As the final season of “Mad Men” begins, freelancer Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray) speeds through a sleek, cinematic pitch for Accutron watches, selling the fantasy of time harnessed, exploited, made beautiful. He’s selling, in a sense, “Mad Men” itself. “It’s not a timepiece,” his tagline goes. “It’s a conversation piece.”
Of course, AMC’s stalwart drama is a timepiece, long defined by its sumptuous period detail and glancing relationship with the real-life history of the Sixties. But “Mad Men” has always been in conversation with that history, committed to the notion that “culture” not only responds to changing times but also actively shapes how we live and subsequently remember them. Freddy delivers his presentation of the Accutron campaign, devised by Don Draper (Jon Hamm), directly into the camera, his question making us complicit in the conversation. “Are you ready?”
This is the enduring appeal of “Mad Men,” a series whose historical accuracy — or lack thereof, when it comes to the complexities of race relations — has always been its weakest selling point. “Mad Men” cautions that the ways we confront the passage of time, whether as nostalgia for the past or dreams of the future, are sometimes a bill of goods, and we’re the ones doing the buying.
The first half of the series’ bifurcated seventh season, “The Beginning,” received eight Emmy nominations, but “Mad Men” nonetheless appears to be flying under the radar. TOH! predicts another AMC flagship, “Breaking Bad,” to trump “Mad Men” in three major categories: Drama, Lead Actor (Bryan Cranston vs. Hamm) and Supporting Actress (Anna Gunn vs. Christina Hendricks).
The excellence of “Breaking Bad” aside, the lack of Emmy buzz for the four-time Best Drama winner is tough to pin down. It may not be the shortened season, per se (cable series of similar length are ascendant), but the new structure appears to have done “Mad Men” few favors. Creator Matthew Weiner has long preferred to arrange each character’s arc gradually, such that the first handful of episodes seem to point in no particular direction, only to pull the threads taut at the end of the season to reveal a cohesive whole. But five episodes into “The Beginning,” even I began to wonder if Weiner had left himself enough space to stick the landing, and Emmy voters lost in the halting narrative may well have moved on to more urgent material.
If this explains why “Mad Men” is unlikely to score many victories this year — sentimental favorite Robert Morse, in his farewell appearance as Bert Cooper, already lost out to Joe Morton of “Scandal” for Guest Actor — that’s too bad. The final two episodes count among the series’ best, beautifully illustrating the “Mad Men” ethos. Taken together, “The Strategy” and “Waterloo” assert a powerful argument that mass culture is, as Don says about Hershey’s in the season-six finale, “the currency of affection.”
“The Strategy” memorably culminates in Don and Peggy (Moss) dancing to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” but the episode’s concluding image is equally in keeping with the end of “The Beginning.” Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), Don, and Peggy are at Burger Chef to discuss the revised campaign, and she describes the restaurant as “a clean, well-lighted place,” referring to Hemingway’s 1933 short story. Her allusion speaks to the importance of the communal in forging an individual sense of meaning. Her nostalgia for a family table that no longer exists, if it ever did, provides the strategy of the title, but the sight of the trio that has always guided the series, together under the Burger Chef roof, is a reminder that the sentiment she’s selling is honest.
“There are people out there who buy things, people like you and me,” Don once advised her. “And something happened. Something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves is gone.” Ultimately, “Mad Men” critiques the mythologies that constitute American culture — the nuclear family, the free market, the pursuit of happiness — while acknowledging the reality of their power. Even as we see that the desire for Kodak’s Carousel or Jaguar’s new coupe is the product of the ad campaign’s fiction, the series consistently portrays how the right combination of word and image can make us feel something true.
I love “Waterloo,” then, not only because it signals the beginning of the end, but also because the episode conveys much of what watching television means to me. The hour reprises the conversation Freddy starts in “Time Zones,” climaxing with a sequence in which we once again come face to face with “Mad Men.” As the moon landing arrives at the moment we’ve learned to remember, in the form of Neil Armstrong’s iconic words, the camera captures both the glow illuminating the characters and the blurry, black-and-white pictures of those first celestial steps. As in the series’ other historical turning points, from the Nixon/Kennedy election to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the television is presented as a locus of human connection and sincere emotion: a clean, well-lighted place, much like “Mad Men” itself.