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Losing It

Beyond here lies nothin’
Nothin’ but the moon and stars‘ – Dylan

As AMC’s popular, long-running ‘Mad Men’ series draws to a close, it offers multiple parallels to David Chase’s ‘The Sopranos.’ Creator Matthew Weiner wrote for Chase, penning several later episodes that delved deeply into Tony Soprano’s subconscious mind. “I’m 46 years old,” Tony asks, deep in an Ativan-induced dream state and lying in his hospital bed in the sixth and final Sopranos season. “Who am I? Where am I going?” As Mad Men protagonist Don Draper nears his cinematic end, he seems to be asking the same questions.

The two shows and their leads share much in common. Draper and Soprano are men of power, roughly the same age, are womanizers, and have mother issues. And while both programs use traditional screen narrative hooks to keep their audience engaged — The Sopranos sex and violence and Mad Men mostly sex — it’s the interior lives of their players that matter most. “You don’t have to eat every dish of rigatoni,” Tony Soprano’s shrink tells him, thinking she sees progress in Season Six. “You don’t have to fuck every female you meet.” Don Draper doesn’t even appear to have an option on the latter; women throw themselves at him as if by primordial urge. It doesn’t matter if they’re intensely interested or ambivalently distracted. Much like that plate of rigatoni in front of Tony, the deal is already done.

So it goes with the waitress Diana, introduced in the opening episode of Mad Men’s final run. Draper returns to the diner to see her because he’s haunted by a familiarity he can’t place. She’s a complete stranger and yet he’s certain he’s met her before. They’re having sex in short order, in an alley amid garbage cans against a brick wall behind the diner. It’s a well-played running gag in the series: Don, trying to find himself, is permanently sidetracked because he can’t stop getting laid. He’s like a casino patron trying to give away his money to a machine that won’t stop paying off. But it’s what happens prior that’s of importance, when they first meet. Diana, dubbed “Mildred Pierce” by the roguish Roger Sterling (in fittingly cruel reference to Joan Crawford’s working divorcee in the 1945 film) brings the check over with a paperback copy of John Dos Passos’s ’42nd Parallel’ in her apron pocket. Never mind the novel in question, or that Dos Passos, like Don Draper, was an illegitimate child. He was also, along with Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, and Fitzgerald, one of the “Lost Generation.” And, in the end, this is the pull. It’s what both Mad Men and The Sopranos are all about: Loss and the state of being lost.

It would seem a daring move, had David Chase not done it first. The two series work largely because of their stars; James Gandolfini because he quite literally owned the role and Jon Hamm because he’s underplayed and pointedly good-looking. But as the audience invests in these two over the long haul, we come to realize that neither knows where the hell he’s going. Chase even chose to end The Sopranos — be it by way of pure audacity or genius — with an open-ended cut to black. (My friend Tom Myers recently sent me this interview with Chase for those who, like me, can’t get enough of the show.) It’s no accident, either. Both series, despite their long runs, are about as premeditated as anything you’ll see on television. Despite starting in different eras — the Sopranos in the late ’90s and Mad Men in 1960 — both protagonists enter with the feeling that they’re on the tail-end of a good thing. Tony Soprano, despite “reaching the heights” that his father never achieved, laments being too late to “get in on the ground floor” of something good. The series is just beginning and already he knows it’s over. Don Draper, despite his perfect suits, cool competence, and dashing appearance, is ill-prepared for the decade he’s entering. It’s one of the reasons that Roger Sterling is such an endearing character on the show .. whether dropping acid or a line of smooth bullshit on a client, he’s squarely of the World War Two generation. He may, like Don, divorce and marry a younger woman, but this isn’t a crisis so much as a component of his identity. The same can’t be said of Draper. By most evident measures, he’s lost.

Whether all of this life-questioning works or not is a matter of personal taste. It does for me and I would find it disingenuous if two characters who began with nothing but questions ended with only answers. I don’t trust the guy of my generation who purports to know precisely where he is at all times and exactly where he’s going in this life and beyond. It reminds me a little too much of Matthew McConaughey in those Lincoln car commercials (which, coincidentally, play frequently between segments of Mad Men.) These types tend to speak mumbo-jumbo and they certainly don’t handle their acid-trips as well as Roger Sterling.  Wherever Don Draper winds up, it likely won’t be with Mary, Murray and Lou singing “it’s a long, long way to Tipperary” on the floor of the newsroom at WJM. But somewhere in between this and a jarring cut to black would be fine with me.

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