On TV: Optimistic ‘Mad Men’ mid-season finale means they’re all doomed

Season 7, Episode 7: “Waterloo” | Date: May 25, 2014

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) shows up at Peggy Olson’s (Elisabeth Moss) hotel room door. It’s late on July 20, 1969. Men have walked the surface of the moon for the first time. A nation — a world — os gobsmacked.

mad-men-season-7-posterDon isn’t here for that. Word has come from New York. Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) is dead. And Don may well be dead, too. Without Bert, Don cannot survive a partners vote to fire him after his bravado in a meeting with a tobacco company. Don believes his days at the agency he helped found are limited.

So he goes to Peggy. They are in Indianapolis, Indiana, to pitch the fast food chain Burger Chef. The plan was for Don to make the pitch. But if Don makes it and they win, and Don is fired, Burger Chef will move on and Peggy will be left with nothing.

So Don does what we have rarely seen him do before: He acts completely in the interest of another. He saves Peggy. The person about whom Don cares the most is finally and fully revealed: It’s Peggy.

We’ve already seen Roger Sterling (John Slattery) prove Don is his one true friend. Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) is in love with money, or at least the independence and security that money can bring for her and her son.

It’s a beautiful moment for Don. It’s the kind of kind strain that we always wanted to believe was there behind all those cigarettes and underneath the ocean of liquor. It’s an act of love. We’ve heard Don say he loves different people — wives, girlfriends and children — but the declaration often came as an act of desperation.

This moment, though, in a hotel room in Indianapolis, Don gives himself up to help Peggy, the heir to his creative genius.

Peggy, of course, nails the presentation and lands the account. Roger rangles a buyout that appears to end Jim Cutler’s (Harry Hamlin) vengeful efforts to oust Don. Roger, too, seems to see his Grinch-like heart three sizes. Before he died, Bert and Roger had a heart-to-heart. Roger, Bert said, is not a leader.

Roger was hurt, but motivated. He became a leader. He negotiated a deal that saved his friend, saved his company and made himself president. He is a failure as a husband and father, a lover and even as a good man. But maybe just this one thing he can do right.

It was not all bliss. Don and wife Megan (Jessica Paré) finally split in a tearful, but gentle conversation. They were a continent apart even when they were in the same room. Don was unfaithful and she was disconnected. She made Don better, maybe even happy. But Don only has one love: the work.

Peggy, too, struggles with her internal conflict. She learns the neighbor boy, who eats her popsicles and watches her television, is moving away. She cries as the boy hugs her, both for the lost of her surrogate child and for the absence of motherhood and family in her own life. This boy would be about the age of her own son that she gave away so many years ago. Elisabeth Olson handles the scene deftly and with the sublime skill we have come to expect from her in each outing.

The episode also defines what is seldom understood about the first moon landing: People were worried those astronauts were going to die. From the purely selfish standpoint, our ad men realized their deaths would wipe out their chances of winning a big account. But the anxiousness that gripped them is also a metaphor for people on the verge of doing something great: There is always some fear that it won’t work.

Still, the wonderful machinations of these characters in this well-told episode leaves me worried. These are not happy people and not given to happy endings. Seven episodes remain. They’ll be aired in spring 2015.

Too much can happen and these people trend toward sorrow and self-destruction. Again, the moon landing serves as a guide. There are those that would argue all the goodwill, all the hope that moment inspired marked the apex of the American century.

Corporate greed, meaningless wars, social unrest, technological terrors and a general selfishness that drags down and sometimes buries our nation’s altruistic philosophical foundation. In other words, it’s all downhill from here.

That said, if you’re going to write out a character through death, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite as wonderful as Bert Cooper’s final moments in “Waterloo.”

It’s almost enough to give you hope.

Almost.

On TV: Everybody is miserable on ‘Mad Men’ and that’s why it’s perfect

Season 7, Episode 6: “The Strategy” | Date: May 18, 2014

It felt like the good old days with Don (Jon Hamm) and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) working late into the night to get just the right words for a pitch to a client. The sniped at each other, but the supported each other, too.

mad-men-season-7-posterBut there was more to it than that. The audience was shown more than just two advertising creatives pushing slogans. We were shown the world in 1969. Families, Peggy noted, were different. The client was a fast food company. She interviewed moms who felt guilty buying food there.

A Peggy idea: “Maybe the mom is coming home from work?’

Don: “What’s her profession?”

Peggy admonishes Don to look around. He’s surrounded by women who work.

“That’s too sad for a commercial,” he said.

Peggy rants about the state of the American family. She wonders if they really sit down for meals and talk and smile. Don’t they just watch TV like everybody else?

It is hardly the first observation that the image of family in America is not representative of the reality of family. But it is telling just how long the lie of the perfect family has been with us. The season is set in 1969. That means we’ve had at least a half century of Americans try to be something they’re not and probably never were.

Alas, advertising is not about the truth. It is about telling you the lie that makes you feel good enough to buy the thing they are selling. In more modern times, advertising is about making you feel afraid or insecure enough about what you don’t have to keep buying.

Peggy cries a bit when she realizes the desires of her life — being a mom, having a family — conflict with the life she’s made. She recently turned 30. She feels old and lost.

Don, in a rare moment of unguarded self-reflection, says he worries that he’s accomplished nothing and has no one to love him.

These people, these sad, miserable people who fight and drink and smoke and screw — they are us. They may be of another time, but they are as much 21st century as they are mid-20th.

They’re lost and confused and lonely. Just like us. We want them to be happy. We root for Don, even though he’s kind of a jerk. We want him to work it out with Megan (Jessica Paré) and make peace with his monsters.

We want Peggy to be happy, to be content to be sure.

But their raging insecurities, their self-loathing and self-destructive machinations — this is why we love them. They are us.

Happiness comes not in bags from the burger joint or fancy new cars, but in small, brief and tender moments, like Don and Peggy dancing quietly to Sinatra in the one office with the lights on on a dark night before the long day ahead.

On TV: ‘Mad Men: The Monolith’

Season 7, Episode 4: “The Monolith” | Date: May 4, 2014

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is a superhero without a damsel in distress to rescue in “The Monolith,” the fourth episode of the final season of “Mad Men.” And very soon, he may be the champion of an industry that no longer needs him.

mad-men-season-7-posterSC&P, the firm he helped found, went on its merry way for months without him. He forced his way back in, with the help of Roger Sterling (John Slattery). But no one else wants him there. Conniving Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin) tests Don’s mettle by getting him assigned to work under Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), writing taglines for a burger joint campaign.

Don chafes at his low station. He is a creative genius. This work is beneath him. Peggy revels in her power over Don, choosing to summon him to her office and order grunt work from he and a stumbling young copywriter. Don retreats to his office, throws his typewriter and leaves.

Soon he’s breaking the rules of his return, lifting a bottle of booze from Roger’s office and getting drunk in his own. He calls Freddy (Joel Murray) to take in a ballgame at Shea Stadium. Don drunkenly confronts the man installing a computer in the office’s former creative lounge.

The machine symbolizes the death of creativity. It is the artillery brought in to smash the last remnants of art from advertising. The machine will spit out spreadsheets worth of strategies. The age of winging it, of trial and error, of human touch are numbered.

And the non-creative types revel in it. Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) loathes creative. They never respected his strategies for media placement. Don and Roger treated him like a nerdy kid pretending to be one of the cool guys. Now he has the machine. His mathematical god of ones and zeros will make obsolete those expensive, pesky creative types who “write a prose poem to a potato,” as Duck Phillips once said.

Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) has no use for Don. Bert, once a stalwart for quality control, is satisfied with the mediocre creative work produced by Lou (Allan Havey) and his disheartened team. Don is unnecessary, already obsolete in Cooper’s estimation. Don argues he helped found the firm. Cooper notes: “with a dead man whose office you now occupy.”

Joan (Christina Hendricks) colludes with Peggy, revealing that Don is on the shortest of leashes. Don has never been more hated, more alone and more in danger. Everyone wants to see him fail. And his own propensity for self destruction may well manufacture the term.

But there was a glimmer for Don. Freddy, who has become the moral conscious of “Mad Men,” convinces him to get his act together. He pledges to get Peggy the work she is owed. And there’s a cryptic symbol in the form of a battered orange New York Mets pennant.

The pennant belonged to the late Layne Price, who hung himself after embezzling money from the firm. Don finds it while trying to recover a cigarette from under the air conditioning unit. He throws it away. But in the next scene it hangs on the wall.

The year is 1969. The Mets were in their eighth season. The previous seven seasons they finished last in the National League five times and second-to-last twice. But the ’69 Mets pitched their way to a World Series championship. They called them the “Miracle Mets.”

Don could be in last place at present. Does the specter of the Mets’ pennant foreshadow a comeback of miraculous proportions? Or is the sports memorabilia just the talisman of a dead man clutched desperately by a doomed man?

Well, as they say in baseball, it’s a long season.

TV Review: ‘Mad Men: Field Trip’

Season 7, Episode 3: “Field Trip” | Date: April 27, 2014

Mad Men,” it seems, make miserable women. The four lead women each showed different levels of discontent in “Field Trip.”

Betty (January Jones), making her first appearance of the season, lunches with a friend. Betty talks big about rubbing elbows with the Rockefellers, but she becomes jealous of her friend’s successful travel business.

mad-men-season-7-posterBetty responds by going home and volunteering to chaperone a field trip to a dairy farm for son Bobby (Mason Vale Cotton). Betty seems cheerful enough, though she has enough of her trademark snideness to remark on teacher’s dress. Betty gamely drinks milk fresh from the udder from a bucket to impress Bobby.

But the mood turns quickly sour when Bobby trades his mother’s sandwich for gumdrops from a girl in his class. Betty snarls at him and is still grousing about it at dinnertime when husband Henry (Christopher Stanley) returns from work. (Perhaps Bobby’s willingness to forsake his mother’s meal to curry favor with a girl reminded Betty too much of his father, Don (Jon Hamm).)

A teary Betty asks Henry if she’s a good mother. He affirms she is, though the series has provided little evidence of it. She asks, “Then why don’t they love me?” Well, it could be because you are mean and spiteful, given to putting on airs and rarely given to show any tenderness to your offspring. Otherwise, it’s anybody’s guess.

Megan (Jessica Paré) is similarly distressed in Los Angeles. Don gets a call from her agent, who says she’s botching auditions and begging for second chances, coming loose at the ends. Don flies out to see if he can calm her nerves. She greets the surprise visit with sex.

Soon, though, she discovers Don was sent by her agent. Surmising he is having an affair, Don reveals he was put on leave by the firm after Thanksgiving. Megan is crushed that Don chose to stay behind in New York rather than go to L.A. with her. She throws him out of the house.

Of course Don probably paid for that house as well as most of her living expenses, lavish and fashionable wardrobe and fancy sports car. But she prefers to pretend to be a pauper to impress her bohemian and struggling friends in the artistic community. And her confidence as an actress is shaken.

She is right, of course, to feel rejected by Don — even though that was not his intent — and has more reason than she knows to suspect his infidelity. It would be difficult to be married to Don, to be sure.

But Megan, often written as innocent and pure, was just as sly to use Don’s to get a spot in a commercial which led to a breakthrough in a daytime soap opera. He is flawed, but not the horror that Megan seems to see him as.

There is something off with Megan, whether it be deep emotional trouble or a some unrevealed issue. Not all of it can be blamed on Don.

The poor encounter with Megan gets Don serious about returning to work. He receives an offer from a competing firm and takes it to Roger (). Roger manipulates the other partners into deciding whether Don is in or out.

Don shows up on Monday assuming the meeting had already taken place. Each member of creative greets him different level of trepidation, save Ginsberg (Ben Feldman), who enlists his help on accounts with shabby pitches.

Joan (Christina Hendricks), who voted for Don’s ouster, is cold and distance. She seems to harbor ill feelings toward Don for him carelessly discarding Jaguar, the car company Joan had to sleep with an executive to get for the firm, and generally not taking into account his actions’ effects on others in the office.

However, when Roger points out the partners would have to buy him out to fire him, she softens to the idea of his return. Joan is perhaps the best written woman on the cast and her rational, practical approach overrides her initial emotional recoil.

Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), however, is far less forgiving. She spots Don and bluntly says, “I can’t say we’ve missed you.” Don replies dryly, “Thank you, Peggy.”

Peggy seems a mirror of Betty. Peggy is a successful career woman, but seems broken up about her inability to find a meaningful romance and perhaps children. Betty is a mother of three who misses her time as a model and is, at best, disinterested in her kids.

Both have all of one and none of the other and seek a balance that woman of the 21st century workplace still want but struggle to achieve.

“Field Trip” was especially strong in its portrayal of the uncomfortable and awkward return of Don to the office. His anxiety and the anxieties of those around him are well-rendered and palpable. He awaits a decision by his fellow partners like a man facing a capital crime wondering if they’re building gallows in secret.

Finally, he is summoned to the conference room. He may return to work, but he is to report to Lou (Allan Havey), who replaced him as creative director. He must stay on script with clients, never meet with them alone and no drinking around the office.

He will work in Lane’s old office — where Lane famously hung himself, if that isn’t too grim or potentially foreshadowing. The terms seem harsh and emasculating, but Don accepts them with little hesitation.

Don is back in the game. And “Mad Men” suddenly got a lot more interesting.

TV Report: ‘Mad Men: A Day’s Work’

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Season 7, Episode 2: “A Day’s Work” | Original air date: April 20, 2014

Elisabeth Olson shines as Peggy Olson on the brink of collapse in “A Day’s Work,” the second episode of the seventh and final season of the superb AMC drama “Mad Men.”

Peggy is a woman alone. She’s adrift in her own misery. Her former pals from the creative bullpen, Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) and Stan (Jay R. Ferguson), can barely stand to see her. Ginsberg refuses to hold the elevator and makes a crack about her masturbating alone on Valentine’s Day.

Peggy seems incapable of showing any human kindness. She finds flowers on her secretary’s desk. She assumes they’re for her. Stan says, “Look at you being all girl.” She scolds him: “Is this a joke? Because I don’t want to have to fire you later.”

The flowers aren’t for Peggy. They’re for her secretary, who is engaged. Peggy assumes they’re from one-time lover Ted (Kevin Rahm), who ran away to California with his wife to escape a the doom of his marriage rather than continue an affair with Peggy.

Peggy calls Ted and leaves a cryptic message about the flowers to Ted’s secretary. Later, Peggy orders the flowers thrown away. Finally her secretary reveals the flowers were, in fact, for her. Peggy flips out and berates her secretary, saying the assistant flaunts her engagement in order to make others feel small.

Peggy goes into her office. Her face twists in anger and frustration. She has never been lower, even when she denied a pregnancy until its full term. She is lashing out in all directions. She flails in her job. She is completely unmoored and totally unpleasant.

Moss renders it all with great skill. She has always shined in the roll, but her work the last two episodes is especially noteworthy. It is not easy to play the bitch. Ask January Jones, who plays Don’s ex-wife, Betty.

Don (Jon Hamm) is caught in a lie by daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka). She blows off a burial ceremony for the mother of a schoolmate to go shopping in the East Village. She loses her purse. She goes to the office and discovers her dad isn’t in his office. She shows up at Don’s cockroach-riddled apartment.

Don fronts that he was at the office. She knows this isn’t true. But loyal secretary Dawn (Teyonah Parris) calls her boss to warn him Sally was at the office. Don asks: “How could you let me lie to you like that?” Sally: “Because it’s more embarrassing to catch you in the lie.” Don scowls: “So you lie in wait, like your mother?”

At a dinner, Don tries telling the truth to his daughter. They seemed to bond, especially when she reveals she was uncomfortable at the funeral. Don teases Sally that they’re going to run out on the check. Her eyes go wide.

She seems thrilled by the prospect and horrified. Is Dad broke? Then he peels off money to pay. She appears to enjoy the jest. It’s a joke, but also a lie. It seems, as is the case for all of “Mad Men,” that lying isn’t the problem. It’s just which lie you’re being told and how well it’s told to you.

Don remains mysterious. We want to know if he’s doing better, if he’s getting it figured out and being kind with his daughter, faithful to his wife and good at his job. But Don, like all the characters of “Mad Men,” is not going to give us those answers easily, if ever.

There are no heroes in “Mad Men,” only people in various states of decay and agony.

TV Review: ‘Mad Men’ Season 7 premier ‘Time Zones’

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Season 7, Episode 1: “Time Zones” | Original air date: April 13, 2014

“Mad Men” enters its seventh and final season with its characters very much on the edge of collapse.

The drunken, mentally unstable Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is still suspended from his advertising firm, but he’s pitching ideas through Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray), the lovable recovering alcoholic accounts man, in what Rumsen describes as a Cyrano de Bergerac routine.

Don visits estranged wife Megan (Jessica Paré) in Los Angeles, where she appears to be thriving with a spacious house in the hills and a hot rod convertible. She’s uncomfortable being intimate with Don.

She’s even more uncomfortable when he buys her a huge color TV, ostensibly to celebrate her upcoming parts on TV but more likely so he has something better then her tiny black-and-white job to watch when he comes to visit.

Don is still lying to Megan, pretending he’s still a player at the firm, when it’s January he’s been out since Thanksgiving. Don manages to turn down sex offered by a widow he meets on the plane home, but it’s doubtful this rare display of fidelity will last.

Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) is a mess. She’s still seeking approval from her new boss, a fussy mope who wears cardigan sweaters. She doesn’t stand up for a Freddy’s idea for a watch company — which, of course, is actually Don’s idea. But she lashes out at Stan Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson), calling him and the rest of creative “a bunch of hacks.”

Peggy is a landlord now, apparently, with a tenant who speaks a foreign language and has trouble with her toilet. She didn’t move into Don’s job as was seemingly predicted by her over-the-shoulder silhouette at the end of the sixth season.

And she’s still very angry with one-time lover Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm), who chose to move to California with rather than leave his wife and kids for Peggy. We see Peggy on her knees sobbing inside her home, seemingly overwhelmed by the utter lack of joy in her life.

Roger (John Slattery) has fallen into some kind of hedonistic sexual relationship with a woman and another man. His first appearance of the season comes with him nude on the floor, a phone over his genitals, taking a call from his estranged daughter Margaret (Elizabeth Rice).

By the way, God bless, John Slattery. That dude has shown his butt while taking acid in a hotel and all but a full frontal to open this season. Lena Dunham shouldn’t get all the credit for nudity on TV.

She summons her father to brunch, where she suddenly forgives him for all his transgression. Roger is more pissed than heartened and wonders if his daughter has found religion.

Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) is still a colostomy bag with legs and looks the part now more than ever after his transfer to Los Angeles.

Only Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) seems to flourish. An overwhelmed (and one-eyed) Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) hands a struggling shoe company over to Joan to fix. The company wants to leave, but Joan goes to a marketing professor and trades her insights into the advertising account fees for an academic review that will woo the young MBA at the shoe company.

Joan, for the first time, is trading on her brains rather than her boobs — and more importantly, she’s being sought after for that. It must be heartening for her after years of sexism.

It will all end badly, of course, because “Mad Men,” to its great credit, never gives the viewer what it wants. There are no happy endings in this great character study, only varied degrees of crashing and burning.

Morning Mixtape: ‘A Beautiful Mine’ by RJD2 and MC Aceaylone

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What better way to celebrate the return of the classic AMC series “Mad Men” for its final season than a full version of the song that plays over the opening credits. The song is a hip-hop instrumental by RJD2 called “A Beautiful Mine” which comes from the 2006 instrumental version of the album “Magnificent City.” The takeaway here is “Mad Men” is back. Enjoy.