Ah, the ladies’ room.. the place where ladies go for some Real Talk(TM), or to cry uncontrollably because of Feelings(TM). Literally nothing else happens in a ladies’ rooms, guys. This is the first episode where we get to know Betty, and while she looks the part of pristine Stepford perfection on the outside, there’s a glimpse to her depth and sadness within.
At the forefront of Betty’s anxiety is her hands, something that’s apparently been going on for awhile. Her mother died recently, and it’s implied that they had a complicated relationship. Though a little on the nose, her shaky hands are the physical manifestation of her internal conflict. Seeing the actual imperfect reality versus what she was led to believe her adult life would be like if she ticked those boxes – handsome husband, house in the suburbs, 2 kids. This is what she was told would make her happy, yet here we are. Hello, 1960!
More than anything, she comes off as deeply disappointed with how mundane it all is. Betty’s essentially been stranded on an island at arm’s length by Don, no wonder she’s disillusioned. He’s a man infatuated with aesthetics, so this Perfect Wife(TM), home and kids are enough and he doesn’t seem to give it another thought.
Betty truly wants to know Don, to really understand who he is but she has no idea where to start. “Who’s in there?”
So, Betty knows approximately fuckall about her husband’s childhood and past, and Don dismisses it as being in the same realm as “politics religion or sex: why talk about it?” This sounds just as completely outlandish as you think it would, my god.
She’s living in this suburban small town world accompanied by Francine throwing shade at Helen Bishop, the new divorcée on the block. Like Helen, Betty doesn’t truly fit here, but she’s been told that she is supposed to want these things, this life. Don expresses to her that she’s got all these things, how could she possibly be unhappy? He’s trying to practice what he preaches, but he must know it’s hollow as hell.
Weirdly, Betty and Don have more in common in that arena than they’ll ever know. Betty will battle with what’s expected of her versus what she really wants and who she is, an omnipresent theme in the rest of the series.
At the office, Don is trying to connect with Roger and gain some insight. Who could not be happy with all this? Relying on material things, “it’s just more happiness”, and Roger ends the conversation right there.
“What do women want?”
The closest Don gets is when he’s in a meeting about spray deodorant. After all, Don speaks most candidly via copy more than he ever would directly to Betty.
“What if they want something else, inside that mysterious wish we’re ignoring?”
Hello, hello! Due to my own personal mania and a splash of popular demand, I’ve decided to undergo the Herculean task of rewatching and writing about all 92 episodes of Mad Men. Now these won’t be super duper in depth like my season 7 reviews, and I’m sure I’ll combine a couple of episodes into each post at some point, but certain episodes will merit more yappin’ than others. So uh, here goes!
With the opening shot of the Mad Men pilot, we are greeted with the back of a shadowy figure at a bar. He’s in a crowd of breezy people, yet he is alone. Who the hell is this guy? What’s his deal? Here’s a vaguely fried Don Draper in a bar, grasping at straws for his upcoming Lucky Strike meeting.
The pilot of any series will lay out the greater themes to come, and Smoke gets in your Eyes is no exception. And one of the things I find magical about a well written show or movie is how we, the audience, are merely dropped in. This isn’t the beginning of something, we are entering into something, this narrative as it has already progressed.
The character introductions are sort of hilarious. We’ve got Peggy, the oldschool Brooklyn girl trying to make it at her first big job in the city. Pete, the boorish young guy who’s about to get married to the photo of Matthew Weiner’s mother as Trudy hadn’t been cast yet. Sal, the closeted gay man who makes approximately 100 innuendos implying that he’s gay. Joan, the snarky fun girl. There’s jokes about technology and the lack thereof in 1960. Pilots, man.. thankfully the rest of the series is far more subtle.
The real meat of this episode starts with Don getting schooled in a meeting with Rachel Menken. Here, we can see that she’s cut from a different cloth. She is serious about her business, and apparently Don is having none of that. He really fucked it up, and has to do some damage control later on in this episode..
And then, the Lucky Strike pitch. This pitch defines a lot of what the series is ultimately about.
“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is?
Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear.
It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK.
You are OK.”
Does Don really know what happiness is, or is he just trying to reach out and touch people with what he thinks happiness implies? The notion that he’s adrift is emphasised when we see his meeting with Rachel at a bar that evening.
Don: The reason you haven’t felt it is because it doesn’t exist. What you call “love” was invented by guys like me to sell nylons. You’re born alone, you die alone, and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.
Rachel: I don’t think I realised it until this moment, but it must be hard being a man, too.
Don: Excuse me?
Rachel: Mr. Draper, I don’t know what it is you really believe in, but I know what it feels like to be out of place. To be disconnected. To see the world laid out in front of you the way other people live it. And there is something about you that tells me you know it too.
Don: .. I don’t know if that’s true..
I mean, good goddamn. Rachel immediately saw through his elaborate bullshit façade and succinctly called him out on it. He showed his ass just a little, and she doesn’t have time for that. This brief but potent exchange lays important groundwork for the episodes to come. Don is both fascinated and bewildered by her honesty.
At the end of the pilot, I found myself faced with a couple of questions. Why do we want what we want? Is that all there is? The more you dig into those questions, the more you’ll find, and the deeper that hole gets. The show will grapple with this dizzying idea for the next 7 seasons.
“The only thing keeping you from being happy is the belief that you are alone.”
That’s some s2 Anna Draper realness right there, via tarot card. I can’t believe this show is over. After letting the finale wash over me for a bit, I think it was the most perfect conclusion to the story of Mad Men as a whole. Don’s journey is complete, and the other characters we know and love had fitting endings as well as new beginnings. We are left with a little ambiguity across the board, encouraged to think about their future and what will transpire. That’s the kind of series finale that really resonates with me. Some form of character-appropriate closure, as well as leaving things generally open ended. This way, the story never truly ends.
Throughout Mad Men’s run, I often wondered what Don’s true rock bottom moment would really look like. There’s been a vast array of messes on this show — the real Don Draper being blown up due to Dick Whitman being a klutz, Adam hanging himself due to Don pushing him (and thus his past) away, Betty finding out who he really is, Lane hanging himself, Sally catching him bonking Sylvia, the Hershey pitch/breakdown, getting put on indefinite leave, Meet The Mets, a random array of people hurling harsh dirty truth bombs in his direction.. so many dark moments.
And then, he encounters a sad man in a blue sweater at this retreat who rattles Don to his emotional core, who gets him at a very vulnerable moment. To me, Leonoard’s monologue almost sounds like the sequel to Don’s Hershey Pitch; the first part was about his sad lonely childhood, and the second part is about his sad lonely adult life. At least Leonard is choosing to share this intimate story with the correct crowd in the right context.. instead of in a boardroom with executives and your business partners.
“I’ve never been interesting to anybody. I work in an office, people walk right by me and I know they don’t see me.
Then I go home and I watch my wife and my kids – they don’t look up when I sit down.. it’s like no one cares that I’m gone.
They should love me, maybe they do, but, I don’t even know what it is.
You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it: people aren’t giving it to you.
Then you realize they’re trying, and you don’t even know what it is.
I had a dream I was on a shelf in the refrigerator. Someone closes the door and the light goes off, and I know everybody’s out there eating.
And then they open the door, and you see them smiling. They’re happy to see you.
But maybe they don’t look right at you, and maybe they don’t pick you.
Then the door closes again. The light goes off.”
Fucking hell. If that’s not the most devastatingly dead-on thing I’ve ever heard describing that feeling of being overlooked, that inherent emptiness..
Let’s backtrack for a hot minute. When Don is at the Hippie Compound comprised of People With A Lot of Feelings up in Big Sur, that was the place I least expected Don to be in life, and much less see him experience a true emotional breakdown/through. He’s come close to some form of truth before, but nothing has quite worked for him; the shame he feels is deep-rooted and extremely difficult to unpack. He’s so bogged down by his own headspace he hasn’t the faintest idea how to connect with anyone on a real, human level.
This guy is pretty into his own headspace. image courtesy of Deadspin
While off the grid, Don makes a series of devastating phone calls to the three women in his life; Sally, Betty, and Peggy. They all have heartbreaking conversations, each one unique to their relationship dynamics. Both Betty and Sally reject his urgency to come home, insisting it’s more normal without him there. Sad, but true.
Peggy sounds closest to that loving mother figure Don yearns for, expressing that she misses him and implores him to “come home”.. she exudes that unconditional love and understanding, but it’s almost like he’s tone-deaf to her concern. Don admits to her that he’s afraid, ashamed of the things he’s fucked up in his life, that he “took another man’s name and made nothing of it.” Peggy tries to reassure him that that’s not true. And hey, she would know on that last point; she’s still using skills Don has taught her from her early days at all incarnations of Sterling Cooper.
Don carries the burden of his past and his actions on his shoulders, and it’s all too much to bear in this moment. After hanging up, he collapses on the ground, unable to move. It hits him all at once, he’s despondent and broken. There was a split second of dread where I thought he was going to off himself, but thankfully that wasn’t the case.
What is his purpose? What does he do now? Where does he go from here? The identity crisis of Don Draper, at his breaking point. He’s the tragic hero of this story who runs away from himself, instead of looking inward to ask “but why am I running?” And now, finally, he’s getting around to introspection.
So much of the way you learn to love and be loved is due to your parents’ example as well as your upbringing, and we all know young Dick Whitman received fuckall in that department. As a result, Don never felt worthy of the attention given to him, he never seemed to understand what love was being given to him in any form. He had no idea how to connect with his children, as expressed in that sad conversation with Megan in s6e5 “The Flood”. He was wracked with guilt over being successful, and (quite incorrectly) thought that his success was undeserved because he took another man’s name; that original sin still haunts.
This stranger’s soliloquy speaks to that forgotten, afraid boy in the whorehouse. That dizzying, existential sadness Don feels is validated in that moment, and he finally grasps that he’s not alone. Don stares into the abyss, the abyss stares right back at him. A man who previously treated any outward signs of emotion as a weakness is seen here embracing a stranger and weeping right along with him. It’s a powerful moment. Honest to God I ugly-cried right along with them.
And in the end, it wasn’t over the top dramatic.. it was Don’s own rocky inward journey finally coming to a place of acceptance. He is Don Draper, the ad man. Seeing himself with clear eyes for the first time, knowing that He Is Okay: he can begin to heal. Hugging that man and crying with him is a genuine outpouring and catharsis of those negative feelings. He is hugging that man like it is the first time he has ever hugged or touched another person. After all, there’s a distinct difference between sharing physical space with a person and really seeing them and connecting with them.
Think back for a moment.
When we first see Don in the series premiere, he is the center of attention. Don is charismatic and people are drawn to him; he commands the room, seemingly effortlessly. Along the way there are several mentions of how he’s the face of their business. When he left this season, his absence reverberated.
But Don is so goddamn disengaged from his own life, so disconnected, that it’s gotten to the point where his dying ex-wife tells him it’s normal for him to be gone, to not really be an essential part of their children’s lives. Don comes to grips with this truth, and all he can squeak out is “Birdie….” and she knows that he understands, but is totally shattered. It’s pretty much the saddest goddamn phone call.
There are some people who are worried like Peggy, but the general consensus is that he leaves all the time.. it’s just a fact of life. “He does that.” He’ll be back at some point, even it has been longer than usual. Don himself is aware that he feels like a stranger in his own life, telling Anna in s2e12 “The Mountain King” that he feels like he’s on the outside looking in, that he’s ruined everything with his indiscretions and inability to connect. “I keep scratching at it, trying to get into it. I can’t.” Forever alone, adrift in a crowd. He hasn’t a single fucking idea what to do about it.
Remember that bizarre “walk around the room” exercise where Don is faced with an older woman and they have to express how they feel about that stranger without words? The dude has no fucking idea what to do. He’s got his arms crossed, the universal sign of being closed off, and is scanning the room for any sort of indication of how he’s supposed to act. The old lady doesn’t dig his vibe and shoves him. Don is jarred by this very clear message.
What gets through to Don, I believe, is that he unquestionably had what Leonard is desperately seeking, but shunned it and pushed people away because he couldn’t recognize it. People loved him and missed him when he left, but he couldn’t identify it; he couldn’t make any sense of it whatsoever in the least. Like he’s in a city where he doesn’t speak the language. People are trying their damnedest to love him, but Don has no earthly idea what in the world that even means. He alienated himself as a result, made himself closed off from his own life. Coming to the realisation that he did this to himself is not easy.
Don aligns with Leonard’s feelings, which he’s tried so hard to suppress his whole life, with his mantra of “this never happened”, “move forward”, etc. In the flashbacks to his childhood, you can see no one paid much attention to Dick just like Leonard. He was only noticed if he was being scolded for something, and his stepmother made sure to remind him that he wasn’t her son.
“I dreamt of it– of being wanted. Because the woman who was forced to raise me would look at me every day like she hoped I would disappear.”
from the Hershey Pitch– s6e13, “In Care Of”.
His innate desire to be wanted drove him to become successful, but also led to his immolation. Maybe he’d feel that love and acceptance others feel if he’s praised? However, it also led to his numerous affairs with God knows how many women/hookers where the ego stroking and personal affirmation were fleeting. The Man Hug allowed Don to see that he was not the only one with these feelings. He can learn to accept his past and forgive himself. This is the only way to truly change, to finally move forward in a healthy way. You can’t just ignore the past; it’s shaped who you are today, and it’ll be a fucking disaster if you suppress it. Accept it, love your damn self. Learn to live with who you are and work within that paradigm. It’s all a massive weight off his shoulders.
Mad Men has always spoken to me. The show touches upon feelings we have all felt at one time or another, the shared experience of “do people want me” in the simplest form, the despair of the day to day. The question, “is that all there is?”, looming. Can people really change? The short answer is YES, with an if.
I am a deeply flawed person — and seeing these other flawed characters forge their own paths and find happiness as it pertains to them has brought a lot of comfort. Joan started the series extolling the virtues of marrying rich, and has transformed into a savvy businesswoman. She chooses her career over a life of ease (and free blow) with leathery manbaby Richard; over the course of the series, she comes to the gradual realisation that her work brings her more satisfaction and sense of accomplishment than any man ever could.
In her marriage to Dr. Terrible Person, also a manbaby, she was seen as an intelligent and dominant woman who married someone because she felt it was the thing to do to fit in with the crowd. She has an uplifting ending to her story though: Joan chooses herself as a partner, literally and figuratively. The name of her new production company is Holloway-Harris, after all. You Only Live Twice, indeed.
This contrasts a touch with Peggy, who has thrown herself ambitiously into her work since day one, and defined herself by her job so much that she misses the forest for the trees; Stan right there in front of her face. She pieces it together that she’s in love with Stan in the most Peggy way possible; saying everything aloud and coming to the conclusion very analytically. Peggy will learn balance. She’s said throughout the series that she knows what she’s “supposed” to want, but that archetype of being a housewife never appealed to her, she’s always wanted more. And she learns to accept that and embrace it as the episodes go on. Peggy fucking rules. I bet she invents “Where’s the Beef??”
Roger’s story started off with him married 20-some years to Mona, with an ungrateful daughter who ends up joining that filthy hippie cult in upstate NY and is like.. gone forever. He didn’t do much but schmooze with clients, hit on twins, and have heart attacks initially.. but when Bert Cooper died he really stepped up. He’s been all over the place – divorced Mona, married and divorced from 20something year-old Jane, knocking Joan up in their post-mugging alley bangfest, on LSD impersonating our Lord Jesus Christ, and here he is presenting Joan (well, their son Kevin) with an inheritance so he’ll always be secure. She worries that Roger is sick, but he’s just letting her know he’s reached the twilight years of his life; he’s marrying Marie, a bomb that Joan delights in once Roger drops it. What a mess indeed. But hey, looks like Roger found his match for dry one-liners and drinking. I’ve always loved their dynamic, so that finish to Roger’s story works really well.
Plus, he gave Cooper’s tentacle porn painting to Peggy in s7e12 “Lost Horizon”. I really love this exchange between them, and I have a feeling it’ll only add fuel to Peggy’s “I don’t answer to anyone” fire (especially watching her bulldoze that dumpy middle manager at the most recent meeting).
Peggy: “You know I need to make men feel at ease!”
Roger: “Who told you that??”
And of course, it gave us this gem. So much bittersweet/surreal shit. Pardon the shit quality, looks like some guy recorded this from his TV.
Pete ends up right where he started in the best way possible, after being immature and boorish for so long in regards to.. well, pretty much everything and everyone in his life. At the start of things he envies Don, but then discovers bit by bit that it’s all a goddamned mess as he pulls back the curtain. Pete will never be the suave guy who charms a room, so he adapts to his surroundings and learns how exactly to work his ass off to get to where he is. He tries to build something instead of curating a specific image to skate by. And in a 4am epiphany moment of pure honesty and emotion, he reconciles with Trudy. He has a family again, and they are whisked off to Wichita by private jet, landing the corporate bigwig job he’s always wanted. A fresh start. Pete’s goodbye to Peggy is as self-aware as it is perfect. There’s no hint of his previous sourness, just an understanding of who he really is.
Pete: “Someday people are going to brag that they worked with you.”
Peggy: “What am I supposed to say to that?”
Pete: “I don’t know. No one’s ever said it to me.”
And then he gives her a cactus. Perpetual boob Harry Crane makes off with the cookies the girls made for Pete, which he tossed Harry’s way in order to get him out of the room. Story checks out. What a miserable pile Harry Crane is.
The final scenes with Betty are wrenching, but she’s going out on her own terms. I don’t know if Gene and Bobby will for sure end up with her flop brother and wife.. but that would secure a future for Sally, which I’m sure is part of what Betty intended. That way she wouldn’t have to quit school ad likely skip college to come home and care for them while Henry is at work and whatnot; the foresight is there, and Sally will realise that in time. Betty has come a long way since the start of the series, and though her end is tragic, she’s finally coming to grips with her own agency and encouraging that same feeling in her daughter.
A man like Don finding some peace at last after his tumultuous journey spanning 92 episodes is the best possible conclusion to the series that I could imagine. The actual closing scene is a brilliant “a-HA!” moment, Don meditating, closed eyes with a grin slowly forming.. ding. Thankfully he’s not dressed in a garbage hippie getup — he’s in a white buttondown and chinos, cleanshaven, hair oiled, so he is still himself. He’s taking it all in, relishing the first day of the rest of his life.
The iconic Hilltop Coca-Cola ad comes onto our screens and with it the implication that Don went back home to New York, back to McCann-Erickson and created this paragon. We can hope he did see Betty one last time, that he was there for his kids in a meaningful way. He went across the country, he went as far west as he could go and found some solace at last. We can only hope he brings it all back with him.
The song starts. At the time, I was thinking.. what in the whole entire goddamn world? It took a second to sink in, and then.. I LOVE THIS. It’s equal parts hilarious and ironic. Taking the Free Love, the hippies and peace and counterculture ideals of the 1960s and packaging it to sell fucking Coca-Cola? Hysterical. Sure, he’s selling out the counterculture in an ad for a massive corporation, but the counterculture that Don finds in California is almost exactly as flawed, manipulative, and irresponsible as the strict “Christian values” instilled by his stepmother which contributed to his lifelong mental turmoil. All that shame he feels, all of the weirdo Don Draper headspace; nonsensical guilt trips and constantly being overlooked will assuredly do awful things to your psyche.
So, whatevs. Cue some Deadhead ranting about “like, THE CORPORATIONS, man…..”
But hey, this is exactly what Don does best — dialed up to 11. It’s his enlightened Carousel. In real life, this fucking thing is the Mona Lisa of advertising. This ad has been reused and revamped as recently as 2010. I have a feeling that maybe Weiner could have used this as the jumping off point for the series; Hilltop is the pinnacle of modern advertising, the highest of the highs. Working backwards, what sort of headspace do you have to be in.. in order to come up with an ad like that? In the Mad Men world, that man has likely experienced a lot of pain in his life. He feels lost and wants to channel that into something to help people forget about that for even 60 seconds on their TVs. Who knows. (In real life, the ad’s creator was trapped at Shannon Airport in Ireland.. which is enough to make you lose your fucking mind as it is.) Interesting to think about, though.
I like that Don started the series hawking cigarettes, and now he’s ending the series hawking soda; the cigarettes of the 21st century. It’s full circle, but not in a derivative way. Don went round and round, and then back home again. To a place where he now knows he is loved.
People who are knocking it saying it’s cynical or dark or contrived have missed the point entirely. Take a step back and look. The ending is optimistic, and we are left with the hope that Don can move forward with his life and appreciate all that he has and truly learn how to love himself, love other people and to accept the love he’s given. After all, that’s what life’s about. And the happiness and contentment attained by the other characters in the finale isn’t just some arbitrary thing they are suddenly granted either; they have all been working toward their own sense of serenity.
But at his core, Don is and always was a gifted storyteller. He can be a changed man and still do the same job, still thrive in advertising, and still thrive creatively. He can accept his past and let go of his shame, he can accept his present as Don Draper, and he can move forward in a normal-ass way and operate within his own paradigm.
Why does Don love advertising so much? Because he’s trying to fill that emptiness within himself, that void he saw within Leonard. He knows other people across these United States feel it as well, and he knows how to tap into that need, that want, that craving for connection. But now, maybe he’ll be a little more down to earth about it.
I’m really sad that Mad Men is disappearing from the airwaves, but I have a feeling I won’t stop writing about it anytime soon. And I’m certain I’ll be re-watching the whole shebang for years to come. “Person to Person” is a meaningful capstone to an honestly perfect series, and the whole show has maintained a timeless feeling. I’ve enjoyed every single episode over the last 8 years (!!) and I am better for having absorbed all of it. I know to many people it’s just a show, but it’s certainly helped me through some tough spots and to see things a little differently.
Thanks for reading, kiddos, there’s more to come in the future. But for now.. check out the s7e1 opening scene, which takes on a touch of new meaning in light of how the show concludes. It’s a pretty impeccable bookend.