Page 1 of 2
(Cult)ure writers and editors Lauren Cheal, Emily Goodacre, Brendan Blom, and April Yorke sat down to make sense of the Season 4 finale of Mad Men. Read the email conversation that followed.
Lauren: I think I speak for all of us when I say, "WTF?" What is wrong with Don? Everything about the proposal and the time in "Tommorowland" was pure fantasy, and I feel bad for everyone who is going to be affected by this rash and stupid decision. Poor future Mrs. Draper, first of all. Girl doesn't know the half of what she is getting into. Has she met Betty? Maybe she did . . . when Sally ran away? In any case . . . have fun picking the kids up from psycho-mom's place, Megan! The number of "fun surprises" Megan is in for are far too numerous to name here. Next up we have poor Faye. She tried to play it cool with the Draper, but she got burned in the end by a younger and less-complicated model. She and Mona Sterling should get their drink on together (and we should get to see it). Faye took on all of Don's crap, and she still got the short end of the stick. Cara Buono acted the hell out of the break-up scene; I sure hope we haven't seen the last of her. Next up, poor Draper children. Of course, the lion's share of the psychological damage is coming from Mother Crazy, but this need of Don's to live in a fantasy world is not going to help Sally or Bobby in the long-term.
There is oh-so-much more to discuss here, from the awesome scene between Joan and Peggy, to the dismissal of Carla - Sally's only normal parent, to Joan's obvious pregnancy (I am excited for the baby to come out with a mane of silver hair), and the strange antics of Harry Crane and Ken Cosgrove -- but this is a good place to start.
I throw it to you, Emily, and ask the question on everyone's mind: Do you wear Topaz pantyhose?
Emily: I think the overall theme of the entire series has been how Don Draper sells products, and his number one product is himself. The most obvious example is his secret identity, but really his every move is calculated to present an image of what he wants to be, and Megan is an expression of that (he even says to her something along the lines of "you make me feel like who I want to be" when he proposes). Anyways, huge mistake. He was inching toward reality with Faye, even letting her in on his identity theft, but blows it all to marry Betty 2.0. I don't know what to make of him breaking his streak of having relationships with blondes and affairs with brunettes.
This season as a whole was pretty amazing. I was sorely disappointed that we didn't get to see the agency working out of a hotel room and building up the business, but I got over it with the amazing progression of Pete (whose testicles dropped between seasons) and Peggy (who finally seems to realize she deserves her job). The disappointment for me this season has been the reduction of Betty from a nuanced character with flaws to a shrill monster. It's lazy writing, and I wouldn't care at all about the suburban plotline if it weren't for the most improved character of the season: Sally. Kiernan Shipka has a bright future if she avoids the childstar crazy trap. Think Natalie Portman, not Lindsay Lohan.
No Topaz pantyhose over here, but I may use Platex gloves -- gotta protect my woman's touch. Over to you, Brendan: does your nightly skin care ritual involve Ponds?
Brendan: No, I just dab my cheeks with water, as my beautiful French mother taught me.
On a related note, I feel like it's my duty to play devil's advocate a bit and stick up for Megan and, by extension, Don. A lot of people, both in this discussion and others (including, deliciously, Peggy and Joan in the actual show), are bashing Don for impulsively proposing to Megan and thus falling into the oldest chauvinist pig cliché in the book: boffing and then marrying the hot secretary. But Megan is no ordinary hot secretary. (And I don't think she's a second Betty, either. Au contraire -- her attitude towards the children, for one thing, is the complete opposite of Betty's.) She's kind and caring but also clever and ambitious; she's exotically European but has an endearing vulnerability about her. (Hmm, this may be my own little Megan-crush coming out here; I do have a soft spot for leggy French women -- see my upcoming eight-part series on the many charms of Emmanuelle Béart). I think she's much more intelligent and self-aware than Betty or Jane Siegel.
All that said, I'm sure the MM writers will reveal some sort of upheaval between Megan and Don that will cause no shortage of dramatic shitstorms in Season 5 -- because how boring would a contentedly-remarried Don Draper be? --, but I just want to argue that Don's proposal, while out of left field, is not totally unhinged. He's catching a lot of flak for his seeming regression in this episode: ditching his "real" relationship with the mature, understanding Faye (whom I do feel terrible for - and I think you can see by her reaction to his phone call that she's experienced this sort of thing before, though maybe not quite so badly), falling into his usual California-induced reveries, and once again being less than totally forthcoming about the skeletons in his closet.
But I think there were signs of progress in his behaviour in this episode: he brought his children into the home of Anna, the "only person who ever really understood him," and told them that he is also sometimes known as "Dick" (though admittedly he didn't go into full details on the spot); and his bringing Megan out to California as well further bridges the gap between his separate West and East Coast personalities. It's true that these are mostly symbolic gestures for now, and there are still a lot of illusions and delusions in his life -- but I think it does show a gradual opening up on Don's part and not necessarily a retreat into total fantasy.
I've got a lot more to say, both on this and on some of the other topics raised by Lauren and Emily -- Carla, Betty and Henry, Glen and Sally, and all the rest of the SCDP gang -- but I wanted to get this out of the way first. And now on to you, April! Who do you think will be happier: Don and Megan, Ken and Peggy with their new account -- or Dr. Rape, Joan, and their wisecracking baby offering "something brown"?
April: Ken and Peggy and Topaz, by a mile. But what was pitch 4 that got Topaz so excited?
Anyway, big guns first: Don and Megan and Faye and the proposal we all knew would happen when Anna left Dick that ring. I lost my mind over last season's finale and then spent this season (glorious though it was) wondering when we would recapture that rush of adrenaline from first hearing Joan answer the phone, "Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce." For me, it hit in "Hands and Knees" when Don followed up "they got us confused" with "because I wanted them to." It was Huck Finn ripping up that letter all over again. It made me think that Don was finally, finally ready for an adult relationship in a way that he hadn't been since . . . Rachel? Of course, that was a fantasy, too (remember when he wanted to run away because Pete found out his secret?).
You guys are right about Don: Don lives in a fantasy, created and upheld by his own advertising. But like Brendan, I'm sympathetic to California Don, who I think is somehow Real Don and Idealized Don simultaneously. Now that I've had some time to sit with the proposal, I see how it's the most reasonable, obvious, practical choice for Don. Remember when Sally ran away from home and then just went running down that hallway and fell spectacularly? Megan picked her up. That's it. That's all you need, really. Of course, Don's making a colossal mistake translating that action to "as long as you both shall live," and Megan is, too, with her "I know everything about you"s and her "I like who you are now"s. But I feel like they could also be right. As dumb as it is, and as WTF as Peggy's face was, maybe living in a fantasy isn't so bad if you've got someone there with you.
Isn't that what Betty's learning? She's certainly devolved into a monster, though I don't know if I am entirely willing to point the finger at the writers (I never liked Betty, unfortunately). She claims she's "entitled" (ew, how fucked up is that word) to a fresh start, and Henry Francis, most useless character on television, looks her right in the face and tells her that there are no fresh starts: "lives carry over." Wow. It sends her running to the only person she's ever known that made a fresh start for himself because he wanted it badly enough, and now he's got yet another fresh start in Megan. Don is Betty, and now he's out-Betty-ed her. That's amazing. In that moment, I did feel a little sorry for Betty.
We all realized that Faye was done for when she told Don to own up to his desertion, identity theft, and fraud, right? What did she expect him to do, take out another full page ad in the Times?
Lauren, what will become of the Draper-Francis household now that Ossining and Carla are out? Will they be jettisoned, too, now that Don's found someone new to play house with? Emily, will they lose Kiernan Shipka in the next season's future jump?
Lauren: I still don't think we will lose Betty next season. I think we may lose Henry Francis -- either through a drinking-related death or his decision to bolt in the night (much to April's delight) --, but I think that the interesting storylines that Sally has been getting into will keep Betty in the fold. And I am really hoping that Don and Megan hire Carla on (if only to spite Betty). If we thought Sally's reaction to Don's leaving was bad, think about what will happen when the woman who raised her goes!
As to the issue of Fantasyland Don, I do believe that he has picked a woman who can raise his children (on weekends) for him, and that is a practical choice. But let's remember that what happens in California is not based in the reality of Don's life, it is based on the projection of what he wishes his life could be. His reality is that he is a brilliant ad man on a sinking ship of a business with kids he isn't capable of raising, an ex-wife who is rapidly losing her shit (I agree with April that Betty has always been unlikable, but her shift towards monster is a bit over-the-top), and a stream of women that he beds and then treats badly. He is trying so hard to leave all that behind, and, while he seemed to be making slow progress this season (cutting down on the drinking, working out, dating someone who matched his professional success), I see the engagement as a giant step back into unreality. If the earlier part of the season was a weight loss approach based on diet and exercise (slow, steady and permanent), this engagement is one giant Lap Band surgery of disaster.
I find it particularly grating because Don has Roger's example sitting across the conference table from him and because Don spent much of Season 3 in a snit at Roger for committing this very offense. No one would claim Roger is happy (and some of our roundtablers have claimed that he is headed for the old businessman's belt/noose), and I can't believe Don really thinks that this is the key to his happiness.
I am in agreement with Emily about this season being particularly great (I even wrote an article saying so), and so much of that greatness comes from the ladies. I loved the scene between Joan and Peggy because it was clear that they were no longer at odds with each other. They are war buddies, who may have disliked each other when they met at training camp, but have been through enough together now that they recognize how important their alliance is. When Peggy called bullshit on Joan's assertion that she doesn't rely on the job for all of her satisfaction in life (which Christina Hendricks delivered with every ounce of mother-hen Joan of old that she could muster), it was a great moment between the two characters. Their giggling reaction gave the scene an effortlessness that was fun to watch.
As to some of the lesser SCDPers, it was odd to see Ken come off looking so amateur and to have Pete looking like the man. I guess it is true what Emily says, and Pete grew a set between seasons. Between his awkward exchanges with Peggy and refusing to use his family contacts to save the business, Ken was really coming off as a doofus. And what is wrong with Harry Crane? Did Jennifer actually leave him (I don't remember)? [Ed. note: Not that we've seen] His desperation in chasing the model/lesbian was pretty funny but also a bit odd. We haven't seen him chase women like that in the past, have we? Also, he finally lost some of the "Head of Media" weight that he gained over the season break. Maybe he gained some mojo in its place?
And back to you, Emily. What are the chances the engagees make it to their wedding day? If they do make it, will you be having the Sugarberry Ham or the entree from Caldecott Farms?
Emily: That wedding would serve the height of mid-60s sophisticated food: cheese cubes on toothpicks and mayonaise-based salads.
Brendan, I'm not a Megan-hater. She seems like a perfectly nice person (I'll bet Betty did, too, at first). You must see, though, that this is clearly not love but some sort of breakdown. If he had gradually gotten to know/date Megan and gotten engaged, fine. But a one-night stand and weekend fling straight into proposal? I don't think so.
But let's move on to a few parts of the season that I loved. The episode where Peggy and Don spent the night together was the high point of the season for me, but I spent the entire time terrified that they would hook up. "Don't do it, Matthew Weiner!" I pleaded, and luckily he listened and handled it perfectly. I love their mentor/friend relationship and that can often come with a few confused feelings, which I think were implicitly acknowledged and then dismissed in that episode. They both would rather have the great relationship that they do have than the horrible romances they each tend to have. I think Peggy's on the road to becoming Don (complete with big dark secret past), and I'm not sure if that excites her or scares her. Probably both.
My other favourite episode was the one where Don went to California to see Anna (for the last time as it turned out). The episode could have ended there, but instead took a turn for the wacky, showing Pryce letting loose and gifting me with gales of laughter. Whenever those two are on screen together I sing a little song about how they are "beesssst frieennnds!" (it's also the song I sing when Lafayette and Eric are in a True Blood scene together). Pryce made me so sad this season with the lifetime of abuse by his scary mofo of a father, but he's become one of my favourite characters on the show. I'll be interested to see what happens to him next season.
And I must mention, since so much of this show is focused on aesthetics, the fashion moment of the season. Nay, the series. NAY! The history of television itself: Trudy's maternity negligee. There are just no words, this thing is astonishing. She's really taken the guideline of 'volume on top, less on the bottom' to its logical extreme here and is one soft breeze away from the world being her gynaecologist. I half expected the baby to pop out and say hello. What can Joan possibly wear next season to compete in maternity chic-ness? Can't wait to find out.
Now I pass the bottle of scotch to you Brendan: is Bert really gone forever? Who will court Honda when they come a' knockin'?
Brendan: I need to sit on the Don & Megan engagement a while longer. I do concede your points, Lauren and Emily, that there are many, many red flags about this move, for both of them, and it will almost certainly lead to disaster and heartbreak at some point. And I was certainly shocked at the speed with which Don pulled out that ring. (Were I more in tune with my Pete Campbell side, I might have exclaimed, "Christ on a cracker!")
I suppose I do see Don's California persona, though, more as April does: it is where he is his best, truest, and happiest self (am I being overly sentimental here? or maybe just deluded), and the more of his life he brings within that Anna/California sphere, the better it will be for him, his children, and whoever else he is with -- regardless of whatever drama may come up out of his career and his dwindling relationship with Crazy Betty.
Moving on, now, though -- I don't think we've seen the last of Mrs. Francis, but I do think that the scene near the end, where she and Don walk out of the Ossining kitchen in different directions, leaving just the liquor bottle on the counter, suggests that they are (literally) going their separate ways. With Betty leaving the old Draper home, they now have only the kids to tie their lives together. And I see them departing on different trajectories from here on: Don's, for all its ups and downs, is gradually -- agonizingly slowly, at times -- trending upwards -- while I have bad feelings about where Betty may end up. If not even Dr. Edna and Ol' Reliable Hank Francis can get her to start controlling her temper and her stampeding sense of "entitlement," then I don't know what will.
And, much as I find his face the eeriest thing I have seen on-screen since Norman Bates's room full of stuffed birds in Psycho, I do hope we'll still be able to see Glen from time to time. Maybe he can steal himself a car and drop in on the Francis's new place in Rye?
As for the other main character we may have seen the last of, Bert Cooper, I'm afraid he may have permanently headed off to his ranch in Montana. I hope I'm wrong, though, and that he does pop up occasionally. Perhaps Don can go AWOL from work and take in some of his gnomic proclamations while giving him a hand in his orchid greenhouse, in another one of those delightful male bonding sessions we're sometimes privy to? (Do they even have orchids in Montana?! I don't know.)
And finally, to get in on the "favourite moments of the season" action: Lauren, I'm with you 100% that this season has been richly entertaining, and thought-provoking, all the way through; and Emily, the two episodes you cite are also high up on my list. Lane's steak-as-Texas-belt-buckle gag was as hilarious as it was unexpected; and Duck's late-night visit to SCDP in "The Suitcase," culminating in his fight with Don, was comedy gold if you don't think too much about how tragic and pathetic it was at the same time.
And Honda -- I don't know how the account will pan out, but that image of Peggy going around and around and around on that red motorcycle will stay with me for a long time.
The next round's on you, Yorke. Any more laurels or wooden spoons to hand out? Tears or fears about any of the characters left hanging? Any forgotten plot-lines or themes to bring back in from the cold?
April: If I learned anything from "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword," it's that Honda will assuredly come knocking. It would be dishonourable to do otherwise.
Lauren, I'm surprised that you categorize SCDP as a "sinking ship." Do you really think the company is going under? As much as I will miss Robert Morse's completely ballin' performance ("After all, when it comes down to it, who's really signing this contract anyway?" "She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She was an astronaut."), I think they are headed in the right direction with Bertram Cooper leaving. If we learned one thing this season, it's that Don (creative), Pete (accounts), and Lane (money) are the only partners who bring anything to the table. I wouldn't want to see Roger at the end of a noose or put out to pasture (he should die as Ms. Blankenship did, and he's already tried once), but he needs to get on board with where the company can go instead of dragging it back into Sterling Cooper stagnation. As for Ken being a doofus, that's nothing new. Once I learned to tell Paul, Ken, and Harry apart, Ken stood out to me as being the most ill-suited among them for their line of business. He's too sensitive, too emotional, too principled. It's sort of a wonder that he's good at his job. Harry lucked into television's popularity, and there's a reason why they left Paul behind.
As for this amazing, stellar, yes, best ever season, let me just talk to you for a moment about my main man, Pete Campbell. No more shotguns, no more punching co-workers in the face, no more coercing au pairs into sex. Pete's balls have dropped all right, and it's turning him into, in the words of his father-in-law, "a son of a bitch." (Pete's shrug to that was exquisite). In my words, though, he's become something his ambition and pride had never let him be before: a team player. When Sugarberry wasn't happy, he helped concoct the ham fight scheme. When he had to cut Clearasil for Ponds, he brought in Vicks. When he had to cut North American Aviation for Don's sake, he took his lumps from the rest of the partners. Sure, it was Ken and Peggy that broke the 10-week streak, but I have no doubt Pete would have brought in another account eventually. That's what Pete does, and he does it right (even if it involves a "foursome"). I was worried that the column in the middle of his office, the one he puts up with just to be next to Don, was going to be a metaphor for Pete's loss of vision this season. Now I see it differently: Pete Campbell is capable of making sacrifices. It's a symbol of Pete's character growth.
As for the other half of the Couple That Can Never Be, Peggy is also something of a miracle this season. I was never worried that she and Don might hook up in "The Suitcase" because they respect each other too much. Respect -- for herself, her work, her position at the firm -- is what Peggy learned this season, and it's helped her blossom. Her smile when she successfully pitched Playtex even though there was lipstick on her teeth said it all. Peggy's set to eclipse Don, who's still peddling nostalgia perhaps out of his own sense of nostalgia for his one perfect pitch. Peggy, on the other hand, can pitch ideas, even help land accounts, without Don's knowledge or approval. She's married to the job, yes, but she can still find time for a right rogering with lefty Abe. Even her wardrobe's improved (though nothing compares to Trudy's pregnancy tutu)!
Lauren, tell the truth: how does Harry pitch Secor Laxatives in prime time?