A couple of weeks ago I was a guest on Talking TV With Ryan And Ryan, a fine podcast from Maureen Ryan and Ryan McGee. We talked about Mad Men and kept coming back to the futility of trying to predict where the show was heading. Case in point: this season finale. Or, pulling back a little bit, this whole season. Now that we’ve seen the big picture, it almost seems designed to thwart expectations. Sally reconnects with creepy Glen. Glen trashes the Francis house. Tension builds… and then he turns into a pretty decent, only mildly creepy friend. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce teeters on the brink of collapse and then… just doesn’t. Don’s on the verge of being exposed and then, without much drama, he’s not. Don finds a mature woman who seems to understand him and wants only to help him… and then he sleeps with his secretary. No, make that enlists his secretary as a virtual mother. No, make that proposes to his secretary. It’s as if Matthew Weiner knows every rule of creating tense, dramatic story arcs and then willfully ignores them.
Happily, his subversive tendencies have their own sort of satisfaction. The fact that I never know where Mad Men is going is part of why I love the show. But it’s not that I love the unpredictability of it, if only because the word “unpredictability” implies a much wilder ride than we usually get. It’s that these characters, so intimately realized in every detail, never seem like they’re being pulled along by anything so mundane as plot mechanics. There always seem to be bigger forces at work.
Which isn’t to say that they’re outside the influence of plot mechanics. Didn’t Chekhov say something about how an engagement ring introduced before the second commercial break must be delivered before the credits? Should we dig into the engagement first? I feel like it’s such a big development that we should address the other elements before getting to Don. Like pantyhose.
It’s fitting that SCDP should be saved not by RFK sweeping in at the last moment but by the hard work of the creative staff combined with some business savvy. Don and Pete pitch the American Cancer Society and get the gig—or seem on the cusp of getting the gig—through Don’s brilliance. He knows cigarette companies depend on getting new customers via a two-pronged appeal to teens: adulthood and rebellion. He also knows that teens have a sentimental streak—“Have you heard their music?”—that’s outdone only by a their self-involvement. So he comes up with an approach that addresses all those factors. Or he modifies it on the spot so it sounds like it appeals to all those elements. Either way, he nails it. Either way, Don seems like he’s back.
Meanwhile, Peggy works some similar magic with Topaz Pantyhose after learning through back channels (i.e. the seemingly omnipresent Joyce and her model friend Carolyn Jones Like Morticia). And it comes down simply to meeting the client, looking him in the eye, and dazzling him. Or, closer to the point here, not throwing up on his shoes. And account by account, SCDP walks back from the edge.
Not that Joan’s benefitting from it. While she’s started to get some acknowledgment she never got at the old Sterling-Cooper and a title to match—Director Of Agency Operations—she knows it doesn’t relieve her of mail-delivery duties, or translate into money. More importantly, she knows she’ll forever be excluded from the boys club that holds the power, the men who are always only “between marriages” and who might promote their new wives to copywriter positions just because they can, even though Peggy worked hard to get there, dammit. Joan and Peggy have been at odds all season—all series, really—but they come together in a wonderful scene that united them as they bitched about Don’s big announcement and all it represented. However different their approaches and assumptions, in the end they find solidarity in frustration.
That’s getting ahead to Don’s proposal again, and it while it feels like we’ve almost taken care of all other business, there remains one final Joan item: she’s having a baby. And Greg thinks the baby is his. That’s the sound of one shoe dropping. Greg’s thick, but he is a doctor. And, beyond that, he seems fully capable of performing basic math.
Okay, on to Don: I think his engagement to Megan can be defined by two great ambiguities: 1) Is Don really in love with her or infatuated with the fresh start she represents for him? 2) Who is Megan? I don’t know if even Don could answer the first one and I suspect that at least some of the season-five drama will come from the process of figuring this out. As for the second point, we know that she’s a smart, beautiful, French-Canadian who’s sensitive about the appearance of her teeth. But what does she want? Don senses ambition and she’s stated a desire to do what Don and Peggy do, but is this romance and engagement at least partly an outgrowth of that ambition?
Let me point to a scene that might shed some light on the matter: Megan prepares to the Whiskey A Go-Go. She is dressed to wow and swings by Don’s room on the pretense of checking in with him. This is no accident. Let me point to another: As the episode draws to an end, Megan walks into Don’s office shortly after he’s broken up with Faye. She looks down at him and dominates the frame. He looks up as if in supplication. The blocking and the way Jon Hamm and Jessica Paré play it turns the boss/secretary power dynamic upside down.
In other words, like Don, there’s more to her than the image she projects. That’s not to say that Megan is like something out of an early ’90s, Hand That Rocks The Cradle-derived thriller and that she’s soon to reveal her true, crazy colors. But I don’t think she’s a mere submissive trophy wife either. I jokingly referred to her as “the thinking man’s Jane Sterling” to a friend, but I’m not even sure that’s a joke now. After mocking Roger for an old fool, Don’s followed his example to the letter. But the similarities between their situations end there.
But what of the episode? I’ve only checked out a little Twitter chatter, but I have a feeling this episode will divide viewers. I quite liked it. However low-key its tone, I think “Tomorrowland” shakes up the status quo as profoundly as "Shut The Door. Have A Seat." Don’s been heading in one direction—down—all season and now he’s not. Which isn’t to say that Megan’s his redemption. It’s never that simple of a show and it would be a dull hour if it were to turn into one. But, to paraphrase Stephanie, Don seems to realize for the first time this week that he has his whole life ahead of him. Still. And it might not take him where he expected to go.
Sometimes I wonder what Don Draper would be doing today. Sure, I know it’s a long shot he’d still be with us given the cigarettes and booze and the general recklessness with which he lives. But plenty of men do live into their mid-80s even, occasionally, men who live like Don Draper. But even if Don did live that long, would he have anything to sustain him? Like the love of family? Or even a hobby? Can you picture an elderly Don Draper proudly showing off his coin collection to visiting grandchildren? I can’t. I can only see him alone, living with regret. I think those flashes of soulfulness, those moments that keep us invested in Don’s happiness and worried about his fate, would only hurt him in his dotage. He’s a man capable of inflicting terrible hurt, but he’s sensitive enough to know what he’s doing and introspective enough to remember the hurt he’s dispensed. I see Don Draper’s golden years as an endless succession of tortured winces.
Or I did. “Tomorrowland” changes that. It suggests his future might be unwritten. And that he might take as firm a hand in writing it as he did in creating his past. But that’s a subject for another season.
• Plenty to chew over that I couldn’t get to in the main piece, starting with Carla. Though ultimately Betty still wields all the power in their relationship, Carla used her dismissal to let some unstated hostilities boil over. Betty responds with a cruelty that’s unusually sadistic even for her, even making Carla feel guilty for neglecting her children in order to care for the kids Betty neglects.
• Betty’s been pushed to the margins for much of the season, but the episodes have still conveyed the fraying of her marriage to Henry and the persistence of a bond with Don. Her final scene in the kitchen echoes Megan dolling herself up for Don: Betty powders up and arranges to “accidentally” bump into her ex-husband. But the results are different and she ends up taking the news of Don’s engagement awkwardly, even while barely bringing herself to care to whom he’s gotten engaged. The secretary? Yeah, that makes sense.
• Harry hasn’t had that much to do this season either, but he’s had some great moments. And note that he too finds an excuse to put himself in the same room with someone he finds attractive, just like Betty and Megan. It doesn’t work out so well for him, either.
• Remember this?: Faye predicted Don would quickly remarried. Don dismissed the idea. He’s not like everyone else. He takes pride in that. And now…
• Note that Megan clearly knows about Don’s relationship with Faye. Note that we don’t know if he told her or if she intuited it.
• Whom might Megan have seen at The Whiskey? In 1965 The Byrds, The Turtles, and The Lovin’ Spoonful were all in residence. And, if they weren’t playing, any of the countless fine garage rock bands gigging in L.A. at the time might have performed.
• Google’s new search function does not automatically show results from the word “pantyhose.” Best I can tell, there is no such company as “Topaz Pantyhose,” however.
• Let’s bring it all back home: Who is Don Draper? The season began with that question. Can we answer it better now? I think I know better who Don wants to be. He wants to be an ordinary guy. Or at least a highly successful variation of an ordinary guy. He doesn’t want to be someone haunted by a Eugene O’Neil childhood or by his decision to trade identities with a fallen soldier in Korea. He wants to be someone who doesn’t drink to excess. Who doesn’t wake up next to diner waitresses. Someone who doesn’t lie to his kids and live in fear of discovery. I don’t know if he can get there. But I think, when controlled by his better angels, he spent this season trying. And he ends it thinking he’s getting where he wants to be.
And yet, he can only tell his kids half the truth. Dick is not his nickname. And he cruelly discards a woman who’s been nothing but kind to him. And he proposes to a woman he barely knows using the ring of the real Don Draper and calling it something that’s been in his family. Or, um, not his family really but… It’s complicated. And while he’s let Peggy in a little and the evolution of their relationship has been one of the key elements of this season—and one of its great pleasures—his engagement to Megan has the potential to estrange them. (And there’s so much about Don Peggy doesn’t know.) So who is he? It depends on who you ask and how much he’s told them. And until that changes, I don’t think he’ll ever find the happy ending he now seems to think he’s approaching.