Open the Pod Bay Doors, Hal: Mad Men Mid-Season Finale

by Max Sparber in


Mad Men has reached its end, almost. For peculiar reasons that even show creator Matthew Weiner can’t clearly articulate, they have split their final season into two seasons, and so Sunday night’s climax was, strictly speaking, the midpoint.

Nonetheless, it worked fine. We have long seasons in America, while British shows, where they call them “series” instead of “seasons,” are relatively abbreviated and often more like an American miniseries, with an overarching storyline that straddled the season. This felt like that. Set in 1969, one of the most turbulent years in American history, the show itself was about turbulence, symbolized in a series of airplane flights.

I don’t wish to simply recap the season, so let me offer, in list form, some of what stood out in the show for me:

1. With the midseason finale, which ended with a song and dance number from Bert Cooper, the show finally admitted what I have long suspected: It is secretly a sequel to the 1961 Broadway musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” That production told the story of an unscrupulous businessman with a questionable path who rises through a thicket of office politics but is eventually humanized by love, which would be the “Mad Men” story, except that Don Draper, the main character of “Mad Men,” isn’t all that good at love. “How to Succeed” starred Robert Morse, the actor who played Bert Cooper, and the whole song and dance number was very Fosse.

2. One of the big events of 1969 was the Stonewall riots, and it wasn’t mentioned in “Mad Men,” but didn’t need to be. Last season the show slowly revealed that the charming, ambitious Bob Benson is gay, and he has been away this whole season, but for one episode in which he returned with an ill-considered marriage proposal. He also brought a friend from Detroit who mistakenly hit on a policeman and wound up badly beaten and locked up, and the two shared a pained, coded, but exceptionally intimate discussion about how common this sort of thing really is. For those paying close attention to the chronology of the show, this episode happened the weekend before Stonewall.

3. Pete Campbell, who, for seasons, has been a fascinating but insufferable expression of tantruming privilege, settled comfortably this season into being an almost purely comical character. It’s a surprising turn – after all, he had been a lout and a cad, but also one of the show’s few voices of progressivism. But it works, thanks to the fact that actor Vincent Kartheiser is so at-ease with the character’s most awkward preppy affectations, including dated slang, simmering pomposity, and magnificently batty cries of frustration. He’s always been one of the show’s more complicated foils, and it turns out he’s a terrific comic foil.

 4. The most important relationship in the show has been the one between Don Draper and his former protégé Peggy Olson, and the show has watched her concurrent rise as it paralleled Draper’s frequent falls. For a show that began with a relentless critique of the widespread misogyny of the early 60s, where women were helpmeets, wives, or sexual objects, it’s significant that Draper and Olson’s relationship has never been romantic (in fact, he once chastised her with the words “I’m not your boyfriend.”) The final episode of the half-season had Draper turning the reins completely over to Olson, primarily as a response to an office turmoil where she would benefit from a public success; this was an entirely unselfish act of Draper’s part. More significantly, Draper didn’t make her success possible. Instead, it happened because he got out of her way.

 We’re still in a time when women are seen as helpers, spouses, and sex partners. The fact that this show created such a long storyline where Peggy Olson was none of these things to Draper, and that it culminated, not with him rescuing her, but instead with him realizing he was in the way of her success, is worth noting.

 5. 1968 was also the year “2001: A Space Odyssey” came out, and the show frequently referenced it, most strangely in copywriter Michael Ginsberg’s paraphrase of astronaut Bowman’s final line from the film, “My God, it’s full of stars.” Lugging an unwanted sofa to his office, Ginsberg complains about the one it’s replacing: “It’s full of farts!”

 As it turns out, “2001” is the background noise of Ginsberg cracking up, which he does suddenly and traumatically, with an act of self-mutilation that may be the show’s greatest shock. Ginsberg’s paranoid schizophrenia was trigger by the instillation of a large computer, and he has a HAL-like meltdown as a result, with one scene, in which he watches the lips of two men speaking behind glass, exactly duplicating HAL’s p.o.v. shot from the film. In “2001,” the humans were strangely expressionless, moving forward to a new stage of evolution in which they no longer need machines to reach the stars, and it is the machines that have become the fragile, temperamental, easily broken things that humanity leaves behind.

 “Mad Men” is not set in that world. The computer is just a computer. It is people who are fragile, temperamental, and ultimately broken.

Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a historian, playwright, and critic. Follow him on Twitter or email him with your arts events at maxsparber@gmail.com.

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