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'Mad Men': Was this a great season?

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Why are there going to be rave reviews of the season finale of Mad Men festooning the internet today? Because MM creator Matthew Weiner gave his fans what they’ve been dying for all season, even if they strenuously denied wanting it — that is, liveliness, jokes, action, and even the suggestion of a few plot-line resolutions. SPOILER ALERT IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN LAST NIGHT’S MAD MEN SEASON FINALE.

Yes, the marriage of Don and Betty took a turn toward dissolution. Yes, the children clung to the parent who occasionally shows them some semblance of affection. (That would be Don; I know it’s sometimes hard to tell with the Drapers.)

But after all the agonizingly calibrated anguish that began this season with Sal’s love-that-dares-not-speak-its-name-in-1963 hotel scene, and continued on through Betty’s zombie-like attraction to a man who’s more like a safe father-figure than the safe father-figure she started being snippy with when her real father died, Mad Men finally had to get a little madcap in its season finale to keep us primed for its next batch of new episodes.

The season-ender was directed by Weiner, and it turned out to be an extremely well-choreographed, wacky 1960s sitcom about starting an ad agency, with scenes of slamming-door farce set in the hotel room where the firm of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is taking shape. Instead of going the screw-the-viewers route his old boss David Sopranos Chase regularly travelled, Weiner brought back fan-faves, foremost among them Joan. (You know Sal cannot be far behind.)

You’ll read Karen Valby’s full-length TV Watch for all the details. I’ll limit myself to a couple of quick observations and take a broader look at the season.

• The “Connie” Hilton subplot fizzled out rather miserably, the real-life-based character dispatched early on breaking the news of Sterling Cooper’s sale to Don. Don did what we knew he would: Make the speeches he wanted to make to his own dad but was never able to, condemning the old man (Hilton, that is) for coming on like a father-figure but never showing Don real love; asserting his Donnish maturity and independence.

• Speaking of Don’s own father, we had to sit through a few flashbacks that, like nearly all MM flashbacks this season, looked and sounded like drafts of an unproduced Eugene O’Neill play. Young Don’s life was portrayed as a hillbilly caricature complete with a corked jug o’ moonshine. (Weiner seems to have gleaned his knowledge of lower-class rural life from old collections of Li’l Abner comic strips; it’s too bad he never lets Don’s subconscious stray enough to portray Betty as Daisy Mae… ) When the horse reared in the stable and knocked Dad unconscious, Weiner has by now programmed me to select the appropriate time-period song lyric. In this case, I heard Dean Martin singing, “Ain’t that a kick in the head… “

Taken as a whole, the third season of Mad Men was one long day’s journey into night — that is, an extended, tragic meditation on the importance and fragility of mentorship (Roger’s of Don; Don’s of Peggy; Bert Cooper’s of the upper-tier ad-agency execs; Henry Francis’s of Betty) and identity politics (Don’s secret one; Sal’s furtive one; Pete’s and Peggy’s evolving ones; Betty’s despairing one; and, most broadly, the way in which the country’s identity was altered by the JFK assassination).

But the fact that I’m laying this out so schematically is also what’s fundamentally unsatisfying about Mad Men: It’s constructed like a college course in psychological symbolism or literary analysis. Every character, every space they occupy (office; bedroom; restaurant), every prop is chosen not to simply be, but to represent something. That’s one reason why my colleagues in criticism love to write about it: The show is so much fun to deconstruct.

The most adventurous image in Mad Men this season wasn’t a person but a painting: That Rothko abstract that loomed behind so many meetings in Bert Cooper’s office. (Early in the season, Cooper had been most proud of the Asian erotica he’d had mounted on his wall; last night, it was the Rothko, being moved out of the agency by moving-men, that provoked his concerned cry, “Did you wash your hands?”) Unlike the characters, Mark Rothko’s soft-cornered quadrants of color, painted under the influence of Nietzsche, represent freedom and struggle as triumphant endeavors.

This is why my favorite characters from this season were Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell. Roger always provided much-needed humor in the most dour scenes, as well as the most realistic world-view: Unlike Don, he knows who he is, and has reached an age where he goes after what he wants (a younger wife; more power at work), no matter how foolish he may end up seeming. And Pete is a brainy ferret. Behind his pudding face lies a coiled-snake brain teeming with thoughts of ambition, fear, lust, and always-bubbling rage. Here’s hoping that the new firm of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (with the addition of “Campbell” in the company title a new goal for him) will find fresh ways to stoke the energy of Pete and all his colleagues next season.

As I said: Be sure to read Karen Valby’s complete Mad Men TV Watch.

Was this a great season of Mad Men for you?

(And you can follow me on Twitter.)