Mad Men Not-Tuesday: “Because WTF” Edition
I guess for the finale, I’m back to doing this “Mad Men” review on a Monday, because, well, I’ve got a lot to say about that. I was wrong that they wouldn’t mention Disneyland, but right that it wasn’t all that important in terms of SCDP’s business. But the idea of Disney—the fantasy of Disney-dominated fairy tales—was indeed very important to this episode.
The main problem with the episode is that it, frankly, sucked. Besides the abortion cop-out,* it wasn’t even really the plot or the ideas or the character development. At the end of the day, it was the pacing and the scripting, which were lazy and anvilicious. Matthew Weiner admits they just finished the episode on Wednesday, and I think that’s all you need to know about why it didn’t work. The editing was all off—the fact that they got home from California and were in his apartment in a quick cut was confusing, and we spent a lot of time trying to figure out how long they’d been back in New York. I realize they were trying to speed things up to capture the idea of a whirlwind courtship, but they failed. It’s not like the team behind “Mad Men” can’t do a swift and dirty episode. The end of last season was amazing. But this was just confusing.
Which is too bad, because despite the abortion fakeout,** I thought the plot developments were solid. And I think there were good ideas about how to execute these developments, but the pacing ruined it all. The whole season has been about Don wavering back and forth between becoming an honest person who has a grown-up relationship with a woman and enjoys real friendships with people like Peggy, and retreating back into the fantasy of Don Draper, a man who seems like he stepped right out of a Coke ad. This episode was about him committing to the latter, mostly out of fear, and convincing himself that it’s what he really wants. And I do think that Hamm did a great job of capturing that delusional glint in Don’s eyes as he tells himself that he’s in “love” with a woman that he literally knows nothing about, and the other actors did a great job at displaying contempt and confusion at his delusion. The scene in the restaurant got the most attention for the way Megan “proves” herself by being calm when Sally spills a milkshake, but let’s not forget that Betty (who she’s being compared to) seems to have been a sweet, delightful woman who did everything right before the realities of marriage and children wore her down, and made her double down on the childish fantasy of romance she initially shared with Don. But the takeaway for me in that scene was one thing they did do right, which was to make Megan-and-the-kids look like a Coke ad, something that Don wants to step in to to forget himself.
What’s bothersome to me is that there was a great episode buried in that mess. The name “Tomorrowland” was completely ironic, since the fantasies the characters were indulging were the nostalgic ones that actually dominate the Disney franchise. The references to sexist, retrograde fairy tale fantasies abounded: Cinderella, “The Sound of Music”, and Sleeping Beauty was implied when Don woke Megan up and proposed. Peggy and Kenneth are shown eagerly taking a piss all over Cinderella as a tired, old fantasy (and Kenneth also backs that up by having a moment where he basically argues that there is life after “happily ever after”, and marriages do need care and feeding after the curtains close), but the rest of the characters eat up the fantasy. Marc pointed out that Megan and Don’s conversations are all about their romance, and how “good” they think each other is. Their actual compatibility is as relevant as that in a Disney story. She’s the princess, he’s the prince—they don’t even need to like each other.
Betty and Henry are the “after” in this little tableau. After the whirlwind, fairy tale romance has ended, and you find yourself married to a stranger, then what? Betty has become a complete monster now, and because of the half-assed storytelling in this episode, it’s only those of us in the audience with elephant-like memories who grasp what they’re stabbing at—when Don first met Betty, she was Megan. Except she spoke Italian and not French. One of TWOPers joked that Megan spent the episode playing the role of a Miss America contestant, and I think that was the point. Here’s me in evening wear. Here’s me in a swimsuit. I just love children, and I speak two languages! I have many vague aspirations to artiness, but no actual ambitions. She might as well have done a baton-twirling act. But it works on Don, and it did when Betty ran the same standard feminine con on him. And as it worked on Henry when Betty did it to him. But there’s always an “after”.
The problem was that they failed to get the audience emotionally invested. Producing the ring early in this episode made everything that followed as predictable as humidity after rain. Marc also made the good point that if they had Anna’s family send Don the ring in the mail right at the peak of his happiness with Faye, then they could have distracted us and made us feel the impact when this precious gift from a dead friend ended up being the prize in the Miss Wife contest instead of a legitimate token of real love between Don and Faye.
What was also confusing was why Peggy was so upset. It could have been more clear that it was in part because Don compared Megan to her in a fit of rationalization. But I think that’s what fueled a lot of it, because this man whose respect and friendship she thought she had basically compared her actual ambition and actual talent to the baton-twirling act of Miss Wife USA. It’s not that she wants to marry Don, especially not when she has sexy Village Voice journalist in her bed. She thought she was valued as a human being and a worker, but her gender will always keep real respect out of her hands. I do think the one scene that really, completely worked was the one between her and Joan. For years, Peggy has tried to befriend Joan by being her usual Peggy self—optimistic, sunny, looking to Joan as a mentor without thinking about how this makes Joan feel when Peggy outranks her. But when she comes to Joan full of bitterness because the scales have fallen from her eyes? Now they can be friends. I thought there was a rather valuable point made about feminism in there, too. There’s a lot of whining from conservative women about evil feminists shutting them out instead of believing in some generic idea of “sisterhood”. I think that scene showed more the reality. Their moment of feminist sisterhood is rooted in a shared critique over a system where their actual skills and accomplishments are discounted because they’re forever going to be treated like the gender whose role is to twirl batons in a bikini.
I’m probably the only person left who still defends Betty, or the portrayal of Betty. Obviously, actual Betty is a monster, but I think the show has done a bang-up job of getting her character to this place. She’s the end result of a system where women’s only value is metaphoric baton-twirling. Once the crown has been placed on your head and life keeps going on, then what? Betty shucked one crown for another and found that she’s not getting different results. When she crawled into Sally’s bed, I was actually touched. The first scene of the show was the other one that worked really well, with Don suggesting that teenagers are mourning the ends of their childhood. Betty has the temperament and maturity of an adolescent, and like a teenager, she does long for the simplicity of childhood and the warmth of believing in fairy tales. Her firing of Carla was unbelievably awful, but sadly realistic, right down to the shot at Carla’s children and the petulant refusal to give her a recommendation. (I’m still hoping in my heart Henry wrote it for her, and I think it was implied that he did.) Betty wants to break all ties to the past. She wants to be like Megan, a blank slate. She’d probably fire her children if she could.
The last scene between Betty and Don was also confusing, but I think what they were getting at is that these two are basically in the same boat, reaching for fantasies instead of making reality work for them. When Don said that Betty can just move again if this house isn’t perfect, I think he was predicting Tomorrowland for himself and for Betty—a life of constant restlessness, because you’re compelled by a fantasy that is always out of reach.
I know that a lot of what was upsetting about that episode is watching Don fail so spectacularly at his self-improvement plan. I’m mentally trying to separate that element from my actual criticisms of the pacing and writing of that episode. Before this even aired, Sady called out the central problem in building the show around someone who is such a ripe asshole.
The character appears to have reached the point of no return; we’ve seen the man commit so many acts of thoughtless cruelty, and wreck his own chances at happiness so many times, that watching the character actually feels like knowing a reckless drunk. Even if he comes through and saves the day this time, he’s going to ruin it all again tomorrow; what’s the point of hoping?
But then, the other option is to let him fail, and fail in an exceptionally humiliating and gruesome way which will carry severe, terrible consequences for every character on the show. That’s entirely plausible, of course. “Exceptionally humiliating and gruesome” just so happens to be a major part of the show’s tonal palette, and “severe, terrible consequences” are its favorite form of plot twist. But if the show does this, a large part of the audience will feel cheated, and they’ll have every right to feel that way. The show has already gotten very dark this season, and if it ends without bringing us even a little hope, it may be hard to invest anything in it emotionally.
That’s a legitimate way to feel, but I don’t really feel that way. I’m happy to watch Don be a slow burn tragic hero. On this show, he is the patriarchy. Their most clever observation about the patriarchy through Don is the glib charm. Don is all the lies of our culture wrapped into one man, and his slide downhill is all about dismantling myths that we absorb even as we reject them. Don is the Randian myth of the individual superman, and this season we really see how much said people rest on the shoulders of the worker bees they feel so superior to. Don is the myth of the chivalrous white knight, and we see the sleazy, cheating bastard beneath that charming exterior. Now he’s playing the part of an actual Von Trapp-style patriarch, and that’s also a lie. He’s an anti-hero. I’m happy with that—I want to see him fail.
What I don’t get is why this is the last episode of the penultimate season. It would have been interesting to send the show out on such an epic personal failure for Don. My prediction is that they went this way because they’re setting up a 5th season that is all about a cynical take on advertising. In the fourth season, Don legitimately grappled with letting himself be himself instead of just this fantasy he projects into the world. But he was also not doing great work. Maybe this last season will be about how the price he pays for his talent is that he can never really be an honest man.
It’s really hard to say at this point, and not for any good reasons, but mostly because that last episode is so confusing. But I will say that they probably got me in a place where I’ll watch it again, just to see if I’m missing some key element that made it better than it seemed to be on screen. I doubt it. I wish they could just go back and redo it in the way it needed to be done.
The real kicker to me about how that episode failed to be emotionally compelling was I felt nothing but annoyance when the ring box was brought out. That should have been devastating, a real sign that Don was so far gone that he’s violating the memory of Anna. Instead, I was thinking, “Ah jeez, that ring didn’t last long in his pocket.”
*I can’t even bear to think about it. I can’t believe they whipped out the oldest cliche in the book. On TV, 99% of women who enter abortion clinics have a change of heart and leave. In reality, I’m guessing the numbers are reversed.
**Seriously? Et tu, “Mad Men”? You put so much effort into capturing how people really are and were—and because of this, you never let the audience get too attached to Don Draper, even though he’s played by the charming Jon Hamm—and suddenly you get into picking the fan service cliche about abortion? And believe you and me, it was fan service. The folks at the TWOP forums were peeing themselves in delight that Joan gets to have a baby. It was picking the easy over the real, and on a show that’s batting nearly 1000 in the other direction.