We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
T.S. Eliot The Hollow Men
The central rule of television narrative is that there has to be the constant illusion of change, without anything actually changing. Most individual TV episodes have to serve two major story objectives. There’s a micro story: we’re on this planet, and there’s a problem that has to be solved, or there’s been a murder, and the bad guy has to be identified and arrested, or one of the guys at the bar has a problem that needs resolving. And there’s also a larger macro story, relating to the central conflict of the entire series: Voyager’s lost a long way from home, Detective Kate Beckett’s Mom was murdered, and that murder nags at her, Sam and Diane are desperately in love, something neither can ever acknowledge. And of course, it can get ridiculously formulaic, even in classic TV series. Did you see the episode of Home Improvement where Tim inadvertently hurts his wife’s feelings, and the neighbor advises him on how to fix it? Or the Bewitched where Endora casts a spell on one of the Darrens, and Samantha has to save his career? Or the episode of I Love Lucy, where Lucy gets a new idea of a career she might try, Ricky tells her not to, she does it anyway and makes a frightful (and funny) hash of it. And then he forgives her. (Blarg!)
But in recent years, thanks in part to new producing entities, like HBO and TNT, we’ve seen some of the best writers in America have turned to writing multi-episode long-form television series, like Shakespeare did with the War of the Roses. Which is why some of the best writing in current American culture is happening, not in novels or films, but on television. And why we’re in the midst of a new Golden Age of television. Nowadays, the point isn’t just to keep a story going indefinitely. Now, there really is a discernable end towards which the macro narrative is heading. And when we get there, in a final culminating episode, it’s a magnificent viewing experience. And afterwards, we sit there, in front of our TV sets, and only when we let our breath out, do we realize that we’ve forgotten, for a moment, to breathe.
And that was what happened last night, with the final episode of Mad Men.
At its best, Mad Men wasn’t really even about narrative. It bordered on the surreal, at times, while also, paradoxically, grounding itself in sociology. It deconstructed the sixties, but mostly the sixties that I remember, a sixties where anti-war protesters and hippie spiritualism existed, sure, in magazines and in the songs we’d sometimes hear on the radio, but which was mostly pretty distant from our everyday concerns. Which were consumerist, honestly. I was a kid in the sixties, and I remember Christmas, and the build-up to Christmas and the marvelous feeling of anticipation over all of that year’s new toys. And then the toys would arrive under our tree, and my gosh they were terrible. Over-hyped, badly produced crap, almost without exception. Lincoln logs? Silly putty? Erector sets? Model airplanes? My gosh, they were worthless.
That’s what Mad Men was about, ultimately, worthless people energetically selling worthless products. All that sexist garbage, the dirty jokes and clandestine gropes and mistresses stashed in penthouses. I remember how shocking it was when we learned that Don Draper, whose, uh, active dating life we had seen up close, was also married, with two kids. That’s why the two most fascinating characters really were women–Peggy and Joan–in a show about an aggressively masculine world. The men were real oinkers.
In the final episode, Don Draper, the ultimate Hollow Man, goes on a journey of self-discovery. And, because he’s Don Draper, that journey will involve sleeping with a woman, not quite a hooker, who steals his money, gives it back when he catches her, then sleeps with him again when he relents and lets her keep it. And of course, that’s Don, successful as a womanizer because he’s got money. (The last we saw of Megan, his second wife, was the look on her face as he wrote her a check for a million dollars). And then he meets Stephanie (Anna Draper’s screwed-up hippie niece), and offers to save her, because that’s also Don Draper, fixer of broken women. That doesn’t work either. When he learns of his first wife, Betty, and her terminal cancer, he immediately decides to go home and be A Dad to his three children. But Betty (and his ultimately more-mature-than-he-is daughter Sally) persuade him to give up that fantasy. His kids hardly know him, and with the death of their Mom, are going to need more stability than Don’s emotionally capable of providing. And so, we see the third kind of relationship Don is capable of having with women, women who mother him, who take charge, who make his life easier. And so he calls Peggy, and breaks down on the phone, desperately pours his soul out, about his life failures and his lack of direction or a plan. Peggy is sympathetic, but can’t help. And in any ever, she might possibly be ready to find some happiness with Harry.
In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river
And so Don ends up at an Esalen camp, practicing yoga and TM and, in a group session, connecting with another hollow man, a total stranger, who talks about never experiencing love, not even with his family. And Don begins to weep, and crosses to the man, and they weep together, embracing. But it didn’t so much feel like a break-through for him. It felt like acute self-pity. And that led to the final images of the show. Don, in a yoga pose, chanting. And the camera moves in on a close-up. And we see the smallest traces of a smile. Cut to this commercial:
The most cynical commercial in the history of advertising, a commercial that used all those great sixties ideals of peace, love and understanding, and commodifies them, uses them to sell sugary soda pop.
Some critics have called those final images ‘enigmatic’ or ambiguous or something. I don’t think so. All the way through the series, I wondered how it would end. The opening sequence, with a stylized body falling out of an office building, suggested that it would end with Don’s suicide. It didn’t. He’s going back to work. He’s going to create the most cynical and successful ad ever for the sinister and piggish agency that most of his friends can’t wait to abandon. He’s never going to grow, and he’s never going to stop being Don Draper, this fake identity he killed for, and with which, as he says to Peggy in his cry-for-help phone call, “I have done nothing.”
The men stay children, and the women grow up. Joan, bless her heart, grew, over the course of the series, from the ultimate enabler of male privilege to the show’s great feminist icon–her production agency is going to soar. Peggy finds some joy with Harry, and in time, she’ll get the promotions at work she deserves. The straw men will remain stuffed with straw, though Roger Sterling is too clueless to notice. As for Don?
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.