How To Ruin An Entire Series

So last night, after nine seasons of waiting and wondering, we finally learned how Ted Mosby met the mother of his children. Her name was Tracy, and what little we saw of their relationship drove home the point that she was truly perfect for him. They had two kids, finally tied the knot. And then she died. That’s right. TV’s version of a mythical rom-com ended with the girl of Ted’s dreams coughing in a hospital bed. And why? So he could end up with Robin. Robin whose season long wedding weekend to Barney ended in divorce after which she revealed herself to be a pretty lousy friend. But Ted still ended up at her window with that damned blue French horn. So in short, people, this was one big long con, and the more I think about it, the angrier I get. And it’s not just because this finale was such a colossal misfire. It’s because fans have been robbed of that one bit of comfort that comes when a beloved series signs off. Because who can enjoy the reruns now?

Consider this. Some people like to reference Seinfeld as having the most disappointing series finale of all time. I’ll confess that I wasn’t blown away when I first saw it, but over the years, it’s kind of grown on me. Even if it hasn’t worked that same kind of magic on you, that final episode in no way diminishes the series as a whole, and you can go back and re-watch the adventures of Jerry and the gang and still enjoy nearly every single second of it.

HIMYM? Not going to happen. How can anyone watch Ted and Robin’s sweet courtship and logical break-up or Barney’s final play that was his proposal to Robin, or this entire final season building up to the Barney/Robin wedding and take any pleasure in any of it? This is a betrayal of St. Elsewhere-ian proportions, and the fact that Bays and Thomas might get to do it all over again is criminal. Legendary? Sure. But for all the wrong reasons, Bro.

MAD MEN: Scene of the Week

Don’t say it’s (almost) over! As sad as I am over the prospect of no Mad Men next week, at least there’s another season to go (and endless years of rewatching as my bittersweet, weekend-long Sopranos binge taught me). But back to the task at hand. In a night full of astonishing moments, we see Teddy unintentionally throw his wife in Peggy’s face, then Peggy dress to kill, then the lovebirds in Peggy’s Upper West Side haunt, and Teddy ultimately choose his wife and California (with a little help from Don) over his mistress. Peggy, back of the head shot and all, is basically Don at his peak, powerful and miserable. And we see how well that life has served Don (more on that in a sec).

On the “lighter” side of things, Pete contends with his mother’s “accidental” death and Bob Benson’s exploitation of his limited driving skills. But as much as we might dislike Pete at times, it was touching to see him at Tammy’s bedside just as it was touching to see Joan give Roger a chance with Kevin (if not with her). Both of these men want to connect with their children. As does Dick Whitman.

A Don Draper pitch is always money in the bank. In fact, I singled one out as the highlight of this season’s premiere. And Don starts his Hershey pitch in a familiar fashion, nostalgia sacrificed at the altar of consumerism. It’s something he’s done brilliantly but ad nauseum. Last night, Don flips the script. For no conceivable reason, except perhaps a desperate need to be known at long last, Don reveals the truth of his upbringing in front of potential clients and co-workers. The Hershey bar is something too sacred to Dick for even Don to lie about. It’s kind of sweet and kind of pathetic. And in the end, it costs Don his job (probably just temporarily), but he loses it just the same. What follows is Don as Dick showing his kids, and Sally in particular, exactly who he is and where he came from. Again, sweet and pathetic. But that pitch. If Don never makes another one (and I’m sure he will), that was a beautifully awful culmination of nearly a lifetime’s worth of lies. And it’s too much for Dick. And it’s not enough for Don. He’s in a bad place. And so are we! Another year until another episode. Unfair! But let’s call it like it is. Season Six was uneven to be sure. But its finale rightfully earns consideration as one of the best Mad Men wrap-up episodes of all time.

James Gandolfini: A Jersey Girl says “Thank You”

So I’m watching The Shining through a magnifying glass, after recently viewing Room 237, when my cell rings. It’s my sister. Of course I pick up. Family is everything. I’m expecting some update about my mom’s car or a status report on Oscar, our beloved beagle (recently prone to seizures), or simply a discussion about upcoming weekend plans.

Were it only that mundane.

“You know that James Gandolfini died.”

And she’s joking, right?

How many nights did we spend watching and rewatching Sopranos’ episodes in awe of what was happening on our screens? I mean, we’re Jersey Girls, and we’ve been peripherally associated with variations on Tony Soprano our entire lives. The tough guy. The family man. The proud peacock. The struggling soul. Here was an actor and a character for us. We recognized the swagger, trembled at the threats, and felt simultaneously safe yet awed in the presence. We admired Tony when he flexed his muscles, hated him when he came down on A.J. (the eternal adolescent in all of us), sat slack-jawed when he executed Big Pussy, and cried when his ducks flew away. This representation of so many fathers and grandfathers and cousins touched every chord. The “anti-hero” took center stage. We loved him, laughed with and at him, shook our heads when he tried and failed get back or just get on the right foot, and still always thought him a king in our midst.

And now he’s gone.

I can’t quite describe what I’m feeling. It is in no way like sitting at my grandfather’s casket or walking through the rooms at D’Arienzo’s on Skillman in Brooklyn. But it’s a loss just the same. I’m crying as I write this, but thankful that I, and so many others, had this character. Sometimes I wish that life didn’t imitate art. Gandolfini suddenly cutting to black seems too cruel. But it doesn’t have to end. You don’t have to stop believing.

I’m fortunate to have glorious recordings of my grandfather’s voice, singing his songs. A click can alleviate some of my pain when I miss him terribly. Some, but not all. But tonight, let’s take a moment to revel in another legacy left behind even as we’re stifling our tears. Take pride, Jersey Girls. In the good and the bad and the pride in all of it (you’ll have to go to YouTube after clicking on the first clip, but it’s worth it).

MAD MEN: Scene of the Week

A few weeks back I commented on how Mad Men does beautifully awful moments better that any show currently on TV. And last night saw a slew of them. We get Don and Megan running into Peggy and Teddy, who are essentially flaunting their ecstatic flirtation in everyone’s faces. Don’s anger at his new partner and his disappointment in his protege causes him to follow Harry Crane’s lead and sacrifice Ocean Spray for a taste of Sunkist. It’s a slap in the face, but it’s nothing compared to a shot in the eye (Ken Cosgrove can totally relate). And it’s really nothing compared to Don stealing Peggy’s Rosemary’s Baby-inspired aspirin pitch and placing it at the feet of the late Frank Gleason. Given the way everyone starts to squirm during the meeting with the St. Joseph’s execs, Don can tell himself that he’s acting in the best interest of the agency. Maybe he is. But as Peggy so rightly puts it, he is also “a monster.” Don’s never worn saint’s robes, but I never hated the man the way I did last night.

Sally, fresh off of seeing her father in the arms of and inside Sylvia, seems on the verge of an equally horrible experience. Her need to escape to boarding school leads to the threat of hazing by deceitfully angelic mean girls. But… wait for it… Glen reappears! He’s bigger and “badder” than ever, and his defense of Sally’s honor in the face of his friend’s barely lecherous desires touched me in much the same way it does Sally. It makes perfect sense to picture next year’s finale closing with Sally and Glen sitting at the back of a bus, Graduate-style, while the next decade looms in front of them.

But no one is more on edge than that new character we’ve all grown to love, hate, and theorize about incessantly. The truth of the perpetually coffee-bearing and possibly gay Bob Benson is finally revealed. It’s nothing new, but it fits. Bob is not a spy or a long-lost son or an alien being. The truth is simpler. He’s Don. Maybe he didn’t literally step into another man’s shoes to escape the station of his birth, but he recreated himself for a chance on Madison Avenue. Everyone wants a fresh start at one point or another. Duck, of all people, brings this leverage to Pete’s attention.

And history has taught Pete well.

So Pete heeds Bert Cooper’s advice. Pete being Pete, he shows his upper hand and lets Bob know that he knows just what he is or rather isn’t. But Pete also opts to keep this bit of useful information to himself. Because really, who cares if Bob Benson is a West Virginian product of incest who lied his way into the feast? What does matter is that Bob has the drive and the skill to help Pete seal the deal with Chevy (Bert also said that Pete should focus on “bringing in accounts”).

I still don’t trust Bob, and given the Chevy execs’ penchant for violence, Pete might find himself the victim of some tragic “accident” while out with those boys before the series is out. But for now, Pete is holding a winning hand. And Don is alone and despised, awash in misery.

MAD MEN: Sequence of the Week

“Favors” was, for me, one of those Mad Men episodes that started out super strong. Peggy is mistaken for Trudy by the senile Mrs. Campbell, Pete and Peggy get drunk and relive pieces of their shared past (while a sober Teddy wistfully looks on), and Roger Sterling juggles! Things tended to drag a bit in the middle as Sally and Julie pine for Mitchell Rosen while Don schemes to keep the boy out of Vietnam. And while I was intrigued by the out of left field pass that Bob Benson makes at Pete, I’m also starting to wonder if Matthew Weiner created this man of mystery just to set the blogosphere on fire with conspiracy theories (he’s a spy! he’s a ghost! he’s Megan!). I’m sure that the dots will soon connect, but right now Bob is starting to feel like a rudderless enigma for curiosity’s sake.

Anyway, it’s not where you lag in the middle, it’s where you finish. And what a finish! From the moment Sally walks in on Don “comforting” Sylvia, the gloves came off. Sally has always given her father the benefit of the doubt when it comes to all things Betty and, to an extent, Megan. I don’t think Sally has ever been so naive as to view her father as a blameless hero. But it’s one thing for Sally to empathize with Don because she too has borne Betty’s wrath. It is quite another to see him shtupping Sylvia one minute and accepting Arnold’s oblivious gratitude the next (the door Sally that slams in Don’s face near the episode’s end will be slow to open again, if ever). The unravelling of all things between Daddy and Daughter Draper was punctuated by Pete taking out his many frustrations on his cereal, and Peggy fulfilling the destiny desired by her mother. Better to be a cat lady than live in sin (hey, as a cat lady, I ain’t knocking it; I just think Peggy wants someone of the non-tabby persuasion curled up beside her). I can’t quite believe that there are only two episodes to go. How will this wrap up? Will this wrap up? And might Bob Benson be a spy involved in a passionate affair with the long absent Sal, and could Sal be pulling the strings, instructing Bob which buttons to push, in order to destroy the agency from within (sorry; I couldn’t resist)?

MAD MEN: Scene of the Week

Sterling Cooper & Partners? Really? Gotta admit I was hoping for something a little more creative than that. But that’s my only real complaint with “A Tale of Two Cities.” Last night we saw Don, Roger, and Harry in California. Don smokes some hash and hallucinates that Megan is with child, Roger gets his family jewels clobbered by former cousin-in-law Danny Siegel, and Harry’s essentially on hand to warn the others that while they’re on the West Coast, they are strangers in a strange land. Back in NYC, Jim Cutler is already planning a mutiny, Ginsberg melts down to the point where he’s almost unable to keep his doomed meeting with Manischewitz, and Bob Benson continues to worm his way into agency’s inner circle (the man’s got a plan, but I’m not quite sure what it is just yet). And Pete Campbell of all people takes a hit from Stan’s joint (please, please, please don’t let this be a one-off; if there’s a Mad Men character that we need to see more of high, it’s definitely Pete!)

But enough about the boys. Last night, the ladies also took center stage and, unsurprisingly, this weekly prize. It’s been quite the journey for Peggy and Joan. They’ve come a long way from the mousy secretary who didn’t realize she was knocked up and Sterling Cooper’s queen bee for whom snagging a husband was her life’s goal (marrying a pig like Greg would alter that ideal for anyone). Peggy is now a creative powerhouse, and Joan, by hook or by crook, has made it to the partners’ table. Now anyone who has ever seen Joan in action knows that she has always been more than capable of handling an account. So it seems that she’ll score a major coup with Andy from Avon. But Teddy wants Pete at the meeting with Peggy. Joan gives Pete the slip and takes the meeting herself. But Joan fails to let Peggy take the lead, and the result is awkward, clumsy, and so not Joan. Peggy is quick to call Joan on her missteps and correct the assumption that Peggy slept her way to the top (Peggy is able to hit below Joan’s belt on that particular front). Peggy and Joan might never be bosom buddies, but Peggy momentarily saves Joan’s bacon when Teddy and Pete ream into Joan for stealing the meeting. Peggy fakes a note that makes it seem as if Joan has succeeded when landing Avon is far from a certainty. It was yet another testament to the awesomeness that is Peggy Olson, and who doesn’t want to see Joan beat the other partners at their own game? But if Andy doesn’t call, what then? Who takes the fall? It will undoubtedly be worse for Joan than it might be for Peggy (honestly, I believe Joan would do her best to keep Peggy out of the line of fire should the other shoe drop). So this little white lie could yield Joan a fraction of the respect she truly deserves, or it could actually lower her standing with the other partners to the point where she’s wishing she was back managing the secretarial pool. I want Joan to win this one. I’m just not sure that she will.

MAD MEN: Scene of the Week

There’s really no contest. As always, last night’s Mad Men, “The Better Half,” packed plenty of punches. Megan continues to blossom/struggle on her soap set (her character’s got an evil twin, but Megan is having trouble distinguishing between the two). This leads to a tete-a-tete with her co-star, Arlene, who tries (and fails) to get Megan to loosen up, girl-on-girl style (I assume that Megan’s unusually prudish attitude is a subconscious form of rebellion against her radical parents). Back at the office, debates about the merits of butter over margarine, Teddy and Don vying for Peggy’s approval, then simultaneously turning their backs on her when she most needs a friend, makes for one rough outing for Miss Olson (don’t you just hate it when you accidentally stab your boyfriend with a homemade harpoon because you’re terrified of your neighborhood and then he breaks up with you en route to the hospital because you represent all that he sees as wrong with the universe)? Things aren’t much better for Roger. His attempt to be a cool grandfather only gives the little tyke nightmares (Planet of the Apes is kind of a disturbing movie), and when he goes to Joan in the hopes of fixing the mistake via their son, Bob Benson is already playing house (it wouldn’t be Mad Men if everyone wasn’t miserable).

And yet, for a few nostalgic moments, the show’s former first couple are very happy. Last week, the Betty of old reemerged, svelte and blonde and poised. I kind of hate this Betty (I kind of hated the fat, brunette version as well). But last night, away from her castle and Henry’s campaign events, Betty is relaxed and suggestive of the girl that Don first fell in love with. That they would fall back into bed was a foregone conclusion. And given all that’s transpired, that it would be a mere moment in the woods for Betty and a punctuation of all that is missing for Dan, was also pretty obvious.

But the afterglow, Betty remembering how Don delights in what he cannot have before smashing it once the object of his desire is in his possession (sorry, Megan), and Don questioning sex as the true definition of closeness to another human being, was dramatic gold. Betty will likely reclaim her monster title before the season is out, and Don will likely rely on his extracurricular activities to wash down the loss of the one person he could still be close to, albeit platonically (Peggy). But for an instant, Don and Betty understand each other and themselves. Shame that it won’t last.

MAD MEN: Moments of the Week

My, my, my! As I sit down to write this post, I find it impossible to single out a “scene” proper in an episode that was purposefully disjointed in order to transmit the feeling of SCDPCGC on drugs (and yeah, they have to come up with another name right quick). Roger and Jane’s mind-opening LSD excursion this is not. This is knives thrown at Stan, Ken dancing for his life (more on that in a sec), and Don consumed with the sound of his voice in between searching for old copy and reflecting on his formative whorehouse years. Heck, even Sally (and I’m pretty sure she was like one of the few people in the episode who wasn’t on drugs) has to deal with a funhouse “Grandma” while Megan is off for a night at the theater. This was a bad trip all around, and despite the lovely scene between Stan and Peggy (hmmm… now they could be a fun couple), it’s two smaller moments that stuck with me as I trudged through my own unintoxicated workday (although a dose of something would have improved things immeasurably).

Let’s get back to Ken. Mr. Cosgrove suffers through a thrill ride with the Chevy execs that leads to the titular crash (I really thought that this was one of those times where we were going to backtrack to see how Ken came to meet a kind of doom, but this was not that kind of episode). Ken gets fixed up as good as new with a cane and a shot of something that promises uninterrupted hours of inspiration. The drug leads to Ken’s realization that the only power he has lies in playing the part of the dupe in order to humor the money and bring home the accounts. Translation: he has no power, and all he can do is shuffle off to Buffalo in an effort to stay sane as impotence engulfs him. His routine momentarily drags Don out of his own drug-induced stupor to silently ask, “what the hell is going on around here?” Seriously. My Mad Men viewing buddy had to work, and I literally (Parks & Rec shoutout) looked at my cat and said, “Oh my God.”

But before Ken’s dance against the machine, we see the firm absorb the news of Frank Gleason’s passing. It hits Teddy hardest of all. And Peggy (they could be a really fun couple!) consoles her new mentor as Don watches from afar. And despite all his mooning over Sylvia and the past that forged him, in that second Don is undone. Time was when Peggy was at his beck and call when everything fell apart around him (notably, on the occasion of Anna Draper’s passing). But Don has alienated Peggy, and Teddy is just the sweeter guy. Don can’t compete, so he’s left with searching for an antiquated campaign in order to regain some of her respect. It doesn’t work, and Don ends the hour by throwing in his Chevy towel. So if Don can’t validate his own existence through someone else’s approval, be it memory’s whore or his own daughter or his disenchanted protege, he’s lost. This is going to get a lot worse.

MAD MEN: Scene of the Week

I respect the fact that after watching the reaction to the MLK assassination in something resembling real time, Mad Men went in the other direction and simply punctuated a very dark hour with the news of RFK’s similar fate. Not only did it drive home the point that Megan and Don, completely unconnected from one another as the news played, are leading separate lives, it was also a clever way to show that Pete’s mom has not totally lost touch with reality (perhaps we should all put more stock in what our aging relatives see, hear, and comprehend). As I said, a dark hour. The merger of SCDP and CGC sees Don and Teddy trying various ways to one-up each other, both on the ground and in the air. Staying on the topic of Don, his weird sexual/psychological game with Sylvia was erotic for like an instant. It quickly descended into disturbing and then just plain sad. Oh, Don! Must you smash everything you touch once the hopeful beginning fades into a distant memory? Back to the office, Joan has a medical scare (don’t worry; she’s fine) and smiling Bob Benson steps into the shoes of her white knight. Joan’s mother is smitten; Joan is a little more wary. Me? Why can’t Bob be an opportunist with a heart (although I see Bob as a new confidant for Joan and not a lover; Joan needs a solid friend since she barely speaks to Roger, Lane is dead, and I doubt that she and Don will be going out for Jaguars and drinks after last week’s shenanigans)? Peggy is back on her home turf, and almost instantly Don is back to emotionally abusing her, insinuating that she is insinuating that the merger was all about Don’s desire to have Peggy back in his office. And it’s clear that that relationship ain’t gonna get better anytime soon. Peggy is clearly on Team Teddy. And despite all of the goings-on in the office, the one ray of light, albeit a twisted shimmer, in the episode lies elsewhere.

After Don drinks him under the table, Teddy retreats to Frank Gleason’s hospital room to pour out his sorrows. Maybe it’s the impending hereafter, but Frank advises Teddy not to waste time with embarrassed regrets. Quite the opposite. Frank tells Teddy to get back on his horse and walk in “like he owns half the place.” Words of encouragement (still peppered with the notion that if Teddy simply “waits patiently by the banks of the river, the body of his enemy will float by”). Teddy literally takes this wisdom to the clouds, and his future suddenly seems so bright that the man’s gotta wear shades. Everyone else is still grounded in familiar patterns of insecurity, antagonism, and jealousy. Forget that our boys and girls are living in one of the most transformative decades in American history. It’s always just been a backdrop. Like any group of co-workers with shared histories, a tipping point is on the horizon. Pete’s lack of a chair, Peggy stuck with a column, Roger repeating firings, and Don underestimating everyone means one simple thing. A day will come when these people will no longer be able to work together. And Teddy, the “new kid on the block,” has the upper hand. This does not make him the series’ new villain. It makes him somebody who can learn from the past and try new tactics rather than slipping back into damaging habits. The others might be capable of the same feat. But not together. “Are you alone?” Essentially. And it will have to be literally before all is said and done.