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The End is the Beginning: The New Frontier on the Season Finale of "Mad Men"

"For everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you gain, you lose something else." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

After a season of betrayal, corporate takeovers, and presidential assassination, last night's brilliantly evocative season finale of Mad Men ("Shut the Door. Have a Seat"), written by Matthew Weiner and Erin Levy and directed by Matthew Weiner, offered not an ending for the staffers of Sterling Cooper but a brave new beginning.

Poised on the cusp between 1963 and 1964, there's a power grab going on at the venerable advertising agency, one that leads not to stability and fortune but to risk... and potentially the chance to grab a piece of the American dream once more.

It's a dream that's been not only tarnished by the death of a beloved president but also by the disintegration of the family unit as Don is stunned to learn that Betty wants a divorce and intends to go through with her plans to tear their family asunder. While Don has been a lone wolf through the three seasons of Mad Men thus far, the thing that anchored him, that acted as his constant, was his family. Yet, one can't help shake the sense that the scene at the very end, in the hotel room offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, that a new family is being born before our very eyes.

It was inevitable that things would change within the world of Sterling Cooper after their merger with the Brits and this season saw the departure of some of the series' most beloved characters (such as Christina Hendrick's Joan and Bryan Batt's Sal) from the corridors of Sterling Cooper. Just as America was about to undergo an upheaval of the highest order, so too would this little microcosm. But rather than be traded about as one might a commodity or a product, Don refuses to be swept up as a pawn in someone else's game. After all, he's the master of reinvention. So why not reinvent the company while he's at it?

I audibly cheered at the television set as Don's plan slowly came to fruition as he managed to convince both Bert Cooper and Roger Sterling to come aboard his new agency... and rather surprisingly was able to talk Lane Pryce into falling in with their lot as well by firing the trio and thus releasing them from their contracts. It's a brilliant gambit that underpins Don's strength as a strategist as well as a charismatic pitchman as even Lane isn't immune to Don's trademark brand of seduction.

But an agency is nothing without worker bees and the quartet know that they've got to not only take clients but staffers as well. Coming so soon on the heels of JFK's death, each of the staffers is forced to make a life-altering decision: they can jump ship or be pushed overboard. They can succumb to fear of the unknown or they can wait around to be pinkslipped once the deal to sell Sterling Cooper (and parent company PPL) closes. Just what will happen to those left out in the cold (Ken Cosgrove, Sal, and Paul Kinsey most notably) remains to be seen but I was glad that Roger had the foresight to bring Joan Holloway back into the fold (and more firmly into the central focus of the series) as they need her special skills and her unerring discretion.

But this past year has seen some bad blood developed between Don and several staffers, most notably Peggy and Pete, both of whom had been approached by Duck Phillips about leaving Sterling Cooper for better and brighter opportunities. That Don believes that both Pete and Peggy will follow him without question shows a decided lack of perception on his part. Pete is far more clever and crafty than Don gives him credit for; he uses their invitation as an opportunity to secure a partnership for himself, despite the fact that he was already interviewing at other companies. Pete forces Don to praise his abilities, to provide him with the paternal acknowledgment and support that he's so desperate for.

That he doesn't so much as phrase the offer as a question to Peggy but a direct order displays how warped his understanding of her truly is. I had to give Peggy credit for standing up to her mentor ("I'm not sticking around so you can kick me when you fail.") and proving herself an independent woman capable of making her own decisions, of finding her own way in the world.

Don's worldview has always been colored by the belief that it's always been Draper against the rest of the world but this episode, which showcased his efforts to build something real for himself and his children even as his marriage shattered around him, forced Don to come to terms with a hard truth: we might come into this world alone and leave it the same way but it's the time in between that truly matters. The scene which Jon Hamm shared with Elisabeth Moss' Peggy, in which Don visits Peggy at home and pleads with her to follow him, showed a very different side of Don than we've seen so far. He knows that he can't go it alone; he needs Peggy and the others in order to succeed.

It's a lesson which Don's father Archie never learned. Facing hard times and plummeting bushel prices, Archie decides to disband the farming co-operative and take his chances on his own. It's a decision which leads directly to his death (a swift kick to the head from one of their horses), witnessed first hand by Don. Does he want to bleed out into the hay as his father did? Or can he finally admit that he's not omnipotent, that he needs partners to enact his vision?

Fortunately, he does come to his senses. He tearfully tells Peggy that he needs her in order to be better and says that if she turns down his offer (and, really, now it is an offer rather than an edict), he'll spend the rest of his life trying to hire her. While much of Mad Men's plots have circled around Don and Betty's marriage, the true central relationship of the series is that between Don and Peggy. Don admits that he thought of Peggy as "an extension" of himself rather than as her own individual.

Their shared secrets have bound them together for so long that it's hard for Don to separate himself from Peggy, to see that she might not be deserving of the punishment he inflicts upon himself. They've seen and done terrible things but they've come out the other side stronger for it. I wondered for a split second if perhaps Peggy would turn him down, even when he appeared hat in hand, tears in his eyes, to plead with her. But I was happy that she saw what Don was admitting in that instant: that he values her and needs her in his life.

It's clear too from the scene with Peggy that Don is reeling from the breakdown of his marriage and from Betty's demand for a divorce. It's not the first time that Betty has sought an escape route from Don's lies and indiscretions but she's never had a "life raft" before; this time around she does in the honorable if aloof Henry Francis, a man who proposes to Betty before she had even mentioned the word divorce to Don and who promises to take care of her and her three children. (It almost seems too good to be true, in fact.)

Don's discovery of Betty's relationship with Henry Francis is accidental, stemming as it does from a slip from Roger Sterling over drinks. But Don's wrath is swift and vengeful; he drags Betty out of bed, pushes her around, and calls her a whore. It's a terrifying glimpse at a Don who has lost everything he's ever worked for, a Don who perhaps is closer to Archie Whitman than he ever thought possible. There's no forgiveness, no sadness, just a seething anger at what's been lost and what's been broken perhaps forever.

Despite the attempts to keep their separation civil, cracks are forming everywhere within the Draper family. As Bobby pleads with Don to stay and Sally angrily storms off (blaming Betty), it's apparent that Betty is breaking inside even as she knows she cannot stay with Don. Yet she is resolute in her decision. Their marriage is over, their relationship irrevocably severed in the instant that he confronts her in the darkness of the bedroom they shared. Kudos to both Jon Hamm and January Jones for gracefully pulling off an extremely difficult sequence here and allowing their characters to go to some very dark places. Their love has been one of the linchpins of the series; in that climactic scene we see the extinguishing of any romance between them.

The dissolution of the Draper family is seen before our eyes with a starkness that was shattering: Betty on a plane with Henry Francis bound for Reno for a quickie divorce (with shades of The Women, of course); Sally and Bobby in front of the television with Carla and the family's dog; Don alone in a Greenwich Village street, suitcases in hand, ready to take the next step in his life, whatever that may be.

But there's also the promise of renewal, of new connections formed, and new families being built, at least in the corporate world. As Don comes out of the hotel bedroom after phoning Betty, he sees not a loose collective of ambitious loners but a true co-operative of spirit, a new family that encircles not just his partners but also Joan, Peggy, Pete, and Harry. It's a moment, amid the chaos and destruction, of pure happiness as Don surveys the cramped hotel room that is the heart of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and sees the family he's built for himself. It's the beginning rather than the end.

Likewise, the aforementioned shot of Don walking in the darkened street by himself isn't one of solemness but one that's rife with possibility. He's a man about to take one step firmly into whatever future might hold for him... and, perhaps for the first time in his life, Don realizes that he's not alone in the world.

Mad Men will return for a fourth season in 2010.


Bella Spruce said…
The season finale was brilliant and reading your wonderful review gave me chills all over again!

I never thought that Mad Men was the type of show that would make me cheer but, like you, I cheered several times during last night's episode. There was a lot of heartbreak but so many triumphant moments as well. Seeing my favorite characters back together again in that cramped little hotel room was enough to make me giddy with joy and I am already crazy with anticipation for season four.
AskRachel said…
That scene between Don and Betty was scary. Both actors proved, once again, how brilliant they are. I just hope that the disintegration of Don and Betty's marriage doesn't mean that we'll see less of Betty next season. She's one of my favorite characters in spite (or because of?) all her flaws.
Playstead said…
Brilliant analysis of what I think may have been the finest hour of TV (surely the most enjoyable) I've ever watched. Can't wait for season 4.
Ally said…
Absolutely brilliant finale from beginning to end.
Dani In NC said…
You named one of my favorite movies of all time -- "The Women"! I'm always surprised by how many people don't know this movie, so thanks for mentioning it.

This season's finale is a reward for those of us who have stuck with "Mad Men" through all the seasons. Many people say that nothing really happens on this show, but the slow build-up made this episode much more satisfying than on a show like "Grey's Anatomy" where there is a shocker every other episode.

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