Monday, October 18, 2010

Mad Men S4: Portrait of the Artist as a Middle-Aged Man

I was going to go with a different photo for this week's recap of the Mad Men S4 finale last night, “Tomorrowland”... a photo showing The Thing that happened. But I didn’t want to inadvertently spoil anyone, so if you haven’t yet seen the finale and don’t know what Thing I’m talking about, please stop reading now.

This season has been, in a word, extraordinary. We watched Don Draper unravel completely as Dick Whitman dogged him almost to the point of complete self-destruction. His wife was remarried, his children were confused and he was constantly worried about them, the new business wasn’t doing gangbusters like it was supposed to, he screwed the babysitter and the woman down the hall and some waitress in a diner and his secretary before she finally quit and then the psychology expert the company brought in... it was a mess. He walked through the halls in an alcoholic haze, he messed up board meetings, and the creative genius of only a few years earlier had devolved into a monkey that resembled Roger Sterling... without the zingers.

And in an episode I can only refer to as sublime, “The Suitcase,” Don finally hit rock bottom. He’d peaked in assholery, forcing Peggy to stay late in the office on her birthday and then chastising her for not telling him it was a special day, he literally had a lost weekend where he didn’t know where he’d been for a couple of days, and worst of all, Anna, the only person who really knew him for who he was, died. In this incredible hour, Don and Peggy stayed in his office all night while other characters moved in and out of the scene like a play -- not sleeping together, not playing superior and inferior, not playing the roles of Man and Woman -- and we saw a new Don emerge the next morning. He had a purpose, he was going to put his life back together, he was going to attempt to stop drinking, he was going to put an effort into his children and his company, and he was going to stop sleeping around.

And for a while, it worked. The no-drinking thing was stymied slightly when Sally accidentally poured rum all over his pancakes (in a hilarious scene where she mistook the rum bottle shaped like a little Jamaican woman for a bottle of Aunt Jemima), but he shrugged it off and dealt with it. He began focusing his romantic energy on Faye Miller, and rather than continue his Don Draper charade with her, he told her up front who he really was. It was a surprising moment, but you could tell he was simply weary of lying. Finally he opened up to someone. He wasn’t going to lie to her the way he’d lied to Betty for so long. Here was a woman who was strong, independent, who Peggy recently had said she was envious of because this woman seemed to stand out in the world of men, making her own way.

And then, one night when Don was working late, his secretary, Megan shyly poked her head in and offered to help him out. And before you knew it, they were having sex on his couch. Sigh. “Oh, Don, you bastard,” my husband and I both said, exasperated. But this secretary wasn’t like the other one. She didn’t expect anything from Don, and simply zipped up her dress and walked back out of the office. And the next day, it was business as usual. No looking for compliments, no shock when he acted like he was her secretary, just back to putting Mr. Draper’s phone calls through to his phone.

We’d first noticed her when Sally had come into the office and had a complete spazzy breakdown in the hallway, and Megan ran after her, caught her in her arms, and just held her, rubbing her back and reassuring her that it would be OK. Sally quietly said, “No, it won’t.” Sally has been a character who has worried me from the beginning of this season, making me want to reach into the television and just yoink her out of this universe and save her. First, I think the actress who plays her is one of the best casting choices of the series. She looks and talks EXACTLY like her mother, in that very specific, clipped way. I think the young actress has done a fantastic job of learning to mimic January Jones’ way of talking and holding herself. While Betty Draper has turned into Mommie Dearest, Sally seems to take the brunt of it. Gene isn’t really aware of it, and Bobby just remains quiet, like he either doesn’t notice or doesn’t want to. But Sally is old enough to understand that her mother resents her, but too young to begin to understand why, or how she should deal with such a thing. While Betty feels like Don tossed her away, she can’t stand the fact that he wants to spend time with her own tiny doppelganger. Sally used to be the little chubby-cheeked youngster who had the occasional tantrum and otherwise faded into the background, but this season she moved into the spotlight. From the first episode, when we saw how slim she suddenly was, to the scene at the home of Betty’s new in-laws where Sally spat out her dinner, I started to worry that they were setting her up for some future eating disorder. Then as Sally’s life began to unravel, I started worrying more... could she be suicidal in the future? Is there something more at stake here? She’s so delicate and already broken, and she’s only about 10. The current season is set in 1965, and the beauty of this show is that we know the history that will come after it. I remember thinking at the beginning of the season that the poor kid was born at such an unfortunate time – she’ll only be 12 during the Summer of Love, so she’ll miss out on that one, and by the time the punk movement really takes shape in about 1977, she’ll be in her early 20s, so she may be too old to truly appreciate it. Poor thing! Maybe she’ll just really be into David Bowie. (There’s hope for you yet, little one.) But I am worried that they’re setting her up for some sort of eating disorder during a time where it wouldn’t have been understood.

But back to Megan. Don looks on, agog at the fact that while Betty would have simply said in her flat voice, “Go to your room” and given Sally a kick on the way up the stairs, here is his secretary sitting on the floor, hugging his daughter. There was definitely something in her even then. (And I read something today saying that the Google searches on “Jessica Paré,” the Canadian actress who plays her, have been huge today... as a Canadian I can tell you she really IS from Montreal, just like her character, and her first breakout role was starring in a film called “Stardom” about this girl who is obsessed with hockey and just wants to play with the boys until a modelling scout sees her and pushes her into the world of modelling, where she becomes a world-class supermodel and you watch all of the craziness that surrounds her. After that she was in a Canadian film called Lost and Delirious, based on the Susan Swan novel “The Wives of Bath,” about a girl who goes to college and discovers her female dormmates are sleeping together, and then Jessica starred a bunch of roles, mostly in Canadian films, but she was moving her way into American films and TV shows when Mad Men came along.)

But back to Mad Men. When Roger Sterling lost Lucky Strike (right after knocking up Joanie), Don went ballistic, and the company faced a major crisis where, for the first time, it really looked like they wouldn’t bounce back. Last week Don finally cracked and wrote an open letter to the New York Times, taking out a full page and basically saying he doesn’t sleep at night doing ads for tobacco companies anyway, so screw it, they’re no longer taking on tobacco, and anyone else can feel free to come their way. And so... the American Cancer Society did. Could it be the start of something bigger?

This week Betty finally becomes a full-on dragon, firing her maid/nanny Carla (with the patented Betty blindness: “Since when did you become their mother?” Um... from the moment I bloody well raised each one of them, maybe??), refusing to let Carla say goodbye to the children, and then telling Don he’ll have to take the kids on his trip without any help. Meanwhile, Peggy -- who also really came into her own this season as we saw her hanging with beatniks, showing tremendous restraint and confidence in the face of blatant sexism thrown at her every day from everyone from Don to her inferiors in creative to Joan, and connecting with Don on a new level that seemed to raise her up to almost his equal in his eyes -– has brought in the company’s first new client since the loss of Lucky Strike, and this good fortune could be the beginning of the upswing the company so badly needs. Pete has become less loathsome this season, and there was some political bandying this season with Don, but it always seemed necessary, like maybe Don deserved it and Pete wasn’t just being a dick. Joan watched her husband go off to war, had a fast and furious knee-wobbler with Roger in an alleyway that resulted in a pregnancy, and then went off to an abortion clinic, where it was never really obvious if she went through with it or not. This week we discover that she didn’t, and that instead she’s contacted her louse of a husband where he’s stationed in Vietnam and told him the baby is his (and he responds with regret that he won’t see her enormous breasts get that much bigger...)

But the season – and particularly this episode – belonged to Don. I figured with a season as amazing as this one has been, we would no doubt encounter something shocking... but I was NOT ready for this. When Don decides to take Megan with him to watch his kids while he’s in California, she jumps at the chance, and turns out to be pretty excellent with them. She teaches them French, keeps Sally calm, and when Sally accidentally spills a drink, Sally and Don both noticeably brace themselves for the onslaught of grief and guilt that will spew forth from the woman at the table... and instead Megan just laughs it off and begins dousing it with napkins.

While Don’s in California, he visits Anna’s home one last time and sees the signature he made on her wall when he’d been there a few months earlier. It brings back the last vestiges of the real Don Draper and the memory that around her, he could just be himself. And shortly after, in this scene in the restaurant, he realizes for the first time that he doesn’t have to be on pins and needles around Megan, that she just lets him be who he wants to be, doesn’t expect anything more out of him, and just might be the soothing force that Sally needs. While Betty ships Sally off to a psychiatrist, Megan talks to Sally, reassures her, teaches her, and doesn’t berate her.

But even all of this doesn’t brace us for what happens next. When Don wakes up early one morning upon returning to New York and asks Megan to marry him, handing her Anna’s engagement ring from the real Don Draper, I laughed and said to my husband, “It’s a fantasy sequence... someone’s having a dream.” But as the scene went on, I was thinking it was an AWFULLY long scene to be happening in a dream... someone’s supposed to jolt awake right about now, but instead, Megan’s calling her mom in Montreal. If this is Don’s dream, how would he understand enough French to put that in his dream? If it’s Megan’s, how would she know about Anna’s engagement ring? It can’t really be either one’s dream, which means....

WTF, Don, did you just ask your secretary to marry you???!!!!!

Words cannot express my bafflement in this moment. But after 24 hours of thought, I realize it’s pretty much in keeping with his character this season. Of course he did this. What Don needs is stability, and Megan has it in spades. She passes his phone calls through to him, she rushes into his office to make things better when a mistake has been made, she’s excellent with his children, she shows him respect, she doesn’t ask questions and just accepts him for who he is... she’s perfect.

And not perfect. For while everything might be rosy now, once they’re married she won’t be so willing to just sit back and let Don take the reins all the time. She’s going to want some answers, and won’t be so open to him sleeping around. She’ll resent that he plops the children on her lap while he takes off to a bar or away on a business trip. But maybe Don’s genuinely going to change. Is it possible that after this long personal journey of discovery this season, that Don will find a way to merge Don with Dick, and refuse to make the same mistakes that he did with Betty? Despite watching the scene where he calls Faye – a woman whom Peggy mistakenly thought had proven you can make it in a man’s world, but who in fact has been used by a man just like every other woman on the show – and thinking Don’s a complete ass, you have to admit that Faye, for as put-together as she was, not only felt awkward and strange around Sally, but she looked like Betty. Megan doesn’t. She’s an artist, with her feet firmly planted on the ground but with dreams of her own, and she’s a more interesting character than we’d originally been led to believe.

Could Megan actually help change Don?

Season 4 of Mad Men was my favourite season yet. I cannot WAIT for season 5.

And what were your thoughts?


Chris in NF said...

I had the thought after today's episode that this could go two ways -- either we end up in season 5 with Don back to his old self, and Megan absolutely miserable ... or maybe it will be like McNulty in season 4 of The Wire? Do you think Don Draper is too central a character to do that? I think it would be interesting to have him be steady and innocuous for a season as he settles into connubial bliss, and really get into the secondary storylines -- Roger dealing with Joan's new child, Peggy taking on new responsibilities and possibly being responsible for a catastrophe, and Pete being kind of lost when his wife goes of to attend community college with a bunch of lovable misfits.

Er, that last storyline only happens in Chris' TV crossover universe.

And Lane ... can we have more Lane, please? He's the character who I think most surprised me this season. Well, that's not true. Don was the main one. But the Lane storylines were SO heartbreaking, and we never really knew what happened in the aftermath of that showdown with his father, other than he'd brought his family back. I loved the rapport that developed between him and Joan, and loved seeing the cracks in that British facade.

But yes. Kudos to a show that can reinvent the wheel midstream and make its fourth season blow all previous ones out of the water.

Rick Rische said...

OMG I'm still trying to catch my breath and regain my sanity after this colossal example of Matt Weiner's bottomless penchant for perversity.

No, this will not end well. She is a blank canvas that Don is projecting all sorts of fantasies of stability and happiness and hope for a better "Tomorrowland" onto. But Megan is not a canvas, she is a woman, and I don't care how well she does with his kids, this has disaster written all over it. Holy hell I still can't believe it.

1) Sally will run off with Glen and join the Manson Family
2) Joan's lie about the baby will be discovered when the baby is born with gray hair

and 3) The series will end with Don and Peggy together at last.

But what a sick, twisted road we will have to follow before that happens.....

Batcabbage said...

I'm with you, Nik, this season has been incredible, my favourite so far. The relationship between Don and Peggy has never been better, and it was evidenced brilliantly last night when Peggy and Cosgrove came into Don's office and found out about the engagement. The look on Peggy's face was excellent, and she was the only one who seemed to show some reservation about this rash decision. It was great TV, and I hate the fact that I have to wait until next year to see more!

Speaking of the rash decision, I think it's a good thing. While Megan may accept Don for who and what he is, I don't think she's the type to let him get away with any of his shit, either. She's strong, self-confident, and happy being who she is - it's not as though she's with Don to give herself some sort of validation. I think she's going to be a perfect match for Don, and will keep him in line. As well as gloriously happy (she's nice, and is as hot as the sun. Go Don! Boo, Psycho-Mum Betty!)

Oh, and a quick word on Betty - I hate her like I hate Illinois Nazis.

Great write up, Nik!

Batcabbage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lisa(until further notice) said...

I watch this show by myself, but talk about it with friends. How fantastic and shocking was that episode??? All I could do during that scene that I also thought must be a dream sequence was scream "What?" out loud about 6 times. It was surreal.

Betty is a royal bit**. I will miss Carla. Those poor kids. A new town and a new caretaker. I have been very pleasantly surprised and happy with January Jones' performance this season.

Sally's struggles are troubling, at best, and I have real fears for her future. I think Megan can really help her, and I think this is all part of Don's reasoning. Regardless of what a cad he has been, he has always loved those kids and worried about them much more so than his ex. I also think Henry has been good for the kids, but he can't override their horrible mother and all the damage she has done and will continue to do.

I just KNEW that Joan kept that baby. Haha to Roger. Can't wait till that sh** hits the fan.

I adore Peggy. The way she keeps listening in on conversations through the walls and speaking her mind (and the truth) when it is most needed. BRAVO. Remember how timid and unworldly she was during Season One? She's grown into a real, smart, woman.

Keep waiting for Sal to come back...

Anonymous said...

I 've liked Mad Men from the start but this season was an all-time great right up there with any Sopranos season.

Personally I would've preferred Faye to Megan but that's me.

I don't like that we missed Lane standing up to his father either. Probably my favorite episode was when he & Don had their Boys Night Out.

Can't wait for next year. Megan pregnant? Sally going to a Doors show? Can't. Wait.

-Tim Alan

humanebean said...

It is truly a testament to the depth and complexity of Mad Men that one can have very strong feelings while watching an episode and then have those feelings change significantly upon further reflection. At first, I was a bit disengaged from events in this episode, watching Betty explode at Carla, dreading Don's invitation to Megan and the inevitable impact on his relationship with Faye, and then sitting open-mouthed as Don proposed to Megan with the REAL Don Draper's engagement ring.


But the more I reflected on the reasons why these events unfolded as they did, consistent with what we know of these characters and their issues, the more fully I appreciated the outcome. It has been written elsewhere that this season has been largely about something the insightful Faye said in an early episode (and Don parroted later): the difference between what what one wants and what is expected from one by others.

We watched as Don struggled with his anxiety over his failing business, his attempts to understand and deal with his new role in his children's lives, the different relationships he was having with women following his divorce ... and most importantly of all, how he continued to wrestle with his crisis of identity, brought to a head by the death of the "one person who truly [knew him]", Anna.

In retrospect, it is easier to see how Dan would take Faye's advice and find a way to come to terms with his past self and integrate it with his present one to resolve his existential crisis. Typical of the Don we know, however, this spelled doom for a mature relationship with the complex, strong and independent Faye. In his mind, she might forever more associate him with the anxious, insecure and fragmented Dick/Don rather than the integrated man he longed to become.

This is no poor reflection on Megan to say that she represents a simpler, more easily assimilated solution to his dilemma. For all the reasons Nikki articulated so well, Megan appears to be the engaging, sexy and maternal figure that Don craves for himself AND his children. It is very consistent with his impulsive persona that he would move in the direction of the swiftest resolution for his cognitive dissonance. Poor Faye. She (as usual) is right on the money when she says "I hope she knows that you only like the beginnings of things!".

[to be cont'd]

humanebean said...

As this season unspooled, I thought how fantastic it would be if, after all our time spent with Don, Mad Men ultimately proved to be Peggy's story. To watch her continued development this season has been a delight. Seeing her come to terms with her creative potential alongside her personal growth has been particularly rewarding. And so, my initial feelings of disconnect and disappointment about Don's actions are perfectly mirrored in Peggy's own response during the episode.

She is incredulous that he appears to be repeating his own (and others' - thanks for that, Roger) mistakes. Her respect and admiration for Don, with all of his previously demonstrated flaws, is diminished by his choices - and it causes her to re-evalutate her feelings about his stated respect for her. She truly stands on her own two feet- and her short scene with Joan as they process the male-dominated world in which they live/work was a gem. I wished that I could pull up a chair with them!

How will Don deal with his commitment to the lovely, intelligent and nurturing Megan? Will her "I know who you are now" credo survive future revelations? How will Roger react when he inevitably realizes that Joan's baby-bump is his own? Will leaving behind the psychological trap of the old house in Ossining allow Betty to move forward in her marriage to Henry? Will Sally continue to strikingly mature before our very eyes? And perhaps most importantly, will Peggy increasingly represent the emergence of a New World Order while she stands in for our own reactions to the strange and twisted world of Don Draper and SCDP?

For the answer to these and other compelling mysteries, tune in again next season on ... Mad Men!!!

Ambivalentman said...

Season 4 of "Mad Men" is also my favorite of the series. The show seemed more focused this season as it centered on Don's existential crisis. I loved watching Jon Hamm portray the deconstruction and reconstruction of this mystery man.

Don's personal journey mirrored the journey of SCDP this season, too, as both had identity crises. SCDP became too well aware of their dependence on foreign oil (er, tobacco) and by season's end needed to reconsider their image. In much the same way, Don also realized that he had become too dependent on Don Draper, and needed more Dick Whitman in his life. Yet, as Anna passed away, he became even more confused about what being more of a Dick meant (although, with Don you can never be too sure about this...hehehe).

It was impossible to foresee Don asking Megan to marry him -- she was a mere flirtatious fling just a couple episodes ago -- but in the world of the impulsive Draper, it makes perfect sense. Just like with his full-page ad in the Times, he needed to change the conversation about himself, and chose marriage.

What does it mean? I have a hard time believing Weiner and company will go back to old school Don after this season for the simple reason that they don't seem like they "been-there-done-that" kind of writers.

What it seems to mean more than anything else is that this show is TV's Samsonite -- top of the line and uncrackable.

JS said...

This was a great episode and a great season. I too thought the proposal was a dream sequence, though the queasy feeling started as soon as he started looking for a sitter to join him in california.

It is always eaiser to look for the solution to the existential crises outside of yourself - change the conversation, marry a nuturing girl - than to look inward. Don/Dick started there, and couldn't continue. I thought it was interesting last episode when he ripped out all his previous journal entries, completely unnecessarily, in order to write his "its not me, its you" letter to big tobacco. The external solution always seems easier and feels better at first. I predict Meghan will either set him straight or leave him quickly when he inevitably realizes she cannot fix him or his life, and he is still stuck with himself.

Reminds me of another monosyllabically named leading hero.....

Anonymous said...

I love Mad Men and have been a devoted fan all four seasons. But I hated the finale. Why did the writers spend the entire season emphasizing Don's developing intimacy with Faye and Peggy, only to have him abruptly change course in the finale? I felt the finale was a cheap writers' trick to come up with a surprise.

Rick Rische said...

I want to love "Mad Men". I really really do. But every time I start to, it pushes me away, drunk-dials me, or vomits on the hall carpet. I'm a loyal viewer. I've never missed an airing since the pilot. And I want to believe it deserves every Emmy award those voters love to throw at it. But I just......can't quite do it.

And "Tomorrowland" is a perfect example of why.

Season 4 is my favorite season. The show was firing on all cylinders this year, with none of the "slumps" evident in previous seasons, especially the plodding 3rd season, which (except for a couple exceptional eps) I despised. The cast on the show is so good (with the possible exception of January Jones, who is either really good as Betty, or really terrible. I haven't fully decided, though I'm leaning towards the latter.) and the characters (for the most part) are very well-written. The show is at its best when things unfold in an organic way. It comes alive.

But then along comes an ep like "Tomorrowland", illustrating once again that this is not an organic world, but MW's "Barbie's Vanity Playset", where people change and act for no good reason but to move the plot in an unexpected (usually disappointing) direction. Weiner delights in frustrating the viewer. There is a distinct element of perversity in the proceedings, the way he dangles satisfaction in front of us, then cruelly pulls it away, just for spite. And when he does it like he did in "Tomorrowland", the whole construct feels artificial. It's like the games George and Martha play in "Virginia Wolff- it's fun....for a while....til somebody goes too far.

I want to love "Mad Men". I'll keep watching. But when it comes to Matthew Weiner, it's best to never let your guard down. Never forget it's HIS show, we're just allowed to watch.

RosieP said...

Betty may have been experiencing an emotional meltdown on the heels of her divorce from Don, but she had every right to fire Carla. She made it clear that she didn't want Glen in the house. And Carla allowed him in the house anyway. And she got her ass fired. What did you expect?

Why do people want Don and Peggy together? Are they expecting some kind of fairy tale ending where the two leads live "happily ever after"? Is society still illusional when it comes to romance?

They must be about parenthood.

But back to Megan. Don looks on, agog at the fact that while Betty would have simply said in her flat voice, “Go to your room” and given Sally a kick on the way up the stairs, here is his secretary sitting on the floor, hugging his daughter.

Many mid-20th century parents would usually tell their kids to "go to their room" or spank them. Now, I'm expected to believe that Megan is a wonderful mother, because she likes to moon over Sally? That's our idea of perfect motherhood? Indulging the children? Someone once complained that today's parents have a bad habit of indulging children and being reluctant to discipline them. Considering the complaints about Betty and this worship of Megan's brand of parenting, I think this person had a point.