It may have been a low-key finale for Mad Men, but the last episode of the season certainly threw subtle suggestion out the window. After a season chalked full of shockingly overt moments, did this quieter episode give us a much needed breather?
Let’s take a closer look after the jump.
Although nothing “major” happened in the finale in comparison to earlier episodes, this week’s offering favoured showing and telling versus introspective reflection. Throughout the episode, we were hit over the head with characters spelling things out for us, so much so that it became distracting at times. Other critics have noted that S5 of Mad Men has departed from its much more suggestive and cognitive formula from seasons past, but up until this episode, I hadn’t really minded. In this season finale, however, the visual markers and lines of dialogue screaming “NOTICE ME!” really did start to feel like overkill.
If you didn’t get that Don (Jon Hamm) was plagued by unresolved guilt about Lane’s (Jared Harris) suicide, amongst other things, there’s a big ol’ rotten toothache that he’s consistently complaining about throughout the episode as a distracting reminder. After being told by many to go and see a friggin’ dentist, Don brushes them off saying – “It’ll go away. It always does.” Yes, goes away as you try to repress it; as the searing pain continues to linger; as it slowly rots you from the inside out until you can deny it no more. If the toothache wasn’t obvious enough, we also get the return of Dick Whitman’s S1 half-brother, Adam (Jay Paulson) prancing around as Don’s hallucination, with remnants of his hanging noose around his neck. And if that wasn’t overt enough, Alex even makes a clever pun about “hanging around” as he replaces the dentist proclaiming, “You know it’s not the tooth that’s rotten”. I’m surprised he wasn’t wearing a neon t-shirt that said “Don’s repressed guilt” on it.
Although I can appreciate how Don’s struggles must be concealed from the other characters in the world of the show, I thought there could have been less obvious cues to the viewers. One of the great things about Mad Men is how themes insidiously creep into your subconscious with the subtle suggestions rather than laying all the cards out on the table. There’s a difference between challenging or subversively directing your viewers to find connections and demanding they do so.
While I found Don’s interactions with Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) equally as overt, they didn’t feel as daunting as the toothache guilt (Side Note: Yay, Peggy returns!). We first see Don’s protege in her new digs, looking pretty damn fabulous in a red Chanel frock (see Tom & Lorenzo for insights into Mad Men‘s style), barking at her subordinates “Don Draper” style. It was a great thing to see. Hoping to wipe away some of the “cobwebs”, Peggy goes to the movies to reset her creative juices – a quirky habit she learned from Don. Fresh off of his dental/guilt extraction, Don goes to the theatre with the same intention and they bump into each other and have one of the most refreshing exchanges of the entire episode. Perhaps it’s because it comes so late in the hour, and although the dialogue is clearly meant to apply to Don’s relationship with Megan (Jessica Paré), there’s just a natural ease in their exchange that feels like a breathe of fresh air in an otherwise stuffy episode.
First, some context. Earlier in the episode, Megan, who continues to fail at jumpstarting her acting career, asked Don to get her an audition for a shoe commercial of one of SCDP’s clients. He initially greeted her with surly contempt, accusing her of hating advertising in the first place. He then made excuses about how she wants to make it in the acting world, but not by being “someone’s wife”.
In the theatre, Don tells Peggy that he’s slightly miffed that she’s no longer working with him, but “that’s what happens when you help some one. They succeed and move on.” He’s addressing the conversation that they had when she quit, but it’s just as clear that Don’s talking about Megan and her decision to pursue acting, which he believes is tantamount to leaving him. Peggy retorted that he should be happy about having been so instrumental to her success. His response is the classic Don Draper ambiguous smirk.
Clearly, this conversation with Peggy is meant to give Don a change of heart. In fact the next scene is Don viewing Megan’s screen test, alone in his office, further drawing on the idea of ‘movies clearing the mind’. This act allowed him to finally see Megan as an actress, not merely the trophy wife who takes care of him. Unlike the toothache, this is a great instance of the show giving us breadcrumbs without throwing the entire loaf at us.
This led into the episode’s closing sequence: a wonderful callback to the S1 finale. Miss Megan Calvet, not Mrs. Don Draper, took the spotlight in vibrant colour, as Don walked off the soundstage into darkness. I loved this shot, as Don’s silhouette echoed the Don we see in the opening credit sequence. It’s no surprise then that the final scene of the season featured Don drinking his “old fashion” at a dark bar as a beautiful young lady accosted him on behalf of her equally beautiful friend. She asks, “Are you alone” to which he gives a confident smile as we fade to black. Does this mean that the old Don Draper is back? I would be inclined to say no as I don’t think that Don’s experiences throughout this season will just be disregarded like a rotten tooth. I do, however, believe that this last sequence is on par with the Mad Men we know and love. Just enough intrigue…with a touch of naughtiness and trepidation.
Despite Captain Obvious reeking havoc in this week’s episode, dishing up a more uneven offering, overall I’ve quite liked this past season. Yes, it was a departure from seasons past and not without its hiccups, but I feel like I’ve gotten a more well-rounded and clearer picture of our protagonists. Not every season will be a stellar one, but if it can contribute to the series’ success as a whole, and can give us some interesting moments sprinkled throughout, I don’t feel the need to nitpick and dwell on the negatives. Let’s hope we get some pay-offs to the more frustrating aspects of this season when S6 debuts.
- Pete’s (Vincent Kartheiser) story arc with Beth (Alexis Bledel) was handled just as heavy-handed as the toothache. After begging to have a final tryst with her before she headed into electro-shock therapy, Beth told Pete that they only work because they are kindred spirits under the grey cloud of clinical depression. When he visited her afterwards, and any memory of him and their affair has been zapped out of her, he talked about himself in the third person, explaining what prompted him to pursue her in the first place. He called his life with Trudy (Alison Brie) a “temporary bandage on a permanent wound.” As a result, we finally understand Pete’s journey because he tells us explicitly, but this moment of self-actualization is played so poignantly by Kartheiser, I couldn’t hate it. I was actually shocked at how Pete has become a character with so many layers: I would so vehemently despise him, then pity him, and, at times, even appreciate his struggles. I never thought Pete would make it into my pile of rich characters but here he is.
- We also got the return of Megan’s mother, Marie, played by the stunning Julia Ormond (I still can’t buy that she’s old enough to be Megan’s mother…). Ormond played the character with just enough bitchy, self-absorption to overshoot the blatantly obvious lines of dialogue she was forced to spew in relation to the episode’s themes. I loved every moment of her hot and cold parenting, before she ultimately delivered some blunt words of wisdom. Again, it lacked all subtlety, but for Marie it worked. How fabulous was it when she told Roger (John Slattery) “Don’t ask me to take care of you.” ?
- I didn’t appreciate Joan’s (Christina Hendricks) suggestion to Don that if she had just given Lane “what he wanted” that she could have prevented his suicide. I’m torn up enough about Lane’s departure last episode that I can’t stand the thought of Don thinking Lane was yet another lecherous snake who only saw Joan as a sex object. I can understand why Joan would be thinking about ways she could have prevented Lane’s suicide, but I don’t want Lane’s image to be sullied any further in the eyes on Don.
What did you think, Mad Men-ers? Did you enjoy the season finale? How about S5 as whole? Did you find the departure of the show’s previous subtlety a good or horrendously bad way to go? Do you think Don will return to his old womanizing and boozing ways? Chime in our comments sections below!
Mad Men aired its fifth season finale on AMC last night and will return next year for a sixth season. The season can be downloaded on iTunes.