'Mad Men' review: Losing enlightenment as the show heads to its season finale

The most telling exchange on last night’s Mad Men was the brief chat between Don and Roger, after Roger expressed a particularly pungent form of revenge Don might perform. “What happened to your enlightenment?” asked Don. “Wore off,” said Roger, with Rogerly, cavalier dismissal. And indeed, that’s what the past few weeks of Mad Men have felt like: A fading away of much of the season’s promise, a settling into a deep funk, a cynicism I’d call profound if it wasn’t so superficial. Jon Hamm may well earn an Emmy for becoming the Lon Chaney of Dismay: The Man of a Thousand Weary Faces.

The chatter about last night’s installment will doubtless center on the gray contorted head of Lane, who was literally cut down in the prime of life by the people who had once elevated him. If, a few weeks ago, when Lane forged Don’s name on that check, you said to yourself, “Well, this is bound to end badly — Lane’s pushing himself into an impossible position. What’s he going to do, commit suicide?” Bingo! You can earn a spot in the Mad Men writer’s room, or at least serve as a tiny synapse in creator Matthew Weiner’s brain. In a pay-off to narrative foreshadowing that was less surprising than a groaning inevitability that wouldn’t have been out of place on an installment of a network soap such as Private Practice, Lane, having been pushed out of the firm by Don, committed suicide. (Jared Harris looked like his Fringe David Robert Jones character after a particularly arduous trip between two universes.)

But there were other moments that underscored the current MM malaise as it closes out its season. The mention of Roger’s “enlightenment” — a reference to his post-acid attitude adjustment — reminded us how exhilarating it was to see a familiar character change, to go through a new experience with his world-view altered. Now, however, Roger’s LSD exercise is being treated like a gym membership: He tried it, he liked it, but he’s never going to follow through on the resolutions he made to evolve into a different sort of person. This may fit a TV definition of realism — characters remain essentially the same, so that we feel comfortable returning to them from week to week — but it’s nonetheless a disappointment. And more significantly, it signals a certain failure of nerve on the part of the show itself. Mad Men takes pride in upending TV-drama conventions, but it’s not nervy enough to let Roger forsake his vastly entertaining but ultimately repetitive jaded wisecracking.

There was more of the wearying parallelism in the subplots, a mechanical lining-up of themes to be delivered, spelled out, hammered home to us grateful dumbbells in the audience. Just as last week Don threw money at Peggy as though she was a bratty prostitute while Joan was whored out by the firm, so this week the episodes key themes echoed each other. At the moment when Don was feeling most like his world had turned to crap, he conveniently found himself in an elevator with Glen, who was moaning, “Why does everything turn out crappy?” (This entire season has become one portentous downward-speeding elevator symbol after another, hasn’t it, most existentially Don’s gaze into the elevator shaft abyss in “Lady Lazarus.” Maybe Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce should angle for the Otis account next season.)

Elsewhere this week, Sally, out with Megan, got a grown-up drink of coffee in a restaurant because she can “pass” as a young woman now, even as she pours sugar into it to confirm her kiddie sweet tooth. A bit later, Sally “became a woman” — gets her period — but seeks the sugary platitudes of her mother to comfort her in this frightening transition. (And as cold as Betty has been to Sally, it strained credulity that she felt so little maternal instinct for the child that she was startled, almost recoiled, when the poor kid hugged her, and had to consciously decide to return the reassuring squeeze.) No wonder the show chose a song by The Lovin’ Spoonful to close out the night: On Mad Men now, love is doled out — from one character to another; from TV-makers to the audience — in mingy spoonfuls.

One undeniably exhilarating moment: Don’s combo speech/sell-job/excoriation of the Dow execs’ complacency: “What is happiness? It’s the moment before you want more happiness.” What a superb ad-line that would make for an anti-depressant of the future, Don.

Next week: As an underling scrapes “Pryce” off the glass door with a razor-blade, the suspense mounts — can Mad Men pull out of its recent spiral, regain a bit of the old zou bisou bisou, and leave us with something more than a Don Draper sourpuss?

Twitter: @kentucker


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