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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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…
In the most recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, Mark Harris’ column, “TV’s Great Bad Mommies” was devoted to the “bad mommies” featured on Showtime’s Weeds, Nurse Jackie, and United States of Tara. These women “invite you to be appalled — because, as we all know, few guilty pleasures are as nastily satisfying as secretly ragging on somebody else’s parenting skills.” His column concludes with a nod to Mad Men‘s Betty Draper (January Jones), who “performs motherhood like a scripted role — and experiences parenting less as a fulfillment than as the steep price she agreed to pay for the life of privilege she once wanted.”
I both agree and disagree with Harris’ assessment of Betty’s approach to motherhood. While it is tempting to see her as an ice queen, as a woman who merely endures her children in order to gain access to club lunches, furs and a maid, I think this view also discounts the richness of Betty’s character. Because Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) childhood is such a compelling mystery, it is easy to forget that Betty also experienced a traumatic childhood. Her story, like Don’s, is only revealed to the viewer in pieces.
We have learned, for example, that the late Mrs. Hofstadt was a beautiful, regal woman, but that she was also a real bitch; Betty discusses her with a mixture of reverence, fear, and resentment. Furthermore, as we discovered in last night’s episode, “The Arrangements,” Ruth Hofstadt took rather Draconian measures to ensure that her “fat” daughter lost weight (and kept it off). While sharing a tub of chocolate ice cream (with salt?) Gene (Ryan Cutrona) tells Sally (Kiernan Shipka) about how her Grandma Ruth would take her mother shopping and then make Betty walk all the way home. This parenting left an indelible mark on the adult Betty, who rarely puts anything other than vodka or cigarettes in her mouth. Oddly, Gene finds the story to be amusing, colorful even, rather than disturbing. He also urges Sally to become something other than a housewife, explaining that her grandmother did drafting work for an engineer in the 1920s. Smart women, it seems, should do things.
While this exchange exists, in part, to show some of the disdain Gene harbors for his daughter’s shallow existence, it also illustrates that he is surprisingly progressive for a man of his age and time. He sees that Betty is living a life of unrealized potential (I can’t wait for the episode in which Betty receives a copy of The Feminine Mystique ) and worries that Sally, an intelligent and curious child, will grow up to do the same. “You can really do something,” he tells Sally with sudden gravitas, “don’t let your mother tell you otherwise” (I originally had a link to this scene below but it has been removed by AMC. Phooey).
After purchasing a bag of peaches for his beloved granddaughter, Gene collapses in the A & P. Sally is naturally devastated by her grandfather’s death–the only adult to take a genuine interest in her has died. Therefore, when the news is delivered to Betty by a solemn police officer, it is fitting that neither of these two adults acknowledge Sally or her grief. Instead they leave her outside to sob alone in her ballet outfit. Later, when Sally rebukes her parents and aunt and uncle for laughing over a joke (she is too young to understand that laughter is often a part of grief), Betty chastises for her for being “hysterical.” “Go watch TV, Sally,” she commands. During this exchange the mother in me longed to reach my arms through the television screen and embrace Sally. And I wondered how I was supposed to feel about Betty and Don since they did not.
Indeed, at these moments it is difficult not to hate Betty Draper. But we must remember the lonely childhood Betty must have endured walking home from the grocery store, wiping the tears from her chubby cheeks, wondering all the while how she might gain the approval of the cold woman waiting for her at home. Betty was raised to shut herself away from food and emotion–she can’t even bring herself to discuss her father’s will with him. “Can’t you keep it to yourself?” she pleads, “I’m your little girl.”
This is not an excuse for Betty’s approach to mothering, but it is an explanation. Meanwhile, Sally is left to mourn her grandfather alone in front of the television, while images of self-immolating monks dance before her eyes.
So what do you think? Is Betty meant to be a sympathetic character, or do the writers want us to hate her?