On last night's finale, among other things, Roger (John Slattery), Don (Jon Hamm) and Bert (Robert Morse) were three guys with a problem.
Good shows can mix funny and sad. But great shows can turn on a dime between devastation and whimsy. And that was the heart and soul of last night's Mad Men magnificent season finale, called "Shut The Door. Have A Seat."
Needless to say, if you didn't watch it and don't want to know what happened, this post is not for you. "Spoilers" follow, after the jump.
There were some claims early in this third season of Mad Men that it had lost a step; that it felt a little slow compared to the first two. But in retrospect, I think part of what the audience was feeling was same malaise the characters were feeling. When Don started talking in the finale about wanting to do good work and care about it, it was credible, because he has seemed subdued all season. Working at Sterling Cooper under the Brits was no fun. Everybody was unhappy. All the time. Not that it had been all fun and games during the first two seasons, but consider the fact that it got so bad that the walls were literally splattered with blood.
Now we know why — what the storytelling purpose of all that was, at least in part. Now we know why things got so grim. We know why Joan miserably left Sterling Cooper; why Roger sank into a gray, grim shadow of his former fast-talking self; why Pete went from obnoxiously but brightly ambitious to exclusively bitter and paranoid; why Don was so rotten to Peggy.
Because all of it — all of it — paid off in last night's finale. I don't think I'll be alone in seeing echoes of Ocean's Eleven in the gathering of the troops, and I love Ocean's Eleven.
And if I had to name one moment that pleased me more than any other, I'd point to the fact that as soon as Roger said he was going to make a phone call, I said, out loud in my living room, "Joanie!" It's been a long time since I was as pleased to see a character as I was to see Joan stroll into SC in her spiffy weekend sweater-and-pants combo, take charge of the situation, and lead them out of the wilderness.
Joan's frustrations at not being valued for her creativity and smarts, and the slow way those frustrations have been built, were critical to the weight of very simple moments like Don grinning at the sight of her and commenting, "Joan. What a good idea." Joan is the closest thing the new SCDP has to a boss right now, if you're talking day-to-day. She's not functioning like anything less than an uber-manager — she doesn't just assign offices; she sets policy, including "you will take meetings here, and not there." She didn't rub it in, she didn't make them beg (the fact that she seemed satisfied with the subtext of their desperate need for her skills, while Peggy needed to see it translated into text, is a key difference between those two women); she just came back. At least for now, at least as long as Dr. Greg doesn't know. (But then, if he's joined the Army ...)
It was exhilarating, and Mad Men almost never gets to be exhilarating. It runs on so much buried emotion, and on so many pacts and rules and tacit agreements in which people think but do not say and then suffer as a result, that it rarely gets to unleash ... fun, for lack of a better word. And while everyone setting up for the big exit from the former Sterling Cooper was nervous, they were also having a great deal of fun, because so many of them were getting something they understandably wanted.
Pete was picked over Ken. Pryce got back at his horrible bosses. Roger got to have his own enterprise where the "Sterling" in the name was actually him. Bert got to be relevant. Peggy got to see Don over a barrel. Harry got to be special. Joan got to come home. Roger and Joan got to see each other. Pete got Don to ask him to come back. There was all sorts of baggage being unpacked left and right, and the meticulous way it has all been packed over the course of three seasons is the only reason you believe any of it.
And then, of course, there is Don, experiencing possibly the most exciting career moment of his life while watching his home life disintegrate. His shock upon learning of Betty's infidelity was so palpable, and his anger so raw, that you could almost be seduced into sympathizing with him for about 15 seconds. You could almost feel contempt for Betty for running around behind his back. And then, of course, you could only come to your senses and remember that he has been cheating on her constantly and unapologetically the entire time they have been married. It's not even payback. It's not close to payback, but he was just as angry as he would have been if he'd actually had anything to be angry about.
And as Don crawled into bed with Sally after remembering the loss of his own father, realizing that his own kids were perhaps going to grow up without him just as he grew up without his own dad, his love of his kids — which is real, even if his relationship with Betty is less so — became the driver of the sadness in his personal story. By focusing on how he feels about the kids, the episode brought Don back to what are arguably the most genuine relationships in his life. His marriage is largely a lie, and his entire work life is constructed on fraud, but those really are his children and he is really their father, and now he has to leave. He loses the one real thing because of all the false things.
It was just masterfully laid out, with the sad parts not destroying the happy parts and the happy parts not doing much to change the sad parts. Both of these things are really happening: Don is entering a possibly exciting new chapter at work, but he's lost his family. Don has lost both of his unhappy homes at once, really, and while leaving the old SC feels like escape, leaving his home feels — and is — a casting-out.
It's the kind of episode where you see the screen go black and you think, "NOOOOOOOOOO!" Because it is going to be a long, long, long wait between seasons after that. I said two weeks ago, when Don poured out his heart to Betty, that it was one of the best hours of television I could remember, and last night's was, too.