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The surprising success of “Empire” and “black-ish,” combined with the ongoing popularity of “Scandal,” might suggest that television has once again discovered the African-American.

There are, of course, plenty of black characters on TV, but few shows that focus on the black experience. This absence of African-American-themed shows is a surprising trend given that there were plenty of shows about black characters in the (presumably less-enlightened) past, including such hits as “The Cosby Show,” “Sanford and Son,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “The Jeffersons,” and “In Living Color.”

The introduction of two African-American shows in one year may seem like a trend, but they have almost nothing in common other than skin pigment.  “Empire” is an updated version of those ‘80s prime-time soap operas “Dallas” and “Dynasty.”  And the antecedents for “black-ish” are not “The Cosby Show,” to which it is often compared, but its lead-in on ABC, “Modern Family.”

“Modern Family” and “black-ish” are both sharp single-camera comedies about affluent, upper-class families in L.A. whose characters aggressively use wit to comment on and expose the foibles of their kids, parents or siblings.  In both shows there’s a lot of family conflict, but unlike edgier comedies such as “Girls” or “Louie,” no real pain, no unforgivable wisecracks, and no estrangement.  In other words, these are families that you’d love to be part of, where everyone – no matter how different in temperament or values – loves and appreciates each other.

“Modern Family” and black-ish” also have this in common: They acknowledge, play with, and ultimately subvert stereotypes.  In “Modern Family,” these stereotypes include the hot Latin trophy wife Gloria and the very gay couple Mitchell and Cam.  These characters embody all the clichés of their archetypes: Gloria’s accent is heavier than Ricky Ricardo’s and Cam’s addiction to fashion, design, and catty remarks could have come right out of “La Cage aux Folles.”

“black-ish” is very upfront about the stereotypes it wants to confront.  The paterfamilias Andre Johnson, or “Dre,” is a classic sitcom dad except he’s concerned about the cultural assimilation of his family.  In his mind they aren’t black enough – they’re “black-ish” – and a major theme of the show is his attempt to get them to remain true their black identity.

Just as “Modern Family” was so non-transgressive that it could be the favorite show of Mitt Romney, so too is “black-ish” so race-neutral that it could plausibly be the favorite show of Rush Limbaugh.  Even more so than the Huxtables, the Johnsons are living the good life in a nearly race-blind America.  It’s an America that the Ferguson protestors would not recognize.

Dre is a moderately successful advertising executive in a predominately white firm.  His white colleagues are doofuses who make politically incorrect comments that in some firms would earn them a visit to the HR department.  But it’s clear that these remarks are based on obtuseness, not animus or racial hatred. And besides, Dre’s no angel himself, siding with the other guys in making politically incorrect remarks about the women in the office.  Everyone is a mild equal opportunity offender.

Dre’s wife is a biracial anesthesiologist (which leads to a jaw-dropping joke I never thought I’d see on national TV:  On MLK Day, she sniffed at the “Doctor” in Dr. King, noting, “If you were to have a heart attack, he would give a great speech and I would keep you alive. I just don’t understand why we’re called the same thing.”)  The fact that she has a white father is the cause of conflict with Dre’s more militant parents.

Although race is one preoccupation on “black-ish,” it’s not the only one.  It’s primarily a family sitcom in which the dad does crazy things, the kids crack wise, and mom eventually blows her stack.  The ethos of the show is that race matters, just as sexual orientation matters on “Modern Family,” but not all that much.  You can see the progress in attitudes through the generations.  Dre’s parents are extremely race-conscious and suspicious of whites.  Dre himself experiences his race as one of several personal identifiers; and his kids barely acknowledge themselves as racial at all.  In fact, a whole episode is built around his son’s inexperience with racial prejudice and Dre’s attempt to toughen him up.

Despite the best efforts of “black-ish” though, race does still matter, at least with the TV audience.  Despite being so similar, “Modern Family” and “black-ish” have vastly different audiences.  According to Nielsen, African-Americans watch “black-ish” at almost twice the rates as whites (with a persons rating of 5.8 for blacks vs. 3.4 for whites), while whites watch “Modern Family” at almost twice the rate as blacks (with a persons rating of 6.1 for whites vs. 3.0 for blacks).  This is remarkable, considering that “Modern Family” is the lead-in for “black-ish.” That’s a lot of switching channels between shows.

It’s too bad that more whites don’t watch “black-ish.” There aren’t enough really good sitcoms on TV and each one needs a bigger audience.  But more important, it’s a sad commentary that the TV audience is actually more racially polarized than it was when “The Jeffersons” and “The Cosby Show” ruled the airwaves.   Where’s the progress?

 

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McCann Conference Room

All season long our friends on Mad Men have been grappling with the question of how to achieve satisfaction in a material world – a very material world. If they don’t achieve their dreams the mad men aren’t happy; but if they DO reach them they’re STILL unhappy. This theme continues in spades in “Time & Life,” although there are finally a few glimpses of what might bring contentment.

I hope you liked “Time & Life” as much as I did, because it’s probably the end of the line for the Mad Men we’ve all come to enjoy so much. The road ahead is uncertain. We could jump ahead a month, a year or five years.   The Mad Men formula as introduced in the pilot has held firm for seven TV seasons and ten plot years. The premise of the show is that we are following eight to ten characters as they interact in a 1960’s ad agency. Well, the Sixties are over and so is the agency.

In a last-ditch effort to keep Don from being fired in July 1969, Roger arranged for Sterling Cooper to be acquired by the giant agency McCann Erickson. He dangled the McCann millions in front of the SCP partners and they all grabbed it and became rich. Now it’s a year later – July 1970 (which we know because Don hasn’t moved out of his apartment yet) – and the partners are reaping the consequences of selling out. They no longer control their own fate. SCP is being swallowed up by McCann and the partners are wage slaves of the corporate behemoth. If they want to keep their millions they have to work at McCann for four more years.

I always enjoy Mad Men most when it focuses on corporate machinations, and this episode was a gem. The gang is back together for one more time as they try to squirm out of the trap they’ve set for themselves.   In one of the great Matt Weiner decoys, Don comes up with the brilliant idea to open a satellite agency in California using their existing but conflicted clients as a base. For a few minutes, every fan could envision how the rest of the series would play out: with Don in California – the land that has always meant freedom and a reconnection to his true self. It’s fun to watch them cobble together a plan, just as they did in “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” that great episode at the end of Season Three, when they escaped the clutches of their then-British owner Puttnam, Powell, and Lowe, which was being sold to, of all people, McCann Erickson.

They avoid being swallowed up by McCann in 1963 but not this time around. When they present their idea for a California agency to Jim Hobart he shuts them down fast. He’s not interested in sending them off to LA to form a California subsidiary – he’s not interested in Sterling Cooper in any form. As far as he’s concerned, what he’s bought is talent and clients. He tells them they “passed the test” and that he’s giving the five SCP partners five of the most desirable jobs in advertising; they’ll be able to experience “travel, adventure, international presence.”  And, joy of joys, they’ll be able to work on some of the biggest brands in advertising. He tells them they’ve died and gone to “advertising heaven,” and the way he pronounces the names of the brands, you’d think he was reciting the celestial spheres of heaven from Dante’s “Paradiso.” Buick, Ortho Pharmaceutical, Nabisco and most heavenly of all, Coca Cola. Let the choirs of angels rejoice!

By rights, the partners should be happy, since they’ve achieved their professional goals and could even have better prospects ahead. But they’ve lost their independence.  How much more confident they were when they first rented the space in the Time & Life Building (see below compared to the boardroom photo above) than when then leave it.

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The lease for the SCP headquarters at the Time & Life Building is up in 30 days, which means that the next time we see our friends they’ll be dispersed within the McCann empire. Maybe they’ll be working together and maybe they won’t. And this, I have to say, feels like real life. People work together for years and years, become friends and maybe even create workplace families, but then it’s over and life goes on. Where Mad Men is headed is someplace we almost never see on TV: what happens when the natural “story” of a series is over. The Sterling Cooper tale is complete but the show continues for three more episodes.

In the final scene we see the further consequences of the sell-out. The partners pull together the SCP employees to announce the news and a revolt nearly breaks out. Sensing that the partners are no longer their bosses, the staff grumbles and eventually disperses, not bothering to listen to their platitudes. Even Don can’t summon them back with his forcefulness and eloquence: “This is the beginning of something,” he shouts at them, “not the end.” No one’s listening by this point. The old Draper magic is gone.

The corporate plot was great, but “Time & Life” was an episode that fired on all cylinders. In addition to the edge-of-your-seat corporate machinations, the episode featured laugh-out-loud humor and a remarkably touching sub-plot about Peggy’s dark secret.

Like most of the episodes this season, much in “Time & Life” harkens back to Season One. Certainly we are meant to recall that Jim Hobart tried to recruit Don to McCann in 1960, which is how Don ended up a partner at Sterling Cooper. And Roger bellows “Joan, come in here,” just like he did in Season One (although he gets a very different response now, when she simply says: “Don’t do that.”). But the real call-back to Season One is the allusion to Peggy’s baby, conceived in the pilot episode because of Pete’s selfish need for affirmation on the eve of his wedding.

We have seen that Peggy is nervous around children, and Stan jokes that she hates kids, which is a dagger to her heart. They are trying to cast children for that lousy Tinkerbell cookie ad they came up with last episode, and Pete melts a little when he sees one of the urchins embracing Peggy in a loving way. Only Don and Pete know about her pregnancy, and only Pete knows he’s the father, a secret never spoken of by anyone.

The issue boils over when one of the stage mothers leaves her daughter behind for the try-out while she goes to pick up her son who’s at a casting call somewhere else. The little girl staples her finger, which freaks out the mother, causing Peggy to get all judgey: “you shouldn’t have abandoned her in a midtown office building,” (good point) and “I bet you love cashing her checks.” The mother has the ultimate put-down, though, “You do what you want with your children and I’ll do what I want with mine.”

This leads to one of the most touching scenes in Mad Men history, with Peggy gradually letting Stan in on her secret. Peggy chastises Stan for judging the Mom (even though she just did it herself) saying he doesn’t know anything about her circumstances. It slowly becomes clear that the conversation — on choices and the consequences of mistakes — has evolved from being about the Mom to being about Peggy. And what a great friend Stan is, absorbing her criticism and just listening as she asserts “she should be able to live the rest of her life like a man does,” in other words, a life without constant regret for her mistakes. “No one should have to make a mistake – just like a man does – and not be able to move on.” Of course she has no idea what Pete thinks about having a son that he’s never met, but she assumes that he’s moved on without pain.

As for that son, she explains, “I’m here, and he’s with a family somewhere. I don’t know, but it’s not because I don’t care. I don’t know because you’re not supposed to know, or you can’t get on with your life.” Fantastic acting in this scene by Elizabeth Moss, Scientology membership notwithstanding.   And beautifully directed – in a show with many short, information-packed scenes, this scene lingered beautifully, as the secret slowly unfolded.

All season long – all series-long really – Mad Men has confronted the Peggy Lee question: is that all there is? There was less despair in “Time & Life” than in previous episodes, but the characters are still unhappy with the consequences of their decisions, even though they all nominally have the material rewards they crave. Joan worries that she won’t be taken seriously at McCann, Roger’s worried that the Sterling name is dying out, and Don is unhappy that money and security doesn’t bring satisfaction.

There are a few clues, though, on a way out. When Joan tells her new squeeze Richard that she’s having a bad day at work, he says a bad day at work can’t be that bad, something we never understand until we are away from work and have perspective on what’s important. More pointedly, Jim Hobart tells the partners to stop struggling – because they’ve won. “Stop the struggling” is excellent advice in all aspects of life. And Pete goes all Zen in the cab with Joan.   “For the first time I feel like whatever happens is supposed to happen. “ The Dalai Lama could not have said it better.

And there is, after all, one character who’s reasonably happy – Ted. In the previous episode, “The Forecast,” his prosaic dream – to get a major pharmaceutical client – seemed like a joke on limited expectations, but here he is at McCann, getting to work on Ortho Pharmaceutical and he’s happy as a clam. He was a wreck at the end of both Season Six and Seven(a), in a bad marriage and feeling guilty about his kids. Now we learn that his wife stayed in California when he moved back to NYC and for some reason his spirits have soared. He has reconnected with his college girlfriend, who’s gorgeous, not too young, and a little bit deep; he’s developed self-awareness and compassion, acknowledging that Don should have gone to California instead of him; and he seems professionally satisfied, while somehow understanding that a job is not an identity. He might have a terrible Seventies moustache, but he could provide a path for the rest of his colleagues if they want to find fulfillment in life.

Some other thoughts on the episode:

— The closing song, “Money Burns a Hole in my Pocket” is a 1954 Dean Martin hit. Dino was one of those guys like Frank Sinatra and Don Draper who peaked in the Fifties and early Sixties and seemed corny and out of step in 1970. The song itself is anachronistic but the lyrics, with the implication that money will buy happiness, are not: (“Money burns a hole in my pocket/How I wish I had millions of dollars and nothing to do/But just buy pretty presents for you.)

— This was one of the all-time funniest episodes, and who would have thought the high point would be a scene with Pete and Trudy? Any scene with Trudy is by definition a call back to the first season, when she always managed to get what she wanted out of Pete. They’ve been estranged for years but come together in a joint crusade to get little Tammy into the exclusive Greenwich Country Day School, where the Campbells have been attending since it was a barn. Trudy first thinks Tammy’s being blackballed because she and Pete are divorced, but the headmaster, a Mr. MacDonald, explains that it was because she failed her “draw a man test.” But the truth will out: it seems he has a prejudice against all Campbells because the Campbell clan (supporters of King William after the Glorious Revolution of 1688) massacred the MacDonalds (supporters of the recently deposed King James) at the Battle of Glencoe. The complete absurdity of this feud still causing trouble 300 years later is what gives this incident its humor, to say nothing of how Pete defends the Campbell honor (“The king ordered it!”) before finally punching the headmaster, who responds “Another sucker punch for the Campbells!”

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Never take a nap in front of a sleep stabber

— The other hilarious incident is when Lou Avery calls Don to quit because his moronic cartoon, Scout’s Honor, has been picked up by a Japanese syndication company. “I wish I could see your face now,” Lou cackles, assuming that Don gives a rat’s ass about him and his $15,000 advance. “Sayonara, my friend. Enjoy the rest of your miserable life.” He then hangs up so very pleased with himself.

— The episode was directed by Jared Harris, who played Lane Pryce in earlier seasons. A nice touch that Harris was directing when Pete punched MacDonald, given that Lane was the one who beat up Pete several seasons ago.

— Lou’s minor victory leaves open the possibility that the only two Md Men characters who will have ever achieved their dream will be the two villains from Season Seven(a) – Lou Avery himself and Jim Cutler, who got his million and doesn’t have to work at McCann.

Someone else who gets to live out his fantasy is Ken, who gets to fire Roger and Pete. From Ken’s perspective, though, he’s going to find that the momentary satisfaction of getting revenge on your co-workers fades fast when he’s trapped in a job he hates.

Exeunt Time & Life Building. We hardly knew ye. Here’s a little background of the Time & Life building during the Mad Men days.

There is some age-appropriate romancing going on in this episode. Ted and his college sweetheart; Roger and Marie Calvert; the growing romance between Joan and Mr. Leisure Suit; potentially a reconciliation between Trudy and Pete (she seemed very impressed with the way he defended her honor: “Peter, you can’t punch everyone.”)

People are surprisingly tender with each other: Peggy and Stan (as discussed); Pete and Joan consoling each other in the cab; Joan laying her head on Roger’s shoulder when they get the bad news about the move to McCann; Peggy bucking Pete up (“You’ll do great”); Joan hugging Don (“We went down swinging.”)

Let’s remember that if Joan is unhappy with her situation, it’s her own fault. As “Benedict Joan,” she precipitated the sale to McCann last year by siding with Cutler in his campaign against Don. It was only in desperation to save Don that Roger sought out the McCann deal in the first place.

Once again, a stellar episode for Meredith, refusing to give Don his Alka Seltzer until he clears the air with the staff, insisting on knowing if she’ll be joining him at McCann, hanging around Don’s office too long until she’s shoed out, and generally asserting herself – so sweetly – where she doesn’t belong.

Diana, the Waitress So Sad, called and left two messages for Don, then suddenly moved out of her apartment. All of Mad Men Nation heaved a sigh of relief when two gay guys (and not Diana) were discovered to be living in that rat-hole.   I’m sure everyone is as uneasy as I about where this is headed, though. I’d have sworn we’d seen the end of her.

— Peggy continues to channel her inner Hermione Granger. When the headhunter comes by to discuss her career, she sprightly asks “Who wants me?” This on top of last week’s request for a praise-laden performance review.

— For the second episode in a row, there were no historical signifiers. If Don hadn’t been still in his apartment, we would not know it was early July 1970.

— Not to be overly granular, but didn’t McCann only buy 51% of Sterling Cooper and Partners? If so, should they pay for the remaining 49% before dissolving the company? That should be another windfall for the remaining partners.

— Harry Crane thinks the new arrangements will be great.  Which almost certainly means that Harry Crane will be fired.  Does McCann really need another media buyer?

Am I the only one who wishes AMC would step handling the countdown this way? “Only two more episodes until the Series Finale.” Can we just say three episodes left, please?

Don in office the forecast

Sunday’s Mad Man starts and ends with someone standing outside the door of Don’s apartment, an apartment that has become a heavy-handed metaphor for both Don himself and Sixties culture in general. That apartment was the embodiment of the decade’s dreams just five years ago, with Megan singing Zou Bisou Bisou. It was so glamorous that once Betty got a look at it she had to run home and squirt whipped cream in her mouth.

Here’s the apartment at the peak of its glamour

Now, like much of modernist architecture, it’s decaying – not built to last, with a white rug that shows everything and no furniture to evoke a happy living environment. In her frustration at not being able to sell the place, Don’s realtor Melanie says, “It looks like a sad person lives here – and what happened? He got divorced, spilled wine on the carpet and didn’t care enough to replace it. … These place reeks of failure.”

Engaging in a bit of revisionist history, Don says, “A lot of wonderful things happened here,” although any steady viewer would be hard-pressed to recall anything wonderful about the arguments, cheap sex and embarrassing child-rearing mishaps we’ve witnessed there. Since he can’t be bothered to replace any of the furniture that Megan’s mother stole, he tells Melanie (who looks disturbingly like Betty, by the way) that she should sell the place by telling a story – the kind of thing that he does to sell products. He may believe in his power to cast a spell on a susceptible audience, but she pooh-poohs the idea – people buy real estate with their eyes open, she says.

Yet in the end, the apartment does sell. To a young and very pregnant couple – a couple at the beginning of their lives, with their dreams still in front of them. They probably adored the penthouse view. Or maybe they saw beyond the stained rug and glimpsed a life of possibility. And at the end, Don is left standing in the empty lobby, displaced from his home by a more future-filled family, with no home, no wife, no plan and no ties at all, really. He has all the freedom he could want and the final four episodes of the series will be about what Don does with that freedom.

But what does he actually want to do with that freedom? This was not a very subtle episode. Don’s quest for meaning in a world where all his material wants and needs are satisfied is evoked again and again. The ostensible trigger point for this navel-gazing is that Roger needs to provide his benevolent overlords at McCann with a company update and statement of goals (ugh, how I have hated writing these!)  He asks Don to write the “vision” part of the report, something he could normally wrote in his sleep. But he’s got writers block, somehow conflating a banal corporate report about the firm’s goals and objectives with his personal meaning of life.

Roger has asked Don to write a “Gettysburg Address,” by which I suppose he means he wants Don to throw in some eloquent, soaring rhetoric, but if there’s one speech that shouldn’t be used as a model for a corporate vision statement, it’s the Gettysburg Address.  Lincoln’s famous speech is meant to remember and honor the past, with a special emphasis on the honored dead. But the reference to the Gettysburg Address is more appropriate than Roger realizes since much of this new season has been about dealing with the past – everything from dead mistresses, to ex-wives and former clients. You don’t need Dr. Phil to tell you that it would be healthy for Don to confront the past in an honest way and then move on, but not as someone who only likes beginnings, but as someone who can build on a beginning.

And what does Don want out of life? Now that Sterling Cooper has been acquired by McCann, he has serious financial security, but, as he tells Ted, he has “less to actually do and more to think about.” When he quizzes Ted and Peggy on their dreams, they both answer prosaically. Ted’s answer in particular is hilarious in the way it’s shot. You know what I’d love, he says, slowly, thoughtfully dragging it out, so that you expect him to say “write a book” or “spend a year in France learning how to run a winery.” Instead he finally spits out that he dreams of landing a pharmaceutical company (i.e., a really big client.)

Don pushes Peggy a little harder, and we’ve seen Peggy dream of a different life, but her answers aren’t that much better. She wants to be the agency’s first women creative director. She wants to do something “big.” Maybe even come up with a famous catch phrase (imagine the immortality of the creative director who came up with “Where’s the beef?” Truly something for the tombstone!) Finally she says she wants to create something of lasting value, but storms out when Don scoffs, “in advertising?”

In the end, we never see if Don ever did come up with an acceptable vision statement for Sterling Cooper. Instead we get that vision of him standing alone outside his own symbolically-important empty apartment as he heads into yet another phase of life.

The passage of time – including how we deal with the past and future – are central to this episode’s two other storylines, which concern the surprise appearance of two very different men: Glen Bishop and Richard Burghoff.

We haven’t seen Glen Bishop in a few years and when his 18-year-old self shows up at the Francis Mausoleum with long sideburns and chest hair more than one audience member gasped. Glenn is played by Matt Weiner’s son, Marten Holden Weiner, which adds an extra element of weirdness to any scene he’s in because Matt claims not to think of Glen as “creep.” How he cannot see this is beyond me. Ten years ago he was spying on Betty in the toilet and seeking out locks of her hair. And he’s not a very good actor, which lends an air of strange stiltedness to the characterization.

In any event, the last time Betty and Glen conversed, Glen had run away from home (after Glen’s mother had banished them from seeing each other after the lock-of-hair scandal) and hidden in the Draper playhouse. Ten-year-old Glen wanted to take Betty away from all her troubles and “rescue” her. Now that he’s all hirsute and grown up, she doesn’t recognize him at the door, and is taken aback to discover that her daughter has been carrying on with him in secret all these many years.

Betty’s not the only one taken aback. Sally realizes that Glen has a thing for her mother when he wants to have a beer and visit with Betty rather than go to an amusement park with Sally and his girlfriend. And when she finds out that Glen has enlisted (by listening as Glen tells Betty about it) she blows a gasket and runs off.

As if this wasn’t emotionally freighted enough, Glen shows up at the Francises the next day knowing that Sally won’t be there and makes a pass at Betty, something he’s obviously been planning for ten years. Talk about playing the long game!  All of Weiner-land held its collective breath at this scene – it would be morally incestuous for Betty to give in, but you can’t be sure what will happen since she’s obviously taking pleasure in being admired by this now-virile young man. Fortunately, she turns him down (letting him down easily by explaining she’s married, instead of the more appropriate “Are you friggin’ kidding me – I’m literally old enough to be your mother.”)

Once his advances are rebuffed Glen, reverts to the little boy and comes clean on why he joined the army. He had justified it to Sally as idealism (i.e., he was bothered that “a bunch of Negro kids [were] dying while we just sat at home getting stoned.”) Then he tells Betty that he wanted her to think it was because he was “brave and wanted to protect this country and everyone in it.” But the truth, as he finally confesses, is that he flunked out of college and rather than face the wrath of his stepfather, enlisted to make him happy. In other words, instead of doing something brave, he’s doing something cowardly (although, to be honest, he probably would have been drafted anyway, so better to take control of the situation.) The moment at the end, where Betty brings his hand to her face is sweet and touching, suggesting that Betty too might be growing an itty-bitty heart after all.

The other man who has dreams and plans is Richard Burghoff, Joan’s new squeeze. Now, with the end of the series bearing down on us, it was always a given that either Peggy or Joan would have their stories wrapped up romantically or face a revolt from series enthusiasts, and it now appears that the lucky girl is Joan. Unfortunately, for my money, this story arc was about as pedestrian as they come. Very little about it was fresh and surprising, from the moment they met cute (he was searching for his eye doctor and was near-sighted not blind, ha ha), to his unhappiness at finding out Joan has a son, to their reconciliation.

The sudden appearance of a rich, handsome, unattached, vigorous Prince Charming veers dangerously close to “Downton Abbey” territory. He’s the kind of suitor that’s always materializing on Mary Crawley’s doorstep. One day this guy is trying to find an optometrist in L.A. and after one roll in the sack, he’s prepared to buy property on the East Side of Manhattan so he can welcome Joan and her whole family into his life. Pretty damn convenient.

This is such an unworthy plotline that I wouldn’t mention it except for one aspect that fits into the overall theme-of-the-week. Richard is initially taken aback by the existence of little Kevin – and why not, since Joan told him she didn’t have any other mouths to feed. He stayed in a loveless marriage for 22 years for the sake of the kids, who are now out of the house: “I have one plan,” he says, “to have no plans.” And the presence of Kevin will require planning if he wants to get Joan to the pyramids. But upon reflection he says the key line: “I don’t want to be rigid. It makes you old.” This is the philosophy of a man who is comfortable in his own skin, open to new experiences and not worried about forecasting, planning, the “vision thing” and the Gettysburg Address. He’s a lot older than Don, but more confident about the future. And he demonstrates that no matter what your age, you can still embark on new adventures. That’s something for Don to reflect on as he’s contemplating the emptiness of his vacant apartment lobby.

Some other thoughts.

— There are no firm signifiers to tie us to a specific date, but this episode clearly occurs in June 1970, at the very beginning of summer. Glen’s just out of college and Sally’s on her way to a 12-day bus tour of 12 states — the kind of tour that takes place as soon as school is out.

— The closing song is Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I saw Your Face,” which was released on her “First Take” album in 1969 and became a major hit single in 1972. A meditation on remembering new love, the song could refer to a number of characters: certainly Glen remembering his first crush on Betty; possibly Don remembering Megan and the new apartment; and maybe even Richard, thinking about his new-found passion for Joan.

— After two grim opening episodes this half-season, “The Forecast” was practically a sitcom. The scene where Johnny Mathis blows up his career by using a Don Draper joke (“I’m surprised you had the balls to show up again after the fools you made of yourself last time”) was jaw-droppingly awful and hilarious.   Also pretty funny were the dirty looks between Peggy and Pete as they squabbled in from of Don – like two siblings fighting in front of Dad.

— Of course any scene with Meredith is by definition a comedy gem. I’ve been meaning to mention this all season long, but she is on the verge of usurping Roger as the funniest character on the show – albeit unintentionally. Her combination of ditiziness, assertiveness, cluelessness, and protectiveness is comedy gold. This was an episode where people are constantly bursting into Don’s office, upsetting her vision of a well-ordered executive life. “Stay out of this,” Peggy snaps when Meredith tries to intervene in one such off-schedule meeting. Ha. She’s funny even when she’s being yelled at. And of course her vision of the future (“Did you go to the World’s Fair? That’s what I think it’s going to be like,”) is hilariously off.

— I’m not exactly Tom and Lorenzo when it comes to noticing the thematic implications of the fashion choices, but even I noticed the preponderance of green on a show that heavily featured Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up (gee, who could that be?) The very first shot in the episode is the green-clad boob of Don’s real estate agent, followed by Joan’s green post-coital outfit.

— Speaking of real estate agents, there have been at least three female real estate agents on Mad Men over the years and they’ve all been aggressive and assertive (this includes Pete’s girlfriend agent in California and Peggy’s agent when she wanted to move in with Abe). Selling real estate appears to be one of the few career avenues open to women, but only to a certain kind of woman.

— Speaking of career opportunities for women, consider Joan and Don’s differing responses to their jobs. As discussed, Don is nearly paralyzed with ennui, but Joan tells Richard that she needs to work – not because of financial needs but because she finally has the job she wants. The same is true with Peggy, for that matter. These women need the job to show their self-worth. You have to be at a very rarefied level of accomplishment and privilege like Don to worry about whether your job is providing the emotional benefits you need.

— Two jokes/sarcastic comments that stopped the heart. 1) Sally’s joke to Betty when she warns her about boys on her trip (“I’m sorry Mother, but this conversation is a little late – and so am I.”) and 2) Joan’s assertion to Richard that she’s sending her son away so she can spend all her time with him instead. These are both pretty alarming things to be said out loud even in jest.

— The most heart-breaking line of the show: When Kevin’s babysitter shows up late and Joan snaps at her, “You know what? You’re ruining my life,” a line that is really being spoken to Kevin. “Bye bye Mommy,” he responds and it takes Joan a moment to compose herself before replying in kind.

— Don gets verbally abused in practically every show now and usually he doesn’t really deserve it, although he probably thinks he does. Mathis says that he doesn’t have character, “You’re just handsome. Stop kidding yourself.” Not fair. Don is a creative genius, for better or worse. Then Sally, jealous of the way that Glen and her friend Sarah have come on to her mother and father respectively, says her dream is to be completely different from her parents: “Anyone pays any attention to you – and they always do – and you ooze everywhere.” More to the point, although Don is right that Sally is destined to be like them in some respects: “You’re a very beautiful girl – It’s up to you to be more than that.”

— Don is so checked out from his job that he OKs a terrible tagline for the new Peter Pan cookie: “One Tink and you’re hooked.” That’s probably about the worst tagline that’s ever been presented to a Sterling Cooper client. Of course Don has rejected the first proposal (about loving Tinkerbell cookies) asking, “Jesus, ‘Love’ again?” Pete: “We use it all the time.” An unbelievably blasphemous exchange.

— Well, we got an answer to two questions in the first five minutes of the show: Yes, Sterling Cooper still has a California office, and yes, Lou Avery is still employed, but apparently now exiled in California, where Pete and Ted were just a year earlier. Hilariously, he’s still promoting his cartoon “Scout’s Honor,” described by his loyal secretary as “Like Gomer Pyle, but he’s a monkey.”

705ScoutsHonor Lou Avery cartoon

— Not answered yet is where is Jim Cutler? He must have resigned after the buy-out but there has been no mention of this.

— Joan’s a liberal, preferring to use open space for low-income housing instead of a golf course. “I root for the underdog,” she explains. Except, of course when that dog is under HER, as numerous Sterling Cooper secretaries will attest.

— Betty’s a Republican. She tells Glen, “Don’t listen to Jane Fonda here” (i.e., Sally) when Sally is aghast at his enlistment. Jane Fonda was not always an exercise mogul and Ted Turner trophy wife. In 1970, she was merely an outspoken opponent of the war. Her treasonous trip to Vietnam, when she happily posed for photos in an antiaircraft gun that was used to shoot down American pilots, didn’t occur until 1972.

Jane Fonda was at the peak of her fame when she visited Vietnam in 1972

— Rye Playland, where Glen wants to take Sally, is a real amusement park with roller coasters and boardwalks in Rye, New York that still exists. I’ve even been there.  Built in 1928, it’s a bit cheesy now, and probably was even in 1970, especially if it was a place where you could buy some grass..

— Jiminy Christmas, Pete has delicate ears. He’s furious that the Peter Pan client meeting did not go as smoothly as it should have: “Then Mathis said a four-letter word that starts with F. Have you ever heard such a thing?” No, Pete, I’ve never heard such a thing — because in the very next scene, Sally says that very word after learning that Glen has joined the army, but AMC beeped it out. (True, she uses the adjectival version of the word – “F—ing” – but morally it’s the same thing.)

— Peggy wants a real performance review. This is something that no person in their right mind would welcome and she should be glad that Ted lets her write her own review. You might think she’s one of those serious, diligent employees who uses the performance review to solicit honest criticism so she can improve her work, but I think she really wants to be praised, telling Don, “I’ve had quite a year.”

— A lot of ink has been spilled this year about Don’s unchanging image. In an age where Ted and Roger have grown bushy mustaches and others have tried to look more hip, Don looks the same except for the occasional blue shirt. This is sometimes attributed to Don’s rigidity and dinosaur-like approach to the new era. I tend to think he just has a superior fashion sense; every man from the 70’s who tried to adapt to the latest fashions looks back in horror on those days. Look at Richard’s horrible proto-leisure suits! Some men did manage to look good by staying a little square. Here’s Ronald Reagan in 1970, debating a Berkley radical. Like Don Draper, Reagan never changed his look after the 1950s.

Irving-Debates-Reagan

Next Week’s episode is called “Time & Life.” I assume this is a reference to the Time and Life Building on Sixth Avenue, where Sterling Cooper has its offices, although the concepts of “time” and “life” are so broad that it could mean anything.

Parents and two teenagers watching television, indoors

Every time my wife and I discuss household spending, her first idea is to cancel HBO.  This has been her opening gambit so many times it’s almost become a tic.

I don’t want to imply that the $200 we spend annually on HBO is chicken feed, but if we really wanted to save $200, I’m sure we could do better than that by comparison shopping our many insurance policies (health, homeowners and auto), better insulating the house, or switching away from all that organic produce.

It’s not as if we never watch HBO.  We’ve devoured “True Detective,” laughed at “Veep” and made generous use of our HBO-GO account.  I don’t think my wife has any particular animus against HBO; it’s just that the size of that cable bill really sticks in her craw.

She’s not alone.  Last year’s American Consumer Index Survey revealed that Americans hate cable companies and Internet service providers more than any industries.  That’s a lot of hate for a sector that doesn’t pollute the environment, manufacture weapons of mass destruction or foreclose on our houses.

Those of us who remember free TV resent paying for cable at all.  But in fairness, no one’s putting a gun to our heads. Cable television is a discretionary expenditure.  There are about 10 million homes that watch TV the old-fashioned way: over the air.  I actually know a family like this. Of course they watch “Mad Men” when it comes out on Netflix and skip cable sports altogether.  And because they don’t have a DVR, they miss their favorite shows if they’re not home.  I know, it’s like they’re the Cleavers — or the Flintstones.  But they survive.

If they so desired, cable companies could make the same argument that Whole Foods does: Sure, the sticker price is higher, but the quality is so good that it’s actually a better “value.”  With cable you can get that DVR and a huge assortment of networks and programming.

There is some truth to this argument. When TV was “free,” it wasn’t nearly as good or convenient, and people didn’t watch as much of it as they do today.

But while TV is worth paying for, I’m reminded of that chart in classical economics where the demand line intersects with the supply line, and the intersection point is supposed to determine the price. For many millions, the price of television is no longer at that intersection point.  The unending increases in the cable bill threaten to undermine the entire business model of the business, which is getting people to watch the ads on ad-supported programs or to subscribe to premium channels.

The problem is that once the cable bill passes a couple of hundred dollars a month, consumers get desperate to cut costs and start looking for ways out.  It’s kind of like the cost of gasoline: Once the price gets above their comfort zone, people will spend tens of thousands of dollars to buy a car with better gas mileage just to save a thousand dollars a year on gasoline.  It’s not logic, it’s emotion.

Television is suffering from another principle of classical economics: the tragedy of the commons, in which people act rationally according to their own self-interest even though it ruins a common interest and undermines the interest of the whole — in this case, the good will of the cable consumer.  TV networks must know that exorbitant cable bills are bad for the industry, but each wants to squeeze every last dime out of the cable viewer.   Why should one network show restraint during retransmission negotiations when it knows a rival network will demand the most it can get?

Will cable go the way of the telephone company?  More than half of households no longer have or use their landline phones, the result of decades of increasing prices and indifferent service.  Maybe, but what cable has going for it is inertia and (relative) simplicity.

The New York Times’ Emily Steel recently published a helpful guide on the numerous streaming services you could use if you did cut the cord. The piece makes clear that if you’re an average TV consumer watching 17 different channels a month, it might be a little cheaper — but certainly not easier — to duplicate your viewing experience on an a la carte basis. You could probably cobble together most of the broadcast networks and many of the key cable networks through a combination of Sony’s PlayStation Vue ($50/month), Dish’s Sling TV ($20/month) and Apple TV ($20-$40/month).  You might save some money, but what a pain in the neck to juggle all these services on different devices, especially on those nights when the Internet connection is balky.

But as my wife’s preoccupation with HBO shows, purchasing decisions are not rational.  I honestly don’t know where the pain point is for us to cut the cord, but it does exist, even if it’s more aggravation for not much savings.  All I can say is, I hope we never reach it, because I enjoy sitting back and watching TV with as few devices as possible.  Please take pity on us, oh Lords of Television!

New Business Megan

If last week’s episode (“Severance”) was all about the paths not taken, then the opening scene in Sunday’s “New Business” is a perfect example of a life not lived. There’s Don in the kitchen, making his sons chocolate milkshakes, and there’s a dolled up Betty. For a split second you wonder if this is a parallel universe in which Don and Betty did not break up. But no, here comes Henry Francis in his tuxedo. It seems the Francis’s are back from dinner with a Dean of Fairfield University (a minor Rockefeller and a potential funder for Henry) and we’re brought back to reality.

But it’s a nice reality. We haven’t seen Don and Betty together since they had that sleepover at Bobby’s camp several years ago, but that night seems to have healed their wounds and everyone is pretty chummy now. Betty tells Don she’s planning to get a master’s in psychology because “people like to talk to me. They seek me out to share their confidences.” Ha, leave it to Betty to think that being a psychologist is like gossiping with your girlfriends. Don merely smiles, though, and as he leaves the house looks back at the happy family scene ruefully contemplating what could have been.

Well, I hope you enjoyed the first minute of this episode because from there it’s a straight slide down to a black pit of despair. There have been episodes that were more operatically tragic or emotionally devastating, but few that evoked the low-grade depression you get when you realize everything decays and ultimately goes rotten. Because this episode was all about dashed promises.

This is the fourth in a series of episodes in which we’ve said good-bye to an important secondary character. First it was Bob Benson going to Buick, then Bert dying, then Ken Cosgrove to Dow, and now it’s Megan’s turn for a swan song. The Megan/Don marriage, which began with so much promise in Disneyland is grinding to an unhappy conclusion. Remember how Megan told Don he didn’t owe her anything and he said he’d take care of her? Well forget that. Like many divorces, this one is turning ugly over money.

Roger warns Don not to settle until he’s happy with the number. Reflecting more on his own failed marriage to a former secretary than to Don’s he says, “You have given her the good life. She would never have had it.” When Don replies that Megan is not Jane (Roger’s ex-wife, who was a more obvious gold-digger) he asks, “She never said you squandered her youth and beauty? Thwarted her career? What career? She’s a consumer. She made her choices.”

And the sad thing, is that when they have their final meeting, Megan does display Jane-like tendencies: “I’m not going to give you the satisfaction of knowing you ruined my life… I gave up everything for you. I believed you and you’re nothing but a liar – an aging, sloppy, selfish liar.”

This is a bit harsh considering that she was just a secretary when she broke up Don’s very mature relationship with Dr. Faye, that his connections launched her acting career, and that his money has subsidized her in Hollywood for a year-and-a-half so far.

Megan’s decline has been sad for several years now and her lashing out at Don is more a lashing out at her own failed dreams. Once described by Peggy as the girl who could do everything, she had confidence, youth, creativity and a real talent for sizing up a situation. Her acting career got off to a fast start and she was a minor soap opera celebrity before she quite her job thinking that she and Don would move to LA to start over. But when Don reneged on the California plans (after being begged by Ted to let him go instead) she didn’t even try to get her job back and just left for LA on her own.   Now she’s stuck – no husband, no career, no prospects, an incompetent agent, and possibly no talent.

It’s a sign of her desperation that she called Harry Crane, who she despises, for help in finding a new agent. They meet for lunch, flattering each other shamelessly, until Harry suggests that she demonstrate her acting talent between the sheets. What a downer – Harry had seemed to be willing to help her out of friendship but in the end was only interested in one thing.

And to cap it all off, she had left her mother in charge of finishing her move out of Chez Draper and when she returns unexpectedly after dumping Harry at the restaurant, she finds Mom and Roger in dishabille. I don’t care how sophisticated you are, you still don’t want to find your married mother dressing in a hurry in your former dream apartment after a quickie with your husband’s partner. Or to further discover that said mother, out of spite alone, has stolen your husband’s furniture and sent it to your cozy house in California where it will be completely useless.

In the end, the only thing that will end the acrimony between Don and Megan is for Don to write her a million dollar check to shut her up. Don has a bad habit of thinking he can solve problems by writing a check and frequently he can. A million dollars can buy a lot of silence. So exeunt Megan. Don’t spend it all in one place.

The end of the second Draper marriage isn’t even the main misery this episode. That would be Don’s pursuit of someone who’s even more damaged than he is – the Dos Passos-reading, Mildred Pierce-impersonating, Racine-fleeing, Avon-shopping, ominously named Di. Twitter almost melted down last night when she reappeared on the screen and you can understand why.

When the final Mad Men episode is aired and we look back on the entire series, “New Business” will probably be one of the least-loved episodes, not least because of this extended dalliance with Di.   But the Di subplot serves its purpose in the narrative arc of this season. We learned from last episode that he’s been on a sexual bender since separating from Megan, but he now appears ready to settle down again. Maybe it was the death of Rachel Menken last episode, maybe it was scene of the cozy family in the Francis household, maybe it was the finality of the divorce from Megan, or maybe it was just whatever mysterious pheromones Di is excreting, but Don is smitten. “I’ve been separated a long time,” he tells her. “You’re not the first thing to come along. I’m ready.”

Many pixels have been spilled trying to understand what Don sees in Di. She doesn’t have the innate sexiness of Megan, the coolness of Midge, the maturity of Dr. Faye, the beauty and status of Betty, the innocence of Sally’s teacher – well, this list could go on and on, but she doesn’t have any of the things that the other women in his life had.   Instead, he’s attracted to her because she’s another lost soul undone by grief – someone who can understand him in a primal way. “You don’t think I’ve felt grief?” he asks when she tries to out-suffer him. “You knew that about me the first time we met.”

The problem is that unlike Don, she cannot compartmentalize her grief. She had been living the American dream. It was not much compared to Don’s success but she had a ranch house, a two-car-garage, a husband and a daughter back there in Racine, Wisconsin.   She evokes Don’s famous “carousel” pitch for Kodak, telling him that she has a twinge in her chest; it’s a “pain” Don says, which is how Don had described nostalgia. (The first hint that the carousel pitch was in play was the call from the owner of the diner where Di and Don met – he’s a Greek, and it’s a Greek copywriter named Teddy who told Don that nostalgia is a pain from an old wound.)

Like Don, Di has secrets that she doles out. First she confides that he daughter died of the flu two years ago, and then devastatingly, she confesses that she has another daughter who she’s abandoned to her husband. Grief-stricken at the death of a daughter, she has blown up the whole family, leaving a daughter who probably needs her desperately. She can only wallow in her grief, explaining to Don as she breaks up with him up with him: “I told you about my heart; I don’t want to feel anything else. When I was with you I forgot about her and I don’t ever want to do that.”

The romance with Di, as unpleasant and uncomfortable as it was to watch, presumably leaves Don at another emotional low point and possibly ready to build himself up again, setting the stage for the last five episodes. Only a fool would predict where Mad Men is headed, but previous seasons have ended in a catharsis. You can’t have a catharsis unless you hit bottom and we can only hope, for our own enjoyment, that this was the bottom.

Some other observations:

  • There were zero clues to the time frame of this episode, until the end, when we caught a glimpse of Don’s million dollar check, which was helpfully dated May 24, 1970. In other words, we have resumed the pattern of each episode taking place about a month after the previous one.
  • The name of the episode is “New Business,” which is something that all agencies crave. There’s nothing better than the prospect of a new client and the possibility of a lucrative new relationship. Presumably the title refers to the new Cinzano account, the Nabisco client that Pete and Don go golfing with, or the beginning of the relationship with Di. It could also ironically refer to the “old business” that comes to an end between Don and Megan.
  • The closing song of the episode was Yves Montand singing “C’est ci bon” (or “It’s So Good”) is meant to be ironic, since life is not so good, certainly not for anyone who speaks French on this show. It’s a love song and its appearance is a bittersweet way to say goodbye to Megan: Translated, the opening lyrics are: “I don’t know if there is anyone more blonde/But more beautiful, there is none for me/She is truly all the joy in the world/My life begins the instant I see her”

  • Also disheartening, like we needed more punishment, was the scene in the elevator, when Don and Diana (in her waitress uniform no less) run into Arnold and Sylvia. When the Drapers were married, they were all good friends, by that too has decayed. Arnold, once the only man Don looked up to, makes snarky jokes about Don’s sexual conquests. Worse, it seems he actually is a jerk, not just someone cranky at Don, as he describes his new daughter-in-law as ugly. Nice.
  • The “B Story” in this episode – the struggle between Stan and Peggy over “Pima Ryan,” a famous photographer hired to shoot the Cinzano ad – is as dispiriting in its own way as Don’s interactions with Megan and Diana. We’re able to confirm what we expected all along – that Stan hates himself for working in an ad agency, when he should be expressing himself artistically. Like Ken Cosgrove and fiction writing, Stan wants to be a photographer but has subsumed that dream in favor of earning a living (unlike Megan, btw, who actually did pursue her dream to disappointing results.) Pima flatters both Stan and Peggy, telling Stan he has talent drawing (but not apparently in photography), and complimenting Peggy on how well she’s doing in her career. She also observes that Stan “hates himself,” something that Peggy’s too blind to see. She’s canny, but not canny enough; wanting more business from the agency she seduces Stan and makes a pass at Peggy, When they compare notes, Peggy denounces her as a “hustler” and says she’ll refuse to do business with her again, leaving both of them disillusioned by someone they had considered an artist.
  • Pima was played by Mimi Rogers, the first Mrs. Tom Cruise. As a former Scientologist I wonder if she had much to say to Elizabeth Moss, a current practicing Scientologist (!!?).
  • As usual, the few humorous sketches from the episode belonged to Roger. The scene with his “two secretaries and three telephones,” was hilarious. His current secretary Caroline can no longer keep up with him, so recruits Shirley to help out, making life twice as complicated. He eventually retreats to the privacy of Don’s empty office, remarking that he feels like “Marlin Perkins is chasing me on the Savannah.” This is clearly an inside joke because with his white hair and white moustache, Roger actually LOOKS like Marlin Perkins, who had one of the first wildlife shows on TV.

perkins

  •  As if the shattering of Megan’s dreams weren’t bad enough, she also has to face reality of the terrible dynamics in her own family. Ugh. What a terrible family. It’s bad enough that they all speak French and have the condescension to go with it, but Papa’s a champagne socialist and adulterer (this we know from previous episodes), Mama’s a judgey snob and a slut (ditto), and sis is some kind of religious nut, who judges Megan’s life a failure because of the divorce, presses her to get an annulment instead, and is distraught to discover that Mama has run off with some man because she’ll need to explain that to her kids. Megan’s so disgusted with them all that she can’t even enjoy the $1 million check that’s burning a hole in her pocket book. Still, Mama does get off the funniest line of the episode, when she discovers the stain on the bedroom carpet: “You think he drinks red wine? It’s a wonder you don’t have syphilis.”
  • Second-funniest line of the night: Meredith to Harry Crane about L.A. “How do you go to sleep at night knowing the Manson brothers could be roaming around?”
  • An speaking of Charles Manson, that line was undoubtedly another inside joke about how frantic everybody got two seasons ago about Megan potentially being murdered by the Manson family.
  • Even a blind pig eventually finds an acorn. A stopped clock is right twice a day. And once a season Pete Campbell will say something smart: “Jiminy Christmas. You think you’re going to begin your life over and do it right. But what if you never get past the beginning.” Good point Pete, but keep your eyes on the road.
  • As we see from the first scene. Gene Draper seems to be growing up nicely, although I don’t think he’s uttered his first bit of dialogue yet. But Bobby Draper doesn’t seem to have aged at all. He should be about 14 now but he still looks about ten.
  • It’s a nice touch that Don moved the Mets poster from Lane’s office to his own. By jumping ahead from July 1969 to April 1970, we not only missed the Manson murders, Woodstock and the chronological end of the 60’s, we also missed the Amazing Mets campaign of 1969, when the Mets shockingly won the Word Series.   That poster, which Don retrieved from Lane’s trash can, is not only a symbol of Lane’s love of Americana, but also an example of how there are actually are cases in real life (if not in the Mad Man universe) where dreams do come true.
  • Last episode Roger learned that Ken Cosgrove, whom he had so cavalierly fired at the request of McCann, would end up as his client at Dow. This episode he learns that Bert Peterson, whom he’d fired with so much relish after the merger, is now managing the client account at Nabisco. Maybe he should stop firing people.

“It wasn’t my idea.” Such a useful line.

photo severence

“Is that all there is? Is that all there is to life?”

Those questions, from Peggy Lee’s weirdly popular existential 1969 hit, are the very ones that Mad Men has been asking from the beginning of the series. Given that the show has always been about how you live your life, the choices you make, and what you do to move forward in light of life’s inevitable disappointments, you have to wonder whether the whole arc of the series was leading to the moment when Matt Weiner could play this song. And not just once, but twice – an unprecedented use of a single song. For seven seasons now, the activities described in the lyrics (“If that’s all there my friends, then let’s keep dancing, and break out the booze and have a ball. If that’s all, there is”) have been a coping mechanism for the show’s characters.

Sunday’s episode – “Severance” – was all about paths not taken and the circular behaviors by which we repeat the same patterns again and again. The question at the end of last season was whether Don had changed in light of the excruciating and humbling lesson he’d been taught by his partners, which culminated in Bert singing “The Best Things in Life Are Free.” But the very first scene in “Severance” implies that Don has fallen back into his old behaviors and it’s soon clear that last season might as well not even have even happened – sure, Sterling Cooper is owned by McCann now but no one is any different, least of all Don. It’s almost like the first half of Season 7, with Don’s suspension, the opening of the California office, the hiring of Lou Avery, etc., was like Bobby Ewing’s dream in “Dallas,” something that never happened.

We open on Don talking suggestively to a women wearing a fur coat and little else – he’s dominant and she’s submissive, just like he and Sylvia were in Season Six, when he got her to strip down to her underwear in the hotel room. But just as we reach the climax of this seduction scene, the camera pulls back and we see that it’s just a casting call, not a Don Draper power play.

In a surreal episode with lots of surprises, nothing was quite as surreal and disorienting as that shot of those four men on the casting couch, one of whom is Ted with a bushy mustache and groovy hair. Wait – where are we? The last we saw these guys was in July 1969 and we had been led to believe that the series would close out the Sixties, but clearly we are somewhere in the Seventies and just how far we’ve gone into the Seventies doesn’t become apparent until the last five minutes of the show.

The next scene is also disorienting: Don and a mustachioed Roger, wearing tuxes and squiring models, are in a diner that could have been painted by Edward Hopper; it’s such a throwback to the Forties that Roger calls the waitress “Mildred Piece,” the title character from a James Cain novel that was made into a Joan Crawford movie. Even more surprising, Don, who once hid his background, is forthrightly regaling the ladies with stories of his “uncle” Mack and stepmother Abigail – stories that he once would have considered shameful.

This outing, with Roger squiring two women, is a call-back to Season One, when he brought a pair of party girl twins to the Sterling Cooper offices to celebrate Labor Day and ended up with a heart attack. And so it goes – one reminder after another of bad behaviors from previous seasons. Don’s stewardess friend spills wine on the white carpet in his apartment and starts to clean it up in her underwear, just as Megan cleaned the carpet in her underwear after Don’s 40th birthday party. When Peggy proposes that she and Stevie fly to Paris, it recalls Don trying to get his beatnik mistress Midge to go to Paris with him after he got his big bonus.

The biggest throwback of all is his dream about Rachel Menken, with whom he had a passionate affair in Season One. Don has frequently had visions of the recently departed (Bert Cooper, Anna Draper, his brother Adam) and when tries to set up a business meeting with her the next day, he discovers that she just died, which temporarily shakes him out of his spiral of drinking and catting about.

Instead of going to a pre-Vogue party at Ted’s Greenwich Village pad (remember that Don lived in Greenwich Village after his own divorce), he goes to Rachel’s apartment, where the family is sitting Shiva.   He is confronted by Rachel’s sister Barbara, who apparently still bears a grudge against him for an affair that took place ten years earlier. “How is your family?” she asks, sticking the knife in, reminding him that he dared to seduce her sister while still married. She then twists the knife by pronouncing that Rachel “lived the life she wanted to live. She had everything.”

This is probably the most important line in the show because it implies that you actually can live the live you want to live – which is something that everyone else on the show is struggling to achieve. Consider these examples:

  • Ken hates his job and is encouraged by his wife to quit and follow his passion for writing so he doesn’t end up like her father. She begs him to write a novel that is “sad and sweet for all the people who don’t have the guts to live their dreams.” He’s about to do it, but is fired by a vindictive ex-boss at McCann, and rather than take the severance, which would have funded his novel-writing, gets the head advertising job at his father-in-law’s old firm – Dow Chemical – so he can torture Pete and Roger as their client. It’s sweet revenge, but also sad because it probably means now he’ll never write that novel. Getting fired, Ken tells Don, was a sign – a sign of the life not lived.
  • Peggy has never been to Paris. In fact, she’s never had a vacation at all. Impulsively she hooks up with Mathis’ brother-in-law and suggests that they fly off to Paris, but then can’t find her passport, which is in the office, her real home. The next morning, hung-over and probably embarrassed by letting her guard down, she says she won’t get on an airplane with a man she barely knows. It sounds like fun, Stan says. Nothing that a couple of aspirin won’t fix, she replies.
  • Pete, back in New York after the buy-out from McCann, tells Ken that he thought he was changing his life by going to California, but now it seems like a dream. He’s also as dissatisfied as ever, complaining that his $3 million pay-out doesn’t make him feel rich because he’s getting it in increments to avoid the high tax rates.
  • Nothing much has changed with Joan either. Despite getting her own pay-out, better title, and more responsibility. She’s still getting demeaned by men because of her looks, and rather than rethinking her attitude she decides to address her hurt feelings with a shopping spree, at Bonwit Teller, where her salesgirl kills her buzz by reminding her that she used to work there herself – and not in the distant past either.

I wonder, though, if Barbara is right that Rachel really did live the life she wanted to live. It’s clearly the life that Barbara wanted her to live – married with children to a Jewish man. Utterly conventional. Is it true that Rachel never dreamed of a more exiting life with a more dashing man? Did she never ask “Is that all there is?” We’ll never know for sure now, but one thing we do know is that it’s devilishly difficult to decide how to live, given our conflicting ambitions, fears, and abilities.

I can’t really blame Ken for not quitting to write a novel. I know lots of people who have written novels, some published and some not, and none can support themselves – or more importantly, their families – on their writing alone. As the sole support for his family, he has to worry about their well-being; his wife’s suggestion that they buy a farm so he can write is completely unfeasible. The severance, though, might have seen him through it, but his ego and desire for revenge turned out to be more powerful than his dream.   There are only six episodes of Mad Men left – we will see if any of these other characters are able to break free of the mind-chains that keep them in lives of quiet desperation.

Some other thoughts:

  • This episode takes place during the last week of April 1970. It was torture for Matt Weiner to withhold this information until the end, when we see Don watching President Nixon’s speech about the Cambodian invasion, which occurred on Thursday April 30, 1970. At this point, Nixon had been President for 15 months and the war in Vietnam had become massively unpopular. Nixon was starting to withdraw troops (a process that wouldn’t end until April 1975 with the evacuation of Saigon) but he decided to invade neighboring Cambodia, where the Viet Cong were hiding arms and launching strikes against the American-backed South Vietnamese government, hoping to gain some time for the South Vietnamese to get their act together. This speech set off huge demonstrations on college campuses across the U.S. culminated in the Kent State shootings on May 5, when four students were shot by National Guard troops. Then on May 8, construction workers in Manhattan converged upon and beat-up anti-war demonstrators, in a counter-revolt by the Great Silent Majority.  After that most colleges shut down for the year and few even had graduations in 1970. This is not a criticism, but you’d never guess that from this episode that this was one of the most convulsive and divisive periods in American history. Instead this is one of these episodes that takes place completely divorced from historical context.

  • The appalling scene where Peggy and Joan go to McCann Erickson to try to get them to set up a meeting between Topaz and Macy’s did more to illustrate the way men demeaned women in the workplace than even those office scenes back in the 1960’s, when the flirtation seemed to be at least partly two-way. The only thing that comes out of those assholes’ mouths are double entendres, and instead of bantering back with them, Peggy and Joan have to respond professionally until they get what they want. But the confrontation in the elevator afterward is classic – another call-back to the confrontations between Joan and Peggy in Season One, when Peggy failed to follow Joan’s fashion advice and still got promoted. Joan has always resented Peggy for getting ahead without using her sexuality — and I’m not sure that Joan telling Peggy she’s not attractive enough to be sexually harassed is all that much better than what the McCann assholes said. This elevator ride was as uncomfortable as the one in Season Four after Peggy fired Joey for posting demeaning pictures of Joan in the office. Instead of being grateful Joan excoriated her (“So all you’ve done is prove to them that I’m a meaningless secretary and you’re another humorless bitch.”) Of course Peggy set Joan off by pointing out that she dresses provocatively, which I suppose can be construed as blaming the victim, although I think she has a point that Joan is trying to have it both ways, by using sexuality when it suits her but trying to pretend she’s only being professional.
  • Interesting the characters who weren’t in the episode. Very few of the women: no Betty, Megan, Sally or Trudy. Also, no sign of Lou Avery, who’s office Don is now occupying again, nor Jim Cutler. The show is slowly phasing out the characters: Bob Benson to Oldsmobile; Bert Cooper to his heavenly reward; and now Ken to Dow Chemical. I had thought we’d seen the past of Megan too, but then she showed up in the promos for this year, so I’m not so sure. In any event, with six episodes left, I don’t think there’s time to give a final send-off to everyone.
  • Just a reminder of another call-back to early seasons – Topaz was the client that Peggy landed back at the end of Season four, when Don was off at Disneyland proposing to Megan. She claimed that winning the account saved the firm (almost but not quite) but that all anyone wanted to talk about was Don’s impending marriage.
  • There’s obviously resentment between those who got the big pay-out from the McCann deal and those who didn’t. Both Peggy and Ken express bitterness about this to Joan and Pete respectively.
  • What was going on between Don and the waitress was difficult to understand, but what happened is that when he came back to see her, she thought he had come to collect the benefits from the $100 tip that Roger had left. After their encounter in the alley the waitress (Di – nice name in a episode consumed with death) tells him that he got his $100 worth.
  • Funniest line on Twitter last night: “There should be an old guy in the diner saying, ‘I’ll have what he’s having.’”
  • Many comments on Twitter last night about Ted coming to Don with binders of women, an apparent on Mitt Romney’s debate faux pas.
  • Not satisfied with discriminating against just blacks and Jews, the Sterling Cooper folks apparently have a thing about the Irish too. Ken says that he didn’t fit in at McCann because “I’m not Irish, I’m not Catholic, and I can read.” And Roger observes that as his father would say, Ferg Donnelly “really puts the Mick in McCann.” Not that those guys don’t deserve it.
  • Peggy’s date Stevie seems OK, but I have to say, if he never thought about the implications of his brother-in-law being named Johnny Mathis, he’s not very imaginative.
  • Peggy gets drunk on Galliano – there’s a bottle of it there on the table at the restaurant. That really brings me back – it’s a sweet Italian liqueur and in the early 70’s my mother had a big bottle of it in the house. If Peggy had more than one glass, it’s no wonder she’s hung over.

Next week’s episode is called “New Business,” which what every agency dreams of. The coming attractions were notoriously opaque as ever but I did glimpse a scene of Don in Betty’s kitchen with Bobby and a friend. What that will entail is anyone’s guess.