May 26, 2014

THE SKED (Mid)Season Finale Review: “Mad Men”


What is it with endings?  Why do they rattle the brains of even the greatest of television’s creative minds?  Half-endings, too, which is what tonight’s finish to the first half of MAD MEN‘s 7th and final season was, the remaining 7 hours to sit on an AMC shelf until a year from now.  (That scheduling strategy worked like gangbusters for AMC with Breaking Bad, so the network decided to do it again–plus by ordering all the episodes at once and calling them one “season,” AMC didn’t have to pay contractual raises that would otherwise have been due.)  Sure, on some level it was a sweet farewell to Robert Morse for Bert Cooper’s exit to be via a posthumous fantasy song and dance number, since he rose to fame 50 years ago as the star of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, and it’s interesting to speculate on whether his delivery of “The Best Things In Live Are Free” was intended as a commentary on the cash grab just made by all the Sterling Cooper partners to take McCann Erickson’s offer for 51% of their stock (worth millions–in 1969 dollars–to each of them) and trust that they’ll really be able to continue running as an independent agency–or if it was more pointedly aimed at Don Draper for his agreement to bind himself to 5 years of servitude to the new McCann-owned company. Fundamentally, though, Matthew Weiner’s decision to end this run of episodes in such a jarring way was out of place both in the context of Mad Men (which has had fantasy sequences and musical numbers before, but never in so pedestrian, so blatantly Dennis Potter-y, a fashion) and as anything likely to occur in the mind of Don Draper.  All it succeeded in doing was pulling viewers out of what had been, until then, a fairly dazzling episode of one of the greatest shows in TV history.

Leaving that last sequence aside, the finale, written by Weiner and staff writer Carly Wray and directed by Weiner, built upon last week’s wonderful episode “The Strategy.”  (This hour was titled “Waterloo,” a reference to Roger saying of Bert that when old men start talking about Napoleon, you know they’re going to die.)  As man walked on the moon for the first time (Bert Cooper’s true last great moment was his recognition of Neil Armstrong’s pithy, historic “One small step for man” line with an ad man’s “Bravo” that knew a great slogan when he heard it), Don (Jon Hamm) handed the Burger Chef presentation to Peggy (Elisabeth Moss).  The next day, she proved herself once and for all to be the equal of her mentor, as she brilliantly executed exactly the kind of maneuver viewers have been watching Don do since the Kodak Carousel presentation, smoothing out the true but emotionally rough edges of her own life to turn her feelings of isolation (her only friend a 10-year old neighbor who’s about to move to Newark) for a pitch that won SC&P the account.  Don’s tiny nod and smile as Peggy killed it was the validation she’d been waiting for since the series began.

It was an hour of transitions, and like ‘The Strategy,” it could almost have been a series finale.  Don’s marriage to Megan (Jessica Pare) once and for all fell apart, in a beautifully performed transcontinental phone scene between the two of them that perfectly captured a relationship ending not with a bang, but with a whimper.  Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin) made his move against Don, unilaterally serving him with notice of termination for breach of contract because of his unauthorized appearance at the Philip Morris meeting.  That act, and Bert’s making it clear that he didn’t think Roger (John Slattery) had what it took to run the agency, finally motivated Roger to shape up and put together the McCann deal, specifically safeguarding Don’s future as part of it.  (Interesting factoid:  when networks order series from studios, they list the important writer/producers and cast members as “of the essence,” the way Don is in the McCann deal, and anyone who isn’t on that list can freely be fired as far as the network is concerned.)  On the home front, Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) took several more scary steps toward becoming Betty Draper 2.0, down to the way her mother puffs on her cigarettes.

It’s true that Weiner has played the Sterling Cooper reboot card a few times before in Mad Men‘s history, and this rendition was (deliberately) more cynical and less exhilarating than the firm’s secret flight from its British bosses a few seasons ago.  Still, the partners meeting sequence was delicious, from poor Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) on the short end of the stick once again, not eligible for McCann riches because he hadn’t yet signed his partnership agreement (despite Don’s advice to do so), to Don’s heartfelt advice to Ted not to leave his working life lightly, and Cutler’s last-minute decision to cash in and make it a unanimous vote (“It’s a lot of money!”).

There were a few narrative bumps, some perhaps caused by AMC’s forcing Weiner to fragment the season and reach this point faster than he would have otherwise.  Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) becoming a semi-suicidal burnout seemed to happen awfully quickly, and Joan (Christina Hendricks) having such intense bitterness toward Don for standing in the way of deals that would have made her more money came as a surprise.  (Although Hendricks’ delivery of the line “You shouldn’t have done that” to Cutler about that termination letter was a great beat.)

It’s hard to know what to expect from next year’s final final episodes of Mad Men (and Weiner, proud of his NSA levels of secrecy, won’t be leaking any of it).  Unlike The Sopranos, where Weiner cut his dramatic writing teeth, Mad Men has always been committed to some level of narrative closure, so it would seem like a “real ending” and not an anticlimactic cut to black will be coming.  But with Don and the rest of the major characters now tied to 5-year McCann contracts, things should in theory be fairly stable–unless Weiner confounds expectations and takes Mad Men‘s swan song past the start of the 1970s.  Then again, maybe it’ll all just end with a big musical number.  In which case, at least one television in America will be in more jeopardy than it’s known since the last episode of Lost.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."