A review of tonight's "Mad Men" coming up just as soon as I park my white horse outside...
"I know I am flawed, but I am offering you more than anyone else ever will." -Bob Benson
Five years ago, after a long night at press tour, Matt Weiner and I sat down to discuss the third season premiere of "Mad Men," "Out of Town." It was a sprawling conversation, covering not just the episode, but past decisions about the show and even, near the end, his future hopes for it. As the series has gone on, Weiner has grown more close-mouthed about what's coming next, but this was far away from the hypothetical end of the series that he felt comfortable talking a little about what he envisioned for it:
I would like to see them get to the end of this (decade), and that was my original intention when I wrote the pilot. My idea was, "What is it going to be like for someone who is already an adult?" Let's take away all the Boomer rosy haze. This guy's an adult. Pete's in his 20s, Peggy is in her 20s. What was it like for them to sit back and watch this happen? And no matter what happens — Summer of Love, The Beatles, Woodstock, Rolling Stones — when you get to 1970, "My Way" is still in the top 10 songs. You know what I mean? That's what I'm interested in. And I would love to see where they are. I would love to see this sense of how things turned out.
As Don and Peggy worked all night on Burger Chef, and Don recognized the sound of "My Way" coming from Lou's stereo, my mind returned to that warm California night, and to that last answer Weiner offered before we said our goodbyes. And as Don invited Peggy to slow dance, in an office that was once his, and that each of them is more qualified to occupy than its current tenant, with both of them filled with so much sadness over the way they've lived their lives and the lonely, unfulfilled place it's brought them to, I realized that even as I am not ready for "Mad Men" to go away — not after one more episode airs this year, and certainly not after the remaining seven episodes air next year — if Weiner had decided that this was, in fact, the place where he was going to bring the series to an end... dayenu.
Obviously, he decided at some point over the years that he had more on his mind than "My Way," and there is still story to tell about Don, Peggy, Joan and the rest, but that dance, to that song, was such a perfect distillation of everything that has made "Mad Men" so great for so long — even here, at this advanced age, when there are so many newer, shinier shows to consider, in the same way that Sinatra seemed terribly old-fashioned with the rise of the counter-culture. Like the long night Don and Peggy spent in that office in "The Suitcase," it's a great breakthrough in their relationship, and one that acknowledges all the horrible things they've been through together, and the bad ways they've treated each other at times (mainly Don, but more recently Peggy), only here it finds each of them in a sadder place. They're four years older, and wiser, and more aware of the mistakes that they've made, the people they've hurt and discarded along the way, and more aware of how much further away they're getting from the people they wanted to be when this all started. Every other relationship in their lives has been terribly damaged, if not wrecked altogether, and yet here they still have each other: the pants-wetting impostor who acts the bully when things aren't working out for him, and the revolutionary woman who still can't quite get the men around her to see her as something other than a dog playing the piano. Despite the age gap, neither is a part of the counter-culture the Baby Boomers are swept up in, and if Sinatra isn't quite Peggy's music, he sure as hell is Don's. And so they dance in a way that is incredibly intimate without ever being romantic — because the two of them feeling that way for each other would make life much too easy (or else unbearably difficult) — and they reflect on how doing it their way has brought them to this point, and he is happy, and then sad, and she is the reverse, but they are together, and it is beautiful, and if the show had ended with that shot of them moving slowly together, framed in the doorway of Lou's office, I don't know that I would have ever needed to see another second of "Mad Men."
And just as Ol' Blue Eyes and his collaborators were able to reach down deep and produce something like "My Way" — which, even if he reportedly didn't love it, would become his signature song — the "Mad Men" team (here represented out front by Semi Chellas' script and Phil Abraham's direction) can still give us an episode like "The Strategy," which offered not one but two perfect potential end points for the series(*), was packed with humor and pathos, intrigue and beauty, not only evoking the show at its peak, but in some ways surpassing it because the emotions are all building on what's happened before. Even in the days of the long-haired, unwashed musical invaders from Britain, Sinatra could still remind everyone why he was the Chairman of the Board; even in the age of "True Detective" and "Orange Is the New Black" and all these other descendants of the revolution Weiner helped start with "The Sopranos," "Mad Men" is still capable of being "Mad Men."
(*) "Mad Men" is not structured like "Breaking Bad," and I'm not expecting a moment at the end of next week's episode akin to Hank on the toilet. But I do wonder if Weiner might, like Vince Gilligan, have multiple kinds of endings in mind, which he plans to deploy at various points between now and the actual finale.
This has been a bumpy season at times, but the show, like its self-destructive protagonist, is still capable of greatness when it follows Freddy Rumsen's advice and focuses on the work. There's a lot of personal material in "The Strategy," but it's all beautifully intertwined with the campaign Peggy and Don are working on. Over the course of the hour, we go from field research to finished idea, and Peggy's concluding pitch speaks not only to the unconventional family she and Don and Pete represent — with all their shared history and secrets and losses (including a baby who could have turned Peggy into the harried mom trying to get home with a sackful of burgers) — but to the flimsy or illusory nature of the other families presented throughout the hour. They may not always understand or even like one another, but there's a bond between these three that runs deeper and stronger than the sham marriage Bob proposes to Joan, or the marriage Pete still has on paper with Trudy, or the one Don and Megan are constantly trying to repair.