Monday, May 18, 2015

"Mad Men" Watch: A wistful but fond farewell to all our friends -- and what it was like watching the finale as part of an audience

What's this? Peggy and Stan? This kiss from 2013
wasn't serious, but last night was a different story.

by Ken

Although it was past 12:30 this morning by the time I got home from my real-time big-screen viewing of the Mad Men finale at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, I still did what I suspected I was going to do: watch the whole episode again via DVR. Partly to see the whole episode again, partly to pick up lines I'd missed at the screening, and partly to see how differently the thing played in my living room, as opposed to that theaterful of buoyant Mad Men fans.

The answer to that last question is that it played very differently indeed. There were probably a hundred moments large and small where the audience's involvement changed the way we as a group experienced unfolding events.

Take that wonderful scene when Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), about to begin his new life with his big-time new job and his reunited family, arrives to pick up Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) in her office for their lunch, and are eventually joined by the third member of their party, Harry Crane (Rich Sommer), who professes to be mortally wounded by the news that Peggy can't make lunch but clearly is more concerned but getting to lunch and is only mollified when Pete offers him the tin of cookies baked by Sarah (do I remember who Sarah is? not really), his only remaining farewell swag after he's fobbed the baby cactus off on Peggy on the ground that "I have a five-year-old" -- as one once again does. (Yes!) And Harry, as he leaves Peggy's office, immediately opens the tin to take a cookie. At home this was an amusing moment; at the museum it had gotten a major audience-wide laugh.

Or there was the moment after the McCann-Erickson traffic meeting when our Peggy surprised the heck out of everyone by standing up to that Lorraine bitch (Francesca Ferrara) and demanding to know why the Chevalier account had been taken away from her and Stan Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson), her long-time artist colleague. Stan cringed; the audience cheered. Peggy pursued her case; the bitch Lorraine caved; and the audience went wild! And so it went all through the episode. Can you imagine the way the audience took in the phone call between Stan and Peggy as it took its unexpected turn? I expect I'll be rewatching the episode a number of times in the years to come, and when I do, the experience I expect to recall is the viewing-with-audience.


It doesn't seem likely that we'll stop talking anytime soon about the fraught and enigmatic wind-up David Chase and Co. crafted for The Sopranos. And when Vince Gilligan and his team brought Breaking Bad to a close, there was still so much mess to be brought to a climax and then sorted out that a thrill-a-minute finale was all but mandated.

By those standards I don't think last night's Mad Men finale is going to be remembered as an event for the ages. It's worth remembering that series creator-mastermind Matthew Weiner was at the table for the end of The Sopranos finale, and has certainly had ample opportunity to contemplate that path, and it's not the one he chose.

It's not that Matt doesn't know how to stage a spectacular farewell. Consider the mind-blowing song and dance he conjured to say sayonara to Bert Cooper (and Bobby Morse) in "the first half of Season 7." But the show's grand finale he seems to have chosen instead to take care of business, and I'd be surprised it there are Mad Men fans who are unhappy with the way the show reached its conclusion.

For one thing, having dropped the bombshell of Betty Francis's impending demise in the next-to-last episode, he had no disasters lurking up his creative sleeve. Oh, there was certainly disappointment for Joan in the unwillingness of her splendid swain Richard (Bruce Greenwood) to stand by while she launches her business. Joan may have imagined that she could handle both the relationship and the new business, but I think Richard was being utterly reasonable in insisting that she couldn't, that not only would the business seriously diminish her availability for the new life he was imagining for them, but that at every turn, anytime the business needed her attention, it would take precedence. As Richard knew only too well, how else do you get a new business going?

Besides, did viewers imagine that the writers could create a man we would believe could really be worthy of Joan? I still count her "fate" a solid win, for the wonderful way her new business venture animated her? Especially as a pushback to the appalling treatment she had received at McCann-Erickson, which was not only so personally abusive but such a monstrous waste of her limitless capabilities, which after all even Sterling Cooper had made such modest use of. It's horrible to think of Joan never enjoying the relationship she deserves, but Joan having a shot at achieving personal fulfillment -- that counts for something.

And it counts for something even if she's not going to have Peggy as a partner. Which is probably the right choice for Peggy, who needs to fight her way through to what she can accomplish at McCann-Erickson in order to rise to the heights both Pete and Stan insist on predicting for her -- predictions she herself is scarcely able to hear. But that doesn't stop Joan. As we hear when her new employee answers the phone, Joan even fulfills her perceived need to have two names for her company, to make it sound more solid -- even if both names in Holloway Harris happen to be her own!

There's so much I could talk about, but the best way I can pay tribute to Matthew Weiner's stewardship of this remarkable set of characters he and his team created is by looking a little more at those two great scenes between Peggy and Stan -- first the one in her office which ends so disastrously, and then the one on the phone which ends so well. I thought it was fantastic the way Stan on the phone was able to explain to Peggy be who he wants to be in talking to her in person and how different it is when he then talks to her on the phone, and finds himself talking to the person he'd hoped to be talking to to begin with.

Which sent me, at least, thinking back to all those phone conversations the two of them shared, not just when they were working together but while Peggy had left Sterling Cooper. Aren't these the only times we've seen Peggy truly at ease with herself and with someone she's talking to, relaxed and engaged and funny and silly. Then when Peggy finally recovers from her astonishment over Stan's audacious declaration that he likes her (I imagine that the length of those pauses before each time she said "What?" were the subject of considerable discussion in the editing room), she tells him -- and this too rings totally true for viewers -- that those phone calls were always precious to her because he was always right.

As much as we're accustomed to thinking of phone relationships as limited and in important ways artificial by comparison with real interpersonal contacts, we get to see that for Peggy and Stan the opposite has been true: Their "real" relationship has been in the phone calls. And at that moment during this phone conversation when Stan burst into Peggy's office and did, you know, what he did, and as you can imagine the audience at the museum went into sheer pandemonium, that was also the truth of the moment. I'm sorry you couldn't have been there.

Still, I'm sure that all audience-deprived home viewers got the basic message: that over this past decade Matthew W and his people have given us this wonderful bunch of characters and then treated them with fantastic imagination, yes, but also with scrupulous respect. Thanks, guys.


Amid last night's festivities, MoMI Chief Curator David Schwartz delivered a welcome piece of news: that the amazing Mad Men exhibition the museum put on, which was scheduled to run through June, has by popular demand been extended through Labor Day. I'm grateful for the opportunity for all those additional re-viewings I hope to get in over the summer, because the material is so broad and deep that it really requires a kind of attention that's hard to muster in just a few viewings.

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