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I’ve decided to turn this bullet-point review option for television seasons into a regular thing, specifically for shows I’ve reviewed in the past. So, with that in mind, here are some thoughts on the first half of the final season – also known more simply as season seven – of Mad Men.

 Mad Men: The Final Season: Part 1
A few of the many things that season seven got right:
  • The continuing evolution of Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka): As the show’s most clear-cut representation of the impact of the era on children, Sally has grown in leaps and bounds over the last several dozen episodes, all without becoming a typical teenage TV brat. Her reactions to the world around her are full of adolescent hyperbole, but they are often more relatable than those of her adult counterparts.
  • Don (Jon Hamm) and Peggy’s (Elisabeth Moss) relationship: The bigger picture here is, of course, Don’s ever-changing life and season seven follows him back from the brink, but the most satisfying consequence of his road to redemption has been the rekindling of his relationship with his protégé. Season six was really mean to Peggy, as her attempts at independent success and even romance were gridlocked by Don’s actions. The audience was stuck between knowing that Don ultimately did the right thing in both cases and understanding Peggy’s anger with him, even if her place in the conflict was largely incidental. Season seven begins with Peggy in a place of power over Don and the two of them have to work through their issues, eventually reaching a place of general equality/respect, culminating in a series highlight – a comforting slow dance.
  • Michael Ginsberg’s (Ben Feldman) breakdown: Since his first appearance in season five, Michael Ginsberg has always been eccentric, but what was usually amusingly weird turned disturbing when he revealed to Peggy that he was born in a Nazi concentration camp. No one was sure to take the statement seriously. Now, two seasons later, he has had a complete schizophrenic breakdown (which included cutting off his own nipple). Viewers are reminded that odd behavior isn’t necessarily amusing – sometimes, it’s the sign of a serious problem.
  • Don and Megan’s (Jessica Paré) inevitable break-up: There was no way Mad Men was going to end with Don and Megan living happily ever after. Some viewers feared that we would be treated to a retread of his first divorce to Betty (January Jones), while others theorized that Megan was Mad Men’s Sharon Tate analogue – implying that she was going to meet a bad and bloody end. The truth was much more low-key, more human, and, ultimately, more surprising. Instead of an epic emotional blow-out, Megan and Don reach a mutual decision concerning their future during an emotionally measured phone call. I’m pretty sure we’ll see more of Megan in next year’s final seven episodes, but it wouldn’t be unkind for this interaction to be her final scene, either.
  • Bert Cooper’s (Robert Morse) send-off: Cooper sort of disappeared into the background throughout the middle seasons of the show, but he was resituated as the office’s bedrock throughout this latest half season. His death occurs between frames and is dealt with quietly by his friends, similar to Don and Megan’s break-up. But, then, just as the final episode is wrapping itself up, Don has a super-sweet hallucination involving Cooper and the secretarial staff singing ‘The Best Things in Life are Free’ directly to him.
  • Season seven continues the proud Mad Men tradition of beautiful cinematic storytelling. The show has consistent visual themes, but, considering the vast gulf in fashion and art during the 1960s, it has also grown stylistically with the years it represents. This process entails borrowing visual cues from the cinema of the era and, because this season takes place during 1969, that includes more ‘New Hollywood’ realism and unusual editing than early seasons. Perhaps more important, however, are the less overtly stylized moments. To truly appreciate how well-directed these episodes are I honestly recommend watching a scene or two without sound – and not a particularly movement-driven scene, either, but a still dialogue scene. The simple camera and editing work (coupled, of course, with fantastic performances) conveys almost every emotional and narrative necessity without the need for words or mood music. A prime example comes towards the end of episode seven, Waterloo, when a room full of characters discuss contract stipulations. The cuts and camera angles divide allegiances and constantly adjust the dominant and submissive roles in the room.


 Mad Men: The Final Season: Part 1
Some things that season seven did wrong:
  • Wasted time: Mad Men has always been more about the journey than the destination, but the journey never felt aimless until sometime in season six. There are moments in season seven that make me think that we didn’t need an entire 14-episode season to finish off this story. It’s not unusual for a long-form storytelling enterprise to resort to a bit of wheel-spinning and repetition to fill space, but I think we’ve come to expect a lot from Matthew Weiner and his co-writers at this point. Plenty of side stories, including Roger’s (John Slattery) attempts at weaning his adult daughter Margaret (Elizabeth Rice) from her hippie commune lifestyle and Bob Benson’s (James Wolk) failed marriage proposal to Joan (Christina Hendricks), work just fine to expand the characters’ breadth and give the season some pleasant, non-Don textures, but others kick the momentum right in the shins.
  • Betty’s passive/aggressive battle with her oldest son, Bobby (Mason Vale Cotton), who doesn’t even know he’s involved in a fight: In episode three ( Field Trip), Betty agrees to act as chaperone for one of Bobby’s field trips and is irreparably offended when he trades away her lunch. It’s an amusing aside, but it only acts to further verify that Betty is a self-absorbed child – something that was firmly established in the first season. It’s pretty clear that the writers stopped caring about Betty a long time ago and now it officially feels like they’re not going to complete her arc any further and might be keeping her around for contractual purposes.
  • Megan sending away Don’s would-be niece, Stephanie (Caity Lotz): In episode five, The Runaways, Stephanie, the niece of Don’s first ‘wife,’ Anna Draper (Melinda Page Hamilton), calls Don looking for help and he refers her to Megan. Megan is uncomfortable enough by her presence – either out of jealousy or prejudice – that she decides to cut her a check and send her on her way before Don arrives back in Los Angeles to see them. It’s an oddly mean moment for Megan, one that reflects the kind of thing Betty would do and a sad place to leave Stephanie, who is an equally likeable supporting character. Ultimately, these events have very little bearing (if any) on Don and Megan’s break-up and is completely overshadowed by the ménage à trios that Megan stages later in the episode.


 Mad Men: The Final Season: Part 1

Video


This is my sixth season review of Mad Men on Blu-ray (I skipped reviewing season six) and I’ve finally resorted to cutting and pasting large sections of previous reviews, because, for the most part, things have changed very little – though the series’ technical staff apparently switched from standard Super 35 to ProRes 4:4:4 in their post production (it supposedly works better for 1080p broadcast), particularly for the sake of colour quality – though 35mm film is still listed as the source format. The look is slightly more muddy and desaturated compared to previous seasons, due entirely to shifts in cultural imagery. New York-set scenes are still relatively consistent with earlier episodes, including lots of clean lines, deep blacks, soft gradations, and pastel hues. But 1969 fashions and trends certainly increased both the presence of earth tones and more eclectic highlight colours. As long as these scenes are well-lit by fluorescents and generic window light, they remain crisp and complicated, without any notable artefacts. The darker shots, on the other hand, are considerably grainier and the warmer hues, particularly flesh tones, become a smidge murky. Blocking can be a minor problem here, but is probably an unavoidable effect of the 35mm base and lack of digital augmentation. The California-set sequences have a sunset-kissed look that warms up the busier bohemian production design. These more ‘glowy’ sequences remain surprisingly sharp, for the most part, though, again, grain levels do kick up quite a bit. I have no complaints concerning edge enhancement effects, which have been another small problem for these releases.

 Mad Men: The Final Season: Part 1

Audio


Season seven follows the basic conceptual sound design set by previous seasons and actually has fewer exceptional/weird moments than the last couple seasons (Roger doesn’t have any LSD trips this time around). The low-key mix is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and fulfills all of the basic goals of the sound design. Personally speaking, the uncompressed and beautifully balanced track is a relief, following months of trying to discern the whispered dialogue of a lossy iTunes mix. I can finally understand everything being said without cranking my system to dangerous volume levels. Directional and immersive elements continue to stick more to ambient noise than the in-your-face movement between channels. The sounds of the bustling offices, airports, restaurants, and streets fill out the stereo and surround speakers very nicely, but music is the key aural component. David Carbonara’s mellow and mournful score has rarely sounded better and the track’s clarity helps separate the music’s more subtle elements. Of course, Robert Morse’s rendition of ‘The Best Things in Life Are Free’ is the biggest highlight of them all.

 Mad Men: The Final Season: Part 1

Extras


    Commentary tracks:
    • Episode 1, Time Zones, with creator Matthew Weiner, costume designer Janie Bryant, and producer/director Scott Hornbacher
    • Episode 2, A Day’s Work, with Weiner, director Michael Uppendahl, and writer Jonathan Igla
    • Episode 3, Field Trip, with Weiner, writer Heather Jeng Bladt, and casting directors Carrie Audino and Laura Schiff
    • Episode 4, The Monolith, with Weiner, writer/producer Erin Levy, and production designer Dan Bishop
    • Episode 5, The Runaways, with Weiner and cinematographer/director Chris Manley
    • Episode 6, The Strategy, with Weiner, producer/writer Semi Chellas, and cinematographer/director Phil Abraham
    • Episode 7, Waterloo, with Weiner, composer David Carbonara, and editor Chris Gay
  • Technology: 1969 – A text and still-based slideshow (disc one)
  • Gay Rights (23:50, HD, disc one) – A timeline of the LGBT rights in America, from prohibition to the late ‘60s, including interviews with some of the people that suffered through major abuses during the era.
  • The Best Things in Life are Free (7:50, HD, disc one) – A look back at Bert Cooper’s tenure on the show.
  • Gay Power (21:40, HD, disc two) – A follow-up to Gay Rights, concerning the growing successes of the LGBT rights movement.
  • The Trial of the Chicago 8 (17:30, 36:10, HD, disc two) – A two-part featurette on the trial of eight men arrested during the countercultural protests that took place in Chicago, Illinois, on the occasion of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, as well as the events that surrounded the trial.


 Mad Men: The Final Season: Part 1

Overall


Mad Men is definitely running out of steam, but there’s still come coal in the creative engine and I have to admit that I don’t know where the train is going. This first half of the final season (otherwise known as season seven) overcomes some dips in momentum with more strong character work and gorgeously cinematic storytelling. LionsGate’s Blu-ray looks and sounds as strong as their previous releases and includes a solid collection of commentaries and historically relevant featurettes.

 Mad Men: The Final Season: Part 1

 Mad Men: The Final Season: Part 1

 Mad Men: The Final Season: Part 1

 Mad Men: The Final Season: Part 1

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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