Now that Matthew Weiner has put the lie to “Leave It to Beaver” and “Make Room for Daddy,” revealing the denial, need, and aggression behind the perfect 1950s family façade, we wait.
We wait — something that, in this age of “on demand” and TV binging, we rarely do — to find out exactly how the “Mad Men” creator will leave each of his characters when his drama ends next year. Will the symbolism-minded Weiner show these people rising to a higher floor, elevator-style; tumbling in free-fall like the cartoon man in the title sequence; or going up and down and round and round “on a carousel”?
At the end of the first half of season seven last week, all signs pointed to a happy ending, to the tune of “The Best Things in Life Are Free.” Yes, “Mad Men” and a happy ending, a somewhat oxymoronic pairing. The show has been a long, slow slide into the darkest corners of its characters’ personalities: Betty’s childlike despair, Peggy’s loneliness, Roger’s nihilism, Joan’s low self-image, and, of course, Don’s self-loathing and identity theft. The sustained mood of the series has been one of simmering discontent and alcoholic numbness, with Don dragging everyone in his life into disappointment. And yet there we were in the midseason finale, a song-and-dance step away from peace and love.
Don’s shift was profound. Every season has been a study in how Don’s poor, unstable childhood has played out unconsciously in his adult life. We’ve seen him try to remake himself into a power broker with a suburban family, to lead the picture-perfect life — and yet succumb to his neurotic needs over and over again, creating lots of collateral damage in the process. Just when we’d think he had to change or lose everything, we’d join the long queue of those frustrated by Don as he undermined himself once more with a vengeance.
But across the last half-season, Don seems to have become more self-aware. His lovely, platonic conversation on the plane with Neve Campbell in the first episode, the way he mentored Peggy into taking charge of the Burger Chef presentation and then proudly watched her succeed, his bittersweet acceptance when Megan broke up with him — all these moments indicated a newfound groundedness. He has hit rock bottom a number of times, but he no longer appears absolutely destined to do it again. Weiner even put Don in a somewhat saccharine scene in the penultimate episode — the dance to “My Way” with Peggy — and it felt like a sentimental resolution more than a setup for another fall.
The agency realignment led by Roger in order to save Don’s job was another sign of warmth in the last episode, the kind of giddy business chess game that has become a staple of “The Good Wife.” Jim Cutler emerged as Don’s enemy more than ever, openly struggling to fire him, but Weiner was not inviting us to take Jim’s side. Roger, the quip-slinging hedonist once so passive about Don, became the rescuer, taking matters into his own hands as if to contradict Bert’s comment that he was not a leader. The day was saved for Don, quite a victory given his non grata status at the end of season six.
The uniting factor in the last episode also spoke of positivity: The Apollo 11 moon landing, that “giant leap for mankind.” We’ve been watching the characters let TV into their lives, as screens appear tangentially in more and more scenes (and as Harry Crane has headed up the agency’s TV department). Suddenly, everyone was gathered together around their TV sets looking at the universe, with Don reaching out to his daughter in one of his most genuinely paternal gestures. The moon landing scenes on “Mad Men” were a kind of Kodak carousel ride, a paean to America’s lost innocence.
Don seems to have become more self-aware. He has hit rock bottom a number of times, but he no longer appears absolutely destined to do it again.
But is it possible, really, that “Mad Men” has gone into hope mode? Will Peggy’s professional triumph spread into her personal life when the show returns? Will Joan, who made her claim for love when she rejected Bob Benson, find a romantic partner who can deal with her newly owned power? Was this last half-season a final U-turn in the show, an ending that will be followed by a seven-episode epilogue — a novel-like winding down rather than a TV-like climax? Will we move forward with the characters into the future, with the flow of history, beyond the 1960s, as the office computer shrinks and multiplies?
Or was this half-season only a feint toward well-being, before Weiner leads his characters back into restlessness, the two steps backward to this one step forward? Either way, elevator or carousel, I’m betting it will be well worth waiting for.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.