Mad Men: “Tomorrowland”
Posted by therebelprince on March 22, 2012
Mad Men wraps its fourth season, with an odd but beautiful episode that offers no closure, but seems to be equal parts endings and beginnings.
“There is no fresh start. Lives carry on. ”
– Henry Francis
After a season that was so devoted to the narrative through-line of Don’s need for change, it seems only fitting that the fourth season finale focuses its energy almost entirely upon the big man himself. SCDP are still reeling from the gradual loss of their clients, and Don’s big risk publicly turning against tobacco, but the company’s fate will have to wait for season five. Don is preparing for a vacation to California with the kids, which is where his life takes a surprising turn.
Tomorrowland is far from my favourite episode of season 4. It has an unusual structure, and a lot of it feels very pointed. In the opening scene, Faye prepares for work after a night at Don’s apartment. Their discussion about ways for Don to fix himself feels like something we’d encounter toward the end of an episode. Here, there’s no room to breathe, and in fact it’s strange to see the couple talking so openly, given how clear it was last week that he’s pulling away. While I utterly adore their break-up scene at episode’s end, the opening seems to exist just to remind us of Don and Faye as a couple. It achieves that, I suppose, and it hammers home the point that Don’s choices in this episode seem like a deliberate flight from the kind of equal, open-minded, challenging relationship that Faye (and Bobbi Bernstein, and Rachel Mencken, and even Midge before her) threatens. But it feels like Screenwriting 101 to shoehorn in this scene just to make the tragedy at episode’s end more palpable, and Screenwriting 101 has never been what Mad Men is about.
Don’s plans are changed after Betty impulsively fires Carla. The farewell sequence between Sally and Glen (he shows up the day before the Draper-Francises are moving) is pitch-perfect, yet another example of children mimicking adults in their interactions. Betty, of course, can’t accept the idea of Sally interacting with this child – who has come to represent independence of women and children, illicit sexuality, and so much else – and so Carla has to take the blame. I’ll miss Deborah Lacey‘s warm presence around the house, and it will be interesting to see Betty struggling to deal with the household in future: does she go it alone, or invite a stranger into the strained family unit? (In a brief scene, we see Betty and Harry definitely on the outs. “No-one’s ever on your side, Betty”, he tells her. It’s easy to imagine these two staying together forever, as a respectfully restrained political couple, but I imagine the marriage is going to crumble quickly in season five.)
Heading on to California, it’s weird to see Sally and Bobby in Anna’s now empty house. It’s a wonderful symbolic display of Don’s two worlds colliding, with a glimmer of hope for these kids. Don opens up a bit, explaining that Dick is his “nickname sometimes”, and we continue to see a possible future for the Draper family, with Don able to mix his family and business selves with the tranquil soul we’ve seen in California.
In place of Carla, Megan joins Don and the kids on the trip, in a whirlwind courtship which has some beautiful moments, and some decidedly blatant ones. I particularly enjoyed the sequence where Sally spills her milkshake. Don goes from being aggressively upset to mellowing as Megan’s calm response proves so different from Betty, or even Faye – who was never comfortable with children. After all, why does it matter if Sally spills her milkshake? Who is really put out? For Betty, it would be a scandalous moment: what if others around her felt she wasn’t a good mother? Beyond that, it’s also an indication of someone not being poised and in-character all the time. For Megan, it’s just a little mishap; the kind of thing that happens to people every day. The pillow talk between Don and Megan is beautiful, but there’s a lot of stating the obvious this week. Don’s transformation has involved a lot of soul-searching and diary-writing, but there’s comparatively little of the beautifully ambiguous scenes this show does best. (Don’s triumphant diving into the pool with Bobby is delightful, however.)
Just when I was getting excited that the rest of Mad Men‘s run would be about Don – and the others who have changed – trying to fight against the establishment, he goes and proposes to Megan. Who, of course, says yes. This is the man who Faye predicted would be remarried soon. He’s not in love with Megan, but Don needs to convince himself that his crush is love, needs to find someone to fill that void in his life, look after his kids, and be the woman he couldn’t quite transform Betty into. Here is someone who will potentially love children in the way a wife and mother “should”, with enough independence that she doesn’t require him 24/7, but still enough traditional femininity that she functions as a perfect wife who needs her husband. (Of course, this was Betty during her model days, so I’m sure that Megan’s desire for a career will rear its ugly head sooner or later.) The proposal, and scenes after it, were quintessential Mad Men: Don and Megan’s joy is so pure (and, bless cable TV, untempered by an obnoxious soundtrack), so the truth is delivered entirely through the often hilarious reactions of others. Don’s announcement of the proposal to the SCDP partners is my favourite scene, with everyone torn between happiness, concern, and a mild sense of, “here we go again”.
Don delivers the break-up news to Faye by phone, in a beautifully acted scene by Jon Hamm and Cara Buono. Faye delivers some scathing put-downs about Don’s lifestyle. He doesn’t listen – of course. In fact, the whole engagement seems just another way of him not listening.
Stopping by the other SCDP storylines, this feels much less like a typical season finale than those that have preceded it. Instead, most of our characters get only one or two scenes, although all do an enjoyable job of furthering their characters. Harry has become quite the sleaze, in that classic TV executive kind of way, as we see when he attempts to come on to a gorgeous young lady named Carolyn, who may or may not be sleeping with Peggy’s friend Joyce.
Joan, meanwhile, is pregnant with Roger’s baby. She’s running the long con: Roger assumes she had the abortion; Greg, meanwhile, is in ‘Nam, and assumes the baby is his. My assumption is that Joan will be getting a tragic letter from the military in the near future, but I adore Sam Page (even playing such an unpleasant character as Greg), so I hope he doesn’t die – if that makes sense – so we can bear witness to the slow destruction of Joan and Greg’s marriage.
Elsewhere, there’s a nice – if over-obvious – scene where Ken talks about how Cynthia is his “actual life”, whereas the rest of the men in the partners’ room have already prioritised the advertising world. After Kennedy’s death last season, Pete seemed on the verge of an epiphany, but this year we’ve increasingly seen how Trudy is taking second priority to his business. (Pete is great whenever he becomes self-righteous and condescending to his employees, by the way, and we remember how he’s a bottom-feeder still boyishly excited to be in a position of power. It’s much like Sally and Glen mimicking adults in their own interactions.)
It’s strange to think how many of these character developments have gone on in the background this year. It’s provided us with some odd twists and turns along the path of the fourth season, and I don’t think it was always a successful strategy on the part of the writers (the relationships of Ken, Lane, and even Pete have felt like mere asides) but there’s the possibility here for some powerful, layered interaction. When Lane promotes Joan (a title-only promotion, of course, because there’s no money left), we know more about their internal thoughts than they do. Joan’s life is a mystery to Lane; Lane’s life is a mystery to Joan; and the characters around them are acting in ways neither are aware of. When it’s firing on all cylinders, Mad Men can offer staggeringly good scenes in which the character’s own thoughts, beliefs, and misconceptions get in the way of honest conversation. The tragedy – or at least the drama – of the situation lies in our omniscience
Speaking of which, Betty and Don meet at last in the old home, now emptied and ready for sale. There’s such a powerful pang of nostalgia, given how much we’ve experienced here over the last four years, and it’s sad to let it go (although Weiner is the kind of guy who would bring us back here for one final scene later in the series’ run). Don is there to meet with the agent, and is surprised to run into his ex-wife. Betty claims she’s there because she got her times mixed up, but she doesn’t say it very convincingly. It’s a complex closing scene that I really enjoyed. As with any long-term couple, they have so many conflicting feelings: they’re able to be calm and nostalgic, even with all that has happened, and with all those underlying emotions – hate, confusion, hurt, pining, sarcasm, compassion. That’s one of the strange things about love: you have the ability to make someone laugh or cry with a single line, even years after it’s over.
Maybe others had picked up on it, but I was surprised by Betty’s stunned reaction to the news of the engagement. The years apart have allowed Don to reconfigure himself as the man he was when they first met, with the world at his feet, and the added sense of maturity and honesty that have developed. Whether Betty was hoping for a second chance, or she’s just stuck in that moment when you realise what you’ve lost, I’m not sure. Season five may well be the beginning of a Don/Betty reunion, for all the good and bad it will bring. Or perhaps they’ll realise that they’ve drifted too far apart: the people they once were may have had a possible rosy future, but the people they’ve become would need to start again from scratch. Either way, when Betty laments that her new home isn’t perfect, Don smilingly tells her, “So, you’ll move again”. He may as well be talking about himself.
In other thoughts:
- It’s good to see that Don’s babysitting duties include sitting in bed, drinking a sixpack.
- Roger’s response to the news that Don’s engaged to Megan: “who the hell’s that?” Brilliant.
- I love the way Christina Hendricks plays the announcement scene. She’s happy for Don and Megan, yet not entirely surprised; she’s proud of Megan, yet a bit jealous that another person may have achieved the dream, yet also – given her own experience with marriage – concerned, doubtful, and a bit icy, to boot. Peggy has no such ambiguity: she’s 100% unimpressed, and it stings. The Peggy/Joan bitching sequence that follows really showcases the development of these two women, and I hope we see more of them together next season.
- The episode ends with Don and Megan lying in bed, to the strains of I Got You Babe, which is some of the most modern music we’ve had yet on the series. It’s a great song, but probably not a great omen for the happy couple…
Mad Men returns this week on March 25. I have no idea what’s in store, but I can’t wait!