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Tomorrowland: Facing the Future on the Season Finale of Mad Men

"I have a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach." - Don Draper

The fourth season of Mad Men gave us a Don Draper who was at odds with the confident opportunist we had come to know over three seasons. Divorced and living alone in a dark West Village apartment, he drank too much, wrote in a journal, and walked through life amid a cloud of intense loneliness. His mistakes and indiscretions became the plot twists of the fourth season, and as his family grappled with the fallout of his divorce, he sought to find his compass once more.

In the fourth season finale of Mad Men ("Tomorrowland"), written by Matthew Weiner and Jonathan Igla and directed by Matthew Weiner, Don Draper seemed to have found what he was searching for, attempting to face the future unencumbered by his emotional baggage. His choice of wife reflects his state of mind at the moment: he doesn't want to dwell on the past, on the choices he made, but rather regain the optimism and hope of his youth.

Weiner, whom I spoke to over the weekend, wasn't lying when he said that the season finale would "confound people's expectations."

The wrenching season finale did counter our expectations, giving us a potential ray of hope for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (or is it just Sterling Draper Pryce now?) and as for Don Draper himself, rather than repeating the pattern established in the third season ender. This wasn't a finale in which characters killed themselves (though some members of the media seemed to relish that remote possibility) or bulldozed the agency. Rather, it was about choosing the rational and scientific above the magical and transcendent, much like Bobby wants the fighter jet of Tomorrowland over a flying elephant at Disneyland.

Was that sinking feeling in Don's gut a signal of dread? Or of a sweeping change to his life? While he confides in Faye about the aura of anxiety that's gripping him, Don was about to fly off with the kids to California, a place of dreams and possibilities where throughout the series Don has proven to be at his most vulnerable and comfortable, able to cast off the trappings of Don Draper to be himself.

This trip is no different. Don and the kids--and secretary Megan (Jessica Paré), hired as an au pair for the week--head off to the Magic Kingdom, but the trip is really a journey of a different kind, the magic kingdom a pathway to the emotional past at the heart of Don Draper, a man who desperately wants to believe in the spell he's cast for consumers. He wants the whole American Dream: the house in the suburbs, the beautiful and young wife, the perfect kids.

Which leaves him at odds with Faye (Cara Buono), the headstrong and opinionated girlfriend who is more than a match for Don. She knows his secrets--including the darkest of the lot--and she still loves him. She compromises her moral code to ensure his survival because she believes in what they're building. They could have a future together, but it's not the one that Don wants, not the one that he has bought into.

Which is why Megan offers such a tantalizing alternative. From the way she's utterly nonplussed when Sally (Kiernan Shipka) spills her milkshake at the diner to the way she, Maria von Trapp-style, teaches the children a French lullaby, she's woven a spell around Don, offering him what he's lost: the pure happiness of youth. In choosing Megan over Faye, Don follows in the footsteps of Roger and Jane, building his future on echoes of happiness from his past self, looking to reclaim what's been lost by grabbing hold of something young and shiny, someone who makes him feel young again.

It was only fitting that, back in "The Beautiful Girls," Sally is consoled by Megan rather than Faye when she stumbles in the hallway at the agency. Megan's sweetness, her innocence, and her maternal qualities were on display from that moment forward. Witness too the look Don gave her as she stood at her desk, preparing to leave for the night. Unlike his relationship with Faye, it seemed uncomplicated and simple. And when they slept together in his office, Megan claimed that wasn't looking for a promotion or a relationship: she just wanted him.

Over at The Daily Beast, I commented that Anna's engagement ring was the marital equivalent of Chekhov's gun: it had to go off before the end of the episode. In a way, it's fitting that Don should choose to give Megan this particular ring, its weight heavy in his pocket. Just as he had stolen Don Draper's identity so many years earlier, Anna makes his transformation complete, obliterating Dick Whitman not only with her death but with this final boon. But while Don came clean to Faye about his past and his mistakes, Don starts out his new life with Megan with a lie, saying that the ring has been in his family for a long time. Yes, he corrects himself by saying that it belonged to someone he cared for deeply, but the damage is potentially done.

Which is interesting that it comes on the heels of Don admitting something to his children about himself. Upon seeing the "Dick and Anna '64" painting on the wall of Anna's old house, Sally questions just who Dick was, leading Don to admit that it's somewhat of a nickname. It's the closest the children will likely get to the truth about their father. And likely one of the last times that Don will reflect back on just who Dick Whitman was.

The truth about his identity has poisoned the well of two relationships already. Betty left him after she learned about his past actions and Don couldn't quite look at Faye the same way after he told her the truth. With Megan, he's making a concerted effort to not deal with the truth about his past. Their whole relationship, in fact, is based on future happiness, the unknowable potential of Tomorrowland.

Yet, despite his rapid courtship of Megan and the accepted proposal, Don is still restless. The final shot of the episode depicts the two of them in his Greenwich Village apartment as Megan sleeps soundly. But the same can't be said for Don. His eyes are open, his mind still working, the cogs turning brightly. He turns his head to look out the darkened window to... What exactly? The future? The unknowable? Is he comforted by the causality of events that led him to Megan? Or is he questioning once more whether or not she'll be the one to give him the happiness he seeks? Is he, as Faye suggests, only in love with "the beginnings of things"?

Can we ever truly escape our pasts? Can we fight against the tides of change?

Betty seems, at least on the surface, content to change everything in her life. Her callous and indifferent treatment of poor Carla point to a woman who is attempting, futilely, to exert some level of control over the chaos of life. Unable to control Sally seeing Glen, she takes out her frustration on Carla, firing her housekeeper after ten years and denying her the right to even say goodbye to the children. It comes at a time when Betty has finally acquiesced and is uprooting the children, moving them from the house they shared with Don in Ossining to a new house in Rye.

Glen's parting words to Betty hit home in the most shattering way: "Just because you're sad doesn't mean everyone has to be," he screams at her as he slams the door. Henry's parting words to her echo this: "No one is ever on your side."

But Betty is sad. Don's bed might be filled with the potential of happiness, Megan's body curled up against him, but Betty lays down in an empty house on a bare bed, tucking her knees beneath her. A sad little girl in an empty dollhouse, the furniture absent. A girl attempting to fight against change, to hold on to something permanent, only to discover that she is the engineer of her own fate.

Which is why that final scene between Don and Betty in the old house is so provocative and fraught with tension. As she reapplies her powder, Betty waits specifically for Don. After her fight with Henry, she won't admit that she's made a mistake but her actions seem to scream this with every affected look and manipulation. Her excuses--forgotten objects from the bathroom cupboard, being unaware that Don had an appointment to show the house--are flimsy at best. Betty wanted to catch Don, to force nostalgia upon him, to remind him of what they once had, what she had perhaps thrown away. A final box of memories, a long-hidden bottle, the odds and ends of their former married life.

But she's surprised that Don has moved on, not with Bethany Van Nuys as she immediately suspects but his secretary, the one who looked after the children in California. He's traded up in a sense, traded the iciness of Betty for the warmth and compassion of Megan. Traded a trophy wife for a genuine mother to his children. Carla's parting words to Betty--"someone had to look after these children"--are a bitter pill to swallow. Whatever hold she may have had over Don is long vanquished, the spell ended with the final exchange of the key.

They've both moved on and whatever that house may have represented, it's gone. Critics and viewers heap a lot of hatred upon Betty Francis, but to me, she's the most tragic character on the series, a woman trapped by her own Victorian ideals, unable to move forward in time, to let go of her icy veneer of perfection. Her self-infantilization is fully realized in that scene with Don in the kitchen. She appeals to him as a child might a parent, pushing him, manipulating him with the hopes that he'll forgive her without actually apologizing. But their time is long past. Her near-tears the only visible sign that she really did care for Don and might now regret how things played out with their marriage.

But Don also sees Betty in a different light as well. "Things aren't perfect" is the closest that Betty will come to admitting that perhaps she lacks the facility for happiness. A new house isn't a joy but a thing to be fixed, a kitchen to be ripped out, a never-ending tide of improvements and criticisms. Rather than address the comment for what it is, Don simply says that she can always move again. Change your house, change your life.

But the fact is that, no matter where she lives, Betty might as well be curled up on that bare bed.

While Don's efforts to save the company may have resulted in some long-term goals for the agency, a new campaign with the American Cancer Society, but it's actually Peggy Olsen who is contributing to the short-term survival of SCDP, landing the agency their first account since Lucky Strike pulled out.

Interestingly, it's through Peggy's friend Joyce that the opportunity arises, an inadvertent comment about Topaz firing everyone that turns the wheels inside Peggy's head. Together with Ken Cosgrove, they land the account, ending the agency's losing streak. It should be a cause for celebration, but instead the news is buried among bigger stories: namely, Don and Megan's engagement announcement, news that knocks Peggy for a loop.

(Aside: I also found it interesting that Ken would choose to be utterly unlike Pete Campbell: to refuse to leverage his family--his real life, his future--in order to bring in new business. I never thought of Ken as a moral guy but his effort to keep the two spheres of his life separate point towards a more grounded view of marriage and family.)

I was glad to see Peggy close the door of Don's office and attempt to have a genuine tete-a-tete with him about this sudden turn of events, to force the issue between them and remind him that she has his best interests at heart. Interestingly, Don says that Megan reminds him of Peggy, that she has "the same spark" and that she admires Peggy as much as he does. Hmmm...

It's a twist that sends Peggy not to her own office but to Joan Harris' interestingly enough. While these two have never been friends, we're given a rare glimpse into a moment of camaraderie between these two working women. As Joan shares her own news--she's been made director of agency operations and no champagne was opened for her--the two women share a laugh as Joan implies that she has learned to not get her satisfaction from work. It's a remarkable moment that's taken four years to get to, the two women finally united against a common enemy, their fates at odds with the pretty young things like Jane and Megan who happen to marry their way into success.

As for Joan, she's concealing a rather large secret of her own: she didn't go through with her abortion in the end and has lied to Greg about the paternity of their unborn baby. As she speaks with him in Vietnam, she references Roger even as Greg asks her when she is going to tell the agency about her pregnancy. Something tells me that Roger might have something to say about this news when it comes out.

But with Greg's life in danger in a far away field, the future is uncertain for everyone, from Joan and Peggy to Don and Megan. It's only the young whose sleep at night is deep and free from reflection. But for the others, for the adults who have lived and drank and loved and lost, their eyes are open in the dark.

While as yet not renewed, Season Five of Mad Men is expected to air next summer on AMC.


Bella Spruce said…
Another brilliant season finale. While the proposal to Megan came as a shock, it does make sense. Don had the chance for a genuine, mature relationship with Faye but it was too complicated. Unlike Anna's niece, Don was not excited to see where life took him. He wanted control of his life. He wanted an easy solution. While it was nice seeing a more relaxed Don in California, enjoying the company of his children, I don't think that marrying Megan will make him happy in the long run and am interested to see how long things go before the cracks start to form in this "perfect" relationship.
KateML said…
I wrote a nice, long comment and the computer ate it. Bah.

What I said, though, was that I am genuinely surprised that no one has really brought up how careful and calculating Megan was this season. I don't mean it in an insulting way, more that she was probably raised and trained well in the ways of catching a man, and she's pretty darn good at it. From the carefully studied seduction several episodes ago, to the planned pause during Don's nanny crisis (when she didn't offer to go with him, but instead created the space in the conversation for HIM to ask HER), to seeing Don nervously search for a reason to enter her room, and after their tryst, initiate the conversation himself about where they stand, she proved herself a master of the long game. I thought it was such an interesting and surprising payoff for the times we have seen Don to almost the exact same thing with a client, especially with Honda when he followed their social customs and rules, winning over the brasher, younger, more impulsive Ted Cheough.

I also thought a nice twist was the fact that Betty's impulsive firing of Carla actually caused the engagement. Betty causes problems, Megan fixes them. Nice contrast.

I will say that I like Megan for Don, and I'll be interested to see where this relationship goes. I believe that she's proven herself to be his equal, although in a very different way from Dr. Faye.

I loved this season's exploration of women in the workplace, and who "wins" and "loses" during that time period. I suppose it's up for debate what the prize is, though....
Ad man said…
Pete Campbell did not want to use his family connections not because he separated family from work but because he wanted to preserve the ability to get this business at a new firm in case Sterling Cooper went under.
Mad Typist said…
I too loved that Joan and Peggy finally (FINALLY!) connected after all these years and perhaps can move forward as peers at work.

Another note about Ken Cosgrove: from what I recall of season 1, he was one of the only male staffers who seemed to genuinely respect Peggy's abilities from the beginning. That he is partnering with her now is only appropriate - both Ken and Peggy represent the future, while the old boys club (including old fashioned Pete) are the past.
Annie said…
Great analysis as always. I'm going to miss reading your thoughts on MAD MEN almost as much as I'm going to miss the show.

Not sure why some viewers are complaining about the proposal. Made sense to me given who Don is in 1965. My favorite bit was the Joan and Peggy scene at the end. Nice to see them as allies instead of enemies.

What do people think of Joan's prediction that Don will make Megan a copy writer???
Anonymous said…
It was so very fitting that Don gave Megan that paticular ring. After all, it actually HAD been in the Draper just doesn't happen to be true that it was Don's real family. And clearly the symbolic link to Anna suggests that Don feels a silent approbation of his actions by his friend. Anna would want him to grab at happiness.
In that final scene, with Megan sleeping innocently by him, the expression on his face was definitely evocative. It made me think of the last moments of the film, The Graduate, when Benjamin and Elaine had safely escaped the church and were fleeing off into their vey own sunset by bus. Their elation faded to confusion and concern---what was their future? Where would their impulsive actions lead? My impression was tht Don may as well have been on that same bus.
Anonymous said…
I never feel complete w an episode until I read your essays. Thanks 4 another great season of analysis.

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