Letter from the Editor

Over the past 24 issues, we’ve only run a handful of pieces focused on television shows (three, to be exact). But in this week’s very special Mad Men issue, we’re turning the tables—devoting all of our pages to the small screen, focusing on a single show that, over the course of its seven seasons, has proven itself to be one of the most intelligent, layered, compelling, and engaging stories ever told, on any screen. With its rich storytelling, carefully composed shots and cinematography, impeccable costuming, art direction, and sense of style, Mad Men has often seemed cinematic in nature, which is a large part of the reason we started covering it weekly on our old site in 2014. Bright Wall/Dark Room is many things, but it has never been a “recap” site. But for Mad Men, we briefly—and happily—became one.

That’s not the only thing that distinguishes this issue from all the others we’ve put out, though. It’s also much different structurally. In the run up to the final seven episodes of Mad Men, we asked Erika Schmidt—a long time contributor, award-winning writer, and passionate Mad Men fan—if she would write an essay after each new episode aired. The work she turned in each week was so strong and engaging that we decided early on to gather all of her pieces up into a single issue once the show concluded. Her seven essays, the most recent of which she turned in just yesterday, form the backbone of the issue you’re about to read, moving chronologically from the first episode ("Severance") that aired on April 5th through the series finale ("Person to Person") that concluded the show’s run last Sunday. Erika’s writing is truly a delight to read, a mix of the personal and critical, a writer’s sharp eye paired with a true fan’s deep love and affection for the show and its characters.

In addition, the editorial staff decided that I should reach out to a few other fans of the show, and gather up some of their thoughts and reflections around the series in general, favorite moments and characters, the divisive series finale, and what the show has meant to them on a personal level. I quickly thought of two of my favorite critics, Matt Zoller Seitz (whose weekly recaps over at Vulture have been the high water mark for most of us interested in reading about Mad Men these past several years) and Alissa Wilkinson, another enormously insightful writer, critic, and professor, who has spent a whole lot of time thinking about Mad Men lately. Then, I turned the tables on the editorial team, interviewing two of them (Senior Editor Kara VanderBijl and Art Director Brianna Ashby) about the show, which both consider their favorite. Those four interviews comprise the rest of the issue, woven in and around Erika’s weekly episode recaps. Erika, Brianna, and Kara will also be featured on the next episode of our podcast, discussing Mad Men at length.

And finally, this issue is also a bit of an experiment — the first entirely free issue we’ve released since our debut issue back in June 2013. It’s entirely open and available, even to those of you who don’t yet subscribe. We hope you’ll take this as an invitation to look at what we’ve been up to lately, and consider joining the conversation.

—Chad Perman, Editor-in-Chief

It Won't Be Cinematic

all images courtesy of AMC

all images courtesy of AMC

"Severance" (Season 7, Ep. 8)

I know plenty of people who don’t watch Mad Men.

They almost always have a reason. The most common one has to do with being turned off by what they feel is a romanticized, overly glamorous version of 1960s America. That’s easy enough to understand. Much like The Sopranos—which initially gets our attention with laugh-out-loud humor and clever violence, before seducing us completely with terrain-altering character work and finally leaves us feeling complicit in the bleak reality of its latter seasons—Mad Men opens light. Its early episodes are visually beautiful, crisp and indulgent. Its main character is the world’s handsomest, coolest, most talented adulterer. The action is loaded with enough wink-wink references (bigotry of all kinds; chain smoking; alcoholism; questionable parenting; littering) to put off any modern viewer who doesn’t quickly hook in to what’s happening beneath the surface. Because something is happening. The Sopranos isn’t just a funny show about the mafia. And with Mad Men, the glamour is most certainly not all there is.

In the famous surprise at the end of the pilot episode, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” we learn that the swaggering Mad man Don Draper goes home to a red-doored suburban home, an eager, angelic wife, and two sleeping children. This guy has a family? Gross. But this isn’t your typical two-timing executive. Not quite. A strange, confused longing emanates from Don as he gazes at the perfect picture of his life (“You have everything. And so much of it.”). And that’s the thing. The thing that makes Mad Men more. Something else is happening here, even if we don’t yet know what Don’s trouble is, nor just how unlikely it is that he’ll ever truly pull himself out of it. That’s all still waiting for us.

Forgive me. If you’re reading this, you probably know Don’s Kodak pitch from “The Wheel” as well as I do. But let’s revisit it together here, at the opening of the close:

“...he also talked about a deeper bond with the product. Nostalgia. It’s delicate but potent. ...in Greek, ‘nostalgia’ literally means, 'the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone.

This device isn’t a space ship. It’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.

It’s not called The Wheel. It’s called The Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around, back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”

Six and a half seasons later, “Severance” plays with us a bit, leaning into the nostalgia that would accompany the show’s final premiere episode whether it was ever acknowledged or not. We begin in a room with a Don who seems very much like the version we first met in 1960. He looks relatively healthy leaning up against that wall, tapping his ashes into a paper cup, seducing/directing a lush young woman in a fur coat. A fur coat again.

His speech is typically hypnotizing. He knows exactly what he’s doing. Whatever dark secrets we learned about 1960 Don, we didn’t yet know what it was like to see him fail. The bottom had not yet dropped out. Even if his confidence was always a precarious fiction, propped up by an unfair and ugly world, it feels good to bask in a version of its glow once again.

Of course, it doesn’t last.

We next see Don sharing a booth with some random women at a dingy diner, drunkenly telling a story about Abigail, the woman who raised him in a brothel. It’s a shock to hear him talk so openly about his childhood in front of Roger, who sits across from him sporting a perfectly sickening 70s mustache. This is it, friends: the glamour is officially gone.

On the one hand, it’s a thrill to see Don out in the open, no longer encumbered by his secret. On the other, honesty doesn’t seem to have clarified his life all that much. Back in “The Wheel,” Don was already looking at slides of Betty, Sally, and Bobby with a sense of loss. That family, that place where he knew he was loved, may never have really existed. But it has never felt farther away than it does now, as we near the end of the series, when he returns to his empty condo and surveys the home he shares with no one.

Again and again in “Severance,” we watch our characters navigate decidedly unglamorous—sometimes downright depressing—waters. Don’s got a rotating roster of one-night stands in his message box, an old earring of Megan’s lying discarded under the bed. Roger has that mustache. Joan, now a millionaire, partner, and account executive, is getting the same degrading treatment she got back in 1960, only now she’s weighed down by the internal reverberations of her own Jaguar decision (more of this, please).

Pete recalls his uplifting time in California as a dream. And it looks like Ken Cosgrove won’t ever write his novel, after all. Only Peggy “It’s nothing a couple of Aspirin won’t fix” Olson seems on the upswing, ever dynamic, dishearteningly unsympathetic to Joan, with a knock-out first date complete with blushing and next-day embarrassment. (I won’t get into who plays her date, because I can’t even. This was a major, cosmic reward for me personally. Another treat, well timed during this trying week for Twin Peaks fans, was Ray Wise’s Leland Palmer-iest Mad Men moment yet. Over a Pop Tart, of course.)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, the theme of dreams runs side by side with nostalgia throughout the episode. Indeed, the entire thing feels like an extended dream sequence—this is Weiner via Chase via Lynch. It is slow, odd, and opaque. Every moment is loaded to bursting. Even the waitress whose face we recognize from other shows speaks in riddles and wears a uniform straight out of the Double R Diner.

Don’s face is a mask of pain as he learns that Rachel, the second of the three women who really know him, is dead. “She lived the life she wanted.” Was this Don’s life not lived? The question hangs on his face, around his neck, as if he’s sick of asking it but still can’t stop, and as he searches the face of the familiar waitress, still trying to place her, the words he uses to describe his dream sound like they could be another verse of Peggy Lee’s song. “I had this dream about a woman I once knew, and I found out the next day she had just died."

And then, later: "I just want to sit here.”

What a long way we’ve come from “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” And yet, perhaps this was all there from the beginning, deep under the shiny surface, just waiting to be unpacked. Maybe that’s the troubled question that was in Don’s face as he looked as his sleeping children. Say what you will about Mad Men - it is nothing if not deliberate. It won’t end with a bang, or wrapped up with a tidy bow. That has never been a part of its DNA.

I wish it would never end; let’s talk about it forever.

Erika Schmidt is an award-winning writer living in Berkeley, California. She is the 2013 recipient of the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Award for short fiction. A graduate of Northwestern University's Creative Writing and Theatre Programs, she has trained as a writer at StoryStudio Chicago and Narrative Magazine, and as an actor at the School at Steppenwolf.

That Should Be Fascinating For Everyone Involved

all images courtesy of AMC

all images courtesy of AMC

“New Business” (Season 7, Ep. 9)

At first, I didn’t like “New Business.” It left me feeling unsettled and deflated. I didn’t care about Pima or Marie-France, and I didn’t connect with Don and Diana. I’m such a disciple of this show, I didn’t want to write about being underwhelmed by this episode. I didn’t want to join the Megan dismiss-ers. I didn’t want to keep tabs on how much screen time my favorite characters got with just five episodes to go. I wanted to believe: there is a plan, and if I’m not seeing it right now, it’s because I’m not supposed to yet.

Happily, after watching the episode twice more, I can report that with repeated viewings it gets better: funnier, sadder, and more contemplative. As comedy duos go, Roger and Marie are in fine form, as are Pete and Don. Peggy and Stan both have some nice, if subtle, character moments. Megan gets to say what she needs to say. Harry doesn’t get what he wants. Jiminy Christmas, Betty’s going to study psychology! These are not the hallmarks of a throwaway episode.

Despite its charms, “New Business” feels off. But at the risk of sounding thoroughly brainwashed, I can’t help but think this stutter step of a ninth episode serves an important purpose. If last week was a dreamy, luxurious introduction to the idea that the world of Mad Men is going to go out stubbornly loyal to its pessimistic heart, then this week was the natural extension: the harsher, more perfunctory side of the same coin. Things don’t feel good, but the truth is they aren’t good, so why should they feel so? This episode, much more than last week’s, really made us feel: is that all there is?

Something disturbing is happening with Don. In the aftermath of the shock of Rachel’s death, he is detached and inscrutable, empty in a new and unsettling way. His pursuit and embrace of Diana and his treatment of Megan are relatively positive actions (the bar is set pretty low here). But in practice, these scenes don’t crackle in the way they might. In “Waterloo,” the last time we saw Don and Megan interact, they ended their marriage over the phone. Don was painfully present then, interpreting Megan’s silence correctly and experiencing the moment fully. In contrast, this week, as their separation becomes permanent, he seems hollow, automatic. It’s as if he’s drifting through his life having already decided to stop living it.

There are moments that interrupt Don’s haze. The episode opens with him making milkshakes, apparently having been hanging out at the Francis house with Bobby and Gene while Betty and Henry are out schmoozing. (Incidentally, this is a pretty spot-on depiction of the surreal scenes that can emerge from divorce.) When Betty and Henry return, Don beats a hasty retreat. As he leaves the room, he turns to look back into the kitchen. Henry fusses with the blender. Betty asks the boys if they had fun; she touches Bobby tenderly (evidently having finally gotten over that lost sandwich). They are unaware of Don watching. They’re just a family, nearing bed time, having milkshakes in the kitchen. And he doesn’t belong there. They aren’t his. We see that realization land on him.

Later, Harry (who is, at long last, officially the worst) bluntly tells Don that Megan was “dumb” to leave her soap opera and move to Los Angeles. Don has been largely indifferent to Harry’s hints about meeting with Megan up until now, but that observation rattles him. It was Don’s doing, after all, not Megan’s, that prompted her move to L.A. When Megan later tells Don that he ruined her life, she’s speaking from a place of despair, having gone through her own set of shocks that day, but she’s not wrong. Remember the Megan who went to Disneyland with the Drapers? Who stunned the entire family when she didn’t let a spilt milkshake ruin her day? Who was so not Betty? And now here she is, wearing the same trendy blue mini she wore to dine with her agent back in L.A., but this time wearing it for Harry Crane. (Meanwhile, the milkshakes, and the children, are back in Betty’s home.) This change in Megan has never been lost on Don, and he’s always seemed to harbor guilt about it. By the time he meets her to finalize the divorce and she finally calls him an “aging, sloppy, selfish liar,“ he offers no defense or acrimony. He just agrees with her and gives her a million dollars.

This is the same Don who coached Peggy, Lane, and Ted to get it together and start over. To grab the chance to move on. To change the conversation. “It will shock you how much this never happened.” He just doesn’t seem to believe it himself anymore. As Pete grumbles, “You think you’re going to start your life over and do it right, but what if you never get past the beginning again?” Don seems done.

Will someone please call Freddy Rumsen? Don needs a cold shower.

Speaking of Freddy Rumsen: I’m not thrilled to be writing primarily about Don for the second week in a row, given how smitten I am with all of the characters on this show. But “New Business,” focused so intently on Don, doesn’t really draw from Mad Men’s ridiculously deep bench. There are some insights into Roger and Pete, to be sure (at this point, Pete Campbell manages to fascinate no matter how little screen time he has) and meanwhile, Peggy and Stan are dealing with Pima the Hustler. Other than that, we spend most of our time with characters we just met or ones we didn’t expect to see again.

As an added treat, the Calvets are in town, in case we had any unanswered questions about them. We meet Megan’s sister Marie-France, who is of that classic variety: “mid-century French Canadian Debbie Downer.” Megan calls her a ghoul, which rings true. Marie comes back to rail against Don and “what he’s done to this family,” clearly projecting an awful lot of her own marital problems onto the situation.

Add a cold splash of Sylvia and a too-stingy pinch of Betty (“People love to talk to me. They seek me out to share their confidences”), and you’ve got a veritable cocktail of women haunting Don’s life.

And the current woman in Don’s life? Diana still seems like a dream to me—her backstory is just a little too convenient, a little too relevant to Don’s psyche. Her stunned, numb demeanor matches his strange affect. They are both traumatized and looking for a distraction, and Don stays close to her, approaching her less like a lover than as an essential part of his own being, a part that needs tending. When she says, “There’s a twinge in my chest,” Don suggests, “A pain.” Is that what he sees in her? “The pain from an old wound”? A fellow sufferer? By comforting her, is he comforting himself? In an interview with Vulture, actress Elizabeth Reaser nails Diana’s singularity: “I think that Diana, she has real courage. It’s how she moves through the world, and she doesn’t need Don. I mean, she wants him, but she’s fiercely independent in a way, in her grief.” It’s Diana who eventually breaks the spell, saying she doesn’t “want to feel anything else” but her sorrow and guilt. Don leaves her then, alone.

Why is this all okay? I’m not sure it is, really (I’m also sure, once I finish writing this, that I’ll read what all of my favorite writers have to say about “New Business” and will realize I missed a few things or got a few things wrong), but there’s no doubt that something important is happening in this episode.

Don’s life, at this point, is fractured by his own doing, his heart scattered and faded. When you get divorced, it’s never a clean break. There are one million complications, complex feelings, unintended consequences. And you don’t get to just never deal with all of the peripheral people again. The sisters, the mothers, the exes, the cuckolds—they all still exist, even after you’ve decided to move on. Trudy is out there, and Jimmy Barrett, and Henry Francis, and Jaguar, and Mrs. Pryce, and the Calvets, and Burt Peterson, and Midge, and Glen, and Julio. They will come back into your life, unexpected, unwelcomed, and unchanged. They will interrupt you, demanding explanation, definition, money. It won’t always be dramatic or resonant, profound or even meaningful. Sometimes it will just be tiresome and hard. Like it or not, deem it intentional or not, but “New Business” makes us feel that.

I hope Marie really left her husband, that she “did something about” being “very unhappy for a very long time.” I hope she started something new. That’s the Don Draper way of doing things. But I hope she doesn’t think running away with Roger will solve everything.

Because, Don, there has to be some internal work going on, too. Otherwise the nostalgia will get you in the end.

Erika Schmidt is an award-winning writer living in Berkeley, California. She is the 2013 recipient of the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Award for short fiction. A graduate of Northwestern University's Creative Writing and Theatre Programs, she has trained as a writer at StoryStudio Chicago and Narrative Magazine, and as an actor at the School at Steppenwolf.

"Mad Men is smarter than the people who think they are smarter than Mad Men..."

An Interview with Matt Zoller Seitz

BW/DR: So, it looks like you took over as the official Mad Men recap writer at Vulture in March 2012, right at the start of Season 5, after Mad Men had been off the air for nearly two years. How did that come about? Was it a show you were passionate about prior to 2012, or simply another assignment?

Matt Zoller Seitz: My history with the show predates that, actually!

I started out doing recaps at The House Next Door, my first blog, which was later absorbed by Slant magazine. One of the writers who worked for me was Andrew Johnston, the TV critic of Time Out New York. Andrew had cancer and had been going through treatments when Mad Men premiered in 2007, so when he told me he wanted to write recaps of every episode because he already knew it was a classic show just from watching the first few episodes, I agreed, but we were both aware that there might be times when he wouldn't be able to deliver things on time because of his treatment. So we'd talk about each episode before he wrote his recap and I'd take notes on my end just in case I needed to finish it for him.

He was able to recap the first couple of seasons all the way through to the end of season two, at which point he became gravely ill and couldn't continue. He went three weeks without writing a recap and died in late October, right around the time that season two was finishing up, and I went to AMC and got a DVD of the season finale and took it to him in the hospital, where he watched it on a laptop in his hospital bed. He died two days later, and I wrote recaps of the last three episodes of season two, which you can read here.

I didn't write any recaps of early seasons beyond that, but I saved my notes, which came in handy when I started recapping Mad Men every week for The New Republic during season four. I was writing for Salon at that time, so this was a side gig. As it turned out, Adam Moss, the publisher of New York magazine, was a fan of the series and read my recaps regularly, and when Emily Nussbaum left her job as TV critic there to take the same job at The New Yorker, he hired me to fill that slot, and that's when I started recapping the show for Vulture, the magazine's entertainment blog.

BW/DR: And did that move change your approach to the show at all?

MZS: I think I did start to deepen my approach in season five, now that you mention it, because it was a higher-profile gig and by that point recaps had become kind of cliche of TV coverage—everybody was doing them, not just entertainment publications—and I thought it was necessary to differentiate them from other recaps somehow. So I tried to do that by being more thorough in talking about the writing, the filmmaking and music choices, the thematic aspects, the symbolism, and the historical references, to try to make it as much of a complete package as I could, given the constraints I was under, by which I mean, having to write all that stuff overnight, because Matthew Weiner was so paranoid about spoilers that he wouldn't let anybody see any episodes in advance beyond the pilot. Engagement with Vulture readers also affected my approach. There were a lot of people in that thread who were students of the show just like me, and some of them seemed to know every line and scene by heart! So I tried to keep them in mind as I wrote, and deal with aspects that I knew they'd be irritated by my leaving out.

BW/DR: In that very first Season 5 Ep. 1 recap, you wrote of the main Mad Men characters: "Many of them have either achieved a dream or are on track to achieve it, yet they're still plagued by feelings of disquiet, deprivation, unworthiness, or a vague sense that there's something better out there." It's remarkable how prescient that line sounds now...it seems like that's been a theme/feeling Weiner and the writers have been chasing ever since - in fact, this final run of episodes directly asked (via Peggy Lee's song), "Is That All There Is?". To what extent do you feel like any of the main characters (Don, Betty, Joan, Peggy, Roger, Pete) have answered that question, or addressed that niggling dissatisfaction, by the final episodes of the series?

MZS: I don't think any of them have answered it, in the sense of overcoming those negative feelings about themselves, but that's fine. I think a big part of the show's appeal is how it shows that we're all that way to some extent, that it's part of psychology, part of life.

BW/DR: So what would be the "quintessential Mad Men episode" for you—not necessarily your favorite episode, but the one that best encapsulates the show's style, storytelling, and ethos?

MZS: It's really hard to choose, but I'm deep into a re-watch at the moment, and I just watched "Babylon" from season one, and that would be on my list. It is an important episode for all of the major characters, it hangs all their stories on a nice thematic clothesline without being too overt about it, and the music montage at the end of it is still amazing, really haunting. That's the moment where, as a first-time viewer, I went from, "Hey, this is a really good show, I'm going to keep watching it" to "This is a classic, I'm in it for the long haul." I got chills, like the way I got chills watching the end of the fourth episode of season one of Deadwood, where Wild Bill gets killed and the town erupts. Moments like that make you feel a bit lightheaded. You don't feel like you're watching a TV show anymore, it's like it's happening to you, or right in front of you.

BW/DR: And which character or relationship on the show feels the most important to you, as both a critic and as a person?

MZS: I relate most strongly to Don, because of his childhood. I didn't grow up in a brothel or anything, but there were a lot of aspects that were pretty rough, and in my adult life as well, and I've spent the rest of my life dealing with them, without letting them adversely affect the people I love, which is not easy. Also, I didn't steal a man's identity in Korea or anything, but I did take my stepfather's name when I was 16 because I was angry at my father, and though I have a great relationship with my father now, that means there was a point in my life where I basically decided to become somebody else. So I relate to that part as well.

All the characters have some version of that, where they suddenly or gradually become somebody else, but they are still fundamentally the same person in a lot of ways, subject to the same conditioning or debilitating mental aspects that they've carried with them since childhood or adolescence. Don's just the most overt and flamboyant example of that, because his very existence a metaphor for everything the show is most interested in.

BW/DR: Mad Men certainly has its share of detractors, too. Which criticisms of the show tend to irk you the most? And why? One of our staff writers has a friend ("one of the smartest people I know") who refuses to watch the show because it feels too exclusive to the white experience. Any thoughts on that?

MZS: Mad Men has failed in its attempts to bring African-American experience into its world view, and I never bought the excuse that "Well, this is a mostly white world, and things weren't as casually integrated then, so it's just being true to the period." If Mad Men can imagine its way into the life of a guy who grew up in a whorehouse and lost his mother in childbirth and his father to an accident involving a horse, and who stole a man's identity in Korea, I really don't think it's too much to ask for them to write an African-American character who isn't mainly there to stand in for the African-American experience in relation to the white majority, you know? That's one area where I've been pretty hard on the show.

I think they've also had some moments where the treatment of women's issues and things related to gay people, like Sal and Bob Benson, and Jewish characters like Ginsberg, were too schematic, where it seemed like the need to represent a cultural experience was overwhelming the personality of the characters. Not every word out of a gay person's mouth at a workplace in the 1960s was a clue to the fact that he was in the closet, you know? Sal was funny and I love him but that always bothered me about that character. So people who complain about that have a point.

The "it's too on-the-nose with its symbolism" thing and the "it's condescending to the past" thing always bothered me, though, because Mad Men operates on four or five levels simultaneously, and the immediate references are only the most superficial level. I sometimes feel like Matthew Weiner and his writers put that first level in to draw out the smug people who in another era would brag about not owning a television, or who think that the most basic level of a story is in fact all there is to it, which to me is an example of how disastrously the American educational system, college included, has failed at showing people how to appreciate literary or visual storytelling. At the level of narrative architecture and psychology it's operating at one of the highest levels, conceptually, of any series in TV history, and people who can't grasp that are, I think, mainly looking for an opportunity to feel superior to a show that is, in fact, as smart as they think they are, and probably smarter. As I've said many times, Mad Men is smarter than the people who think they are smarter thanMad Men.

The show also offers a better, more accurate representation of how the human personality actually works than almost any other drama I can think of, with some exceptions, including The Sopranos, Deadwood, In Treatment, Seinfeld, and The Larry Sanders Show, and now The Americans.

BW/DR: I'm sure I'm not the only one who's curious - what is your process for recapping each new episode? Do you have a routine, do you watch each an episode a certain number of times, how do you decide what to zero in on when you write about a particular episode?

MZS: I always watch every new episode at least twice. The first time I don't pause it, I let it run straight through, and I only take very general notes. The second time is like I'm going over the Zapruder film or something. I pause it every time there's an interesting shot, a notable line of dialogue, or a place where the show seems to be referencing something that happened before, or alluding to popular culture or history from that period in an interesting way. Then I go to my computer and start writing the recap, and I have my handwritten notes next to me, and every time I integrate a note into the recap, I mark through it with a yellow or pink highlighter—yellow is for story notes, pink for character—so that I know I've already covered it. This also helps me know when I'm getting to the end, because the amount of highlighted material takes over and I can see that there aren't too many more things to address.

Then I do one more pass, and in this pass I take the recap out of linear order, and group things by character or theme instead, so that it's not just a recitation of plot. I think that makes it more interesting to read because you aren't just having a version of the same experience that you had when you were watching the episode live. It's more like the non-linear, free-associating remix of that episode, but it's on the page. That's why I'm going for at any rate.

BW/DR: And that's probably what I enjoy most about your recaps each week, though I hate even calling them "recaps", because they so often seem like so much more. You manage to capture each episode in a way that feels true to the particular episode, while also making room for thematic interpretations, interesting psychological tangents and more random asides. What has being so close to the show for the past several years meant to you on a personal level? How do you feel about it all being over?

MZS: I'm sad that it's over because there has never been a show like it, and probably there will never be another. But even though I have written hundreds of thousands of words about the show, I never resented it for taking so much of my time. In fact, I can honestly say that even when I was up at 4 AM bleary-eyed on Monday morning, sweating over a line or a paragraph, I was always enjoying myself. When something is work but doesn't feel like work, that's when you know you have a great job, that you're where you need to be.


Matt Zoller Seitz is the TV critic for New York magazine and writes regularly for their entertainment blog, Vulture. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of RogerEbert.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism. 

So We Beat On, Boats Against the Current...

“Forecast” (Season 7, Episode 10)

Congratulations, Ted Chaough: you get the most irresistibly apt line in an episode packed to the brim with them. “The Forecast” is lousy with explicitness. People (mostly Don) are confronted with challenging truths in language so plain it’s funny. Don’s realtor dissects the state of his life with the cruel precision of a mean girl. Glen bares his soul to Betty and dares her to fend him off when he’s on his way to Vietnam. (In a fitting end to their bizarre relationship, she sends him off with perhaps her most maternal moment ever: that classic war-wife smile, steeped in good intentions and dread. “You’re going to make it; I’m positive.”) Sally’s generally on fire, and after taking in some disturbing scenes between her mother, her father, and various teenagers, expertly sums up her parents in one epic burn. Even Mathis gets in on the fun. And Roger hands Don a writing assignment that could apply to the company, yes, but also to Don personally or, you know, America in general.

All this explicitness weirdly has the effect of jump starting things, making it a perversely hopeful episode. Don puzzles over his forecasting assignment throughout the hour. He’s searching for the right answer to the question, “What’s next?” No one can satisfy him—even Peggy, with her characteristically specific goals, can’t see much further than landing the big account or coining the famous catch phrase. As Ted and Don muse over donuts, survival is now all but guaranteed. So now what?

The question consumes Don. But, meanwhile, he seems increasingly galvanized with each crippling indictment that’s hurled his way. Finally, in response to Sally’s brutal assessment of him, he’s driven to give her the best advice of his fatherly career: “You’re a very beautiful girl. It’s up to you to be more than that.”

When Don gets back to his condo that night, his realtor is in the middle of selling the place. To keep him from distracting the new owners as they sign the papers, she literally shuts him out of his own home. He turns away and stares down the hallway to the strains of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” This is the first time Don has ever been alone, secure but untethered, and without secrets. Now it could be anything. It is supremely moving, sad, and, yes, hopeful.

Why no mention of Joan, you ask? Why, because I’m about to devote the entire remainder of our time to her...

“That sounds wonderful, but I have some place to be.”

As far as Mad Men goes, Joan’s arc is the one that rattles me the most. It means too much to me. I get irrational. I become one of those fans who doesn’t care about poetry, who can’t see the big picture. I just want Joan to have everything she’s ever wanted. This makes writing about her difficult. I tend toward hyperbole, such as: “The Other Woman” made me cry harder than I’ve ever cried; or: seeing Joan order room service while on a business trip made me the happiest I’ve ever been; or maybe: the revelation of Joan having been married twice is the most shocking development in television history.

This unreasonable Joan-loving side of me has been uneasy for awhile now. It’s not actually that I want exclusively to see Joan live happily ever after; I want her journey to be as complex and shaded as Peggy’s, Pete’s, or Don’s. But I badly want to see that journey. We haven’t seen a whole lot of Joan since Jaguar. She’s made enormous strides in her career, and she’s certainly remained fascinating as an individual and as a player in the world of the show, but we haven’t really gotten to dig in with her in a long time. I’ve often worried about whether, as the show winds down, the character will be given the attention she demands. I try to silence that worry, because it’s not how I usually react to Mad Men. I trust this show, and I know I should trust it with Joan.

“The Forecast” rewarded me for that trust. The Joan we see in “Severance” is struggling to simultaneously shed her skin and inhabit her new life without compromising what she holds dear. She is an executive, and yet she faces the same demeaning treatment she always has—because she looks the way she does and (according to Peggy) dresses the way she does, she isn’t taken seriously. Joan has no real allies these days. Her road remains a lonely one.

But “The Forecast” suggests a new bend in that road. While she undoubtedly has to put up with some difficulty in this episode, Joan is operating in a new sphere here. Note that, as is so often the case, Joan reads as the only adult in the L.A. office, with Dee and Lou ineffectual and nonsensical beside her. Dee gets frozen out when she tries to engage Joan as a peer (“Have you seen Warren Beatty?”). Lou can trivialize Joan’s efficiency all he wants to; we all know which of the two will be left standing in the end.

When she meets Richard Burghoff, she shakes his hand swiftly and vigorously, like a man. She says, “I’m Joan Harris. I’m an account executive and a partner.” Because she is. This is no secretary angling for a country home; she’s meeting this man as an equal, and he accepts her as one unquestioningly. Many of the exchanges that follow are thrilling for that reason alone. The banter, the pillow talk, and even the arguments are free from the core condescension that usually characterizes men’s interactions with Joan. He’s still a man of his time—he uses some of the same old lines, and generally recalls the vernacular of Duck Phillips (honey, cad, heel)—but his attitude toward Joan is open and plainly respectful. Even when he reveals his weakness in his reaction to finding out about her son, we’re seeing something new. The heat of his response is rooted in the clear fact that he cares enough about her to be affected by the details of her life. In the end, he’s able to confront the seriousness of his feelings for her, and he bends.

Yes, this man is different. But so is she. When Burghoff explodes over her inconvenient maternal status, Joan, disappointed as she is, stands firm. She is secure in her priorities. He’s good at painting a picture (a phrase used earlier in the episode, incidentally, by Ted to describe Don), but he hasn’t considered her life in the process. And she does have a life. It is unfortunate, but there’s nothing to be done.

(And oh, but she wears disappointment beautifully, doesn’t she? “You’re right. Nice meeting you.” This is something we sometimes see in Betty, too, even in this very episode—this immaculate training that, for all its warping constrictions, also provides these women a scaffolding on which to balance moments of deep emotion.)

In that moment, and later in the determined affection of her tone when she calls to Kevin,“Bye bye, sweetie!” even as she despairs that she’ll never find love while she’s his mother, Joan’s strength crystalizes in front of us. Her meeting Burghoff renders her situation explicit: she’s walking away from the promise of one love in service of her promise to another. “That sounds wonderful, but I have some place to be.”

We get to see so many shades of this woman in one hour: satisfaction, delight, hope, skepticism, authority, discouragement, anger, defiance, love. We see her use some new tools and some old ones. Watch her tried-and-true coquettishness come out, on the phone with her son, or trying to manage Burghoff’s reaction when he learns of her curfew: “I wasn’t going to spend the night under any circumstances. That’s the kind of woman I am.” And watch Burghoff see right through it. It’s a different kind of thrill to see her forced to lay down her worn weapons and speak openly with him. This is Joan: she has a four-year-old son. She lives on 12th street. With her mother. And she’s been divorced twice. How very right that we wouldn’t learn of Joan’s first marriage until now, when she is finally secure enough to share it with someone who challenges her to. Someone, finally, who might prove worthy of her risk.

This is a very modern, adult beginning to a romance. It involves history, attraction, a strange certainty, regretted behavior, imperfection, and compromise. There is no guarantee from either party that things will work out. But the stark honesty they’re engaging in, here at the very beginning of their relationship, is unlike anything we’ve seen on Mad Men before. It’s an opportunity fit for our queen.

Laced through the mess of “The Forecast"—in Joan’s storyline, in Don’s, in Sally’s, and possibly even in Betty's—is the undeniable feeling of stubborn hope. As Don Draper tells his realtor with the vaguely threatening certainty only he could muster: "I have a good feeling about things!”

Erika Schmidt is an award-winning writer living in Berkeley, California. She is the 2013 recipient of the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Award for short fiction. A graduate of Northwestern University's Creative Writing and Theatre Programs, she has trained as a writer at StoryStudio Chicago and Narrative Magazine, and as an actor at the School at Steppenwolf.

The Transition Will Be As Smooth As Possible

“Time & Life” (Season 7, Episode 11)


When you’re already cheering during the opening credits, you know it’s gonna be a good one.

“Time & Life” is an utter knock out. Director Jared Harris plays joyfully with moments of sweeping momentum, hushed attention, and surprising warmth. It’s a relief to return our focus to the work lives of our characters, and it couldn’t have happened in a more enjoyable way. In the end, things aren’t exactly looking up, but the whole thing has been so fun that it doesn’t matter.

In “Time & Life,” things aren’t working how they should be. Don’s answering service are a bunch of “bird brains,” giving him messages he wasn’t intended to receive—messages from Diana without return numbers, good for nothing but haunting him. Peter Dykeman Campbell’s family name, for the first time ever, works against him. Peggy straight-up short circuits when she has to interact with children—and Stan notices. McCann-Erickson botches (was that a mistake or a power play?) the announcement of its game-changing news. Tammy has failed her Draw-a-Man test. And Scout’s Honor has been purchased. SCOUT’S HONOR HAS BEEN PURCHASED!

Of course, I’m leaving out the most profound disappointment, the most disruptive fly in the ointment. But let’s get to that later.

As we moved through this episode, I couldn’t stop thinking about Peggy’s Burger Chef pitch. I was lucky enough to write about “The Strategy” last year, and in that recap I wrote about family in the form of colleagues. Don, Peggy, and Pete sitting in that clean, well-lighted place, laughing over burgers and shakes, content for a moment in each other’s company, and in the knowledge that they’d done good work. “Time & Life” hits this concept over and over again: the value of the unlikely family. It hits it so hard that by episode’s end, even in the face of an inarguably depressing turn of events, we are positively swooning.

The relationships we see here have quieted over time. They’re now more loaded with history than angst. The characters are remarkably accepting of each other, in a simple, steadfast way that we’ve rarely seen on this show. The years behind them are present in every moment, and the man who gave us Lane Pryce (director Jared Harris) makes sure to let those moments breathe and pop so they bring peace and depth rather than treacle. If that’s all there is, well, that’s not so bad.

Forgive me, but I’d like to go through these moments by focusing on each longtime pairing that comes into play. We only have three episodes left: let’s indulge.

Joan and Roger

History: They have a secret son. Roger has a history of professing deep love and esteem for Joan, but, when it counts, he tends to abandon and degrade her. He humiliated and undermined her with Jane. He didn’t object to the role Pete asked her to play in winning Jaguar. Jim Cutler, not Roger, recognized her value and made her an Account Executive. Last year, Joan let Roger into Kevin’s life, but not into hers.

“Time & Life”: When Roger receives the letter notifying him of the failure to pay the lease, he stands at his desk, yelling for Joan. (She rightfully saunters in in her own damn time and tells him, “Don’t do that.”) But Roger, childish as his reaction is, isn’t exactly summoning a secretary here. His tone is desperate, and he’s calling the person he hopes can fix everything. He might as well be yelling, “Help!” In turn, Joan takes one look at the letter, intones, “I’ll take care of this,” and marches out. Later, when the bad news comes, they huddle together, Joan listening in on the call. Afterward, she rests her head on his shoulder as he says, “What do I do?” They look not like lovers, but teammates. This snuggle is collegiate.

Later, when the Sterling Cooper partners cap off an afternoon of drowning their sorrows with a toast to Bert Cooper, Joan rises to leave. It’s Roger who entreats her to stay longer, come back after her plans. She says, “Don’t be a baby—I’ll see you tomorrow,” and puts her cheek against his.

You see? Quiet. Affectionate. Accepting. History without acrimony. Time and life

Roger and Don


History: Roger once came on to Betty, so Don tricked Roger into climbing thirty flights of stairs after a giant oyster lunch, causing him to puke spectacularly on some clients’ feet. Roger left his wife for Don’s secretary. Roger went along with the plan to put Don on leave after his Hershey pitch. Roger also fought to bring Don back.

“Time & Life”: After Don comes mighty close to helping Roger pull yet another “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” they end up alone together, the last two at the bar. The revelation of Roger’s relationship with Marie Calvet comes gently. The two are mind-blowingly adult about it. There is no subtext here. They tease each other a bit, and then Don says, “For the second time today, I surrender. I’m happy for you.” And we believe him. Roger grabs Don’s face with both hands and kisses his cheek like a grandma. “You are okay,” he says insistently, absolvingly. Don looks back in surprise. Oof.

Genuine absence of negative feelings. Fondness. Regard. Good wishes. Time and life.

Don and Ted

History: Perhaps the most acrimonious history of all. Don essentially ruined Ted.

“Time & Life”: Don and Ted talk openly about ex wives, Ted’s new girlfriend, and what California means to Don. They’ve both had profound disappointments, and each bears some responsibility for the other’s recent implosion. But now they’re just talking. They are friends. This is happening, and we believe it.

No heat, no competition. They’re on the same team. Time and life.

Don and Joan

History: They once seemed like the two voices of reason in the room. Their mutual respect and knowing banter was dreamy (“But that’s life: one minute you’re on top of the world, and the next minute some secretary’s running you over with a lawn mower.”) Their relationship has seriously soured over the years: Joan resented Don’s shock at her actions regarding Jaguar and was deeply bitter about his recklessness where their shared business was concerned. Joan wanted Don out, and she wanted him to stay out.

“Time & Life”: THANK GOD, it seems Joan and Don are back together again. Joan gives a resigned, “You can’t just tell Don, Roger,” as she parades the rest of the partners into Don’s office to tell them about the McCann development. She doesn’t love this dynamic, but she knows it inside out and is confident she can deal with it. Now, they are squarely united, fighting desperately for the same thing. They speak as equals as they strategize the California plan. When he says she needs to stay at McCann for Avon, he’s not telling her what to do; he’s pointing out a fact that they both know is true. As she tells him at the bar, with a lingering hug (so many cuddles and kisses in this episode!), “We went down swingin’.”

There is love here! These people love each other!

Joan and Pete

History: If Ken Cosgrove had been alone at that meeting with Jaguar, no one would have ever heard anything about it.

“Time & Life”: When Joan confides to Pete that McCann will never take her seriously, Pete responds, “They don’t know who they’re dealing with.” This moment feels huge, less for what it says about the relationship between Joan and Pete than what that it means for each of them individually. This is the first time we’ve seen Pete express genuine regard for Joan as a professional, and we know he means it. Given their history and his record, we know it cost him something to say it. It’s also worth noting that, for Joan, this is likely a compliment that could only be meaningful coming from a coworker. She has an evidently supportive partner in Richard, but the truth is Richard has little idea who he’s dealing with either, because he can’t see her at work.

This moment never could have happened before now. Time and life.

Pete and Trudy

This one doesn’t quite fit, but I’m going there anyway. Because Alison Brie is back and Trudy Campbell slays me.

Pete and Trudy’s marriage certainly struck all the wrong chords for a modern audience, but gender inequality, infidelity, and the suburbs aside, they’ve always knocked “being a team” out of the park. At least in the professional realm, Trudy was the savvy, well-trained partner Pete needed to progress, and she seemed to relish her role. Remember their dancing at Roger’s garden party? That wasn’t spontaneous. That kind of social finesse represents two lifetimes of preparation for a very specific kind of partnership. Though the Pete-and-Trudy act doesn’t buy Tammy a spot at the right school, it’s great to see them back in business together. Seeing Pete treat all three of the women in this episode with respect, and even tenderness, is quite something. He leaves the bar because he “should call Trudy. She had quite a day as well.” What?! Since when does Pete think about Trudy’s days? And his “You’re ageless!” I’m still not over that.

You can’t tell me anything but time and life could have wrought such a change in the man whose treatment of women has so often turned our stomachs. As with many of these examples, there is an element of loss and sadness to the characters’ growth. It wouldn’t be Mad Men otherwise, would it?

Pete and Peggy

History: You know. As the years have gone by, Pete and Peggy have developed a relationship that is, above all else, knowing. They’ve always understood each other pretty well, at least professionally. As antagonists or allies, they carry their history in every moment they share, sometimes lightly, and sometimes not.

“Time & Life”: Pete’s first action after learning about the McCann absorption is to tell Peggy. They are eerily synchronized here, right down to their conversing cream, brown, and blue diagonal stripes (I haven’t spent years gobbling up Tom and Lorenzo’s Mad Style for nothing). It’s a sweet callback to another couch conversation, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Pete declared his love and Peggy revealed her pregnancy. Now, they are in their own worlds, processing the news. But they are considerate of each other. He thought to tell her, and he’s strategizing her next moves, however vaguely in the face of his own concerns. She clicks into secretary mode for a moment, assuming that old role with him, comforting him softly: “You’ll do great.”

Who would have guessed they’d end up here? Friends.

Peggy and Stan

History: You know! Let us never forget the glory that was Peggy calling Stan’s bluff and forcing him to strip to his underwear while they worked. They’ve come a long way. Their relationship has been intimate and loving (there are many expressions of love) for awhile now.

“Time & Life”: Stan takes most of the episode to catch on that there’s something deeper behind Peggy’s unease with children. Finally, Peggy lays it all out: “No one should have to make a mistake just like a man does and not be able to move on. She should be able to live the rest of her life, just like a man does.” After that moment, very little more is said between them. Stan doesn’t make Peggy say anything explicitly. They know each other deeply at this point, and his caring for her is apparent. (I’ve never had much of an opinion on whether Stan and Peggy should “be together;” I love their relationship, whatever it is, and I don’t feel the need to see Peggy paired off before this show ends. This episode was the first time I wondered: have we been watching these two people fall in love this whole time? They stay on the phone with each other while they work, for Pete’s sake.)

This storyline is a knock out in itself. THANK GOD this moment got its due. I’ve wondered before whether Peggy’s arc actually ended last season, with her Burger Chef pitch. What else could possibly be resolved for her, in seven episodes, that would top that?

I stand corrected. Peggy was confronted in “Time & Life” with questions she likely doesn’t often allow herself to ask. She’s alluded to her baby only once or twice since she gave it away. (In “The Suitcase,” to Don: “…it comes up out of nowhere. Playgrounds.”) She wears the weight of his loss beautifully here. “I don’t know, but it’s not because I don’t care. I don’t know because you’re not supposed to know, or you can’t go on with your life.”

In any case, Peggy and Stan are family. No question.

So, the good news is, the fire’s gone out. People are mellowing, and they may even be growing more compassionate as they do so. In “Time & Life,” they seem more willing to look each other in the eye, to live and let live.

The bad news, unfortunately, is the same: the fire’s gone out.

In an episode full of surprises, the biggest shock comes during the partners’ meeting with McCann Erickson: Jim Hobart interrupts Don’s pitch.

When Don Draper gets up in front of a room, we relax. We trust him to take us somewhere. You can see that trust on the faces of his partners when he begins this presentation: they sit expectantly, tiny smiles creeping onto their faces as he speaks. He’s got this. We’ve seen it a million times. It’ll be a good show.

And then, like it’s nothing, Hobart interrupts. Not only that, he shuts down the conversation, dismissing the idea and the motivation behind it. “Stop struggling; you won,” he says, chillingly.

So even though they have indeed “done this before,” even though we know they can do it, no matter how much like “Shut the Door, Have a Seat” this episode has felt up until now, it’s not happening this time. It’s over.

As the partners sit and listen to Hobart detail how lucky they are, we see the energy drain from them. They do stop struggling. But they don’t look happy.

What’s so bad about going to McCann Erickson?

To start with the obvious: it’s selling out; their snot-nosed executives treated Joan like shit just a couple of episodes back; they tried to snare Don years ago by taking advantage of Betty (there’s no way that “COCA. COLA.” Hobart directed at Don was inadvertent); Roger won’t have his name in the lobby anymore; Peggy probably won’t become Creative Director there (though she’ll surely move on—and up—quickly, elsewhere). They are a fish that Hobart has wanted to catch for a long time, and chances are working for him will feel like it. But other than that, what’s going on here? Why are they struggling?

This team has always been at its best when it’s fighting for survival. From sneaking out of the original Sterling Cooper, to teaming up with CGC, to selling to McCann, to this very morning’s dreams of California, they’re all addicted to that let’s-put-on-a-show romance. We see it most clearly and enduringly in Don, of course, and this final swing is his idea. But it touches all of them. Even Ted, with his new subdued-but-not-unhappy vibe (“Because you’re a sheep!”), was ready to make this happen. Even Joan, the eternal pragmatist, probably with the least to gain, wanted it. Roger and Pete, sometimes in spite of themselves, have always loved throwing themselves into Don’s romantic aspirations. As Roger says to Don later, “I always envied that. The way you’re always reaching.”

We’re addicted, too. What’s more exciting than watching our gang break from the conference room and set about trying to collect their clients? Who wasn’t already daydreaming about Don and Peggy running the California office, with Roger and Pete tan and bickering, and Stan scribbling in the background? Maybe Don can help Stephanie raise her baby! Maybe Joan will break her contract and find a new, fabulous job outside of advertising and move there too! Maybe they’ll all have picnics on Sundays, and Richard and Roger will become best friends! I have a good feeling about things!!

But it isn’t to be. Not even Don Draper and his team of rogues can pull this one off. So they sit and listen to what their lives are going to look like now. Someone else is going to drive.

This is why Peggy is deflated when her headhunter recommends she go to McCann. She’s addicted to the magic, just like everyone else. Putting on a show—especially when you barely have the money and the stakes are high and the feelings are profound—is magical. McCann Erickson isn’t magical.

A few years ago, in a parking garage in Baltimore, I watched as my dad had trouble figuring out how to work the payment machine. He’s not old, or unintelligent; he just wasn’t getting that machine. The people behind him—mean-looking teenagers on a shopping trip—started mumbling. They were making fun of him. He never noticed, but I did. And I wanted to run. I hated, hated, hated seeing my dad look ineffectual, and seeing other people dismiss him. That’s exactly how I felt watching Don spout his tried-and-true spiel—“This is the beginning of something! Not the end!”—as all the young people of Sterling Cooper walked away, buzzing with resentment and disinterest. They’re over it. They don’t trust him. There’s no magic here; he can’t spin this. Meredith, over the course of this season, has gone from flirting with Don to chiding him. It’s easy to imagine how she sees him now: as an aging, inconsiderate, privileged man who needs his secretary to run his life and tell him when to call company meetings. She is serving him, but she’s not on his team.

Who is on Don’s team? The people standing beside him, looking just as perplexed and crestfallen as he does. The ones who’ve shared his triumphs, failures, and, now, whatever this scenario is. Who’ve seen him at his best and at his worst, who learned his worst secret and let him back in anyway. The ones who know him and accept him—finally—for what he is. “You’re okay.” Whatever happens next, “Time & Life” is the first episode in Mad Men’s final season that doesn’t end with Don by himself. If that’s not family, then what is? Peggy really knew what she was talking about with Burger Chef.

I’m painting a pretty picture here. But it’s not wrong, is it?

Erika Schmidt is an award-winning writer living in Berkeley, California. She is the 2013 recipient of the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Award for short fiction. A graduate of Northwestern University's Creative Writing and Theatre Programs, she has trained as a writer at StoryStudio Chicago and Narrative Magazine, and as an actor at the School at Steppenwolf.

"TV can be every bit as complex a medium as any novel..."

An Interview with Alissa Wilkinson

"Lady Lazarus" (Season 5, Episode 8)

"Lady Lazarus" (Season 5, Episode 8)

Bright Wall/Dark Room: So, Alissa, how did you first come to Mad Men? Were you there at the beginning, or did you jump in later?

Alissa Wilkinson: Well, I started watching the first season right after the fifth season started airing—which was after that 17-month long hiatus. (I am very glad I didn't have to live through that.) The only reason I hadn't watched the show up to that point was that I simply wasn't watching much TV. I didn't grow up watching anything but PBS, and in my adult life I've never had a TV that was hooked up to any kind of broadcast or cable service. The first few shows I watched on DVD were Gilmore Girls, Six Feet Under, and The Wire, and even then we were only just approaching TV's so-called Golden Age.

And to add to that, Mad Men, I'd been told, "glorified" Don Draper's devil-may-care lifestyle, and I just didn't have the patience to watch something like that. It was only once I finally bit the bullet and decided to see what all the fuss was about that I realized how wrongheaded that characterization was.

BW/DR: Do you remember some of your initial thoughts when you first started watching the show?

AW: The first thing I noticed was that somebody was madly in love with Edward Hopper, since every single one of the episodes seemed to end with something that ripped off the mid-century painter famous for portraying modernity's alienation. That tipped me off to the fact that the show was more than just a glossy exterior and a lot of bourbon. Then I started paying attention to the writing, the way people talked, the way themes and symbols got strung throughout the show on an almost subconscious level -- and I fell deeply in love. I caught up with it in real time by the time the sixth season started, and have realized since then that this is a show that ought not be binge-watched. That tends to diminish its deeply moral sense.

BW/DR: I absolutely agree - if you binge watch Mad Men, you're doing it wrong. I'm convinced you need at least three days after each episode just to fully process and digest what you’ve seen. It's that richness you were talking about, there's so much going on in each episode, on so many different levels. It needs a bit of distance or space to really absorb, some room to float around in your subconscious for a bit. I'm curious about you mentioning its "deeply moral sense", though. What do you mean by that exactly? Many folks would argue the show has no underlying morality, that it’s simply "bad people behaving badly".

AW: Well, even "bad people behaving badly" is a moral judgement; they live in a world in which they are bad people, and they're always getting judged for it by someone, even if that someone is us, the viewers. The thing is this: we are all bad people, on one level or another. Some of us are more obvious about it, just as some characters on the show aren't quite as obviously bad as others. Even the children are kind of the worst at times.

But that's a big part of the show's moral sense: it refuses to subdivide its world into heroes and villains, nor is anyone's behavior predictable because of that. I suppose on the real planet there may be people who are pretty much always awful and pretty much always good, but most everyone I know, including me, is capable of both.

BW/DR: Definitely. And Mad Men has always been so great at depicting that, which at times I'm sure made it very frustrating for some viewers - it really challenges us to accept people as people, with all that entails, good, bad, and in between. We are many things, but rarely consistent! But do you think that desire for a defined good character/bad character dichotomy gets at something larger in terms of what we seem to seek, on some really basic level, from the stories we consume? Or is it just as simple as the idea that being able to judge people often allows us to feel better about ourselves?

AW: I think humans like clarity, and being able to put people into good and bad categories is part of that—the classic "us" and "them" dichotomy. It's much harder to deal with complicated people who do good things and also do bad things. It requires a lot of work. In my religious tradition we spend a great deal of time both affirming that all people are rotten to the core and that change is possible, and we read stories about the patriarchs and "heroes," all of whom have fatal flaws. Greek mythology is similar in this way.

It may be that one reason we seek this in stories, in particular, is that we like to "identify" with characters in stories. We like to find the one who we feel like we're like, and root for that person. It's jarring when a character you like does a thing you can recognize as bad. (This was one of the singular genius moves in Battlestar Galactica, by the way.) But I think it's also a key part of moral development, because it reminds us that even we are capable of those same things.

BW/DR: Is there a "quintessential Mad Men episode" for you?

AW: I have watched "Lady Lazarus," the show's 60th episode (season 5, episode 8) a few times, and I think it's the one that captures most of what I love about the show in a nutshell. I think it may even be where Act III of the show begins (if we look at the whole show as one long narrative arc). Pete drives Beth home and falls hard for her. Megan tells Don she wants to start acting and quits her job at the agency. Don is confronted with the elevator shaft, and later, after he complains that he doesn't know much about youth culture (with which he seems increasingly out of touch over the remainder of the show), she brings him Revolver.

What sticks in my mind is the absolute gut-drop feeling I get when Don settles back in his chair with a tumbler of whiskey and starts listening to "Tomorrow Never Knows" (which cost the show a quarter of a million dollars to use, so clearly it was pretty important). If you look at the lyrics of the song—and now that the finale has aired—it actually seems like it prefigures the ending. It's also just so ominous. Things have been going well for Don to this point, but it all goes to hell soon after.

BW/DR: Indeed it does. So, what about the various relationships on the show...do you have a favorite?

AW: Don and Peggy. Two of my favorite episodes are the ones where he helps her move on after the baby, and "The Suitcase," when he makes her work through the night and they wind up growing closer. What I love about the two of them—now that the show has concluded—is first, that their relationship was completely unpredictable. No conventional TV show would have taken this route. TV loves to introduce characters like them along with a boatload of sexual tension (I'm thinking now of Cheers, which I'm watching off and on) and then let them get together and break up and get together and break up till you want to stick a fork in your eye.

Instead, we got a relationship that morphed from boss/secretary to mentor/protegee to friends/frenemies, and sometimes to competitors. I was convinced that Peggy was going to end up with Don's job (and am not convinced that she hasn't). I love that they occasionally talk about why they didn't take the usual TV route, as if everyone around them has been watching the shows (remember, Peggy's mom thinks Don was the father of her child; nearly everyone in the office things they slept together at some point). Peggy has not-stellar taste in men, but she had the good sense to never get involved with Don, and he was never into the idea either.

But interestingly, they are far more involved with one another than they ever could be otherwise: now they are confessee/confessor, and I think in the future they will never lose touch with one another, no matter what actually happened after the lights went down. If Peggy gets married, Don will be there. They are connected, and neither of them could have become who they are without the other.

BW/DR: Yeah, I can't imagine a future in which Don and Peggy aren't connected in some way.Mad Men is certainly their story—individually and together—through and through. I don't think it's an accident that the series begins on Peggy's first day at the office. What did you make of the show's other main relationship/parallel over the years, Joan's journey vs. Peggy's?

AW: Peggy and Joan are very alike, though it's not always fair. They're truly frenemies. I love the way the show ended that relationship as well: with respect. I think that often women on TV and in film are portrayed as conflicting mainly over men; in this case, they're conflicting because they each see a little of themselves in each other, and because they both respect and fear each other. It would have made perfect sense for them to be business partners, and they probably would have conquered the world together, but I think it's possible now that they'll remain friends and work together occasionally, without having to be BFFs. That feels true to me, and very satisfactory.

BW/DR: As someone deeply invested in the show, which criticisms of Mad Men bother you the most?

AW: Well, the aforementioned "glamorous" criticism just seems really short-sighted to me. But the thing that has driven me (and several of my colleagues who write about the show) totally nuts is the constant attempt to "solve" the plot, as if it was one big mystery. The speculation about Don turning into D.B. Cooper was perhaps the loudest example, but there was a ton of speculation about Megan being Sharon Tate, and a lot more.

That wasn't really criticism of the show, and I suppose my level of frustration was a little irrational and potentially elitist. After all, that kind of speculation is what TV has taught us to do (especially shows like Lost). I think part of what drove me nuts was that at the same time, I was teaching a course in contemporary American literature, and discovering how tricky it can be to get smart, educated, literate young people to look at a book for more than just whether they like the characters or not. Mad Men pretty closely resembles a novel, or really more a set of interlocking short stories; it's finely crafted, the beginning prefigures the end, some characters grow and change, some don't, and the ending leaves some things satisfied and some unsatisfied. It also richly rewards a rewatch.

But because Mad Men has always really been (at least partly) about how people do or don't find peace and satisfaction, and how we grow up (or don't), a neat mystery-solving conclusion would have totally been wrong. The form of the show is important to its content. It's not a mystery show that gives an "answer," because there's no one blanket answer to how we mature. Everyone ends up wandering the path at their own speed and encountering their own obstacles. I'm glad it didn't yield to that, though I'm equally glad that Stan and Peggy are getting what I've been rooting for all along.

BW/DR: That seems to really get at the heart of what Mad Men has always been about: that everyone is looking for their own kind of belonging and peace and happiness, and that those paths are never linear ones, for any of us. So many mistakes and meanderings and wrong turns get made on the way to any kind of wisdom or maturity. At the same time, like you said, the nature of storytelling on television has essentially conditioned a modern audience to expect a certain kind of resolution to things, whether it's a sitcom generating a central conflict it then solves within 24 minutes, or a show like Six Feet Under (whose finale I still rank as one of the very best of all time) giving us that great flash-forward/Sia-scored "this is how everybody eventually dies" montage. But life so rarely gives us that. And Mad Men never promised - or delivered - resolution. It was much more about the cyclical waves we all go through, and that goes on forever. Which is why, as much as I loved the Stan and Peggy scene as a scene, I still thought it felt a bit out of place in the Mad Men universe.

AW: I completely agree with you about the Six Feet Under finale. I think it's still my favorite TV finale of all time. But I'll disagree about the Stan and Peggy resolution feeling out of place in the universe as a whole. I mean, the two of them drive each other nuts. That's not going to change, and presumably they'll still be working together, and Stan functionally for Peggy. What they have now is what we've known all along is there; they've only just discovered it, and the show indicates that even good romantic relationships, of which there have been few (Henry and Betty may be about it at this point), are fraught with the same badness and goodness as the people in them. Mad Men does not posit that everyone is headed for misery, or that everyone is equally miserable. It sees misery and happiness as a back-and-forth state for everyone, including Don, and it also posits two different spheres: the personal and the professional. To end with only professional happiness (Joan) or kind of weirdo personal happiness (Roger) would be incomplete. Stan and Peggy give us both.

BW/DR: Fair point. And again, I like Stan and Peggy together - and I thought the phone scene between them, and especially Elizabeth Moss's performance during it, was just fantastic. It’s one of the best onscreen monologues in years, the way she moves from “What did you say?” to “I think I’m in love with you, too” in the space of that minute. It sparkles in a Billy Wilder type of way, like something out of The Apartment. But the timing of it all seemed so strange, coming literally on the heels of Don's near-suicidal call to Peggy. Like it was clearly the path they were headed down this season, but that all the sudden they skipped a few steps and rushed to the end and declared their love. But I do think they'll be good for each other, in all kinds of ways. Speaking of pairings though, what did you think of the Pete/Trudy storyline over the final few episodes? And which character arcs, in general, surprised you in the final season?

AW: Pete and Trudy made me happy. Somehow Peter Campbell, who was pretty much the Worst Person Alive in a whole group of terrible people in the pilot, has turned into a pretty decent guy. He's tested the ropes and realized that contentment was there at home all along. And Trudy's definitely been wronged, but I'm pleased to see a great example of careful forgiveness.

The character arc I was most surprised about was the friend break-up between Don and Joan, who always had wonderful rapport until Don's irresponsibility and bad behavior caused problems for Joan. The two of them are so much alike, in that work means everything to them, and they're also both probably the most objectively beautiful people in the show, who turn heads just by walking into the room. The episode where they test-drive the cars and then go for a drink is so wonderfully companionable, so I'm sad that is apparently irrevocably over.

BW/DR: So tell us what your process is for recapping each new episode - do you have a certain routine?

AW: I came to recapping very late in the show, though I'd love to go back to the beginning and write through each episode. My preferred method is to watch once for plot, then go back and watch with notebook in hand, tracking with various symbols, themes, and layers. But I can't always do that, so I try to turn on the critic section of my brain the first time through, too. (It was really hard with the finale, let me tell you.)

BW/DR: And do you have something in mind before you start writing? Some idea what you want to zero in on?

AW: When it comes to writing, I let my intuition take over as I try to find the angle. My recaps aren't really "recaps" in the literal sense, where I go over what happened in the episode point by point, but I also assume my readers have seen the episode. My job is to open up the episode from a different perspective and make possibilities available to viewers that perhaps weren't there before. They're just little mini variations on the themes.

I found last summer when I was recapping another show that Mad Men allows an easy entry into these recaps, because it's loaded with ideas beneath the surface and tons of very deliberate aesthetic choices (musical cues, shot homages, even the movies that are happening in the background) that reinforce the story of the episode. Not every TV show is this well-written.

BW/DR: Which sort of brings up another question I often find myself thinking about lately, not just with Mad Men in particular, but more in regards to 'recap culture' in general. As a critic, a writer, and a professor, I'd love to hear your thoughts on how you see recaps fitting into cultural criticism as a whole at this point? And is it strange for you to have to write something so quickly about someone else's writing/show/art, and then to simultaneously be surrounded by so many other people writing about the same thing with varying degrees of thoughtfulness? There's really never been anything like this kind of weird immediate overnight pressure on thoughtful critics—in the past one had more time to ponder, immerse, and reflect. But culture doesn't really allow much for that now—if you wait even a week to opine, you're basically already out of the loop.

AW: Well, thoughtful movie critics are often forced into writing a review overnight - I have had to do it for years. So it's not totally out of character for a good number of us. The difference is that what you're writing about isn't a self-contained thing, even though it functions that way at times, especially on Mad Men. It requires context and the realization that this isn't the end of the story. So basically it's like you're reviewing a segment of a thing.

Obviously the nature of the recap has totally changed in an era where anyone can DVR or stream the episode whenever they want. There isn't the same need to catch up on plot points you missed last week because of your kid's piano recital. So I think the best recaps have changed to being more like good criticism, which tries to put a bigger frame around whatever the review is about and say more than just "this exists." Good criticism, to my mind, is related to a personal essay in that it draws on the particular critic's context and experience, as well as their intuition, to expand the episode/movie for the reader.

I don't think a recap precludes a thoughtful thinkpiece in the future, though. Every critic who writes recaps knows they've only skimmed the surface. A great TV show, like any great work of art, almost requires multiple visits to take it in. There's room for both.

BW/DR: Oh, for sure. So, are there any longer thinkpieces brewing for you currently? Are there even any original thinkpieces left to be written about Mad Men at this point?

AW: Yeah, there are, though you're right to wonder. I'm thinking right now about religion in the show, and how it does or doesn't track with religious history in the 1960s. With the exception of a few key scenes and characters (especially Colin Hanks's character), religion itself isn't much of a big deal to these characters, but there was so much religious upheaval going on. I'd love to explore that much more thoroughly.

BW/DR: Ok, so we’re getting to the last questions here, the big guns! Can you tell us whatMad Men has meant to you on a personal level? And how you feel about the show being over now?

AW: Mad Men completely convinced me that TV can be every bit as complex a medium as any novel. It also convinced me that there's little to nothing about the medium that is set; the way people talk on Mad Men, for instance, is much more like real life than I've ever seen (characters are never saying what they're saying). It convinced me that tragedy and comedy can co-exist, and don't have to be campy or hokey. Other shows have done all these things, but Mad Men was the first one that let me breathe with it. Additionally, the characters and character arcs on Mad Men gave me eerie recollections of people I know and experiences I've had, without ever making me feel like "realistic" is the right description for the show. It's almost hyper-real, both in the spectacle sense and as human drama.

I'm sad it's over, of course -- but also kind of relieved. I'm relieved that it ended as it did. I'm relieved that I can go back and rewatch the whole thing, and of course, I'm relieved that I don't have to do the recap scramble again on a show where every recap is demanding.

But on a personal level, I've been grinning about the ending all day, as if it all had happened to people I love. So maybe, for all my love of the formal brilliance of the show, I'm also just thoroughly connected to these people. They exist, as far as I am concerned.

BW/DR: I love that idea, that they exist. I feel that way too, honestly. In my head, that world absolutely continues on forever. But since the actual show itself had to end, it sounds like you were happy with where it left us? Did you fall into the cynical camp (Don learned nothing, used his "enlightenment" as a way to cash in on hippie culture and make a hugely successful commercial) or the more hopeful one (Don actually grew a bit, realized connection was important, integrated Don/Dick on his California adventure, and returned to NY to make a commercial that reflected a new Don Draper)? Or something else entirely?

AW: I don't think it's cynical at all. I also don't think advertising on the whole is necessarily an evil empire, as some people apparently do. It can be, but it doesn't have to be. I do think it's ironic, and I'm pretty sure it's meant to be one last punchline, in an episode, and a show, loaded with ironic punchlines. (Go read the list of Roger Sterling's one-liners, and you'll know what I mean.) The whole season has featured people cashing in on hippie culture, so of course it would happen. The ad really existed and it did that, just as the Apple "think different" ad did for the counterculture about 25 years later.

The point here is that there are two sides to every coin. Are you a bombed-out shell of a man? That's going to show up in your work. Are you enlightened and at peace? Good, and you can't help bringing that back to who you are. And Don, in the end, is an ad man. Keep in mind that if we're meant to believe he created the ad (which did originate at the real McCann), then that means he's back near his children, who are now presumably motherless, and that he's working with Peggy as well.

I think you have to have bought into the meta-narrative that making an ad that draws on your experience is an inherently bad thing to do in order to read the ending as cynical. But we're all selling something, all the time. So I think it's just an ironic grace note to a great ending.

Now It’s Time To Leave The Capsule If you Dare

all photos courtesy of AMC

all photos courtesy of AMC

“Lost Horizon” (Season 7, Episode 12) 

I once had vertigo for twenty days straight. The dizziness was worst when I had to look up–to reach for something on a high shelf, for instance. That was the only time I actually felt like I might fall over. This–looking up and getting dizzy–is often referred to as “losing the horizon.” And it’s what our beloved gang is up to this week on Mad Men. Starting at McCann Erickson, everyone is thrown off balance, to say the least. Roger can’t bring himself to leave Time & Life. Don’s nothing special. Peggy doesn’t even have an office. Joan is starting from scratch. Once they step inside that new building, they can’t help each other anymore. “And the stars look very different today.”

“I’m riding the rails.”

We’re lulled into a false sense of complacency as Don starts off seemingly well: he has an apartment, an office, a Meredith, and McCann claims to be rolling out the red carpet for him. I love how Don has no poker face when it comes to being unimpressed. He clearly dislikes Jim Hobart and Ferg Donnelly, and has no use for Ferg Donnelly’s bogus Don Draper impression. Who wants to bet that Ferg Donnelly does the same impression for every Creative Director, since they’re all the same?

Perhaps the cruelest tease for Don in these early scenes is the mention of Conrad Hilton. Connie, that mysterious and exclusive client who called Don in the middle of the night and demanded the moon from him and only him. However he feels about working with Hilton again, the name certainly evokes the type of magic and independence Don prefers in his work. As it turns out, that couldn’t be further from his new reality. “He bought you a gift.” Pardon me for feeling skeptical about whatever that means. Even if they’re saying all the right things, these guys are fucking ghouls. And Don, even though he knows it, even though he presses against the window in his new office as though testing the bars of a cell, is giving this the old college try. “I’m Don Draper, from McCann Erickson.”

It doesn’t take Don long, after he arrives at the Miller Beer luncheon and sees a room full of nondescript Creative Directors, to catch on: he’s one of many. A man in a grey flannel suit with a boxed roast-beef sandwich. As “Bill Phillips from Connolly Research” launches into a pale imitation of vintage Don Draper (this is actually the same question Don was trying to answer in the very first scene of the pilot: how do we get smokers to switch from their chosen brands?), time slows down for Don. After all this season’s “is that all there is?” brooding, we may just be witnessing Don being through with advertising here. That’s how significant the moment feels. He watches the identical motions of identical hands opening identical research packets, marking them with identical pens. He looks out the window and watches a plane cross the sky. It’s another neat callback to the Don Draper of the pilot, watching the fly caught in the fluorescent light. This time, there’s no Lucky Strike pitch waiting. No account to save. No Dick Whitman to hide. Just a room full of people failing to surprise him.

So Don gets up and leaves in the middle of the meeting. Which we’ve seen before, of course. Roger calls it “swinging your privates around in the boardroom.” But this time feels different. Don moves quietly, instinctively. He takes his boxed lunch with him. He’s not making a point: he just has to get out of there. And no one even cares! No one, that is, except Ted Chaough, the tired sheep, who watches him go looking exactly like Ben Affleck at the end of Good Will Hunting when he realizes Will’s gone for good.

The next time we see Don, he’s interrupting Betty’s afternoon studies over in the Francis kitchen. Betty’s reading Freud, y'all; dreams do come true.

The treatment of post-divorce Betty and Don always resonates in a bittersweet way. Somehow, this show manages to put us in the position of feeling nostalgic about them being together, even though we know damn well how unhappy their marriage was. It’s like we’ll always continue to mourn the life they both wanted to have when they started out. There are parts of each of them that only activate when they’re together, and it’s always a painful pleasure to see them connect.

There’s an awkwardness here, too: Betty may be destined to forever be gently reminding Don that he doesn’t belong in her home anymore. It’s sad but, in a nice echo of the “Time & Life” SC&P love fest, neither of them seems to mind too much. They seem to truly wish each other well. They are, fantastically enough, on each other’s teams.

“I’ve always wanted to do this.”

“Knock ‘em dead, Birdie.”

What a punch to the gut.

The rest of Don’s adventure in “Lost Horizon” is rather eclipsed by the fireworks of the Joan, Peggy, and Roger storylines. Diana–and Don’s investment in her–is less interesting to me than the idea that Don is, once again, unmoored. As Roger says, “He does that.” He processes things by leaving. He’s searching for something right now. We don’t know what it is, and neither does he. Bert Cooper, with the sublime logic of dreams, reminds Don that he’s never read Kerouac, then recites: “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”

By episode’s end, Don, in his Cadillac, letting a hitchhiker determine his path, might actually be in the most enviable position of anyone.

“How do you get him to open his mind? You better have something more. Or in this case, less.”

“I’m here and I’m doing my job.”

Well: Joan sure saw this one coming, didn’t she?

In “Time & Life,” Joan told Pete, “We both know they’re never gonna take me seriously over there.” As it turns out, that wasn’t going far enough. Lou Avery is someone people don’t take seriously–that’s a luxury compared to the treatment Joan gets. For Joan Harris, the men at McCann Erickson reserve a special kind of disregard. They actively hate her. Indeed, this is “hatred” defined. It’s not new, nor is it limited to McCann. Over the years, Joan has been continually undervalued, undermined, belittled, humiliated, and violated by the men in her life. This is just the most blatant version of it. Now it’s right out in the open, in an episode so full of disgusting lines I’m not quoting any of them, because where would I even begin? Joan having predicted it doesn’t make it any less enraging to watch.

A common response to a situation like this is to ask questions. Questions like: Do they maybe know about Jaguar? Is that why they’re treating her like this? Should she have given Hobart specifics about Donnelly’s treatment of her? Would that have helped? It sometimes feels better to try to rationalize unfair treatment; we might not even realize we’re doing it.

But here’s the thing: all those questions do is shift the responsibility onto Joan. In any case, none of the answers matter. Hobart doesn’t seem to know about Jaguar. But guess what? He has no trouble hating Joan even without that tasty nugget to fuel his contempt.

This is not only about sex, what we see these men do. This is about territory and power.

How dare you? How dare you have a job? How dare you be good at it? How dare you have a roommate and an apartment of your own—and how dare you prefer it that way? How dare you be good at sex, because how dare you have fucked anyone before me? How dare you be 30 years old? How dare you aspire to more? How dare you command respect? How dare you make an executive decision? How dare you look and dress the way you do? How dare you expect me to respect you? How dare you come here to do work? How dare you expect to do your job the way we do ours? How dare you not be fun?

My heart is pounding right now. Because people have been telling me to smile since I was in elementary school. Because I worked at a restaurant for five years and took money from men who felt free to comment on my hair, my body, my boyfriend, my education, my life decisions. Because I’ve been heckled on the street. Because I’ve been evaluated based on my personality rather than my job performance. Because I’ve been told, during a hiring conversation, that I should think twice before asking about salary range. Because my sister’s been told not to get her panties in a twist. This shit happens all the time, still. And what happens when a woman calls it out? There are plenty of words applied to that kind of woman: difficult, emotional, hysterical, etc. “The kind of gal who doesn’t take 'no’ for an answer.”

This is all about putting men at ease. Joan is usually a master at that. Her skill in that arena, combined with her intelligence and competence, makes her excellent at all of the jobs we’ve seen her do. But it may also have worked against her, because, as Don and Pete have each made clear to her this season, people assume she can handle anything. She exudes control. It’s easy for those around her—especially those who have any status of their own—to mistake that for her having real power. No one sticks their neck out for Joan, because they believe, with her dark feminine magic, she can take care of herself. She has cultivated that image deliberately, and manages to maintain it in the face of even the worst behavior from the men in her life–often at the cost of sticking up for herself. She has a lot of pride and rarely asks for help, but look how utterly alone she looks when Don leaves her in that elevator. I hesitate to say I wish a man would speak up for Joan (and of course Roger thinks that’s what he’s doing here). I just want someone to say something about all this bullshit, and I know that, fair or not, it can be more powerful coming from someone other than the one it’s happening to.

In the end, it’s Joan herself who finally says something. She brings her usual armor; she tries honey with all three of the McCann men, but she gets it flung back in her face. So finally, she shows Hobart what she’s made of. She knows what she’s talking about, and she isn’t going to work this way anymore. My dad always told me not to ask for a raise unless I was ready to quit if I didn’t get it. That’s what Joan does here. She’s ready for battle. And, amidst the horror of it all, it’s a perverse thrill to see Jim Hobart drop the Kind Poppa act and show his true, ugly “binders full of women” colors. Joan loses the war here, but she also triumphs: she gets all this out in the open, finally. She stops pretending it’s okay.

We’ve been waiting seven seasons for this.

“I am a copy supervisor. I am not setting foot in there until I have an office.”

Joan and Peggy have always had one thing in common: they don’t quite fit the soft, accommodating ideal of the 1960s woman. They both want more. A major distinction between them is that Peggy is mostly incapable of faking it. Joan knows what the world wants from her, and it’s taken her until now to refuse to give it. Peggy has never been able to hide her discomfort with the role she’s expected to play.

When Roger tries to give Peggy Cooper’s old painting of the “octopus pleasuring a lady,” Peggy is clearly drawn to it, but balks at the idea of putting it in her office, rattling off, “You know I need to put men at ease!”

“Who told you that?!” Roger replies.

Of course, we all know the answer: Joan taught Peggy that. Peggy has never been good at it. Everything about her rubs most men the wrong way: her devotion to her work, her unreliable sense of humor, her refusal to be left out, her tendency towards negativity. Joan knows how to appear soft; for Peggy, that’s more of a struggle. The upside of that? Peggy has found other ways of succeeding. She’s like the 5’5” basketball player who gets really good at ball handling and defense. Peggy has learned to thrive even if she has to be a pain in the ass to do it. For Joan, that isn’t an option.

Did that music playing over Peggy’s badass entrance into McCann sound familiar? It’s from Season 1’s “Babylon,” in the scene where the men of Sterling Cooper watch through the two-way mirror as the secretaries try on Belle Jolie lipstick. Joan, the only woman aware of an audience, walks deliberately over to the mirror, turns around, and bends over the desk. Ken Cosgrove stands in a salute, and Roger looks like he might keel over.

Then, as the theme kicks in, Paul Kinsey says, “What’s with Mouse Ears over there?” And we see Peggy, sitting quietly at her place, not touching any lipstick. She’s watching the other girls, and we see what she sees: women trying on lipstick, tossing the tissues into the wastebasket. A basket of kisses.

It’s Peggy’s defining moment, the confirmation that she’s different. It comes directly on the heels of Joan’s display of 1960s feminine power, expertly playing a game she knows well. Joan is the best woman of all the women; the trouble is, that still leaves her a woman.

Over the years, Peggy’s progress is often shown in direct contrast to the degradation of Joan. In “The Mountain King,” Peggy gets her own office moments before Joan is raped by her fiancée, Greg. In “My Old Kentucky Home,” Peggy smokes pot for the first time, creatively bests her fellow copywriters, and tells her concerned secretary, “Don’t worry about me. I am going to get to do everything you want for me.” Meanwhile, Joan is coerced into playing the accordion for Greg’s boss to save him from the embarrassment of his own professional inadequacy. During a moment alone, the boss’s wife confides to her, “The fact that Greg can get a woman like you makes me feel good about his future.”

Six seasons later, we’re still comparing Joan and Peggy, gauging their successes and failures, their polar-opposite navigations towards power. As Joan heaves a world-weary sigh and takes fifty cents on the dollar to disappear from McCann, Peggy’s the one in slow motion, strutting in with shades on her face, a cigarette in her mouth, and a strange pornographic heirloom under her arm, facing out. She’s evidently through with trying to put men at ease, and so far it’s working for her. She’ll need all the momentum she can get, walking into this meat grinder where the female copywriters claim to be “happy to share the crumbs” and the company has already mistaken her for a secretary. I know better than to worry about Peggy–but I don’t envy her road ahead.

“I just needed a push.”

Our sad clown seems physically incapable of transitioning to McCann Erickson. John Slattery is an exquisite actor, and here we get to see Roger in one of his lowest moments, connecting with an unlikely cohort, and allowing all of his humor, pain, and even love exist peacefully in the open. He is not innocent where this business is concerned, and especially not where Joan is concerned (he so clearly loves her that it’s easy to dismiss just how profoundly he’s undermined her over the course of the series). But his depth of sadness, genuine remorse about losing SC&P, and his series-long search for meaning keeps him richly human. The monsters at McCann certainly put things in perspective.

Roger effectively, if not knowingly, chooses a horse to back here. With Peggy, he spends a surreal afternoon drinking, philosophizing, and, apparently, choreographing. He treats her with bemused affection and respect, as though she’s a Martian he has a good feeling about. They cut through each other’s sarcasm and acknowledge the nostalgia of the moment. With Joan, he plays the role of “The Other Woman”-era Lane Pryce, delicately nudging her towards the move that’s most prudent for her finances but most crushing for her soul.

Call me naive or thin on my knowledge of the historical situation, but it really seems that one person standing beside Joan could have made the difference, even if she ended up folding anyway. Roger obviously thinks he’s helping her, but there’s no way to sugarcoat the fact that he’s once again hanging her out to dry. I wonder how much of that he understands. When he delivers the final blow, he speaks more urgently than is his wont, telling her it’s all his fault and that he’s trying to fix it. When he pleads, “Take the money and be done with them,” he makes it sound pretty appealing. He isn’t wrong about that part. I can’t help but think he wishes he could do the same. Shirley is right, after all: “advertising is not very comfortable for everyone.”

Erika Schmidt is an award-winning writer living in Berkeley, California. She is the 2013 recipient of the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Award for short fiction. A graduate of Northwestern University's Creative Writing and Theatre Programs, she has trained as a writer at StoryStudio Chicago and Narrative Magazine, and as an actor at the School at Steppenwolf.

"I couldn’t wait for Sunday nights..."

An interview with Kara VanderBijl

Bright Wall/Dark Room: How did you first come to Mad Men? Were you there at the beginning, or did you jump in later?

Kara VanderBijl: I started watching Mad Men in the fall of 2009. Before that I lived under a rock (read: I attended a very religious college, where I didn’t have access to cable TV) and hadn’t heard of the show. One day I saw a quiz on somebody’s Facebook page — something like, “Which Mad Men character are you?” and I was intrigued, so I pirated the first few episodes (sorry, AMC). I got hooked immediately.

BW/DR: So, which Mad Men character were you?

KV: I can’t remember. Maybe Pete, but that’s because we were both snobs back then.

BW/DR: And you’ve both aged into self-aware, humble, genuinely good people who realize that true happiness is living in Kansas?

KV: Obviously. I mean, I do live in the Midwest, so I guess I’ve got that part down.

BW/DR:After watching seven seasons of the show, which character did you identify with the most?

KV: Anna Draper. She has an intuitive clear-headedness that I appreciate in myself, too.

BW/DR: Interesting. Say more about that - she’s not a character that all that much gets said about, especially over the past few years.

KV: I’m not sure I am like Anna as much as I want to be like Anna. She has this charming little house and a heart full of love for the people in her life. In her words, she knows everything about Don and still loves him. I want to be able to say that about myself. I think it’s more admirable than professional ambition or the unending pursuit of personal happiness and pleasure, both of which seem to drive most of the other characters.

BW/DR: And is there a "quintessential Mad Men episode" for you? One that best captures what you love most about the show?

KV: “Guy Walks into An Advertising Agency,” although I know that’s a cliche answer. I think I both giggled and gasped when Guy’s foot was cut off. And then I screamed and applauded for Joan. Actually, I loved all of Season 3. “Souvenir,” the episode where Don and Betty visit Rome, holds my heart. Sally starts fighting for herself. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is born. A lot of things peak in Season 3. It feels like Act III of a tragedy, when everything’s coming to a head — when you can’t wait to see how everything will fall apart.

It was the season when Mad Men felt most brilliant, most unpredictable, most foreshadowing, most on edge. It was infectious. I couldn’t wait for Sunday nights.

BW/DR: I don’t think it’s a cliched answered at all - I’ve been asking a whole lot of people this question and, actually, you’re the first one to mention that episode. In fact, every single person has picked a different episode - no one episode has emerged as a clear cut favorite. Which I think speaks to Mad Men’s special appeal to those of us who love it so dearly: it was so many things to so many people, for so many different reasons.

So what has the show meant to you on a personal level? And how do you feel about it all being over?

KV: Too soon. Way too soon.

BW/DR: Too soon to answer the question? Or the show ended too soon?

KV: I’m sad it’s over, but if we’re being honest, I don’t think it could have gone on for much longer. Don can only escape across the continental United States so many times.

I don’t really know how I’ll feel about it this Sunday when there isn’t a new episode. Probably the way Don feels when he walks into his apartment after Megan takes all of his furniture: a little unmoored.

BW/DR: To be fair, Megan didn’t take all of his furniture - her mom had those guys get rid of all of it! I’m not entirely sure what the draw is there for Roger, she clearly still has some issues to work through. Or maybe that is the draw for him? But it’s Don’s ex-wife’s Mom! What is happening? Anyway. Speaking of relationships, which relationship on Mad Men feels the most important to you?

KV: Sally and Don. I’ve loved watching their evolution: Sally’s little-girl adoration of her father in the beginning, then her disillusion, then the hesitant, adult friendship we begin to sense near the end of the series.

Don has a lot of foils, but to me, Sally is the most interesting one. She’s unapologetically herself, but she also knows how to take care of other people. Sally is the most important woman in Don’s life. Their relationship allows me to believe that Don can be genuine.

BW/DR: She certainly seems to be the one who most fully sees and understands him, for better or for worse. It’s amazing that two such damaged people (Don and Betty) produced such a remarkable daughter. In a world where Mad Men continues forever on, what do you think happens next for Sally?

KV: Sally will have a lot going for her. She’s growing up in an era where women are getting unprecedented opportunities, and she’s smart as a whip. If Peggy’s going to be a creative director by 1980, Sally’s going to be a CEO by 1990. She’s smart and takes charge. Betty’s death will put her back for a little bit, but she won’t flounder for long. Basically, she will get stuff done.

BW/DR: You don’t think she ends up raising her brothers and never getting to Spain then?

KV: I don’t. I mean, she’ll definitely advocate for her brothers and make sure they’re taken care of, but so will Betty. I think Betty will do everything in her power to make sure her kids have the care and opportunities they need — she has softened, you know, at least a little, plus Henry’s around, too.

BW/DR:Are there any criticisms of the show that particularly bother you?

KV: I can’t think of any.

BW/DR: None?

KV: Not really. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, and most of the criticism—or at least the criticism I read—was fair. Is Mad Men an over-glamorized look at the ‘60s? Definitely. Does it fit into the “We’re So Much Better Off Now” genre of television? Occasionally guilty. Is it soapy? Yes. It’s a show about advertising.

I stand by the valid criticism that Mad Men lacked diversity and did little to address the social upheavals, both racial and demographic, that characterized its era. But I also recognize that it’s impossible to show a complete cross-section of life in any work of art. The camera zeroes in, people get cut out, people whose stories are just as important as, if not more important than, the story in focus. Don is not very interesting: he’s predictable, he’s white, he’s entitled, he never learns. If anything, Mad Men served as a useful reminder—both purposefully and coincidentally—that we still have a long way to go toward upholding and broadcasting everyone’s stories, not just the ones we’re comfortable with.

BW/DR: What kinds of stories would you like to see more of?

KV: I was in a coffee shop yesterday and the woman in line in front of me asked the barista, “So, do you think they should put a woman on the $20 bill?” Of course we all said yes. But then I also remembered that Andrew Jackson, who’s on the $20 bill right now, did things like support and sign the Indian Removal Act and engaged in all sorts of nepotism. But we still put his face on our money, because for better or for worse, he shaped our country.

Women are getting more space in pop culture, and that’s great. We’re learning (and by we I mean, the industry) that female characters should talk about more than men and shopping. We’re starting to allow female characters to be more than virgins or whores. But we’re still lacking so much nuance. I want dramas—not just comedies—about women going through menopause, and about women balancing work and motherhood. I want Girlhood, first period included. Will it make people (and by people, I mean men) uncomfortable? Sure. But it’s time men got used to discomfort. Welcome to humanity. For better or worse, this is what shapes the world.

BW/DR: And what did you make of the finale?

KV: I think it will grow on me. It’s already grown on me since Sunday night, when I threw a remote at the television after it was over. Peggy and Stan still leave me cold, though. And really, Joan is dating another self-centered loser? It just seems cruel at this point. I wanted Stephanie to be part of a weird cult. Roger and Marie were funny, but their relationship didn’t seem finale-worthy to me.

BW/DR: Wait, what’s grown on you then? It sounds like you weren’t much a fan of it.

KV: I loved Pete and Trudy blowing glamorously into their Learjet, and my heart broke when Bobby tried to make dinner and while Sally did the dishes. Don’s “Birdie” killed me, but not as much as Betty’s “I know.” And I loved Joan’s employee answering the phone “Holloway Harris,” because you do need two names to make it official, so why not use two of your own names?

BW/DR: What about Don?

KV: I don’t really have an opinion on Don’s end. I felt hopeful. Whatever happens, he’ll be okay.

BW/DR: You’re actually not allowed to not have an opinion on that ending with Don. It’s an Official Internet Rule this week that you must have an opinion on it. So, does Don make the Coca-Cola commercial? And if so, is that supposed to be genuine or cynical?

KV: I do think he makes the commercial. After all, Peggy says, “Don’t you want to work on Coke?” and it’d be so Don to waltz back into McCann, get yelled at, and then be like, “But wait, I have a brilliant idea.” I say “It’d be so Don” because I don’t believe Don has changed all that much. He’s just more at peace with himself. I don’t think he’ll stop womanizing or disappearing or drowning his sorrows in Old Fashioneds. I do think he’ll stop hiding, though. It’s hopeful because it’s a message of self-acceptance and self-forgiveness.

The Sunset of Promise

all images courtesy of AMC

all images courtesy of AMC

(“The Milk and Honey Route”; Season 7, Episode 13)

I was always a little afraid Betty Draper might grow up to be Livia Soprano. When I tried to imagine her future, I came up short. I couldn’t quite concoct a fantasy scenario for her. Like Joan and Peggy, she seemed ill-suited for the role she’d been raised to play. But unlike them, Betty never seemed to be reaching for much. She didn’t engage with the world. She always seemed like a supremely disappointed woman, stuck in the body of an angel. She wasn’t happy, and though she sometimes had plenty of reason not to be, the question also remained: what exactly would make her happier?

Seventh and eight grade were rough years for me. I hated school. I felt out of place and hopeless. It was hard to get out of bed in the morning. I constantly felt like crying. I started dreading Monday mornings as soon as I’d left school on Friday afternoons. Sunday nights, with the school week ahead, were almost unbearable. My mom was good to me during those years, understanding and gentle. She concocted an arrangement that allowed me to leave school early each day and study with my grandma, a recently retired English and Spanish teacher. My grandma and I read Shakespeare aloud together, and she taught me how to diagram sentences. My mom took me to the movies and snuggled with me and made sure I got to do theater and helped me try a million ways to make things work. I have one really clear memory of her giving me a popsicle on a Sunday night. Neither of them ever told me to “get over it” or "be happy". Now, I see that depression for what it was, and I see that those two women were my saviors and my champions.

I still feel close to that suffocating feeling. “The Sundays,” we call it, though the day of the week doesn’t matter anymore. When it visits now, the difference is that I know, at least intellectually, that it won’t always be acute. I didn’t know that then.

I’m afraid Betty never learned that. She didn’t have the language. She was raised, like Joan, like a generation of women, to be admired. She was told that her heart should be fulfilled by her beautiful home and healthy family.

When we first meet Betty Draper, we’re struck by the clarity of her beauty, then by her childlike manners beside the jaded Sterlings, and finally by the fact that something’s wrong with her. Her hands are going numb and she doesn't know why. She has a slight, almost imperceptible stutter; she’s almost a little breathless. She’s in mourning for her mother, she’s short with her kids, petty with her friends, consumed by her husband. She has nothing to occupy her mind, and it’s a mind that needs occupying. Most of Betty’s ugliness over the years—disappointment, contempt, irritation, desperation, jealousy, cruelty–has always looked to me like “depression talking.” She lets an innocent mistake by her son, trading away her sandwich because he didn’t think she wanted it, ruin her entire day, lets herself recklessly ruin his as well. She holds a grudge. She sees the worst. She is cynical, unforgiving, and sour.

Betty’s husbands, in their own ways, try. Don Draper is constantly unfaithful, and essentially dishonest. When she accuses him of cheating, he shuts her out and ridicules her. But if it’s possible to put that aside for a moment, it’s worth remembering that Don worries about her. He tries to help her make things work. He’s just not equipped for it. The analysis, the modeling, the trip to Rome, the “everything's gonna be okay” approach. It’s all he knows to try, and it doesn’t work.

Henry’s house is calmer, but the darkness still accompanies Betty. Without any champions with the proper instincts to buoy her, without a society that invites her to find purpose, without the knowledge to understand herself, Betty sinks. She is paralyzed and, finally, warped by her melancholy. “Incapable of experiencing joy.”

I’m not calling Betty a victim. I’ve just always had a hard time calling her a bitch. That guy from “Revenge” was right: she is profoundly sad. And she doesn’t ever figure out how to deal with that, so her life never feels quite like her own.

Lately, I’d started to hope. Betty seemed serene and good-humored in the past few episodes. With Glen, she was more like an adult than she’d ever been with him. She treated Sally with some patience. She appreciated Don uncomplicatedly, but kept him at an appropriate arm’s length. Betty’s decision to go back to school, to study psychology, slayed me. I thought, “Yes, Matt Weiner. You’ve found the solution to Betty.” I started allowing myself to imagine elderly Betty not as a “poor you” black hole, but as one of those rather twisted but not ineffective therapists, her own issues still percolating and plaguing her family but not holding her backfrom living a fulfilling, active life. I found the idea hilarious and miraculous.

But it wasn’t to be. Things change in an instant Betty won’t be following that road.

In “The Milk and Honey Route,” Betty sits in the exam room, staring at her blighted X-ray, and listens to the doctor tell her husband–her husband, not her–her prognosis. The camera focuses on Betty from the side, Henry and the doctor out of focus behind her. I couldn’t help but think, in this moment, of Season 5’s “Tea Leaves,” when Betty has her first cancer scare, and her friend tells her, “It’s like you’re way out in the ocean, alone. And you’re paddling. And you see people on the shore, but they’re getting farther and farther away. And you struggle because it’s natural. Then your mind wanders back to everyone normal….and then you just get so tired. You just give in and hope you go straight down.”

Silent and still, Betty is already leaving. While Henry “chases his tail,” she remains stoic, almost unsurprised–a very Livia-like way of reacting, I suppose. She is mercilessly blunt with Henry, exasperated by his hope. (Also very Livia: “In the end, you die in your own arms...It’s all a big nothing. What makes you think you’re so special?”) Her mercy toward Sally comes not with any motherly comfort, but in her insistence that Sally not have to watch her die. It seems cold, but it shows a certain amount of care and attention to formality that is so very true to Betty’s nature.

The best “way in” to loving Betty has always been the details. Her character is realized so beautifully through them. Singin’ in the Rain is her favorite movie. She likes hot dogs. She reserves her most genuine smile for when she gets a compliment or feels a sense of power.

“Only boring people are bored.”

“It’s just, my people are Nordic.”

“Daddy used to fine us for small talk.”

“And put my hair up, like this.”

“I’ve fought for plenty in my life. That’s how I know when it’s over. It’s not a weakness; it’s been a gift to me. To know when to move on.”

It’s Sally she trusts, in the end, with the important details of her death. Her instructions reveal a woman still heartbreakingly preoccupied with earthly things, but softened by the comfort of those same restrictions. She knows what to do, because this is what one does in such a situation. She lists these details lovingly:

“I’ve also enclosed a portrait from the 1968 Republican Winter Gala. The blue chiffon I wore is my very favorite. I hung it in a gold garment bag in the hall closet beside the mink. Please bring them the lipstick from my handbag, and remind them how I like to wear my hair. Will you show them the picture?”

And, at the last possible moment, Betty becomes Sally’s champion: “Sally, I always worried about you because you marched to the beat of your own drum. But now I know that’s good. I know your life will be an adventure. I love you. Mom.”

In her final act, Betty reaches for something. When Henry asks why she’s still going to class given her condition, she says with a smile, “Why was I ever doing it?” I hope she means that she was doing it because she’s always wanted to, and that that hasn’t changed. I hope she sees each excruciating step up the staircase as the victory it is, because she is finally fighting for something she knows she wants.

This is how Betty escapes Livia Soprano’s fate. She won’t have decades of disappointment to come. And she’s taking charge of the details of her own end, which is no small thing.

Knock ‘em dead, Birdie.


Who could ever have predicted that, in the penultimate episode of Mad Men, it would be Pete Campbell pulling a Don Draper?

And the craziest part is, I’m buying it. Trudy Campbell is perhaps the only woman ever portrayed on Mad Men who might actually want to inhabit the role she was raised for. Her marriage fell apart because she refused to tolerate blatant infidelity, but it had been crumbling for awhile because Pete didn’t want what she was offering. He didn’t want the beautiful home and family yet. He wanted the city, and success, and power, and to be desired. But he’s over that now. He calls the city “a toilet.” He’s spending time with Tammy. He’s content in his work. He is considerate and respectful of the women in his life, both professional and personal. When he asks Trudy to come to dinner with him, he puts it to her as an equal. This is a new dynamic between them. His proposal is, as he puts it, “supernatural,” but when you think about it, it’s been a long time coming. We might just be seeing the real thing here: change. “I’m not so dumb anymore.”


“We both know that things can’t be undone,” says the ever-reasonable Trudy. “Says who?” replies Pete. He makes the case for starting over, tells her all the things we’ve always wanted him to, his voice almost unrecognizable with emotion. It’s very hard not to believe in what he’s saying. This is a type of speech we’ve heard before, more than once, from Don to Peggy, Betty, Megan, Lane, Ted, and from Pete himself, to Peggy. But this is the most convincing version of it. It’s more grounded, more earned. The language is romantic, and yet the frills are somehow stripped away. Pete wants to start over not by “always looking for something better, always looking for something new,” but by finally appreciating what he had from the start. We believe it. And, with Betty on our minds, we very much want it to work.

I kept it pretty well together until this scene. In the face of death, a wild, hopeful grasp at life by the most unlikely candidate. Pete Campbell for Most Improved Player. May his streak continue.


The episode’s title –"The Milk and Honey Route" – refers to a 1930 study called The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man:

“Any railroad running through a valley of plenty may be called a milk and honey line. But this is a transient term; what may be a milk and honey route to one hobo may not be so to another. A hobo may fare well on a route one time and another time fare ill. Again, it may be milk and honey for a road kid but not for an old timer.”

The last time Mad Men openly referenced hobos was in Season 1’s “The Hobo Code,” in which we see flashbacks of Dick Whitman’s father cheating a hobo who did some work for him at the farm. The hobo teaches young Dick the symbols hobos carve on fence posts outside of houses to communicate to each other about the inhabitants. When the hobo leaves the Whitman farm, Dick sees the carving he left: “a dishonest man lives here.” The memory drives Don Draper home to wake a sleeping Bobby and assure him urgently, “I will never lie to you.” Bobby, confused and sleepy, sits up and gives his dad a hug.

“The Milk and Honey Route” finds Don, apparently weeks after his escape from McCann, still on the road. He’s in touch with his family; he shares a light-hearted, fatherly call with Sally about sporting equipment and school trips. Talking to Sally, he echoes the words Betty used when she first found out about Dick Whitman (fittingly, in "The Gypsy and the Hobo") and she told him she’d always known he’d been poor: “You have no idea about money.”

Don and Sally’s relationship here is easy and honest. In an interview with The Nerdist, Matt Weiner spoke about the moment in The Sopranos (Season 1’s “College”) when Meadow asks Tony if he’s in the mafia. The understanding between the two of them is earth shattering because, Weiner explains, it blows what the audience expected would be a series-long story arc out of the water. She knows. She already knows. Now what? As Weiner put it, “I have another story to tell you.”

He goes on to say that the same thing happens in Mad Men when we learn that Megan knows about Dick Whitman. And now, in a more gentle way, the same thing has happened with Don and Sally. Sally knows about Dick Whitman. She knows Don cheats. She knows Don was fired. She knows he’s traveling right now, that he’s aimless. Don isn’t on the run: Mad Menhas another story to tell us.

I’ll pause here to make a little confession: this week’s recap is the hardest for me to write, because I find myself wanting to escape from the sadness of it all. Don’t get me wrong. I’m completely on board. This was utterly beautiful. “It’s something I couldn’t have imagined, yet exactly what I expected.” I feel equal parts devastated and grateful for the gift of this show, and the clearly dear thought that is put into every moment. I’m ready for next week. Don’s misadventure at the Bates-like motel is loaded with stuff to think about, but digging in feels more overwhelming this time. I’m fighting the urge to go binge watch Parks and Recreation and work on remembering that this is all fiction.

In Oklahoma, Don continues to let parts of himself drop away. He sees a beautiful woman at the pool, traces her body with his eyes, and then passes her by without breaking stride as he realizes she’s with her family. That never comes back. He tinkers and fixes things around the motel, like he did when he stayed with Anna in California. He allows himself to be drawn into a fundraiser at the local VFW and speaks aloud a truth we’ve never heard him voice before: “I killed my C.O.” And thus, the final secret of Dick Whitman is revealed. It’s received like any other old war story, with a slap on the back, another drink, and a chorus of “Over There,” which Don joins in lustily. It’s a surreal picture; Don belongs but doesn’t belong. And when the money goes missing, of course he’s the first suspect. Is it because he’s an outsider? Because of the secret he revealed? Is he once again being rejected after telling the truth? He doesn’t fight the charge; he knows who took the money, and he simply gets it back, returns it, and leaves.

Finally, Don lets the rest go. He passes on what knowledge he feels like sharing about how to start over, about the hobo life, to the clumsy young con man who stole the money. Pulling up to the bus stop, Don gives the road kid his Cadillac. “Don’t waste this.”

Back home, Sally is reading Betty’s letter. Betty is climbing the stairs. Pete is wishing Trudy a “good morning” (how very poetic, and yet how very Pete Campbell: it is morning, after all). Who knows what will happen next? But something tells me that Don’s shedding of his possessions, his career, his secrets, doesn’t mean he’s headed down a route that leads away from reality.

We leave Don sitting at the bus stop, alone. What a valuable and rare thing, to spend as much time with a character in solitude as we’ve spent with Don Draper. Right now, he looks like a little boy, a Sears bag balled up next to him, nothing else for miles around. Buddy Holly sings, “Every day, it’s a-gettin’ closer.” And Don smiles, unaware of the darkness awaiting him.

Go home, Don. You have one, and your children need you. You’re ready. Don’t waste this.

“The road the real hobo follows is never ending. It is always heading into the sunset of promise but it never fully keeps its promise. Thus the road the hobo roams always beckons him on, much as does the undealt card in a game of stud. Every new bend of the road is disillusioning but never disappointing, so that once you get the spirit of the hobo you never reach the stone wall of utter disillusionment. You follow on hopefully from one bend of the road to another, until in the end you step off the cliff.”

Erika Schmidt is an award-winning writer living in Berkeley, California. She is the 2013 recipient of the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Award for short fiction. A graduate of Northwestern University's Creative Writing and Theatre Programs, she has trained as a writer at StoryStudio Chicago and Narrative Magazine, and as an actor at the School at Steppenwolf.

"The more you invest in the show the more you get back..."

An interview with Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Bright Wall/Dark Room: So, Brianna, when did you first start watching Mad Men?

Brianna Ashby: I’ve been in from the beginning—I came for the seemingly endless parade of vintage fashion and stayed because there was so very much more.

BW/DR: Wow, you've been in since day one - impressive! Not a lot of people can (honestly) say that. So the original ads caught your eye or how were you even aware of it?

BA: I have a friend who watched the pilot and basically sat me down and said, “This show is made for you.” And he was right.

BW/DR: Sounds like he knew you pretty well. I hope you kept him in your life - he’ll need to find a new show for you now, after all.

BA: Yes sir.

BW/DR: And do you have any routines or rituals around watching the show?

BA: I sit down on the left hand side of the couch on Monday night (after iTunes has made it available) with a full glass of water next to me that I never touch, admonish my husband not to talk, sneeze, eat, or breathe, and then I sit motionless for 47 minutes. It’s practically meditation.

BW/DR: And I think you told me recently that you don’t read anything about it afterwards?

BA: I don’t. It’s not that I don’t think that I have anything to gain from reading other people’s interpretations, but somehow I feel like it would taint my own response to what I had seen. I’lltalk about it until I’m blue in the face, because when it’s conversational it feels less like someone is trying to instruct you on how to feel about something which I tend to internalize pretty deeply. I sound like an asshole, don’t I?

BW/DR: Not at all - it’s actually fascinating to me, because I’m basically the exact opposite way. I’ll watch it with my wife, we’ll talk a little bit about it, and I’ll let it sit with me overnight. But then by the next day, I’m religiously reading a handful of writers I trust and enjoy (Matt Zoller Seitz at Vulture, Molly Lambert at Grantland) to see what they made of the episode. For me it adds to the engagement with the show - but I can totally see and respect your point of view, where you want to keep your own interpretations intact. That’s great, too. I don’t think there’s a wrong way to do it.

So, you’ve been watching Mad Men like this for eight years now - which episode do you think best captures what you love most about the show?

BA: Hmm...that’s tough. There are so many connecting threads that run throughout the show that it’s really difficult to isolate one episode in particular and hold it up as an exemplar without it losing some of its power. I guess the episode that immediately comes to mind for me, though, is “The Wheel,” (Season 1 Episode 13) which is masterful television in its own right, but becomes that much more poignant when you pair it with “The Strategy.” (Season 7 Episode 6).

One of the most compelling things about the series as a whole is the way that advertising is used as a vehicle for telling bigger, deeper stories; in this case, the mythological nostalgia of both the Kodak Carousel and the Burger Chef campaign is just a projection of what Don and Peggy and Pete and everyone else are fumbling for. Much of the beauty of Mad Men lies in the unsaid—which, like every other detail of the show, is absolutely intentional—and having the advertising work carry a lot of the emotional weight is such an elegant way to forgo exposition. It’s a brilliant plot device. And then visually both episodes are knock outs and really show off what the series conveys through lighting design: the intimacy of hushed tones in Betty’s psychiatrist’s office and the warm darkness of Don and Peggy’s dance, contrasted with the brilliant glow of the slide projector and the Edward Hopper-esque fluorescence of a meal at Burger Chef.

BW/DR: It really is amazing how much the show is able to convey without words. All those intangibles—the lighting, as you mentioned, but also the composition of certain shots, the detailed set and art design, the songs they choose to use in certain moments—they bring so many additional layers to everything. And it’s clear, like you said, it’s all absolutely intentional and on purpose. I can’t believe there’s much of anything at all on Mad Men that’s accidental. Which actually, as I’m saying that, makes me realize that almost connects Matthew Weiner in this weird way to someone like Wes Anderson. They work in vastly different realms tonally, for sure—but the specificity, the obsessive care and attention to detail and artifice, the self-contained worlds they create...there’s definitely a connection there, right? I defer to you on this, since you’re the resident Wes Anderson expert on staff.

BA: I actually made the Wes/Matt comparison in a recent conversation! I think it’s an apt one. I think in both cases we have creators who are willing to let things happen organically (to a certain extent) within a very specific, controlled, environment, but I don’t think anything isevery left up to chance. Everything is a storytelling device, even the costumes, which I can’t resist talking about for a second.

Reflecting on the Mad Men finale, I picked up a little bit of foreshadowing in Don’s costume changes. When he first shows up at the retreat he’s in jeans and a plaid shirt and is slightly unkempt, but when the camera focuses in on him at the end, he’s perfectly groomed and meditating in a dress shirt and chinos, work attire. A minute later, the Coke commercial starts and Don Draper is back in action. It's so subtle and so wonderful.

I also particularly appreciated the reappearance of Megan’s tiny blue chiffon dress this season; she wears the same dress to meet Harry to discuss finding her a new agent that she did when she picked Don up from LAX for the first time. It’s her Dress of Unmitigated Disappointment. It’s details like that that totally suck you in. Both Matt and Wes have such clear visions about the worlds their characters inhabit, and their scrupulous methodologies have made watching a film or turning on your television a completely immersive experience. A huge part of that comes from how immersive their creative processes are—both of them devour everything they can get their hands on that’s related to a particular idea. Hell, at this point Matthew Weiner is practically a historian. The relatability of both Mad Men and of Wes’ films comes from their being based on real people and real places and real stories and layering them with their own ideas, even things that seem far fetched. I went to a panel discussion at Lincoln Center with Matt and some of the cast of the show, and they were talking about how he collected stories from people from that era to use as jumping off points, and the conversation came to Joan’s Jaguar storyline. As unsavory as it was to watch her sleep with a lecherous creep to secure an account, it was more unsavory to learn that it was inspired by a true story, but that “no one got a partnership afterward.” You can’t discount the strangeness of real life.

BW/DR: Very true.

So, is their a relationship on the show feels the most important to you?

BA: The relationship between Don and Peggy, no question. Here we have two people that have absolutely put each other through the wringer, but would do it all over again. There is such a profound understanding between them and such an openness…it’s incredibly moving.

BW/DR: Don definitely put Peggy through the wringer over the years, though he basically put everybody through the wringer at some point, but do you think Peggy did the same in turn? It seems to me she got the short end of the stick far more often than not in that relationship.

BA: I’m not sure that anyone really got the short end of the stick. When Don was spiraling out of control, he took a lot of it out on Peggy, and she internalized a lot of it, but she wasn’t passive. When she struck back she was downright hostile, and she hit him where it hurt. When you’ve let yourself be utterly vulnerable in front of someone else, all your nerves are exposed. They expected even more out of each other than they expected out of everyone else (which was already a lot), and so when someone was falling short, things got ugly.

BW/DR: And they also gave us some of the most wonderful scenes in the entire series. Those moments of emotional intimacy between them in “The Suitcase” and then again years later in “The Strategy”, that’s as good as television gets in my mind. And while I don’t think their phone conversation in the finale matches either of those, it’s still another incredible moment between them. Which one stands out most for you?

BA: The beauty of their relationship is that it runs that emotional gamut. When I said earlier that I had trouble isolating episodes, I also have trouble isolating specific moments, especially in this case. When you’re watching “The Suitcase,” you have to have an awareness of Don and Peggy’s backstory, otherwise you’d just be kind of left scratching your head. They have a pretty heavy conversation at the bar about Peggy’s baby, and they barely have to say anything. It’s one of my favorite instances of meaningful omission in the series—there’s so much depth in between the lines. Then moving forward, we couldn’t have had “The Strategy” without “The Suitcase.” The power of that episode hinges on our having been privy to Don and Peggy’s conversations about family, and why it’s such a fraught topic for both of them. All of that said, both of those episodes are masterworks. Like you said, they are as good as television gets, especially when Don says to Peggy, “You’ll find someone. You know you’re cute as hell.” It slays me every time.

BW/DR: Ok, so you liked the Don/Peggy relationship the most, but which character on the show did you most identify with?

BA: I actually identify the most with Betty. Like her I’m a mother in my 30s living in a town just outside of New York City, and like Betty, I feel like I both fit into and stand totally outside of my domestic role.

BW/DR: Given that, how did you feel about her character arc over the course of the show’s seven seasons? It seemed like they put her through a lot, but at the same time, didn’t give her much to do for long stretches of time.

BA: I always wanted more for Betty. I have never been a fan of Henry - he’s arguably just the lesser of two evils, though I’m not really sure how much I actually believe that. It’s always frustrating to see someone with untapped potential be consistently undervalued, you just want to shake them and say “You can do so much more!” And it was particularly frustrating to watch Betty be held hostage by the times and her need for propriety and social acceptability, because she has the self awareness to know that she’s trapped. The storyline between her and Glen was so compelling because we see her acting purely on instinct, in ways that are pretty wildly inappropriate, and she’s laid totally bare. She writes to Sally that she used to worry about her marching to the beat of her own drummer, but now she doesn’t because she knows her life is going to be full of adventure—and that one sentence brings all of Betty’s struggles into sharp relief. I think it’s part of the reason why she’s so calm about her prognosis, and so wistful in dictating her last wishes: she gets to choose. She has no idea what comes next. It’s an adventure.

BW/DR: It seems like people really embraced January Jones as an actress a lot more in the final season, but she caught a lot of flak in the early years of the show.

BA: Negative critiques of January Jones’ acting always sort of rubbed me the wrong way. There’s a lot of discomfort surrounding her character and I think some of that gets displaced. I also think that when you watch Betty, you’re watching someone who is so conscious of every move she makes and how she’s presenting herself that she rarely lets her guard down and just acts naturally, for lack of a better phrase. She’s suppressing so many instinctual reactions and emotions that of course she’s going to come off as cold, or wooden, or whatever the preferred pejorative is!

BW/DR: Definitely a suppressor. That's why I was so thrilled to see her wanting to study psychology this season! I think if they'd have actually let her read all that Freud she was starting to dig into before she got sick, she might have started seeing some things a whole lot differently, and made some fairly interesting changes.

BA: I’d also like to think that if she’d been given the chance she would eventually have gotten to the point where she just said fuck it and threw Henry and her life as she knew it totally overboard.

BW/DR: I did start thinking at some points this season that that was the journey she was ultimately starting in on. Education and self-awareness would have been an interesting fit on Betty Draper. Do you think she would have made a good therapist some day?

BA: I’d like to think so.

BW/DR: So what has Mad Men meant to you on a personal level over the years? And how do you feel about it all being over now?

BA: Well, I feel like I owe Matthew Weiner—and all of the writers, actors, and anyone who had a hand in creating this show—an enormous debt of gratitude for letting me into that universe. I’ve been enthralled with television shows before, but I’ve never felt the emotional connection I do with Mad Men. The writing isn’t just sleek and snappy and witty, there’s also an emotional intelligence that's unlike anything I’ve ever really seen before. There is so much to decipher in the places in between words, in body language, in set design, in lighting, in color, that you’re never less than fully engaged with what you’re watching. You get to a place where you can read the characters like you would a person standing right in front of you, and you realize that even though the characters are fictional, they’re telling you the stories of everyone you know. The more you invest in the show the more you get back and the more you can see yourself, which can be uncomfortable, but it’s also a relief to see people at their worst, because god knows no one is ever consistently at their best.

I’m sad that we’ll no longer have that mirror, but I think the show is ending at just the right time. I don’t want to see Don get old, or see Joan wearing awful 80’s power suits and directing spots for Lean Cuisine.

BW/DR: Speaking of which, have you seen that "80s Don Draper" twitter account? That's maybe the single funniest Mad Men thing I've come across all week.

BA: Oh god, I have. I laughed in spite of myself.

BW/DR: And what did you think of the actual season finale?

BA: I thought the finale was perfect! I had anticipated sobbing through the entire thing, and when that didn’t happen, I thought, well, Weiner has done it again. The man can throw a curveball better than any professional pitcher.

One of my favorite things about the show is its sort of “magical pragmatism” - it’s always been pretty relentlessly realistic, but there’s always been room for the surreal and the dreamlike (and sometimes literal dreams) as well, so it’s never been without hope, and it’s certainly never been without humor, even in its darkest hours. (Lane trying and failing to kill himself with a car that notoriously has mechanical difficulties? That’s just brilliant.) And I think we got all of that in the finale. Having it end with a wink instead of a sob was such a wonderful surprise that I was giddy. I didn’t see anything cynical about having it all come back around to advertising, in fact, I saw it as the opposite. We see Don undergoing such a powerful catharsis that it’s like he’s detoxing from all of the regret he’s been carrying around, and then he calls Peggy who tells him that he can come home. Where is home? Home for Don is at Kodak, Jaguar, Heinz, Lucky Strike, The Hilton. It goes back to that idea of advertising as a vehicle for the emotional—Don uses his pitches as a way of trying to attain the intangible. Throughout the episode we see the major players in Don’s life working their way toward their own versions of happiness, and acceptance, and finding love and peace through that, and that’s all Don wants for himself, and for everyone else. When Don Draper wants to buy you a Coke, he’s not just buying you a Coke.

BW/DR: Totally true. I always thought of Don as an artist - even if his "art form" was advertising, which we don't often associate with "being an artist". And like so many great artists (writers, musicians, painters, etc) throughout history, he had a miserable childhood, with a whole lot of trauma and attachment wounds, and finds a way to channel that into creative expression. I mean on some levels "Don Draper" itself is essentially one long extended piece of performance art on his part, right? He's always, everywhere he goes, Dick Whitman and he never won't be, he gets the bone deep level of insecurity and loneliness at the heart of the human condition on a very basic level - it's carved into his core. But at his best, he can channel that into his "art" at a level that someone like, say, Pete Campbell is just never going to get to as an ad man.

BA: Right, I completely agree that there’s a lot to be mined from trauma, and Don is a master at finding the gems. When it comes to the finale and Don’s acceptance of his duality, I think I may have a different interpretation. I saw the last episode as a sort of sloughing off of the vestiges of Dick Whitman, and this man becoming wholly Don Draper, which was set up brilliantly in the previous episode. In the VW hall listening to haunted men tell their horror stories, Don tells what we know is the absolute truth about what happened in Korea, and yet, these men that he feels a kinship with think he’s a phony. He’s distanced himself so far from that life that his honesty rings hollow. There are a few bits of dialogue in the finale that stuck with me, particularly when Don calls Peggy and is laying out his multitude of sins and he says, “I’m not the man you think I am", Peggy dismisses him and says that’s not true, and when Stephanie says, “You’re not my family. What’s wrong with you?” No one is buying into the Dick Whitman story anymore, and Don realizes that he can finally let it go.

BW/DR: Hmm, yeah, I can see totally see that take on it, even if it’s not where I personally landed. And bear with me, this is gonna be long. I saw it more as finally, like, this integration of Dick Whitman and Don Draper, rather than a shedding of either part. I mean, the Dick Whitman thing isn’t a story, it’s his actual self, who he is underneath the Don Draper mask. And that insecure, traumatized, restless, scared, lonely kid inside of him is ultimately what drove him to build this cool, confident Don Draper mythos up around himself, even if it was often Dick driving the emotional car around, self-destructing time and again. That’s why I saw the finale as him finally getting a bit more integration of Dick/Don, which becomes that “new you” the yoga teacher refers to in the final lines.

And he's only able to get to that point after going through this complete dismantling of the Don Draper persona, shedding everything, stripping it all down to maybe try and build that new self. But then once his mask is gone, he’s a wreck too, and has to face up to that directly for maybe the very first real time. So he starts building up the persona again—drinking heavily, racing cars, sleeping with a random woman because he can, starting to Don Draper it up a bit. Then he gets that literal wake up call from Sally, telling him that Betty is dying, and finds out in quick succession that Sally doesn’t want him to come back to help raise the kids, and neither does Betty. Then he goes to the only “family” he has left, in Stephanie, and she tells him he’s not her family. They go to the therapy retreat, and a woman looks into his soul and flat out pushes him away. Then he tries to console Stephanie, in crisis, by repeating the mantra that's gotten him through for years, telling her to keep moving forward and not question her choices—and she tells him that’s just plain wrong. And then she ditches him at the retreat, stranding him there! Total rock bottom. No Dick, no Don. Totally broken down.

And that’s when he’s finally open and raw and vulnerable enough to fully be present and take in that heartbreaking “no one notices I’m gone” monologue from Leonard in the final group therapy scene. Leonard basically feels like a stand-in for Dick Whitman at that point, and Don fully gets that, takes it in and connects with the guy’s sadness and pain and gets up and hugs him. Not to get too woo-woo or new age-y on you, but I think that’s Weiner trying to suggest Don is finally really seeing and befriending his own inner child - the Dick Whitman self he’s been running away from for so damned long. That hug, and shared sadness with Leonard, that’s the start of the Don/Dick integration. And then by the next morning, he’s becoming someone slightly new - not a better Don Draper, but a better, more compassionate and integrated person in general. (He should have changed his name again...maybe he could have just taken Leonard’s!)

Now, as to how long that change or new self lasts, who knows. But I think the point is that he got there, even if only for a little while. And that’s the smile that ends the show.

BA: It’s interesting to hear your interpretation of things, because you can approach it from a much more psychological perspective. I agree that for a long time Don Draper was just a facade, but over the course of the series, I felt like I was watching that gradually fade away while Dick Whitman became mythologized. He’s a tragic John Steinbeck character. That said, I can get behind your take for the most part, but I’m not sure I believe that Don is on the road to complete reinvention. I think if that was the case, the show really would have ended on that smile, and not on a commercial for Coca-Cola. Even if Don made it to some other astral plane, he brought what he saw and felt back down to earth with him, and channeled it into the thing that makes Don Draper Don Draper. His self-actualization becomes part and parcel of his creative process.

BW/DR: Oh, trust me, I'm not arguing that Don self-actualizes or reaches nirvana or anything—just that he gains some pretty deep insight, for once, and uses that to grab onto a moment of contentment that might possibly lead to a bit of reinvention. At the end he's a changed man, but who knows how long that change holds. Mad Men loves to remind us that change is cyclical, for all of us, and it's always happening.

BA: Exactly.

BW/DR: Alright, so final question - what was it like doing the Mad Men/Jon Hamm cover art for this issue?

BA: Unsurprisingly, I’m pretty attached to the piece I did. I am so inspired by the creative processes that brought the show to fruition, so it felt right to pay a humble tribute by creating something with my own two hands.

The Pain from an Old Wound

all images courtesy of AMC

all images courtesy of AMC

Mad Men ends on an inhale, with the ping of a brilliant idea.

"The new day brings new hope. The lives we've led, the lives we've yet to lead. A new day. New ideas. A new you."

I'm reluctant to write about this. Part of the fun of finales like "Person to Person" is that we get to keep thinking about them forever. We can project ourselves onto them over and over again. We can think about them in the context of the book we're reading, the play we just saw, or that crazy moment we had the other day with that stranger on the bus. We can let them wash over us again and again.

Mad Men as a series functions in the same way. It never offers a simple answer. It always contains multiple, sometimes competing truths, and it always keeps us on our toes. It remains more devoted to exploring the inner lives of its characters than perhaps any other show in history. How fitting that its final moment would leave its main character, Don Draper, in the middle of what looks to be a wholly internal revolution. It's cathartic. It's sad. It's hilarious. It's expansive. It is surprising and inevitable. It is roiling and peaceful. It is incomplete and complete.

I wonder if I should feel bashful at how profoundly highly I regard this show. With the exception of one notable flaw (its frustrating and uncharacteristic lack of interest in minority characters), I'm hard pressed to receive it with anything but gratitude. I don't watch it looking to decide whether I agree or disagree with how it was written or executed. I don't try to guess what will happen, and I don't rebel against what does. And yet I don't only love it. I watch it actively, trying to understand what's happening, and why and how. Watching this show has made me smarter. It has helped me articulate what I most value as a writer. I care deeply about its characters, which makes the end more painful for knowing I can't know what will happen to them next. Like the complicated people in my life, I will forever be trying to figure them out. And I mean that in a good way.

I guess I'm going into all of this because I'm not particularly in the mood to pick apart this episode. Watching it was an emotional experience for me; I've found myself resisting trying to put that reaction into words, not least because I want the freedom to reinterpret repeatedly. I don't want to be quoted on this. On the other hand, there's so much to talk about! My brain whirs with the lovely details, the surprises, the implications and the hopes of this final hour of my favorite show. I suppose I just don't want this essay to mark the limit of my dialogue about Mad Men. Can you blame me?

With all that in mind, here are a few things I can't wait to keep thinking about forever.

Don Draper and the real thing

"Be open to this. You might feel better."

We've seen Don Draper break down before. Indeed, more than once, his body has literally broken down, rebelled against him, the stress of his deception and his shame too much for him to bear.

"Person to Person" takes Don to the brink one last time, with the most significant women in his life guiding him to the precipice. Sally, our impossibly grown-up little ballerina, granddaughter of Gene, speaker of truths, breaks Betty's news to her father. She calls him "Daddy" here, and she makes a valiant effort to steer him in a preternaturally wise direction: Bobby and Gene should not go to live with William, as Betty wishes. Nor should Don come to sweep them away. They should stay with Henry. "They should at least be in the same bed and at the same school." Sally is the adult on this phone call, and she seems to have steeled herself to play that role for some time to come.

Next up is Betty, in the most painful scene of the show's history. Betty's treatment of Don here is something new. It's a bit of a callback to the night she confronted him about his true identity and, shocked by the depth of his horror at being exposed, became as solicitous toward him as we'd ever seen her. But this is different. This is Betty almost beyond Don. When she says, "Don, honey," we know she's about to get real. "I appreciate your intentions, I really do. But I'm not going to waste the rest of my time arguing about this. I want to keep things as normal as possible. And you not being here is part of that." The weight of this statement hits him visibly, her loving delivery sharpening rather than softening the blow. In the silence, they both acknowledge that these children, in a very real way, don't have a father. "Birdie..." he says, and all that remains between them hangs in the air. "I know," she replies. There's no "everything's gonna be okay" this time.

When Stephanie takes Don (still stunned and hungover from his call with Betty) along to "some kind of a retreat," he enters as a skeptic. As the leader coaches the group to walk around the space with "no aiming, no purpose other than to move your legs," Don walks around with his arms crossed over his chest, eyebrows raised. He couldn't be more closed off. With his khakis and his fitted shirt and his perfect hair and his smirk, he couldn't be less open. He is presenting himself in the role he's been playing his whole adult life: Don Draper, White American Male. I found myself wondering as I watched him whether he truly felt uncomfortable or whether he was just indicating discomfort because he's so used to pretending. There's always been an element of Don that I didn't quite buy. The aggressively masculine element: whenever he gets rough or commanding sexually, for instance, or when he so cruelly denies Betty when she calls him out on his cheating. Something about his affect in those moments never seems right. He seems uncomfortable in his own skin, as if he's trying too hard to "be a man." He acknowledges it himself when Betty pressures him to use force to discipline Bobby, and he confesses that the beatings he suffered from his father when he was a child have made him reluctant to beat his. The same dissonance is recognizable here, as he stands in the circle and, rather than engaging with his partner, watches Stephanie play with hers. Whatever Don is doing, whoever he is playing, it's enough to make the old lady across from him want to push him with all her might. Maybe he makes her feel anger. Or maybe she just wants to wake him up, to shake him out of the performance in which he's trapped himself.

Don gets shaken again, watching Stephanie testify during their second seminar. She speaks of feeling judged by her parents, by the world: "You shouldn't have dropped out of school. You shouldn't have been with a low life. You shouldn't have gotten pregnant. You should have loved being a mother."

That last sentence seems particularly resonant to Don, who we know told Peggy to leave her child and never look back, who spoke openly to Megan about having to pretend to love his own children, who has just been told by Betty that he is essentially not a father to them. In a season that has returned repeatedly to the theme of parents abandoning children, Mad Men's final hour refuses to reunite Don with his. But it does take him in a new direction. When he follows Stephanie outside and desperately delivers his worn-to-shreds pep talk ("You can put this behind you. It'll get easier as you move forward."), it's clear that's he's as concerned with his own life as with hers. And Stephanie's response (what a remarkable delivery from Caity Lotz) is totally, heartbreakingly new: "Oh, Dick. I don't think you're right about that."

Someone's finally telling Don to try another approach. Today's truth is, "Your baby is going to spend the rest of his life staring at the door waiting for you to walk in." We've come a long way from, "It will shock you how much this never happened."

Speaking of which, when Don wakes up to find Stephanie gone and himself stranded at the retreat, he calls Peggy. The show makes beautiful use of the distance between them here, with Peggy looking like she wants to jump into the phone and drag Don back to safety. Don is on the verge of collapse, and she senses his distress quickly; this is as maternal as we've ever seen Peggy. She tries granting permission ("You can come home."), coaxing ("Don't you want to write for Coke?") and finally commanding ("Don: come home."), but she can't reach him. We share her alarm. In this moment, it feels like anything could happen; we've seen Don brought low before, but this is the nadir.

"What did you ever do that was so bad?" Don is devastatingly ready with his response: "I broke all my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man's name. I made nothing of it."

In the end, Don is saved by strangers. What a stroke of luck: to completely fall apart in the middle of a hippie retreat. Whatever Don was resisting before, he has no more strength to resist now, in his third seminar. In his vulnerable state—paralyzed, panicked, flattened—he forgets to pretend. He lets the curtain drop, because he's surprised by someone else. In "The Suitcase," Don loses it when he looks up and sees Peggy sympathetically watching him. In a similar moment of unexpected release here, he clicks into what this other, very different White American Male is saying, and Don lets his body lead the way, driven by desperation to live fully in the moment.

Anything could happen next for Don. Maybe this breakthrough is the permanent one. Maybe he returns to New York, at peace, ready to be himself and no one else, to care for his children. Maybe he writes that Coke ad, having finally genuinely lived the thing he's selling. Or maybe he doesn't. We'll never know.

All we can know is that the last time we see Don Draper, he's sitting cross legged, chest up, back straight, open to the universe, breathing. Smiling to himself. Something is happening within him, and he's paying attention to it. That can't be a bad thing.

Joan and Holloway Harris

Here's the thing about Joan: she seems like she's having great fun with Richard (only Joan could be so utterly charming on cocaine), and it remains refreshing to see her in such a frank and respectful relationship with a man. But we don't see her come alive until she sits down to a business dinner with Ken. As she later tells Richard, "I can't just turn off that part of myself." He reminds her that this isn't just happening to her, that she is making a choice—which is true, and wonderful. Joan lets him go (off to invest in Studio 54, probably), and we see her, one last time, gather up her heart and put on a brave face for the sake of business.

Joan's proposal scene with Peggy (get ready: I'm about to make a statement) is the most exhilarating moment in Mad Men history. I was fortunate enough to watch "Person to Person" in a sold-out movie theater, and I didn't even catch Joan's line, "You need two names to make it to sound real," because everyone was still cheering deliriously over the heaven-sent "HARRIS. OLSON."

Christina Hendricks and Elisabeth Moss are having a lot of fun here, with Moss delivering the deeply-felt reaction of our dreams. She is into this, man, and she gets how much it means coming from Joan. These two women have been antagonists in the past, even as their professional trajectories brought them closer together, the moment in history and their natural allegiance getting harder and harder to deny. We have very rarely gotten to see them as the ass-kicking feminist duo that a less nuanced show might have let them become. This moment feels earned and realistic, laden with the characters' history, which makes it all the more romantic. Whatever comes next, their mutual admiration and their very real potential for success is a giddy reward for an audience who loves these two women as if they walked among us.

And then: Joan ending up in business on her own is even more right. "Holloway Harris." All I can do is shake my head and cry. I ask you.

Peggy and Chevalier and Samsonite and Joan and Stan

This is how to feel good about Peggy's finale regardless of your thoughts on Peggy and Joan, Peggy and Stan, Peggy and McCann:

Peggy has decisions!

Slowly but surely—she's still realizing it herself—Peggy has come into her own. Pete's summation: "Someday people are going to brag that they worked with you." (Let's not get into Peggy's response, which was another shake-my-head-and-cry moment for me. I may also have made an embarrassing noise in the theater.)

Peggy's decision to stay at McCann isn't the most glorious choice she could have made. But we've been given good reason to believe that it's a solid one. The headhunter predicted she'd be out of there in three years, her salary quadrupled. We see in this episode, with her deft handling of the Chevalier shuffle, that she's not going to have trouble working the system to her advantage at McCann. (Notice the two accounts Peggy mentions in this episode: Chevalier, which prompted Don's throwing money in her face back in "The Other Woman," and Samsonite, the account Don kept Peggy to work on in "The Suitcase." Don is never far from her.) Peggy is never going to be just a cog in this machine.

And, perhaps most importantly, she seems to hear what Stan says: "Work isn't everything." This idea cuts right to the heart of many of Peggy's past difficulties: “I mean, I know what I’m supposed to want, but it just never feels right, or as important as anything in that office.”

Work has always been everything to Peggy, not least because she genuinely loves her work. It's fair to imagine that Peggy, like Don, wouldn't enjoy being a partner. She has never seemed to click as a manager of staff, so focused is she on the work and her own relationship with it. While Joan was clearly put on this earth to wrangle, manage, and lead, Peggy has always seemed ill at ease with it. As intoxicating as the idea of Joan and Peggy going into business together is, Stan has a point: it's a bit of an arbitrary move for someone who has been so very clear about her dreams and goals from the beginning. To Peggy, copywriting has always been art. She does have a rare gift. You guys, maybe it's Peggy who writes for Coke.

I've rarely dared to imagine a life for Peggy where she can have the commitment and passion for her work without the personal pain, loneliness, and confusion that has come with it in the past. Maybe that's what this is. Don and Peggy's relationship is one of my favorites in television, movies, literature, you name it, ever, but Stan arguably knows Peggy as well if not better, and he provides a convincing counterbalance to her beloved brand of insanity.

Speaking of insanity, the Peggy-Stan love scene is joyful bordering on nuts. Even through my lovelorn haze for Mad Men and my deep wish to see Peggy happy, I felt a twinge of incredulity here. But the closer I looked, the more I bought it. As with almost every moment of this show, this scene works because it is some combination of well earned and well executed. It is packed with payoffs from characters we've loved for a long time. Stan's confession rings true as one of those conversations that turns serious suddenly and accidentally. Stan knows Peggy well enough—and so do we—to let her work through her realization slowly rather than giving up on her when she opens with, "I don't even think about you." Their words might seem a bit on the nose, but not one of them is false to these characters or the history that's been delicately woven between them over the years. Like many of the best moments in this show, we experience this happy one layered with all the sad, difficult, and hilarious memories from before. Peggy spurned by Pete; Peggy struggling to be included in the office; rejected by her mother; searching for a roommate; clashing with Joan; stripping with Stan; stabbing Abe; embarrassing herself with Ted; dancing with Don; drinking with Roger. This is a character so fully drawn that every gesture means something to us. And this scene is a gift to our continued hunger for her, our abiding love.

There are other things to think about. The phrase, "I scandalized my child." How Joan says, "Harris. Olson." the same way Jim Hobart says "Coca. Cola." Betty's perfectly manicured nails as she sits smoking in the dark kitchen, Sally doing the dishes behind her. Peggy's "Octopus Pleasuring a Lady" painting hanging on her office wall, festooned now with decorative Halloween kittens. The implications of Don's years of work selling cigarettes. Sally's haunting delivery of "Gene, go watch TV," Betty incarnate. Poor Bobby's grilled cheese. Roger and Marie and the way fighting is like a dance for them. Roger and Joan and their "little rich bastard." Trudy's outfit. A thing like that! But let's leave it for now and come back to it later, when we've mellowed.

There will always be more to think about. What a gift that is. What a joy this has been.

Erika Schmidt is an award-winning writer living in Berkeley, California. She is the 2013 recipient of the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Award for short fiction. A graduate of Northwestern University's Creative Writing and Theatre Programs, she has trained as a writer at StoryStudio Chicago and Narrative Magazine, and as an actor at the School at Steppenwolf.