Monday, October 18, 2010
In my review of “Blowing Smoke” last week I made a point of stating that the lead up to the finale of Mad Men lacked the usual feel of a contained “triptych” of episodes that typically brings each season to an end. After last night’s finale, “Tomorrowland,” that observation still holds true. “Chinese Wall,” “Blowing Smoke,” and “Tomorrowland” all had one similarity, which was the financial struggles of SCDP after losing Lucky Strike, but there was little else uniting each episode besides that fact – little else meaning that strange episodic feeling the last three episodes of a Mad Men season usually give us, which is not a feeling of contrivance but rather of an order or organization that organically leads to the revelations that are unfolded at the season’s conclusion. This season, each of the final three episodes was its own unique beast. Plenty of conflicts related to the future of SCDP were raised, but the actions and subplots around those conflicts seemed to be operating in completely different orbits. Perhaps this is why the past few episodes of Mad Men left me more disoriented than any other stretch of episodes have. This is not to say it the feeling of disorientation is something bad – in fact I have enjoyed these last few episodes and this entire season because interpreting and experiencing all of the actions has been so challenging – but rather something different than I am used to feeling at the end of a Mad Men season. Regardless of this sensation, the narrative of Season 4 left me in great anticipation of where the finale would leave us in the story.
The main topic of discussion from “Tomorrowland” was obviously the shocking decision that Don made to marry his secretary Megan. We all know that Don had slept with Megan in “Chinese Wall” but had kept it a secret from Faye and had seemed to move forward in “Blowing Smoke” with Faye as his girlfriend since they no longer had a “work” relationship and could explore their romance out in the open. However, “Blowing Smoke” presented us with the images of Don walking comfortably down the hall with Megan holding coffee, Megan telling Don she understood his intent when he took out the ad in the New York Times and of course the image of Don and Faye in the conference room with Megan sitting at her desk in the background, positioned so she appeared to be right in between them. It turns out that meaningful look that Don took at Megan at the end of “Chinese Wall” actually meant something and that Megan positioned between Faye and Don represented the fact that Megan was on Don’s mind, much as she was on the mind of the viewer – does he really like Faye or is there something there with Megan? Well, as Don said to Megan (and as he once said so earnestly to Miss Farrell) there was something there with Megan because he “couldn’t stop thinking about her.” I am not involved with the television world at all but I have seen and personally heard quite a few complaints about Don’s decision (the second most debated decision of the year behind Lebron’s Decision) already. The reaction to Don’s choice to marry Megan is justified, but we should look at it step by step over the course of the episode.
We know that Don has slept with Megan and that he may or may not have some kind of growing feelings for her. However, he still seems committed to Faye if not completely giving himself over (although, when does Don ever do this?) to their relationship. “Tomorrowland” starts with Faye giving Don advice about taking his head out of the sand about the past. Don replies stubbornly that it isn’t that easy to do so. Faye tells him that if he confronts the past, it may make dealing with his present easier and he can be “stuck trying to be a human being like the rest of us.” This again is not something that is easy for Don Draper to do since he has spent much of his adult life trying to be separate from the rest of the humans around him, to maintain his secrecy and in being removed, able to comment or decide what it is exactly that other humans are after, which is really what it is that he is after, what he is missing. Again, Faye has presented Don with a bit of truth about himself and about life, which is what makes her attractive to him. So, he tells her that he might miss her when she’s gone and we believe him.
However, at work, after his successful meeting with the American Cancer Society, Betty calls Don to tell him that she fired Carla. This is important for a variety of reasons (one of the obvious ones being Betty’s mistreatment of Carla), but mostly because Don is going to California for meetings and is going to bring the kids and he needed Carla’s help for “diapers!?” In trying to find a solution, Don propositions Megan to come along. Remembering Megan’s heroics in “Beautiful Girls,” Don tells Megan she’ll be perfect because “Sally loved you, Bobby likes a pretty face and the baby (wave of the hand).” Megan accepts and we groan as viewers because this isn’t going to end well. In California, Don takes the kids to Anna’s old house and admits a slight bit of his past to them, that his nickname is “sometimes Dick.” The house of the real Don Draper is being sold – symbolically it is no longer a part of Don/Dick’s life anymore. That place of solace is now gone just as Anna herself is gone.
Meanwhile, when Don and Sally and Bobby back at the hotel, Megan is a beautiful vision of youth with her large sunglasses on as she wades in the pool in the sun as she keeps Baby Gene occupied. The kids beg Don to get in the pool but he uses his usual excuse by telling everyone he is tired and retreats to his room. While Don is there, he sits on the bed alone, hunched over in thought as we have seen him so many times. In this instance, he decides to leave the room and go back out into the sun with his family. Don jumps into the pool and throws Bobby over his head into the deep end with a sense of joy and freedom that we don’t normally see from Don. Later that evening, Megan goes out with her “college friend” as she leaves with her friend they both look at Don sitting on the bed with his kids in a great snapshot of domesticity. Don loves his kids and has admitted to his struggles in spending time with them since the divorce, but here it seems like he is learning and perhaps it is the influence of this young girl who so openly welcomes and seems to love the children.
When Megan returns from her night out, Don is still up and restless. He goes over to her room to talk. She invites him in and they go out onto the balcony and Don tells her that he loves her teeth and that he’s been “thinking about her so much.” They sleep together and then in the pillow talk afterward, Don admits that he came over because he had to see her and he asks her if she envisioned their sleeping together happening when he asked her to come. Megan admits she had thought about it and Don tells her he wants to know if this will be an ongoing thing. “We’ll be with each other all day.” She tells him.
Then, they are all at the Howard Johnson’s and Sally spills her milkshake and, in one of the best moments of the series, everyone cringes and gets ready to explode, as things would have happened in the past with Betty at the table. However, Megan is calm and tells everyone that she has brought extra dresses to wear. The look that Don, Sally and Bobby all exchange is priceless. This, as many have remarked is the key to Don’s final decision to marry Megan because all of a sudden the scene cuts to New York with Don waking Megan up on his apartment to propose to her. Don is extremely excited and can barely contain himself. He even says that they will tell everyone at the office, which they do to mixed reactions. The episode now famously ends with Don and Megan lying in bed. Megan is sleeping while Don is awake looking out the window while “I Got You, Babe” plays.
That was the decision, now we have to look at the nature of Don. When Don has to call it off with Faye on the phone after his engagement, she tells him that she hopes this new woman “knows that [you] only like the beginnings of things.” This is not only a true statement for Don but for most people in general. The beginning of romance is always the most exciting. When things get complicated and the true nature of the shape of the relationship, the imperfections come to light, we often want to run away; we want that first impalpable sensation to come burning back deep within us. The complicated aspects of a relationships are often what makes a relationship true or worth having because it forces you to challenge yourself and not just get by on your charms or your comfort zone – a good relationship finds you trying to change and compromise since you are interacting with the desires and wishes of another human being. Faye has always challenged Don. She has met him at every turn intellectually (and by all accounts physically). Faye knows Don on a fundamental level and perhaps Faye is exactly what Don needs in order to successfully move forward, to reconcile the disparate parts of his past into one person in the present. However, Don has always looked for a figure that will comfort him as well. Like Anna Draper, Megan can comfort Don. She soothes him about his problems in “Chinese Wall.” She tells him how great his ad is in “Blowing Smoke.” In “Tomorrowland” she tells him how he is a good person and how she admires his desire to try to do better and to try to change. She says all this without knowing anything about his past. There is a strange and large dose of unconditional love in Megan’s relationship with Don and as a viewer we are not sure of it. In many ways, though, it echoes the viewer’s relationship to Don. Faye knows Don’s past, which makes her slightly dangerous to him, makes her slightly unattractive. Megan knows who he is now and who he can try to become. The viewer is a combination of Megan and Faye. We know all the things that Don has done and we know how he has tried to change and how much he desires to change but always seems to fail to do so. Megan knows nothing about the failures, but Faye does. We always want Don to come out on top. Why, though? I’m sure many people have asked that, but in all seriousness, why do we want him to succeed? Its because there is always an element of Megan in all of us, that desire to look past flaws and imperfections to allow people to change – there is a certain unconditional love that we feel for Don Draper. We don’t completely understand why Megan feels it and we don’t completely understand why we feel it. This raises a very strange and unique relationship with a character because unconditional love is only supposed to arise within the parameters of one’s family or through a relationship of “true love” with another person (though, many would argue that Peggy and Don have reached a point of unconditional love as well). We ultimately want to see Don happy for whatever reason. We would like him to figure himself out the correct way, but there was something utterly strange and intoxicating about seeing him so happy with Megan, seeing the intimacy of their pillow talk in the hotel. It was a baffling emotion to have for a fictional character, which is why I enjoyed the episode so much. It not only made me question this emotion but it also made me think about those people we meet and form relationships with, the people who know us but who we ultimately can’t be with for whatever the reason. And yet, there are other people who don’t know us yet but love us anyway. There is a skepticism that we should feel because these people don’t know us, how could they love us? Don does not feel this skepticism because Megan seems to unconditionally love him. There is no challenge. Don can be who he always wanted to be, as he tells Megan. There is a fine line there between what is right for each person and each instance. Do we want someone who is willing to look at the best in us, to put faith in us no matter what or do we want someone who will challenge us while still loving us for who we are. So perhaps this sort of muddled line of thinking is what is keeping Don up at night when he faces the reality of his situation and that perhaps he only does just like beginnings. Perhaps he is thinking of that strange interaction with Betty in the empty kitchen of their old home in Ossining.
Meanwhile, there were plenty of other tremendous moments. Peggy and Cosgrove team up to land the first account that SCDP has gotten since Lucky Strike left; Cosgrove tells the partners that his fiancée is his “life, life” and that he can never be Pete Campbell, doing whatever it takes to get an account; Henry tells Betty that “no one is on her side” and that “there is no fresh start, lives carry on,” which are two truths that were always unspoken on this show; and Joan was pregnant all along just like I predicted.
The moment between Joan and Peggy was also one of those classic Mad Men payoffs. These two women have butted heads throughout each season of Mad Men. There have been times when you though they might break the barrier and show some camaraderie or share an intimate moment. That never occurred until last night when Peggy storms into Joan’s office after she finds out that Don is engaged to Megan. Don had just told Peggy that Megan reminded him of her; that they had the same “spark.” Peggy tells him that she hopes he’s happy, but you can see her disappointment. She has just landed an account and once again, Don has taken the attention from her. She’s grown past that, but now that she and Don have reached a certain level in their relationship, she definitely expects more from him as a mentor, friend and confidant. There may even be that twinge of jealousy when someone we are friends with seems so happy in a relationship while we are still left figuring out why we can’t be happy as well. Peggy goes to Joan for comfort. They smoke cigarettes and complain about the firm, about the men that are still keeping them down. There is a great air of intimacy and we have waited to see these two characters share the screen in this way, but there is also an element of cheapness to the scene – it feels petty. We don’t want to see these two women acting this away alone and especially not together. However, maybe we have to allow them this moment.
I briefly mentioned Don and Betty’s “meeting” in the Ossining house. Betty has planned to meet Don when he shows up to meet the listing agent. She fixes herself up in her pocket mirror before Don comes in. When he does come in, she laughs at him grabbing the bottle of rye he had hidden in the kitchen cabinet. They share the liquor out of a big yellow mug and she looks longingly at him, which is fantastic acting by January Jones. She is a woman who knows Don’s past and she has started to realize that she perhaps misses what she threw away and didn’t understand. There is no clean start. Don may be on his way to finding this out in the next season and we may be able to point to this somewhat warm and vaguely intimate moment between he and Betty as leading to that eventual recognition, that look of him awake at night while Megan is sleeping on his chest.
Many people expected the season finale to involve Don landing some new business or a big new account that would save the company, but that wouldn’t have made sense. It wouldn’t have made sense, fiscally, for the company to rely on another big account and it wouldn’t have made sense for the season to wrap that conflict up so easily. Last year we were left on the precipice of the new agency. Even though Sterling Cooper had ended, there was a sense of unresolve due to the agency starting and Don moving into his new apartment alone. Why should this season have been any different? Peggy has landed new business and it looks like SCDP will get the American Cancer account and then perhaps a few other leads off that. The firm will survive. Perhaps they won’t prosper, but they will continue on.
The season finale had me thinking about what Matthew Weiner said in an interview, that this season was about Don figuring out his identity after his constructed world had fallen apart. He hoped that by the end, people would see the journey he went on this season to finding out who he is. By the end of this season, every piece of the life Don once had is either literally or figuratively gone: Anna Draper, Anna’s home in California, the Ossining home, Sterling Cooper. Don is moving on. Perhaps he will not prosper and will come to regret tossing off Faye who could have been the one person that might have saved him. But often times, the person who can save us is the person we overlook or the person we avoid because we don’t want to face ourselves. Don has faced many truths this season and has begun to resolve his split identity. Perhaps the season finale represents a step back in that regard, but Don is moving forward, he is continuing on. And once again, as in life, we have no idea what is going to happen.