I’m going to talk about Mad Men today, which is fitting, since my deep appreciation of the series is very much intertwined with memories of my mother, and today is her birthday, though she has long left the world we know. More than ten years ago now; almost fifteen.
It’s funny how we remember those who are no longer here with us. We often reminisce about what they loved and then amuse ourselves with surmising what they might love now if they were still around. My mother loved toast. Like, she could really look forward to and enjoy buttered toast. And she was one of those who would burn it and then scrape off the burnt part. When my mother had been in the kitchen, there were always bits of black toast crumbs left behind in the butter. She also loved to decorate houses and did it spectacularly well. Especially with mirrors and lamps. When I think back to the houses in which I grew up, I remember the lamps and the mirrors. She had sophisticated taste but could surprise us with amazingly gaudy crap once in a while. A lamp with fake crystal pendants that dangled from sprayed-gold arms and a glazed base lit from within, topped by a gold-tasseled shade, comes to mind.
Sometimes I play that game of guessing what she’d be a fan of nowadays. Like, I’m certain she would have loved the FX television show Justified. She would have thought Raylan Givens was fine but would have liked his boss even more. She would have very much appreciated the Obamas in the White House and would have found Facebook ridiculous – but don’t we all, really?
When it comes to Mad Men, though, I don’t know. I have a suspicion that it may strike too close to home. And she would see herself too much to find it entertaining, whether in Joan or Peggy or even Betty. Though my mother was a single working woman back then, I glimpse aspects of her in each – way beyond Peggy’s suits and Joan’s dresses that I swear hung in my mother’s closet.
I would watch in quite a bit of awe as she “put on her face” at the kitchen table while I ate my Rice Krispies or Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. She would always look like someone out of a magazine and smell like L’Origan perfume when she’d slip on her office pumps and coat and perfectly knotted scarf before she headed out the door to stand at the bus stop in the ten-below-zero cold of a Minnesota winter.
I think she may not enjoy pondering the complexity of Don Draper because she would remember all too well what it was like to deal with the Rogers and Dons and Harry Cranes and the blatant sexism of her time, especially in the working world.
Years before I was born, she worked as a copywriter at a radio station. She lived in California but worked in Arizona, and all I can remember now is that she said it was a pain in the ass to go across time zones every day. I wish I could ask her more about it now.
I can’t, of course. And that’s really it, isn’t it? The profound sense of loss we feel when we truly know we can’t ask someone whose thoughts and ideas and actions so influenced and impacted us, even the lighter questions in life. It’s the realization that I won’t ever know that kind of kicks me in the gut, along with wondering how well I really knew her. Sometimes I think, not very well at all.
And so to Mad Men
What Mad Men does well is the small stuff. It’s more often the feel of the scene, the emotions conveyed by the characters, rather than the words spoken, that stay with you and come up in your mind’s eye many weeks and months, and even years later: Don in the elevator after his daughter saw him having sex with his neighbor; Peggy’s face as Don holds and kisses her hand when she gives her notice she’s leaving him and the firm; Joan in the motel room when she sold her physical self as the entry fee for access into the real game.
So I’ve been a bit disappointed thus far with the final season. There haven’t been any great moments…yet. I was willing to give the first show of these final seven a bye week because I figured they had to get everybody and everything set up for the next six shows. Sometimes, not much happens in an episode, and that’s always been true of the series. Those are the shows you’ve usually convinced someone to watch because “You’re not watching Mad Men? It’s one of the best shows ever!” And then they look at you like you’re a little pathetic, and they no longer trust your judgment in what constitutes entertainment or art or just about anything.
Well, I felt tired and sad watching the second episode, and I don’t think it’s because I’m feeling like ‘old and sloppy’ Don; if that’s it, though, bravo Weiner. I guess you’re even better than I thought.
I find the whole mysterious waitress storyline just…trying too hard. That’s not to say Elizabeth Reaser as the waitress Diana isn’t doing a fantastic job because she is. She’s very compelling on screen. (Didn’t see that coming from the Twilight series). And there were a few cool things, like Don at 3:00 in the morning in full suit and tie, answering the door to Diana, dressed in her waitress uniform, for what can only be described as a booty call. It’s possible, of course, even probable, that Don’s encounter with her will become more over the next few episodes. Let’s hope. Maybe she’s the new Don: she’s also from the Midwest, also reinventing herself. So far, though, she just seems like one more in the long line of Don’s women and if anything, her secrets were revealed too quickly for her to be all that interesting.
I’m going to go on. If you’re still reading, thank you and wow. I know there are bigger things in life, and I don’t usually pick apart television shows or even movies like this. But I expect a lot from Mad Men and am not usually disappointed. So I’m a bit miffed. Take the overt foreshadowing of what was to come with Meghan, with Roger’s venomous discourse to Don on divorce and women: ‘don’t settle until you get the number you want.’ And Meghan going from, ‘you don’t owe me anything’, to taking a million dollar check. If it were another series, I’d be wondering if the actress wanted out of the show and ticked everybody off. It just seemed so fast and furious and not very organic to the character. Yes, Don was a total jerk of a husband to her, but did he ruin her life? He damaged her a bit, for sure. Think back, though, to his subtle undermining of Betty’s foray back into the modeling world. Don’s manipulation of Betty and Betty’s life was much more life-changing than anything he did to Meghan.
I get it that maybe what we’re watching is Don looking out and seeing that everybody else is evolving and he just seems stuck in an endless loop of Don Draper-ishness. That’s what I’m seeing, anyway. I’m not sure about Don. He seems to be seeing all that he’s lost, which was illustrated beautifully with the milkshake scene. That one was typical Mad Men. It revealed a lot without much happening.
The problem with that scene is that the character of Betty is an integral part of the show’s look at society and women during that period, and I feel like the character has been squandered for many seasons and especially so now. Betty tells Don she’s going back to school to get a masters in psychology. First of all, that’s kind of funny as hell. That closed-off, bordering-on-psychotic mother is going to help figure out others’ problems? But the point is, Betty’s plans came out of the blue not only for Don but also for all of us. Wouldn’t it have been interesting if we’d at least had a glimpse as to how Betty evolved to the point of deciding to go back to school? It’s realistic, for sure. We’re not a part of someone’s life and they change and we see them changed but don’t know how they got there. So maybe that was the point. But it just seems to me like it could have been so much more.
And why are we spending our precious last moments on peripheral characters we’ve all known all along are just foils for the main ones? Three seasons ago, fine. Not now. I don’t care about Stan’s private life and I don’t care much about Meghan’s mom getting her life sorted out either.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m still looking forward to number three of seven, and I’m excited to see the final bow. I’m rather expecting a whole lot of loose ends left dangling at the end of this one, so I’m not looking for nice, neat little, ‘so that’s what happened to this character. Period.’ – For any of the show’s characters.
I just want more, or maybe what I want is less. What I want is for the less to be more. Like when Mad Men is really, really good. That’s what I’m hoping for.