Fitting, sorta, that the protagonist in Mad Men‘s midseason finale was the Moon.
Not Don. Or Roger, Pete, Ted, Betty, Sally, Joan, Peggy, or even the damn computer. They all had climaxing storylines, each and every one of them. That really was remarkable by the way, how every character you’ve watched for seven years suddenly did the one thing you’ve waited for them to do. Roger took the lead, Don made the turn from monarch to mentor, Joan made a million bucks, Pete got to sit in a big boy’s chair and actually earned it, Ted found happiness somewhere and somehow, Sally became a man-eater, Betty is actually a decent human being, and Peggy not only owned a boardroom but made Don proud of her all in one, fluid, poetic motion. And the computer kept chugging along like the elephant in the room it still is, 45 years later and in real life.
And, of course, there was Robert Morse and his character, the elder statesman Bert Cooper… who died.
But the Moon finally became the Moon.
Mad Men has alluded to it before, but only slightly – remember when Conrad Hilton asked Don for the Moon and he failed to deliver? It’s always been there on the show’s horizon though, because we knew it historically had to be. Looking back, especially if you were born in the 80’s or 90’s like me, the Moon landing and Apollo 11 has always seemed like the final event of that rich and colourful decade. It was the final cinematic act of 1969, put in motion by John Kennedy a full nine years earlier in 1960 – that was when the show began, of course, and that Season 3 episode where Kennedy was off’d in November, 1963 was the series’ most powerful and expected historical parallel to this point, until last night.
That has always been Mad Men‘s greatest strength, and props to Matthew Weiner for that… the ability to mesh real history with fiction is a tricky thing to pull off.
You need to make it important and effective, even though we all know how it ends. You can’t do a show about the 60’s without turning people like JFK or Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. or Muhammad Ali or The Beatles into major characters. You have to bring ’em up, but you still have to surprise us, as well. You don’t want to toss your show’s dignity aside, at the same time, because you don’t want to let history dictate your script. You need to tell a 50-year-old tale like it’s happening today – like you remember exactly what you felt and thought on September 11, 2001, when that whole thing was so new, before you didn’t know we’d never know enough to prevent a war, before there was ever a Black President, and before everything that now seems like it’s been around forever was even a glint in a textbook’s eye.
When Mad Men started, I was already looking ahead to Season 3. “I wonder how they’ll do the Kennedy assassination,” I thought. And then I jumped six years past that, to the Moon landing. Imagine that – starting with an event that made an icon out of Walter Cronkite, and then leap-frogging to a moment that had him anchor it as a veteran. He was an institution in 1969, really.
Of course, the space mission wasn’t the last thing that happened in 1969. It gets pretty dark afterwards. We know about the Manson murders, for one, and the show’s conspiracy theorists have already tried to wrap Megan Draper into that plot.
But that was the 60’s. You’ve got war mixed with protest, combed and cropped haircuts fuzed with sideburns, hippie communes and Woodstock and Hendrix co-existing with the arrival of the Super Bowl and IBM’s machines and Sinatra, who’s still very alive and certainly ticking. It was a decade of contradiction, but so much more. Because it also paved the road for everything we have and are used to now. Although humans definitely screwed it up along the way – I’d consider the 70’s and the 80’s forgettable experiments, and the 90’s was a crater.
The Moon landing was mind-blowing. You saw that on Sunday night, if you didn’t know it already.
But the episode’s final scene – with Morse as Bert’s ghost, singing and dancing through a performance of “The Best Things in Life Are Free” – was a sober reminder, not just a send-off. Don Draper has completed a modest, earned return to prominence, the agency is about to be sold for the largest value it could command, everyone is keeping their jobs (delaying the computer’s destruction by at least six months), and man has landed on the Moon.
But where do you go from there?
A year after Neil Armstrong made that giant leap for mankind, Jim Lovell and his Apollo 13 crew crash-landed back to Earth after a disastrous mission. Since then, we’ve put robots on Mars and we’ve done a lot of stuff. We’ve taken all the guts of that IBM computer and we’ve put exponentially more power into tiny cellphones that fit inside half your jeans’ pocket, along with your car keys and that condom you still haven’t used.
But then we got bored. We’d already been to the moon… what the hell should we do now?
For the characters, everything has changed between 1960 and 1969. But everything’s remained the same, too.
Don has more money, but Don has always had money. Since the show started, anyway. Suddenly – after Bert’s chorus – he’s hit with that helpless feeling, the same one Ted was struggling with when he decided to cut his little Cessna’s engine and freak the poop out of a couple Sunkist executives.
Everything great is either behind you or it’s just repeating itself.
Roger has grown up and his hair is still silver, but he’s just as lonely. He’s just more comfortable being lonely now.
Joan and Pete are both gonna get big cheques, but they’ll still be scheming and they’ll still be pissed off at somebody for something. They’re not on the other side of 40 or 50 yet, so they still have some climbing to do. Maybe they’re at a higher rung now than they were then, but they’re still on the ladder.
And what about Peggy? Well, she just became Don. And Sally? She’s Betty now.
If Mad Men has made anything clear, it’s that sometimes change is overrated. And you can’t force it, either. It’s okay to just glide along sometimes. It’s okay to let stuff come to you, to let everything play out like it’s going to.
None of these characters – Don, Bert, or Roger – knew Kennedy would even be elected when Mad Men started, nevermind that both he and his brother would be gunned down five years apart by 1968. At the start of Season 5, Madison Avenue suits are launching water bombs at African American civil rights protestors. Not long after, the entire country – black, white, etc – is mourning over the murder of MLK. Now, you’d feel guilty even calling civil rights campaigners protestors.
In Season 2, the entire office at Sterling Cooper is captivated by an American Airlines crash. Last night, they were watching an American flag planted in the Moon.
Bert Cooper was the picture of that ethically extinct, white, stuffy, pre-World War II breed. But then he also wore colourful socks, worshipped some sort of Japanese Zen-like interior decoration, and he went out with a musical number.
But of course, again, the emotions were the same. Don’s just as sad… he just doesn’t have a family to torture now. Remember when Sal, a closeted homosexual, was fired because he refused to let another man – a client, Lee Garner Jr of Lucky Strike cigarettes – take advantage of him? Well, all this time later, even as homosexuality is proudly flaunted by musicians and hipsters at Megan Draper’s psychedelic parties, we have Bob Benson… he’s also gay and, like Sal, he’s looking for a wife. He wants Joan to marry him so he can climb the ladder at Buick, because General Motors likes their executives a certain way, he says. And he’s certainly right.
Everything about Mad Men has been perfect so far, from the first scene where Don Draper was sitting in a bar scribbling down notes to the final ones, with Don slouching away another few million dollars richer and with Cooper getting the office’s white floors all greasy with his sweaty dress socks.
But it’s been perfect because it’s been honest.
Matthew Weiner’s creation has made statements but it hasn’t taken a side. Every character either has a flaw or a secret, and whatever one of those they have, they have several.
When it ends, I can’t imagine it will go out with some sort of heavy-hitting inevitable shootout like Breaking Bad did and it won’t just cut sharply to black like The Sopranos. It won’t be as foolish and as careless with its reputation as Seinfeld was, because showrunners have learned a thing or two since 1998. Plus, Mad Men doesn’t have a laugh track.
The show will fade out because the decade fades out, and we won’t know what happens to Don or Roger or Peggy because we don’t know what will happen to any of us tomorrow, either.
No games. No sales pitches, ironically. Just a conveyor belt of credits and a good song.
When you’ve already been to the Moon, the only place you can go is back to work.