Heaven’s a Little Morbid
A quick poke around the internet reveals I wasn’t the only one who had a hard time connecting with this episode. But I’ve also learned to trust with Mad Men that when things seem a little weird and alienating, they’re just getting a little too intense with the themes they’re trying to develop. With this finale, not least among those themes, a big one from last season too: death! Death was everywhere, of course (Roger’s mother and shoe-shiner, Jonesie, if only for a moment). But I was less intrigued by its ubiquity than I was by the ways in which it connected to themes of identity and change. Let’s start with Don, shall we?
We have to recall that Don – as Don, rather than Dick – only exists because of the death of the original Don Draper. We discussed last season that reinvention requires death (particularly with Lane!). And we were thrust back into that theme (after the initial, minutes upon minutes of a silent Don), as Don played with his army lighter in the bar. Reminded of one army identity trade-off, Don then inadvertently switches lighters with the young Private Dinkins. Later, it’s in the moment when the photographer tells Don, “I want you to be yourself,” that Don realizes he’s walked away with the young man’s lighter. Try as he might, however, to toss this new identity away, it returns as if to haunt him (as Rosa is worried Don will think she’s stealing from them). And in this way, the object comes to stand in, perhaps, for Don’s own destructive self.
But in the end, it seems that he can only be the self he is under all the different names – philandering (perhaps for the first time with an older woman?), getting inappropriately drunk (where did he even get that drink at a dry funeral?), and being utterly blind to his own neuroses (how did he not see the themes of suicide in that picture?? We should note, neither did Pete!).
And in the midst of all these ‘who am I?’ imagery, we had the eeriest version of Hawaii I’ve ever seen! Hawaii, which we later learned would represent Don’s understanding of Heaven (and Hell, if we’re to listen to his reading from The Inferno…given to him by his new lover, we later learn, for his vacation reading), not only through the ad he creates, but also in his questioning of Jonesie of what death looks like (is it warm? like the tropics?). Here, his early silence begins to make sense, as he admits that Hawaii is a place that can’t be put into words…but why this triangle of Hawaii, silence and death with Don’s search (or cover up) of who he really is at the centre of it all? I guess only the season will tell!
Betty too encounters a type of death in her travels – forced to face those who live as the refuse of the system within which she lives. Help me out here – what was the deal with Sandy? It wasn’t clear to me where she came from or why Betty cared about her so much?? And why she could be the centre of a horrifically violent sex game that Betty tries to initiate with Henry! So after facing some darkness unlike anything Betty’s seen before (unless we’re to believe that her time as a model with 3 other girls really wasn’t all that romantic!), what does she do – she dyes her hair and grins when Henry asks her what she’s done with his wife. Another reinvention – if a little less dramatic than Don’s!
Roger encountered the most death this episode. With the analyst’s couch being the most stereotypical place to talk about one’s mother, Roger’s mother’s death tied in nicely with the realization that he’s in psychoanalysis. His outburst, “This is My Funeral!” tied up that psychoanalytic loop, as he projected himself into her death. But mostly I was intrigued by Peggy and Stan’s musings – just why wasn’t Joan at that funeral? Between Jane and Mona, would there just be too many former lovers in the space? Or has something picked back up between those two such that we need to drop that ‘former’ for her? Just who was he trying to convince into a booty call when his secretary came in to tell him his mother had died?
Some stray thoughts: I’m a little worried that both Roger and Don were told to quite smoking by other characters in this episode, especially given that it opened with a heart attack! Don’s new lover also reminded me of Midge – it seems he’s not in it so much for the sex here, but something else, something deeper. I spent much of the episode trying to figure out why Don was trying to befriend the doctor…so the reveal on the wife at the end was a delicious surprise. But I’m hopeful that the good doctor is going to be one of our beloved new characters – if only because the idea of a drunk surgeon skiing to save a life is a little too terrifying and awesome to let slide. And finally just what was up with Don’s fiery concern about love being trivialized by advertising?
Funniest laugh out loud moment: Sandy – People are naturally democratic if you give them a chance. Betty – Are you on dope?
It hurts me to leave Peggy to you because I thought she was fantastic this episode! But this means I’m also leaving Megan – whose decent into something utterly shallow is the saddest death of all!
Curious to hear your other thoughts too…
I think I am in the throes of renewed Mad Men love because not only did I love this episode, I loved it precisely because I know it is just part of a larger tapestry that will be woven into some kind of visual narrative perfection by the end of this season, and certainly by the end of next season, which is the final. I’ve been re-watching some of the very first episodes and re-reading our blog from the last few seasons and my faith in this show is at an all time high. This piece by Andy Greenwald gave elegant words to my inchoate feelings of adoration for this show: in these last two seasons we might in fact be witnessing the beginning of the end of the TV renaissance that began in the late 1990s. Not that there won’t be great TV made anymore, or that new revivals aren’t possible, but that a certain kind of narrative complexity matched with visual mastery that gave birth to a new genre (often compared to the creation of psychological realism in the 19th century novel) is being replaced by the same-old demands for higher ratings, which require bigger effects and sloppier plots (witness The Walking Dead which draws five times as many viewers as Mad Men). And let’s be fair: if I were just tuning into Mad Men this weekend, I would be lost and possibly turned off by the slow pace and opaque symbolism (and how would you even say what happened? Don and Megan went on vacation; Peggy thought a lot about headphones; the office executives had their photos taken; Don read the Inferno and thought about death). But this show is only secondarily about plot and so deeply about character and mood it is a bit like jumping into Moby Dick in the midst of the long descriptions of whaling. Since we are now in the last third of the overall series (this and the next being the final two seasons out of seven total), I am giving myself over completely to each episode like a chapter building toward – well, if not a conclusion at least an experience.
That, of course, does not mean I can’t wait to talk about each episode with you and try to figure out what worked or didn’t work or might work in the larger whole! Like you, I was most struck by the somber death tone of the whole episode. Last season’s premiere had the whole gang together for a rollicking French dance party and it took most of the season to watch that older (superficial?) sense of camaraderie disintegrate into the everyone-is-alone-ness you described so well in the finale. This season picks up exactly – if not chronologically, then at least in terms of mood – where we left off: everyone is alone even when they are together. And death is everywhere! I think your reflections on this symbolism – and it is hard to know what it means yet – were excellent and I am excited to track them with you in future episodes (I was especially struck by the images of doors and windows and pathways that appear in The Inferno, in Roger’s monologues, and in the doorman’s near-death experience). So I’ll just focus on a few points that stood out for me beyond the death imagery.
I think you are right that Don’s affair with Sylvia is his first with an older woman, and I would also agree that it reminded me of his affair with Midge. But I think that is because he actually seems to be attracted to Arnold, Sylvia’s husband! In Midge we saw Don flirt safely with the bohemian life, and there seemed to be a few (albeit rare) moments when that life caused him to doubt his own. Watching him chase after Arnold – have we seen Don so eager to take anyone to lunch since he fell in love with Megan? – seemed to be the first indication that he is attracted to a different kind of establishment, or perhaps wondering what it might mean to live a life that has some kind of tangible purpose or service to it. Obviously this ties into his death obsessions too – what is it like, he finally asks Arnold, to hold the power of life and death in your hands? But I took the arrival of Dr. Rosen just after Don’s monologue about not participating in the cheapening of eros via kitschy advertising campaigns as a suggestion that he is trying to find the higher purpose in his work, something more philosophically or existentially profound than just selling air freshener. He’s been after this meaning since we first met him, but the potential of a new friend in a life-saving doctor drives home just how shallow his own work can seem. When it was revealed that he is sleeping with the good doctor’s wife, it felt to me like just the final (or maybe it was the first?) step in trying to walk in Dr. Rosen’s shoes (or sleep in his bed).
Meanwhile, Megan is downstairs (upstairs?) sleeping with her script. I am so vexed about Megan! Perhaps most of all because I don’t think she is in the least bit sad or settling. She isn’t just doing two-bit shoe commercials. It may not be Shakespeare on Broadway, but a recurring character on a soap opera is a pretty legitimate gig, especially given how likely it is to be a spring board to other work in the late 1960s. Just like Don wedging his way into the advertising world, she took her break and made something out of it. So on some level, maybe she is the modern woman she promised to be. But I can’t tell if her self-satisfied enthusiasm for the life she is finally living is a sign of shallowness, or if it is a new model for happiness that eschews deep questions of meaning or sacrifice or self-giving (and is that any different than shallowness?). And are we supposed to be frustrated with Megan for being so duped by Don, or is there any woman who stands a chance against his philandering deceit?
I loved Roger in this episode and I will settle for therapy every week so long as we get more Roger monologues! And Peggy was also fantastic. I will wait to say more in the coming weeks, but I am fascinated by the boss she is becoming and her relationship with hairy Abe (and oh, oh the facial hair!). I will point out how far she’s come from her garden party frock at the opening of last season to her buttoned-up almost matronly suits this opening and I am curious what this wardrobe change suggests about the relationship between her sexuality and her increased professional power.
And who is that Bob Benson?!