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'Mad Men': Sterling, Cooper, Draper and Pryce [Updated]

November 9, 2009 |  9:36 am

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Those who have complained that “Mad Men” leans too hard on soap opera gauziness finally got their dose of white-knuckled logistics with the finale of Season 3. “Shut the Door. Have a Seat” was a tight balance of emotionally pungent drama and company coup d’etat. From Ossining to Madison Avenue, alliances were strengthened, broken or realigned. It wasn’t always a pretty sight, but for every bedroom face-off, we got zesty moments such as Joan at her most deliciously officious, ransacking manila folders and teasing Roger.

Much as last week’s episode used the Kennedy assassination as a framework for the episode’s events, “Shut the Door” used the hurried formation of Sterling, Cooper, Draper and Pryce as fuel for the fire. The construction and tonal palette lent the episode a painterly Zen-like balance, like something Rothko would create to Cooper’s delight, though it had its redundancies too.

Let’s dive into our swan song, shall we? First of all, what a week for Don. On one hand, his beautiful Titanic of a marriage finally crashed into the iceberg that it’s been jabbing into for years. On the other, a blessed distraction just landed in his lap. Hungry to build something of his own, Don will be able to plunge into his new job as letterhead partner of a fledgling ad agency -- all the better for not dwelling on his marital dissolution.

We saw several shades of Don in this episode, not all flattering but they felt true. Sometimes “Mad Men” tries too hard to sketch Don in inky shades of mystique or reverence -- but he felt more like a real person here, capable of blunders and cruelties like the rest of us.

A little bird named Conrad Hilton kick-starts the company brain drain. Not only does the old curmudgeon spill the beans that Sterling-Cooper is about to become chopped liver for McCann Erickson to further dice up however it pleases, he also reveals that he’ll be taking his business elsewhere. So much for that father-son kinship, all those late-night brainstorms aided by some Prohibition-era hooch. When Don calls him out on the manipulation, Hilton peevishly grins and then lays into him about the importance of getting things for himself. Don finally gets to see the Hilton relationship for what it has always been. Don was simply the latest muse and sounding board for an obsessed entrepreneur who parlays some of his most complex emotions into his business relationships because it’s safe ground for him. He has control and power there.

It’s not for nothing that this episode flashes back to Don’s Dad, a temperamental farmer faced with hard times. We see his father first isolate himself from other farmers, then he seems to agree to take less for his home than it’s worth. As he gets ready to launch on a drunken ride to Chicago, he gets kicked in the face by a startled horse. His life was sad because he had nothing permanent constructed; a terrible mishap wipes out everything. As Don’s current family is disintegrating around him, he’ll create a new structure, a business family to fulfill him. Not that we expect Don to stay romantically unattached for long.

This was a fine episode for Bertram Cooper, played with equal parts wizard and imp by Robert Morse. He doesn’t allow himself to be put out to pasture by McCann Erickson; instead, he gets the fighting spirit back, negotiating at a pure gut level to get Roger Sterling involved. Sterling wisely notes that his choices are: join or die. With Sterling comes American Tobacco, a plum account.

The new partnership also rekindles Sterling and Don’s friendship. At the bar, just like old besotted times, Sterling asks Draper about Henry Francis, figuring he knows about Betty’s life raft or at least that’s what he says. Don is bitterly surprised, reeling in a rare moment of jealousy and betrayal.

At one point, Sterling says to Don: “You’re not good at relationships because you don’t value them.” Don certainly didn’t value his relationship with Betty and with this new key piece of information about Henry, he takes a new tactic in their dealings -- anger and threats. Instead of waving aside Betty’s requests for him to see a divorce lawyer as the hysterical musings of an exhausted wife, he twists Betty’s arm in her nightgown, telling her she won’t see a nickel from him and that he’ll take the kids. Betty is unbelievably calm -- a little too calm, perhaps. Even if she doesn’t love him anymore, isn’t it hard to hear your husband speak to you this way? Of course, the most gut-wrenching moment of the fight comes when baby Gene starts crying, shortly after Daddy calls Mommy a whore. If all goes to Betty’s plans, the newest member of the Draper family will know Henry Francis just as well as his biological father.

Throughout the scenes dealing with the Draper divorce, Betty seemed too icy and remote, even for Betty. Perhaps she feels totally resolved and safe in going to Francis, but even so, aren’t there flickers of doubt? We still have yet to see a sense of real bond between Henry and Betty. He accompanies her to the lawyer’s office, insists she won’t need alimony because he’ll support her and the children, but it all seems too convenient, too good to be true. In Season 4, will we see what’s wrong with Henry?

To alleviate the heaviness of the family breakup, we have on the other side the fleet-footed strategizing from the top players at Sterling-Cooper. Pete proves his merit by delivering several clients -- he may not have his name on the door (of their suite at the Pierre) yet, but he’s in a better position now than he would’ve been had he stayed in the stuffed suit ranks of McCann or even gone to work for the visionary Ogilvy. His wife Trudy can barely contain herself from clapping with glee and jumping up and down.

Don’s biggest business error of the episode is in how he approaches Peggy. He tries to bully her into leaving, refusing to tell her who might be coming with. She points out that he didn’t even ask her if she wants to leave, he just assumed she’d follow him “like a nervous poodle.” Peggy’s burgeoning sense of independence is another riff on Matthew Weiner’s favorite themes of parenthood and revolt. [Updated at 9:52 a.m.: An earlier version of this post left out the first name of "Mad Men" show creator Matthew Weiner.] We see Peggy finally make a stand against her mentor, her father in advertising and the art of keeping secrets.

The final scene between them in Peggy’s apartment felt a bit over the top. His pitch was so emotional that it bordered on the romantic. With tears in her eyes, Peggy wonders aloud that if she doesn’t go with Don, he’ll never speak to her again. Don says that isn’t the case, that in fact he’ll spend the rest of his life trying to hire her. Will it be on one knee next time?

Although many of the scenes with setting up the new business were carried off with pluck (we finally see Lane Pryce become the turncoat, wishing his former overlord a Happy Christmas as he slams down the phone), a few moments felt a twinge off. In the mini-montage of the new business launching into action, we once again learn that Peggy doesn’t get coffee, a joke “Mad Men” has worked a few times now. By the time we got to Harry Crane joining the team, it felt like we’d seen that particular scene already play out in more compelling ways. Nevertheless, the sense of excitement was palpable, and wisely, Weiner left himself several juicy setups for next season. Let us count the many ways our Mad Men and Women can clash. Sterling and Draper. Draper and Campbell. Sterling and Campbell. Jane Siegel Sterling and Joan Holloway. The possibilities are endless.

By far the most moving scene of the episode was when the Drapers tell Sally and Bobby that Dad’s moving out. The word divorce is never used but the essence of the situation is not lost on Sally, who challenges her Dad for breaking his past promise that he’d always come home. Bobby has been delivering some heartbreaking lines lately and this conversation keeps him in that form. Last week he asked if the family would be going to Kennedy’s funeral. This time, he asks if Daddy is moving out because Bobby lost his cuff links. Looking for someone to blame, perhaps internalizing the culture’s anti-feminist expectation that the breakup of a family must be the woman’s fault, Sally asks if Betty made him leave. Betty answers that they made the decision together.

By the time the season concludes, we have seen Betty and Don make at least temporary amends. Don says he won't fight her and Betty responds in kind, saying Don will always be their father but as the plane takes Betty to Reno for a quickie divorce, everything feels up in the air. New businesses and new loves -- they are all plunging into the unknown.

-- Margaret Wappler

P.S. Until next season, I’ll be at the last seat at the end of the bar, nursing a martini, nibbling on a shrimp cocktail, maybe sketching an idea or two on a cocktail napkin. The comments section is forever open, just like some old dive in Greenwich Village with twinkling lights and bohemian poets in the corner, plotting the next unforeseen revolution. Belle Jolie kisses to you all. I'll see you soon.

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Photo: From left, the new partners: Roger Sterling, Don Draper, Lane Pryce and Bertram Cooper. Credit: Carin Baer

Your humble Showtracker blogger's avatar was made at MadMenYourself.com

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