Mad Men Season 7: In Moonland

{Note: Spoilers for Mad Men season 7 and earlier years of the show are contained herein.}

When I wrote about Mad Men last year, it took me more than a week to finish for several reasons. Not least of all the incredible bleakness of season 6, but mostly the amount of noise in the cultural conversation surrounding the show. So many recaps, thinkpieces and other varied assemblages of words had been written about it. It was hard to determine what to say. Also, I wondered what creator Matthew Weiner had left to say through Don Draper, Peggy Olson, Roger Sterling, Joan Harris and the other inhabitants of the fictional universe he’d crafted. They were all in places of great personal turmoil. I wasn’t sure I wanted see them fall further as the collective disgrace of the 1960s’ end closed in from all sides, regardless of how impeccably well-crafted/acted the episodes would inevitably be. I almost didn’t watch this season, but curiosity won out, and holy shit am I glad it did.

Because what a marvel these past seven episodes have been! The journey from this half-season’s opening shot (Freddy Rumsen reciting Don’s words in a freelance ad pitch) to its final image (Don communicating a profound blend of hope and pain and and joy with no words, merely the incredible facial and body language of Jon Hamm) has been satisfying and emotionally resonant in a way that many works of art, in any format, rarely are. Viewers benefit from having watched these characters for six previous seasons. But that alone can’t possibly account for the wonder you feel while watching Don and Peggy and Roger and Sally and so many others grow and change in situations that, despite their inextricable association with societal standards and events of their bygone era, mirror experiences that anyone can relate to and understand.

If last season was about hitting bottom for Don – and in some ways Peggy, her new power position notwithstanding – the first half of this show’s final 14 episodes proved to be portrayals of the long, hard road back to places where personal redemption is possible, if not easily achieved. Don shook himself out of season 6’s pickled-in-alcohol misery, working under a creative director who had every reason to hate him (Peggy, for all he did to her personal and professional lives last year) and supervisors who considered him a liability (Jim Cutler, Lou Avery). He reined in his drinking. He and Megan came to a somewhat amicable split, which was wise – neither of them wanted the distance. When finally given a chance to stunt in front of clients in his inimitable style with a pitch Peggy came up with, he gave her the opportunity to present to Burger Chef in a decision motivated more by selflessness than most choices he’s ever made. Predictably, she killed it.

For her part, Peggy examined the embittered person she was becoming – on most egregious, flower-hating display in episodes 2 and 3 of this season – and pivoted away from that attitude. This stemmed from her realization that she could attain contentment via avenues outside her goals of professional and romantic success. Look at how she developed a caring bond with the boy Julio who lived in the apartment building she owns, or the way she could reconcile with Don in the for-the-ages episode “The Strategy.” Forgiveness is hard, and never harder when a friend you showed your full self to has wronged you the way Don wronged Peggy. While it’s satisfying because Don and Peggy are the One True Pairing of Mad Men and one of TV’s only successful portrayals of non-romantic love, it’s also believable.

As you can imagine, the narrative arcs of Don and Peggy were predominant in these seven episodes. Quite a few characters remained largely on the sidelines, including Joan, Pete Campbell, Ted Chaough, Ken Cosgrove and the entire Betty Francis household. They received only a few potent scenes to establish their current situations – Joan cementing her position as a true business power, Pete reinventing his appearance in California but not his personal malaise, Ted near-suicidal, Ken one-eyed but happy and the ENTIRE FUCKING FRANCIS HOUSEHOLD MISERABLE AS ALWAYS. (Except Sally, who’s her parents’ child but also decidedly herself, hopefully free of their crushing insecurities and flaws, as seen in her single scene with Don in episode 2, “A Day’s Work.”) Other characters had considerable screen time but had little importance outside their role in office politics, like the aggressively milquetoast Avery or SC&P’s own Machiavelli, Jim Cutler.

There were notable exceptions to this. Roger Sterling, who for the past several seasons has been a drunken miserable wreck and began season 7 looking pretty much the same, turned out to be pivotal. He proved himself capable of being the leader that even his longtime partner Bert Cooper (WHO WE’LL GET TO IN A LITTLE BIT, OKAY???) didn’t consider him to be. Like Peggy, he found value in friendship – in a fashion that also served his financial bottom line – through orchestrating SC&P’s buyout by rival agency McCann to save Don’s job after Cutler attempt at a Draper ousting. To be fair, this occurs after a Roger subplot in episode 4, “The Monolith,” where he visits his daughter on a hippie commune and finds that she wants nothing to do with him. He knows this is due to his decades of failure as a father. Denied this traditional familial connection, he secures the future of his professional family.

The other supporting character to receive, in my mind, the most significant attention in Mad Men season 7 did not fare so well. Michael Ginsberg, an extremely talented artist who was loud, opinionated and thoroughly weird, always seemed to be holding back some sort of pain; this is obvious enough in his constant pronouncement of himself as a “Martian” due to his birth in a concentration camp. Yet despite warning signs (his line about being unable to “turn off the transmissions” in season 6), his plunge into madness seemed sudden, shocking and heartbreaking. The arrival of the giant computer in the SC&P offices in “The Monolith” sets him off, and by the next episode he’s sliced off his own nipple, handed it to Peggy in a box and been carted off to a sanitarium in restraints. His grim fate is a reminder that most people aren’t lucky enough to control their demons, as Don and Peggy may turn out to be by this series’ end. Many of us are eaten alive by them, one way or the other.

Ginsberg’s descent is important to note because of how it foreshadows the underlying paranoia of the digital age in which we currently live. Most people don’t experience this as a catalyst for a psychotic break. But in our world of drones, PRISM, pervasive smartphone use (I wrote large portions of this using the iPhone notes function) and social networks, even those of us who love what this technology can do have a sneaking suspicion about where its influence might lead.

And despite this and other undertones of dread, one of the great strengths of Mad Men season 7 is that it always manages to establish small detours through which hope can bypass the darkness surrounding its protagonists’ lives. It mirrors the progress of real human life in this way. We lead lives largely adrift in the mundane. We are lucky if we experience genuine moments of transcendence in the course of our individual existences, hopefully alongside those we love, care for and respect. We’re luckier still if we somehow receive the opportunity to create or facilitate those moments, through selfless societal contributions or making great art or even touching individual lives in some way. That’s all the best of us get, by and large, and so we have to treasure them when they arrive.

So we arrive at the midpoint of this great show’s final act with the moon landing of July 20, 1969. Everyone watches it with a rapt attention that moments of current national importance don’t seem to receive – though perhaps something will again soon. Most of these gatherings are fractured, nontraditional family structures. Don, Peggy, Pete and the eternal Worst Person Ever, Harry Crane, watch it in a motel room over cans of Old Style. Sally watches it with neighbors, as well as her hated mother and stepfather. Roger sits with his ex-wife and stepson. And finally Bert Cooper, alone save for his maid yet content, saying simply, “Bravo,” which appears to be the last word he utters in this life.

Cooper’s death is intriguing, because his importance as a character largely evaporated after the first two seasons of the show. Yet when he passes, we feel what the loss means to people like Don, Roger and Joan, and how it signals the conclusion of a generation and beginning of a new one. While it’s jarring at first to end the episode with Don’s vision of Cooper doing a song-and-dance routine, the joy and sense of future possibility expressed in the moment is infectious, warming even the heart of this cynic writer and professed hater of musicals. (Also how excellent are Robert Morse’s voice and footwork, at 83 years old? Broadway talents are like a bicycle for him, I suppose.)

To be sure, there’s more darkness to come. Don and everyone else at SC&P have thoroughly sold out by taking McCann’s buyout, and who knows how long the personal reforms they’ve made will last? Also, more historical horrors are around the corner, from Stonewall and Altamont to Watergate. (But so are positive social movements like second-wave feminism and black power – history is almost always a balancing act.) For now, there is the moon, and some measure of hope. As these characters must savor that hope while it last, so too must we enjoy the simple pleasures of life – which, for me, include the transcendent power art such as Mad Men.

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