It begins with the coolly dégagé voice of Peggy Lee wondering, “Is That All There Is?”
Technically, the answer is no: There are six episodes of “Mad Men” after April 5, but the song sets the tone as we near the end of the TV epic that will be remembered for its depiction of the implosion of the postwar American dream in the 1960s.
AMC is calling this “The End of An Era,” and of course, it is. But as the April 5 episode begins, you could argue the era has already ended for Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and the men and women who commercialize happiness for a living. Some, like Roger Sterling (John Slattery), foolishly think the party’s just beginning and they’ll adapt to the times, just as they’ve always done. Others, especially Draper, are at various phases of realizing that for all their scheming, ambition, womanizing, drinking, lying and cheating, they’ve traded their souls for an advertising account.
Don once said, “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear.”
Don didn’t mean true happiness, of course, because he has had only a fleeting glimpse of it over the course of his invented life and borrowed persona. Because of that, he’s anything but free of fear as the 1960s near the end.
A guy could do worse, and many in the business did. Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) lost an eye; Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) hanged himself in his office; Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) died while watching the moon landing in 1969, only to return in a dream sequence, singing a mocking “The Best Things in Life Are Free.”
Show creator Matthew Weiner, as usual, has issued requests to critics about the first of the final seven episodes of the series.
Don’s marriage to Megan (Jessica Pare) is over; Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) is back where she started, in a way; and Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) has found that having a powerful job doesn’t protect her from sexism or quick dismissals by men.
Peggy and Joan crack the glass ceiling even before the term would come into common usage, but like Don, Ken and a few of the men, they’re finding success less than fulfilling. Peggy’s reaction to realizing the emptiness in her life is to try to have a personal life through a blind date with a handsome young lawyer. She drinks a bit too much at dinner, and seems almost girlish again. Yet, she cannot help being who she is – “fearless” is one of the words her date uses to describe her.
Most of all, Weiner doesn’t want us to tell you much about what happens to Don, but if you have been watching, you’ve seen the construct of Don Draper begin to crumble. The process is reflected, in a way, by how much the past continues to haunt him, a reminder that at various points in his life, Don had options. He could have made better choices; he could have lived a life of truth.
The episode ends, with a long tracking shot, the camera pulling farther and farther away from Don, who is seated at the counter of a diner, late at night, the colors and mood borrowed from Edward Hopper. And Peggy Lee’s voice returns with the final lyrics of “Is That All There Is?”
“If that’s the way she feels about it, why doesn’t she just end it all?” she sings. “Oh, no, not me. I’m in no hurry for that final disappointment.”
Let’s keep dancing, just a little while longer.