Man, that Internet sure seems divided on the season finale of Mad Men, eh? First, let’s talk about the season as a whole.
If the last few seasons have been about shedding the trappings of the past, S4 is about considering who you really are. S3 ended with our heroes taking a stand – breaking out of the old ways of doing business and forming a risky new concern. S4 is about looking around as the dust settles and asking, “Okay. What now?”
With Peggy and Pete, this questioning makes sense. They’re both young; they’re at the stage in their lives when they should be asking these questions. Pete has lost his father (S2) and he still wants to take advantage of the ties that wealth and connection allow him (S3, S4). But he’s defining himself through his work. And not just by having a lucrative job that will provide for his family – note how he turns down that offer from Chaough. He likes being a partner. He takes enough pride in it to call Roger out on being lazy. He also takes enough pride in it to gloat when Ken shows up. So it’s not all admirable, but it’s character.
Peggy is already defining herself as a “career woman” as S4 kicks off. Now it’s just a question of living with the consequences of that choice. She’s forced to confront that choice directly, and memorably, in “The Suitcase” – choosing between a birthday dinner with her boyfriend and staying in the office. She also has to choose between a conventional romantic life (courtship, engagement, marriage, kids) and the bohemian life of 60s Greenwich Village hipsters. The process of discovery has been rocky for her, but she’s stayed true to what she wants throughout.
(It’s also a little sad that Peggy Olsen is a more sex-positive female character than most female characters on primetime dramas set in the modern day. She wants sex, she has some, it’s great, la-di-da. Sometimes it’s with the wrong guy, like Duck. Sometimes it doesn’t end well, like with her last boyfriend. But she marches on, unscarred)
The process of uncovering “what now?” has been the most dramatic for Don because Don’s already an adult. At least notionally. And yet he never really had a childhood, not a pleasant one anyway, and what little he had he wants to repress. Free of Betty and his children, he has the opportunity to date around. Women present themselves to him: his secretary Allison, his fetching neighbor, the actress Bethany van Nuys, Dr. Faye, his new secretary Megan. It’s an adolescent fantasy: rich, single, living on your own in the big city. And yet we see how hollow it is. The dingy apartment, the drunken one-night stands, the lost contact with his children.
Don gets a clean break with his past when Anna dies. With her gone, he’s free to be whoever he says he is. And, as the final episode showed us, Don is happy being the man he was before. Don Draper is the type of man (as predicted by Dr. Faye) who marries his secretary. Or the model on his photoshoot. And yet he hasn’t remained completely inert. He’s drinking less. He respects Peggy and Pete more. He’s growing a little more wary of Roger – the man’s a friend, but he’s also a mirror that shows the future. And he’s come to terms (for now) with Betty.
S4 presented Don with an opportunity to change. And, with a few small exceptions, he said, “You know what? I’m good. Thanks, though.”
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, S4 presented Don with a choice between Faye, Bethany and Betty. Faye is smart, warm, supportive and mature. She pushes Don to confront his past. Bethany was young, gorgeous and good at presenting herself. She wanted everything Don had to offer. When Don seemed torn between those two, Megan split the difference. She’s young, gorgeous, warm and supportive. She’s clever but not smart enough to challenge Don. She’s a way for Don to hedge his bets. And that’s something Don’s always excelled at – holding off on signing a contract for as long as possible; bargaining with Pete to keep the DoD off his back. When given a choice between three blondes, Don goes with the brunette and thinks he’s making progress.
More importantly, Megan doesn’t know who Don was before. And that’s crucial. If Don is going to change himself in S4 – or do what he thinks is changing himself – he needs someone who doesn’t know his past. As soon as Don let Faye in on his secret, a world of trouble fell from his shoulders. But she was disqualified from becoming Mrs. Donald Draper.
(That being said, I’m not in love with this development. What sort of plots will it lead to in Seasons 5 and 6? “A visitor from the past forces Megan to confront Don’s true identity”, etc? Shocking)
When I recapped the first four episodes of S4, I said that this season would be about dismantling the myth of Don Draper. The season finale puts a capstone on that. Don Draper will not get out of the Sixties intact. When he gets out of one scrape, his first instinct is to retreat to the behavior that got him in trouble in the first place. He’s saved from an FBI background check, and the first thing he does is ogle his secretary (literally, right after she drops the Beatles tickets on his desk). He loses Lucky Strike and he publishes a full-page ad in the Times. We may deplore one and admire the other, but they come from the same place.
“I’m living like there’s no tomorrow,” Draper tells Rachel Mencken in the pilot, “because there isn’t one.” That hasn’t changed in five years. Dick Whitman has been living a borrowed life since his near-death experience in Korea. He doesn’t think about building a future. He thinks about what will get him through today. Just to tide them over; just a little more time; just a little more room. Draper’s idea of planning for the future is to propose to a woman he barely knows with a ring he got three days ago.
Has there been any change? Yes, but not in him.
Note what happens when Draper announces his engagement to the partners. There’s a room of blank faces. The first person to congratulate him is the person in the room who knows him the least: Lane Pryce. And when Megan is invited in and Lane congratulates her too, Pete corrects him. “You don’t say ‘congratulations’ to the bride,” he says, adding an unspoken of Don Draper to the end. “You say ‘best wishes’.” And really, that’s all we can offer this poor girl. Our best wishes in dealing with this mess.