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"Mad Men": "What is a man, what has he got ...

By Rich Heldenfels Published: May 19, 2014

... if not himself, then he has naught." So sang Frank Sinatra (words by Paul Anka), and so has said "Mad Men" in the six episodes shown of late. The final season has been cut in two, with seven episodes airing now (so the finale is next Sunday) and seven more in 2015, and there could be some huge twists waiting in the seventh episode. But it is hard to believe they will change the two keys to the current season, which are  "Mad Men's" eternal contemplation of identity -- centered on Don-who-is-not-Don -- and its consideraiton of the getting, keeping and losing of power.


Power has seemed to be the driver this year, since Don has had so little of it. He was banished from the agency, forced to maintain a sense of work undercover through Freddie Rumsen, allowed back in only if he ceded power to the partners and to Lou, and in constant danger of being sent away entirely -- a danger that turned to clear threat with the pursuit of Commander cigarettes. Even sex, an area where Don had always asserted power, was no longer in his control, not in a world where the women initiate threesomes.

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And that was a rare example of women having power. Peggy has risen higher at the agency but is still demeaned by Lou and Pete as pretty good only in comparison to a woman; Lou has even stripped her of her right to collaborate, something that Don at least allowed. Joan, meanwhile, has been reminded of her lack of status in the giving of a partnership to Harry, who belittled her, and who gained partner status without having to do what Joan did. Betty, meanwhile, has tried to assert power over her children (which has been futile with Sally) and to be seen as Henry's equal, only to be shoved down the ladder by Henry; it is no accident that she seized on speaking Italian as a demonstration of ability, since it was on the Italian trip that she was more powerful than Don.


More power games: Roger, caught in a power struggle with Jim Cutler and losing it; Don, now seeing Harry as an ally, voted against Roger on Harry's parthership. Pete has no power in his relationships with the women in his life -- ignored by Trudy, unknown to his daughter, inept with his girlfriend. Ginsberg felt overpowered by the computer, a situation so primitive ("2001" allusions notwithstanding) as to require a fleshly sacrifice. And SL&P itself is in an uncertain point of power, losing the Chevy account, laboring to get Commander, struggling to come up wth the right Burger Chef campaign -- all a result of the agency itself having lost a clear identity if only because Don is no longer a key player.


Which brings us, of course, to the idenity issue. Don, once a leader of great certainty even as he hid his true self, has been adrift for most of these six episodes, trying on different roles, as idler, secret genius, bicoastal husband and meek worker. It has all been as awkward as the fashion choices by a man who once knew exactly how to look; he was as out of place at Megan's party as he was in Italy, and after the crashing of the Commander pitch he was wearing a gray hat with a brown suit. His bold move into the Commander meeting was old Don, but not old Don, since he was ready to humiliate himself once again, and in public, to get a cigarette account for the agency.


In Sunday night's episode, he was still a bad fit in some ways -- Megan will never want to come back to New York, which is less appealing than both LA for her and Detroit for Bob Benson (more about him in a minute). Yet he did seem to find his way into the role of aide to camp to Peggy, even as she was asking to see the old Don, the master of the universe. But Don got that she didn't want him back -- since that would turn her into old, subordinate Peggy -- but has asked the key question when she wanted to know how he thinks. And, in the end, she figured out how to think for herself, and was able once again to bond with Don in that sad, sweet, awkward dance to Sinatra; they may have been in Lou's office, but they were miles away from dealing with Lou. Instead, it underscored what Peggy had already realized, and would re-emphasize when she met with Don and Pete in Burger Chef, that her family is in her workplace.


All this took place in a world where things have been changing so dramatically beyond the main characters, only the characters are often untouched by the change. Roger, who has been the closest to the changing waves through drugs and sex and the trip to the commune, still suits up for the office. When Peggy admits that she is 30, did anyone else feel a current of "don't trust anyone over ..."?  We are around the time of the Stonewall riots, but Bob Benson and the guy from Detroit are strictly closeted.


Bob, in fact, is the one who struggles most with identity in Sunday's episode. He has in many respects been a mirror to Don, albeit one who thrives based on charm where Don's strength was his work. But just as Don finally, last season, could not hide his true self, so Bob has been letting his show; when the Detroit guy notes that Bob is lucky not to have been arrested, it is clear that Bob has not stayed secret in Detroit, and Joan is so aware of who Bob is that she can literally let her hair down with him because she believes he will ask nothing of her that requires a shield. And when he does try to get through to her, it is tragic, the clumsy attempt at a kiss devoid of the passion Joan has sometimes known and the love she still wants.


And Bob does not get that. He still thinks that masks can work, that appearances trump reality; he is emblematic of the falsehoods of advertising, the extension of the images Don once put up in the Kodak carousel. But others, not least because of the shifts in power around them, have been forced to see that reality has its merits, too. Pete and Don and Peggy in Burger Chef, the brightly lit contrast to all the dim bars and restaurants that have filled the show, are in a real world, one full of happy, ordinary people having a bite; I looked at the camera pulling back from them, through the window, and saw a deliberate contrast to Hopper's "Nighthawks." No wonder Peggy wants to shoot the ad there. It is free not only of artifice but of the despair in all the "Mad Men" people's make-believe.

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