With the third season of “Mad Men” having come to its glorious conclusion, it’s out with the old and in with the new. In “Shut the Door. Have a Seat,” Don Draper lost everything familiar and came out on the other side bruised but chastened, down but not out, surrounded by associates yet more determined than ever to reestablish family. If Season 3 was about knocking Don down to size (and then ultimately to the ground), this season finale was about him starting to pick himself up again.
[Full recap of Sunday (Nov. 8) night’s “Mad Men” season finale after the break…]
Unlike many episodes of “Mad Men” in which tone dominates action, tonight’s finale was chock full of action. As such, tonight’s edition focuses less on carefully arranging the pieces and more on razing the whole elaborate construction down to the ground. And thank God Matthew Weiner realized the stale nature of the show long before its audience did: the repetitious, humorous use of “Again?” is describing the second sale of Sterling Cooper metatheatrically emphasized that the show was already going back to that well once again in order to break new ground.
The introduction of Conrad Hilton during this season’s third episode not only injected a real-life titan into the show’s narrative, but proved a useful tool in allowing Don the chance to undercut/sidestep the second sale of the company. Realizing they didn’t have the capital to actually outbid McCann-Erickson, they used Connie’s insider information to hastily construct Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, an agency born of Don’s desire for freedom from his contract, Roger and Bert’s desire to once again matter, and Lane’s desire to be more than a fussy British stereotype. (If I could compare Lane Pryce’s reaction to getting fired to any other performance in pop culture history, it would be M-O from “Wall-E” giggling maniacally as it stepped off the guided line for the first time. Simply delightful.)
These four men realized they couldn’t actually start up a company on their own, so it was on to hire a skeletal crew to keep them together. In doing so, Don had to repair two fractured relationships. In both cases, he had to eat a heaping help of crow. In terms of Pete Campbell, he had to give the speech that Pete longed to hear from his one-time nemesis and long-time idol. Don correctly and astutely pointed out something many viewers had noticed all year: Pete’s incredibly attuned to the next big thing. His attitudes both technological and ethnic issues were outside the mainstream of both America and Sterling Cooper, but vital for a small company looking for niche markets to nimbly exploit.
As far as Peggy goes…well, let’s face it: Don deserved that verbal smackdown in his office. Taking her for granted in much the same way he’s taken Betty for granted, he sat there stunned, as she venomously spit out everything she’s been holding back all season. “Everyone thinks you do all my work. Even you,” she spews. It’s only later, when he visits her apartment, that he sways her. I’m going to lay the whole speech out for you, since it’s vital to understanding the theme of both this season and the potential groundwork for the next few.
“There are people out there who buy things. Like you and me. Then something happened. Something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves is gone. And nobody understands that. But you do. And that’s very valuable. With or without you, I’m moving on. And I don’t know if I can do it alone. Will you help me?”
Even if Matthew Weiner claims that he did not plan to deal with the JFK assassination in this season, it seems impossible now to think that he did not inject that particular historical moment at that particular time without careful consideration. In Don’s pleas to both Pete and Peggy was this implicit message: “Our time is over. Yours has begun. Help us through it.” While the senior partners might have certain business skills and important relationships, what they lack are the proper personal perspectives by which to navigate the new world they find themselves in. There’s humility as well as empathy wrapped up in Don’s admission, two qualities not usually associated with him.
It’s important to realize that Don had a choice to make in the moments after his meeting with Connie. As a consummate loner constantly surrounded by people, he could have taken the lone wolf approach towards finding a way out of Sterling Cooper’s second sale. He could have taken the approach of his father, who opted out of a farmer’s collective only to have his temple meet a horse’s hoof one stormy night. Rather than die alone, either as a faceless office drone or a divorced man, he’s chosen to fashion a type of modern-day collective that he himself will have a hand in shaping. A mixture of the old, the young, and the Joan, happily reunited with the gang as the glue that will keep the whole operation running out of the Pierre Hotel. (Don’s casual statement of, “Joan. What a good idea!” might be my favorite line ever that didn’t involve the dismembering of a limb via riding lawn mower.)
Of course, while that makeshift family has come together, his honest-to-goodness one has now disintegrated. In the weeks after Kennedy’s death, Don’s been sleeping in Grandpa Gene’s old room, with Baby Gene now sleeping in the master bedroom. Betty decides to go through with the divorce, although the options are less than appealing. (Short of adultery or sucker punching a nun, it seems pretty damn impossible to secure a divorce in New York.) She wants “whatever [she’s] entitled to,” in terms of a settlement, but her attitude in her lawyer’s office comes off quite childish in relation to the reality of the situation. That room, much like Henry’s office, does not resemble a fainting couch.
But if Betty acts childish about the divorce, Don acts downright terrifying upon learning about Henry through a drunken Sterling’s slip of the tongue. It’s the type of indignation only hypocrites get to enjoy, as he mixes both righteousness and self-loathing into his drunken prodding and pushing of his wife. When asked why he cares so much about Henry, he angrily replies, “Because you’re good…and everyone else in the world is BAD.” It’s a bit of that Jackie/Marilyn debate all over again, with the virgin clashing with the whore (a word Don managed to call the mother of his three children in this conversation). But as much as he lashes out at her, he’s lashing out at himself, seeing in her relationship with Henry those with which he’s littered the streets: Midge Daniels, Rachel Menken, Bobbie Barrett, Suzanne Farrell.
But that spell gets broken when Baby Gene starts to cry, and the supposed “whore” turns back into the wronged mother of his three children. When we see Don beaming at the familial aspect of his newly formed company in the Pierre Hotel, we’re not meant to see a man content with his life. I defy anyone that’s been through a scene like the one in the Drapers’ living room to come out on the other side OK from that in the near future. (Bobby’s “Why are we in the living room?” was all the more heartbreaking for its irony as Betty ushered her children into the end of their own personal era.) But just as Don realizes his own business shortcomings in this episode, he finally comes to grips with his failures as a father and a husband.
Throughout most of the first three seasons, Don Draper has been in Sterling Cooper while simultaneously outside of it. Sans contract, he could enjoy a corner office with the illusion of freedom. On the domestic front, he could largely enjoy a nominally “good” home life while also conducting affairs on the side. In the latter half of Season 3, however, he was shackled not only by the contract enforced by Connie and Bert, but his increasing disillusion with his home life. Miss Farrell turned into the manifestation of all that he lost on the way from young Dick Whitman into increasingly old Don Draper, a model of purity of purpose that was no longer part of his life. The exposure of his past to Betty could have actually been the balm that saved their marriage, but in the world of President Lyndon B. Johnson, that was simply not an option anymore.
To put his personal life into business terms (as Don would undoubtedly do), he realizes that while he’s good with the creative side, he’s not so good with account management. In other words: he admits he’s not a people person. Bad enough when trying to sustain a multimillion dollar account, but downright deadly when trying to sustain a marriage. While Don knows he knows only certain parts of business, he recognizes that he knows nothing about how to keep his family happy. Providing for them economically has only sent his children into hysterics and his wife into a 6-week sojourn to Reno. So Don, in his much calmer call to Betty before her departure, states that he won’t fight the divorce.
But in the warm smile that follows, it seems that with Don’s fear of losing everything having come to fruition, he’s now freed from that terror’s group and emerged, for the first time in ages, free. Rather than take his father’s path, he embraced those around him at Sterling Cooper while there was still time. His conversations with those in the office were marked with everything he never said to Betty when it would have actually mattered. In confronting them with honest and more than a little humility, he salvaged at least one part of his life.
And chances are, he’ll spend the next few seasons repairing the other, much more vital part as well.
I’d like to thank all of that have read my recaps this season, and thank Hitfix for the fantastic opportunity to talk about this incredible show. Let the countdown to Season 4 begin!
With this season now complete, how would you rank this year compared to the past two? And where/when should the show go from here?