As AMC's award-winning drama Mad Men airs the final episode of its fourth season tonight, hard-core fans are indulging their No. 1 sport: guessing what the heck will happen on TV's most inscrutable show, and what it all means.
So you'd think an interview with Vincent Kartheiser, the guy who gives a straight-backed, weaselly charm to young adman Pete Campbell, would be an ace in the hole — instant access to one of the guys living these complex story lines on camera.
You would be wrong.
"In entertainment art, I feel like there's three parts to the process: the idea, the creation and the viewing of it," said Kartheiser. "The audience has a role. It's not complete, this process, until it is interpreted by the observers. So I wouldn't want to tell anyone what it really means. This show asks questions, and the answers are your job."
Rats. That meant going to my Plan B of drafting a blue-ribbon panel of storytellers to help puzzle out the meaning of this season.
I found a great crew: Florida author Connie May Fowler, whose 1996 bestseller Before Women Had Wings was adapted into a TV movie for ABC by Oprah Winfrey; Ken Levine, an Emmy-winning TV producer with credits including M*A*S*H, Cheers and Frasier; and Evangeline Morphos, a Columbia University professor, former chairwoman of the drama department at New York University and a participant in weekly discussions about the show for the Wall Street Journal online.
These accomplished folks all cited one reason they have enjoyed this year's episodes more than most. Every week brings an engaging, plausible and illuminating surprise.
"They have created a cast of characters who are more exquisitely flawed than they have been in the past," said Fowler. "Setting this season in these tumultuous times (1964 and 1965), everything had to fall apart, including the characters."
Indeed, this year the upstart new Madison Avenue advertising agency willed into existence by hero Don Draper (Jon Hamm) teeters on the edge of oblivion after its biggest client leaves, exposing the true nature of major characters in the stress of seeing their business on the brink.
And by refusing easy solutions — no magic, last-minute advertising campaign to save their bacon this year — the show's writers have explored the generational, gender and class gaps growing wider as the country slouches toward a historic transformation.
"It's been a long time coming," said Kartheiser, noting that underlings like Campbell have always felt the stress Draper and the other firm bigwigs shoulder now. "Draper has definitely hit some crucial breaking points this season. And he's been reaching out for someone to love him since the very beginning of the show."
Levine marveled at the show's ability to keep us rooting for a flawed Draper, even after he cheats on a loving girlfriend or takes advantage of an emotionally needy secretary. "Don Draper is being put to a real test," he said. "Before, he was kind of the golden boy and now he has to fight for what he has. I find that really compelling. You're not going to watch happy people living life for an hour every week."
Morphos agreed. "One of the things that was hard for fans this season, myself included, was that this season we really saw the underbelly of Mad Men's glamorous world," she said. "The alcohol-fueled work sessions devolved into a serious drinking problem (for Draper). The sizzling sexual energy led to an unwanted pregnancy and empty affairs. This was exactly what needed to happen . . . the sense of chickens coming home to roost."
A televised novel
Still, for some viewers, Mad Men could feel like a relentless slog through some of the most depressing lives in 1960s Manhattan.
Draper is a divorced dad living in a broken-down apartment, drinking too much and fumbling to keep his raging demons from upending the business he's building from the ground up.
Partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery) is a spoiled child of wealth, avoiding responsibility for losing the firm's largest client. Bombshell secretary Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) continues to pick the wrong men, getting pregnant with Sterling's child while her husband is serving in Vietnam; what viewers don't know is whether she went through with a planned abortion.
And Kartheiser's character has come into his own, helping Draper hide from the Defense Department how he stole the identity of an officer killed during the Korean War; later he gives Campbell $50,000 to maintain a stake in the company.
"We've been building toward that moment for four years," the actor said, unable to say whether Draper gave the money from gratitude or to keep a necessary partner in the fold. "It's the company; it's family. These two people are locked in this relationship, whether they like each other or not."
Such minute dissections of Mad Men's meaning have become a ritual for fans, sparked by the show's dogged determination to avoid explanation. No wonder the show's influence extends beyond its niche audience (last week's episode drew about 2.2 million viewers, compared with 12 million viewers for episodes of ABC's Desperate Housewives and CBS's Undercover Boss airing the same night).
In so many ways, Mad Men is to conventional television what Dostoevsky is to Danielle Steel. It's a televised novel requiring close attention and interpretation.
Then as now
Everybody has a different answer for the biggest question about Mad Men: What was this season all about?
"Initially, it took us back to a time we thought was a bit more innocent, showing us there was always trouble, even then," said Morphos. "The other message: How do you make it in a tough, fast, smart world? Watching Don and his company try to figure out how to communicate through this new medium, television, (reminds me how) we're trying to figure out the Internet and social media today."
Said another way, Mad Men's episodes often succeed because they are as much about today as yesterday.
When we saw Draper's firm laying off half the staff last week, who didn't think about today's economic downturn? After Draper tries putting a good face on losing Lucky Strike cigarettes as a client by placing a New York Times ad denouncing the cigarette industry — written while chain-smoking in his seedy apartment — viewers were bound to think how closely that ad mirrors our modern take on that deadly habit.
"We get to watch this all with a wink and a nod," said Fowler. "When the show first aired for me, it was brutal to watch because of what I believe is an accurate portrayal of how women are treated in the workplace. And as an assiduous viewer, I'm starting to get used to it, which frightens me."
Not that the show handles everything well. Critics have noticed the show mostly avoids discussing race, even though the landmark Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964. When Sterling and Harris were mugged in a recent episode, a stereotypically dangerous black man did the deed.
Kartheiser finds it amusing that some think his character has become a better man this season. "He's grown out of a lot of things, like philandering on his wife," he said, laughing. "But he's learning how to cover Don's lies and shaking hands with racists. Sometimes I miss the Pete that spoke his mind more."
Even as tonight's finale looms, it is hard to imagine a conclusion that can wrap up so many pressing questions — from the fate of Draper's firm to his effort to master the personal demons threatening to unravel all parts of his life.
"To me, Mad Men is as much a celebration of what TV can do than anything," Morphos said. "It's a work of art that is smartly written, beautifully acted and has style. It's about television coming of age; not only in the story lines, but before our eyes in every episode."
Eric Deggans can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8521. See the Feed blog at tampabay.com/blogs/media.