At the end of Mad Men's season finale, my honey was in tears. Certainly the climax, with all its terrible truths told and emotions exposed, had been moving, but that wasn't why she was weeping. "I can't believe it," she sobbed, as I offered a consoling shoulder. "It's so unfair. What do I have to look forward to now? We have to wait a whole year?!"
You're either a fanatic or uninitiated; Mad Men, a show that's all about conflicted emotions, doesn't generally elicit "I guess it's okay" responses. Not for nothing did it make TV history and earn a Best Drama Series Emmy for its virgin run. Tater and I are clearly not alone in our devotion to the best-looking (this, I think, can broker no argument) and often, best-written show on television. Certainly as a writer, I'll miss the inspiration I've been deriving from each Sunday night episode.
Writers love subtext, and in Mad Men auteur Matthew Weiner's world, subtext is king. Take the finale, which began with a quiet, almost throwaway exchange between Don Draper's unhappy wife Betty and their family doctor, as Betty learns she's pregnant. "I understand this was a surprise, but blessings come that way," says the clueless doc. Betty looks at him. "Of course," she says. We know the child is unwanted, given that she and Don are on the verge of a possible divorce and he's currently missing in action. So what we hear in the simple phrase she utters is that to her, what could be cause for celebration is like a death sentence.
Of course. Into its unflinching, often painful acknowledgment of The Way Things Are and The Way They Have to Be, Mad Men folds a cry: the wail of maddened women. I believe that's the primary pull of the show for Tater and for all the women I know who watch it. Ostensibly about the male animal's struggles for power in the jungle-like corridors of 1960s advertising, Men actually delivers the most vivid, eloquently articulated argument for feminism I've ever seen on the small screen.
What we're watching week after week are the pangs of an uneasy, protracted birth; Weiner's most brilliant conceptual stroke for the series was his choice of the early '60s, just before our consciousness changed. We view all of the remarkably well-realized female characters on Mad Men through the prism of what we know, and they feel, but can't yet realize. We're seeing how each of these unsung heroines dangles precariously over the boundary of her time and place, straining to leap into the future.
It's educational for us men in particular, this Men: you can't watch an episode and not understand how horrific it was to live under the unchallenged yoke of sexist male supremacy. Secretary Joan Holloway, mourning the suicide of Marilyn Monroe as she silently rages over the job promotion denied her (given, naturally, to an undeserving male) is only one of the show's devastating portraits of a woman as a revolutionary-in-the-making. But what makes the show greater than a polemic is that its men get their moments of empathy as well.
In the finale's penultimate scene, Peggy (the amazing Elizabeth Moss, who's reportedly breathing renewed life into the female lead of Speed the Plow on Broadway) tells her one-time lover Pete that unbeknownst to him, she had his child and gave it away. "Are you serious?" he says, recoiling. "You can't be serious." Peggy's gaze is level; she seems to be looking into herself as she looks at him. "I wanted other things," she tells the stunned and bewildered Pete. "I don't understand," he says.
Of course he doesn't. The very idea of a woman rejecting... well, what a woman is for! It's too much for a Mad Men man to comprehend. In the fifty-odd minutes between one woman's hostile contemplation of a pregnancy and another woman's sad admission of motherhood lost, the season finale digs deep into a confused welter of profound miscommunication, its men and women often staring at each other across an abyss of connections never made.
It's all very heart-wrenching (and at times blackly hilarious), and it's probably about as good as we'll get these days, on screens of any size. And truly, as another long-running show approaches its grand finale next week (what will we do with our TV time, after the election?!), I can't blame my baby for being bereft.
When Tater and I walked the dogs, our post-Mad Man afterglow cut with melancholy, I tried to cheer her up, noting that the first seasons of The Sopranos and The Wire beckoned on DVD sets underneath the TV, ripe for re-viewing. "Yeah, we could watch those," she said, momentarily brightening, then sighed. "But Mad Men is so yummy."
Our enforced diet until Season 3 starts will have to be endured. But in the meantime, we decided, we're starting with Episode 1 and devouring the first two years again.