As some of you know from reading my article 3 Tv Shows I Can’t Get Enough Of Watching, Mad Men is one of my favorite shows on television. The character driven storyline, beautiful production, and superb acting have garnered many deserved Emmy Awards and its complexities and subtleties are far beyond my limited, satirical writing capabilities. So, to do justice to the greatness that is this show, I am turning over the pen to a higher scholar, my brother, Jerome (or if you want to use his Christian name, Jeremiah….or Jeremy).
Written by: Jeremy Petersen
Before I launch into this piece, a brief note on its scope. There is a great deal that I could write about here from the season finale of Mad Men. Aside from the major event of the episode, Don’s engagement, Betty attempts to get a fresh start with her family in a new town, continuing a pattern of somewhat misguided–if not unwarranted–behavior that began with her divorce from Don; viewers get proof validating the theories of many that Joan never aborted her baby; the ad agency makes important strides towards recovery; and Peggy and Joan’s conversation regarding Don’s engagement reintroduce the concerns of women in the workplace. However, as Don is the central character and his engagement the dominant storyline in this episode, I will focus primarily on him and his engagement here.
This season of AMC’s Mad Men opened with the intriguing question “Who is Donald Draper?” Throughout the season, Don (Jon Hamm) has been at points vulnerable and introspective–particularly in the brilliant episode “The Suitcase”–and at others pitiable and discomfiting, such as his disastrous liaison with his previous secretary Allison and his bender after receiving the Clio award. Sunday’s episode, “Tomorrowland,” reintroduces the confident Don Draper, but not in a way that sweeps aside the complicating revelations regarding Don’s character.
The final episode of this season does not so much reveal new facets of Don’s character as review more explicitly what we have learned and look at what Don chooses to do with what he has learned. We see clearly his rededication to his children (though he never interacts with his youngest son, Gene); we see his impulsiveness–previously apparent in his full-page anti-tobacco manifesto and his departure from Sterling-Cooper at the end of last season–in his proposal to Megan (Jessica Paré), his latest secretary, after a brief heady trip to California; we see that Don is still uncomfortable with who he is. Earlier in the season, Don reflected on his nature, worked to blunt some of his (self-)destructive tendencies, and agonized over how to deal with his past life as Dick Whitman; in this episode Don’s choice to unceremoniously jettison the perceptive psychologist Dr. Faye Miller (Cara Buono) in favor of Megan exemplifies his choice of ease and immediate pleasure over authenticity and a clear conscience.
Certainly the most discussed aspect of this episode will be Don’s unanticipated and impetuous decision to marry his secretary. Admittedly, both I and my wife were shocked when he pulled out Anna’s engagement ring (I even floated the ridiculous theory that the scene was a Lost-esque flash-forward, and that it only set the scene for a Season Five that showed how Don got to that point); however, Don’s choice–if not necessarily his timing–makes sense in light of his current relationship with Dr. Miller and his previous marriage to Betty (January Jones). Dr. Miller is in essence too good for Don. She is smart, principled, and encouraging–she tries to help Don be a better man. Executive producer Matt Weiner left numerous clues that their relationship would not last. Aside from the fact that much of their relationship revolved around business, that Don slept with Megan during an uncertain point in his time with Dr.Miller, and that, like Betty, Faye is blonde (virtually all of Don’s long-term extramarital partners have dark hair), Dr. Miller plays the mother to Don’s wounded child, an imbalance exemplified in the opening scene of the episode when Dr. Miller makes sure that Don gets up for his flight. A man like Don who finds satisfaction in being in charge could never be in that position for long.
Viewers likely legitimately ask what Don sees in Megan aside from her youth and physical beauty. Most of the answers center around the way that she makes Don feel (at least according to him). While Dr. Miller encouraged Don to challenge himself, Megan is content with who Don is now, that he has, as she says, “a good heart and…[is] always trying to be better.” Similarly, Don does not have to challenge Megan as he did Betty. Megan, as she showed earlier in the season when handling Sally, is comfortable with Don’s children (unlike Faye or Betty). When Megan calmly responds to a milkshake spilled as a result of a sibling spat, Don at first appears befuddled, and then amused that she doesn’t explode as Betty certainly would. She gives him the opportunity to feel in charge, as the scene where Don proposes reverses the relationship dynamics of the opening scene. Despite the differences in age and position, the camera attempts to give the viewer a sense of relationship balance in the shot the morning following their first liaison in the California hotel, showing from a vertical view a pair of lovers facing each other in near-perfect symmetry.
That near-perfection is ultimately what is rather off-putting about Don’s choice to both viewers and more critical characters like Peggy and Joan. He has neatly avoided having to deal with his past for the sake of immediate comfort. This is certainly different,
than his other one-night stands and immature relationships earlier in the season that Don attempts to numb himself with, but Don’s statement that Megan makes him happy shows that he is not being particularly circumspect about his motives. In an earlier season, Don made a point of calling Roger Sterling “a fool” for a marriage to a secretary for purportedly similar reasons. The closing scene of the season makes clear that Don has still not found peace: His eyes are wide open while Megan sleeps, and the closing shot of the darkened window subtly reinforces the motif of entrapment and tension present for Don throughout the series.
Not surprisingly, Faye has the most perceptive comment regarding Don’s character in light of his engagement. As Don breaks up with her over the phone, Faye exclaims that she hopes Megan knows he “only like[s] the beginnings of things.” This comment provides a link between the ending of this season and the last, as Don’s push to break with Sterling-Cooper led to a heady euphoria similar to that caused by his engagement. While initially exhilarating, the new agency that came from that decision has thus far led to its share of unanticipated business and personal headaches that Don has struggled to deal with. His engagement–in some ways an answer to his problems at the agency–and future marriage will almost be more complicated than Don imagines at this point. Since Don, through his Gatsbian self-razing and reinvention, is representative of the American character, Don’s choice and Faye’s analysis of it have clear implications (the extent of which are another topic) that apply to the contemporary American mindset, both individually and collectively.
Like the end of last season, viewers are left with an optimistic uncertainty regarding the future of Don and his agency. Don is getting engaged, but those around him–and viewers as well, most likely–are ambivalent or even cynical about his motives and prospects. There is light at the end of the tunnel for the agency through the acquisition of the Topaz pantyhose account and encouraging interactions with the American Cancer Society, but the minimal immediate benefits from the work hardly fill the void left by Lucky Strike. As Mad Men proceeds into late 1965 and beyond, the subversive undercurrent commonly associated with the 1960s and the Vietnam War, both previously only hinted at, will likely take center stage for many of the characters. Whether the semblance of domestic comfort and stability that Don has grasped at through his engagement will enable him to weather the coming cultural and personal storms remains to be seen.