Mad Men 4.13 – No, seriously, who IS Don Draper?

A lot of TV critics spent much of last week trying to work out what would come to pass in this season’s final episode of “Mad Men,” but I can honestly say that I didn’t give it too much thought. The most I did, really, was reflect on how the previous season of “Mad Men” ended, which only served to leave me thinking, “Okay, there’s no way the end of Season 4 is going to leave me as excited about next season as the end of Season 3 did.” And I was right: it didn’t…but that doesn’t mean that Matthew Weiner didn’t still do yet another fine job of setting the stage for the series’ next go-round.

Maybe it’s just the cocktails talking, but since this is the season finale, I don’t think there’s any point in going through the episode scene by scene by scene, so let’s just look at the various events that went down, along with their repercussions:

Don and Fay: I think we all knew they were more or less doomed from the moment Don sexed up Megan in his office, but, man, it just got more and more depressing to watch them interact, especially knowing that Fay had basically betrayed her principles for the sake of their relationship. Her speech to him before she headed off on her flight underlined yet again how much she cared about him. I really do think that Don wanted it to work out between them, but as he proved last week with his letter to The New York Times (and, of course, on probably a hundred more occasions in other episodes), he’s a man who does things on impulse, rarely bothering to concern himself with the possible repercussions. I can’t imagine that their final phone conversation will prove to be the last we see of Fay, but if it is, you can’t say she didn’t get the best possible last word, snapping, “I hope she knows you only like the beginnings of things.”

Don and Megan: As soon I saw Don start talking to Megan, I said to my wife, “Oh, God, don’t tell me he’s going to ask her to watch the kids for him…” But, of course, he did. I knew that the fire between them was destined to be rekindled at some point during the trip to California, but, really, did anyone anticipate that it would all go down so fast? Even when Stephanie gave Don the ring, I couldn’t imagine that he and Fay would ever actually make it to the altar, but, Jesus, it never occurred to me that, before episode’s end, the ring would be on Megan’s finger…and, yet, looking back at the episode, it’s very easy to see how Don got so caught up in it all.

First and foremost, Megan loves the kids and the kids love Megan. Don’s initial line when he walks into the room to a French chorus – “You said you didn’t have any experience, but you’re like Maria von Trapp!” – was hilarious, but it still wasn’t as funny as the expressions on the faces of Sally, Bobby, and Don when Megan kept her cool after Sally’s milkshake spillage. On top of that, she’s gorgeous, smart, and respects what Don does, all of which are important qualities. Still, let’s not kid ourselves: it’s the way she handles the kids that seals the deal.

In the midst of post-coital bliss, Megan tells Don, “I know who you are now.” Except she doesn’t. Not really, anyway. But she’ll no doubt find out at some point in the future. Maybe Betty and Fay can fill her in…?

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TV in the 2000s: The Decade in Whedonism – 10 Small Screen Masterpieces from Joss Whedon

Like an awful lot of film and TV geeks, and just plain geeks, I’m a pretty big Joss Whedon fan. In fact, my devotion to his unique blend of fantasy and science fiction melodrama, sometimes arch old-school movie-style witty dialogue blended with Marvel comics repartee, strong characterization, and often somewhat silly plots has at times gotten almost embarrassing. A few years back some of my very adult friends were suggesting in concerned tones that I should really marry the man if I love him so much.

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More recently, I thought my fandom was under relative control. But now, I’ve been asked my opinion on the ten best examples of small-screen work in this decade from the creator and guiding force of “Angel,” “Firefly,” the already canceled “Dollhouse,” and, of course, “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.” I only have to be thankful for the fact that first four seasons of “Buffy,” which contain most of that show’s greatest episodes, are disqualified because they appeared on TV sets before 2000. We take our mercies where we find them. (And, yes, if you’re about to catch up with these on DVD, there are a fair number of spoilers below for the various series, though I’ve tried to keep a few secrets.) One word of warning: my relative ranking of these shows is a matter of mood and borders on the random. In other words — don’t hold me to these choices!

Out of competition:

BTVS, “The Body” (“Buffy, the Vampire Slayer”) – This episode usually ranks extremely high when people make these kind of lists. Entertainment Weekly named it as pretty much the best thing Joss Whedon has ever done and maybe the best TV thing ever. The truth of the matter is that, yes, the episode where Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Geller) discovers the already cold body of her mother, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland, a wonderful asset to the show for the five previous years), dead from an entirely natural brain tumor, was probably one of the most remarkable episodes of television ever shown, and probably the only thing I’ve seen that comes close to capturing the essence of what it feels like when someone dies unexpectedly. The problem was, I didn’t find it depressing; I found it real. I didn’t feel any more like repeating the experience than I would the death of an actual loved one.

Whedon – who wrote and directed the episode himself – deserves all the credit in the world for the brave choices he made, including shooting the episode in close to “real time” and not using any music. If I have one complaint with Whedon, it’s his tendency to close emotional episodes with, dare I say it, somewhat drippy montages. His choice to eliminate music from the kind of “very special” show where other creators would lay in with three or four montages of Joyce frolicking in the woods or what have you, shows Whedon is, at heart, an outstanding filmmaker. I’ve never had a problem with his much-noted tendency to kill off sympathetic and/or popular characters. It might anger some fans, but especially if you’re dealing with inherently violent material, there’s something morally wrong about not dealing with the fact that good people are just as mortal as bad people. Still, I don’t enjoy watching this episode. If this were a movie, maybe I’d be more in awe or eager for profundity. However, if I’m going to be honest, I can’t call “The Body” a favorite and I can’t be sure it’s one of the “best.”

#10, Shiny Happy People (“Angel”) – Fans of the spin-off about Buffy’s ex, the vampire-with-a-soul detective (David Boreanaz), and various assembled demon-hunters and occasionally friendly demons, will be scratching their heads at this choice. It’s an unpopular episode from a widely and justly derided storyline involving a very weird affair between Angel’s unbalanced super-powered teenage son from another dimension, Connor (Vincent Kartheiser, now of “Mad Men“), and a suddenly evil Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), a former high school mean girl turned lovably complex grown-up foil for her vampire boss. And, yeah, it was a little freaky for Cordy to give birth to a fully grown creature called Jasmine.

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However, as played by the wondrous Gina Torres of the then recently-canceled “Firefly,” Jasmine was freaky in a good way. A being whose god-like ability to create an instant sense of peace, happiness, and complete obedience, is somewhat set off by the fact that she’s actually a deformed and decaying, if not entirely evil, monster who must consume people to live, she was every charismatic leader and every great screen beauty rolled into one monstrous ball. More than anything else, “Shiny Happy People” reminded me of Don Siegel’s 1956 film verson of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” It was another believable demonstration of how we humans are only too willing to surrender our our humanity to the first apparently completely beauteous and 100% wise being who comes along. You know, like Oprah, only less powerful.

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Mad Men 3.13 – “Do We Vote or Something?”

DAMN, that was good.

Tonight’s season finale of “Mad Men” was one of those blessing / curse episodes: it took threads from throughout the season, tied them together into a happy ending of cheer-worthy proportions, but just as you start to think, “Oh, man, I can’t wait to see what happens next,” you remember that you’re watching the season finale and that your wait is going to last for the better part of a year.

When we first see Don, he’s a goddamned mess. He looks like crap, he’s been kicked out of his own bed, and even worse, his alarm didn’t go off, leading him to show up late for a meeting with Conrad Hilton. Not exactly the best start to a day, and it only gets worse: Connie drops the bombshell that McCann-Erickson is buying Putnam, Powell & Lowe, and since PPL owns Sterling-Cooper…well, so much for the Draper / Hilton partnership. Given his already rough morning, it’s no surprise that Don quickly descends into mouthing off to Connie about his treatment, leading Hilton to snap back with the suggestion that Don’s being a bit of a whiner. In the end, the two shake hands and depart as…not exactly friends, but still on some semblance of friendliness, at least from a business standpoint.

It’s after this encounter, though, that the ball really starts rolling, and, man, there are some points where you feel like the ball in question is the boulder that chased Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Seriously, this was about as fast-moving an episode of “Mad Men” as I can ever remember. After we have a quick flashback to Don’s childhood, wherein we see that he has some personal experience to abrupt business transitions, Mr. Draper blows into Mr. Cooper’s office and drops on him the bombshell that he’s learned from Hilton. The result, surprisingly enough, is little more than a shrug. (“It makes sense,” says Bert. “All that short-term thinking.”) When Cooper falls back on his “we’ve got a contract” mentality, Don lashes back and suggests that they try and buy Sterling-Cooper back from the Brits, making for an absolutely fantastic back-and-forth between the two of them, delivered with impeccable timing by Jon Hamm and Robert Morse. The buyback isn’t such a bad idea, but, of course, it involves Don and Roger Sterling having to start speaking again, which would seem to lower the odds considerably…and, yet, it doesn’t. Instead, it leads to a reconciliation between the two of them, though not before Morse and John Slattery get their chance to do some verbal sparring, with Cooper offering his “Join or Die” speech and Sterling openly mocking his tactics. Even after returning to speaking terms with Roger, however, Don still can’t catch a break, returning home only to get the word from Betty that she’s moving forward with her plans to divorce him.

The Trio of Power – that’s what I’ve decided to start calling Don, Roger, and Bert – soon reconvene and invite Lane Pryce in for a cup of tea, springing it on him that they know all about the situation with PPL and Sterling-Cooper. He tells them they’re slightly misinformed. Turns out that he’s slightly misinformed, once again getting the shaft from the company to which we’ve consistently seen him giving his all. This time they’ve gone too far, however, and he’s not afraid to let them know it. I gotta tell ya, I almost cheered when Lane began working out specifics with the Trio of Power about a possible partnership. This scene was even more enthralling than the ones which had preceded it, with the Trio more than willing to acknowledge Lane’s worth to them. And as soon as the quartet decided on their new plan of attack – to let Lane fire them and immediately begin working a back-door plan to start their own brand new agency – the tone of the episode officially turned into something not terribly far removed from “Ocean’s 11,” with a “we’re getting the band back together” vibe.

But what do you do when not everybody in the band wants to get back together?

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Mad Men 3.11 – And Who Are YOU Supposed To Be?

First things first: my thanks to Bob Westal for ably filling my shoes last week while I was in the UK. Alas, I was so busy covering the press junket for “Pirate Radio” that I wasn’t able to hunt down the home office of Putnam, Powell, and Lowe. Oh, well, maybe next time…

Betty is packing her bags when the episode begins. Will it prove to be prophetic…? We’ll see, but it certainly doesn’t seem to bode well that A) she and the kids are heading off for a week at her dad’s old place, and B) her last moments with Don involve him…well, not so much lying to her face about his stash o’ cash as unabashedly avoiding giving an answer when she asks if he has any money lying around. But, even so, you can tell she’s still damned well pissed at him, and given all of the confusing information that she’s found out about him through the contents of the drawer, you can’t blame her.

We meet Annabelle Mathis, heiress to a fortune in dog food as a result of her husband’s unfortunately demise at the age of 51…and, boy, the look Roger cut to Don when he was lighting up just as Annabelle was revealing that her husband had died of lung cancer was priceless. Don’s given the opportunity to take a shot at the campaign (apparently, Sterling-Cooper used to have their business, but, per Bert Cooper, “Her father was a son of a bitch”), just so long as he follows two cardinal rules: don’t change the recipe and don’t change the name. What’s the connection between Roger and Annabelle? Well, there was clearly a relationship of some sort back in the day. At first, it sounded like an extra-martial affair, since she asked him if he’s still married, but it’s later revealed that their coupling was quite some time in the past…not that either one of them has forgotten it. It’s to Roger’s credit that, despite the amount of alcohol in his system, he still doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity for post-dinner entertainment that Annabelle offers him.

Speaking of Roger’s extra-marital affairs, Joan is trying to help her husband prepare for job interviews, and in the process, she learns that his father had a nervous breakdown. Somehow, that stands to reason. The next day, she decides to call Roger and, although she won’t ask him for her old job back, she’s not above asking him for assistance in finding a new gig. The two of them have a nice, flirtatious conversation that harks back to earlier seasons, making for one of the most pleasant scenes of the episode, and although it doesn’t entirely pay off for Joan yet, Roger does indeed start making calls on her behalf. Things don’t go nearly as well for Dr. Greg, however, who promptly does an emotional bellyflop during his interview, then comes home and takes his annoyance out on his wife. She, however, responds in turn, clocking him over the head with a vase and leaving him to pick up the resulting broken glass by his damned self. “Oh, shit,” indeed. You go, Joan. But by episode’s end, we’re left wondering if maybe she gave him a concussion, as he returns home to tell her that he’s joined the Army. Just the mention of Vietnam and the throwaway line when he references it, saying, “If that’s still going on…” is a sure sign that he’ll be going over there and probably never coming back.

The dog food test for Calcott Farms goes so horribly bad, with the participants immediately recognizing the name, that Don orders Peggy to turn it off, leading to one of the funniest lines in the episode: “I can’t turn it off. It’s actually happening!” And then…

Oh, but you don’t want to hear any more about this stuff, do you? Let’s get to the real meat and potatoes of the episode: Don and Betty.

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Mad Men 3.3 – The young folks roll on the little cabin floor

Hi, I’m Bob and I’ll be your guest “Mad Men” blogger for today — and what a day it is. We have work masquerading as parties and parties pretending to be work. (Guess which turns out to be more interesting?) We see the hidden talents and proclivities of the ladies and gents of Sterling Cooper as mind altering substances, liquid and herbal, and good and bad behavior of all sorts rules Derby Day, 1963.

“My Old Kentucky Home” opens with a call back to last week‘s totemization of the hotness that was early sixties Ann Margaret, as Peggy Olson supervises an audition with a red-maned lass who claims to have acted in a production of Tartuffe but who sounds like she’s answering the $64,000 question when she says it was written by “Moliere?”  Harry Crane smiles like a loon and tries to ask more about her, but Peggy makes short work of him.

And it’s Peggy we’re going to be spending a good chunk of tonight learning to admire ever more as she realizes that she is a skilled creative, even if Sterling Cooper “hates creatives.” The cause of all that is a last minute assignment to put together material for a new Bacardi campaign, forcing her, pretentious Paul Kinsey and turtlenecked hipster Smitty to work over the weekend as the higher ups, which now include both Pete Campbell and Ken Cosgrove, all attend a swank Derby-themed shindig hosted by Roger Sterling and his new young wife, Jane.

Meanwhile, things aren’t easy on the home front. Not yet retired secretary Joan Harris, nee  Holloway, and her new husband, who, er, raped her last season are getting ready for a dinner party for his MD colleagues. The good news is that not even this psychotic can keep Joan under his thumb. As he fearfully tries to bully her — over table settings — he says angrily that he doesn’t want to have a fight, her answer is succinct: “Then stop talking.”

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Joan is a survivor, no doubt. But before the night is over we learn that her husband may have some potentially serious career problems on top of his obvious violent tendencies — which nevertheless seem under control, just for the present.

Things are only a little less fraught at the home of Don and the now very pregnant Betty Draper. The Drapers are dealing with Betty’s dad, whose slide into dementia seems to be manifesting itself this week as something more like eccentricity, having young Sally read to him from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (which, perhaps fortunately, she doesn’t seem to quite understand).

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