This post is full of SPOILERS. If you have not been watching "Mad Men" from the beginning, and/or didn't watch the third season finale, don't yell at me for giving away critical plot points. Go watch the show, and come back later.
"Mad Men," which concluded its third season last night, is the best show on television. If you're not watching it, we may need to revisit the terms of this friendship.
"Mad Men" is the story of Don Draper, creative genius, self-made man, and driving force behind one of New York City's most prominent advertising agencies. To a lesser extent, it is the story of the other people who work for the firm (Sterling Cooper) and of Don's unhappy, ice-blonde wife, Betty.
Last night's show found Sterling Cooper, sold to a British company at the end of last season, on the block again. Don Draper learns this from his most troublesome client, Conrad Hilton, who says he's pulling his business because of conflicts with Sterling Cooper's new owner, McCann Erickson.
Don doesn't want to work for McCann, and is tired of being a pawn in the corporate shuffle. He goes to Sterling Cooper's founding partner and proposes that they buy the firm back. That's not possible, in practical terms, but over the course of the episode Don and Sterling Cooper's name partners find a way to take what they need to start a new firm, under the name Sterling Cooper Draper and Pryce (Pryce being the name of the firm's erstwhile British overlord, who's also getting shafted in the new sale).
Last night's season finale was one of the best hours — well, 50 minutes, it was a short episode — of television I've ever seen. I'm still thinking about it this morning, which is the reason for today's list.
1. Don, who spent the first two seasons of this show running from himself, succeeds in this episode by being completely honest — with himself and his co-workers – for what may be the first time in his life. Don Draper is such a self-made man that "Don Draper" is a stolen identity, belonging to a dead veteran Dick Whitman (Don's original name) was supposed to accompany on his final journey home. "Who is Don Draper?" has always been the central question of "Mad Men," and this episode showed Don figuring it out at last.
2. Peggy, who started Season One as Don's secretary, is now a creative executive at this new firm, after finally demanding what she deserves. In the first season, Peggy had an unfortunate encounter with a junior account executive, Pete, which led to an unwanted (and secret) pregnancy; Don helped her after that and has sponsored her career since, but at the price of treating Peggy like a tool instead of a human being. In last night's episode, Peggy insisted that Don see her as a person, and he did. Also, she refused to get Roger Sterling (one of the name partners) coffee. I cheered out loud at that.
3. Joan, Sterling Cooper's former office manager, returned in triumph. She left the firm to get married after it became obvious that her long-running love affair with Roger Sterling (who was married, of course) was never going to work out; adding insult to injury, Roger did leave his wife, for another Sterling Cooper secretary young enough to be his daughter. But Joan, who's the closest thing "Mad Men" has to a true hero, has risen above it all — above the fact that her doctor husband turned out to be a loser, and that she left Sterling Cooper for what turned out to be nothing. Roger was big enough to admit that the new firm needs Joan, and Joan rose to the occasion with style and class. I want to be Joan, except for the tragic part.
4. Bert Cooper, played by the immortal Robert Morse, was almost literally revived from the dead in last night's episode; Don woke him up from a nap to tell him the firm had been sold again. For the past three seasons, Cooper's been content to be the firm's Buddha-like figurehead, an inscrutably wise eccentric who doesn't seem to do much. He's starting the new firm for the sheer fun of it, because he realized he wasn't ready to die, and that was a joy to watch.
5. Sally Draper, Don's eight-year-old daughter, is the sharpest, most perceptive member of the Draper household. All through this season, Sally has been the adult voice of reason as her mother coped with an unplanned pregnancy and her own father's death. When Betty and Don sat the kids down to tell them about Betty's divorce plans, Sally wasn't fooled for a moment. If "Mad Men" continues its story line into the early 1970s, we'll see Sally on the campus of Kent State.
What did you love about last night's "Mad Men"? What didn't you love?