Welcome to the Convo, where ACG Blog contributors get together for discussion and analysis. Today’s topic is last night’s episode of “Mad Men,” “Tomorrowland.”
After the blockbuster series finales “Mad Men” has enjoyed in the past (think Don’s secret revealed, think the company is sold, think they’re breaking away to start their own firm), last night’s finale was surprising in its dearth of surprises. Little happened that was truly shocking, and generally the plot was unsatisfying and underwhelming. This didn’t feel so much like a finale as a mid-season break, and perhaps Matthew Weiner’s storyboard sketches were too much for a single season this time. Nevertheless, there’s a lot to talk about, so let’s dig in.
The episode opened in the ghost town of an office, typewriters covered, desks unoccupied, Joan reduced to pushing the mail cart. But it’s okay, Joanie; Lane informs her that the partners have given her a sweet title — but no raise. Joan, like a pro, professes only gratitude, for the time being. After all, what more duties could they assign her? “Well, it’s almost an honor,” she says sardonically. And Joanie’s not the only one reduced to clerical duties; we’re treated to Roger typing at his secretary’s desk, maybe because his own spindly, Alice in Wonderland-style desk can’t support anything heavier than his phone, rolodex and emotional baggage.
At the Francis residence, Carla is on duty when creepy Glenn shows up. “I just want to say goodbye,” he pleads. She relents, and their farewells are chaste and almost lamentable. He even asks if she’s decent before he enters her room! He’ll be able to drive in a few years, he says, maybe he can come visit. It’s sweet because you know it won’t happen; it’s creepy because it just might. I loved Glenn’s line, “I say goodbye to people all the time.” But Betty arrives home just as Glenn’s on his way out. “Why do you hate me?” he screams. Betty’s pissed, and she does perhaps the dumbest thing yet: cans Carla. It’s sad to see the most sensible person ever portrayed on “Mad Men” leaving, but at least she was able to vent off the tiniest amount of steam at Mrs. Francis. You go, Carla!
Meanwhile, Don is planning a business trip-slash-vacation with the kids to — where else — California. He’s with his accountant when Betty calls, urgently, but, Don confides, “It’s always urgent.” It turns out it’s no trivial call — Carla was supposed to accompany him out west to look after the children when he has meetings and such. Don turns to Megan (eliciting an immediate groan from those watching) and she becomes his replacement au pair.
Henry Francis, meanwhile, is fed up with Betty’s childish crap. He’s furious that she let Carla go and won’t give her a letter of recommendation after all her years of faithful service. And he doesn’t even know half the crap Carla probably was privy to. Betty throws a fit and asks why Henry is never on her side. “No one’s ever on your side, Betty,” he says, resignedly.
Back in the office, Peggy’s lesbian friend Joyce Ramsay stops by with some out-of-work model (and a horny Harry Crane) in tow. It seems clear that she was subtly giving Peggy a business tip; whether it was altruistic or if she has some endgame in mind is undetermined. It turns out Topaz pantyhose has summarily fired its agency (putting the model out of work). Peggy and Ken jump on it and secure a meeting. At the Topaz offices, Peggy impresses them by spooling off some impromptu ideas (with one stumble from Ken that reminds him why he’s accounts, not creative). As we later find out, she pitched at least four ideas they liked on the spot — all without Don’s input or knowledge.
Out in the Golden State, Don is discovering a odd blissful domesticity with Megan. She’s great with the kids, teaching them songs that are, like her, of French extraction. They sleep together (in a separate hotel room, thank goodness), but it isn’t until Sally and Bobby are fighting during lunch that he comes to a realization. Sally knocks over a milkshake during her protestations, something that would have sent Betty over the edge. Megan, however, calmly intones that it’s just a milkshake and proceeds to clean it up. I have to hand it to her; she’s smart, stable, competent, everything Don needs. He proposes to her the next morning, and she accepts. It’s worth noting that he used the ring the real Don Draper had given Anna. Is it an acknowledgement that he’s found a truly fulfilling relationship? Or is he tarnishing both their memories with a hasty and poorly-thought out marriage?
Their announcement back at the office is humorous. Roger didn’t even know Megan’s last name (though to be fair I don’t think any of us did), and Pete corrected someone that you say “Congratulations” to the groom and “Best wishes” to the bride. It’s strangely fitting that the last time I heard that was from uptight matron Emily Gilmore on “Gilmore Girls.” It’s at that moment that Ken tells Peggy they landed Topaz, a quarter-million dollar account and their first new business since Lucky Strike left. It’s huge news for the two second-in-commands, but when they burst in to tell Don their news is preempted by the engagement. Peggy once again proves her mettle and her unique relationship with Don when she shuts the door and subtly questions him. Of course, that doesn’t mean she’s not pissed.
“Whatever can be on your mind?” Joan asks sarcastically as Peggy stalks into her office. They both light up. “I learned a long time ago not to get all my satisfaction from this job,” Joan tells her. “That’s bullshit!” Peggy corrects. From past experience and her current mood we know full well that Joan has always derived a great deal of pleasure from her job, and she knows full well that her new title is an empty reward. As we soon learn, however, Joanie really shouldn’t be smoking. I’m reluctant to admit it, but the “Mad Men” club over at Slate actually got it right when they predicted Joan kept Roger’s baby from several weeks back. Dr. Rapist, still alive in Vietnam, believes it’s his. Either Joan is betting that Dr. Rapist will die in Vietnam — a real possibility — or she’s hoping for one of two implausible scenarios: an extremely preemie baby, by several months, or that Dr. Rapist missed the day in med school when they learned pregnancies last nine months. Sure, he was a butterfingers surgeon, but the whole nine-months thing is pretty basic knowledge.
Finally, Betty proves she’s not yet over Don when he catches her waiting around for him at the house, which he’s showing to a realtor. Real subtle, Betty. We’re left with a shot of Don and Megan in bed, Don looking out at the bright moon, providing illumination even in the dark of night.
So what really happened? Peggy proved (twice, counting the gloves people) that she is a talented copywriter and sales pitcher, only providing her more ammo for her next fight with Don about attribution. Ken also defined his boundaries, showing he was unwilling to exploit his father-in-law-to-be’s business connections to land new clients. Joan has got at least one awkward conversation coming up. So does Roger. Betty will begin backpedaling on her once-fairytale-like marriage to Henry. Don is once again embarking on a wobbly relationship, it would appear, and we’re not clear how that will affect the children or him. Hopefully when we return to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce next summer business — and the gang’s situations — will have picked up considerably.
This episode delivered oodles of delectable, characteristically “Mad Men” twists. Some of them we saw coming (the Joan/Rodger spawn lives!), and some of them were total game-changing surprises (turns out Megan is like Maria Von Trapp in more ways than one). In the end, life’s inexorable ephemerality consumes our dashing antihero’s thoughts, clouding his judgment and leading him to try to recapture a bit of his lost youth. In other words: mid-life crisis, party of one.
Don wakes up with a “sick feeling” in the pit of his stomach — a sort of Kierkegaardian sickness unto death. Faye encourages him to reconcile his past with his present, telling him that afterward he’ll feel less disjointed and better able to live in the now. Good advice if he were a well-adjusted person, but Don Draper has no interest in the present. In the present, he’s a middle-aged divorcé whose business is on the precipice of total failure. In the present, Don can’t be a god; he has to settle for being “a human being like the rest of us.” And that’s a scary prospect.
Visiting Anna’s house and seeing the wall where he painted “Dick + Anna ’64” shakes Don up even more. Anna’s really dead; he’s lost that chapter of his youth forever. This memento mori mingles with the youthful wisdom of Anna’s niece: “I’ve got the rest of my life ahead of me. So do you.” Yes, Don still has life ahead of him. But who can say how much?
On an impulse, Don proposes to his secretary, Megan. She’s 25, and filled with vitality. She makes Don feel young, too, enabling him to ignore that uncomfortable feeling that comes with the knowledge that he will someday die. It seems that Don, like the teenagers he describes to the people at the American Cancer Society, is mourning his lost youth more than he’s anticipating his future. Because, to his mind, his future holds nothing but old age and eventual death. If he’s lucky.
This turn of events raises a host of questions. Is Don going to tell Megan about his past? Is it possible he actually loves her? How will this affect the balance of power at SCDP? Will this action, done on a whim, somehow wind up making him happy? What about her? The only thing certain is that time will continue to push everything forward. There’s only so much room for mourning the past before, like Betty, you become merely an emotionally stunted shell of an adult human being. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that for Don.
Vanessa Van Landingham