BOOKS AND ARTS OCTOBER 15, 2010
Earlier this season, Dr. Faye Miller said two things to Don Draper that foretold the big event in "Tomorrowland," the fourth season finale of "Mad Men:" "You'll be married again in a year," and, "Nobody wants to think they're a type."
She was right on both counts. Don Draper is engaged to Megan. Why? Because she's the Don Draper type.
Faye was an accomplished, confident, autonomous, professional who prized her freedom. She loved Don and was willing to share parenting duties with him if it came to that, but not exclusively on Don's terms. She insisted on being treated as an equal partner in their relationship, and although she caved on some important issues (pinch-sitting for Don without being properly asked; using her connections to bring in agency business), for the most part she walked the walk. She was, as more than one viewer has observed, kind of a female Don Draper, minus the philandering, but including the identity-reboot stuff (she's an outer-borough gal who conquered her accent, and she once hinted that there were criminals in her family tree). Unfortunately, the qualities that would seem to make Faye a perfect fit for Don are what doomed her. Don Draper can't be happy with a female Don Draper.
No, Don needs somebody who's going to take care of the 90 percent of daily life that he finds dull or onerous, freeing him to do what he does best: live in his head and indulge his appetites. He needs somebody like Megan—a social inferior who'll take care of his kids so he doesn't have to, and who's just young and naive enough that she'll mistake Don's neediness for love.
Between Don's return to the house of Anna Draper—the most idealized and, at times, abstracted regular character on the show—his vacation with his kids, and his starry-eyed but relentless pursuit of Megan, "Tomorrowland" sometimes felt like an hour-long enactment of Don Draper's pitch for The Carousel in season one. He was responding to nostalgia, the pain from an old wound—and trying to make the pain stop. But Don couldn't take Faye's advice and do that that by facing up to his past; he's too cowardly and dishonest for that. Instead, Don merely told his kids that Dick is "my nickname sometimes." He started to tell Megan that the ring had been "in my family," then backpedaled and described the ring as belonging to "someone very important to me"—pitiful half-truths that seem like great strides toward righteousness coming from Don.
Meanwhile, dear, sweet Megan is over the moon. And why shouldn't she be? She's about to marry a highly functioning alcoholic who bedded her on an office couch while he was still in a relationship with one of her co-workers, and proposed to her with a ring belonging to the late wife of a dead soldier whose identity Don stole so he could abandon his own blood family. "I feel like myself when I'm with you, but the way I always wanted to feel," Don told her, a statement that would have kept Sigmund Freud busy for a year.
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. The title refers to an area of Disneyland ("The Happiest Place on Earth" TM) that Draper and Co. planned to visit in Anaheim. It's not a real place, it's a section of a theme park dedicated to make-believe—the cleanest theme park on earth, where janitors pop out of secret doors, clean up trash and vanish before visitors can even see them. The final shot of "Tomorrowland" panned away from the sleeping Don and Megan to reveal another window for us to peep through. The closing credits song was "I Got You, Babe"—a 1965 hit for future divorcees Sonny and Cher, as well as the unofficial theme to "Groundhog Day," a comedy about a man condemned to relive the same day over and over for all eternity.
How did Don get here? Shattered by his divorce from Betty, Don crawled into a bottle this season. He had lost the accessories of a successful life—beautiful wife, well-appointed suburban house, cute kids—and he didn't know what to do with himself. At some point, however, he had to pull himself out of the abyss. What saved Don was what makes him happiest, anyway: work. In retrospect it makes sense that Don started to get a handle on things again when he rededicated himself to his job as creative director and started writing on the side. He isn't happy unless he's shaping the world in his own image.
In this regard, "The Suitcase" was the pivotal episode of this season for Don. He was reaching out to Peggy the only way he knew how: through work. He forced her to choose between staying late at the office and going to dinner with her boyfriend: in other words, between living in the world or living in her head. Peggy broke up with her boyfriend and stayed with Don the whole night. They truly connected—not as employee and supervisor, but as people who knew they were their best selves at work.
This was the episode where Don Draper finally rededicated himself to being Don Draper, with a vengeance. I love that there was no moment where Don or anyone else realized this. It just happened—a nearly invisible narrative driven by instinctive choices on Don's part. Something about the execution of this season reminded me of Freud likening the relationship between the Ego and the Id to that of a rider astride a powerful horse. The horse is what creates forward progress; the rider steers. There are times when the horse's motions are so powerful that the rider can't really guide them; he just has to surrender, let the horse do what it needs to do, and hang on. Don hung on, and for the first time in the show's run, his instincts and drives are perfectly aligned with the details of his life. (This was a disjointed season which repeatedly hinted it would go in directions it ultimately didn't, including Don Draper as Madison Avenue anti-celebrity and "Mad Men" as warped mirror of Civil Rights-era America. But the directions it did go in were fascinating, and on second viewing, I bet the entire thing will hold together nicely.)
And what of Megan? She seems serenely untroubled by deprivation or loss—and a borderline-cipher of a character, though we won't know for sure until next year. She seems to be an unselfconscious bringer of happiness, the kind of woman Hemingway heroes would fight over. When "Mad Men" picks up the master storyline again a couple of years down the road, I hope she looks back fondly on this time, because by that point, fond memories are all she'll have. Don is brilliant, handsome, and charming, but he's also poison. He gives love in order to feel loved, not because it's what people should do. He views every person on earth as either a stepping-stone or obstacle to happiness. He's going to break Megan like a butterfly on a wheel, without even meaning to, just by being himself, and by surrounding himself with men like Roger Sterling, who commemorates the announcement by barking, "Megan, can you get us some ice? I'm teasing." (In every joke there's some truth.)
That's how things tend to turn out, don't they, for the women of "Mad Men"? Badly. The wise and warm-hearted Faye gets kicked to the curb. Joan decides to keep Roger's baby and pretend that it belongs to her rapist husband. ("Mad Men" being what it is, Greg will probably come home from Vietnam in a body bag, a wheelchair, or arm-in-arm with a M*A*S*H nurse.) Peggy, who has endured all kinds of heartbreak in her journey to become the company's first female copywriter, finds out about Don's engagement almost by accident and has to endure Don's gross and condescending remarks about how Megan reminds him of Peggy. The conversation between Joan and Peggy was a rare moment of true sisterhood. Peggy called it right: She singlehandedly saves the company, and the office is abuzz over her boss's engagement to a pretty young thing who'll probably end up getting promoted to copywriter so Don can reassure himself that he's not mating too far beneath his station.
And Betty? Well, let's just say that even though she's a bad spouse and a worse mother, there were times in "Tomorrowland" where I felt sorry for her. She's a prisoner of her own flaws, but she's also a prisoner of her times, and unlike her ex-husband, when she behaves badly, she doesn't get to have fun doing it. Women aren't allowed to be creatures of pure appetite—not if they want be thought of as respectable—and they don't get matrimonial mulligans with beautiful partners half their age. "I wanted a fresh start, okay? I'm entitled to that," Betty told Henry. "There is no fresh start!" Henry replied. "Lives carry on." Well—more so for some than for others.
Don, as always, is attempting to defy that rule. His life is all second acts. He loves the thrill of the pitch but bails out of the day-to-day meetings. He's a masterful seducer but a disaster as a partner. Anything beyond the magic moment bores him, and when Don is forced to pay attention to things that bore him he starts to self-destruct. "I hope you're very happy," said Faye after Don broke up with her over the phone. "And I hope she knows you only like the beginnings of things."