Monday, May 18, 2015

#MadMen ends perfectly

There was no way I was going to stay up until 10 at night to watch anything, but that doesn't mean it wasn't the first thing I did when I woke up. The show I have loved and found almost flawless did not disappoint at the very end.

All good things....
The opening episode found Don continuing his Western adventure, Joan at the end of her idyllic, post-"retirement" vacation with her older lover, Peggy practicing her elbowing skills at McCann and Pete bidding farewell to McCann and New York. That might have been everyone's happy ending- Peggy only acts annoyed when she has to struggle; the truth is that she lives for the fight- but something was going to give. In this case, that something was Sally's confession to Don that Betty was dying of lung cancer. Her plea to her father: convince Betty that her brothers should stay with their stepfather Henry, not go to live with their Uncle William. Don is indignant and calls Betty; the boys should live with him. Betty, who with age has developed nobility, tells Don that the boys need the presence of a woman, and her sister-in-law Judy is the only one who can provide that. She also quickly lets him know that he's been a failure as a father, and spending more time with them now will let alarm them. Betty has never been a great mother, but it was touching that she wanted to provide her children with stability, even if keeping them in the dark was a complete failure. The scene where Sally came home to find her brothers struggling to make dinner broke my heart; she wanted to maintain the facade that everything was okay, but her little brothers knew better than she did how sick their mother was. She told Bobby that she wasn't going to Madrid that summer, and started taking care of everyone by making dinner- and teaching him to make it in the process. Not surprisingly, this was one of the most tragic arcs of the entire series; as long-time viewers may remember, the second episode of the series explored the beginnings of Betty's unraveling in response to her mother's recent death.

The news about Betty's health sent Don on another bender- what a surprise- and he asked the race car drivers he was sponsoring to drop them off in LA to visit his niece Stephanie. He hoped to reconnect with the only family he had left that he hadn't disappointed, but Stephanie, who had been compared to a Madonna earlier in the series, wasn't able to give anyone absolution as she was struggling with her own feelings of worthlessness. She convinced Don to come with her to a retreat that featured proto-group therapy in addition to yoga and tai chi. (How awesome was Don's face when he saw people performing forms?) Don was highly skeptical about the whole thing, but when participants were told to express their feelings about the person closest to them without using words and an older woman shoved him, Don's defenses came down.

Meanwhile, Ken reached out to Joan from Dow, in desperate need of a producer who could create some industrial commercials. Joan quickly realizes that she could produce the commercials. She also realizes that she knows the perfect writer and calls Peggy. At lunch, Joan asks Peggy to not only help her write one commercial, but to come into business with her. Harris-Olson, because two names are better than one- and Joan wants Peggy. Peggy is flattered, but frazzled, and later takes out her angst on Stan, her long-suffering colleague/confidante. Fed up, Stan tells her she'd better be really drunk, because she's going to need an excuse.

Meanwhile, after a particularly difficult session in which Stephanie is reduced to tears over her abandon of her young son, Don realizes that Stephanie has left him at the commune and taken his car. It'll be a couple of days before he can get a ride out. When he berates the young woman at the desk because people leave without saying good-bye, the young woman smiles and shrugs. People can go as they please. Don realizes that's exactly what he's done his entire life, and staggers over to the phone to call Peggy. Peggy, the person who has most consistently seen his decent side, reminds him of the good things he's done and tries to remind him of the creative opportunities he still has- "Don't you want to work on Coca-Cola?" but to no effect.

This image made a lot of people predict that the show would end with Don committing suicide; really, this only showed what happened to Don in every episode.
After Don hangs up, Peggy calls Stan in a panic, telling him where Don is and then apologizing for what she said. Stan confesses that he doesn't want her to leave after she tells him she already made up her mind to stay, then rambles out that he loves her. Peggy comes to her own realization that she loves him too, and the scene ends when he comes running to her door and they share a loving, passionate kiss. I must say, I've loved their relationship since Peggy put younger, sexually harassing Stan firmly in his place, and it's been clear for the last several seasons that their friendship was based on mutual respect. When she confessed that she'd given up a baby years before two episodes back and Stan was not only understanding but kind, I was jumping out of my seat, hoping that the two would get together, but I didn't think there was time in the series. So this was a wonderful, romantic surprise; Peggy deserves a happily ever after as much as- if not more than- anyone else on the show, and part of the HEA is a man who treats her like an equal.

Roger, Madison Avenue's would-be Peter Pan, is now engaged to be married to Don's former mother-in-law, Marie. The two have a passionate argument after what looks to have been exhausting sex and Roger ends up on the couch. But this is Roger's version of a happily ever after; just like Peggy needs to fight in order to thrive, Roger needs not a mother to take care of him (his first wife Mona) or a child to pamper (his second wife Jane), but a fierce, independent woman who has enough dignity not to tolerate his shenanigans. He's at peace when he tells Joan that he's getting married, during the same conversation that he tells her that he insists on leaving half of his estate to their son, Kevin. Joan cares a little less about appearances now and gives her blessing. It was a nice final scene between the two of them; Joan would have made a good wife for Roger, but Roger wouldn't have made a good husband for her. To see him graciously accept that they were better as good friends was satisfying.

Unfortunately, Joan's lover Richard was much less sanguine about her new business venture, and walked out when she answered a business call. Joan was heartbroken, but it's one of those things that she would surely be thankful for sooner rather than later. Richard didn't want an equal partner, he wanted a playmate. Joan had surely earned her playtime, but she had a lot more to do before she was ready to take up permanent residence by the beach or in the mountains. Peggy didn't take her up on her offer of a partnership, so Joan's firm was called Holloway-Harris, her maiden name plus her married name. And that's just fine, because Joan has always been the most capable person on the show.

One of the leaders of the retreat found a devastated Don slumped by the phone and convinced him to join her in the next session. Don was moved when a man who looked just as out of place as he did talked about his longing to be seen and loved, and then his realization that maybe he had been getting love all along but didn't realize it because he didn't know what it was. As the man sobbed, Don crossed the circle and knelt down beside him, embracing him and then sobbing himself. It was one of the many epiphanies Don had through the course of the show, but this was the most human response Don had ever had to it.

The end scene featured Don chanting "Om" with his fellow participants in Lotus Pose, and then smiling before the famous "I'd Like To Buy The World A Coke" ad was shown. It looks like Don got to work on Coca-Cola after all. Perfect, because that was as close to enlightenment as Don Draper, the soulless narcissist, was ever going to get.

Thank you, Matthew Weiner, for some of the best, most consistent characters I've ever watched, and thank you for giving your loyal viewers a realistic closure to a compelling story. I do not feel cheated one bit by anything that happened (although I'm always going to wonder what happened to poor Sal), and at the same time I'm done; I don't feel any need to watch this again, and I don't wish anything had been done differently. Like the best of great stories, I feel richer for having heard it. what am I going to watch?!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

I Totally Saw That Coming...and sometimes that's not bad

Kerrie did a great job talking about the good side of predictability. Despite the snark implied in the title of this blog hop, I don't always think predictable is a bad thing.

My husband and I watched a great little show broadcast by BBC America last year, The Game. It was set in early 1970s London, and it was about a group of agents from MI-5 who were trying to forestall a Soviet plot. The main character is young but jaded agent Joe Lambe played by Tom Hughes. Even though he's barely in his late twenties, the viewer can tell that he's already starting to lose his conscience and is willing to be more and more ruthless.

Whatever happened to corrupt young Agent Lambe so? He lost the love of his life, of course- or did he? (SPOILER ALERT) From the first time I saw a flashback of Joe remembering the murder of his lover Yulia years before, I knew that she wasn't dead. (And if I hadn't known that, the fact that they showed the flashback in almost every episode would have given it away by the end.) More importantly, because Yulia was an intelligence agent for the Soviets, you knew the bad guys were going to use her as leverage. But what you didn't know: would it work?

You could guess what happens next and then what happens right after...but could you figure out why?
There was another big twist I could guess within two episodes, and that was the identity of the mole. It was a small team: Joe, director "Daddy" (yes, that is kind of creepy), young assistant Wendy, proto-techie Alan, his brilliant wife Sarah, Bobby, a to-the-manor-born agent who needed to hide his homosexuality and Jim, a detective on loan from the London police department. (SPOILER ALERT) It didn't take much to figure out that Sarah was the mole, although they did do a very good job for a few minutes of making it look like her husband Alan was. Why did he confess? Because he figured it out first and he wanted to protect Sarah.

Really, only one of these people could have been the mole. The real question was whether the rest of them could get on in spite of it
So why did this make for really good television viewing anyway? A couple of reasons: first, the viewers knew who the real mole was before the team did; would they figure it out on time? And what were the Soviets planning? Even more importantly, the credibility of everyone on the team was compromised in some way: that which made it plausible for them to be the mole also made it possible that they weren't going to be able to do their jobs even though they weren't.

The look on Joe Lambe's face: that's what The Game was really about
Further, being able to suss out a plot twist isn't the same as being able to figure out why. As predicted, Joe was reunited with Yulia at the end, but he was tormented as to what, if anything, her role in the plot was. Did she willingly go along with a charade to make it appear that she was being killed, or did the Soviets spare her at the last minute so they could use her as leverage against Joe? While the viewers may have had a pretty good idea that it was the latter, it didn't matter: the end frame of the final episode made it clear that Joe was always going to be tormented by his doubts. As Jim pointed out a few episodes back, there was no way Joe could be the mole they were looking for: he didn't believe in anything. That was what the show was really about, and predictability wasn't going to ruin that.

If predictability can be a good thing, the converse is also true; sometimes, there's such a thing as too much surprise. No, I'm not talking about Scandal this time, but rather the 2014 novel The Big Hit. I went into this expecting to find out why Hollywood star Catherine Delure was murdered by a sociopathic hit man. If you look at the cover and read the back cover, you'd most likely think that the murder had something to do with the victim's job. You know what else makes you think that? The fact that more than half of the book is spent following NYPD Detective Jeb Barker into the corrupt warrens of some of Hollywood's producers- that, and the fact that said hit man just happens to hail from LA as well. (SPOILER ALERT) But no. As it turns out, Delure's profession is just one big red herring that gives birth to a slew of others. (An early tip should have been that she wasn't killed anywhere near LA.)

The question of a mystery should be something like Who Dun It? and then Why?, not What Is This Story About?
That kind of a "twist" might have felt clever if it had taken up fifty pages, but when it takes up more than 200 out of 400 pages, it feels like a manipulative way of drawing out what would have been better as a compact murder mystery. If you're going to be unpredictable, it should make the story better, not completely derail it.

What have you watched or read that wasn't hurt by predictability or that was greatly harmed by a lack of it?

Thanks for stopping by! Please be sure to visit Karin Cox tomorrow for her take on when predictability works and doesn't.