On Sunday night, in the hour before AMC broadcast the series finale of its critically lauded flagship series Mad Men, writer/director Jason Reitman led his own tribute to the mad men and women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce by holding a live reading of the Season One finale “The Wheel” at the luminous Ace Hotel Theater in Downtown Los Angeles. The reading was followed by a screening of the series finale, “Person to Person,” introduced by Mad Men creator/executive producer Matthew Weiner, as well as many of the show’s cast.
Held in conjunction with Film Independent and the Los Angeles County Museum of Arts (LACMA), Reitman’s reading series has worked, since its 2011 inception, to re-imagine several celebrated scripts, frequently with an unorthodox new cast. More recent readings include Major League and The Empire Strikes Back (both recapped by Paste’s own Christine N. Ziemba). The Up in the Air director also honored Mad Men’s fellow AMC show Breaking Bad back in 2013, with a live reading of that series pilot, featuring The Office’s Rainn Wilson as Walter White.
The evening began with an introduction from LACMA curator Elvis Mitchell, who joked that he will likely be the “only black man you’ll see on stage all night.” Reitman then took the stage to express his bittersweet feelings about the event.
“This is really tough,” he admitted. “I’m going to introduce the cast, we’re going to start reading this thing and then we’ll finish and then we’re going to show the last episode of Mad Men and it’s going to come to an end.”
Playing off the disappointed moans of the audience, Reitman promptly offered a solution.
“I think what instead we should do is lock the door and, you know, Matthew Weiner doesn’t get to leave until we get a few more seasons,” he joked.
Reitman subsequently switched gears and invited the audience to give a round of applause in honor of the show’s maestro, who was sitting in the audience. In response, the entire theater rose to their feet and gave Weiner an extended ovation.
With the formalities out of the way, Reitman proceeded to introduce his cast for the evening. The list was as follows:
Colin Hanks (Don Draper)
Kaitlyn Dever (Peggy Olson)
Mickey Sumner (Betty Draper)
Fred Savage (Pete Campbell)
Ashley Greene (Joan Holloway)
Kevin Pollak (Bertram Cooper)
Rob Huebel (Ken Cosgrove)
David Wain (Harry Crane)
Brian Klugman (Paul Kinsey)
A Real Comedy Ensemble
Many thinkpieces have rightfully been written about Mad Men’s status as a thoughtful and literary work of art. And while certainly true, such labels, combined with the series’ period setting, does often paint the show as the kind of stodgy, self-serious soap opera more likely to be appreciated by academics than general audiences. If nothing else, the amount of comedic actors involved in the reading (Huebel, Wain, Pollak, Klugman) helped illuminate the fact that Mad Men, besides being brilliantly written and brilliantly acted, is also a very, very funny show. Not that we didn’t already think that.
Moreover, the reading also highlighted the ways in which the series serviced a vast amount of colorful characters rather than funneling all its energy into exploring Don’s brooding introspections. I, for one, was surprised by how relatively little Don appeared in this episode. It’s to Weiner’s credit that he and his writing staff were able to keep such a tight balancing act on point for 92 episodes.
Kevin Arnold as Pete Campbell
From the moment Fred Savage spoke his first line, it was clear he was going to be an audience favorite. Channeling Vincent Kartheiser’s anxious energy, Savage delivered each line with the squirrely energy of a man attempting normalcy whilst a swarm of ants parade around his pants. The results were both hilarious and totally in keeping with the character.
Likewise, Kevin Pollak fully committed to his role as Bertram Cooper, the crusty, yet eccentric head of the ad agency. He earned his first cheer by coming onstage with his shoes in hand, a nod to Cooper’s strict no-shoes office policy. The master impressionist quickly earned major laughs for his gravelly voiced approximation of Robert Morse’s distinct persona. What’s more, he was able to effortlessly swap between Cooper and the more straightforward Duck Phillips. It’s a shame that the scene-stealing Roger Sterling was incapacitated for this episode, because one can only imagine the field day Pollak would have had with that character.
Biggest Shock: Ashley Greene Can Act—Really Well
If there’s one major thing I took away from the reading, it’s that Hollywood has done a great disservice to Ashley Greene. Best known for her roles in the Twilight franchise (a series Reitman has openly denigrated in the past), Greene was, at various points, poised to be the next big “It” girl—a designation that, for whatever reason, never really panned out. Here, she proved herself to be a fantastic utility player, embodying not only office mean girl Joan Holloway, but several very different minor female roles. Perhaps the most notable was Annie, the beautiful actress whose confidence is gradually ground to a pulp by Peggy Olsen during a recording for Relax-a-Cizor. It takes a dynamic performer to realistically portray characters as diverse as Joan and Annie, but Greene was more than up for the task and succeeded with flying colors.
The Breakout Stars
Audiences not familiar with indie cinema might be forgiven for not recognizing Mickey Sumner and Kaitlyn Dever. Sumner is perhaps best known for her role as the titular character’s best friend in Frances Ha (she’s also Sting’s daughter), while Kaitlyn Dever’s most acclaimed role to date has been that of a troubled teen in the much celebrated Short Term 12. In any case, this being LA, I hope there were casting directors in the audience, because both actresses delivered truly phenomenal performances.
Sumner perfectly captured Betty’s icy delivery while also managing to undercut each line with a sense of unmistakable sadness. One of the most memorable moments of the event came in the scene where Betty approaches a young Glen Bishop in a parking lot. The scene, which started with Fred Savage upping his register to play Glen, began with laughter but, by the time Sumner got to the moment where she admits, “adults don’t know anything, Glen,” it was near impossible not to be a bit misty eyed.
As Peggy, Dever had two major moments to hit—the brutal, aforementioned dressing down scene with Annie, the young actress, and the moment where Peggy realizes her stomach cramps are actually a sign of impending childbirth. Despite her young age (she is only 18), Dever held her own as an actress of remarkable maturity and control. The Relax-a-Cizor scene managed to be at once hilarious and chilling while the birth scene—where Dever must go through an entire gamut of emotions before realizing what is happening to her—was nothing short of heartbreaking.
Seriously, Hollywood indie auteurs, put these girls in your next movie.
I Am Hamm
The stories of Matthew Weiner’s search to find the perfect Don Draper are well documented and, particularly after witnessing this live reading, it’s easy to see why. Putting aside Don’s now iconic Kodak pitch, there’s not a whole lot of actual Don dialogue in the episode. Many of the character’s scenes, in fact, involved Reitman reading off paragraphs of character action with no dialogue. It’s a true testament to Jon Hamm’s performance that he was able to endow these silent moments with such meaning. Wink wink, Emmy voters.
Having appeared on the show before as Father John Gill in Season Two, Colin Hanks entered the arena, drink in hand, ready to take on the daunting task of filling Hamm’s shoes. In the end, he acquainted himself well with the role’s complexities. Even without the dramatic music to augment it, Hanks’ take on the Kodak/Carousel pitch played like gangbusters in the room.
End of an Era
After the live reading came to close and the actors exited the stage to the melancholy sounds of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” (the song that closed the actual episode), Matthew Weiner emerged on stage to introduce the cast members. In attendance was Jon Hamm (Don Draper), Elisabeth Moss (Peggy Olson), Vincent Kartheiser (Pete Campbell), John Slattery (Roger Sterling), Kiernan Shipka (Sally Draper), Jessica Pare (Megan Draper), Robert Morse (Bertram Cooper), Aaron Staton (Ken Cosgrove), Jay R. Ferguson (Stan Rizzo), Rich Sommer (Harry Crane), Michael Gladis (Paul Kinsey), Christopher Stanley (Henry Francis) and Mason Vale Cotton (Bobby Draper Version 4.0). Series regulars January Jones (Betty Draper) and Christina Hendricks (Joan Holloway) were sadly absent.
Before introducing the final episode, Weiner took some time to give recognition to the show’s creative team (many of whom were also in the audience), Lionsgate and AMC for taking a chance on producing his pilot script and the audience who transformed the series into a cultural phenomenon.
“We’re all so grateful to have…I will call this a relationship—even by Don’s standards this is a relationship—with an audience like this. It has been our pleasure to perform for you and to work on this,” he said.
And so, at long last, Weiner introduced the finale, but not before adding one caveat.
“Please leave me alone if you don’t like it.”
For thoughts on the finale, I will send you over to our own Bonnie Stiernberg who has done a fantastic job at recapping the series. I will say, however, that viewing the episode in a packed theater full of Mad Men enthusiasts after viewing the series in solitary for much of its run is an experience I am not likely to ever forget.
Cheers, Mad Men. It’s been quite the journey.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.