Mad Men: Longing to Be Known
Each week, Alissa Wilkinson reflects on the latest episode of AMC’s Mad Men.
Remember the beginning of the seventh Mad Men season? Freddy Rumsen, pitching to Peggy Olson, says, “Are you ready? Because I want you to pay attention. This is the begining of something.” He was selling a watch. Time.The pivotal scene here is the man in the circle, who confesses his feeling of invisibility: the fear that nobody will see you, and the constant, driving desire to have someone notice you.
Later in that episode, Don was listening to Richard Nixon give his first inaugural address: “We need only look within ourselves. When we listen to the ‘better angels of our nature,’ we find that they celebrate the simple things, the basic things—such as goodness, decency, love, kindness. Greatness comes in simple trappings.”
I was thinking about this during the finale, and recalling an even earlier episode, one that’s stuck with me.
Before the beginning of the “thing” Freddy Rumsen talks about, two and a half seasons ago, Don Draper sat in an easy chair in his (pre-deserted) apartment, listening to the Beatles, those prophets of postmodernity, sing “Tomorrow Never Knows”:
Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream
It is not dying, it is not dying
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void
It is shining, it is shining
Yet you may see the meaning of within
It is being, it is being
Love is all and love is everyone
It is knowing, it is knowing
And ignorance and hate mourn the dead
It is believing, it is believing
But listen to the colour of your dreams
It is not leaving, it is not leaving
So play the game “Existence” to the end
Of the beginning, of the beginning
This weekend, Don tapped into that sentiment, meditating on a hill in California. (Don Draper at a yoga retreat counts as both hell and high comedy for Mad Men.) He has been stranded there by Stephanie Horton, the niece of his (literal) namesake, whom he’s been helping for long enough that I, for one, had forgotten about her. He ends up at her house in California when he is destroyed by the news of Betty’s cancer, delivered by Sally.
Sally is grown up now, so grown up that she doesn’t count herself into the plans made by her dying mother for her younger brothers. Sally can take care of herself. She’s going to have to, on this big adventure.
So, all cards on the table: I loved the Mad Men finale. Chief among it, I grinned like an idiot throughout Peggy and Stan’s conversation. I’ve been wanting it for seasons now, as soon as it became clear that Stan was Peggy’s intellectual match and also totally not awed by her success.
But also, I’ve had real-life conversations just like it, down to Peggy’s stunned double “what?” These are two people who work together, who drive each other nuts, but who also love one another in the way you do when you’re always going to be linked one way or another.
The show doesn’t continue past this episode, so who knows—maybe they’ll drive each other to distraction and break up. Or maybe they’ll be together forever—it’s hard to tell until the end, and the show’s universe is one in which people swing from happiness to devastation at an alarming pace. But it’s true that Stan gets Peggy in a way nobody else has, and he’s entirely nonthreatened by her, having skillfully separated his professional and personal lives. You can’t hope for that too many times in your life.
Actually, Peggy is the real centerpiece of this episode, even though it ends with Don. (Did you notice that her dry-cleaned dress from episode 12’s triumphant entry hung on the back of her office door?) She talks to nearly everyone she’s had any meaningful contact with except—and this is significant—Ted, and Duck, both of whom are kind of gross to her at this point. But now Pete and Peggy have a cactus and, more importantly, Peggy has gone from being Don’s secretary to his protegee to, now, his confessor. “I broke all my vows,” he tells her, barely functional from, for once, sentiment and not alcohol. “I scandalized my child. I took another man’s name and made nothing of it,” he says.
“I just wanted to hear your voice,” he concludes. “See you soon.”
In that line he gives us the clue that he’ll end up back there at McCann in the end, which is only right: he’ll be near his children, and now that Stephanie has abandoned him, and Megan’s out of the picture, there’s not much left for him in California, which has always held someone who represented salvation for him. It’s California, not New York, that is the land of broken dreams for Don Draper now.
New York holds Betty (upstate, but that never matters on the West Coast), who is dying but who has also shown him tenderness lately, whom he still calls “Birdie.” New York has Peggy, Don’s rock. New York has Sally, his compass, and apparently New York has the place where Dick Whitman, in Don Draper’s suit, belongs. Because there’s nobody better than Don at his game—which, if the tag is any indication, he richly proves. (And in which a girl wears nearly the exact same outfit as the girl at the retreat who tells Don he’s stuck there.)
But the pivotal scene here is the man in the circle, who confesses his feeling of invisibility, something that’s been a continuing theme throughout the show: the fear that nobody will see you, and the constant, driving desire to have someone notice you—the real you, not the you that you present to the world, whether it’s Don Draper or Brave Peggy Olson or Only Sexy Joan Harris (who gets Holloway Harris!) or Terrible Pete Campbell.
The man, more or less narrating Don Draper’s deepest fear for him, sounding like one of his ad pitches but this time with no selling, says:
You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, people aren’t giving it to you. Then you realize: you’re trying, and you don’t even know what it is. I had a dream I was on a shelf on the refrigerator. Someone closes the door and the light goes off. And I know everybody’s out there eating. And then they open the door and you see them smiling and they’re happy to see you, but maybe they don’t look right at you. Maybe they don’t pick you. Then the door closes again. The light goes off.
Don, finally overcoming his facade, goes straight for the guy. And hugs him. And cries. Later, on a hill, someone suggests: “New day. New ideas. A new you.”
Cue “Tomorrow Never Knows.” So play the game “Existence” to the beginning, to the beginning.
In Mad Men, as in life, we don’t get a clean slate. Roger is lucky, but never not aware that his “good timing” involves the ex-mother-in-law of one of his closest associates—and that time is ticking, and soon he’ll be old. Joan retains her maiden and married names, and her son by Roger, too. Peggy is with Stan, but he’s also one of the few people who knows her darkest secret. Pete makes it to Wichita, but will always drag the separation from Trudy with him. Even Ken always wears an eye patch.
But maybe our mistakes, our silliness, regrettable or not, are what make us recognizable to those who’ve known us. Everyone in Mad Men—actually, just everyone I know, including me—is terrified they’ll be invisible: that they’ll be unrecognized, yes, but worse, that nobody will remember them at all. When I take stock of my significant relationships, my biggest fear is that at the end of the day, someone I care about greatly will just float out of my life without a backwards glance and feel nothing at all.
In this episode, though, it’s important to note the warmth with which our characters greet one another. Set aside Stan and Peggy. Don and Betty have a truly affectionate exchange. Sally is washing dishes in Betty’s kitchen. Roger is happy with Megan’s mother. Pete and Peggy have a sweet, complimentary last moment. Pete and Trudy are going to be happy in Kansas. Joan is happy to see Ken Cosgrove; Peggy is delighted to hear from Joan. The bonds hold, at least some of them.
I worry about this more than you’d suspect. Being known is scary—all the scarier when you let yourself be known, and then are terrified that the knowledge will make someone leave. Will I know the same people in ten years that I do today? I still worry about it, and hope, and pray, that the people I love will stick around.
And in the end
The love you take
Is equal to the love you make
This is the first review of the last show that has resonated with me, and I’ve read at least seven of them. Agree about Peggy and Stan. (Did you read the NYT reviewer on this? He so missed it.) Nice job. I am about the same age Sally would be today if she were a real person. I watched this through her eyes, through the eyes (and heart) of a child developing her sense of self through the 50’s and 60’s. This show has been revelatory at so many levels.
Your ability to capture the resonance of this cultural phenomenon of a series never ceased to amaze and reach me.
Comments are now closed for this article.