“Who cares?” Alright Weiner, ya got me. After weeks of equivocating reviews I must finally bow down and acknowledge Mad Men’s genius. It’s not that my complaints about the show’s emotional void were addressed, it’s that a character looked into the camera and told me they were irrelevant. The anti-climax of “Nixon vs. Kennedy” flies so confidently in the face of narrative convention that I have little choice but to sit back and accept it. This show simply isn’t about telling the type of story I want or expect and there’s no longer any room to do anything but sit back and appreciate its complete originality.
Whether or not you agree with Bert, he (and the show he speaks for) is so matter-of-fact in his ambivalence that further argument just seems silly. Robert Morse has always done a lot with a little on this show and he’s pitch-perfect in being bored with the history of Donald Draper before Pete even finishes telling it. The point is that a man’s past is of little consequence to his present. That’s not such a revolutionary idea, but arrives at the culmination of Mad Men’s ostensible season arc. We’ve been wondering who Don Draper is since the premiere, why should we stop caring now? Of course, that’s not Bert’s (or Weiner’s) point. What he’s really doing is underscoring the fact that we stopped caring weeks ago.
In many ways, this episode is similar to “Long Weekend” in making ambivalence a strength rather than a weakness. Astonishingly, it manages to do this about plot rather than character. “Who cares?” not only culminates the “who is Don Draper?” storyline, but also “Don vs. Pete.” I’ve already complained that Don’s mystery has gone on too long, but merging these two plots robs it of whatever juice it had left. Pete was never a good foil for Don, and the idea that he could be the agent of ruin is laughable. It’s Nixon vs. Kennedy; no matter how close everyone tells us it is, we already know how this is going to turn out, and so there’s no tension. I was ready to chalk it up to another miscue by the series until Bert said that was the point.
Last week I called Mad Men the Finnegan’s Wake of television. I’ll revise that opinion can say it’s Ulysses. It’s built for an analysis rather than emotion, but the payoffs are now looking commensurate with the effort. If Don’s history doesn’t matter then our assessment of what this show is about is faulty. Weiner & co simply aren’t interested in delivering a traditional narrative but, rather than leaving us to flounder in frustration the way many of its predecessors did, this episode provides us with some guidance for our interpretation. “A man is whatever room he is in.” We’ve spent this series trying to discover who Don Draper is, when this whole time he’s been showing us. Don shapes his own identity through his actions and that identity need not be bound by any external preconceptions. Effectively, Mad Men itself is engaged in this sort of creation.
While I wasn’t wowed by the fact that a pep talk from Peggy is what saves Don, I did appreciate him realizing that there’s a moral component in who he wants to be.
The first third of this episode felt like a complete dud. Ambivalent as I am toward the main players of Mad Men, the supporting cast is barely a blip on the radar. What’s his name cheated on his wife with who’s her face. Oh noes?
Vincent Kartheiser is, as always, excellent.
This episode’s structure is pretty great, giving us the reveal of Don’s past only after we’re told it doesn’t matter. It’s a clever piece of sleight of hand by the writers as nothing short of Joe Chill killing Don’s parent could’ve lived up to the build up.