What a long strange trip this season of Mad Men has been. With last night's season finale, the theme of the season, which has been blatantly shoved down the viewers throats, finally came to fruition: Don's a freaking mess and he needs to figure out what in God's name is going on in his life, oh yeah, and he never had a real mother.
This season has had its highs and lows. As a whole, I would give it a B. Compared to stronger seasons, such as the second or third, it felt redundant and disjointed at times. It was often painfully slow, slower than the show's norm, which is already like molasses. I wrote about this half-way through that this has always been "Don's show," but for some reason this season felt like too much Don. There was too much crying over Don's lost youth, his damaged psyche, his mommy issues-turn-women issues, and it got tired. We've seen it before; we've seen his drinking problem before. This season felt like it was lacking fresh Don material.
Where this season shined was when it showed us how the other half lived. Pete Campbell, who has always been vilified by the other characters, and the writers for that matter, was the strongest character of the season, and most likable. His dream of being just like Don has showed him how sad and lonely the bachelor's life can be. He is not Don; he can't have an apartment in the city filled with women and still go home to his loving wife upstate. His wife is stronger than that and Pete is not the Don Juan he thinks he is. Pete got a taste of reality this season. His mother's illness and her subsequent relationship with a gay con artist that culminated in last night's finale were real problems for Pete and he didn't snivel away from them. He was annoyed as all hell, but he's dealt with them.
Moms came in and out of this season many times. Roger's mother passed away at the season's start leaving him to realize all that she meant to him. Don threw up at her funeral, a very Don-like reaction to the real loss of a mother figure. And of course Sally Draper had mother issues this season. She is torn in half by hating her mother and having no one else to rely on. Even her stepmother, Megan is unreliable. Recall the episode when Sally and her brothers are left alone in Don's apartment, Megan off somewhere for work and Don was in a drug-induced fever pitch over the loss of his mistress. The Drapers are robbed by a women claiming to be Don's long-lost mother. And then there was Megan's miscarriage, a physical illustration of the broken mother/child relationship.
Breaking apart was another theme of this season, but moreover coming together was. Pete and his wife Trudy broke up, and Peggy and boyfriend Abe called it quits, but think of all the aspects that came together. The biggest union was that of CGC and SCDP, a merger that no one saw coming and was never a good idea. The moment when the two companies came together, Don fell farther apart. His relationship with Ted Chaough was one of the most interesting aspects to this season. Ted is the man Don should be and could be if he wasn't such a "monster," as Peggy called him. Don and Ted are polar opposites, though; they are Goofus and Gallant. Ted is good and pure and wants this business to do well and doesn't want to have an extramarital affair, and Don is bad, messing up projects as they come along and brooding in corners when his adultery goes array. Their relationship was built on a power struggle, but I think it is more than that. There is an odd sense of sibling rivalry going on. These men are cut from the same cloth, but Don's cloth got very dirty and tattered somewhere along the way. And of course the one physical item they share, Peggy, Ted wins. And so Don does what he does best, he screws it all up.
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There were moments in episodes this season that were some of the best this show has produced. The conversation between Pete and Peggy as they drank cocktails divulging personal information because they can, they share a history and a kid, by the way. The scene where Sally walks in on her father and Sylvia, ouch was that hard to watch. I also loved the scene with Sally at the boarding school, drinking and smoking like teenagers do. I love Peggy and Stan's friendship. And I felt that this season found a new sense of humor that I don't recall from previous seasons. I even enjoyed last night's season finale but as this show has a tendency to do in the last few episodes of every season, it felt rushed. Don decides to go to California to save himself and his marriage and just as quickly as you can say La La Land, Ted wants the same thing and Don just gives it to him. How quickly did all of this unfold because it seemed to be only days, hours(?) that the partners were OK with Don leaving, then OK with the fact that, no, it would be Ted leaving and then, OK no let's just fire Don for a while even though the firm will be without a Creative Director.
"Ted thinks he can lead Peggy from California," was the weak excuse given for why the partners were OK with this monumental change to the company. Ted doesn't think for a minute he can tell Peggy anything, I guarantee, considering she is the reason he is leaving. It all just felt too quick and unbelievable. And yes, Don is a mess and has ruined a lot of business this season, but wouldn't Roger have a talk with him? They have been working together for years. No one considered sitting the guy down and asking him what the hell his problem was, not even Joan (whose storyline was completely lacking from this season - what happened to Avon?)?
I read lots of reviews of this show and episode recaps, and I often feel that this show is given too much credit for being seductively symbolic. This season I felt it was in your face symbolic and I wasn't a fan of that aspect of it. I hope next season they make us guess a little bit more, as opposed to waving the symbolism in our faces and saying, "Get it? The old soup ad that Don was looking for is about a mother and son and Don never had a mother. See how clever we are?"
The show is clever; it's brilliant at times. But if it lost a few of its viewers this season, I wouldn't be surprised. Don has officially ostracized himself from everyone in his life, even his daughter who may be one of the people who understood him the best. He has finally lost everything, but as the last moment of the episode suggests, this is an awakening to him and a reminder of who he really is. Love this season or not, I look forward to seeing how this show will wrap up its final season in 2014. Luckily, the show is getting out before everyone starts wearing butterfly collars.