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Dissecting Mad Men's Hopeful, Saccharine Half-Season


As the first half of the last season of “Mad Men” comes to a close, we’re looking back at some of the most satisfying and strange moments of the past seven episodes—from rotating carousels to missing nipples.

Chloe: A lot of “Mad Men” for me has been about watching Peggy ascend, or not; watching Joan ascend, or not; watching Megan ascend, or not. All these women made professional advances, only to run smack into intransigent and sometimes humiliating brick walls. (Peggy back in a subordinate role in the office where she started; Joan basically forced to use her sexuality to get promoted; Megan getting her career going in New York, only to quit for Don’s sake.) Workplace sexism was so obvious and blatant in the early seasons that it refreshing to see the writers inject little strains of female empowerment in later seasons. I’ve found, as the seasons have progressed, that I care much more about these women’s progress (or lack of), than Don’s personal and professional progress—which vacillates like a sine curve between predictable extremes. (Drinking and philandering, then exercising and abstaining—repeat, repeat, repeat.) The circular nature of these women’s paths has made me wonder if “Mad Men” is, in large part, a show about the circularity of life. (Remember the carousel?!) Are these characters doomed to run up against the same frustrations endlessly?   

Esther: If any of us had managed to forget Don's Kodak carousel pitch, Matt Weiner seemed determined to remind us of it this season. Freddy Rumsen's pitch in the first episode—"It's not a timepiece. It's a conversation piece."—evoked it in both spirit and syntax. Ken referenced it explicitly when showing Don a picture of his kid in a playground. And a few weeks ago, The Hollies' "On a Carousel" played over the end credits, right after Don sits at his typewriter to finally "do the work." The show keeps looking back with a semi-nostalgic eye, and the characters do too. (Don last week: "1955 was a good year." Peggy: "1965 was a good year.)  I do think that "Mad Men" is showing progress, but the change—both the social change of the 1960s and characters' personal growth— keeps stuttering and looping back on itself. The firm is now filled with working mothers, but men like Don barely notice it. Don hits rock bottom, then hits rock bottom again. Bob Benson's in a slightly better position than Sal was a half-decade ago, but he still needs a sham marriage. And yet this season—and especially this past episode—Don, Peggy, Joan, even Betty seem to have achieved a certain self-awareness. So I'm actually arriving at this half-finale more hopeful than "Mad Men" has ever left me.

Chloe: I agree that the end of the penultimate episode was pretty cheery—by "Mad Men" standards. (The office slow dance between Don and Peggy with Sinatra crooning in the background was positively saccharine, though I’ll admit I loved it.) And I also agree that a lot of that brightness came from the sense that the characters are sidling up to some form of self-enlightenment. (Clear-eyed Megan, from earlier in the season, when Don comes clean about his suspension from work: “This is how it ends, Don. It will be so much easier for both of us.”) But, can we pause for a moment on Betty? I got the impression, from her lunch date conversation with her working woman friend Francine, that she was going to tap into even deeper layers of discontent this season—and, oh, how many layers January Jones has given us!—with a proto-“you can’t have it all” disgruntlement. Francine seemed to have found some balance between raising her kids and work outside the home; Betty never even tried, and now feels the dissatisfaction of that non-decision. But as the season has progressed, I’m convinced that Matthew Weiner just wants to leave her rattling around in her suburban Gothic manse while her children grow up to hate her—even sweet baby Gene, because, as she put it “it’s only a matter of time.” Is she the most loathsome character on the show? The other-half of the anti-hero? 

Esther: I’m an eternal Betty defender (I was even fond of Fat Betty back in season 5) and I love that she’s finally asserting her independence—while staying just as petty and unpleasant. She’s a Cersei Lannister type—icy women who respond to the world’s cruelties by becoming extra-cruel themselves. So of course her “feminist awakening” a few weeks ago (“I’m not stupid. I speak Italian.”) manifested itself mostly as disdain for the counterculture and reactionary defense of the war. (One of my favorite “Mad Men” bloggers called her a “Junior Phyllis Schlafly.”) On a different note, what do you make of this season’s super-computer plot. “The Monolith,” the first episode when the IBM appeared, was full of thematically obvious, man versus machine talk. Is there more to it than an extended 2001: A Space Odyssey homage? Is Weiner trying to make a technophobic, Franzen-esque point? The show usually isn’t so baldly nostalgic, so I hope it’s going somewhere else. The watch wasn’t a timepiece; maybe the computer isn’t really a monolith either. 

Chloe: You’re right that the man-versus-machine chatter has been unusually on-the-nose. (There was all that talk about how it “literally” took over the room where the creatives at the agency ate their tuna melts.) And aesthetically, I much preferred the mad-kindergartener-collage that covered the creatives’ walls to the gleaming, antiseptic white of the computer’s air-conditioned office. But I still like the storyline in general—particularly the Michael Ginsburg paranoia bent. I thought that there was something very real and touching, and, strangely modern about the way that Ginsberg processed—admittedly, through mental illness—this fundamental rupture in the culture represented by the new technology. His worry that the computer was out to “get him” was just a more dramatic rendering of Don’s drunken antipathy toward the wolf-in-sheep’s clothing of the computer installer. So much of “Mad Men” has been about an effort to understand people in order to manipulate them—it’s what makes Don so good at his job as a salesman, and it’s what makes him so good at getting women in his bed. And, fittingly for the last season, here comes this machine that can understand, or at least process, humanity faster and better than any storyteller. At least, that seems to be Harry Crane’s pitch. Speaking of Harry Crane, was there ever a character who seemed more likely to get booted from the island in an early season, but who has, inexplicably, remained? Can you explain his appeal? (Or the appeal of Pete Campbell’s insipid, twelve-year-old love interest?)

Esther: R.I.P. Bert Cooper. I guess you don’t cast Robert Morse without asking him to sing and dance at least once. That ending, a musical number performed by the ghost of Bert Cooper, was delightfully bizarre—and, if nothing else, a nice reminder before the final seven episodes air next year that this show can still surprise us. Cooper’s death, right after watching Neil Armstrong land on the moon, immediately brought me back to his tribute to Ida Blankenship: "She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the thirty-seventh floor of a skyscraper. She was an astronaut.” Coupled with the moon landing, this felt like the end of some era: Cooper was the last remnant of the pre-Don generation, and has always seemed like a vestige of some distant past. Jim Cutler spent the episode scheming to expel Don and start building his vision of the “firm of the future.” (That vision—“Computer services. Media buys pinpointed with surgical accuracy”—sounds all too familiar to modern, micro-targeted ears). But by joining McCann, which was the exact fate Don and Roger schemed to avoid at the end of season three, have they tied themselves to the past? At the very least, Harry Crane got screwed over; I think proving that schadenfreude is the real reason he's still around. 

And while the computer continued its role as grand villain, this episode was more preoccupied with the role of an earlier technology in our lives: the television. All season I’ve been noticing the TV playing on the edges of scenes, as characters eat or drink or sleep. Peggy’s Burger Chef pitch in the midseason finale beautifully played into anxieties about social change and the effects of television’s ubiquity on family life. But it also captured the power of a unifying moment like the moon landing, when all these broken, patched-up families sat in front of their television sets together. Like the song says, "The moon belongs to everyone."

This post has been updated.