Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Person to Person" (season 7, episode 14)

Mad Men - "Person to Person" (season 7, episode 14)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode until the series finale. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on May 17, 2015/written & directed by Matthew Weiner): The finale of Mad Men begins with a natural landscape and a close-up of Don Draper, and it concludes the same way. But these symmetrical bookends couldn't be more different. The opening vista captures the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, a dry, parched desert most notable for lacking any obvious signs of life. When we see Don's face, surrounded by his Chevy muscle dragster, he's covered by a helmet and thick goggles (inside of a shell which is inside of a shell). And he is racing outward - "moving forward" - happy for the moment but with the implication that he must maintain motion to stay so. The final image features an idyllic, grassy hillside in Manzia, near Rome, but the scenery is overwhelmed by a crowd of people, men and women, all young but drawn from every corner of the globe, singing joyfully as the camera swoops overhead. This verdant location is teeming with human life. And the calm close-up of Don which triggers this vision stands in stark contrast with our introduction to the speed demon, who is facing inward this time rather than outward (the camera movement even accentuates this inner push in marked contrast to the past six episodes, which all ended with more distanced shots of Don, often accompanied by a backtracking dolly). Don smiles in both shots, but the joy here is relaxed, not intense. His eyes are gently shut rather than staring straight ahead, but otherwise his body language is completely open rather than closed in, surrounded by meditators on the cliffs of Big Sur, basking in the sun, waves rolling behind him, even the collar of his white shirt popped open as he leaves his body unguarded against the penetrating flow of "Ommmmmmm....."

Are these first and last visions of liberation to be weighed and judged against one another? Is one more lasting or profound than the other? And why does the series end not with Don's ambiguous inner revelation but with the infamous 1971 Coca-Cola "hilltop" TV commercial and its catchy jingle ("I'd like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony..."), implicitly the end result of our hero's Esalen epiphany?

Don's arc is central to the episode but not totally unique. In fact all six of the series' most consistent protagonists are featured throughout "Person to Person", with Don's morning meditation the capper to a montage depicting each of their end-states. (I'd say "their end-states for now", but then the series appears quite determined to place a definitive narrative frame around what we see - welcome as an occasional eighties, nineties, even twenty-first century check-in would be over the decades to come.) Unlike Don, the others all end up sharing their last screen space, but Joan at least - who is buzzing around her home office with her child's babysitter Maureen (Amy Ferguson) as her only companion - has, like Don, found satisfaction in a form of solitude. Her newfound business will keep her in contact with others - she may even end up partnering with Peggy, two women with their names on the door of a commercial production company (although Peggy leans toward staying at McCann when the episode ends, there's plenty of time for her to change her mind). And Roger intervenes in his and Joan's final, warm scene together to ensure that Kevin will be his heir. There's a support network around her to be sure, but Joan once said she'd rather die hoping for love than accept an arrangement. She hasn't found love yet when the curtain closes. Richard, who made his peace with her family but can't can't abide the escalation of her busy work life, walks off when she chooses the ringing phone over him. Was this love she rejected, or merely its own sort of arrangement, sacrificing career for romance rather than vice versa?

Roger's major plot development has to do with Joan (changing his will), even though his future is with Marie. That tempestuous relationship may or may not go the distance; they bicker in bed when Roger laughably "forbids" her from seeing, let alone sleeping with, her mopey soon-to-be ex-husband, but it's precisely this equally matched immaturity-in-maturity energy that suits them. Joan initially assumes that Roger has chased another youthful short-skirted underling to the altar, but this time he may have truly met his match, or as Joan puts it, "I guess someone finally got their timing right." His delivery of the revelation is priceless: "Nah, I met her through Megan Draper. She's old enough to be her mother." (pause) "Actually, she is her mother." If Roger is mostly tying up loose ends, the other major character whom Joan intersects with has a more substantial storyline. Granted, Peggy's professional climax either arrived in the previous episode (with the one-two punch of her Sterling Cooper skates and McCann swagger) or remains on the horizon ("Harris Olson...you need two names to make it sound real"). And for the entire series, Peggy's arc has been all about the professional, with her sad succession of disappointing boyfriends playing a decidedly second fiddle. Until now: what's left for Peggy is to discover that the one she's meant for has been in front of her all along - or at least for the four seasons since Stan showed up and sparked their undeniable chemistry.

Not, of course, before the two screwballs in question exchange a few more insults: Stan shoots down her ambitions to start a new business ("stop looking over your shoulder at what other people have"), while Peggy sneers at his complacency ("spoken like a failure"). It's Don who brings them together again; when he calls Peggy in desperation and hangs up, she reaches out to Stan in a panic. Over the phone, he reassures her and offers sound advice: "You've got to let him go. It doesn't mean that you stop caring about him." Peggy apologizes, Stan confesses that he mostly just doesn't want to see her go, and then everything finally spills out. They drive each other crazy in more ways than one, and when she reveals to him - and herself - that she loves him too (after only responding "What?" several times, with delightful incredulity, to his initial declarations) he disappears from the other side of the line...and jogs right into her office for an embrace. This is the episode's great crowd-pleasing moment and a beautiful swan song for the character of the most (perhaps surprising) importance next to the more obvious cable drama lead Don. It makes perfect sense, doesn't it? Of course Peggy would find personal, romantic fulfillment in the very place that always kept her from finding it anywhere else. Maybe she really can have it all.

Interestingly, the other central player Peggy shares the screen with in "Person to Person" besides Joan and (sort of) Don is Pete. These two were linked from the beginning and there's a well-earned sweetness to Pete's farewell to Peggy - in which he offers her a cactus that's supposed to represent Kansas and tells her "Keep it up, and you'll be a creative director by 1980". Probably the true apex of their distanced but deep relationship was the moment in "Time & Life", which I didn't even find space to write about yet, when Pete is shaken by the sight of a little girl hugging Peggy and invites her into his office to tell her that SC&P is going under. Here, he's mostly just making an appearance before jetting off to the Promised Land, his big moment wrapped up in the previous episode. Others at, or formerly of, the office also get to wave goodbye; Ken is the one who offers Joan her path into commercial filmmaking, Harry pompously parades offscreen in a very early seventies fur-collared coat, and a cheerful Meredith accepts Roger's dismissal - given that her boss never returned - by hoping Don is in a better place. "He's not dead," an exasperated Roger asserts. "Stop saying that!" But Meredith has the impossible-to-beat rejoinder: "There are a lot of better places than here."

Don may not be dead, but death plays a large role in what drives him back to California for one last fling with his desperate dreams. A routine phone call with Sally finally reveals what Betty demanded her daughter withhold. Phoning his ex-wife to talk to her for what both tearfully know will be the last time, Don can't do a thing for her, or for himself. He certainly can't save her, but he can't even convince her that she should trust him to raise their children; she's made arrangements for the boys to reside with her brother's family because she wants them to be in a two-parent household (even Henry gets the cold shoulder here). "I want to keep things as normal as possible," she informs him. "And you not being here is part of that." Even their final words to one another are loving lies. "I'll talk to you soon," he tells her. "OK," she chokes out before hanging up. This is Betty's only real scene in the finale (a later scene in the Francis household shows Sally arriving home from school but Betty is already bedridden, and Bobby knows why). All that's left is the closing moment with Sally washing dishes as the dying woman smokes her last cigarettes at the kitchen table.

When Don shows up at Stephanie's doorstep in Los Angeles, he really has nowhere left to turn. It was a visit with Betty that sent him down the exit away from New York to begin with, and this chat is the final rocket boost he needs to fling him all the way to the end of the line. Washed out of his leadership position at the agency he helped found, dumped by his second wife after a long, numbing wind-down at his moment of greatest professional vulnerability, bluntly if still fondly warned off from returning to the bedrock of his original nuclear family- almost all of the official Don Draper ties have been severed. The Whitman curse has fully poisoned the Draper redemption, and will continue to do so when "niece" Stephanie (who puts that relationship back into quotation marks) invites him to a yogic self-realization retreat up north. Distressed by other members of a group therapy session who judge her for abandoning her child, Stephanie in turn rejects Don's attempts to comfort her. "You're not my family, what's the matter with you?" she sputters. When he delivers his usual pep talk - the one he gave Peggy, the one he gave Lane, the one he gives himself all the time - she looks astonished. "You can put this behind you," he insists. "It'll get easier if you move forward." All she has to do is observe the messenger to know this message is wrong. When Stephanie leaves in the middle of the night, stranding him on the precipice of a final breakdown, he finally calls long-distance to Peggy. The phone booth is a one-way confessional: he can spill his shame, but she cannot provide absolution. Who can?

Invited back inside the circle of the sad, Don listens - either raw or numb, it's hard to tell the difference sometimes - as seminar participants share their pain. One man, Leonard, a nondescript, balding fortysomething with a light blue sweater and a plain face unvarnished with pretense or pride, takes his turn. He speaks for three minutes before he is weeping so hard that he cannot finish, and then Don stands up, crosses the circle, falls to his knees and hugs the stranger in an embrace as enveloping as any he's offered - to himself as well as the recipient. This is what Leonard says:
"My name's Leonard and, uh, I don't know if there's anything that complicated about me. Which is why I should be happier I guess. ... Well, [what you said about 'should' to Daniel] is good for him. He's interesting. I've never been interesting to anybody. I, uh, I work in an office. People walk right by me. I know they don't see me. And I go home, and I watch my wife and my kids. They don't look up when I sit down. ... I don't know. It's like no one cares that I'm gone. They should love me. I mean, 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 everyone's out there eating. And then they open the door and you see them smiling and they're happy to see you but maybe they don't look right at you. And maybe they don't pick you. And then the door closes again. The light goes off."
My Response: Leonard is the perfect release valve for Don for so many reasons. First, there's just something beautifully poetic yet wry about using someone so nondescript to illuminate someone so flashy. The last thing anyone would say about Don is that "he's never been interesting to anybody." (Even Jim Cutler, who probably got under his skin more effectively than most, prefaced his scathing disappointment with an initial appreciation of Don's mystique.) Leonard holds himself like the polar opposite of Don, in a way that also seems peculiarly modern in a show so obsessed with older archetypes of masculinity. Ungenerous Redditors might call him a quintessential beta vs. Don's alpha, while those seeking autobiographical parallels might note that Matthew Weiner looks rather more like Leonard than Don. It's as if the man who (arguably) used Don Draper as a stylized alter ego has now placed his outer self into conversation with own creation, the former seeking comfort from the latter. This could be touching or self-indulgent depending on your perspective; I find the pathos engaging. I'm reminded of the moment in Persona when the characters speak in a stream-of-consciousness that you slowly realize is probably Bergman's own; when you sense the artist withholding or playing games, moments in which they unleash themselves are all the more powerful. The notion gets right to the heart of what's so appealing about the embrace - two halves of the self reuniting to form a whole - although, paradoxically or not, there is also something fundamentally empathetic and communal about this. Given my reading of the climax of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me as a similarly dual self-oriented/other-oriented allegory, I'm obviously prone to both detect and celebrate such a move.

There is also a wonderful professional throughline here: what is Leonard if not the prototypical consumer, an ordinary everyman who will hunt for self-fulfillment through fetishized commodities in the marketplace because he can't find it in the functional aspects of his life? At the same time, his final self-description puts him in the place of the product being chosen; and the setting, with a group in rapt attention as Leonard tells them a story that expresses mutual desires (to soothe mutual insecurities), is subtly evocative of the many pitch meetings we've witnessed throughout the course of Mad Men. Leonard unifies consumer, product, and advertiser in a perfect symbiosis and by hugging him, Don is not only experiencing a breakthrough but physicalizing what he does best, usually on a more abstract level - making someone else feel wanted in sync with his own inner need. The gesture expresses everything about why Don does what he does, what it means to him, and why he's so damn good at it. I'm not one particularly inclined to see advertising as an art form, but if Mad Men convincingly argues that it does require an artistic temperament, that argument is probably best expressed indirectly in Leonard's monologue and Don's response (as fun as the concluding TV-tube equivalent of a needledrop may be).

I view that moment - meaning Leonard and Don - as the episode's greatest triumph, but that perspective may be colored by what I already knew. Waiting six years after it aired to catch up, it was hard not to stumble across spoilers simply from cultural osmosis. I knew Don was going to get involved with some sort of "cult" or self-help group (that said, I did not know for sure where this would be, so my suspicion that he'd end up in California was genuine speculation). I knew there was a shot of Don smiling while meditating, although an edited Twitter gif led me to think there would be explosions behind his head as he did so (sort of like the shot of Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried floating over shots of environmental carnage in First Reformed). And, worst of all, I knew - or at least I thought I knew, and hoped I had misheard or been red-herringed - about the finale's big twist: Don created perhaps the most famous TV commercial of all time (which my generation may be most familiar with from those VH1 "I Love the..." decade specials from the early 2000s). I can't remember where I regrettably ran across this information - I think it was a sideways reference on a Twin Peaks podcast - but whether by deduction or description, I was even pretty sure the episode would just end by playing the ad, letting our imaginations do the linking between Don and that hillside.

Obviously I like to be unspoiled in principle, but my nervousness about knowing too much also extended to the content of this presumed ending. I wasn't sure I liked the idea of Mad Men closing with such a potent cocktail of sentimentality and cynicism, emphasis on the latter. It's cute and clever, like many of Don's pitches, but leaves you asking (like Peggy Lee in the mini-season opener), is that all there is? Are we really to gather that all of Don's existential wandering was just self-consciously glib window dressing for the origin story of a pop cultural bauble? Would this confirm the series' repeated hints - despite all the evidence it supplies to the contrary - that the characters' best chances at happiness, however fleeting, are to be found more in material acquisition and clever gameplaying, the business world as a spirited lark, rather than in stoic fulfillment of responsibilities or pursuits of spiritual truth? If so, which option is worse, that Weiner is nihilistically mocking the shallowness of this world without offering any credence to a counterpoint, or that he kind of digs this postmodern triviality and (in archetypal Gen X fashion) considers it a square hang-up to seek transcendental deliverance? By using whatever epiphany I knew a spiritual retreat would probably entail, was the show going to open this door for us one last time before laughing as it slammed the door in our faces?

Despite my reservations going in, for whatever reason the final sequences didn't play this way for me. There was so much more...affection in all of it, for us, for Don, for the silly but lovable Coca-Cola ad, for Mad Men itself. The hilltop sing-a-long felt more like a delightful form of punctuation, a "Her Majesty" wink at the end of a more substantial coda, seeding just enough doubt to add some subversive spice without sacrificing thematic integrity. It helped that I was watching this with others, who were surprised by the gesture and laughed along (and understood that the episode was being a bit cheeky but not entirely dismissive about Don's need to articulate the world through high-concept commercials). And it particularly helped that I wasn't really expecting Leonard, who prepares the way for that final sequence to be both genuine and goofy, not just knowing and grandiose.

Now I'm mostly left with questions about how others reacted to this ending - particularly those who kept up with Mad Men during its original run and partook in the collective hype and anticipation. I knew that the common theory of Don killing himself probably wasn't going to play out (even aside from the Coke connection, it just didn't seem like how this show would choose to end), although apparently advance knowledge of the Big Sur location shooting led fans to speculate that he'd leap from a cliff rather than a skyscraper. Nor did I really ever expect Don to find lasting love, although I believed Stephanie would play a role in his awakening (probably expecting more of a direct role than she ended up playing). I also kept flirting with the notion that there was another card to play with Diana - mostly because the show itself so obviously wanted me to think this. There were even times when I humored the possibility that he'd reunite with Megan, his most implausible soulmate, partly in order to avoid the repetition of just another "and then they got divorced" endpoint. (Instead, the show reserved more or less that exact move for Pete and Trudy - although I suppose the closer Draper parallel to that would have been Don and Betty reuniting, which I definitely did not expect.)

Megan, I'd contend, did not get the send-off she deserved as a long-time, important character - indeed, giving her mother far more of a role to play in the last arc almost feels like a pointed brush off. Even more surprising, if more minor, was how completely and totally the last few episodes dropped Dawn. This was made all the more galling when Shirley was granted the one "black character finally gets to tell off the world of advertising" moment, which almost felt like Mad Men falling into the very "Goodbye, Shirley! Goodbye, Dawn!" trap it mocked earlier in the season, trading the character it initially struggled with for the later addition it was able to develop more effectively. That was a good scene, by the way - if a bit easygoing on Roger - and ideally both characters would have had an appropriate curtain call (particularly galling for the way we left off with Dawn, as a background character in others' scenes). Honestly, this only makes the show's earlier missteps - aborting a barely-developed Dawn sublot in season six, barely following up on her promotion to Joan's position - all the more egregious, and it even casts gestures that initially seemed like strengths in a less flattering light (for example, decentering her in the MLK episode, which felt more like self-awareness than evasion at the time).

And, without belaboring a disappointment already expressed several times, the show truly squandered Dow Chemical. This points to a broader, well, limitation (if not necessarily a flaw) in a series which contains plenty of political references but it is not very political in any meaningful, conscious way. No wonder it couldn't do much more than a few one-liners and a gag cartoon with a company that directly and bluntly exposed postwar America's underbelly. The show wants us to know that it understands all the political currents of the time, but considers committing to any particularly grounded perspective on any of it - beyond what has become consensus - kind of gauche. In this it is very much an artifact of the Obama era: pre-Bernie, pre-Trump, post-Crash (at least in later seasons), with its chic media buzz in particular taking for granted a professional-class euphoria which existed in (as it turned out) an easily-pierced bubble. It's a fascinating thought experiment to wonder what Mad Men would be like if it ran from 1997 to 2005 or 2017 to whatever 2025 has in store for us. Considering how many of the show's triumphs arise directly from its place in prestige cable history we should probably be thankful it was produced when it was. It rode the wave that The Sopranos and The Wire began (one ending a year before, one ending a year after Mad Men's premiere), concurrently with the even bigger breakout of Breaking Bad, and took its bow on the eve of what now looks like a general decline in the form. Mad Men exists not just a conscious evocation of one zeitgeist but also a less conscious expression of another.

This is probably most true of the narrative emphasis on Peggy, whose pragmatic underdog journey requires her to navigate and subvert social conventions in a way that Don does not (although he too is an outsider trespassing in elite or elite-adjacent spaces - he just has a better camouflage available than she does). From the distance of a nonviewer observing the cultural conversation at the time, I sometimes got the sense that the Don's storyline came in for more criticism than Peggy's. After a dozen years of brooding male antiheroes, he was offering up more of the same while she provided a breath of fresh air in a too-often grimdark, philosophical-rather-than-everyday format: the feminist Selina Kyle to his adolescent-angsty Bruce Wayne. Of course this paradigm has become its own sort of cliche (how does the #LeanIn craze, celebrating a Facebook CEO, look in retrospect?), and today we can see that the show walked a tightrope with both characters, safely reaching the other side despite occasional stumbles. Peggy's greatest strength as a character is, in fact, the fact that she is flawed and down-to-earth - her roller coaster struggles and at times difficult (if often lovably so) personality make iconic triumphs like her march down the McCann hallway feel earned instead of trite. Stan provides the perfect (if occasionally abused) sidekick, someone who could undercut her pretensions when necessary, build her up when she needed it, and most importantly, make her laugh until they were on the same level again - the Tracy to her Hepburn. (This turn, by the way, was spoiled for me as well, by my sister who absolutely loved it and couldn't resist sharing ahead of time - though I didn't mind and assumed it was coming). On a show with a loner at its dead center, Peggy is able to provide a key to the social realm as well as the best opportunity for Don himself to connect to someone else in the midst of his very individual breakdowns and breakthroughs.

Gun-shy about politics, the show is always strongest with individual psychology. I'm quite curious to re-visit all the seasons someday, in quicker succession (no need to pause and write down my reaction after each), to discover how consistent its portrait of Don and his particular hang-ups really are. The fundamental nature of his trauma and consequent longing are best expressed in the final couple seasons, when the series moves past its obsession with infidelity to explore Don's tangled conception of motherhood (Sylvia, who I initially worried was too much of a retreat/dead end, turned out to be absolutely crucial in this regard). I don't recall the Eternal Maternal being such a presence early on, although I may find myself surprised - certainly some of Don's conversations with Rachel come to mind. To what degree did the creators retcon the core of the series after they'd moved past the Dick Whitman secret and Don's two collapsing marriages as narrative engines? If Don's Oedipal confusion - absent comforter, present seductress - really was a late-in-the-game Hail Mary pass (pardon the expression in this context!), then it landed better than they could have hoped. Such a conceit resonates far beyond the story of a single individual, capturing something fundamental about the restless, rootless nature of the country whose disturbed psyche serves as Don's professional terrain: a nation of wanderers looking for a love they can't recognize, and finding only endless reflections of their own desperation.

Mad Men may have been too skittish to commit to a truly stinging, satirical perspective or an entirely earnest expression of values. Yet its interplay of fascination and skepticism provide a rich, ambivalent meditation on the American Dream if not the broader human condition. A dynamic and dangerous tale told with a convincing sparkle in the teller's eye, its elusive illusions and maddening contradictions form a deadly web that traps us all, eventually even the spider himself. Or perhaps he was trapped there from the beginning, looking for company.

The following podcast was recorded after I wrote this review; it discuses the series as a whole and incorporates some further reading, listening, and re-watching:

The last time we see each of the six main characters...

No comments:

Search This Blog