Person to Person

 

It seems paradoxical, if not impossible, to fall in love with a stranger. Though unfamiliarity may prompt and stoke desire, we tend to associate attachment with increasingly deep knowledge–such that, over time, they enjoy mutual intensification: the more I know of you, the deeper I love you. The longer I love you, the more of you I know.

The corresponding fear is that the longer this goes on, the likelier you are to acquire some poisonous insight, some knowledge to disrupt and eventually negate your prior impression. Mad Men develops the specific conceit of stolen identity to dramatize this much broader fear of exposure, a fear that proliferates self-disciplinary practices: masks and withdrawals, protective measures to keep whatever love we think we have.

Hello, I love you. Won’t you tell me your name?

The Doors’ 1968 song plays in the garage where we find Don moonlighting as a mechanic. At Utah’s creamy salt flats, even land is water: another horizonless sea. It’s one of a number of “better places than this,” where this is McCann-Erickson, but also New York, the home to which Don is summoned not by his daughter or dying ex-wife, but by his chosen family.

The primer for that summons–and for much of “Person to Person”–is “The Suitcase” (S4E7). For one, it’s the last time Don rehabilitated himself following word of a dead wife. After an all-night office-bar-office bender, when his liver can absorb no further procrastination, Don returns Stephanie’s long distance call, and Peggy, in a moment formative to their friendship, resists the notion that Don’s knownness expires with Anna Draper.

Peggy: What happened?
Don: Somebody very important to me died.
Peggy: Who?
Don: The only person in the world who really knew me.
Peggy: That's not true.

It’s the same absolution she administers to his confession from California: “I broke all my vows, scandalized my child, took another man’s name, and made nothing of it.” Though it sort of is, Peggy again replies, That’s not true. Hers is the voice Don wants to cut through the crowd, the singular audience of his person-to-person appeal. This method of operator-assistance, in which a phone call only costs if the person sought answers, was popular when calls were expensive–when the stakes of bicoastal communication would be relatively high. But the title is apt less for Don’s potential precarity–he’s calling from motels and pay phones instead of his own landline–and more for the specificity it invokes: I just wanted to hear your voice.

Peggy is Don’s (and the show’s) best evidence that moving on is both possible, and works. When he tells his estranged brother in Season 1 that his life “only moves in one direction,” Don describes an aspiration he’ll never actually achieve, his “new” life too mired in flashbacks (Season 6’s perpetual whorehouse) and motifs (his sad brunettes) to maintain forward momentum. Even at the end, this impulse to run–to put miles and years between you and what hurts–is Don’s first line of defense, from the westward flight from McCann to his recycled advice that Stephanie simply keep going. At the point of this intervention, divested even of suit and briefcase, Don wears a mint polo to group therapy. He smokes at a distance watching participants practice tai chi. He doesn’t yet understand that moving forward often necessitates moving through: acknowledging and experiencing the very trauma one hopes to leave behind.

I wrote in “Lost Horizon” that the trauma haunting Joan is her rape by then-fiancé Greg in Don’s old office. Though Greg is long gone, and her early retirement ensures a certain insulation from McCann’s rabid dogs, Joan still struggles at the nexus of sex and work–or, as the opposition obtains more expansively through Peggy, not-work and work.

“What do you do here other than walking around like you want to get raped?” Short-lived creative Joey says to Joan in “The Summer Man,” the episode after “The Suitcase.” The events that follow set the precedent for Joan and Peggy’s imbrication throughout the final episodes: Joey draws a cartoon of Joan blowing Lane Pryce; Peggy, offended, takes her grievance to Don; Don–more dismissive than empowering–suggests she handle things herself; Peggy fires Joey. In the elevator, she tells Joan, whose subsequent exasperation takes Peggy by surprise: “So all you’ve done is proved to them that I’m a meaningless secretary and you’re another humorless bitch.”

At the time it aired, it was tempting to read Joan’s reaction as an extension of her earlier kneejerk antagonism (flustered at the moment Peggy steps into her vestibule office, Joan suggests she go around because she could use the steps. On that note, given that she’s impervious to speechlessness and her takedowns are as deadly as they are swift, it’s amazing that anyone fucks with Joan, ever). But as the post-meeting elevator ride in “Severance” clarifies, Joan is specifically frustrated by Peggy’s implicit faith in–and partial complicity with–a system she already knows to be broken. Like Shirley, Joan recognizes the absolute futility of applying and developing her talents where they’re not even perceived, let alone valued.

Peggy just isn’t there. She hasn’t been burned by McCann, not yet; her professional struggle peaked back in Season 4, when she was overlooked for the Clio and Don abused her over Samsonite. Since then, Peggy’s transformation from ponytailed underling to creative heavyweight has happened in-house, under (if despite) the governance of men, and often with Don’s support. Though Joan’s proposed partnership in film production appeals to Peggy’s voracious ambition, they’re ultimately on different paths: Peggy wants to continue honing better strategies for play. Joan’s heart is in setting fire to the playing board.

In “Lost Horizon,” the formal enactment of Peggy’s victory lap contra Joan’s unceasing abasement was painful to watch. But in the mise-en-scène of “Person to Person,” the cutout black cats taped across Peggy’s inherited octopus print correspond to the cat behind Joan on the fridge as she fatefully chooses business (read: herself) over Richard. This is a happy ending: both women, in their own way, at home in the office, securing their name(s) on the proverbial door.

I’ll admit feeling vindicated by Stan and Peggy’s merger, which I endorsed on this episode of the Mad Men podcast Not Great, Pod! While the revelations themselves were laughably abrupt–Matt Zoller Seitz accurately describes the scene as “one of the most shameless and satisfying examples of fan service” in his memory–I’d argue that those crazy kids have been telegraphed together at least since their naked overtime in “Waldorf Stories” (S4E6). I can work like this. Let’s get liberated, Peggy deadpans, characteristically at her most confident with typewriter at hand. Her date in “Severance” feinted toward a crisis of fulfillment, an urgency to prioritize love over work–but for Peggy, that “choice” has long been made, by her repeated refusals to be career-shamed by men who’d prefer she simply love them full-time.

It turns out that the crisis was actually Joan’s, as Richard imagines their relationship to include ‘everything,’ so long as everything is strictly recreational. If Joan once dreamed of marrying a doctor, she ultimately turns inward to forge a professional identity whose explicit authority finally matches its implicit power. Richard leaving Joan may confirm Bob Benson’s fatal prediction, but what both fail to see is that Joan’s life, if “undeveloped property,” is better built up than sold.

We get to see that, because despite Matthew Weiner’s assurance that the final episodes would not simply “…dissolve to a frame from the pilot and play ‘Through the Years,’” “Person to Person” does indulge longings both nostalgic (where have we been?) and speculative (what’s going to happen?). Trudy completes her 1970s transition with a fabulous private jet weave. Joan marries herself. Roger orders postnuptial champagne for a woman who gets his jokes. Sally moves into the maternal void as Betty lights up in the kitchen. No longer staring off the edges of cliffs, Don sits smiling in Sukhasana, joining in the mantra that both invokes and concludes.

Most discourse surrounding the finale has focused on whether the episode’s ending–a cut from Don’s face to footage of Bill Backer’s 1971 Coke spot–is a) ambiguous, and/or b) cynical. Regarding its ambiguity: we have no reason to doubt that Don wrote that ad, other than not seeing him pitch it–and the last person seen working is Peggy, which cracks a window for the notion that she composes the spot while Don resumes his reinvention. We don’t see Don boarding a plane, taking paper napkin notes, reclaiming his seat at McCann, or unspooling the pitch to a room of initially suspicious executives who, one by one, mimic his mid-meditation slow clap of smiles. What we do see is the cut, which is ambiguous only insofar as it’s elliptical.

But the television isn’t just Roger’s friend, it’s ours, and we ought to know how to reconstruct events in lieu of being spoon-fed every step. So let’s imagine Don does write the spot, and that the above is a loose reconstruction of what’s unseen. Is the return to advertising a cynical design?

To say yes is to apply Don’s old unidirectional logic (my life only moves in one direction) to a show that privileges parabolic returns. Don has always loved advertising, both in the local sense of creating copy–remember that he made posters at the fur store basically for fun–and, broadly, as a mode of storytelling. Like lying, advertising on Mad Men satisfies the impulse to narrativize such sites of vital incoherence as desire, memory, and personhood. It’s what allows Don to imagine a way out of a bad start; before he can become someone else, he has to tell himself that story, to memorize it, internalize it, and to sell it, over and over, to himself by way of the world.

Retreat participant Leonard’s refrigerator monologue reaffirms the idea that what advertising sells us are stories about ourselves, narrative products for which consumable goods are merely totems. Before Leonard takes the ‘talking seat,’ the group therapist looks expectantly at Don, priming us to sense their relation. Not that it’s hard–in gray slacks and a blue sweater, balding Leonard is the only other person who isn’t wearing some manner of tunic. First, he laments feeling invisible: I work in an office. People walk right by me. I know they don’t see me. They don’t look up when I sit down. No one in the circle is exactly looking up, either. It’s like no one cares that I’m gone. This line catches Don’s attention. He’s had a lifetime of experience being gone from one life despite performing presence in another.

Leonard recounts a nightmare in which he’s an overlooked consumable, like mayonnaise that’s gone off. He waits in darkness on a refrigerator shelf for intermittent light and the chance to be chosen. He’s cognizant of his dual exclusion, both from things you want to eat, and from the eaters outside the door. He dreams of being desired, then seen, then integrated. His crying looks like laughing. Don is moved to embrace Leonard because even in his catatonic grief, he recognizes the value and power of a good story.

Interrogating Mad Men’s ending for ambiguity or cynicism is ultimately a question of literacy: what are we reading for? For weeks, viewers have wondered whether and how the opening credit sequence of a suited figure falling would manifest in the final episodes, i.e. would Don, or maybe Roger, pitch himself through one of those much-gazed-through office windows, thus distilling the series to the linkage of two points.

In “The Gold Violin” (S2E7), Jane Siegel, Ken Cosgrove, Sal Romano, and Harry Crane break into Bert Cooper’s office for an illicit peek at his precious Rothko. The idea being to know what to say about it, if and when he asks. Because such a question would constitute a test, as if a picture is a problem to be solved.

When asked what makes Mad Men great, I usually say: it’s beautiful to look at. This is well-documented and provides a particular pleasure, but the way in which it’s true goes further to demand an analogous way of looking–one that Ken articulates, standing before the Rothko, in his proposed alternative to interpretation:

Ken: I don’t think it’s supposed to be explained.
Sal: I’m an artist, okay? It must mean something.
Ken: Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you’re just supposed to experience it. Because when you look at it, you do feel something, right? It’s like looking into something very deep. You could fall in.

The fall that Mad Men has enacted over seven seasons isn’t self-ruination, but immersion in a world, like our own, that exceeds understanding–such that it was always us, not Don, on the verge of falling in.

Taking Cooper’s painting on its own terms, Jane says, “It’s smudgy squares, huh? That’s interesting.”

For those of us watching, it certainly was.

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