Mad Men the Morning After: “Tomorrowland”
October 18th, 2010
It’s been a while since I’ve been able to stop in with an installment of Mad Men the Morning After, but with my students writing midterms this morning and more critics than usual getting their reviews up late last night, I figure it’s as good a time as any to return. I’m not going to be able to offer as much detail as I ideally would, as I’m still quite busy, but I think we still need to compile the collective wisdom of the online television critics on the divisive, yet unquestionably compelling, “Tomorrowland.”
First off, my own review here at Cultural Learnings.
“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.”
However, I also wrote up a short piece for Antenna, where a collection of scholars have been writing about the show all season – I link to all of their posts within my finale piece, and I definitely think they’re worth a read if you’re interested in more academic readings of race, music, history, gender and other themes prevalent in the series.
However, what I find most interesting is those moments trapped between action and reaction: was Don’s New York Times ad a confident action, or a desperate reaction to Lucky Strike’s departure? And was his decision to marry Megan an action to regain control of his life, or a reaction to the short-term stability she offered and its potential role in solving his identity crisis? When we start pondering Don’s motivations, we get trapped in a vicious cycle wherein his true purpose seems hopelessly lost, but this has always been the case. Don’s actions in the finale are just as confounding and complex as they were before, and so we can still frame this finale – as disruptive as it first seemed, to me at least – in the context of previous seasons.
Meanwhile, Alan Sepinwall continues his great coverage of the show (which will continue in a podcast with Daniel Fienberg later today) in his review – I specifically enjoyed his unpacking of Don’s romantic claim as he and Megan are engaged.
“He doesn’t seem well-adjusted so much as he seems like Stepford Don. Look no further than the moment, after proposing to a stunned Megan, when he asks, “Did you ever think of the number of things that had to happen for me to get to know you?”…[Here Alan delves into just that]… Don looks at this chain of events as some evidence of romantic destiny, where others (including me) might see him in that moment being not unlike Tony Soprano, a narcissist viewing other people’s suffering as necessary for his own personal growth.”
Not surprisingly, Don was the prominent subject of conversation for just about every critic, including Time’s James Poniewozik who makes a fitting allusion in his description of Don’s marital mind.
“From a 21st-century perspective, the choice between Faye and Megan is, on the surface, one between a more enlightened version of Don and a more traditional one: the professional versus the secretary, the outspoken, tough woman versus the sweet accommodator. But Don’s picking Megan over Faye in this version of Bachelor ’65 is not just about his making the less feminist choice. It’s about him rejecting someone who really knows him and who he’s been for someone who knows “who you are now”—an idealized, and carefully fictionalized, version of him.”
Now, I don’t think many of us saw this much development happening this quickly for Don and Megan, but Keith Phipps at The A.V. Club speaks to how the unexpected contributes to the show’s success in his great review.
“The fact that I never know where Mad Men is going is part of why I love the show. But it’s not that I love the unpredictability of it, if only because the word “unpredictability” implies a much wilder ride than we usually get. It’s that these characters, so intimately realized in every detail, never seem like they’re being pulled along by anything so mundane as plot mechanics. There always seem to be bigger forces at work.”
Those bigger forces were pretty big this time around, though, and that raised some concerns. While there has yet to be an outright negative review of the finale, these concerns have been a topic of most reviews, although Maureen Ryan at AOL quite nicely demonstrates the thematic value of these forces.
“The magic of the lyrical ‘Mad Men’ finale was that it beautifully conveyed that sense of falling in love — the feeling that time stops and the world only consists of two people who share an exquisite connection. In this hushed, quietly paced episode, we were inside Don/Dick’s head and heart as he fell for Megan. The finely calibrated moments, the pure intimacies — they all disarmed us just as Megan unwittingly disarmed her man. Who could resist?”
I would personally resist using the word lyrical to describe the finale, being that it was more a siren’s song than a beautiful lullaby in my books, but I certainly agree that Don and Megan’s romance had a powerful force behind it. As Jace Lacob points out, that force was obvious as soon as a certain object entered into the fray.
“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.”
However, it is possible that this intense focus on Don within the episode was perhaps too powerful, in that other characters played only a cursory role. This was perhaps especially true with Joan, as Ryan McGee laments (in an overall quite positive review) that there wasn’t enough explanation for why Joan would make this decision within the text itself.
“…in typical “Mad Men” fashion, Season 5 will probably start with Joan already a mother. Kudos to those that accurately predicted this, but I hate not that I was wrong so much as the choice to have her lie in the first place. It’s not like she’s lying about how many licks it took her to get to the center of a freakin’ Tootsie Pop, people. It’s a bit bigger than that, and while I’ll reserve final judgment for how the show deals with this in the future, I can’t say I’m particularly thrilled with this choice overall.”
Meanwhile, Nick at Monsters of TV has some interesting insight into the title, arguing that the scenario constructs an image of Don’s future he cannot refuse.
“Don Draper has his own little Tomorrowland going. The moment he walks into the restaurant and sees his family in the booth, he looks at it almost like a model of his future. This is the paradise, the peace, the comfort he seeks. And while there are differences from what he knows, ultimately, this is just a relic from the past he sells to himself as the utopian future. So while you think about how Don’s actions in this episode are sudden and without motivation, consider his discussion with Anna when they first started discussing Betty in the Christmas flashback sequences. Seem relatively familiar? When Betty handed him the key to his house, she might as well have said, “Congratulations. Here is the key to the detritus of your past. You can match it to the building blocks of your future.”
Maybe my mind is failing me, but I remember a different Disney World ride where you see the model of a nuclear family, some sort of constructed image of who you are supposed to be. Disneyland (or World, take your pick) is the ultimate simulacrum, to the point where Mad Men is able to develop a fairly complex metaphorical meaning with only an episode title and a brief discussion of the park. It is the place which makes the commercial lyrical, and in some ways California as a whole serve a similar purpose for the show in terms of the dream-like state it creates.
However, that’s enough from me – I’d now like to turn it over to two critics who have been making some great observations about the show but who don’t have a direct home for their work. First, The A.V. Club and L.A. Times Showtracker’s Todd VanDerWerff (who is also, of course, a friend of the blog) offers his glimpse into “Tomorrowland”:
“Tomorrowland” struck me as the most Sopranos-esque finale yet. The Sopranos is the most significant touchstone when looking at earlier series that have influenced Mad Men. It borrows that shows “collection of short stories” structure, and it has a similar love of anticlimax. (The reason “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” felt so SATISFYING was because it allowed a bunch of stuff we didn’t expect to have a climax to have a climax.) In that sense, “Tomorrowland” is a nice callback to the show’s most important influence. Like most Sopranos finales, it promises a bunch of big, climactic moments that then fizzle out. The firm almost falls apart. Then it doesn’t. Don and Faye are having a great relationship. Then they aren’t. It’s an episode about what people do when they’re up against the wall and then abruptly realize the wall is no longer there. It’s also a pretty great reverse of the Sopranos season four finale, “Meadowlands.” In that episode, a relationship crumbles. In this one, a new relationship forms. Above all, “Tomorrowland” made me as nervous as the show ever has. I’m willing to give the Don and Megan thing a shot, since I think Jessica Pare is a fine actress and I liked that scene where the milkshake spilled and she didn’t freak out. But there’s even more of a sense of foreboding overhanging everything on the show now. I’ve found that the show doesn’t like to comment on the historical events surrounding the characters directly, but have the show’s emotional mood roughly parallel the nation’s emotional mood at that point in time. In that sense, the foreboding is appropriate. I wouldn’t say “Tomorrowland” was my favorite episode of the show, and it’s probably the weakest finale the show has done up until this point, but there are moments in it as strong as anything the show has done – the final scene between Don and Betty (funny how the seasons keep ending with scenes between these two), Joan and Peggy getting “real,” Peggy and Ken’s pitch to Topaz, etc. And I liked the continuing portrayal of California as a kind of heaven on Earth, where you probably shouldn’t trust how you’re acting, but you give in to how good it feels anyway.
And then, I was very pleased to get some thoughts from EW’s Jeff “Doc” Jensen, who has been writing weekend Mad Men posts at EW without any other outlet to analyze the respond to the series directly after it airs. As a result, I asked him he he would offer his own insights into the finale, and he was kind enough to oblige with some really fantastic analysis:
Why I’m Dreading Don Draper’s Tomorrowland…
Why Don’s Proposal Was Genius: Because of the variety of viewpoints its inspiring. It seems a lot of people have different opinions on whether or not Don’s proposal was a fulfillment of Dr. Miller’s cynical prophecy earlier in the season about Don (he’ll be married within a year) or a fulfillment of her exhortation in the early scene of the finale (make peace with the past; fresh start for the future). Is Megan yet one more escape or the expression of born again living? If it’s the latter, their relationship could still fall apart for a varety of reasons.
Why Don’s Proposal Wasn’t Genius: If this was the set-up for next season–a season in which Don will be married to Megan and we get episodes devoted to their relationship and its unraveling (or flourishing)–I find myself dreading, not anticipating, next year. I simply don’t know if I find that story promising or interesting. I feel almost deflated by the thought, actually. Which is disappointing. Mad Men finales usually leave me feeling elated, ‘I can’t wait for next year!’ Not this one. See James P.’s line: “… Mad Men somewhat returning to scenarios and conflicts we’d seen play out before…”
I really kinda believe that Matthew Weiner will end the show with the fifth season. If he does, I bet the first ep of next year is constructed to mirror the pilot, in which we spent a day in the life of Don, building to the “twist” ending that this man who seemed to be a raking bachelor actually had a wife and kids in the suburbs. The season premiere will do something similar. It’ll be set 6 mos-1 year in the future, and we’ll spend a day in the life of Don, building up to him returning home… and we find out he’s living alone, or with Dr. Miller, or even with–eek!–Betty.
I guess this is me saying I didn’t like “Tomorrowland” or didn’t like the turn it took, even if we were prepped for this all season long. As shocking as Don’s decision was, I get it. KINDA. I do think, to some degree, Weiner sacrificed character logic for theme here. (I think Joan’s decision to keep the baby–a sort of analogous “change for change sake” move–was more credible.) But if we were to learn right away that Don quickly sobered up from his California high and recanted of his rash, impulsive, idealistic proposal, we’ll all be revisiting “Tomorrowland” and reconsidering it. In fact, I find myself taken with the notion of rewatching the finale with exactly that frame of mind, and processing it less as forward-spinning set-up for next season and more as a stand-alone piece that comments on Don’s season 4 journey. I think it’ll work better for me–because as much as I like Megan, I really don’t want to spend 13 episodes next year–or even just a few–waiting for it to all fall apart.
Megan. Finally, an “other woman” that succeeds in doing what no other “other woman” has done before: Inspiring Don to leave his blonde bedrock. And yet, she has married him knowing he’s a cheater. I have to think that suspicion and paranoia will quickly settle in for her–especially after that first biz trip.
I haven’t really considered the role that guilt may have played in Don’s proposal. Early in the episode, we saw Don dreading his visit to California. There could be many, California-specific reasons for that dread, but one thought I didn’t consider until this morning is this: Don knows what happens to him when he travels. When he travels, he becomes unsettled, as we all do. But when Don gets unsettled, he risks becoming utterly unmoored, and he is tempted to stray. And so, going back to the beginning of Tomorrowland, we saw and heard Don acknowledge that he had a good thing going with Dr. Miller; I wonder if his is dread had something to do with knowing that he was putting himself in a position where he could easily sabotage his own happiness. After all, he knew he was heading right toward that Cal-Berkeley girl that had tickled his fancy earlier this season.
Well, he was tempted, but by what Megan represented, and he succumbed. But it could be a measure of how far he’s come–and how far he still has to go–that he responded to his latest infidelity/indiscretion by trying to redeem it, trying to make it “mean something.”
To put another way: He felt guilty. And Don doesn’t like feeling guilty; he doesn’t want to even believe in the concept. And so the way he rationalizes away this latest wrong is to make it gloriously right. Hence, these epiphanies that run absolutely counter to Don’s allegedly nihlistic, utilitarian ethos. And so now he loves her. He has always loved her, for as long in fact! And suddenly, it seems something like fate has conspired to bring them together…
From this perspective, Don’s latest manifestation of “Donnishness” doesn’t seem as egregious; from the “rationalizing guilt” perspective, I am left feeling kinda bad for him, actually. If there’s a story to be told about the Don/Megan marriage, I hope it’s one in which Don realizes the real reasons for wanting to marry Megan, but doesn’t let that epiphany defeat him, but rather let it reveal to him that he actually believes in something, and wants to believe in something. I just hope he can have that epiphany without totally ruining that girl.
There’s been a lot of love thrown the way of the Peggy/Joan scene. Allow me to be a slightly contrarian voice. I as amused by the scene and thought it added to the whole. At the same time, upon reflection, it feels forced, and I find myself thinking this thought: Was Matthew Weiner calling out and responding to some criticisms regarding the season’s treatment of women with that scene and the whole episode? The whole episode both seemed to promote and subvert its female characters at the same time. Peggy landed an account; her success was overshadowed. Joan got a new, fancy title; but no real substance to it, certainly no money. Megan got engaged to golden boy Don–but may have also just said “I do” to much future pain. Betty let go of the house, yet burned every possible bridge and was confronted by the fact that she is utterly alone. With that as context, the Peggy/Joan scene stands out provocatively and oddly. The scene basically had them bitching about being marginalized, and when Joan tried to rationalize her disappointment, Peggy called bullshit. That seems ripe for some discussion about the possibility that Matthew was being meta about his own show and the growing disatisfaction with its depiction of women. That scene, to me, seemed to be Matthew trying to say, “I call bullshit on your criticism of my female characters! My show’s depiction of women is honest to the period–but yes, I hear you, it’s getting frustrating to watch.” (I reserve the right to refine the point Weiner may have been trying to make; this is being written under duress of needing to catch a flight pronto!)
As promised, the rest of the reviews as I read them:
“Thank God for the brief scene where Peggy and Joan bemoan the stupidity of men marrying their secretaries. Finally, Peggy calls Joan on her lies, and Joan laughs in response. It would be so nice to see these two actually join forces – but of course, there are a million and one ways that the norms of the times will keep them on opposing teams.”
“The matter of Don’s identity has always been one of bifurcation: Dick Whitman or Don Draper. He was pretending to be one, when in reality, he was the other. But this season was not about the dichotomy between Don and Dick, but about the fact that there are not, in fact, two men — there is one man, a man who is neither of those men exactly, and that one man still has to figure out what to do next. Choosing between his names is utterly beside the point.”
“An hour after viewing and mulling this over, though, I still can’t come to a resolution over whether Don’s decision to make Megan the next Mrs. Draper is reasonable or insane.”
“I have been told by much more accomplished storytellers than myself that this season was among the series’ best. But I have been deeply ambivalent about the episodes, and Sunday’s finale left me more convinced than ever that we have seen a gifted TV showman dazzling us with misdirection and craft when the actual story falters.”
The whole episode had (for me, at least) a pleasurably off-kilter feel. It was written and performed as a straight drama with comedic interludes, the show’s go-to mode. But the courtship-to-engagement story played out so fast—and came about so suddenly, as Don’s finger-snap solution to Betty’s depriving him of child care by impulsively firing Carla—that by time Don hauled out that ring, “Tomorrowland” felt a couple of degrees removed from farce.
One of the interesting issues here, of course, is what she’s worried about with Glen. Maybe she thinks he’s creepy and, since he couldn’t have her, is now after her daughter. Or maybe it’s the other way around – Glen pursuing an interest in Sally is another rejection of Betty.
I think I can objectively say that this is one of the most, if not the most frustrating hour of the series yet. But how or if does that influence the analysis, which in the case of this series, seems much more interested in extracting themes, making connections and doing more, I guess, analysis than criticism?
- The lingering question: where do we place this season? James Poniewozik suggests that it slots in just behind Season One, but it’s interesting that “Tomorrowland” has the opposite effect of “Sit Down. Have a Seat.” That finale made the entire season look better than it was, while this finale might make this season seem comparatively worse if you are displeased with the results.
- For even MORE discussion of the finale, the Firewall and Iceberg AND Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcasts both have episodes about the finale (the latter featuring Todd VanDerWerff), the new Extra Hot Great podcast covers the finale in their second episode, and I participated in the Mad World Podcast‘s finale episode earlier today, which will go up sometime soon.