Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Men - "Person to Person" (7x14)

For the past five years or so, Mad Men has been by far my favorite show on TV, and a real inspiration for the kind of work I want to create. I love the casual surrealism of the world and the winding, almost short story quality of many of its episodes. It really picked up where The Sopranos left off in terms of telling riveting stories about quest for meaning in everyday life. And, for all the joy you can get from a densely plotted roller coaster ride of a show like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, it's ultimately the mysterious and philosophical wonder of this show that inspires me and lingers in my brain.

The finale was perhaps a bit too generous in giving the audience/characters what they wanted for really the first time in the show's run. It's great that Joan got to open her own company, but not necessarily true to the story we've seen over the past few years, which stacked on top of Peggy getting together with Stan and the great breaks for Pete felt a bit too fairy tale.

But, to me the heart of the show was always Don, and his impact on the two most important people in his life: Peggy and Sally. They could see him at his best and inspire him, and also suffer in the wake of his worst impulses. Sally was able to grow up and accept hardship and struggle at a young age whereas it took Don his entire life to reach that point. Both Sally and Peggy have taken the best of what Don had to offer and grown up and seem like, despite struggles ahead, they'll be okay. I actually like the Sally resolution much more than the other story lines because it shows her growth without feeling like a happy button on the story.

And just like The Sopranos, we're left with a final moment that leaves you a bit unsettled and full of mystery to ponder. Did Don return to advertising, and turn his experience on the road into grist for a new campaign? Or has Don found legitimate peace off in the wilderness, only by leaving an advertising machine that substitutes the desire for a product for genuine human experience?

Ultimately, the finale offers a fascinating portrait of the 60s counterculture becoming just as commodified and false as the 50s nuclear family that dominated advertising at the show's start. For all the changes that happened, advertising is still the vampire that turns something real into a way to make money.

It's a mix of cynicism and wonder like I've never seen before, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around what it all means. To me, the end of Mad Men marks the end of the TV revolution that The Sopranos started, when TV became a place for winding character-centric narratives that explored the world we live in and the human condition in a depth that no films had attempted. Shows like Mad Men, Six Feet Under and The Sopranos all pondered the meaning of life in a way that has been a massive inspiration.

And just as the movie business left behind the auteur driven experimental filmmaking of the 70s for the (frequently great) blockbusters of the 80s, so too is the TV business moving towards bigger and bigger storytelling and "13 hour movies." But, I think something is lost in trying to tell a "13 hour movie," and that's the amazing variety and unpredictability of Mad Men. Every episode offered something confounding and thought provoking, and I don't know that we'll ever see anything quite like it again.