A review of the "Mad Men" season four finale coming up just as soon as I witness your nervous breakdown at Howard Johnson's...
"I wanted a fresh start, okay? I'm entitled to that." -Betty
"There is no fresh start! Lives carry on." -Henry
Don Draper is the king of the fresh start, and of realizing after the fact how much your former life can linger. As Dick Whitman, he took the real Don Draper's identity, and has reinvented himself time and again ever since, but always with what he did in Korea - and the possibility of being exposed - hanging over him.
The new firm was supposed to be a fresh start, but of late it's been a disaster, with Cooper gone and the staff so reduced they might as well move back into that suite in the Pierre where they started.
Betty's divorce and marriage to Henry were supposed to be new starts, but Betty can't change who she is, nor can she keep the rest of the world from seeing her as this insufferable overgrown child.
Fresh starts are, as Henry says, probably a pipe dream. Yet as we end "Mad Men" season four, everyone's trying for yet another new beginning, whether it's Don impulsively proposing to Megan, Betty firing Carla as she prepares to move the kids to a new house, Joan keeping Roger's baby and claiming it as Greg's, Anna's niece Stephanie taking a break from college, or the firm landing its first new client since the Lucky Strike fiasco.
And by the time we return to these characters in season five, I suspect many of them are going to find these fresh starts feeling like the stale lives they had before.
I did a quick interview with Matthew Weiner (who co-wrote the finale with Jonathan Igla, and directed it) about Don's journey this season, and he talked about how this season gave Don the chance to finally live in the open and become some kind of fusion of Don Draper and Dick Whitman, and how that freedom scared him into a lot of the mistakes he made over the year. In the finale, he's again trying to reconcile his two sides, following Dr. Faye's advice to "take your head out of the sand about the past."(*)
(*) If only she had known what he would do with that advice, she'd have kept her trap shut.
In taking Sally and Bobby to see Anna's bungalow before he sells it, he admits that Dick is "my nickname sometimes." And much of his behavior throughout the episode, particularly around Megan, seems very un-Don-like. He's desperate to know if they'll spend more than the one night together and proposes with the real Don Draper's ring after only having it a few days (and after only really knowing her for a couple of months in "Mad Men" chronology). Not only does he not hesitate to tell the staff about the engagement - when in the past he always hated his co-workers knowing anything about him - he seems eager to do it.
It's, quite frankly, unsettling as hell to see Don acting this way.
Now, you can look at his behavior one of two ways. One is that he's doing what Weiner talked about, and what Dr. Faye suggested: finding a way to synthesize the Dick and Don pieces of his personality. Or two, he's acting this way as a retreat from the pain of the last several episodes (Sally's visit, the North American near-miss, Lucky Strike), and having himself the same kind of midlife crisis he scorned when Roger married Jane. (And don't think Roger doesn't notice; check out his, "See, Don? This is the way to behave" line as he congratulates them.) As someone who's rooted for a long time for Don to make peace with his past and let the good parts of Dick become a part of him again, I want to think it's the former, but fear it's the latter.
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?" Well, okay, let's think about that. Leaving aside things in the distant past like the Korea switcheroo or his encounter with Roger at the fur shop: Betty had to leave Don. Don then had to turn himself into the drunken caricature who slept with and then humiliated Allison. Joan had to punish Don by assigning him the elderly Miss Blankenship, who then had to die suddenly. Betty had to fire Carla, depriving the kids of the strongest maternal presence in their lives, and Don of a babysitter for the trip. For that matter, Anna had to be dead, too, or else Don might have just asked her to help out in California and dealt with the flights on his own. (And he wouldn't happen to have an engagement ring in his pocket that came from the man whose life he stole.) And Sally had to be so miserable at home that she would run away to New York, then literally run away from Don and crash into the floor so that Don would see that Megan's good with kids. 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.
Now, it's easy to understand the appeal of Megan. She's beautiful and smart (she and Peggy were the only two who initially understood the Times ad) and good-hearted. She's great with the kids - it's not an accident that the scene right before Don's proposal is Megan responding to a Sally/Bobby fight in a way that's the opposite of how Betty (or, for that matter, Don) would have - and they in turn seem to really like her. (Note Sally's concern that Megan wouldn't be able to go on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride if she had to watch Gene.) And she adores the hell out of Don.
She is, in other words, uncomplicated, and I can see how Don might need uncomplicated after the year he's had, even if that means casting aside Faye, who understands him so well and hasn't run away from the truth of who he was. Megan doesn't know about Dick Whitman, and says she doesn't even care about his past because of who Don is today. She is fresh start personified, and that's what he wants more than the messiness of integrating past Dick with present Don. Megan has to be intoxicating for him right now, even if things will likely go sour once the marriage and the rest of it are real. Faye is perceptive as ever when she bitterly says of Don's mystery fiancee, "I hope she knows you only like the beginnings of things."
Late in the finale, Don gets to go back to the beginning of his previous marriage, as Betty stages an "accidental" meeting with him at the Ossining house.(**) She's going through her latest unsuccessful attempt at a clean slate. Divorcing Don and marrying Henry didn't make he feel any more fulfilled, and her bizarre, dysfunctional feelings about Glen have driven her out of the house, and driven her to fire Carla, who's been a far stronger maternal figure for the kids than Betty herself has. (And that's really what seals Carla's fate; had she not poked at Betty's feelings of maternal inadequacy, Betty would have still tantrum'ed, but she might have forgiven Carla.) Henry is recognizing just what a mess he married into, and she no longer has the excuse of Don's secrets and infidelity on which to blame her behavior.(***)
(**) Note that Betty is carefully checking her makeup waiting to hear Don enter, at which point she picks up the box she allegedly forgot to pack up earlier.
(***) Emily Nussbaum of New York Magazine published an essay the other day expressing disappointment over the show's treatment of Betty as a pure villain this year. As I've noted in the past, the problems the writers have with Betty is that she has no other arena in which to demonstrate her worth. Don can be a pretty wretched human being at times, as can Pete, but we get to see them at work, doing well. One of the few fully three-dimensional Betty episodes of the series was last year's Rome getaway, in which we got to see the kind of person Betty could be away from the house and kids she's never really wanted. But firing Carla, and then refusing to write her a recommendation letter? That's cold even by Betty Francis standards. "When did you decide that you're her mother?" How about when she realized what a neglectful, abusive one you were, Betty? How about that?
Don was a problem, but clearly not the root cause she took him for when she kicked him out almost two years ago. She felt herself softening towards Don at Gene's birthday party, and there's a part of her that no doubt wishes she was still with him - even if only because, again, it was easier to justify her behavior when she was with him - and instead finds that he's made his own fresh start (thanks in part to her firing of Carla), and that for the moment he seems happier in his than she does in her slightly-less-fresh one. Still, as Betty asks, "Remember this place?" and they think back on what the house was like when they moved in - and what they were like - there's an easiness and warmth between them that we haven't seen in a long time. (The closest I can think of was when Betty gave him leftovers the night he thought they would be moving to London.)
As for Joan, first I have to offer a mea culpa. I was wrong. Flat-out wrong. I assumed she had the abortion, in part because I couldn't see a reason for her to lie to Roger about it afterwards. But she did, indeed, have the Murtaugh "I'm getting too old for this" moment in the waiting room, and she's going to have Roger's baby and raise it as Greg's and hope, like so many other people stuck in struggling marriages, that the baby will give their relationship the fresh start it so desperately needs. But there will always be that incident on the floor of Don's old office, and Greg's general history of cluelessness and pigheadedness, and there's always going to be the threat of Roger blowing up her life with what he knows about the kid.
And despite all our speculation for weeks about who might save the firm - many of us who saw that the finale was titled "Tomorrowland" assumed it would be Disney, but of course it turns out spoiler-phobe Weiner wasn't foolish enough to leave such a big clue like that - the finale shows that the agency's fresh start is a very small one. Peggy, through her friendship with Joyce, and then through her own blooming talents, lands the agency's first new client since Lucky Strike went away. It's a relatively small account, but all you need is one to break a streak. And between the huge amount of layoffs (that leave Joan pushing a mail cart and Roger apparently answering his own phone from his secretary's desk) and the collateral loan from the partners, we can see how the firm is going to survive, just hanging on as they add one new client (the American Cancer Society is no doubt next, and perhaps Roger can bag Dow Chemical through that) after another. Whenever the opening episode of season five takes place, I expect this agency to still exist, even if Bert Cooper doesn't come back and Pete becomes the C in the SCDP acronym.
It's funny: last year's finale suggested that the new agency would be a fresh start for everyone: Roger and Bert would be revitalized, Don had finally stopped using Peggy as a pinata, Don finally showed some respect for Pete, etc. That's really not how it turned out. Bert was an office-less figurehead, Roger disinterested in anything but massaging (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) his one and only client. Don and Peggy's relationship actually got uglier than it had at various points in season three, and Pete continued to feel insulted by Don. Changing relationships isn't as easy as moving to a new house, or a new office. But change does happen. Don and Peggy finally had it out in "The Suitcase," and now they're genuinely different together (see the Weiner interview for more on that), even if Peggy understandably thinks he's nuts to be engaged to Megan. By picking up Pete's end of the loan, Don has put their relationship on as strong a footing as it'll likely ever have. Roger actually seems excited by the prospect of chasing down new clients.
Maybe Megan really is what Don needs (and if she stays at the office, maybe she'll be more than an irritant to Peggy). Maybe being out of that house, with its memories good and bad, will help Betty finally move on from the wreckage of her first marriage. Maybe Greg will be a better dad than he's been a husband.
Or maybe when we rejoin the story, however far down the calendar that is, everyone's problems are the same as they were going into this episode. And Betty will be thinking about moving again, just as Don suggests here.
You can't always will a change into your life. Change happens when it happens. You can make a new start, but it won't necessarily be a fresh one.
Some other thoughts:
• So many good one-liners in this one: Joan's "Well, it's almost an honor," Roger's "Did you get Cancer?," Pete's "Are you two getting married?" and then Ken's "I hope you have all the happiness that Peggy and I had signing this account." But the one I laughed at the most - when Megan said her friend told her she could never be an actress because of her teeth may not have been intended as a joke. It's just that there have been so many comments here and elsewhere about the size of Jessica Pare's teeth that I couldn't help laughing at Weiner anticipating that reaction months ago and putting a reference to it into the script.
• Don's faceplant on the hotel bed is among the more charming moments he's ever had with the kids, and a rare piece of physical comedy from Mr. Jon Hamm. You could also tell how much Hamm was enjoying himself as Don tossed Bobby into the deep end of the pool.
• God, I loved that Peggy and Joan scene where they comisserated over the Megan news. If the show has a Will-They-Or-Won't-They? couple, it's those two. We haven't been waiting four seasons for them to fall in love, but simply for them to put aside their different philosophies and become friends. This could well be a one-time thing and - assuming Joan is still in the more-impressive-than-it-sounds role of Director of Agency Operations, and not staying home with the baby - they'll be awkward as always when we return. But just as I waited so long for the newfound respect Don had for Peggy post-"Suitcase," I would really appreciate the occasional "I know exactly what you're thinking" exchange between these two.
• Ken's refusal to be like Pete and exploit his personal relationships for professional gain fits what we've known about Kenny and his haircut all along. Pete is determined to succeed, no matter what - which makes him a better choice to be head of accounts - where Ken has always viewed the job as just a job. So no Ray Wise riding to the firm's rescue, though I hope we'll see him again at some point in the future.
• Harry, on the other hand, has been on quite the transformation since the first season. Then, he was the gentlest and most likable of the four chipmunks. Now, he's every bit the sleazy old man Joey took him for, even if Joey got the orientation wrong. I felt embarrassed for him as he so nakedly tried to pick up Joyce's model friend, then amused when he left a cloud of dust behind him when Peggy explained the model wouldn't be at the Topaz meeting.
• File this under Probably Reading Way Too Much Into Things: "I Got You Babe" was a bit hit on the radio around the time of this episode, but I also wonder if perhaps it was used because it's now so associated with "Groundhog Day," a movie about a man who got a fresh start to life every single day, and took forever to realize what to do with that gift.
• Again, I wonder: exactly how much does Stephanie (and her mother, for that matter, since she prepared the paperwork on the house) know about who our Don really is?
• The head of Topaz, so interested in hearing and numbering pitches, was played by John Manfrelotti, who had a memorable recurring role on TNT's "Men of a Certain" age as Ray Romano's weird bookie.
• When Betty asked if Don's fiancee was Bethany Van Nuys, Don almost looked for a moment like he'd forgotten who she was. The show definitely left Bethany (and Phoebe the nurse) far behind, and I wonder if we'll ever get to see the jilted Dr. Faye again. Hey, she'll be proven right on her prediction that Don would remarry within a year; she unfortunately won't be the one to benefit.
• Another zig where we expected a zag: for the first time, there's no big historical event near the close of the season, as there were in seasons one (1960 election), two (Cuban Missile Crisis) and three (JFK assassination). Weiner could have worked in the New York blackout, or the Battle of Ia Drang or something else like that, but didn't shoehorn them in to a story he didn't feel needed it.
So that's it for this season. There's been some discussion of where this one ranks among the four, and while I'll need some time to get perspective, at the moment I'd consider this one of the show's strongest years. Between the new office, Don being single, Don being a drunken mess, Betty's reduced role, Peggy being the one to do most of the classic Draper-style pitches, etc., this was a very different season for the show, but no less compelling. If anything, that off-kilter quality led to some of the show's best episodes ever, like "The Suitcase." "Mad Men" seasons often seem to need a handful of episodes to ramp up, but here all we really needed was the expository premiere, and we were off to the races after that.
Great show. Great season. And, as always, it's been great fun discussing it here with you all (and I appreciate your patience with some of the technical bumps as we moved from the old blog). You guys are usually a lot smarter than me (see Joan's abortion for just one example), and I'm glad we can all gather together for 13 weeks a year to talk about this complicated, fascinating series.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com