Thoughts on the 'Bored to Death' and 'Mad Men' finales
Jason Schwartzman and Ted Danson boxed and Don Draper kicked in a door on a busy finale Sunday
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I don't know about you, dear readers, by my Sunday night TV viewing is about to become a good deal less enjoyable. Sure, we'll still have a few weeks of this top-notch "Curb Your Enthusiasm" season and a few weeks of another familiar-yet-intriguing "Dexter" season and we'll still have FOX's animated comedies and "Brothers & Sisters" until I can finally drop that one from my DVR.
But even with those shows, plus Sunday Night Football (and the start of the NBA and college hoops seasons), filling my time and clogging my DVR, they aren't going to take the place in my heart formerly occupied by "Mad Men" and (to a lesser degree) "Bored to Death."
One of my favorite new comedies of the fall and the undisputed champ of TV drama ended their seasons on Sunday (Nov. 8). Ryan McGee already did a terrific job of recapping the "Mad Men" finale, so I may concentrate on the "Bored to Death" finale after the break.
Oh, who am I kidding? I'm probably going to talk mostly about "Mad Men," which has had a night to marinate in my brain... After the break...
"Bored to Death"
I really hope you listened to me and watched "Bored to Death" past the show's dismal and uneven pilot. Even at its best, "Bored to Death" was still a little uneven, but that was part of its charm. The entire premise was a shaggy dog story: Creatively constipated writer is so desperate for distractions that he becomes a private investigator and proves to be at least accidentally somewhat good at the job.
But how frequently was the private investigation ever the center of the story? Even case-driven episodes like "The Case of the Beautiful Blackmailer" mostly used the investigations as an excuse either to explore Jonathan Ames' (the creator and the character) solipsism or else just to get Jason Schwartzman on screen with either Zach Galifianakis or Ted Danson or, ideally, both.
The humor of the series came from the absurdity that this version of Jonathan Ames was capable of getting out of bed in the morning, much less seducing blackmailers, tangling with the Russian mob or rescuing a skateboard from a group of street toughs. The great thing about Schwartzman as an actor, from "Rushmore" to "Marie Antoinette" to here, has always been how inevitably out-of-place he seems in every context.
And where would Schwartzman be more out of place than in a boxing ring? And who would be more ridiculous for him to be brawling with than John Hodgman? The "Bored to Death" finale was a pay-off to last episode's climactic pugilistic challenge between Oliver Platt's Richard and Ted Danson's "George." If you start with the already absurd notion that in 2009 two magazines could resolve a rivalry in the boxing ring (rather than just trying to stay in business) and then devise three bouts featuring the least likely fighters imaginable, the humor flows from there.
The result was the funniest boxing scenario, complete with preparatory montage and a gruff old trainer, since the "Hundred Dollar Baby" episode of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." And the spectacle of Schwartzman, Danson, Galifianakis, Platt and Hodgman in the ring, complete with headguards and other protection, was every bit the payoff I required.
Encapsulating the show's first season, the finale ended with Schwartzman and Danson in the ring.
"You think we learned anything tonight?" Ames asks.
"No," George replied. "But that's OK. It's good to stay in the dark about things. Keeps life interesting."
"Bored To Death" is about a man with no answers of his own trying to find answers for other people and, just as often, coming up empty, but the finale was actually more illuminating than most episodes.
After pining after Olivia Thirlby's Suzanne for the bulk of the season, Jonathan found something-like-love with with Stella (Jenny Slate), a pot-loving Brooklyn artist, though his ardor wasn't quite reciprocated at the same level. That led to the most half-hearted "Stella!" since Keanu Reeves' turn as Stanley in "Streetcar Named Desire." [And no, I don't think that Keanu has ever played Stanley in "Streetcar," but I tried to imagine the most laconic Stanley possible and Keanu was what came up. "Stella. Whoa."]
George and Ray also made key choices based upon love, leading to the impression that "Bored to Death" is actually an oddly romantic show, which isn't necessarily what I'd have thought, but I guess it sort of is. The primary romance is still Jonathan with himself, with Jonathan and Ray and Jonathan and George serving as backup bromances. But I guess I can accept that an obsession with Raymond Chandler would also lead characters into certain inevitably doomed romantic entanglements, so it fits within the show's overall ethos.
And my new favorite catchphrase: "Protect the meat!"
Anyway, on to...
Really, Ryan did a great job recapping the finale, as he did a great job of recapping "Mad Men" throughout the season. There isn't much for me to say except that I'm not sure that Matthew Weiner and company could have closed their third season any better.
I had reservations at times during the third season. I wasn't one of those "Nothing is happening!" natterers, though I hope those complainers stuck around to see how marvelously all of the season's alleged non-events were tied together in the finale. What did annoy me, though, was the uncharacteristically clumsy use of dramatic irony throughout the season, something Weiner has mostly been able to dodge. It wasn't just that we knew the whole season was seemingly building to JFK's assassination, but that the script had to keep reminding us of where we were in the 1963 calendar, just in case we ever forgot what was looming. I was actually quite relieved that Weiner pushed the assassination into the season's penultimate episode.
I wasn't a big fan, in fact, of "The Grown Ups," which over-relied on familiar news footage and predictable responses that could have been assumed, rather than shown. Then again, as ever, even a lesser episode of "Mad Men" is good TV. But I wasn't one of those people who worried about how Weiner could possibly top "The Grown Ups," who suspect that this would be a "Sopranos"-esque instance of delivering the big blows a week early and using the finale to tie up loose ends.
And it wasn't.
If "The Grown Ups" was about the world changing on a global level, "Shut the Door, Have a Seat" was about everything changing on a Sterling Cooper level, which I found much more interesting. "Mad Men" often focuses on the subtle undercurrents of every action or interaction, the repressed desires under the gaudy surfaces. That makes the episodes in which something big and explicit occurs seem all the more shocking. Weiner has used those big episodes marvelously all season, whether the Grand Guignol gore at the climax of "Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency" or the raw, crushing emotion of the second half of "The Gypsy and the Hobo."
With "Shut the Door, Have a Seat," Weiner and co-writer Erin Levy got to do something even more unusual: They delivered an episode that was mostly just outrageously *fun*. Yes, the episode featured the devastating scene in which Betty and Don had to break their divorce to their children, plus the shocking flashbacks to seeming explain Don's lone wolf instincts, but the "Mad Men" finale was really much more like a Rat Pack-style heist movie, like the original "Ocean's 11" made with the flair of the Soderbergh remake.
A well-constructed TV season is like a carnival juggling act in which the performer keeps upping the volume and danger-level of the things he's throwing into the air and by the time there are five or six knives or flaming batons, you figure one of them is bound to hit the ground, but they all end up safe and sound in the juggler's hand. That's how the finale of "Mad Men" played out. The things you wanted to see paid off for the most part got paid off.
Some of my favorite pay-offs:
Roger and Don reuniting. The Roger/Don partnership has been tenuous since Season One, but Weiner tore it to shreds this season. That was partially a shame, since the two have had great episodes together, but bringing them back into the same orbit in the finale was satisfying, as was the horrifying moment where it was Roger who let Don know about Betty's infidelities.
Peggy gives Don the what-for. It's been a whole season of Don underestimating Peggy and Peggy tapping into her own inner Don. The underestimating was sufficient that when Don took it for granted that Peggy would be complicit in his developing conspiracy, you knew she would have none of it. It was great watching Peggy play hard-to-get -- "Everyone thinks you do all my work. Even you. I don't want to make a career out of being there so you can kick me when you fail." -- and to see Don humble himself before her. But even humbling himself, Don still had the power to order Peggy to sit down and listen to him in her own apartment. Elisabeth Moss' work in that scene was a great capper to an Emmy-worthy season, especially her reaction when Don gave exactly the right answer to her questioning if not following him would mean he'd never speak to her again ("No. I will spend the rest of my life trying to hire you.").
Pete's been right all along. "Mad Men" began with Pete Campbell as a villain and he remains a character who's sometimes incapable of getting out of his own way. But he's also been a prophet of sorts, the harbinger of trends to come. So it was good that Roger and Don recognized Pete's importance and approached him before Cosgrove, who has always been the more traditional company man. I admit that I have some concerns about Trudy's quick forgiveness for Pete, but she's always been unexpectedly pragmatic about their relationship.
Joan. Mrs. Harris has gotten the short end of the stick this season. But one thing her absence has reinforced is her importance both to the show -- We miss Christina Hendricks when she isn't around -- but also her importance to Roger, in ways that go beyond sex. So when the conspirators realized that they were missing key pieces of know-how to begin their own firm and Roger announced he knew just the person to help, the show's entire viewership instantly know exactly who he was talking about. It was a move so obvious and right that Don's understated response -- "Joan. What a good idea." -- said it perfectly. The best thing about the Season Four we're all imagining is that Joan is, once again, at the forefront.
Other things I loved about the finale:
*** Little Sally Draper's shattering line, "You say things and you don't mean them and you can't just do that."
*** Jared Harris' joy at playing conspirator and his joy at being fired. "Very good. Happy Christmas."
*** Don Draper kicking in the Art Department door. That may have been the most awesomely satisfying moment in "Mad Men" history.
*** I loved how WRONG Don was in his late-night assault on Betty after learning about her infidelity. It's courageous to make characters so ugly and out-of-line, but Weiner and company do so all the time. That being said, this is the second straight season they've dug Betty into a deep hole, character-wise. Since I assume that January Jones is going to continue to be a regular next season, it's going to take a lot of work to get her back on track.
*** Robert Morse' Bert Cooper hasn't had much to do this season, but seeing the character find the fire in his old belly was a pleasure, especially when he issued his ultimatum to Harry.
*** Like his mentor David Chase, Weiner has always been all about finding the perfect closing music. Roy Orbinson's "Shahdaroba" was inspired. Yes, the lyrics were probably on-the-nose -- "Face the future/ And forget about the past" etc -- but sometimes the right musical choice has to be on-the-nose.
The big regret about the finale was not finding a way to bring Sal back into the fold and, in fact, setting up an economic situation -- American Tobacco is central to Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Price business plan -- in which he almost can't come back. But I'm sure there's a way around.
Bring on Season Four...
Any thoughts y'all wanna share on the two finales?