I’m just going to come right out and say that I totally used to believe that Mad Men’s Megan Draper was somehow going to turn out like the tragic Sharon Tate and that I believed that simply because in one scene she wore the same tee shirt that Tate was once photographed in for a magazine spread. It didn’t fully matter to me that the show’s creator all but went on the record to say that the theories abounding about Megan’s fate were all wrong – I believed anyway.
But now that Mad Men is wrapping up forever tonight (that’s right: for the most part, only the tremendously important shows come back eventually, like the upcoming reboot of Full House that has made me contemplate the collective intelligence of the universe at large), I finally believe Matt Weiner. Seems the show’s creator was telling the truth about the whole Megan thing and I know this to be true because the show currently takes place in the very early seventies and the Manson murders took place in late 1969 and Megan is still alive, but I’m obviously curious about how the show and its characters will conclude and I have read some pretty interesting theories that guess at what could happen.
There are two guesses that seem the most dominant and, to their credit, neither of them involve the flawed characters doing something human like apologize to those they have emotionally leveled or making silly things like amends. Instead, I keep seeing fully developed theories about Don being the real DB Cooper, a man who hijacked a plane in 1971 and parachuted to an escape and was never ever found. There’s something to that theory on the surface in that it makes sense that Don would go searching once again for the most anonymous of lives and a chance to start over with a new identity. After all, he’s done that new identity thing before with varying levels of success and, as a advertising man, he would certainly know how to market whatever version of himself he decided to set out to be. The problem that I see with this theory, though, is two-fold. One, Weiner has also put the kibosh on it and publicly stated it’s not true and two, for the most part, Don is not nihilistic to random people. He tends to turn his life-and-soul-killing ways on himself and the women who dance into his orbit for the shortest of times. I just can’t see him becoming the kind of man who becomes outwardly violent and terrorizing. No, he is a man who turns his demons inward and I have no real belief that the practice will all of a sudden change come finale night.
The second big assumption I keep hearing is that somebody is going out a window tonight and will go plummeting to certain death. I’ve heard that it could be Roger, whom one of my students believes will commit suicide because he doesn’t fit in to the new era he has found himself in. Some swear it will be Pete who will die and that maybe it will be in a plane crash, especially since he is moving to Kansas to work on an aviation account. And there’s still that theory that it will be Don who goes sailing through the unfettered clouds to his death, killing the fake Don Draper and ending Dick Whitman’s history forever. The truth is that all of these are decent theories, but my newest dominant theory is that absolutely none of this will happen and that, in a way, not much at all will really transpire during the finale episode. I think that if we are looking for a show that ties itself up in a floppy satin bow at the end and explains in detail what happens to every character we have grown to know and care for over the last several years, none of us should have pinned our hopes on Mad Men.
I think it’s been made clear as a sunny day that Matthew Weiner doesn’t really have any interest in appeasing his audience. He is proud of the show he created and he seeks to honor the show and himself and, if audiences like what he does, great. If not? Well, he could care less. At a recent event, an audience member stood up and asked Weiner why he had spent so much time in the last dwindling episodes on Diana, a brand new character with whom Don suddenly found himself smitten. The guy who asked the question didn’t mean anything terrible against Weiner or his fictional creation, but he did say that, with so few episodes to go on a television show that was saturated with characters we had come to care for, why devote so much screen time to this forlorn waitress? Weiner’s response was blunt and kind of harsh. He basically told the guy that he didn’t care at all that Diana didn’t interest him and that, if he wanted to watch a show where all of his needs were met, he could go ahead and create his own show.
On the one hand, that response struck me as rude and defensive. Mad Men viewers are loyal viewers. It’s not always easy to be a fan of the show. The hiatuses between seasons are ridiculously long, so much so that I often forget what happened the season prior and I have to have one of my good friends talk me through it before the season premiere. (Wait, I’ll say. Who was Faye again? And my friend will shake his head and remind me that she was the one who was kind of Don’s equal – which is of course why he ditched her and went ahead and married his secretary.) There are also dozens of characters on the show and a lot happens in most episodes and, like Lost, it’s just not the kind of show you can watch while doing other things like painting your toenails or leafing through a magazine or making out with some guy. Those activities have to wait so they can occur during reality shows where you can miss full segments before looking closely at the television set again and realize that the asshole drunk guy on the show is still a drunk asshole. You have not missed a single thing, but it’s just not like that with Mad Men.
But though I was annoyed with Weiner’s response to the fan’s question – an almost bitterness-drenched apathy wrapped in language – and I also didn’t care at all about Diana or what role Don tried to get her to play in his life, I guess there is some lurking admiration I also have for Weiner and the very things that dictated his response. The guy has a ton of artistic integrity, and what I guess that means is that he is not even slightly interested in pandering to what the viewers want, not when he knows for sure what he himself wants for the characters he has created. And it’s because of that refusal to do anything other than what he feels passionately about that I believe that none of us should expect any kind of real closure tonight because those are not the stories that Weiner tells and, yes, as a viewer that can feel annoying and kind of like a jip, but it is how it has always been on this show and I guess there’s something impressive for going out on the same horse you galloped in on.
As I try to prepare myself for the fact that some of the characters I’ve grown to care about might not even appear in this final episode and that most of them will not even walk next to a tidy resolution, I think also of The Shining, a book I started and finished just this last week. The paperback has been on my bookshelf for God knows how long. I don’t remember buying the book and I have absolutely no idea who gave me the book, but I was drawn to the spine of it last week, its title beckoning for me to finally open it and so I did and I’m relieved that I finally read it because being immersed in the story of some people far less psychotic than the ones I know in real life has been rather comforting.
I’ve seen the movie version of The Shining lots of times. I own the DVD. I often use a scene from inside the depths of The Overlook Hotel as part of one of my lessons on production design and musical scoring, and I watched the documentary Room 237 that seeks to explain what The Shiningis really about, though it was hard for me to hop on board with the ideas that the movie was really all about the Holocaust or an avenue for Kubrick to confess to helping to fake the moon landing. But I have always liked the actual movie and I still get a shiver just from a title card that reads something innocuous like “Thursday,” and I think that there’s some really skillful performances that radiate out from the screen and I could never understand why Stephen King always used to go on the record and say that he hated the film adaptation of his novel. I mean, dude: Stanley Kubrickdirected a film version of your book. Jack Nicholson starred in it! What the hell are you complaining about?
Having now finished the book, I know exactly what it is that infuriated King for all of these years. Look: there’s no secret in the fact that, once the rights to a novel have been purchased in Hollywood, the writer has almost no say in any part of the adaptation process. But the glaring differences between the book and the film are so vast that, had I been the author of the book, I too would have turned purple with apoplectic rage – kind of how Nicholson’s character appears when he’s frozen solid at the end of the movie. King was right about a lot of his criticisms, especially in his concern that Nicholson’s Jack began the film already veering towards insanity while the book’s Jack was a good but troubled man who tried to hang onto anything resembling sanity for as long as possible. And of the characterization of Wendy, King has stated that the film’s representation of this wife and mother was one of the most misogynistic portrayals of a character he has ever seen, and, now having read the book, I think he’s right. The written Wendy was strong and sad and pretty and spunky. The movie’s Wendy was tremulous and somewhat weak and played by Shelley Duvall, made up to look ghastly, like Olive Oyl strung out on a strain of meth laced with strychnine, and the resolution of the movie differed so substantially from the book that it almost could have come from an entirely different source.
I can see how the adaptation process could maybe kill a writer. On the one hand, it must be beyond thrilling to know that your characters will be brought to a luminescent life on the screen, but when your characters – the one you personally created and nurtured – are filtered through somebody else’s mindset and they turn into different people, it’s kind of like watching people you love undergo the kind of transformation which would only make sense if either you or they underwent a an anaesthetized lobotomy.
I don’t think that either of my own books are the kind of stories meant for the big screen. Both are internal stories and I think each would require a heavy need for a voiceover, and it would make absolutely no sense for the voiceover to be done by Morgan Freeman, so what would really be the point? But if I did sell one of my books to a producer or a studio and then sat back and watched them change my characters from complex people into archetypes, I don’t know how I would recover. I guess that’s my own artistic integrity struggling to get to the surface so it can take in a giant gulp of air.
It’s funny; just recently I’ve had a bunch of emails from readers asking me to clarify the ending of my book That Year. They want to know what happened next in the story, and I appreciate that they read the book in the first place and that some of them care about my wellbeing and even that some are just curious about the end of a story, but I actually refuse to clarify anything. The story in the book ends the way that it does, and I ended it the way that I did for a reason, one I still stand by in my own mind. I will not explain or expound upon anything relating to what happened next because that could change the story and I’m quite pleased with my story, and yet, I feel like saying such a thing is akin to Matthew Weiner sneering at a fan to go write his own television show. I don’t say my response with a sneer, though. I say mine with a shrug and a hint of a smile.
Just a few days ago, one of my favorite men on the planet sent me a text that the Twin Peaks reboot was officially back on and that David Lynch was once again attached to direct and the two of us had a happy little moment during which I contemplated if I should learn how to make cherry pie to serve at my it’s-gonna-happen Twin Peaks Viewing Party. It’s been decades since Twin Peaks haunted our television screens, but the possibility that it could come screeching back into our lives directed by anybody other than Lynch was just moronic. Let’s face it – only Lynch can get away with some of the shit he puts forth into the world. Without his quirky oddness at the helm, it would be very hard for me to even imagine watching the show. I could see myself looking puzzled and thinking, So I’m just supposed to believe that this woman walks around carrying a log? But in the world of David Lynch, I can buy almost anything. The man has earned his offbeat artistic integrity.
Still, the only movie I ever saw by myself at a movie theatre was Mulholland Drive, and if I can teach you anything today – or ever – it’s that one should never go see a David Lynch movie alone because what will happen is that the lights will come up and you will stare at nobody you know and you will be tempted to walk over to strangers in the theatre and ask them what the fuck you all just saw and can they explain any of it to you? I remember driving home from that movie and arriving at my front door and putting down my keys and realizing that I literally had not one iota of an idea about what had just transpired in front of my eyes, but I knew that it looked lush and hypnotic and I tried to make any kind of sense out of it but I simply couldn’t and only for an artist like David Lynch would I accept such confusion and weirdly welcome it into my mind that was left feeling almost fractured.
The bizarre in entertainment has always appealed to me even as it’s served to cause frustration. I was one of those people who freaked out and thought I’d lost reception during that last moment of The Sopranos. I checked to see that my television was still on and that my cable wires hadn’t been gnawed upon by my dog – who has never gnawed upon a wire in her entire life – and, when I realized that sudden smash cut was intentional, I was initially very confused but then I remember smiling slowly and thinking, “Bravo.” The show ended with a bang – just not the one all of us had been expecting, and when I think about that ending now, I still cannot believe how much perfect suspense was put into a scene of Meadow parking her car in front of a diner and how brave it was for the creator to go out exactly the way he believed that he should. It might have caused a shitload of confusion and there are undoubtedly people still pissed off that they never found out exactly what happened to Tony, but I think there’s something so very courageous about sticking to your belief about the characters you created with just your own imagination and your vivid dreams and your headiest of nightmares.
It’s on a completely different scale – it all but exists in a completely different universe – but I look at these stories of artists unwilling to compromise in the face of criticism and public debate and I’m awed and inspired by it. Just recently, there was an opportunity for me to publish my Real Housewives of New York recaps on a site other than my own, and that would have helped build my audience. But due to variables that are out of my control, I was asked if I could maybe tone down my snarkiness just a little bit, especially when it came to one of the Housewives, and I thought about whether I actually could make such allowances that I found to be rather silly, especially since that particular Housewife rose to fame due to her own snarky nature, and I sent the person in charge a recap I’d just written and told him that this was as kind as I could be when writing about a bullshit reality show starring people who take themselves far too seriously and that I’d leave the decision up to him. He wisely told me that his wasn’t the right venue for my work for that particular series, and I respect his choice and I understand what facilitated it. I also know that I lost out on gaining new readers from being unwilling to compromise, but I knew instantly that it was the right decision to make and I was kind of excited to know that I’d just had my very own artistic integrity tested and that I hadn’t bowed to pressure – including the pressure that rolls within me.
It is with that acceptance that I am ready for Mad Men tonight. I know with certainty that I will not get answers I hoped for and that I might not even see some characters I really love (though I’m really hoping for a good Peggy/Stan moment and I’ll give up a peripheral family member – like a cousin – as a bargain so I can have such a thing), but I will tune in anyway and much of it is just so I can see how Matthew Weiner chose to end a show for which he had total creative control, and however he resolves things, I applaud him for creating an opportunity for himself out of pure talent and an unrelenting resolve.