Monday, November 9, 2009

Mad Men: Shut the Door, Have a Seat

"It's going to be temporary," says Don Draper to his two children, as he begins to explain to them that his marriage to their mother is ending. Betty shakes her head silently. The truth, ever elusive in this drama, hurts too much for childish ears. Don, an eternal childman, is suddenly forced to grow up, but cannot bring himself to admit it to other childish ears.

This was just one moment of the season three finale of "Mad Men," "Shut the Door, Have a Seat," wherein Don's advertising agency, Sterling Cooper, suddenly finds itself without its partners as they break off to form their own firm in December 1963. When we saw Don a week ago, he and his colleagues were all dealing with the calamitous events of Nov. 22. When Don's children asked him what would happen after the murder of President Kennedy, he assured that all would be well after a little mourning. But Betty, his wife, wants a divorce, after having discovered the secret that Don has kept from them for their whole marriage - that he is in fact Dick Whitman, living on a borrowed identity from the Korean War.

"It's going to be temporary." One remembers Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous valediction on the Kennedy years - "We'll laugh again, but we'll never be young again." The sixties are humbling Don and the other characters with change - massive doses of it. Roger Sterling embraced change in the form of his 20-something wife, and now seems to regret it. Joan Harris married a man she should have known would disappoint her, but she quit her job nonetheless. Pete Campbell, so desperate to get ahead, looked for any way out of what he perceived a dead-end job. Price, the British executive, found his faith in the company betrayed when it seemed happy to jettison him. As Don tells Peggy Olson of the people their ads reach, "The way that they saw themselves is gone."

But Don Draper, the show's hero, has been humbled this season. He was maneuvered into signing a contract, beaten by drifters at one point and forced to confront his real life as his marriage disintegrates. When Conrad Hilton saw Don's desk earlier this season, he observes that Don has no Bible nor any family photographs on it. In doing so, he sums up Don as a man who believes in nothing but himself. The truth is only what will get him through the day. But the certainties - his abilities, his charm, his bullying power - are going. Even as Don tries to assure himself it's only temporary, he knows it isn't.

It's interesting that after so much drama, the finale should end on a light, hopeful note - Sterling Cooper reborn in a hotel room, the secretarial pool and its thuggish office politics seemingly wiped away. Sharing smiles over sandwiches, the new partners look on their new horizon at a time when the nation was still in a deep funk over losing a symbol of the best parts of itself.

One of the reasons television comforts us is that it gives us situations that we can return to where change can safely be held at bay. We live our lives with the illusion of status - that routine and tradition are unshakable and will hold us no matter what happens. We depend on them, and we do so at the risk of great disappointment. When Don tries to tell his children how things will be apart from them, he tells that wherever they go will still be home. "It's just a different home." That elusive home that Don has always been looking for - that he never had as a child, that he is now deprived of both personally and professionally - lies in the future.

Perhaps, armed with a new understanding of what he can do, he might find it.

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