A few months ago, to get ready for the final episodes of Mad Men, I started watching the series from the beginning - albeit with my teenage son, who wanted to know what the fuss was about. Nick lost interest after a little while, and reserved the right to come back to the show in a few years' time. Fair enough. It's pretty adult stuff.
But I'm glad I saw much of the first season again, because there have been constant echoes between themes, plots and characters with the episodes that are now bookending the series.
It's been interesting watching people guess how Mad Men will end its run when the finale airs tonight. I have no idea (being surprised is part of the fun of watching), but I'm willing to bet that the ending points will have echoes in the opening episodes.
Here's what we've seen so far.
[Here might be a good point to emphasize there are big, big spoilers if you have not yet watched the last season.]
Oh, the sexism. One of the most shocking aspects of the early Mad Men episodes is the pervasive, nonstop sexism in the workplace: the words the men use, the utter condescension. Seeing those episodes again was no less disturbing, and then came the recent episode Severance, which shows both how much and how little has changed. Joan, now a partner, and Peggy, now a star creative, take a meeting with three executives from another firm ... and endure a cascade of humiliating jokes. "I want to burn this place down," Joan tells Peggy minutes later in the elevator. Joan's own transformation is remarkable; the office manager who in 1960 sent her secretaries to a sleazoid doctor for birth-control fittings, the better for them to please their bosses, by 1970 becomes ready to call in a lawsuit (and NOW) over workplace harassment. (That said, she loses, a comment that the women's movement was just starting then, and it would take decades for the worst of office culture to change.)
Cigarettes and cancer. The very first episode of the first season is called Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: a wry comment on pop culture, but a nod to tobacco and its persistent influence. You see everyone smoking in those early episodes, everywhere, in every context. They talk about tobacco on the show all the time, too, with Don Draper famously making a mid-series decision to refuse to deal with tobacco. But smoking has been an ongoing factor; can you imagine Betty Draper, for instance, without a cigarette fixed between her fingers? Her terminal lung cancer diagnosis in last week's episode was both a shock and yet the logical conclusion to her behaviour through every episode. After all, we regularly saw her smoking throughout the series, more often indeed than not.
Jim Hobart and the long campaign. In the final episodes, the boutique agency that employed all of the main characters is swallowed whole. The partners had earlier made a deal with McCann-Erickson (a real-life juggernaut in advertising) that made them all rich; the consequences of the deal, though, were less pleasant when, as Hobart put it, they died and went to advertising heaven. If I had not recently rewatched the early episodes, I probably would not have noticed that this had been the series' plan all along; in an early episode, Jim Hobart approaches Don Draper at a concert with a view to poaching him. I had thought originally the point of this exchange was to underscore for the audience the respect that Draper holds in his industry. On top of that, though, it sets the narrative for the pursuit of the "white whale" that Hobart mentioned in a recent episode. (Don, of course, proved to be elusive after all.)
The Hobo Code stuck with a young Don Draper. The episode The Hobo Code in the first season has become resonant with me, and possibly is a key to unlocking the whole series. It was important during the early episodes for explaining some of the then-mystery of Don Draper's background. We see, in flashbacks, a young Dick Whitman, years before he would steal the identity of his commanding officer and reinvent himself in Manhattan. Set during the Great Depression, the flashback shows us Dick's absymal, abusive father Archie and Dick's meagre homelife. A hobo arrives looking for work, and sleeps the night. He tells young Dick that he once had what looked like a successful life, but he was unhappy. Now, roaming the road, "I sleep like a stone." At the time, the episode struck me as one of many clues that explained Don Draper's background, and that the flashback was meant to pair with the bohemian Greenwich Village types that Draper had just met through his mistress, Midge. Now, I see that it is meant to explain Don Draper's end-of-series behaviour, particularly his most recent wanderings in rural America. We've seen Don give up his job, his marriage, his apartment and finally his car. In the final seconds of the second-last episode, The Milk and Honey Trail (another phrase lifted from hobo culture of the Thirties), Don is smiling even though his possessions fit into a Sears bag.
It's not the fall; it's the bounce back. Since Mad Men debuted, there's been a lot of talk about what the opening animation means, particularly the fall of the adman clearly meant to be Don Draper. Is it predicting a suicide? A nervous collapse? Something else? For my money, the story of Mad Men is about the fall and recovery of Don Draper. I think he hit bottom a few seasons back, and has been rebuilding his character as a more rounded, more contemplative, more honest human being. I don't know what to expect in the final episode, but my guess is this: it will be less about Don Draper and more about Dick Whitman.