October 17th, 2010
“Are you kidding me?!”
I’m extremely glad that Faye Miller actually said this during the episode, so I could pull quote it instead of saying itself myself. But, seriously: is Mad Men kidding me?
“Tomorrowland,” like its namesake, was supposed to be about potential: it was supposed to show us a way for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to survive, and a way for Don Draper to reconcile his identity crisis and move forward. It was about charting a new path after tobacco, working with the Cancer society and making plans for whatever the future might hold.
Instead, “Tomorrowland” drops us off with ten weeks of no business, a vacation conundrum, and a series of circumstances which is precisely the opposite of last season’s closer: instead of building excitement, “Tomorrowland” builds nothing but dread, creating scenarios that test our patience with these characters, and even the show itself.
Unless you’re a huge fan of total uncertainty and absolute chaos, chances are “Tomorrowland” was more disturbing than enlightening – the question, of course, is whether it is still good television.
And I think that answer, despite my frustration, is yes.
“Things aren’t perfect.”
That’s what has always bothered Don and Betty, isn’t it? Don searches for perfection because he thinks it is the only way he can blend into society, while Betty searches for it because she believes she is entitled (just as she is entitled to fire Carla and make other decisions regarding her children). In that final scene, there’s an on-the-nose metaphor in that Betty’s search for the perfect house is not unlike Don’s search for the perfect wife. One gets the feeling that neither of them will ever be truly happy: they will always convince themselves that they want a new house, or want a new wife, and will romanticize their new circumstances – or, in Betty’s case, vilify their old ones – in order to justify their decision. And so Betty slogs out to a new home, and Don decides on his trip to Los Angeles that he is in love with Megan.
As with many of Don’s decisions in life, there is a sense of terror surrounding this one, even though I see the logic. Considering that Faye has little interest in children, and seemed almost terrified by Sally, Don sees Megan’s comfort level with the kids as an immediate plus; instead of putting Faye in an uncomfortable position, Don chooses Megan and can quickly transition into a new life.
Now, when I say logic, I mean terrifyingly damaging logic. In that moment where Don lies in bed with Megan talking about how well they know each other, she says the right things to feed Don’s delusions without saying anything substantial about him. She knows that he has a good heart, the thing he convinces himself will justify his behaviours, and she characterizes him as someone who is always trying to do better. It’s more or less a middle ground between Faye (who knew everything) and Betty in the early years (who knew nothing). She knows enough to understand that he is damaged, but is romantic enough to think that Don’s efforts to change that behaviour aren’t being entirely undermined by the very behaviour which led him to her bed. If Faye is everything he needs in this circumstance, someone who can help ground him, then Megan fulfills his immediate desires (security, comfort, unyielding faith) and little more. As Betty and Don’s conversation goes, if Betty is dissatisfied with her new house she can simply move again, and we can’t help but feel that Don will do the same with Megan’s French Canadian charm reaches its end as opposed to its beginning.
That entire storyline in Los Angeles was just horrible to watch. As soon as Carla was fired, I presumed that Megan would be drafted for the job on the vacation, but I was still hoping it wouldn’t come true. Then when Anna’s ring came into the story, it was like Chekhov’s gun, sitting there just waiting to go off in the worst way possible. And then, as Don falls in love and into her bed, we sit there hoping that he’ll resist proposing, and then we hope that Megan will prove to be an independent spirit and say no.
And then, we hope that it’s all a dream. It is very purposeful that we jump right from Don’s proposal to his return to New York, just as it’s purposeful that we skip Disneyland entirely as if time is moving too quickly. On the one hand, it represents the speed at which their whirlwind romance came together, but it also creates a sense of displacement that makes us hope it’s all a dream. We hope that Roger’s witty comments are simply an amalgam of Don’s imagination, and that Joan’s satisfaction is a work of pure fiction. And yet, then Peggy and Ken walk in with news of the Topaz account, news that Don’s imagination could never have known – it’s the moment where the bubble burst, and I realized that my hope that this had all been some sort of dream was dashed.
In reality, of course, an extended dream sequence would have been far more problematic for the show than the actual results of the trip to Los Angeles; Don’s behaviour is perfectly in character, and as Joan points out standard fare for ad executives (including Roger), while dream sequences would be decidedly out of character for the show as a whole. However, Weiner still understood that the audience is likely not on Don’s side here, and so we get that wondrous scene where Peggy and Joan dish about the lunacy of it all. It feels like the only honest scene in the episode, the only scene where the people involved aren’t putting on a show – and yet, once it is confirmed that Joan kept the baby much as we suspected (and as the slight baby bump in the early scenes more or less revealed), we realize that she was still hiding something. Even if Peggy made Joan break when pointing out that Joan cares more about this workplace than she lets on, there are still secrets hiding below the surface, much as Peggy continues to hide the truth regarding her six-month absence.
“Just because you’re sad doesn’t mean everyone has to be.”
The question that has to be asked is whether “Tomorrowland” is damaged by our dissatisfaction with the turn of events in question: while it says good things about the show that I am emotionally invested enough to write “DAMNIT DON” about 25 times in my notes about the episode, one can’t help but feel that this episode was directly working against audience desires. I am capable of detaching myself, of stepping back and saying that this show is filled with talented people who continue to do amazing work, but it is a challenge. During this finale, I was on the edge of my seat hoping that Don wouldn’t make these mistakes, and so it’s hard to separate my feelings about the episode with how successful it was as an hour of television.
My one complaint, really, is that it did not successfully feel like a finale to the season. While it is unquestionably a continuation of the characters and the show’s universe in general, it seemed like the omnipresence of Don’s storyline kept the agency in the background. This season has been about Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce more than anything else, and yet here we saw only Peggy and Ken’s efforts to land a small pantyhose account. Of course, this is sort of built into the story yet again: Peggy points out to Joan that big news about the company is more or less ignored once Don brings news of his personal life, showing the ways in which his presence can overshadow the rest of his employees. However, even with this sort of meta-commentary, I still felt that there could have been more attention on SCDP and the characters involved – I didn’t need it to be the sole focus, as it sort of was last year, but I do think that its presence in the season as a whole warranted a larger role here.
As for the characters unrelated to Don, only three really got any attention, and they were all w0men. Betty gets that final moment drinking rye with Don in their kitchen one last time, as well as that beautiful moment where she lays down on Sally’s bed in the dark (which then cuts to Don and Megan in bed). Joan, meanwhile, gets the phone call to Greg (who only cares about her pregnancy boobs), while Peggy gets the successful campaign and the lack of attention it garners. There is still the sense that their time hasn’t come yet: Joan gets a new title which has no more authority or salary, Peggy breaks the streak of no business and gets no credit, and Betty makes yet another move with happiness still a lot further away than a new kitchen. Even Sally gets part of this narrative, forced to move away from her only real friend (albeit a creepy friend, who thankfully keeps his hands to himself here) because of her mother’s insecurity. At some point, the roadblocks will have to disappear for these women, but that time has not yet come.
“See Don – this is the way you behave.”
And yet it came for Megan, just as it didn’t come for Faye. Faye Miller is a compelling character, someone who we sense will help Don shape a new part of his life. Don will miss her, even as he gets set to marry Megan, because she had insight into “life” that Megan lacks. Megan is a French Canadian girl who moved to New York to make it big and ended up a secretary – her friends tell her that her teeth are too ugly for her to be an actress, while a dialect coach tells her she has the mouth of a singer. For her, life is still an abstraction, a possibility that she has now realized in marrying Don. For Don, meanwhile, life is something he has lived, and will need to continue living, and Megan is both adequate (in terms of taking care of the kids) and inadequate (in terms of solving his identity crisis) for this job.
However, both relationships were about what they could do for Don – being Don’s wife is a job in and of itself, and in some ways he will never find someone like Betty who is so dedicated to doing it. She was as dedicated to playing the role of housewife as Don was committed to playing the role of the family man, and while they were both ill-suited to their roles there was a sense that this was all they really wanted. Megan, meanwhile, seems to have something approaching dreams, and I wonder if Don is capable of making those dreams come true.
It leads me to one of the most fascinating bits in the episode, wherein Don tells Peggy that Megan reminds him of her. It’s meant as a term of endearment, a way for Don to convince the skeptical Peggy that this is real. Instead, it makes Peggy question his connection with her, and whether it is real, and whether the same emotions which drove Don to marry Megan also drove him to elevate Peggy to a new position. I was confused as to why Joan suggests that he is likely to raise her to copywriter: wouldn’t she stay at home, perhaps raising another child? I presumed this based on previous behaviour, but I was conflating Megan with Betty, or with other women, and I worry that Don is doing the same. He fell in love with the idea of Megan, a young Maria Von Trapp-figure who helps solve all of his work and family related problems, and one wonders what image he has of the future.
And there’s your central irony: in an episode named after an amusement park’s glimpse into the future, “Tomorrowland” is devoid of any clear sense of where this is all headed. Last year was, in many ways, simpler, but there was an upward trajectory: the agency was new, certainly, but there was unrealized potential. At the end of the fourth season, however, most everything seems to be headed in the opposite direction: Joan is about to start really showing, Don and Megan’s relationship could implode at any moment, and Betty and Henry’s relationship is more tenuous than ever. And yet, the one thing which was so damaged late in the season, the agency itself, seems to have real potential: they just garnered an account, and the connections at the Cancer society could bring in more business in the months ahead.
That potential seems hidden in “Tomorrowland,”as any potential future seems obfuscated by the conflict between the agency and the characters’ lives. That connection between business and personal has perhaps been the season’s most undying legacy, whether it is Peggy and Roger’s racial concerns, Pete and Ken’s relationships with their father-in-laws, Sally showing up at the office, Joan and Roger’s affair, Lane’s struggles on the home front, or Don’s relationships with Amanda, Faye and Megan and the conflicts therein. And yet here, while we get brief mention of the idea with Ken, for the most part the point being made is that they don’t mix, or that Megan somehow bridges the gap for Don. Her presence in L.A. allows him to enjoy both business and pleasure, a sort of liminal figure who offers the dutiful nature of a secretary with the caring and supporting image of the wife. It is Don’s attempt at having the best of both worlds, but the episode’s sense of imbalance (and Peggy’s sense of marginalization) means that it won’t truly work.
And yet, perhaps the final song, “I’ve Got You Babe,” says it all: so long as Don has Megan, perhaps he’ll be able to keep going. And yet that song is all about celebrating the past and ignoring the future: they won’t find out until they know, and Don is very much throwing caution to the wind here. The question we need to ask is whether Weiner is similarly throwing caution to the wind; this is going to be a polarizing hour, and there were moments where it seemed almost excessive. However, what makes the episode work for me is the idea that while it seems that Weiner is taking the show in a fairly dangerous new direction, the results only serve to reinforce themes which have been present from the very beginning. Don’s behaviour is not reckless so much as it is typical, and thus Weiner’s decision says more about the show’s universe than it does about these characters in particular. It’s a statement that these characters are stuck in certain patterns, that it is the past more than the future which guides Don Draper.
And, accordingly, Don’s future – and the show’s future – will therefore continue to struggle to reconcile the past. While I feel as if it could have done more to connect with the entire season, in particular relating to the agency, “Tomorrowland” never crosses that line where our frustration with the characters and perhaps even Weiner’s decisions regarding those characters extends to the show’s future. We may be frustrated with the present, perhaps not romanticizing it in the way we did at the conclusion of last season, but I think that there is enough potential in these events and enough moment like Joan and Peggy’s meeting to allow us to continue to romanticize both the past and the future.
In other words, Mad Men is still one of the finest shows on television, even if we spent much of “Tomorrowland” desiring to throw things at the television – and that, perhaps, might be Matthew Weiner’s greatest feat of all.
- One other small issue with the episode: having Betty fire Carla was almost too villainous. The character usually walks a fine line, but that seemed like an overly cruel turn – if they wanted her out of the way, perhaps Betty could have simply let her leave of her own will, still creating some conflict with Henry but not quite making Betty into the ice queen many presume her to be. I thought the final scene softened her a bit, but this episode definitely did little for the Betty Francis likeability rating.
- I have to presume that they used “I’ve Got You Babe” for both its thematic value and to tease those of us who presumed that Don’s proposal was a dream sequence and have seen Groundhog Day.
- Jonathan Igla, co-writer on the episode, appears to have garnered his first ever writing credit on the episode – he was on the 2005 Black List (of unbought scripts which are popular amongst industry insiders), and registered for his wedding at Crate & Barrel and Macy’s, but he is otherwise incognito, so curious to see where he goes from here.
- I enjoyed the entirely gratuitous “Harry Crane is a creep” runner in Peggy’s story.
- And now, since I promised on Twitter, a collection of comments from my notes written while watching the episode:
- “Will he take Faye with him? Or MEGAN?! OH MY GOOD HE IS GOING TO TAKE MEGAN. NO DON NO.”
- “Don’s engagement ring. OH GOD DON NO.”
- “DAMNIT DON. Definitely a dream sequence. It has to be. HAS TO BE. “See Don – this is the way to behave.” OH MY GOD NO. We broke the streak! OH MY GOD WHAT IS THIS.”