Mad Men recap: Don takes action, drags firm into the modern day
One episode before the season's end, and I can admit it: Mad Men has me confounded.
Obviously, this season has been about breaking down Jon Hamm's Madison Avenue superman Don Draper and the upstart firm he willed into being, Sterling Cooper Draper and Pryce.
But, with the firm teetering on the edge of oblivion after losing its biggest account -- and nearly every character reduced to their most craven essence in the desperate drive to stay afloat -- I'm hard-pressed to produce the Big Idea that made slogging through all this worth it.
My ambivalence about this season was perfectly encapsulated by Sunday's episode, "Blowing Smoke," which had some wonderful moments (dissatisfied daughter Sally Draper confessing she hides her anger against her mother with a veil of respectful behavior; Don taking action by declaring in the pages of the New York Times that his firm wasn't doing tobacco ads anymore) and an awful lot of stuff that felt like running in place.
For me, the most important scene came when Don gave old fling Midge a ride back to her home, only to discover she was addicted to heroin and one degree away from pimping herself out for a little cash. As her story hinted at the start of the counter culture's fall into the destructive cynicism of the Vietnam Era, our hero got a powerful look at the dead end his previous life had been steaming towards -- along with a glimpse of what Sterling Cooper now looks like to the rest of Madison Avenue.
It was a rare, seemingly direct statement from the master of understated plot points. And somehow fitting that Don got this seedy wake-up call from the woman who we first saw him cheating with in the show's debut episode.
But the answer to the question posed in the very first episode of the season -- Who is Don Draper? -- feels ambiguous as ever.
January Jones' icy ex-wife Betty clearly needs therapy, but will only accept it in conferences with daughter Sally's therapist, under the guise of talking about the child. This tactic seems the sum up her staggering lack of parenting skill; an odd combination of cluelessly self-centered decisions and willful denial. With each episode, you feel a little more pity for the children who must come of age in her home.
Still, with all this crushing despair, shattered dreams and hysterical behavior, poor old eccentric Bert Cooper seems to have chosen the most reasonable option -- grabbing his shoes and bounding out the door once Don's creative impulsivity led to a rash ad rejecting all tobacco accounts, after it was obvious they couldn't get any, anyway.
(Two other nice touches; Don covering a $50,000 deposit for Pete Campbell as a thank you for keeping his secret at the expense of a multi-million dollar account and Dr. Faye Miller showing no remorse at having to stop working for the firm after Don's anti-tobacco ad, because they are now free to be public about their relationship. As usual, inscrutable Don leaves us all guessing as to whether he thinks this is as good as she).
It reminds me of the middle of The Sopranos' run on HBO, when creator David Chase seemed to lose sight of the fact that, in trying to subvert every cliche on television, he was making a series that occasionally forgot to entertain.
Mad Men creator Matt Weiner is too sensitive to fall in that category. But this season does feel a bit uneven -- as if, in the effort to keep us all guessing, he failed to let up a little on the relentless angst and dark tension. At some point, it's just a TV show; we do have to be entertained.
As I said, I'm confounded. And hoping for a big moment in Sunday's finale that makes me feel more fulfilled.