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'Mad Men' recap: One final salute to the master, Alfred Hitchcock

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in a scene

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in a scene from the final season of "Mad Men." The series finale airs on Sunday, May 17. Photo Credit: AP / Justin Mintz

"Mad Men," a TV great, ends in a few days, and Matthew Weiner would have been remiss not to offer one final salute to an inspiration, or perhaps the inspiration for it all: Alfred Hitchcock. He did finally this past Sunday, in the penultimate episode, "The Milk and Honey Route."

There sat Don Draper, whom we saw in the middle distance, sitting on a bench under an endless sky, the plains stretching to a vanishing point on the horizon. The scene, the moment, the inspiration were wrapped in one sharp coda: Hitchcock... Grant... "North by Northwest"...

Last week, I spent some time going over other Weiner cinematic antecedents (Frank Capra). Now, for my very last weekly episode post on "Mad Men" (and my sincere thanks to my few readers who have followed these all these years), I want to turn my attention to Hitchcock.

An enormous amount has been written about Weiner's indebtedness to Hitchcock, so no need to go over that again. A little less, I think, has been devoted to the importance of "North by Northwest," the 1959 spy thriller starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason.

The movie's themes are deception, identity, and double identity...

Those are "Mad Men's" themes.

The undercurrent is illusion. and the unreliability of image, fact, perspective...

Those are the undercurrents in "Mad Men."

The narrative structure is about seeking, and running...seeking redemption, seeking absolution, seeking truth, seeking identity,  seeking even love ...And running from them all.

Those are the pursuits/escapes in "Mad Men."

The sensation is paranoia: No one can be trusted, no one is as who he or she seems. Post-war America is rushing into an uncertain future, but no one knows quite where they are rushing to. A Cold War permeates all thoughts, all actions, and just over the horizon --  that endless horizon --a mushroom cloud or a crop duster could appear at any moment...

That is the recurrent paranoia of "Mad Men."

And finally, the image that captures all of this, the metaphor, is a falling man (also, in the movie posters). He is falling, falling, but where will he land? Will he survive? Is this a foreshadow of doom, death? Or just a tease?

Recall that the climatic scene of "North by Northwest" is the desperate fight on top of Mount Rushmore. Is this where our hero has come to die? Falling to one's death, or simply falling through empty space, is another enduring Hitchcock image -- "Vertigo" as just one obvious example...

And yes, falling is the enduring image in "Mad Men," too.

Some scholars claim the title "North by Northwest" came from Hamlet, who, feigning madness, says, "I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw..."

Hitchcock, who patiently tolerated scholars, as he might young children, dismissed this. He originally wanted to call the film, "The Man who Sneezed in Lincoln's Nose." Nevertheless, Hamlet endured, giving the film another emotional and intellectual tangent of madness, and death and Cary Grant's Roger Thornhill another facet --  as someone with mother issues (he indeed did have those) and psychological ones as well.

As the film opens, Thornhill (some "Men" scholars see him as the direct inspiration for Don) is quickly established as a top advertising executive, on the way to a meeting with clients, barking instructions to his secretary.

He finds a cab, telling a man who is about to get in that the woman he is with (his secretary) is ill.

The man steps aside, and his secretary gently chides him for the lie, to which Thornhill responds with one of the classic lines of movie history, "There is no such thing as a lie. There is only expedient exaggeration."

At the meeting in a restaurant, he is mistaken by foreign agents for someone else, and is kidnapped, taken to Glen Cove, where he meets the mysterious Mister Townsend (James Mason).

And so it begins: A cross-country chase ensues, with planes, trains, automobiles.. Thornhill is looking for something, someone. But, could he also be looking for himself?

Hitchcock allows that question as well.

I could go on, and "Milk and Honey" was filled with other nods to Hitchcock. But we've all got a busy day. Let's wrap it up. But please allow me to leave you with this thought: Art -- including  TV-series-as-art -- is often filtered through antecedents, inspirations, even distant, dimly recalled memories. Art is often about exploring the mind of the artist, just as the artist is intent on exploring the human condition.

"Mad Men," over seven seasons, has been an exploration of the mind of Matthew Weiner, with a huge assist from his brilliant colleagues -- . Maria and Andre Jacquemetton, Jonathan Igla, and so many more, along with his remarkable directors, like Phil Abraham, Michael Uppendahl, Jennifer Getzinger, and Scott Hornbacher -- without whom "Mad Men" would not be "Mad Men"...

...But for us to find at the end of our journey an artist as great as Alfred Hitchcock should give us all yet another clue why this journey has been so deeply satisfying. 

And by seeing Hitch stand just off screen, so to speak, we also realize that we don't even need this Sunday's finale to tell us what "Mad Men" has been about all these years.

We already know.


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