Every week for the sixth season of AMC's Mad Men, our roundtable of Eleanor Barkhorn (Sexes editor, TheAtlantic.com), Ashley Fetters (editorial fellow for TheAtlantic.com's Entertainment and Sexes channels), and Amy Sullivan (National Journal correspondent) have been discussing the latest happenings at Sterling Cooper & Partners.
This week, in anticipation of the final episode, the members of the roundtable have chosen the best characters, moments, and--of course--GIFs of the season.
Even though the ever-quotable Roger Sterling didn't get as much screen time this season, we've heard some pretty memorable soundbites over the last 12 weeks. What was the best line of the season?
Fetters: I think for me it's Betty's tender, sad post-sex utterance of, "Poor Megan. She doesn't know that loving you is the worst way to get to you." For me, that's breathtaking. First, as Entertainment Weekly's Keith Staskiewicz pointed out this week, it's always nice to see Betty as more than just a joke or a villainess--and here, wonderfully, she's a dynamic character who's realized something and learned from it. And second, it's a line that helps explain Don's tragic track record with women: Don gives the women who love him the most--like Betty, Megan, and now Sally--his worst, not his best. Who is Don Draper? Betty seems to know.
Sullivan: There were so many great lines in this season, and so many of them were uttered by Ted Chaough. If I found myself laughing out loud during an episode, it was usually because of something Ted had just said. Most of those comments were directed at Don, his nemesis and a man he has long studied. I love that Ted usually assumes the worst motives behind Don's remarks, as when they found themselves together in a hotel lounge outside Detroit. "I have a better idea," said Don, as the idea of merging their two agencies popped into his head. "No, you don't. I just heard it," responds Ted, assuming Don is talking about another Chevy pitch. "This is why everyone hates you." The writing is great, but it's Kevin Rahm's delivery that cracks me up every time.
Barkhorn: I'm going with a line from another member of the Chaough family: Ted's wife. Their conversation about his relationship with work was one of the most refreshing husband-wife exchanges in the series's history. They make reasonable points. They listen to each other. They avoid the naggy-wife, distant-husband dynamic so many of the couples on this show have. The emotional climax of the scene is when she says, "I just wish you liked being here more." How many other Mad Men wives long to say something similar to their husbands?
This season, we met the Drapers' downstairs neighbors, some of Megan's coworkers, the mysterious Bob Benson, and a few of Sally's friends, among others--plus we got to know Cutler, Gleason & Chaough's famous Ted Chaough much more intimately than in years past. Who's the most welcome newcomer who joined the show (or joined the main story) this year?
Barkhorn: Arnold Rosen. As messed up as the full story of their relationship is, it was a joy to see Don have a friend. Their almost-flirty banter in the early episodes, along with their serious conversations about work and war and their children, felt very real. I'm scared to see how things are going to end between them--the season finale has got to have some sort of showdown, right?
Sullivan: Like you, Eleanor, I have enjoyed watching Don have a friend. Even if he didn't ever really unburden himself to Arnold--Don hasn't let himself be that vulnerable since Rachel Mencken, although he was getting there in his friendship with Peggy last season. Even so, I have to pick Ted Chaough as the most welcome newcomer to this group. Even though he is nowhere near as good as Peggy wants to think he is, Ted brings a different energy to the office. As with Joan--another favorite--I know I'll enjoy any scene when I see Ted's in it. Unlike Don, Ted actually enjoys working with the young staff around the office. The look on his face at that dinner with Pete and Peggy was pure delight. An agency filled with people like them (and not just because he's in love with Peggy) really is what he's always dreamed of.
Fetters: Grandma Ida! Just kidding. I'm with Amy on this one: Ted, Ted, Ted. I know Eleanor doesn't trust him, and his on-display antics with Peggy are pretty inappropriate on several levels. But I would want Ted on my team at work, most definitely. I love what he's doing at SC&P. Remember how Don used to be the hero of Sterling Cooper, coming through when everybody else failed? Now that Don has started failing at work sometimes (and other times just plain checking out, a la Roger), Ted's the one who's started to come through in the clutch--showing up to meetings when Don skips them, saving the Chevy dinner, bolstering the new relationship with Chevy in Detroit while Don and Roger are out in California making pitches that are "a series of busts." I like Ted's energy, I like his dedication, I like that he says things like "Imagine if every time Ginger Rogers jumped in the air, Fred Astaire punched her in the face!" Good decision, Mad Men.
Mad Men is often a show about pretty bad people doing pretty bad things--but every once in a while, there's a startling change of heart. Which character improved the most in Season Six?
Sullivan: I have to go with our man, Stan Rizzo. He had never been one of my favorite characters, especially since he was usually portrayed being a crude, bro-like colleague who enjoyed mocking Peggy and Joan. But ever since the early episode this season when we saw that Peggy and Stan had developed a comfortable phone friendships from their respective offices, I've been charmed by the guy. It was like he finally developed some respect for Peggy's talent, and she could finally stop being annoyed by him once they were no longer direct colleagues. One of the real pleasures of this season has been getting further glimpses of their friendship, which have really fleshed out the once one-note character of Stan.
Barkhorn: Pete Campbell. Yes, he is still selfish and manipulative, and he thinks gay people are "degenerates." But this category is most improved, not best in show. And Pete has become far more sympathetic this season. We've seen his marriage dissolve and his place at the firm, always a bit fragile, become even shakier. He lives alone in a sad little apartment and eats cereal for dinner. We've also seen a possible explanation for his unpleasant character. His mother, as we learned in the episode "Favors", can't stand him. It's hard to imagine anyone whose mother thinks they're "sour" and "unlovable" having a strong sense of self-worth. Also, Pete demonstrates some evidence this season that he's capable of change. In his truce with Bob Benson, he shows that he's learned from how he handled Don's secret identity. A character who learns from his mistakes! Have we ever seen such a thing on Mad Men?
Most under-used character? Can I pick everyone? So much of this season has been spent using characters to drive home themes.
Fetters: Guys, I'm all about Bobby Draper--who actually became a character this season. Remember Bobby in the first five seasons? ... Exactly. Me neither. But in Season Six, Bobby started tugging the spotlight away from his sister. Remember when Bobby went to the movies with Don and was poignantly adorable in making friends with the janitor? Remember how it was Bobby who inadvertently and oh-so-sweetly delivered the crushing news that Don's kids have replaced him with Henry? Remember how much I LOLed when Bobby asked Sally incredulously, "Are we Negroes?" Remember when Bobby got Don to sing "Father Abraham" with him in the restaurant and it was joyous?! Looks like when it comes to casting Bobby Draper, the fourth time's the charm.
Mad Men, of course, wouldn't be nearly as fun to watch without the option of reliving our favorite moments on an endless GIF loop. What's the best GIF this year's crop of SC&P adventures has afforded us?
Sullivan: Can there really be any debate about this? Just as Lane decking Pete is my go-to GIF from Season Five, there is no more satisfying image than Pete falling down the stairs in his hurry to chew out Don. (And for extra measure, I love that he spits out "Draper!" in near-Seinfeld-ian fashion. "Newman.") In a welcome development, Pete became a somewhat more complicated figure this season--dealing with an aging and vulnerable parent, thrown out of his home and marriage, losing his role as ace accounts man. But he'll always be my favorite character I love to hate. Play it again!
Fetters: Ted's aviator-glasses scene, man--I feel like someone clever on the Mad Men writing team thought up this sight gag just so that it could later be repurposed for a "Deal With It" .GIF. And, of course, it was.
Eleanor: Ahh, Ashley, I'd completely forgotten about Ted's aviators and now will spend the rest of the day delighting in its awesomeness. That airplane scene was great. Anyway, it's a tough call for me between Ken's soft-shoe routine and the awkward Joan-Dawn hug.
The dance was fantastic for its hilarious bizarreness. The hug, on the other hand, was sweetly real. Who hasn't given and received an awkward side hug at some point in their lives?
As the cast gets bigger, inevitably the amount of screen time some characters get dwindles. Which character has been the most woefully under-used?
Barkhorn: It's hard to think of anyone besides Joan for this category. She had some great moments this season--her ambivalent friendship with Kate, her boldness in seizing the Avon account--but there are still so many unexplored questions. Where is Greg? Is she officially divorced, or can we expect a bitter legal battle in the future? Is Kevin starting to act anything like his father? More compelling to me than her personal life is her professional one, which has been addressed but only in moments.
Sullivan: Can I pick everyone? Seriously--it wasn't until I sat down to think about which characters had developed into real people this season that I realized how much of it has been spent using characters to drive home themes. The show picks up someone like, say, Dawn for a few episodes, gives us a window into her life, and then boom--nothing more except her reaction to an awkward hug from Joan after Martin Luther King, Jr. is killed. It's the same with Ginsberg, who had that intriguing blind date in the same episode. Even Roger is often little more of a presence than Bert Cooper. I realize the show has a sprawling cast, but it used to be able to develop characters with a few deft strokes and integrate them into the Mad Men world. These days, I still don't even know who Megan is.
Fetters: That is a GREAT point, Amy. I feel like I got way too many Don-gazing-through-doorways shots this season, and not enough of anybody doing anything else. Coulda used more Ken, coulda used more Stan and more Ginsberg and more Roger. Coulda used more Henry Francis, even--I love him. And, of course, I still miss Betty being around all the time.
We've established that some of the most compelling characters on Mad Men are the women. What moments and exchanges made us proud?
Sullivan: Lord knows I loved watching Trudy put Pete in his place this season. I stood up and cheered when she warned him: "I will destroy you." But Joan taking a risk and going after the Avon account herself was the action that may turn out to have the biggest impact on our characters and the show. We still don't know if Joan's freelancing paid off--Peggy passed along a fake message from the Avon account man to get Joan out of a dressing-down from Pete and Ted, but we haven't heard whether Avon really called back to sign up SC&P. Still, by doing what so many of her male colleagues have in the past, breaking rules and protocol to create her own opportunity, Joan just may have inspired herself and Peggy to eventually break free from the bickering men who currently control their fates.
Barkhorn: Maybe this doesn't count because it wasn't intentional, but Peggy stabbing Abe was pretty great. Of course I would ONLY say this about a fictional TV world. Violence is never the answer IRL. HOWEVER, after watching Abe make passive-aggressive comments about Peggy's work and guilting her into moving into a rat-infested house in a crime-ridden neighborhood, it was deeply satisfying to see him go down. I'm so glad it looks like their breakup is sticking. Good riddance, Abe.
Fetters: Agreed! On both counts! And as a third nominee: Like Eleanor said, Ted's wife was in this season for all of one full scene--and even though I get the feeling it was partly supposed to establish that Ted has a wife at home who wants him around more, I, too, couldn't help but respect what she said. Firmly, lovingly, and plainly, she addressed her concerns about her husband's behaviors. In less than three minutes, Ted's wife manages to make some of the other Mad Men wives look petty and passive in comparison.
Also, Pete's mom speaking up about the fact that old people should get to "experience the physical satisfactions of love" too was brave and hilarious. I'm on board with that.