"How long do you think it'll take us to be in a place like this again?" -RogerFor much of this season, we wondered exactly when the show would get around to dealing with the Kennedy assassination - whether Matt Weiner would wait till the finale, or get to it ahead of that. He took the latter approach, and many of us assumed it was because he was following the "Sopranos"/"Wire" model of putting all the big developments in the penultimate episode.
"I never saw myself working in a place like this." -Don
Turns out Weiner put Kennedy into last week's episode because that wasn't the season's biggest development, not by a long shot. (In the grand scheme of the '60s, Kennedy was huge, but far-removed from the world of Sterling Cooper.) Instead, he had to get that out of the way so he could use the finale to deal with more pertinent matters for our characters: Betty divorcing herself from Don, and Don, Roger, and Bert finding a brilliant way to divorce themselves from PPL.
Over and over in "Shut the Door. Have a Seat," characters are told some variation of the episode's title, and they sit and hear some life-changing bit of news: that St. John is selling all of PPL to McCann Erickson; that Betty has hired a divorce lawyer; that Don, Roger and Bert are determined to buy the company back; that Betty won't have an easy time of divorcing Don in New York; that Don wants Peggy to quit Sterling Cooper and come with him; that Don and Roger need Pete to come on board; that Bobby and Sally's parents will be separating; and that Don, after being an aloof bastard to Peggy for most of this season, will do anything to get her to go with him to join the new firm.
We end the season on what could be two enormous shifts to the series' status quo: a core group of SC employees (Don, Roger, Bert, Lane, Peggy, Pete, Harry, Joan) have started up a new shop, and Betty has gone to Reno to divorce Don and plan for a new life with Henry Francis.
But will they take?
After all, "The Sopranos" closed its fourth season with Carmela kicking Tony to the curb for one infidelity too many (as Betty already did midway through season two) before taking him back a few months later when she realized she didn't have better options (ditto Betty). As soon as Henry told Betty to not try to get any of Don's money in the divorce, alarm bells went off for me. Bad enough that he proposed marriage to her after they'd spent perhaps a combined two hours in each other's company (assuming that, outside their stint as pen pals, they didn't get together off-camera at any point in the season), but he's setting up a circumstance where Betty's going to be just as dependent on her new man as her old one. It's entirely possible that midway through season four, Betty will be asking Don to move back in with her and the kids.
As for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce(*), while it's a shock to the system to see Don and Roger walk out of the familiar offices (leaving the doors unlocked, no less), this is a company being run by the same guys who were more or less running it this year - albeit with the balance of power more evenly-distributed - and with many (but not all) of the familiar faces from SC. Will this be a new beginning, or just an opportunity for the production team to have fun designing a different office set?
(*) Should there be any kind of punctuation in there? Sterling Cooper seemed to work fine without commas, but that was just two names. This is four - with the potential to expand to five if Pete proves himself down the road. (Don told him that working towards a goal has always led to his best work.)
But we can talk about how significant these changes might be in a bit. Because whatever happens in season four, this episode was such a concentrated shot of pure storytelling joy that I don't much care at the moment whether Betty goes back to Don, or whether Ken, Paul, Kurt, Smitty and even Lois slowly find their way onto the SCDP payroll.
"Shut the Door. Have a Seat" felt very much like a caper movie: the jazzy piano music, the intrigue, the plan unfolding perfectly as Lane walked in, got fired by St. John, and walked out happily, leaving a dumbfounded Moneypenny in his wake. Specifically, though, the episode felt like my favorite part of any caper (or other kind of ensemble adventure) movie: the gathering of the team. I have been, and always will be, a sucker for those sequences in movies like "Ocean's Eleven," "The Dirty Dozen" and "The Magnificent Seven" where the two leaders (there are always two guys at first, aren't there?) travel around to assemble the perfect team of experts, explaining their value and using various tricks of persuasion along the way to get them on board.
And what made this particular variation on that trope work so well was that it was a regathering of the team. This isn't Lee Marvin starting from scratch as he walks through a military prison. This is Don and some combination of Bert, Roger and Lane going out to gather the people that they - and we - know so well, and telling them why they're so important to each other.
In many cases, these are relationships that haven't been on great terms this year; given the way this episode goes, that was clearly by design, as it gives greater emotional weight to the reconciliations. And in some cases these unions are a matter of convenience. Don still doesn't like Roger but will put up with him because the company needs his contacts and social skills, and Don and Roger act all magnanimous while in Pete's presence but belittle him behind his back for trying to bolt the company. (They're just annoyed that Pete thought of it before they did.) And Harry, a lucky idiot as always (he can't even remember the room number of their suite at the Pierre), doesn't even get an elaborate sales pitch; just the threat of being locked in the store room by Bert Cooper. (Bert's man enough to do it himself.)
But if not every speech is sincere, we still get to see these characters singing each other's praises, and figuring out exactly the right buttons to push: Bert needs to feel vital, Roger likes the action and wants an apology from Don, Pete needs his ego stroked (specifically, by Don), and Peggy needs to know that Don values her work as much as she values (or used to value) his mentorship.
And it all works like gangbusters, for both the men assembling this new company and for the audience watching it come together.
Again, by design all these characters have been adrift at work this year. Bert and Roger have more or less checked out. Peggy has been Don's punching bag. Pete has been nervously competing with Ken and his haircut. Don's been emasculated by Lane, who is himself merely a puppet of St. John. So it not only feels satisfying to have everyone coming together again, but to see them all playing offense instead of defense. After apparently being foiled by the three-year contract he signed in "Seven Twenty Three," Don pulls off his greatest escape yet, and manages to get everyone important at the firm to go hobo with him.
You don't think of "Mad Men" as a plot-driven show. Important things happen, in the world and to the characters, but it's more about mood, and about the era, and about how people relate to one another. Yet the moment when Don realized that Lane's unquestioned authority to fire anyone - which was set up back in one of the first scenes of the season premiere - would be the key to everyone's salvation felt as satisfying a moment of story design as, say, when Marty McFly realized he knew exactly where and when a bolt of lightning was going to strike in "Back to the Future."
And yet as energizing as so much of the birth of the new agency was, we see that the divorce is painful for the people left behind. It's all fun and games for the people who get to start over, but what about the ones being left behind? Or, worse, the ones who had no idea this was coming?
In the same way, the Draper divorce plays out differently depending on the perspective. Don is cast out of the home and the life he built, while daddy's girl Betty neatly moves on with paternal, doting Henry. And the poor kids are collateral damage just like Allison and Ken and Paul are back at Sterling Cooper.
It's fun to watch SCDP come together, and beyond painful to see Don and Betty sit the kids down on the couch and explain that Daddy won't be living there anymore. Don tries to soften the blow (to the kids and to himself) by claiming it might be temporary, but Sally - who's been aware of the problems in her parents' marriage for a long time - knows differently, and poor Bobby somehow thinks it's his fault for losing Don's cufflinks. Betty can't wait to get away from Don, but even someone whose people are Nordic can't hold in her feelings of guilt when she watches her son cling to his father and beg him not to leave.
We opened this season with expectant father Don daydreaming about the circumstances of his own birth. In the finale, with both his professional and personal lives seeming to fall apart (and only one of them in any condition to be re-assembled to Don's satisfaction), he flashes back to childhood memories he was old enough to remember, and to how a professional disagreement of Archie's occurred led to Dick Whitman losing his father(**). Things don't play quite the same way in 1963, but Don does wind up severing his relationship with his old company at the same time that his kids have to live apart from their father.
(**) Considering the way adult Don describes Archie, it's interesting but not shocking to see young Dick so broken up about his death. Drunk and abusive or not, Archie was his dad, you know?
And because we have the Dick Whitman biography on our minds throughout the episode, it makes Don's midnight confrontation with Betty - in the wake of learning about Henry Francis through Roger - seem that much uglier. Don has often been an angry hypocrite with Betty, but leaving aside the fact that he's screwed around on her far more than she has on him (with or without Captain Awesome as part of the calculation), for Dick Whitman - whose stepmother never let him forget who and what his real mother was - to call someone else a "whore"? Wow. As always, Jon Hamm's not afraid to show a very unattractive side to his alter ego, and it's in that moment - as the word echoes in the room and wakes up baby Gene - where even Don realizes that he's gone too far, and that his marriage is over.
And having endured that horrible talk with his devastated kids, Don is finally humble enough to realize that he doesn't want to see everyone who matters in his life slip away, and to go to Peggy, hat in hand, and tell her that he does care about her. His marriage is too far gone, but he manages to save this other relationship. He tells her - in a speech echoing the one Peggy gave to Pete in the season two finale, which also dealt with losing a part of yourself(***) and trying to move on without it - that he understands her, and appreciates her, and appreciates that they see the world the same way. And when he gets Peggy to the precipice (in another superb duet between Elisabeth Moss and Jon Hamm), he pushes her over to his side with these perfect words:
"I will spend the rest of my life trying to hire you."(***) Matt Weiner has said that Peggy's "Meditations in an Emergency" speech was not about having given up the baby, and I don't think that's what Don's alluding to, either. (I'm not even 100 percent positive that he knows why she was in that psych ward.) He's just suggesting that each of them had some kind of idea for who they would be in this world, and instead tragedy and unexpected circumstance have turned them into these two people, who are only happy at work, and who really only understand each other.
To me, the work part of Don's life - and the ongoing rapport between Hamm and Moss - has always been a more appealing part of "Mad Men" than what happens in Ossining. So given the choice between Don fixing things with Betty or with Peggy, I'm glad the writers chose the latter. A "Mad Men" where Don doesn't have Betty to come home to is still "Mad Men," I think, whereas a "Mad Men" where Don doesn't have Peggy to bounce ideas off of wouldn't be.
But to get back to the question I asked near the top of this review, how permanent will any of the changes from this episode be?
As I wrote last week, the series' narrative doesn't have a lot of room for people who either don't work at the ad agency or aren't closely-tied to someone who does. Betty assures Don that he'll always be Sally and Bobby's father, and so there's room for interaction between the two of them. (Don as weekend dad has a lot of potential.) But unless the series is prepared to dramatically expand its scope - to show Sal's journey through the gay subculture of the '60s, to follow Dr. Greg to Vietnam, to spend a whole lot more time on people who don't work for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce - I'm not sure how Betty stays as connected to the narrative. To bring it back to "The Sopranos," by the time Carmela had separated from Tony, the show had established such a large world (only some of it related to organized crime activity) that it felt natural to keep watching Carmela out on her own, interacting with the other characters as Tony's estranged wife. Betty's not a part of this universe in the same way; there isn't really a simple circumstance where you could put her in a scene with Joan, you know?
And because of that, and because I think Matt Weiner wants no part of losing January Jones, I suspect there will be some kind of attempt at reconciliation in season four, even though I feel like the story of the Draper marriage has come to a natural conclusion. What else is left to say? They've broken apart, gotten back together, he's tried harder, she's tried harder, he's cheated, she's cheated, she doesn't love him, he maybe only loves the idea of her, etc., etc., etc. Let's move on, shall we? And if that means either less of Betty, or a shift in the way the show tells its stories, so be it.
As for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce(****), if it does just turn into a redecorated version of the same shop, that will be a wasted opportunity. But I don't think that's where Weiner is going. While there was a good deal of flattery in what Don told Pete about his value, I have to believe that this will really try to be a forward-thinking agency. Up until this point, Sterling Cooper has been on the wrong side of history, but we've just crossed a generational line in the series. Kennedy is dead. The Beatles fly into New York in a few months. The '50s are definitively over, and what we think of as the actual '60s is just beginning. An ad agency that looks at the culture differently, that looks ahead rather than behind, seems ideal to depict the societal change that Weiner talks about so often. In a new office, with a smaller staff, stripped of so much institutional memory and bureaucracy, SCDP could - and hopefully will - be something that reflects the vision of people like Pete and Peggy as much as it does the old guard.
(****) Dammit, I really want some commas in there. And maybe an ampersand.
Weiner's going to be traveling for a while and not available for interviews. And given how he likes to shroud the future of the show in mystery (even the "Lost" producers don't hate spoilers as much as he does), I doubt he'd want to say anything about where the show is going in season four, or when that action might be set. But with all these huge changes, it feels like we need the action to resume sooner rather than later: a season 2-->3 gap, rather than a season 1-->2 gap. Just as Weiner didn't want to skip over the birth of the baby, and what that meant to this marriage, I don't think he's going to want us to miss too much of the growing pains of the new firm, or of Don adjusting to bachelor life, or Betty and the kids getting used to Henry.
Whenever season four is set, this tremendous finale has given Weiner the opportunity to take the show in some bold new directions. I hope he follows them, or else the theme to the next season will be Don's line to the stewardess from this season's premiere: "I keep going to a lot of places and ending up somewhere I've already been."
But there's too much of a sense of hope in this episode, in the look on Don's face as he walks back into the living room of the suite at the Pierre after saying goodbye to Betty, for me to think anything but that this is a show looking ahead now. As Roy Orbison sings (in "Shahdaroba") while Don heads into his new apartment, "The future is much better than the past."
Some other thoughts on the finale:
• I know some of you had guessed that Duck's company might wind up buying Sterling Cooper. Not only did that not happen, but Duck didn't appear at all in the finale, which is another reason I suspect we won't be jumping too far into the future for season four. I can't see Peggy and Duck as a long-term thing, but the prospect of Don finding out that his protege is sleeping with one of his most hated enemies is too delicious for the show to not depict. So we have to come back while they're still together, or at least not long after she's seen the light and treated Duck the way Duck treated Chauncey.
• Meanwhile, for all the time we spent debating whether Miss Farrell was cuckoo bananas, a healthy woman out of time, or something in between, she also doesn't figure in at all to the finale. It's entirely possible that Don could wind up with her now that Betty has sent him away - that we could even return in season four with Don and Suzanne shacked up in the apartment Joan found for him - but he was too busy with divorce at home and work to even think of her.
• Even though I assumed Joan would wind up back at the company sooner or later, I did a massive fist pump when Roger went to "make a call" for someone to help with the raiding of SC materials, because I knew exactly who'd be on the other end of the line. Joan gets to make her grand entrance, and then we get to see her and Roger acting like an old married couple as he complains about her handwriting. Whether or not they're The One for each other, the two (both characters and actors) work together incredibly well.
• Joan's back, but Sal is another MIA character in the finale. (Though for a half-second I thought they were going to call him when they couldn't get into the art department. Instead, Don just awesomely kicked the door in.) And with American Tobacco just as fundamental to the success of the new company as the old, how do they get him back? I really, really hope our last glimpse of Bryan Batt on this show wasn't at the end of "Wee Small Hours."
• For that matter, what becomes of everyone else from Sterling Cooper? I don't want to see the show backslide to the point where the new firm is indistinguishable from the old one, but a lot of interesting characters got left behind. Some of that is because they could only afford to start with a skeleton staff, and sooner or later they'll need to take on more help. Assuming Weiner also isn't ready to say goodbye to a lot of these people, it may be interesting to see tensions develop between the cool kids at the Pierre and the confused ones who were standing around Allison's desk.
• Note that when Peggy initially says no to Don, he plans to go to Kurt and Smitty next, and not Paul. Is that an indictment of Paul's talent, or of his character? Did Don fear Paul would rat him out if he could gain some advantage from it?
• Whoever else is on staff at the new company, I'm glad we'll have Jared Harris around long-term. (Presumably, anyway.) I've grown as fond of him as Lane has grown of America, even though I suspect that fondness will create all sorts of marital discord for him. His delivery of "Very good. Happy Christmas!" to St. John was one of the funniest moments in an episode full of funny moments.
• And could the cramped temporary quarters for the new firm create any marital problems for Pete and Trudy? So far, Pete seems to be swallowing any objections he might have to continuing to work with Peggy, and he and Trudy again seem like a finely-tuned machine (she gets her father to give Pete back the Clearasil account he took away when Pete wouldn't provide a grandchild, and she even brings the staff "every kind of sandwich imaginable... and a cake!"), but I don't think it's an accident that Weiner wanted the seating arrangements to put Peggy and Pete at the same desk.
• John Slattery, as always, get all the best lines, whether Roger's saying of Jane, "It's the most interest that girl's ever had in a book depository" or him responding to Harry's "Are you kidding?" with a deadpan, "Yes, yes we are. Happy birthday." But the man can get a laugh without any dialogue at all, like the way he had Roger's hand just shoot up as soon as a puzzled Don asked if they should all vote on the firing plan.
• God, Sally has been forced to grow up so much by these circumstances, and it's both a little funny (because of the things she says through her lisp) and a lot tragic, and the work of Kiernan Shipka is still another reason why I don't think we'll jump all that far ahead. They can only fudge her age so much, and unless Don's family is becoming a minor part of the show, I can't imagine Weiner wanting to recast Sally at this point.
• Though Conrad Hilton gives Don the tip that allows him and the others to pull off their great escape, Don clearly wants no part of the man's manipulations again anytime soon. He probably could have gotten Connie to sign on to the new agency, but didn't want the attendant headaches. As with so many other people left behind, I hope this isn't the last we see of Chelcie Ross on the show.
As we come to the end of another season of this show, I want to thank you all again for being both the smartest and best-behaved group of TV blog commenters around. I write about a lot of TV shows, some of them ("Sons of Anarchy" and "Breaking Bad," to name two) that exist in the same creative stratosphere as "Mad Men," and none of them come remotely close to drawing as many passionate, insightful comments as this one does. You've done a good job of sticking to the commenting rules (we're late enough in the season that I'm not going to bother repeating them), and you've made this a tremendous place to discuss one of the very best shows on television.
What did everybody else think?