stay awake for it. The problem with writing a Mad Men finale recap late is that you might as well not write it at all. By now all of the die hard Mad Men fans have already gorged themselves on recaps and reviews of “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” And after reading some particularly insightful pieces ( for example James Poniewozik’s review on Time.com), I wonder how much I have to add.

But the thing about Mad Men is that it almost begs you to write about it. So gorged or not my friends, I hope you have some room for dessert:

1. The Divorce

If any TV couple should get a divorce, it’s Don and Betty Draper. In addition to lying to his wife for the last ten years about his family, his past and his real name, Don has systemically cheated on his wife. “Cheat” doesn’t even really encompass Don’s behavior over the last 3 seasons — he has pursued extramarital affairs with a persistency and zeal unmatched by even Three’s Company‘s Larry Dallas.

larry

And while Betty’s transgressions were less severe, she did have sex with a stranger in a bar bathroom and nurtured an emotional relationship with Henry Francis (who I do not trust AT ALL). As Don chides, “All along you’ve been building a life raft.” Oh Betty.

Don and Betty should break up and yet, watching them go through the various motions of the TV couple divorce — meeting with a lawyer, having “the talk” with their children — I couldn’t help but feel very sad. Indeed, when Don crawled into bed with Sally, who slept in Grandpa Gene’s old pull out cot  to be closer to her exiled Daddy (even though, as she states, “Gene’s room is creepy”), I was overwhelmed with emotion. There was hardly room for the two of them in that creaky little bed, but in he crawled, still wearing his suit. Don’s children seem to be his only link to his emotions — to the real person (is he called “Dick Whitman”?) under the Don Draper veneer — and so I see this divorce primarily as Don’s loss, rather than Betty’s. Though my guess is that Season 4 will reveal the toll that divorce is taking on Betty.

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Don assures his children, "It'll just be temporary"

2.  Joan!

I love Joan. Who doesn’t love Joan? And the moment that Don, Roger Sterling, Bert Cooper and Lane Pryce began to plot how they might abscond from Sterling Cooper with their accounts and files in tact I turned to my husband and said “Joan! They’re going to get Joan!” And when Joan returned she was once again wearing her iconic pen around her neck — a symbol of her power and independence that had been absent from her ample bosom for most of the season. Welcome back pen and welcome back Joan!

Joan Holloway
Joan at full capacity

3. Peggy

I imagine that if you tried to hug Peggy Olsen she would be one of those people who stiffen and then pat you uncomfortably on the back. Peggy is not sentimental but, paradoxically, she is a successful copywriter because she understands sentiment all too well. Don even tells Peggy — in an attempt to woo her into joining his new firm — that she alone understands that “something terrible has happened” (which I took to mean “Peggy, you understand that people are fundamentally sad and you know how to exploit that sadness in order to sell them consumer goods”).

In this episode Peggy finally seemed to recognize her own worth as a copywriter and as an asset to Don. She initially tells Don to shove it when he tries to strong-arm her into leaving Sterling Cooper, making it clear that she is not like the other women in Don’s life. If he wants her, he’ll need to spill his guts. And when he shows up at her apartment, hat in hand, Peggy weeps. Sure, they were discussing work, but they were also discussing their complicated relationship. When Peggy asks Don if he will stop speaking to her if she refuses his offer, he counters, “No. I will spend the rest of my life trying to hire you.” “Damn that Don Draper’s smooth!” was my husband’s reply to this. But I think Don was being sincere. Peggy is more than just a great copywriter to Don — they are each other’s double and Don finally admits that out loud in this episode. I hope their relationship is explored more in Season 4.

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Peggy joins Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce

4. The Lighting

With its superb cast, nuanced writing and slow burn narratives, it is easy to overlook Mad Men‘s understated formal style. This season — and especially in this finale — I have been captivated by the show’s Rembrandt lighting. For example, after Roger and Don convince Pete Campbell to leave Sterling Cooper they head to a bar to commiserate and plot their next move. The set is soaked in shadows, with pockets of brightness here and there. This lighting style is reminiscent of The Sopranos, which also used chiaroscuro lighting to depict a homosocial milieu. In this mix of light and darkness men discuss the things that (they think) they need to keep from their women: their sexual dalliances, their (dirty) business, their feelings.

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Another great moment in Mad Men lighting
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An all male milieu in The Sopranos

This is also the lighting that is frequently used in the flashback sequences to Don’s childhood. In the finale Don’s father is killed in the darkness of the stables, with father and son alone in the shadows.

5. The Music

Many recaps have already compared this finale to a heist movie (also here and here), with Don, Roger and Bert assembling a team of the Sterling Cooper’s finest in order to steal the dying company’s riches. Roger was firing off zingers like George Clooney and everyone looked like they were having a grand old time. This mood was enhanced by the jaunty music used throughout the episode. Is it my imagination or does this series rarely employ non-diegetic music during an episode (saving it instead for the finale scene/closing credits)? I found myself really noticing the music during these scenes, as if the show was winking at us, letting us know that this heist storyline was all campy fun. This music noticably disappears in the scenes with Betty and in Don’s flashbacks to his childhood, which are highly tragic.

Overall I found the Season 3 finale to be immensely satisfying — the perfect cap to a wonderful, nuanced, slow burn (NOT SLOW!) season. I can’t to see what Season 4 holds in store…

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Until Season 4, Don Draper...
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7 thoughts on “MAD MEN FINALE Recap

    Randall said:
    November 10, 2009 at 11:17 am

    I wonder what you, Amanda, and your blog readers think of the flashbacks in the season finale. They show Don/Dick’s father seceding from a co-op and going it alone. It obviously doesn’t go well and he gets killed by a horse kick. How did this memory influence Don’s idea to recruit his partners and colleagues to buy back Sterling Cooper?

    Was the flashback a cautionary tale? Don’t go it alone, Don. Rally your friends or else life will put a horseshoe print on your skull.

    or

    Did his father’s risk-taking inspire Don? Whether you succeed or fail, there’s dignity in the fight.

    or

    Did the flashback have some other purpose?

    I’ll take your answers off the air.

    Jed said:
    November 10, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    Isn’t it a whistle Joan wears? I seem to recall her using it to get the attention of the secretaries before…

    Denny said:
    November 10, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    Amanda,
    Very thoughtful recap. I really dug this season overall, but the season finale was a wonder to behold. This season felt like it was building toward an apocalyptic end to Don’s world, though not in a Cormac McCarthy-esque way. After a largely brooding, heavy-hearted season, Don and the gang were finally able to see through the fog of their funks and rally themselves. It’s like they finally had a wake-up call about what was really important about their workplace and what they meant to each other and sought a way to keep what was still good in these turbulent times. That was great.

    Concerning the importance of the flashbacks, lots of other blogs took the scenes to be cautionary reminders of the importance of personal bonds that showed that Don signing that contract and committing to something for a change was a good thing. I can definitely see that, and perhaps it’s true. However, in those flashbacks, Don’s father was part of a co-op that had made what he deemed an unwise business decision and Don’s father was determined not to follow them in their folly. He was trying to be the master of his destiny instead of a pawn in a larger deal when he died. When Don talked to Hilton, I felt like the old man was practically daring him to take action.

    Yes, Don did not go it alone, and he realized how much he needed others around him, even Pete, who has grown up a bit this season. However, this band of brothers (and sisters) formed to make their own way and names for themselves instead of becoming mere commodities to be bought and sold by giant, impersonal corporate conglomerates, which I feel backs up my view of things. Way to go, folks.

    Alas, some things cannot be salvaged and personal bonds sometimes go unmended. Don Draper realizes that he and Betty are through, and the fact is painful but also obvious. That was the one sobering aspect of an otherwise breezy, intoxicating, euphoric hour. Not even Don can win them all, but he’s at least learning and growing from all this. That’s the best anyone can do in life.

    princesscowboy responded:
    November 10, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    Denny, very thoughtful comment! I agree with you about the flashbacks. They seemed to goad Don into his decision to start his own firm (and one can’t do that alone). As you point out–both Don and his father resented that their businesses suffered due to the poor decisions of others. By starting Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Don is taking control, just as his father wanted to (but couldn’t) do.

    And his father’s untimely death reminded Don of just how significant this divorce will be and how much it will impact his children, particularly Sally, who is so attached to her father.

    […] I‘ve blogged about lighting before in my praise of Mad Men — not because I am a lighting aficionado, but because television shows do not always take their lighting design seriously. The light in Men of a Certain Age is beautiful and always appropriate for its Southern California setting. […]

    Mark said:
    April 9, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    Finally got to see this episode on DVD & headed right here to read your recap. You’re spot on as usual. The lighting! God yes, the lighting.

    I’ve actually yelled “Look at the lighting! It’s incredible!” during this show. The only other show that has prompted me to yell that was Twin Peaks, which also made me yell “Look at that sweater!” Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure I’ve yelled that while watching Mad Men as well. The lighting on Mad Men is what makes decor that would otherwise look depressingly “dated” (I’m looking at you, plaid kitchen wallpaper), seem heart-breakingly pure and unattainable.

    And let’s not forget the strongest, most powerful character in the series: Don Draper’s hair. My god. Especially during the scene in Peggy’s apartment, Don’s hair commands awe and respect. “Believe every word this man says,” says the hair. And we do. And even if we don’t, we want to.

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