In the end there’s always hope. And Greenwich Village.
So as we end this season of “Mad Men,” just weeks after the assasination of JFK and, by extension, the ceremonial end of the way it all used to be, the horizon has once again flown open.
But first, let’s take a listen to the “Mad Men” theme song. Have we ever talked about it? About how sleek and timeless it sounds, how that vaguely hip-hop rhythm, the fretful strings and heart-like pulse, describes an essence that has precisely nothing, and yet everything, about the show’s time and place? In all this talk about eras being evoked, about the verisimmilitude of this and the perfect evocation of that, it’s easy to forget that the first sound we hear each week in the sequence designed to propel us into “Mad Men”s imaginary world has no time-and-space trappings whatsoever. It just is, like the thrum of electricity in your nerves, the relentless need wired into your brain, the appetite for something more, something else, something beyond the here and now.
Consider this for a moment. The show’s about to begin.
Sterling, Cooper has collapsed into itself, only to be reborn. Betty left Don for the old-world life of Henry Francis and mid-century-style Republican gentry, while the Draper kids find themselves the very model of the modern chid: the products of a broken home. And while some old relationships shatter, Don emerges into his future with a brand new sense of what relationships mean, and why they’re so desperately important.
It hits him like a bolt from the blue. Like a kick in the head. From a horse.
And while the episode overflowed with plot and the interplay between character development and the churn of core mythology, the real story came straight from the series’ conceptual foundation: the philosophical bedrock of America and Americans, and “Mad Men””s (thus Matt Weiner’s) core belief of what propels his characters, and the real-world analogues who gather each week to watch the show, from here to there, from there to somewhere else, and on and on into the unimaginable future.
So everyone’s making a break. Betty from Don; Connie from Don, PP & L from Sterling, Cooper (and Lane Pryce), virtually every major player at Sterling, Cooper from the Frankensteinian beast they let the firm become. Meanwhile Don broke from his pretend father (Connie), then from his fake bond to Sterling, Cooper (his contract) and (most importantly) the example of his real father, Archie Whitman.
Archie, as we see in flashbacks, had no interest in human relationships. When his farmer’s co-op can’t land the right price for his wheat he tosses his neighbors out of his kitchen and vows to go it alone. Only, as the recollection unfolds, we see precisely where this leads him: to a drunken decision to sell his crop on his own, an impulsive decision to make a midnight ride to the market in Chicago and then, to the horror of his young son, a brutal death at the hooves of a spooked horse in the barn.
It’s a lightning bolt that spooks the horse. And while literary types will never mistake the sound of God’s own voice, it takes Don three decades and a huge personal crisis to hear it for himself. And as his own adult life falls to ruin, he finally understands that his future can’t be predicated on midnight rides into the darkness. Significantly, he hears it in a chorus from Peggy, the child figure who has finally had enough of his emotional distance/cruelty, and from Roger, the older brother he has spent the last year finding reasons to hate: Don, they both tell him, has no respect for human relationships.
Finally, Don hears them. And his answer is as certain as it is paradoxical: the only way they can all find their individual futures is to destroy their bond — to leave Sterling, Cooper — and build it over again.
They have to steal their past in order to move into the future, but this process goes much more smoothly than expected and by the end of the hour they’re back on the launching pad: Perched in temporary digs in a hotel room, minus desks, phones or trappings of any sort, but eqiupped with the real tools of their trade: intelligence, imagination, the spirit to re-imagine, rebrand and re-launch. Sterling, Cooper 2.0.
After so many dark hours this season it’s both surprising and gratifying to see how warm and hopeful the show’s true essence seems to be. Beneath the chilly electronic thrum of that song the machine-like rhythm is the sound of a human heart. Relentless, driving and warm.