Naturally, spoilers follow.
Mad Men is ending this spring. If I keep saying it maybe eventually I’ll be okay with it. But all personal feelings aside, the cable drama that put AMC on the map in terms of original programming and ran the pass thrown by The Wire and The Sopranos into the end-zone to kick off the so-called Second Golden Age of Television has achieved something remarkable. For six-and-a-half seasons it has combined the literary sensibilities of the best dramatic films with a masterful understanding of the tools of character and plot development afforded by the longer running-time of a television show to change the face of modern serial entertainment. The only question remaining is: how will it end and will that ending live up to all of the expectations that have been laid upon it.
The first episode of the second half of the season (a trend that I can only hope will not be in vogue for long) seems to evoke a sense of coming back around to the beginning more than anything. Our anti-hero, Don Draper, is once again a man who, though technically married (his divorce to Megan not yet final), womanizes, carouses, and seems to enjoy life in a way we haven’t seen for quite a few seasons and especially not for the first half of this one, where he’d been in danger of being run out of the agency and strained from the political games that came along with the struggle. But with this return to a more effervescent state of mind, also come old ghosts that, not coincidentally, are also evocative of the show’s earlier seasons. First comes his discovery that his old mistress Rachel Katz née Menken has died of leukemia, which leads to a masterfully constructed scene in which Don visits her family while they are sitting shiva. The second, subtler, instance is Don’s back-alley tryst with a waitress at a diner. Though Don is convinced he knows her and eventually decides that it is because she reminds him of Rachel, the whole construction of the scene is much more reminiscent of the beginnings of his second season affair with Bobbi Bennett, which also began with a semi-public encounter. The difference being that, unlike with Bobbi, the waitress makes it clear to him that this is an incident that will not be repeated, showing how, for as much as Don seems to be trying to recapture his younger days, this is a different time.
This is not the only element of season one that has come back around in an unsettling manner in the mid-season premiere. Sexism has been a theme the show has not shied away from exploring since the outset, however it has always been framed in such a manner that, while not making it okay, had made the audience able to accept it to a degree as part of the period setting. Peggy’s trip to the gynecologist in the very first episode of the show to get a prescription for birth control pills is cringe inducing, yes, but it’s easier to stomach as its framed in a way that makes it laughable to our modern sensibilities. It’s easy to brush off a few offhanded remarks when they come from a doctor who is smoking a cigarette in the middle of an examination, after all. Not at all the case with easily the most uncomfortable scenes from this episode: one that, I would argue, is one of the most cringe-worthy-on-purpose scenes of the series, in which Peggy and Joan meet with representatives of the agency’s parent company to try to arrange a marketing deal for a struggling client. The scene works because it takes the same sort of remarks that have been a part of the show’s vocabulary since day one and reframes them in a way that makes the audience realize not only just how terrible they are, but that they are not contained just to the time period of the show. In the elevator scene immediately following the meeting, Peggy even drops the “look at how you’re dressed” line to an upset Joan, whose reaction, while couched in very Joan-like terms, is pretty much the same as the feminist reaction to that sexist argument today. The point of examining our history is, after all, to understand our present, and these last few episodes are set in 1970, which somehow seems far, far more contemporary than the ‘60s.
There remain, of course, many loose ends to be tied before the series ends. What ever became of Salvatore Romano after his unceremonious firing back in season 3? Will we ever find out why Ginsberg snapped in the first half of this season? How will things end up for Don? Is he, as we’ve all suspected for years, just getting set up to take the rooftop plunge from the iconic opening title sequence? Most importantly: Will Roger shave that damn moustache before the finale?
Seriously. I know it’s the ‘70s now, but man is that thing undignified. At least we’re getting out before everything turns that shade of avocado green that was so fashionable for a while in that decade. Although it does mean that we’ll never get to see the live action version of that hilarious ‘80s Don Draper Twitter feed, so, y’know, trade-offs.