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Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Men Finale

The image I'll take away from last night's Mad Men series finale isn't the Coke commercial that Don apparently dreamed up after he found peace in a California commune. It isn't Joan kicking ass and starting her own company and also getting rid of that rich retired guy (although that was wonderful). It isn't Stan and Peggy getting together (although that was nice too).

I think the most remarkable scene last night was the final one with Betty and Sally. Sally is in the kitchen, cooking dinner for the family, and Betty, dying of terminal lung cancer, is grimly smoking a cigarette. Her back is turned towards Sally.

I loved that moment because Mad Men refused to do to Betty what it often does to beloved characters on a long-running series finale: go soft on them. This was shown to an absurd degree on the otherwise amazing Breaking Bad series: by the closing shot Walter White was practically a hero, and he died in his meth lab, ecstatic and at peace. But the final shot of Betty personified what the character has been for seven seasons: cold, closed off, unable to show affection to her kids, the ever-present cigarette a symbol of her own self-absorption.

There were a million reasons to feel sorry for Betty. Her husband Don was a monster. A very tortured, human monster, but a monster nonetheless. We knew her backstory -- modeling was her dream, before she gave it up for the 2.5 kids and the rich husband. She was deeply lonely and unhappy. It would have been easy to make Betty the poor, put-upon wife.

Instead January Jones and the Mad Men writers made Betty one of the most interesting characters of the show, a character who resisted easy sympathy at every moment. Betty wasn't warm. She wasn't affectionate. She was in her own way as self-absorbed as Don. And she had a mean streak a mile wide. Who can remember her screaming to Sally "You broke MY nose!" Or her disastrous attempt to chaperone a field trip which ended with her screaming at Bobby for doing the nice thing and giving a hungry girl food.

When Betty was diagnosed with lung cancer, I thought, oh man, they're going to finally make Betty sympathetic. She's going to show affection to Sally for the first time. She's going to make peace with Don. It will be Saint Betty. But that's not what they did at all. Betty's last conversation with Don was tense and strained, with her telling him he wouldn't get custody of the kids and then taunting, "You can see them on the weekends. Oh wait. When was the last time you saw them?"

And Sally came home from boarding school and decided to take care of the family even more than she's always taken care of her very damaged parents. But Betty seems oblivious to the sacrifice, to Sally's pain. So the last shot of Sally sadly cooking for the family, and Betty smoking a cigarette in the kitchen was just so appropriate. It was cold. It was selfish. It was Betty.

Bye bye Birdie, and goodbye to Mad Men, a show that for seven seasons made us care about monsters.

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