We have one hour left with Don Draper, and “Mad Men” left him at a deserted Oklahoma bus stop last weekend.
For eight years, fans have been armchair-analyzing a guy who lies, cheats and manipulates his way through life, as though Old Fashioneds, afternoon naps and brunettes are big mysteries. Why that brunette? we ask each other on Monday mornings. What is with him and that waitress?
Kvetch while you can: AMC’s game-changing TV series “Mad Men” makes its final pitch Sunday night for consideration as the best TV drama of all time. The network is so proud of its critical darling, AMC-affiliated cable channels will be blacked out as the series finale airs.
It makes sense. A silent, darkened black screen will make a fitting farewell for a show so obsessed with death, the opening credits show a skyscraper suicide. No one could be blamed for expecting the hero of “Mad Men” to fall through a window or down an elevator shaft. Or even jump out of a plane.
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Of all the speculation out there about how “Mad Men” will end, the idea involving infamous hijacker D.B. Cooper is the most entertaining to contemplate. Especially now that the show’s timeline has moved past the Manson Family murders, and therefore the Megan Draper as Sharon Tate musings have come to an end.
The Sterling Cooper ad agency has always been concerned with aviation accounts. Don (Jon Hamm) craved American Airlines’ business so much, he let go of loyal client Mohawk Air. Pete Campbell’s dad died in a plane crash. When Joan was served with divorce papers, she threw a model airplane in anger. It was the security clearance application to work with North American Aviation that forced Don to face his past as an identity thief.
Ted, Don’s fellow creative director, almost took his two-seater down with terrified clients on board. Don’s long-distance marriage to Megan meant frequent trips back and forth between New York and Los Angeles. Every time Don landed in California, the camera lingered on his black aviator shades. And just two weeks ago, Don gazed out the window during his first meeting at his new agency, saw a jet plane above the skyscrapers and walked out for good.
Which brings us to D.B. Cooper. To place Don in that historical event, the show would have to jump forward more than a year between episodes: October 1970 to November 1971. But Don really does look like the FBI sketches of America’s most famous hijacker, especially with his shades on. And consider Cooper’s familiar sense of style.
A man using the name Dan Cooper bought a one-way ticket in Portland, Ore., and took a seat in the back of the plane. He was dark-haired, in his mid-40s and dressed in an impeccable dark suit. He was also carrying a briefcase.
Then he started smoking, ordered a whiskey and soda, and smiled at the flight attendant. She assumed the note he gave her was his phone number, until he leaned over and told her, “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.”
Throughout the entire hijacking, Cooper kept up a friendly rapport with the flight crew. When he ordered his second drink, he insisted on tipping. After the plane landed in Seattle and picked up the parachutes and $200,000 he had demanded, it took off again, and the man in black jumped into oblivion from 10,000 feet. The crime remains unsolved, and since Cooper was so polite and dapper about it all, people like to imagine that he got away.
You can see how the theory took hold, especially after Don’s hookup with a first-class stewardess this season. If you watch the show’s title sequence, that briefcase is kinda prominent. (Series creator Matthew Weiner has always maintained that he knew how the show would end when it began.)
And we know Don, already on his second name and Social Security number, believes in starting over. As he told Peggy after she had her surprise baby, “This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.”
Ready to serve
Warren Zevon’s gonzo classic “Lawyers, Guns and Money” begins with one of rock music’s greatest humblebrags: “I went home with a waitress, the way I always do.”
As groundbreaking as “Mad Men’s” eight-year run has been, this final half-season of seven episodes immediately rested its symbolic weight on a troubling, time-honored trope: the insistent presence of waitresses in literary male fantasy.
The term “waitress,” like “stewardess” or “housewife,” has fallen out of favor, partly in the hope that new job titles would reform the image of female-dominated careers tied too closely to looks and too dependent on the good nature of male strangers. But Don meets Diana in 1970, and she’s wearing a robin’s-egg blue uniform and white apron while she slings hash browns in a New York City diner. She’s a waitress in Don’s vocabulary and her own.
Writers of all stripes tend to use the service industry the same way some men in real life do: initiating contact that women can’t walk away from if they want to keep getting a tip with every rum and coke. Satirical magazine The Onion once ran an article titled “I Think That Stripper Really Liked Me.”
That’s why it’s impressive when Robert Redford actually sleeps with a waitress named Loretta in “The Sting,” and why Tom Waits wrote “Invitation to the Blues” about his obsession with one.
And you feel just like Cagney, she looks like Rita Hayworth
At the counter of the Schwab’s drugstore …
Waits, like many of us, projects his fantasies onto a stranger who probably just wants to go home and collect a paycheck. Don learned with Diana this season that all people, no matter how oddly familiar or enchanting, invariably end up being flesh-and-blood underneath their uniforms, with their own secrets.
Loretta turned out to be an assassin in “The Sting.” Warren Zevon learned some hard lessons about his conquest, too, which is why he asks defensively, “How was I to know, she was with the Russians too?”
It’s only money
Roger Sterling (John Slattery) unknowingly set up an encounter between Diana and Don by throwing a hundred-dollar bill at a tiny diner check. Roger later managed to screw his old friend royally with a few more bills later, when he helped Don’s ex-mother-in-law abscond with all the furniture in his marital penthouse.
“Bring. Cash!” Marie (Julia Ormond) hissed into the phone when the movers demanded more money.
Of course Roger has cash. He’s spent the whole series reaching into his wallet to solve problems.
He paid whiz kid ad writer Michael Ginsberg under the table in cash to help him out with a campaign for Manischewitz wine. He also bribed smarmy co-worker Harry Crane with $1,100 to switch offices. After pocketing the money, Harry said, “You’re gonna owe me.”
“No, I’m not. I just gave you a lot of money. This is a transaction.”
His best buy, however, came when he desperately needed someone to create an airline image campaign over the weekend. Of course, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) was the only copywriter still at work. She took the $400 he was carrying, then asked, “Do you want me to take your watch?”
Don, on the other hand, seems to be caring less and less about how much wealth he has on hand. Writing a million-dollar check to Megan was one thing. Giving away a sweet Cadillac in Alva, Okla., is the act of a man on the verge of reinvention or self-destruction.
If he doesn’t make it, we’ll all remember that eerie pitch for Royal Hawaiian Resorts, when Don talked about a man stripping off his suit and disappearing into the ocean. But “Mad Men” has been a character study, not a soap, and it’s already had two suicides. If Don takes any sort of plunge this weekend, it will probably be a metaphorical one.
Follow Sara Smith on Twitter: @SarawatchesKC.
WHERE TO WATCH
The series finale of “Mad Men” airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on AMC.
THE ‘C’ WORD
Cancer has claimed several women who played big roles in Don Draper/Dick Whitman’s life: His stepmother, Abigail, died of stomach cancer, news that Don received by saying, “Good!”
When Anna Draper, the one woman who knew Don’s secret for so long, died in 1965 of cancer she didn’t know she had, he didn’t take it so well, breaking down in front of Peggy after taking the call at the office.
His former lover Rachel Mencken, who still appears in Don’s dreams, died of leukemia, a fact Don learns when he shows up at the apartment where her family is sitting shiva.
And now Betty, the mother of his three kids, has just months to live after a surprise lung cancer diagnosis.