Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Men Character Report Card Seasons 1-7

Don Draper was the dark knight of Mad Men for seven seasons but then  he saw the light in the finale.
It was a glorious seven-season run for Mad Men.  The show's fascinating and complex characters pulled viewers in episode after episode, season after season.  Sunday night's haven't been this good since the Sopranos.  (Well, come to think of it, we still have Homeland, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones.) Here are my grades for all the major Mad Men characters who made Sunday night a such a special night since 2004.  (Thank you DVR technology who made ad-skipping so easy.)

And thanks to all the readers who visited this blog over the years.

Howard Polskin
May 17, 2015, 
New York City (where Madison Ave lives)

Honor Roll

  • Don Draper: A.  The man with the shady past cast the longest shadow throughout the seven  seasons.  The character was a lion in the office and a tiger in the sack.  He lit a cigarette with the sexy flair of Zorro drawing his sword.  No one wore a suit better or could take a belt of booze with more style at 11 a.m. than Don.  This character stands as a giant in the pantheon of tv drama history.  The character faltered in the final season -- we viewers like to see him as a shark, not a lost soul -- but Don kept us hooked for the better part of a decade.
  • Roger Sterling: A-.  The Lou Costello to Draper's Bud Abbott.  He provided comic relief throughout the years although his witty one-liners often masked the black heart of a ruthless capitalist.  Like Don the character sagged in season seven (and that ridiculous mustache didn't help).  
  • Lane Pryce: A-.  Lane Pryce stole almost every scene in the few short years he was on the show.  The uptight Brit had an enormous stick up his royal butt but he had a more complex dark side which made him one of the show's most interesting characters.  He had a fling with a black Playboy bunny and he embezzled company funds.  His solution: hang himself in his office. Now that's an interesting exit strategy.  
    Memory Lane: Let's not forget what a wonderful character Lane Pryce was.

Teacher's Pets

  • Peggy Olson: B+.  Great character arc for Peggy.  She starts as Don's secretary and eventually works her way up to a senior creative position.  Oh, and she was raped early in the show and had a child out of wedlock (that storyline was never fully realized and perhaps it was never really needed).  It was always interesting watching Peggy but this was a character so uncomfortable in her own skin, that sometimes it created difficulties watching her.
  • Duck Phillips: B+. Duck felt like a real creature of Madison Ave.  On the surface he was charming but he was flush with character flaws.  In one of the show's surprising (and surprisingly entertaining) plot twists, he winds up as Peggy's sexual partner for a while.  He shows up in season seven as a boozy, semi-tragic figure on the back nine of his career.   
    Duck acts more like a sly fox with Peggy.
  • Joan Harris: B: Another great character arc.  One of the pleasures of watching Mad Men was watching the career development of Peggy and Joan.  Joan simply didn't take crap; she was also a take charge type.  Her buxom figure often worked to her disadvantage and at times it was tiresome to see that theme exploited so much.  And the character could never be described as fun-loving or lovable (see Sterling, Roger).
  • Sal Romano: B. The married, Italian-American gay art director.  He didn't last many seasons but his plight as a closeted gay man in mid-60s corporate America set the ground-breaking and fearless tone of the show.  (When he refused to submit to the advances of a client, Roger fires him.)
    Sal gets propositioned by client.
  • Peter Campbell: B. Rapist. Liar. Adulterer. Yet somehow this character made us care about his plight and at times we couldn't help but root for his success. He made the job seem like it was all about boozy client lunches and call girls.  But hey -- it was the 60s -- so maybe that's the way it was.  
  • Jim Cutler:  B.  He didn't get enough screen time (and he was AWOL in the second half of season seven) but this character always created drama and tension.  Props to the costume department for giving Cutler beautiful suits and cool horn-rimmed glasses.
  • Freddy Rumsen: B.  The nice guy office drunk.  It was usually Happy Hour when Freddy showed up in a scene.  
  • Lou Avery: B.  Mad Men's most hated character.  We've all probably had bosses like him at some point in our career. Lou appeared only in a few episodes but he made a lasting impact.  
  • Sally Draper: B-.  If we made a movie about Sally Draper, we'd call it "Girlhood." It was fascinating and often disturbing to see the type of messed-up teenager she blossomed into during the seven seasons living in the Draper/Francis household.  
  • Stan Rizzo: B-. Over the years, the SCDP art director evolved from a shallow, hippie-ish hipster into a talent and sensitive professional.  Not the most exciting character but most of his scenes worked.
  • Bert Cooper: B-.  The strange patriarch of SC, he always added gravitas to whatever scenes he appeared in.  The character didn't have a lot of dimension but you gotta love the erotic painting above his desk and his policy of no shoes in his office.
Average Joes
  • Harry Crane: C+. Harry changed nicely over the years -- although he was anything but nice.  Both his sideburns and his responsibilities as the head of the burgeoning tv department grew significantly during the last few seasons.  Unfortunately, Harry had little to do in the show besides act as a schmuck.  
  • Betty Draper: C.  The character had stronger scripts early in the show (remember her fling with a lucky stranger in a coatroom?) but it was hard for viewers to warm up to her cold personality throughout the years (even after she was diagnosed with lung cancer).  The character never recovered after her marriage to Henry.  
    Betty Draper: better put down that butt. It's not good for your health.
  • Megan Draper: C.  The character had stronger scripts when she was Don's groovy secretary and in the beginning of her marriage.  The character got weaker as Megan pursued her acting career more earnestly.  Great threads though. 
    Megan Draper: always dressed for success (although she rarely succeeded).
  • Ken Cosgrove: C.  The account executive who lost an eye mid-way through the series.  For viewers, it was easy to lose interest in this character who showed more promise as a budding novelist earlier in the series.  
  • Trudy Campbell: C.  Desperate housewife.
  • Marie Calvert (Megan's mom): C.  Desperate housewife (French version).
  • Dr. Faye Miller, Rachel Katz, Midge Daniels and any other of Don's bedmates:  C. Over they years, they all morphed into the same character; Don's action on the side to be disposed of after a season.  
  • Ted Chaough: C-. The character had promise when he was first introduced but he became an after-thought in the last two years.  
  • Glen Bishop: C-. Wildly uneven character (not helped by poor acting) although it was an intriguing twist when the youngster asked for a lock of Betty's hair -- and she gave it to him.  And then there was the scene in season seven when Glen got real up close and personal with Mrs. Draper Francis...that was perhaps Glen's most riveting scene of the series.  
    Here's to you Mrs. Robinson: Glen puts the moves on Betty in season seven.
Remedial Readers:
  • Henry Francis: D. Henry never really developed as Betty's husband or as an Albany political functionary.  The show basically stopped in its tracks whenever he showed up.
  • Abe Drexler and Michael Ginsburg: D.  Bother character were annoying Jewish stereotypes and were probably the worst written roles on the show.
  • Bobby Draper.  Can anyone think of a memorable scene with him in it during the last three seasons?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mad Men Season 7 Finale (Episode 14): Person to Person

Don Draper achieved a higher consciousness....and perhaps wrote the most famous Coke commercial of all time.

Why Mad Men Episode 14 (Season 7) Worked:

  • Sally's "Mom's dying" phone call with  Don.  She was really talking to him adult to adult.  What a satisfying way to see Sally grow up (although in very sad circumstances).  
  • Don's subsequent phone call to Betty.  Finally, they have a real conversation (although I'm not sure who's going to wind up with the kids when Betty dies).
  • Roger's discussion with Joan about his will and his intention to marry Marie.  The relationship between Roger and Joan was one of the enduring joys of the series.
  • Joan's conversation with Peggy about forming a production company.  That rang true.  And Joan finally had a smile on her face.
  • Stan's "I love you" phone call with Peggy.  It was a bit trite.  But they deserve each.  
  • The phone calls.  Lots and lots of them in  this finale.  And each call was a riveting zinger.
  • The tidy packages.  Joans gets a new career and her own company.  Peggy gets her man. Pete gets a great job (but in Witchita so I guess that balances the scales). Roger gets married.....again. And Don gets enlightenment.  Great way to wrap up the show.

Why Mad Men Episode 14 (Season 7) Didn't Work:

  • Joan and Richard snorting Coke in Key West.  That came out of left field.  Is this to suggest that Joan will become an 80s coke fiend?  
  • Stephanie's relationship to Don.  It was asking a lot of the audience to remember exactly how they were connected.  

Overall Grade for Mad Men Episode 14 (Season 7): A.  Props to Matthew Weiner for bringing the seven-season run of Mad Men to a satisfying conclusion.  Don wound up on an interesting journey of self-discovery.  The only loose thread appears to be the "Buy the World a Coke" television spot which ended the show (it is one of the most famous ads of all time).  I'll interpret the show's ending to suggest that Don achieved enlightenment at the hippy dippy California retreat, went back to McCann, and wrote the commercial. (McCann Erickson did in fact have Coke as a client in the 70s). I would have liked the last shot to have been the McCann executives patting Don on the back in a meeting with Coke executives or maybe Don receiving a Clio for the ad.  But I can live with this ending.  It will certainly have people talking for as long as people talk about Mad Men.

Which is to say a long time.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mad Men Season 7 (Episode 13): The Milk and Honey Route

In this episode Pete got blindsided with a surprising job offer and Don finds himself stranded at a midwestern motel.

Why Mad Men Episode 13 (Season 7) Worked:

  • Betty's cancer.  This plot development was a bold step for the show but it worked.  Betty faces death like meeting a neighbor --with her usual cold, distance demeanor.  It didn't feel realistic given her grim prognosis but for the first time in years, we can actually care about Betty.  When Sally comes home to see Betty, Betty walks toward her and then right past her.  (She was pissed that Henry told Sally.)  Heartbreaking. 
  • Some of the small details such as the peace sign on the pay phone at Sally's dorm and the college students calling Betty "Mrs. Robinson" (the saucy mom from "The Graduate").  
  • Don adrift in the middle of the country.  The producers hit this note a bit too hard in this episode but it was interesting to see Don shedding the last vestiges of his former life and identity.  He even gives away his car in the last shot.  Where is Don going? How will he get there?  Is he going to kill himself?  The only way to find out is to tune in next week, folks.

Why Mad Men Episode 13 (Season 7) Didn't Work:

  • Don stuck at the motel.  This felt too much like a writer's gimmick than a riveting plot development.  This was Don's purgatory.....a place with no room service, no bar, no working television, no hot water (probably) or hot waitresses (for sure).  Enough with the existentialism Matt Weiner.  
  • Pete's career dilemma.  Do we care about him taking the job in Witchita? Not really. It felt like a hasty plot device written in  to get him to leave McCann.  There's no way Pete and his spouse are going to settle down in Kansas.  
  • Duck's scenes.  He used to be one of the show's more interesting characters.  Tonight's episodes had him drinking first thing in the morning, barging into Pete's hotel room late at night, and telling Pete to enjoy the peak of his career (because it goes downhill quickly, kiddo, lemme tell you!).  
  • Betty talking to Sally about the end of her life she was discussing a lawn that needed to be reseeded in the spring.  Nobody is that cold.  
  • The VFW scene.  This scene didn't work for a number of reasons.  Primarily, it seemed like the show needed to create an incident that would allow the busboy to steal $500 from the VFW so everyone had to get drunk.  But Mad Men portrayed all the men (except Don) as a bunch of flag-waving, poorly dressed, hayseed drunks that bordered on offensive.  Don's revelation that he killed his commanding officer was slipped in there but it didn't register with the Vets....and it really didn't create any kind of big dramatic moment for the show either.  

Overall Grade for Mad Men Episode 13 (Season 7): C+.  Have to give the show credit for throwing in Betty's cancer (although someone had to get lung cancer after seven seasons of nonstop puffing).  That was a surprising twist.  Don's "journey" has its moments but his "trip," like the show, seems to be sputtering to an end.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Mad Men Season 7 (Episode 12): Lost Horizon

Will Peggy be able to "skate" her way to success at McCann?  If she can find a decent office, she might have a chance.

Why Mad Men Episode 12 (Season 7) Worked:

  • The McCann-SCDP merger....which rivals the Time Warner-AOL union as the worst corporate merger ever.  Some razor-sharp observations and writing made the agony of this pairing especially compelling to watch.  For the SCDP executives, it looked like the first day of school at a snooty private school where you're not sure if you're going to fit in.  Almost every one of the SCDP executives had some uncomfortable moments (especially Joan).  And they're all on different floors, which creates the impression of McCann as this vast faceless and impersonal corporation.  
  • Joan's ongoing problems with men.  Yes....Mad Men plays the "Joan's so hot that men can't help but keep hitting on her" note too often but it really paid off in this episode.  The scene with McCann CEO Jim Hobart featured a fine piece of blistering writing as the two adversaries dueled fearlessly with each other.  Joan never backed down and arrived the meeting fully prepared.  The only let down was later in the episode it seemed apparent that Joan was going to settle with McCann for fifty cents on the dollar of her contract.  
  • Peggy alone on her own floor waiting (existentially) for her McCann office to be ready.  These scenes had a Seinfeldian feel to them echoing the Seinfeld episodes in a parking garage and waiting at a Chinese restaurant.  Peggy winds up getting drunk with Roger as he plays the organ and she roller skates in the empty room.  (Maybe this way a bit too broad....) And the coolest scene of the episode (in a show with a lot of strong scenes) had Peggy coming to work the next day in shades and smoking a cigarette.  Finally, Peggy gets to be hip.  And bonus points to Peggy for snaring Bert Cooper's racy picture of an octopus "pleasuring" a lady.  
  • Don goes Jack Kerouac on us.  He's driving aimlessly around the farmlands of the midwest in his giant Caddy with great read leather seats (in a scene with the feel of Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" except there was no crop duster), picking up a shady hitchhiker.  Very existential but Hamm pulled it off.  All he needed was some speedballs to keep him up and some Allen Ginsburg poetry.  

Why Mad Men Episode 12 (Season 7) Didn't Work:

  • The organ in the office.  Huh?  How did that get there?  Didn't make sense.
  • Don's visit to Betty.  Not needed.  January Jones' agent probably demanded that she get some more scenes before the show ends.  Elisabeth Moss is sucking the oxygen out of her career.
  • Don's visit to Diana Bauer's home in Racine, WI.  Felt implausible. 

Overall Grade for Mad Men Episode 12 (Season 7): A-.  This riveting episode really belonged to Joan and Jim Hobart.  The dysfunction meshing the two companies also elevated "Lost Horizon" and produced many fascinating cringe-worthy scenes.  Don barely had a presence in the show except for his strange trip to Wisconsin and his abrupt departure from the Miller Beer meeting.  But his fascination with his not-quite-airtight office window (is that where he makes his final exit?),  his dangerous behavior picking up a scruffy hitchhiker (is this one of Charlie Manson's lost souls who will turn Don into a piƱata?) and his ongoing obsession with the waitress Diana Bauer will have us eagerly awaiting next week's episode.