“The Wheel” Review
“A Carousel Through Time.”
How profound can an advertisement really be? After all, deep down, the overall purpose is to sell a product. No matter what the ad promises, however good the intentions may seem, all they really want is your money. So, why then is Harry Crane — and the rest of the audience — moved to tears by the end of Don Draper’s Kodak presentation?
The product in question, a slide projector with a rotary tray for storing photographs, is tentatively called the Wheel. But Don believes it is capable of something more. “It’s not called the Wheel,” he says. “It’s called a Carousel.” As he flips the projector from slide to slide, he contemplates the memories onscreen — a picture of him pushing his son Bobby on a swing set in the park, lying with his daughter Sally on the couch on Christmas morning, a younger version of himself kissing his wife Betty on their wedding day.
Don’s presentation is beautiful, nostalgic, genuine. He uses anecdotes, invokes the memory of Rachel Menken and even throws in some Greek for good measure. All the while, he thinks of his family and how he’s neglected them throughout the years. His half-brother just committed suicide. He longs for better days.
“It takes us to a place where we ache to go again …. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”
It’s the greatest sales pitch of all time.
But just how much does Don really mean it? After all, he’s still selling a product. The Carousel speech wins over the Kodak executives, but the most important customer in the room is Don himself. And for the first time in his life, he believes in what he’s saying, finally recognizing the importance of family.
When Don gets home from work, he happily embraces his kids and tells Betty that he’ll be joining them on their Thanksgiving vacation with the in-laws. It’s a warm vision of love and commitment, but it’s just a daydream. In reality, he arrives to find his house empty and that his family has already left without him.
False endings can sometimes be divisive. In the tradition of 25th Hour and, more recently, Parasite, “The Wheel” concludes with a cruel fake-out that slams the door on Don’s wishful fantasy. But it’s not a cheat — rather, it’s perfectly in step with the nature of advertising itself. Don sold the Carousel speech so well that he believes all his problems will be gone when he walks through the door.
As he sits alone on the stairs, Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” closes the episode with a scathing note of irony and poignancy.
Like the slide projector it’s named after, “The Wheel” stacks great scene after great scene. It’s easily one of Mad Men’s greatest episodes, and it’s also the first time where we truly comprehend the emotional highs that this series is capable of.
Take Betty’s scene with Glenn Bishop, for instance. Earlier in the episode, she learned that her friend Francine has an adulterous husband. After finding out that Don has been listening in on her therapy sessions, she begins to fear the worst. But the only person that she can talk to about her immense loneliness is the nine-year-old kid who lives down the street.
Elsewhere, we have Harry Crane. Even though actor Rich Somner is part of the main cast, his character has largely existed on the fringes. In this episode, however, Harry comes into his own, sharing a touching conversation with Don. Later on, he’s unable to contain his emotion during the climactic Carousel speech. Of course, the reason for his emotional vulnerability is the fact that he cheated on his wife during the “Nixon vs. Kennedy” office party.
And then there’s Peggy Olson, who has just been promoted to junior copywriter in the wake of Don’s success. But then she finds out that she’s pregnant. And the father is Pete Campbell. And her dreams of being a successful businesswoman take a serious hit. As she lays in the hospital bed, full of regret, she refuses to even look at her newborn child.
There have been times when Mad Men‘s leisurely pace has felt aimless. Yet this is also the show’s greatest strength. Without the viewer really knowing, Mad Men‘s slow-burn approach causes us to care for these characters deeply. Even though they make more money than us, we relate to the complexities of their everyday lives. Their problems are our problems, and Donald Draper is no different than Dick Whitman or Harry Crane or you and I.
Season one has had its ups and downs, but “The Wheel” masterfully connects everything that has come before. As a matter of fact, it surprises us with its power. Who knew that a sales pitch for cameras could pack such an emotional wallop, or that a show about advertising could tell so much truth?
This is a finale that hits all the right notes, perfectly ending a season that adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
MERGERS & ACQUISITIONS
- Mad Men is often a show about nothing, but what can we expect in season two? “The Wheel” sets up several potential storylines, most notably Peggy’s unwanted baby. We also have Betty finally becoming suspicious of Don’s transgressions, and Duck Phillips as Sterling Cooper’s new Head of Accounts. However, a season of Mad Men is often very self-contained, perhaps more so than any other serialized drama. Plot is rarely important.
- Even though plot is rarely important, there are two plot contrivances that I find hard to ignore. The first is the fact that Dick Whitman steals Lt. Donald Draper’s identity so easily, as seen in last episode. The second is the fact that Peggy doesn’t realize she’s pregnant until a baby is literally popping out of her body. Peggy’s weight gain has been mentioned throughout the season, but it’s an insult to her intelligence to suggest that she would be completely oblivious. Is she really that much of a workaholic?
- Is Betty’s therapist the worst therapist ever? Aside from having no respect for patient-client privilege, he says about ten words all season.
- Pete Campbell scores his first big client, Clearasil, on account of his father-in-law working for the company. In an awkward scene, he tells Don the good news and begs for his approval. Throughout season one, Pete has been Mad Men‘s equivalent of a villain. He’s been Don’s rival ever since the pilot, but now that we’ve reached the season finale, we see that he doesn’t hate Don at all — he worships him.
- Mad Men has the greatest musical cues in TV history, and season one has been no exception. However, nothing in the debut hits harder than “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Aside from being one of Bob Dylan’s finest songs, the lyrics perfectly sum up Don’s situation: “I wish there was something you would do or say/To try and make me change my mind and stay/We never did too much talking anyway/But don’t think twice, it’s all right.”
- Pete Campbell’s father-in-law tells Pete about “Redskins Rule,” the longstanding superstition that the Washington Commanders’ (nee Redskins) final home game would determine the Presidential election result for the incumbent party. Because the Cleveland Browns trounced the Redskins 31-10, it was a foregone conclusion that Kennedy would win in a landslide. Go Browns!!
- “The Wheel” was written by series creator Matthew Weiner and Robin Veith and directed by Weiner. This begins Weiner’s tradition of writing/directing all Mad Men season finales, establishing himself as a TV auteur in the process. He doesn’t use any flashy camera movements, instead preferring to frame the episode in a stately and elegant fashion.
- “How could someone do that to the person that they love, that they have children with? Doesn’t this all mean anything?”
- “He doesn’t know what family is. He doesn’t even have one.”
- “The way he makes love. Sometimes it’s what I want. But sometimes it’s obviously what someone else wants.”