Tuned In

Mad Men Watch: Put a Ring on It

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, get out of the pool, turn on the TV in your hotel room and watch last night’s season finale of Mad Men.

We should not be surprised, in retrospect, to find Don Draper’s work and home lives running in tandem on Mad Men. Season three was about the gradual—and then sudden—breakup of the Draper marriage, and the gradual—and then sudden—dissolution of the old Sterling Cooper. Season four began in the aftermath of both drastic decisions, finding the parties involved shaken, adjusting, and finally moving toward some kind of stability and toward the next thing.

Don Draper found his next thing in “Tomorrowland”—boy did he! And while it might or might not prove to be a terrible idea, it was a distinctively Don Draper decision.

In pulling out Original Don Draper’s engagement ring and proposing to Megan, Don confirmed a decision that, in retrospect, he may have made the second Megan helped Sally off the floor at the office. He also made a choice, not just between two women, but between two versions of himself.

Early in “Tomorrowland,” Faye says goodbye to Don, more permanently than she knows, but first delivers herself of one more scarily acute insight into him. The anxiety he’s feeling, she says, might be not just from his work, but from the past that he’s still hiding, that he’s never really reconciled himself with. He has the chance to start again if he wants to, she says; he can break with the lie, end the hiding, and end up “stuck trying to be a person like the rest of us.” He can, like his break with tobacco, use the convenience of the turmoil in his life to kick the impersonation habit he’s become addicted to.

From a 21st-century perspective, the choice between Faye and Megan is, on the surface, one between a more enlightened version of Don and a more traditional one: the professional versus the secretary, the outspoken, tough woman versus the sweet accommodator. But Don’s picking Megan over Faye in this version of Bachelor ’65 is not just about his making the less feminist choice. It’s about him rejecting someone who really knows him and who he’s been for someone who knows “who you are now”—an idealized, and carefully fictionalized, version of him.

Faye knows about Dick Whitman; she knows his secret and why it eats at him. And she knows him on an almost molecular level—as we’ve noted throughout the season, she was the one who pointedly predicted in the season’s first act that he’d be married inside a year. There is no hiding with her, no simply building a new house atop the old one without ever confronting the rotting foundation. She knows too much, and this among other reasons is why he can’t end up with her.

Megan, on the other hand, is an easier choice. For the obvious reasons: she’s pretty (not that Faye is exactly tough on the eyes), she’s bright but not aggressive with her intelligence—she’s smart enough, that is—she looks at him with awe rather than the eyes of a peer, she’s good with the kids. She’s—well, he’s marrying his secretary, and as Joan says, you can dress it up however you like but that’s not exactly the newest decision under the Midtown Manhattan sun.

None of which, I should add, is to beat up on Megan. Intriguingly, Matthew Weiner has drawn her so as to make it hard to guess whether this is a good or a bad call in the long run. She’s not just a pretty face: she seems to be legitimately bright, confident, motivated and—maybe most important in her new family—even keeled. She’s not just a empty pretty face. She’s empathetic. She’s, well, she’s not another Betty. (And that in turn is not—not entirely—to beat up on Betty either; she has her reasons for being the way she is, even if this season has seemed to actively fight sympathy for her.)

But Megan is the biggest change Don can make without going outside his comfort zone. She is not the quitting-tobacco move, the radical change. She’s a poised, gorgeous younger woman who will comfortably be a stepmom to his kids and, in her way, a mother figure to him. (Let’s be honest: she’ll take care of “the woman stuff”: is it a coincidence he goes gooey-eyed in love with her after she babysits his kids, and proposes after watching her wipe up a spilled milkshake without exploding?)

And she is someone with whom he can continue to be Fake Don Draper if he wants, and will accept it as enough that he is “trying to be better.” (He proposes to her, after all, with Real Don’s ring, and when Sally asks him who “Dick” is, he takes a step toward the truth—saying it was him—but then steps back, claiming “Dick” as his nickname.) Don, even after hitting bottom in the middle of this season, is not ready for the radical transition in his life that he is in his work.

As for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce making it through its own transition: I’ll admit I’m a bit perplexed here. SCDP has lost Lucky Strike, a mammoth account. Peggy and Ken’s coup of landing the $250,000 Topaz pantyhose account is clearly not in itself going to save the company. Peggy says that it has, and I can see the argument that this (and maybe new business from the American Cancer Society) will take the stink of death off the agency and encourage new business to sign up and businesses like Heinz to get off the fence.

Maybe. Of course it’s plausible. (Maybe, as hinted, ACS will lead to something with Dow, which will lead to…) But considering that we spent the last few episodes consider the end of the agency, and ended the last episode with SCDP firing a major chunk of its staff, it seems like an awfully big assumption to make—or, if one does not make the assumption, a pretty big oversight in ending the season, when the second half of it had largely been devoted to SCDP’s existential crisis.

But I suppose one could read that as a larger statement: just as with the engagement itself, here again, It’s All About Don. The firm may be saved, the firm may still be dead—but hey, let’s have a toast! Peggy is the only one it seems, who can see this and be annoyed, rather than amused (like Roger) or jaded (like Joan). The response she gives Megan and Don is not jealousy, but rather disappointment: she’s disappointed not to be recognized more for her coup, but also, it seems, a little disappointed in Don, whom she has a special understanding of, and whom she bonded with—or felt she did—in “The Suitcase.”

The office side of Mad Men, so central throughout the season, seemed slighted in this episode, but its structure did allow the episode to touch briefly on several stories and relationships, as The Big News had to be broken to one character after another. The last and most significant was Betty. We haven’t seen Betty in a good light all season, and she was if anything in a worse light here—firing Carla with ugly words and without a reference letter in a fit of pique (even the the sanguine Henry loses patience with her) and not only moving to punish Sally but, bizarrely, confronting Glenn on a personal and emotional level. (“You don’t think I know what you’re doing. You could be friends with anyone!”)

And yet while she doesn’t exactly seem pleased to learn that Don is remarrying (and thus, that she has less cause to pity him), it does seem for a moment, in the kitchen where we saw Don warming milk for her at the beginning of season 3, that she is in some way starting to move on. Is it crazy to think that this move is a good thing for Betty, that getting out of that poisonous house could do good for her and her relations with her kids, that Mad Men could surprise us again and redeem her at some point going forward? Call me crazy, but I’m going to hope.

I won’t say congratulations to her on her move—or, for that matter, to Don or Megan or the kids. I’ll say best wishes.

Now for the hail of bullets:

* So how in retrospect does this episode place season 4 overall? I reserve the right to digest it and re-evaluate, but I think that a season that started strong—and had, through its middle, perhaps its best run of episodes ever—seemed to lose a bit of focus and momentum in its last third, like Don. Or perhaps with Don; Matthew Weiner has been saying in interviews that he feels Don was on a journey of self-discovery but was knocked off-track by the emergency at work—after which, among other things, he retreated to the safety of Megan. So if it’s disappointing for him to have done that, that’s not to say it’s out of character or bad storytelling for him to do it; it did, however, mean Mad Men somewhat returning to scenarios and conflicts we’d seen play out before. Offhand, I still think the first season was the strongest beginning to end, but I might place season 4 just behind that. [Update: For the record, by the way, I’m sad we didn’t see Sal again—next year?—not that that affected my ranking.]

* We got an answer about Joan as well: she is, as many of you guessed from the beginning (and I did not) keeping the baby! In which case I have to say I’m in retrospect a little disappointed. Not because I want out of some sort of principle for women to prove they can have abortions on TV, or because it’s in any way out of character fr her, or because I didn’t call it. (I swear!) But if she was going to keep the baby, I’d rather she just decided to keep it; having her go all the way to the doctor and decide, on the very verge of having the procedure, to change her mind, is a very TV thing to do, a TV thing I wouldn’t expect of Mad Men. (Much like, actually, having a character get pregnant the first time the has sex with a man—or, well, the first time she has sex with this man since she got married to another man.) I’m all for more storylines for Joan, though, and I hope motherhood gives her more opportunites in front of the camera. (Not because they’re bigger! Get your mind out of the gutter!)

* As the father of two kids, Don’s unholy terror at having to travel with and care for his children alone (with three of them, granted) had to be the laugh-out-loud moment of the episode. “Diapers?!” Welcome to fatherhood, 1965!

* Speaking of travel, I know Mad Men’s California visits put some fans off, but I love them. There really is a difference in appearance between the East Coast 1960s and the West Coast 1960s and “Tommorowland” (directed by Matthew Weiner) captured that well in that vividly bright diner scene.

* The timeframe for this episode, by the way, was Labor Day weekend 1965, indicated not just by references to “the holiday” on Monday but by Lane’s reading a newspaper with a headline referring to Lyndon Johnson’s gall bladder surgery, whence the famous scar. (Update: Or not. Commenter lobstershift points to some contextual cues that it’s Columbus Day. Sorry—hazards of posting quickly overnight—but now I want to go back and check Lane’s newspaper again.)

* I enjoyed the moment of bonding—over cigarettes, natch—between Joan and Peggy, though it’s notable that Joan’s more comfortable with Peggy when she’s had a disappointment.

* As for a not-bonding moment, there was a telling one when Ken refused to hit up his father-in-law for business, saying, “I’m not Pete”: meaning, his personal life is more important and he draws the line there.

* One reason I love having TiVo: the ablity to rewind Don’s announcement and check the reaction of each person in the room separately. (Roger: “Who the hell’s that? … Megan out there?”)

* In the interest of getting this post up at a reasonable time, I’m not going to list every line I liked, but: “You don’t say, “Congratulations’ to the bride. You say ‘Best wishes.'” Pete, you’re such a little Emily Post!