Turns out that it's all Glen Bishop's fault. Oh, and the negative ions. It's the terrific if perplexing Season 4 finale of Mad Men, and as always there be spoilers ahead.
No, I didn't see it coming beforehand. But as it unfolded in the season finale, very tellingly entitled "Tomorrowland," Don Draper's sudden proposal to his lovely and oh so young secretary Megan, whose last name we'd never heard before and about whom we know next to nothing, made perfect sense. From his point of view. And while I've been critical of some of the plotting in Season 4, this move felt like a key turning in a lock.
While the move is logical, is it also dopey? Oh, yes. But will it work? It just might. And if it doesn't, Don has a second ex-wife, assuming they make it to the altar.
Is this the greatest of season finales? No, it's clearly not as good as the Season 3 finale, and perhaps not as good as the others. Yet there's much we don't know, as there usually is when we're midway through a novel, and this is ultimately a novel for television. I have many thoughts about this, but first let's run through the episode, during which some of what I think will be apparent, then get into more of it all.
It's October 1965, and we've come not quite a year in Mad Men's fourth season. A year in which, incidentally, the outside world of historical events hasn't intruded much, in sharp contrast with previous seasons.
Don is getting ready to go to California with the kids. He has "a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach." Which Dr. Faye tells him isn't just anxiety about work or the trip, but a deeper, more existential anxiety about his unresolved past. You know, the fact that he isn't really Don Draper at all. That sounds fun. Think Don feels a bit too much like her patient rather than her boyfriend? And what, in the end, does she want Don to do? Turn himself in to the Army as a deserter? Even if that's not a crazy idea, and it may well be, it's hardly something he's going to want to do.
At Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, Joan meets with Lane and gets a promotion. She is now "director of agency operations." That's a promotion? I thought she already ran the place. But the new title comes with no new money or celebration, and, thanks to agency cutbacks, Joan already has one new job -- she gets to deliver the mail. "Well, it's almost an honor," she says, thinking of how much of an honor it is to be the pregnant lady pushing the mail cart. Yes, she has a baby bump.
Don takes that meeting with the board of the American Cancer Society prompted by his opportunistic New York Times anti-tobacco ad. They're all concerned that the tobacco companies are now aggressively targeting teenagers. Instead of the usual Draperisms about using nostalgia and sentimentality to evoke a positive response, Don wants to use such sentimentality to evoke their unconscious fear of death. The board has some real corporate heavyweights on it, and there's business to be won there beyond the high-profile but not especially lucrative anti-smoking campaign. (This is a point I didn't make clear enough last week. The really big money in advertising comes as a commission on the buy. If the airtime is free, there's no buy and 15% of zero equals zero.)
At SCDP, the remaining partners -- yes, it's bye bye Bertie -- talk about the business to be won through their newfound philanthropy and ask Ken Cosgrove to use his future father-in-law to line up Dow Chemical as a client. But Ken says he's not like Pete Campbell. He won't jeopardize his non-work life with his soon-to-be wife in this way.
Naturally, as they discuss getting this big new client to replace the controversial cigarette company they lost, they see none of the irony. Dow Chemical looks like a far less controversial client than Lucky Strike now, but, oh Nellie! Just you wait. Napalm, Agent Orange, and that's just in the next few years of the Vietnam War. Then there's a not-so-little apocalypse in India further down the line. But I digress.
In ever-optimistic Ossining, Glen Bishop kicks off the central action of the season finale by asking to say goodbye to Sally before she and the rest of the family move away forever. Glen has waited till he knows Betty is out of the house, and Carla rather reluctantly allows him to go up to Sally's room. What could go wrong?
Betty coming home, for one thing. Following a sweet and perfectly appropriate and chaste farewell scene between Glen and Sally, Betty discovers her one-time ardent admirer in the house and flips out. Flips out as though Glen's her hated and loved ex, not Don.
Telling her, quite tellingly, that just because she's sad doesn't mean everyone else has to be, hardly eases the situation for Glen, but it may be the best line of the episode. It ought to be, since it sets the major events of the season finale into motion. It further humiliates Betty, who fires Carla on the spot in what is easily the most disturbing scene of the episode.
Carla was just being a good stand-in mom for Sally, as she has been throughout her life. Would Betty have been as infuriated/frightened/threatened as she was had Glen and Sally been in the living room? Perhaps. But who knows? I'll get to the oddity of Betty in Season 4 in a few moments.
Don learns of the precipitous firing of his children's lifelong nanny while meeting with his accountant about selling the house in Ossining and the place in California where Anna Draper was living. Betty calls to say that Don is going to have find someone else to watch the kids while he takes meetings in California.
What to do, what to do?
Meanwhile, Peggy gets a lead on potential new business from her friend Joyce. A model she's taken a fancy to was fired from a Topaz pantyhose shoot, as was the ad agency who hired her. Maybe Peggy can drum up a little new business for SCDP, the first since the departure of Lucky Strike.
Don has placed his lovely young secretary, and occasional playmate, Megan, in charge of the California babysitter search, but it's not going well. Who could have foreseen that?
Recalling how good she was in comforting Sally, Don tells Megan he'll double her salary if she comes to California with him and the kids, which of course she will.
The key is in the lock.
As Don, Megan, and the kids head off to California -- and to the happiest place on Earth, Disneyland, home of Tomorrowland -- Ken reports to Peggy that the CEO of Topaz was impressed by their intel that the company had parted ways with its agency and is letting SCDP take a shot at their business going forward.
Out in the Golden State, where Don frequently feels so free, he returns to the hotel after a round of meetings and finds that Megan has Sally and Bobby singing lullabies. In French.
Sally plainly adores Megan, Bobby thinks she's cool, and Don? Well, Don, who makes it his business to see every movie, places Megan in an overwhelmingly popular movie scenario very much of the moment.
"You're like Maria von Trapp!," he tells her in admiration, and more.
In other words, Megan is like the bright and beautiful young woman brought in to bring order and happiness to an unruly crew of kids whose somewhat forbidding and distant father, Captain von Trapp, in The Sound of Music version, is usually tending to his worldly concerns.
Don knows he can't sing as well as the captain (who I believe was actually dubbed) -- not unless Jon Hamm has been hiding his musical-comedy chops under a bushel -- but he can surely envision the parallel even though he's not a wealthy, retired Austrian naval officer about to surreptitiously emigrate to Switzerland rather than serve the Third Reich as a U-boat commander.
Don, as we've seen many times in his work, thinks cinematically. Why shouldn't he, on a trip to California, which in 40 years will have an Austrian movie star governor, be inspired by a movie set in Austria? A movie that is the most popular one of the 1960s, no less. But we don't meet the young Arnold Schwarzenegger in this episode, as that would be a bit too out there, even for this somewhat out there episode.
The next day, while Megan looks after little Gene, Don takes Sally and Bobby to Anna's house. The kids meet Daddy's "friend's" niece, Stephanie -- taking a break from UC Berkeley -- and soak up the beach ambiance. And all those negative ions that the beach produces. Sally notices the "Dick + Anna '64" inscription Don left on the wall after he'd finished painting on his last visit, his way of saying goodbye to Anna without going against her sister's insistence that she not be told of her terminal condition.
Who's "Dick," Sally wonders? It's me, Don explains, "That's my nickname sometimes."
Stephanie has a present for Don. It's Anna's engagement ring from Don Draper. She wants him to use it well. Not surprisingly, Don interprets this as his late soulmate encouraging him to remarry.
As Don and the kids plan their trip the next day to Disneyland -- Bobby doesn't want to ride on some old elephant, he wants to fly a new jet -- Megan stops in on her way out to a club with an old college friend. She looks smashing, in another of genius costume designer Janey Bryant's period outfits.
Meanwhile, back in the past, excuse me, the East, Don's former wife has a very uncomfortable conversation with Henry. Carla has called him, so he knows how precipitous Betty's move in firing her was. After more than 10 years of outstanding work, Betty hasn't even given her a reference, and Carla's severance pay was less than a week's. Henry, a decent guy, is realizing he has a major problem on his hands.
"I wanted a fresh start," Betty rationalizes. "There is no fresh start," Henry snaps. "Lives carry on." Betty complains that he's not on her side, to which Henry retorts that she never thinks that anyone is.
While Betty, little girl lost in a grown-up woman's body, lies by herself on Sally's bare mattress, out in Tomorrowland, Don hears Megan return and knocks on her door. He kisses her as she asks if they should be doing this. But of course, they do, and Don, playing the vulnerable role, tells her after that he needs to know that it means something. It does.
But you don't know anything about me, he tells her. "You have a good heart," she answers, "and I know that you're always trying to be better." Which is true enough, as far as it goes.
The next day at a futuristic restaurant, Bobby and Sally are squabbling, with Sally knocking over a milkshake after her brother mocks her old lisp. The kids freeze, expecting an eruption, Don bristling with anger himself. But it's not Betty there to go thermonuclear, it's Megan. "It's just a milkshake," she says calmly as she enlists Don in helping her mop up the mess, easily defusing a mishap that in this family's past would have marred a special day.
Having returned to New York, Megan awakes in Don's bed. He feels like himself when he's with her, Don tells Megan. More likely and to the point, he feels like the man he wants to be, with a woman who lets him be that. And he asks her to marry him, to which Megan happily assents as Don places Anna's ring on her finger.
While all this has been going on, Peggy has been delivering a very nice pitch to the Topaz pantyhose execs. And Ken Cosgrove, who is one of the few guys at the agency who respects her and works well with her, has succeeded in signing Topaz. It's only a $250,000 account, but it's a very good start on the comeback trail for a reeling SCDP.
Now in the office, Don calls Roger, Pete, Lane and Joan into his office for his big announcement. He is marrying Miss Calvet! Roger is like, who? It's Megan's last name, which we've all now heard for the first time. "Megan, out there?," Roger asks, pointing out the door toward the secretarial pool.
"She makes me very happy," Don says. I believe that's what Roger said about Jane, as Don scoffed at the time.
Don and Roger certainly have a lot in common, all of a sudden. Says Roger: "See, Don, this is the way to behave." They and their two willowy young wives can double date. At the drive-in!
Megan enters the room, to the applause of all, and Roger's swiftly withdrawn joking suggestion that she get them some ice.
Not knowing of the excitement, and excited for their little coup, Peggy and Ken head to Don's office with their very good news, which is clearly upstaged.
Later, Peggy gets more of a wet blanket from Don when he tells her that Megan reminds him of her because they have "the same spark," whatever that means. Megan, he tells her, admires Peggy "as much as I do."
Ouch! So much for those special feelings from his night of semi-soul baring with her in "The Suitcase."
Meanwhile, Dr. Faye has called Don again. Megan instructs, er, advises Don that more delay in telling her about their engagement won't make things go down easier.
Peggy goes off to Joan's office, where the new director of operations (sans raise) wonders "whatever could" Peggy be interested in discussing.
Understandably disgruntled about this turn of events, in which her business coup gets decidedly short shrift compared to the news that Don is impulsively marrying his much younger secretary, Peggy expresses her dismay about the situation and gets Joan's sardonic support, including the observation that Don is likely to make his new young wife a copywriter, too.
Peggy's gone the lone heroine route in her careerist path, and done well, but has just bumped her head against a glass ceiling. The reality is that women didn't really start getting ahead until they organized. Joan and Peggy could make a very formidable combination in that department.
While these two compare notes, Don finally gets around to telling his girlfriend that he's getting married -- which she had predicted -- but not to her. Dr. Faye is understandably outraged by this twist.
Then another call takes place. It's Joan, calling her beloved husband Dr. Blockhead in Vietnam. They gossip playfully, with Joan recounting Don "smiling like a fool, like he was the first man who married his secretary."
Captain Harris wants to know when she's going to tell the others what we already know. She's pregnant, and he's buying that he is the father. If he makes it through his tour of duty, she's going to have to pull some fancy footwork for his cuckolding not to be perfectly obvious.
Don still has someone else to tell about the new state of his love affairs. That would be his ex-wife. He hasn't gotten around to that, either.
Betty, finding the going tougher than expected with Henry Francis, is lying in wait for Don as he visits their former family abode in Ossining to meet with his realtor. After adjusting her make-up, and looking like she's going through some pre-performance anxiety, she acts surprised in a pleased sort of way to have run into him there.
After a brief trip down memory lane, which includes Don finding a long-stashed bottle of booze, Betty, looking meaningfully at her ex, allows that things aren't all that great in her new abode. Probably sensing that Betty thinks she has an ultimate trump card with him and eager to short-circuit the situation, Don tells her that he's engaged.
"Bethany Van Nuys," she guesses, referring to the girlfriend who looks like a younger version of her whom she had met some months ago when her reaction had nearly ruined her and Henry's dinner meeting with future New York Mayor John Lindsay's top adviser.
It's intriguing how Betty's thought went to someone like her. But no. Her next guess was, however, dead on. Don's secretary, who went to California. And looks a lot more like Sally's beloved schoolteacher, Suzanne. Who also undoubtedly had Sally raving about her back home.
Discretely gulping down her disappointment, Betty gamely offers Don her congratulations, slipping off her key to the house for the last time and handing it over to Don.
Later that night, Don and Megan lie in bed together in his Greenwich Village man cave apartment, which I suspect we won't see again. Megan is sleeping contentedly, her head on Don's chest. But he's wide awake, staring out his window. Sonny and Cher's smash 1965 hit "I Got You Babe" plays as the season comes to a close.
Indeed you do, Don. But is that regret, fear, second thoughts, planning for the future, or just thoughtfully assessing before moving forward that has you staring out that window? Or is Don Draper's studied enigmatic pose so deeply ingrained that this is what he looks like before he falls off to sleep?
Don Draper is a natural Californian. He's beginning to get it. He keeps imagineering new vistas with old dreams. When he's in California, he acts as though he is invigorated by all the negative ions at the beach. But it may just be his oft-expressed sense that California is the future.
Roger Sterling, on the other hand, is a natural New Yorker. Older, deeply entitled, heavy on the attitude, hanging on to power through cleverness and longevity.
Each represents a different archetype.
The defining delusion of California is one of endless reinvention, that you can be whatever you want without consequences.
The defining delusion of New York is that it can run the world without running it into the ground, as it nearly just did.
Mad Men begins in 1960 with New York City at its peak, of power and style and functionality, beginning its slow decline as new power centers emerge. But even though the 1964/65 New York World's Fair had its Tent of Tomorrow, Tomorrowland is in Disneyland. With all its bright and shiny corporate futurism mixing with the emerging pop culture, suffused with the sense that anything is achievable through technology.
California, as I may have written on occasion in the past, for myself and others, is the place where the future begins. Though that's certainly not the latest storyline. Even so, former and likely future Governor Jerry Brown, the old effervescence rising anew, likes to say now that "the breakdown is going to become the breakthrough." In fact, it's one of his catchphrases.
California, in the Mad Men universe, is very much in the ascendancy in the period, peaking probably 20 years later. The state, under Jerry Brown's father's governorship, has already surpassed New York as the nation's largest in population and economic vitality. Increasingly, the culture is coming from California as well. And let's not forget the central irony that Mad Men is a show set in New York that is produced in California.
Don has shown some signs of growth this season, but much of it is an illusion. I don't think people really change. I think they, we, can become better versions of what we are, more efficient, more impactful, hopefully less destructive.
But Don doesn't really want to grow as psychologists would think of it, he wants to become what he wants to be, which is a very different matter. California spurs that sense of himself.
With her insistence on confronting the past, Dr. Faye showed that she didn't really understand Don, her degree in mindbending notwithstanding. Don doesn't want to confront the past; he wants to embrace the future.
And Megan symbolizes the future. She's not a New Yorker, either. She's French Canadian, a seemingly amiable and flexible sort who can fit in wherever she likes. She'll do great in California, when she finally moves there.
So Don's rejection of Dr. Faye was nearly inevitable, even before recalling that she is terrible with kids, and specifically, terrible with Sally -- who is probably the most important person in Don's life whose name isn't Don. Or Dick.
Megan, on the other hand, is great with kids. Add to that her youth, beauty, brightness, and seeming acquiescence, and it's a very potent mix for a still young man who feels he's losing a step in a fast-accelerating culture.
Of course, we, not to mention Don, really know very little about Megan, who at times comes off like Amy Adams in Enchanted. Is she really that awfully wonderful? Well, let's say that it's not impossible, but...
From my standpoint, which is not Don's, the choice between Dr. Faye and Megan is no choice at all. Dr. Faye is clearly the best choice. She's very smart, highly educated, courageous in making her way as a top professional in what is still very much a man's world, smashing looking, very challenging yet nice. And we know a lot about her. What's not to like?
Plus, she's a great conversationalist. What's Don going to talk about with Megan? Sure, she's smart, but he knows far more than she. They're not equals or anything close to it.
But if Don doesn't want to be challenged, or at least not as challenged as he is by Dr. Faye, there we are. And Megan has great rapport with Don's kids, especially troubled Sally.
I think that Sally is probably the most important character on the show in the end, second perhaps only to Don. Which made the wave of speculation that swept across the Internet prior to the season finale that she would commit suicide very curious.
Many think that Peggy is our window into the show. But it's really Sally. She is the only major character -- and she is a very major character now -- who is a modern figure. She's a baby boomer. (In my lifespan, she would be a big sister.) All the others, even Peggy, are figures from the past. Now Peggy can be a figure of the present, too -- she's actually a little younger than Jerry Brown -- but the Peggy we see has a lot of living ahead of her to become a contemporary figure.
Sally's travails, frequently at the hands of her increasingly difficult mother Betty, have been painful to watch. Just as it's been painful seeing Betty this season.
Last season, given her situation with a cheating, frequently inattentive husband who showed after their Rome trip that he simply didn't get her, I found her quite sympathetic. This season, it's been hard not to dislike her.
I don't know why she's become so difficult, and the show hasn't really, well, shown us. She's married now to one of the most prominent men in New York, a senior advisor to a governor of New York who is not just a governor, but a governor named Rockefeller.
Betty should be what she wants to be -- what she dramatically demonstrated in Rome with Conrad Hilton that she could be -- a glittering part of a glittering power circle. Yet for all we see of her, she's still stuck as a dissatisfied housewife in the suburbs.
This is where the show being so insular this season has suffered. That, and it being divorced from big historical events, unlike in its first three seasons.
This was a fine finale, especially with Don's big surprise move, but it can't compare to Season 3's finale, which I just watched again.
The best three episodes in Season 3 were the final three. They built upon one another, culminating in as satisfying a season finale as I can recall watching for any show.
This season, the best episode, "The Suitcase," came in the middle. And much that came after seemed to invalidate, or at least seriously ignore, what many thought that episode meant. Especially for Peggy.
Season 3 was more cohesive than Season 4. But Mad Men is a novel for television, in which meaning emerges over time. We won't be able to fully assess this season finale -- or Season 4 as a whole -- until the story is complete.