Mad Men – Was the Last Season Disappointing?
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Jon Hamm, who played the charismatic and conflicted advertising executive Don Draper in Mad Men, has just won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Television Series Drama. Don Draper has certainly made TV history and the prize was well-deserved.
Almost one year after the finale aired in the USA, Brazilians could finally acquire the last set of DVDs last week. I must confess I was totally into the show from day 1, remaining a loyal fan for the following 8 years. Mad Men - whose storyline spans for 10 years (from 1960 to 1970) - was, after all, of one of the most original and intelligent shows ever created for TV.
Of course, I share with other die-hard fans some of the criticisms about the last season – the feeling is akin to resenting the death of a relative or best friend, blaming them for their untimely passing, and then trying to convince ourselves they were not that perfect after all.
What are the main criticisms about the last season (the second half of season 7 to be more precise - as distributors, repeating a common trend, split the last season in half, hoping to sell the DVD sets more profitably)?
1. The writers tried to tie all the loose ends. Not so cool. One of the hallmarks of the show was that it did not make everything explicit. The dialogues were subtle and most of what came across could be read between the lines. The characters' reactions in previous seasons were often surprising and unexpected, which made the show very plausible and life-like. It turns out, however, the writers decided to give a neat end to all the main plot lines. As a consequence, it didn't feel like life went on after the credits finished rolling. It looked more like the end of a soap opera.
2. Historical and cultural facts in the background were played down. In the previous six seasons, the viewer had a clear sense of the era in which the story was developing. We heard about the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962; the assassinations of John and Ted Kennedy; the Civil Rights Movement; we were invited to the backstage of a Rolling Stones concert; the character Roger Sterling (John Slattery) took his grandson to a screening of Planet of the Apes, almost scaring the little kid to death; in addition, we saw the man landing on the moon – in one of the most moving scenes of the show. Season 7 part 2, however, was a bit disappointing in that respect: there were some references to the Brady Bunch show, we saw young Glen preparing to ship out to Vietnam, and witnessed the blossoming of the counterculture in the States, but not much more. The hippies, however, gave us the best moment of the show: the very last scene – which we will discuss later.
3. Don Draper’s choice of healing process – hiding in a hippie community located on a beautiful resort by the sea in California, participating in New Age seminars and sessions in which you share your feelings and hug complete strangers sitting in a circle was not exactly what you would expect from the character’s down-to-earth and cynical personality.
Having said that, the show’s last season also had a number of brilliant moments that lived up to its reputation, and more than made up for the glitches:
1. The character of Betty Draper (played brilliantly by January Jones), Don’s ex-wife, faced with devastating (yet predictable) news, has the same cold-blooded reaction she exhibited throughout the show. Especially when, in one of the first seasons, she took a rifle to the backyard, and, cigarette dangling from the mouth, shot the birds of a harassing neighbor. The character is a remarkable model of consistency, despite the “narrative arc” she went through, starting as a typical Stepford wife of the early 60s and becoming a college student of psychology in the last season.
2. Another shining moment for Betty as a character is her unexpected reunion with Glen (Marten Holden Weiner: the son of the series creator Mathew Weiner!) - the creepy 10-year-old kid who used to live up the street and have a powerful crush on Mrs. Draper at the beginning of the show. Their reunion made for one of the most complex and touching moments of the show’s last season. Now as a good-looking young man, ready to ship out to Vietnam, Glen exerts a natural sexual pull over older Betty, to the horror of her daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka), who notices the mutual chemistry, and is jealous and angered by it. Older viewers will surely hear echoes of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate!
3. Finally, the very last scene of the season, featuring the famous 1971 Coca-Cola "Hilltop" commercial, puts Don's nonsensical esoteric healing back into the context of the show, with one of the most ironic and thought-provoking endings ever. Are the viewers to imagine Don created the ad? Possibly. No matter what you think, the gimmick works perfectly: can the spiritual side of humanity honestly thrive when it’s for sale and used to promote the consumption of a soft drink? The ad scene makes us rethink the whole "healing process" Don went through in the light of the advertising industry and its evolution from the 60s to today - reconnecting the viewer with one of the show's key themes.
Mad Men was the real thing! When will we ever have another show as great as that?