A woman is served a drink on an airplane. The magical concoction in her hand transforms the aircraft into a flying, hallucinatory soiree with live music and dogs so pretty that even the prettiest boys look awkward and miscast. A young, crustachioed cad in a sharp suit makes eyes at our spellbound heroine, but alas–a shock of turbulence rattles us back to pale reality. The plane is just a plane. The cad is just a common oaf in a cheap hoodie. No dogs are allowed, not even pretty ones. We are prompted to wonder: What if life tasted as good as Diet Coke?
The struggle of Sterling Cooper & Partners–in all its incarnations, from SC to SCDP to SCDPCGC to Ess See Ampersand Pee–is a metaphor for the struggles of all its major characters: How can we feel big and important when we are so, so small and insignificant? We can create the temporary illusion of existential consequence by engaging in compulsive sex (which simulates power), compulsive drinking (which simulates invincibility), or compulsive belittling of our nominal inferiors (which simulates both). But these are merely ways of faking out the ego. Sooner or later the veil is lifted and we are revealed as the puny, ineffectual beings we are, and no amount of sex and booze can alter that universal truth. The only way we can be part of reality is by accepting the universe’s ultimate and irremediable dominion over us. Sometimes we have to be forced into that acceptance by suffering circumstances that cannot be reined in with smooth talk and a fine vintage ’53. That’s what’s happening in these final episodes of Mad Men. Matt Weiner isn’t ruining our heroes. He’s saving them.
SC&P is a fictional company, full of made-up employees who never existed outside our television sets and who themselves are full of problems and opinions and histories that are pure fantasy. But McCann Erickson is very real. To this day McCann remains one of the largest international marketing conglomerates, handling some of the biggest clients on the planet. In the world of Mad Men, they are Goliath, and our Davids at SC&P are running out of slingshot ammo. In “Time & Life,” we saw echoes of the great season three finale, “Shut The Door. Have a Seat”: scrambling in the face of an impending McCann takeover, locking up accounts, quick thinking and boundless optimism. Except this time, our heroes surrendered. Because McCann is big. They aren’t really big, of course; as we’ve established, only the universe is big, and the universe is quick to remind anyone who forgets that infallible fact. But McCann feels big, and Jim Hobart assures our friends that they can feel big too, because Nabisco. Because Buick. Because Coca-Cola.
In his Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Zizek explained that the allure of Coke is built on deception–not just deception in advertising (advertising is by nature deceptive) but in the very chemical properties of the product itself. Once you open a can (or bottle) of Coke (or Pepsi, or whatever carbonated beverage you prefer), there is only a small window of time during which you can properly enjoy the beverage in all its fizzy glory. Before long, your Coke goes flat, gets warm, loses the very properties that made it attractive in the first place. In short, it’s no longer “The Real Thing,” as McCann Erickson once put it; instead, it’s (as Zizek puts it) shit. So goes our desire for the surplus pleasures of a postmodern world: at first sip, the experience is transcendent, but by the time we’re finished, the object of our desire has devolved to something lower than its optimal state, and so our desire remains unfulfilled. This phenomenon prompted Zizek to posit, “A desire is never simply the desire for a certain thing. It’s always also the desire for desire itself.” If our desires were fulfilled, we would cease to desire, and thus, to paraphrase Tennessee Williams, we would cease to be.
The problem with Jim Hobart’s proposal (though it’s really more of an order) isn’t that it doesn’t satisfy the desires of the SC&P partners. The only partner with a name on the door is Roger, and his interest in preserving the Sterling Cooper name was only ever a byproduct of his loyalty to his late friend Bert Cooper. Ted doesn’t care, and Pete and Don are only in this because each perceives himself to be locked in a lifelong pissing contest with the universe. The only partner with a real bone to pick with McCann is Joan, who suffered nauseating humiliation at the hands of the douchebags extraordinaire of the McCann accounts department. But even with her, we can imagine that the absorption of SC&P would land her in such a position at McCann that she’d be able to fire anyone who threw her a demeaning comment. This fight is no longer about a name or a couple of floors in the Time Life Building. It’s about the very title of the series. A Mad Man is not just a Madison Avenue-adjacent advertising representative. Being a Mad Man (or Woman) is all about being high-powered, and it doesn’t get higher than McCann. If the shared ambition of Don and Pete and Roger was to become a high-powered executive in the whirlwind world of New York advertising, then the dream was just handed to them on a silver platter. And there lies the rub.
The problem with Hobart’s order is precisely that it does satisfy the desires of our heroes.
The idea has too often been put forward that Mad Men should and/or has to end with the death of Don Draper. Whether or not that happens is at this point less important than the very simple-mindedness of that prognostication itself. The various in-show allusions to Don’s death (the open elevator shaft, the hashish incident) were not, I think, on-the-nose foreshadowings, but divine warnings about the path he was on at the time. Mad Men isn’t a violent show like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, where the main character’s death is almost a foregone conclusion. But what if Don experiences a different kind of death. I’m not talking about the Dick Whitman-Don Draper bridge here; the distinction is too amorphous and anyway Don seems to have made some shaky kind of peace with his childhood so I don’t know if there’s any reason to go venturing down that road at this juncture. Don’s got plenty to deal with in his day-to-day life without having to worry about getting court-marshaled for desertion. The true symbolic death of Don Draper may occur when his desire to be the biggest, sexiest, most important ad man in New York is finally met. He was always a legend in town, but with the McCann acquisition he’ll be a legend with the backing of a giant. He’ll get to sit up front at the Clios. As his performance review with Peggy in last week’s episode alluded, once you’ve hit all your ambitions, there’s nowhere left for you to go. The perfect end to Mad Men is not death but stasis.
In the Saying Goodbye department this week, we have that old shitbird Lou Avery, whose Scout’s Honor is about to be the next Speed Racer over in Japan. His sendoff was just the right mixture of dickish and triumphant, leading us to remember that Lou’s not really a bad guy, not really. He was a terrible creative director with a terrible cardigan collection, but that doesn’t impeach his skill for narrative animation. We should be happy for Lou, that he finally found his true calling and therefore never need stain the hallways of another advertising agency with his old man smell.
Did we finally say goodbye to Ken Cosgrove this week? I sure hope not, but if we did he got one heck of a last moment. Pete Campbell, the man who never takes no for an answer, sat there and took the bluntest “No” that Mad Men has ever served up, and out went Kenny, loud-ass blazer and all. By episode’s end, though, the whole Cosgrove Affair amounted to a giant “So what?” The rebel partners of SC&P lost Dow Chemical to Ken’s client-from-hell madness, but the next day we saw Pete–bolstered by having impressed Trudy the old-fashioned way, aka suckerpunching a centuries-old family rival–sealing the deal on Secor Laxatives simply by not making that joke. And even that didn’t matter because Hobart shut down the SC&P rebellion anyway. If this is the end of Kenny, I’ll be really bummed, but it would say a lot about his decision to stay in advertising instead of writing the Great American Whatever. Ken’s soul was in writing, and he could have shared that soul with the world. Instead, he took a job at Dow just to yank Sterling’s chain a bit, and even his chain-yanking didn’t make a difference. There seems to be a message in Ken’s arc about the damaging allure of corporate life, and how the ruthless, sometimes senseless competition it endorses can lead otherwise talented people to act against their best interests. Write that novel, Kenny, because Roger Sterling will never give a shit what you do, no matter how badly you want him to.
These final episodes have undertaken a very precise investigation into Peggy’s attitudes toward family and relationships. Though I’m hesitant to reduce her relationship with Stan to “why don’t they just do it already?” simplicity, there is nonetheless a kind of love between them, a kinship of peers only slightly unlike the student-mentor admiration between Peggy and Don. That Peggy shares with Stan the story of her child is a bigger moment than it felt like; she never told Mark or Abe that she had a child, and she may never have told Don if he hadn’t gone looking for the truth on his own. Maybe all this recent business about dating and children is a final test of Peggy’s Any Rand-ish work ethic. Her libertarian self-concern and her demanding regency as copy chief are incompatible with having a family, which requires sacrifice. It isn’t that Peggy isn’t capable of sacrifice, just that she’s self-aware enough to know that it wouldn’t be fair to sacrifice something you actively want for something that society makes you want to want. She’s worked hard for what she’s attained in advertising; for all intents she really should stay at McCann, where she’ll be able to build a name for herself. In the meantime, keeping Stan on the phone is as close as she needs to get to intimacy. She gets enough of it in small, occasional doses and that’s just fine.