"Have you forgotten what we were like then/ when we were still first rate/ and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth …"
That excerpt is from the poem Animals by Frank O'Hara, the great poet whose ceaseless tallying of time passing and fleeting moments of joy and regret captured so much of life in New York in the 1950s and early 1960s. He has been called "the poet of the Mad Men era," which is relevant. In one episode of the cable series, Don Draper is seen reading O'Hara's collection Meditations in an Emergency.
Animals, in all its wistfulness, was in my head after watching the first episode of the final batch of Mad Men episodes (Sunday, AMC, 10 p.m.). It's in my head now, because what can be said about the beginning of the end is limited: AMC and creator Matthew Weiner put strict limitations on what critics who see the episode can divulge. O'Hara's poem, though, captures a lot of it.
I cannot tell you in what year it is set. (If you want to read nothing of what this episode contains, then turn away.) I cannot tell you whether Don Draper has a new love interest or not. There is even an issue with mentioning the facial hair of one major male character.
But I can tell you this – the heft of it is very dark. The drama is anchored in work at the agency. Mainly in the grubbiness of day-to-day duties. In the last episode in 2014, Roger Sterling made a deal with McCann Erickson to sell 51 per cent of what once was Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
This deal, which makes the agency an independent subsidiary to the much-larger McCann, comes back to haunt our central characters. The days of freewheeling independence are gone, just as the freewheeling 1960s are fading. One character seems doomed to leave the agency and, at first, relishes the prospect. But then anger arises. Betrayal is at the core if it.
Joan and Peggy work on a campaign for a line of cheap pantyhose. It's discount stuff. Tawdry even. There is a searing scene in which we realize how far Joan has come, but then we see her situation hasn't progressed at all. Peggy becomes giddy and tries to seize a brief, fantasy escape. But is it possible?
I don't think there is a truly light moment in it, certainly not one that doesn't end eventually in disappointment. It is very Nixonian-era, imbued with the uneasy sense of betrayal that hung over that presidency. Most of the characters – and not all the major characters are featured – are in search of something lost in the past or just out of reach in the present.
Don's dispiritedness becomes the focus, as it must. There is a death that affects him, but efforts to commemorate or make reparation dissolve.
The song that Weiner uses to establish a tone for this, the beginning of the end, is telling – Peggy Lee's version of Is That All There Is? The lyrics might well be the stream of consciousness for several characters, but in particular, Don Draper: "Is that all there is? Is that all there is?/ If that's all there is my friends/ Then let's keep dancing/ Let's break out the booze and have a ball/ If that's all there is."
Of course, there are viewers who will never want to be bothered by anything but the surface of Mad Men – the drinking, clothes and fashion, sexual escapades, workplace feuds and social mobility. There is plenty in this first episode, called Severance, to satisfy those viewers.
And yet that is not all there is. Mad Men is a work of great seriousness of purpose. Hardly anything happens that does not demand extrapolation of meaning. In this episode, a long splash of red wine on a white carpet stands out. It feels ominous. What does it mean? Note that it is covered up, not cleaned – a wound that remains.
Where this start takes us, in terms of the true ending a few episodes from now, is difficult to say. There's an audience expectation of satisfying closure, and Weiner is highly aware. He told us TV critics this:
"I'm extremely interested in what the audience thinks, so much so that I'm trying to delight them and confound them, and not frustrate and irritate them. I don't want them to walk away angry. Any time that's ever happened, that has been unintentional. I don't want to pander to them. … Sometimes people have to be protected from what they want to see happen, and the story has to have its own organic thing. So, to delight them with surprise or whatever, you can't just give them everything that they want. And the show has never done that, and part of that is not just striving to be original. It's striving to tell a story that you don't know, and you hope it feels inevitable when you get there."
The word "inevitable" is interesting, since the feeling one gets from the show's final return episode is deep melancholy. The undertow theme is the terrible, yawning gap between life's expectation and delivery – which is the gap between what advertising promises and then cannot deliver. And that is at the heart of Mad Men, the show about advertising. The theme is rooted, too, in Draper's life and in the weariness that afflicts him now. He has promised so much to so many women, but has never really delivered. Advertising cannot fulfill an obligation. It only promises. Don does not understand obligation. He is, in the end, unfulfilled.
A gloomy, pensive end seems in sight. The final scene of this episode, set in a diner, is achingly close to an Edward Hopper-like painting of lonely figures, lost in their thoughts, desolated perhaps by the question, "Is that all there is?" and having forgotten, as in O'Hara's poem, what they were like when they were "first rate."