Mad Men ends season three with a perfect reinvention of both its hero and the series itself
Except when they are.
And the wonder of Mad Men's season finale Sunday, "Shut the Door, Have a Seat," is that it hits every note you'd hope and more -- repositioning the series for serious re-invention next season while stripping hero Don Draper (Jon Hamm) down to his emotional core. All in space of 60 minutes, minus commercials.
First, the spoilery plot stuff. Our heroes' corporate home, Sterling Cooper, is about to be sold along with its new British owners to another advertising firm. Rather than endure that transition -- John Slattery's masterfully profane Roger Sterling compared it to a working girl hopping beds again -- Draper convinces his colleagues to first try buying the firm and then to steal away it's clients and start their own, new business.
This move gives parts of the episode a Magnificent Seven quality, as Draper, Sterling and honcho Bert Cooper reach out to all the key characters who found themselves set adrift over this season -- yes, drooling fanboys, Christina Hendricks' voluptuous Joan Harris returns in all her glory. Pete Campbell, Peggy Olson, even British manager Lane Pryce makes the jump -- snagging a partnership by agreeing to fire Cooper, Draper and Sterling, which allows their departure in the first place.
But the best effect of this turmoil, is to strip Draper bare. He is forced to reconnect with people he had previously written off or taken for granted, including Sterling, Campbell and Olson, to admit what he values about them to pull them into his new venture -- forcing him to accept how much he really needs them, after all.
(Here's a great Web site which claims to have every line draper has uttered on the show; a surprisingly small amount of words, and another indication of how much actors here say without saying anything.)
It is, then, a supremely crafted irony that Draper's home life is falling apart, even as his professional world is entering an exciting new chapter. Wife Betty consults a divorce attorney, new flame Henry Francis by her side; when Draper discovers she is leaving him for another man, his bitter anger is both hypocritical and predictable. Like every other relationship in his life, Draper had taken Betty's blind devotion for granted until it was gone. But there is little doubt that much unfinished business remains between these two.
There were so many amazing moments in this episode, I had trouble keeping up:
-- Connie Hilton informing Draper that his company was being sold and, subtly, daring him to do something about it. "I got everything I have on my own. It's made me immune to those who complain and cry because they can't. I didn't take you for one of them Don. Are you?" Hilton says, with a smirk. Draper knows in that moment he wants to be that independent and powerful. Another irony: that his own impoverished father and Hilton would both provide the inspiration for the new firm, like twin father figures.
-- Betty revealing to Draper that she's been unhappy for a long time, after he assumed she'd had a tough couple of weeks. "I've had a tough year," she says, ferociously. But when we see new flame Henry become the driving force in her consultation with the divorce lawyer, you wonder -- is she trading one controlling, accomplished man for another?
-- Roger summing up Draper's problems in a sentence. "You're not good at relationships because you don't value them."
-- Peggy snapping back at Draper when he barks orders at her, assuming she would leap at the chance to join his new firm. "You assume I'll follow you like some nervous poodle," she snaps. "I don't want to make a career out of being there so you can kick me when you fail." More evidence she is a young version of Draper; and in another delicious irony, this exchange resonates with the way Hilton has treated Draper.
-- Roger telling Draper about Betty's flame, thinking he knew, prompting the man who has had at least five affairs on his wife in the recent past to call her a whore.
-- Draper's daughter Sally learning her father would be moving out of the house and responding by getting angry at everyone. "Did you make him leave?" the sharp beyond her years Sally barked at her mother. "You made him sleep in (Betty's recently deceased father) Gene's room and it's scary in there."
-- Watching men used to handing correspondence and coffee orders to secretaries typing out letters in their new firm's hotel suite office. Roger learns the new order when he asks Peggy to grab him a cup of coffee and she replies with a curt "No." Welcome to the modern age, Mr. Sterling.
-- The episode's end set to the strains of Roy Orbison's plaintive B-side cut Shahdaroba. Check the incredibly appropriate lyrics here.
Now fans can feel the show's characters are on the same verge of discovery and new beginnings as America itself. A new firm, new challenges -- a Draper liberated from his family just as he learns how much he values them. And all the characters on new footing with each other as they are forced to forge a new future together.
I wish the new season started tomorrow. And for a TV producer spinning a masterpiece, that may be the highest praise imaginable.
Here's New York magazine's amazing collection of Roger Sterling's one-liners: