Watching Mad Men in class this week was a highly enjoyable experience- I am quite an avid lover of the show and it happened to be the very episode I was up to, the final episode of Season 1. Since that last week I have ripped through all of Season 2 and am very ready for Season 3. Interestingly, before watching this final episode last week I was not as compelled by the show. I was enjoying it yes, obviously enough to make it up to the last episode of the first season; but I was not hooked. Until now. The last episode, titled The Wheel, concluded the entire season in 40 short minutes. Alone, the episode would be meaningless- simply a bunch of well dressed people giving each other meaningful looks and making confusing comments. Yet with an entire season behind it the The Wheel finally gives the audience many powerful truths about the main characters. For an entire season Mad Men has given us nothing but subtle innuendos, flashes of truth and confusing hints about who these characters really are. With all these small pieces of information under our belts The Wheel gives us a final piece of information for each character that finally gives us a sense of clarity and conclusion- we finally feel close to these characters or at least we have a better understanding of them. One spends the majority of Season 1 disliking every character- their motives unclear, their actions questionable, their personalities leaving a great deal to be desired. Yet this final episode finally reveals core truths that leave us understanding and even pitying these characters as they survive in the mad world they live in.
I could write a character study on every lead in The Wheel, but that would be a laborious talk and simply not needed. In the true spirit of Mad Men, it would be far more apt to hone in on the characters of Don and Betty Draper and pick their role in this final episode to small, over-analysed pieces.
The first season sets up this relationship in a way that the audience is basically uncomfortable whenever this couple is in the same room. Don is emotionally unavailable, has little interest in his family life and participates in regular affairs with different women. Betty is emotionally immature and mentally unstable, lacks maternal instincts and keeps her true feelings secret from Don on many an occasion. The Wheel opens to a familiar site- the two of them in bed. Although they are depicted to have a healthy sex-life on most occasions it is clear that there is a riff between them, the audience has become intimately familiar with the body language of the couple when they interact with each other. Betty is writing up a shopping list, although something else is clearly on her mind and Don is reading the paper. Sure enough Betty expresses distress that Don is not joining her and the children for thanksgiving with her parents and brother. Don rejecting Betty due to lack on interest or higher priorities is not unusual, in this case it is due to work- but his level is indifference in this particular scene is particularly unsettling. When Betty accuses him of simply not wanting to come, Don replies, “I’m sorry, was I unclear about that?” The audience realises that Don will put in an effort to at least appear remorseful to Betty when possible, but when the task is too arduous, in this case travelling for thanksgiving is high unappealing to him, he will simply stop trying. Betty’s guilt-tripping and passive agression does nothing to help as usual and this small scene helps the truth slide into place- Don considers himself smarter than Betty and above her childish tendencies. He chooses to speak to her as he would a child, not as a wife that wants him at thanksgiving with their children.
Narrative in Mad Men has never been typical at revealing pieces of information or doing the expected. The case of Don Draper’s martial affairs is a big one for this. Although Don’s affairs are a huge part of the show, there is little to no hint surrounding when Betty will find out, if she’ll find out, if she’ll discover a small piece of information. There aren’t even any allusions to it. Seriously, the audience gets NOTHING. Don will sleep with another women, come home and act normally around Betty as if nothing has happened. This happens almost every episode.
Finally, in this season finale, the audience is rewarded for their patience. Betty’s long-standing friend Francis arrives to tell Betty that she has discovered her husband is having an affair. This scene plays out normally enough, it appears as a seemingly simple scene as Betty comforts her distraught friend, yet the audience is now familiar enough with the show to know that having Betty hear about her friend’s affair is no coincidence. Sure enough, once her friend leaves, Betty walks to a cabinet and pulls out a phone bill of Don’s that she has been hiding to herself. This is a typical narrative device of Mad Men. The audience has never seen this phone bill before so we are caught off guard- Betty was keeping Don’s phone bill? Does this mean she has been suspicious of Don for quite some time and we never knew? Soon after this scene, Don arrives home to have Betty tell Don about the sad circumstances of her friend. She expresses fury at her friend’s husband saying to Don, “How could someone do that to the person that they love? That they have children with? Doesn’t this all MEAN anything?” Yet as she expresses these words to Don she looks him dead in the eye, her cold and hateful face lingering on the camera as she gauges Don’s response to her words. It is clear in the way she states, “Doesn’t this all MEAN anything” that this is no longer about this husband but about Don. The audience takes in the subtle indication that Betty knows of Don’s affairs or at least is strongly suspicious. While in many shows Betty would simply say, “Don, are you having and affair,” the atypical storytelling techniques of Mad Men means the audience is simply given indicative hints towards the truth.
Later when Betty finally checks the phone bill, more Mad Men trickery comes to light. The audience is now finally expecting cold-hard proof that Betty knows of the affair or at least is about to find out. The audience expects her to find and call the number of one of Don’s other women on the phone bill. Instead Betty discovers the number of the psychiatrist she is seeing and realises Don has been secretly informing himself of her sessions. Although this is not the ultimate betrayal, Betty begins to understand that Don sees her almost as a daughter, a nuisance that must be monitored and taken care of- he has invaded her privacy as casual as one would a child who cannot yet make adult decisions. She uses this knowledge in her next appointment. This appointment is arguably the climatic scene of the episode and finally reveals where Betty stands in relation to the affairs. She tells the psychiatrist out of the blue that she knows of Don’s affairs, stating, “I can’t help but think I would be happy if my husband was faithful to me…it’s all there in my face everyday. The hotel rooms. Sometimes perfume. Or worse… the way he makes love. Sometimes it’s what I want and sometimes it’s obviously what someone else wants.” The tragedy of Betty character is clear and for the first time the audience is likely to give Betty a little more credit, despite her personality. It is once again important to note the unusual way the episode revealed what Betty knew- the phone bill investigation unexpectedly did not reveal to Betty the affairs yet what the phone bill did tell her ultimately lead to the audience discovering that she knows about the affairs anyway.
Directly following this scene is a strong juxtaposition of Don showing beautiful family photos at work as a part of an advertising scheme. As usual, Don draws on his own life for ideas yet this time it is far more sentimental than ever before. The photos show Betty and Don looking extremely happy and in love together. Don’s presentation genuinely moves everyone in the room due to not only his words but the sheer expression of love and family within Don’s photos. The audience feels conflicted towards Don here. On one hand it finally shows Don being sentimental and perhaps expressing some real love for his wife, or at least the photos show that they were once happy. Yet at the same time, seeing these photos pushes the audience away from Don even more- they are left feeling baffled. These photos show such a wonderful family- so why does Don continue to tear them apart with his infidelities?
The episode ends on a similar note. The final scene depicts Don arriving at home just as Betty and the children are about to leave for thanksgiving. Don tells Betty he has decided to come after all, Betty’s face swells with love and the children jump into his arms. It seems there is hope for Don and Betty after all, if Don continues to prove he loves his family like he has here. Suddenly- the scene starts and again expect this time when Don arrives home he discovers his family has already left. He missed the boat. The audience realises the scene of Don going to thanksgiving and proving himself was merely an imagined fantasy, an alternate reality that was never to be. Ambiguous as ever- the audience is left wondering the two possibilities of what this means. It is a) Don was moved by his presentation of family photos and rushed home to make it thanksgiving, the scene we saw was Don’s imaginings of what would play out when he arrived home. Don was genuinely looking forward to seeing for his family and trying to mend the rift between he and Betty. Or was it b) Don was never planning to make it to thanksgiving and this scene is merely a sad, imagined reflection of the man Don could have been. Don will never open his heart and the marriage is doomed.
Either way, the series ends on a sad final note as Don continues to go through the motions, the “wheel” of life as he fights to keep up the many lies that holds his world together.