I wasn’t sure what to expect from the third-season finale of Mad Men. I know I didn’t expect the equivalent of the second season Alias episode “Phase One,” which in a tight, exciting hour essentially wrapped up all old business and created a new status quo. In fact, if you’d told me that going in, I doubt I would have believed you. It’s a bold move even by the standards of this series, which has never been short on bold moves.
And it’s the opposite of how I expected the season to end, how I’d been conditioned to expect most episodes of the show to end: on a down note. In fact, we seemed to be heading toward a bleak ending from the start, as Connie lays cards on the table in light of the coming Sterling Cooper sale. The ending writes itself: The consequences of signing a contract catch up with Don as he becomes a slave to the same system that killed his father. (Well, that and the horse. And the whiskey.) Except that’s not what we got. As Roy Orbison sang “Shahdaroba” with its lines about forgetting the past and facing the future, the refugees of Sterling Cooper were starting over, beginning a new business at the dawn of a new era.
It was quite thrilling, really. As tension mounted, everyone let their guard down. Don’s forced to deal directly with Roger and discovers there’s still friendship there. Peggy finally tells Don how she’s really feeling. (Like a nervous poodle, for the record.) Pete stops weaseling around; heartened by Don and Roger needing him, he rises to the occasion. In the end everyone summons their best selves at the chance to start over. (And then Trudy shows up with sandwiches and cake.)
It helps that these are characters in desperate need of a fresh start. Bert knows PPL’s sale means that he’ll be put out to graze. Lane grapples with the knowledge that his London masters rewarded his hard work by cutting him loose to fend for himself. Harry already saw his future: Chain smoking in some back room until he dies as soap operas flicker behind him. However terrifying it might be to cast security aside, joining the fledgling Sterling Cooper Draper Price finds Crane writing himself a different fate. (Ditto Joan, who gets a hell of an entrance this episode.)
And then there’s Don. Most of the business not concerning the Sterling Cooper revolution involved Don’s divorce from Betty. Remember that haunting image from the first season of Betty poised with a gun? Tonight she pulled the trigger, demanding a divorce and opting for a life with Henry Francis. Don doesn’t want to give up without a fight, leading to two ugly scenes—his drunken confrontation and the telling-the-kids moment—and one remarkably sad one when he surrenders. However doomed their relationship has been from the start, the sight of it finally unraveling remains upsetting. And consider how much everything changed since the first season, when Don could send Betty to a therapist and get updates on the sly. Now she’s in charge, making demands, backing Don down, and offering only this assurance: “You’ll always be their father.” Don’s scarcely able to contain himself as he says goodbye to her for, presumably, the last time as her husband. Betty appears, as usual, unmoved.
We shouldn’t leave the episode, or the season, without talking about Don’s two scenes with Peggy as he tries to lure her away. The first is a hard sell and it doesn’t work. Then he shows up at her door, hat literally in hand, for a professional seduction. It’s a pitch. Don’s rarely not pitching. But it feels like it’s from the heart. Then there’s this:
There are people out there who buy things. People like you and me. And something happened. Something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves is gone. And nobody understands that. But you do.
We’re at the end of 1963. The cracks have been there for a while—the murders of civil rights workers, the troubles in Vietnam, post-beatnik/pre-hippie bohemians digging on Sketches Of Spain—but the Kennedy assassination delivered the shattering blow. The times aren’t changing. They’ve changed, even if not everyone has noticed.
That’s true in the world at large and in the profession Don and Peggy share. There is no Sterling Cooper anymore; at Sterling Cooper Draper Price business will be done differently. At least for now. The past has a way of not letting go. We’ve seen that in this show repeatedly; Don can start over but Dick Whitman doesn’t die. Betty, the kids, and the ghost of the life he had will always haunt Don, no matter how exciting the chance to start over. Yet again. And the past’s persistence is an overarching theme for the show. We watch Mad Men to see the ghosts of the recent past struggling to find their way through a world recognizable as the precursor to the one we live in now. The old order is no more. The future holds exciting possibilities but also terrifying new ways to get lost, whether you’re a bright young ad exec with a fresh way of seeing things or a newly single man of the world seizing the reins at last.
There’s the down note I was looking for. Shahdaroba until next season.
• Lots of loose ends still, no? Duck for one.
• And Sal, who would fit right in to SCDP if they didn’t depend on that American Tobacco money.
• And Ken. And Paul, who appeared especially pissed to be left behind.
• And to a lesser extent, Lois, Allison, Hildy, Olive, Smitty, etc.
• I can’t imagine we’ve seen the last of all of them, especially Sal, Ken, and Paul. Yet I’m having a hard time picturing where they fit in. So too with Betty and the kids — removed from Don’s daily life, they seem likely to become satellites to the show’s main action. But who knows? I’m not going to try and second guess Matthew Weiner. He made that a losing game around the same time we figured out why Peggy had put on all that weight.
• Jai-alai gets mentioned twice. So that’s still going on.