‘Mad Men’ Recap: ‘Tomorrowland’

So here’s the challenging thing about trying to come to grips with what went down on tonight’s season finale of “Mad Men”: everything was in the moment, and, as such, can only be judged on that moment. “Tomorrowland” might have been the part of Disneyland that Bobby Draper most wanted to visit, but it’s also a place no one can view with anything remotely associated with certainty at the moment. For once, the future seems relatively bright for certain characters, as bright as the almost unnaturally lit California. For others, there’s a glimmer of happiness in a world so fraught with peril. But there’s absolutely no guarantee that any of these sunny futures will actually play out the way these people currently envision.

In fact, let’s straight up look at Tomorrowland in and of itself before moving on, since “Mad Men” seems to be clearly drawing a parallel between what the designers of that particular part of the amusement park saw as the world of tomorrow and what actually transpired. In short? Not a strong correlation. Almost none of the predictions came true in a meaningful way. And that’s the conundrum, both from the perspective of the characters on the show and the audience as a whole.

It’s clear on one level that Character A has Feeling B, and on a conscious level, that person believes that feeling to be true. But it’s as clear that quite often, Character A NEEDS Feeling B to be true as well. Because if that feeling turns out to be false, then their entire world shatters into a thousand pieces. Don’s pitch to the American Cancer Society illuminates the dilemma these people find themselves in. In describing the teenage audience towards whom SDCP’s potential ACS campaign would revolve, Don says, “The truth is, they are mourning for their childhood more than they are anticipating for their future.” Tonight’s series finale, while jubilant and romantic throughout the majority of it, also contained a great deal of mourning for those things lost.

episode-13-don-megan1.jpgDon’s trip to California was ostensibly about business, but was also about putting a period on the sentence that involved Anna Draper and, by some extension, the period of his life in which he inhabited two people but felt comfortable inside neither’s skin. Back in “The Suitcase,” Don forced Peggy to work all night in order to stave off his own fear over Anna’s death. But Don’s trip wasn’t simply about business: it was about family, too, taking his children with him on a vacation. Bringing his children to Anna’s house fused two parts of his life together for the first time, a necessary step in order for him to move on from the past in order to have any chance of a future.

Of course, he didn’t simply bring his family with him. He brought Megan, and even before Stephanie produced Anna’s old engagement ring, one couldn’t help but see Faye’s early Season 4 prediction coming true a mile away. “Mad Men” did a pretty tricky thing in terms of the proposal, cutting from a milkshake spill in California to a morning-after proposal in NYC so rapidly that the audience was forced to think two things: 1) Is this a dream sequence? And 2) Do I WANT this to be a dream sequence? That type of confusion between reality and dream didn’t merely play at home, but in Don’s Greenwich Village apartment as well for the pair. Don had this great “I hear the words coming out of my mouth but it’s unclear if I am actually saying them” vibe, and Megan returned with a great “I knew leaving Montreal would be the right thing but I didn’t know HOW right!” vibe of her own.

Now, in some ways, this was Megan’s role to lose, and I hesitate to use the word “role” but there’s something to it in terms of how their impending nuptials are perceived in the world of the show. First up? Betty set the wife bar LOW. I don’t know anyone bendy enough to limbo under a bar that low. Flo Rida couldn’t find anyone, fur-laden boots or not, that could get low enough to go under it. But I can easily see people resisting this all-out California charm offensive on the basis not simply that the relationship is happening too fast, but that “Mad Men” pushed this relationship too fast.

I think the speed on both levels is purposeful, which doesn’t mean you have to agree with it but means you can’t disagree with the execution so much as the premise behind it. While Don and Megan seem happy at the moment, I think there’s as much fear, hesitation, and bewilderment on their part as there is on the more visibly stunned people around them. Peggy and Joan in particular have a ball mocking Don and Megan behind their backs, which makes sense since both women have done everything but wipe Don’s ass after he goes to the bathroom this season. (And maybe that’s a deleted scene from “The Suitcase,” who knows?) It’s not so much that they want to be in Megan’s position, but they also seem to think that she hasn’t earned that position, which makes them leery of her and slightly disappointed in him.

Taking it (seemingly) better? Betty, who got a big karmic bitch slap this week. By firing Carla, she opened up the door for Don Draper’s Love Tour ’65 to make a West Coast trip. She spent the episode being spectacularly awful, even by her own standards. But it’s also clear that her entire time with Henry Francis has been one spectacular hissy fit, something that only seemed apparent to her after everything in the residence in which she and Don once lived was gone. She confesses to Don that her life isn’t perfect, which is amusing on approximately 87 levels. I’ll just list two: a) it’s amusing that she assumed Don thought of her life as perfect, and b) life is something that can’t be perfect in anything more than a few fleeting moments.

What will be interesting to see is if Don can see that level of delusion and apply it to his own life. In some ways, Don and Megan had the honeymoon before the wedding, with their time in California giving him a glimpse into the type of familial life that he didn’t even realize could be possible. Let’s go back to that milkshake scene for a second: we see in Don’s abrupt, angry reaction just how much Betty’s normal response to things less-than-perfect has adjusted his own views on such things. But Megan’s calm demeanor does as much good for Don as the kids: when no one gets the tongue lashing they expect, they exhale, all realizing how long they had been holding their breaths.

All this being said, I am hoping, nay, PRAYING, that the final scene between Don and Betty in their old kitchen marks some sort of turning point for her character. Sure, she can simply move homes every time something doesn’t suit her, but that’s hardly progression. She gets called out by pretty much everyone tonight, from Glenn to Carla to Henry, and while she clearly engineered time to be alone with Don in their house in the hopes that maybe she could get a “do over” on the previous year, she also seemed to grasp in a way approximating an adult the impact that her decisions had on Don’s engagement. I’m not suggesting we nominate her for “Mother of the Year” for this breakthrough, but it’s a start. Like Henry tells her: “There is no fresh start. Life carries on!”

Such advice weighs heavily on the both the personal and the professional, where business must carry on at SDCP. Peggy lands their first client since Lucky Strike with Topaz Pantyhose, a small client but one that potentially represents a sea change in the way people perceive the company. There was no Hail Mary, no Conrad Hilton, and sadly, no Ray Wise to come in and save the day for the company. Maybe “sadly” is the wrong word: such a client might have felt as artificial as Ted Chaough’s fake call to Don last week. Don’s business life, as always, mirrors his private life: there’s optimism, but it’s based on little more than a gut reaction at the time as opposed to safe assumptions about the future.

But maybe that’s enough for now. The entire season was built around the question uttered in the first line of dialogue this season: “Who is Don Draper?” Don couldn’t answer that question at the time: too worried about the future yet unduly weighed down by his past to answer a question in the present. His spontaneous proposal could only be produced in an atmosphere in which drink was not needed, in which work didn’t displace his personal life, and in which being Dick Whitman didn’t interfere with him being Don Draper. Assuming that false identity is less of something to be burdened by as much as something to aspire to: when Megan says she loves the Don she knows, what she’s saying is that she loves the sum totals of his experiences that produced the man before her. In that respects, Don isn’t different from anyone else on the show, and that similarity is both comforting and liberating for him.

However, that liberation may not last long. It may be true, as Faye states, that Don only likes the beginnings of things. And in the beginning, there’s seemingly nothing that can go wrong. The first few months can show no visible signs of difference, but then that difference swells, becomes more and more visible, and then, after say 9 months, bursts forth and creates a lot of pain in the process. See what I did there? So will Roger and everyone else, soon enough, although in typical “Mad Men” fashion, Season 5 will probably start with Joan already a mother. Kudos to those that accurately predicted this, but I hate not that I was wrong so much as the choice to have her lie in the first place. It’s not like she’s lying about how many licks it took her to get to the center of a freakin’ Tootsie Pop, people. It’s a bit bigger than that, and while I’ll reserve final judgment for how the show deals with this in the future, I can’t say I’m particularly thrilled with this choice over all.

Still, it fits in with the overall theme of dealing with the present, not the future. It’s possible the decisions that were made in the “today” of “Tomorrowland” will all work out for the best. But it’s quite likely that more than a few won’t work out at all, and will fill Volume 2 of “Sterling’s Gold” with far juicier tales that were in Volume 1. But that’s all something to be determined in Volume 5 of “Mad Men” itself, for which we will once again have to wait far too long to consume.

But I wanted to say thanks to everyone that read these recaps this Fall, and that you should stay tuned for a mega-“Mad Men” podcast with myself and Mo Ryan dropping later this week! For now, leave your thoughts on the season finale below!


One Comment

  1. evie
    Posted October 17, 2010 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    Best line, of course: “Who the hell is that?”

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  1. […] Mad Men – “Tomorrowland” [Boob Tube Dude] “…in typical “Mad Men” fashion, Season 5 will probably start with Joan already a mother. Kudos to those that accurately predicted this, but I hate not that I was wrong so much as the choice to have her lie in the first place. It’s not like she’s lying about how many licks it took her to get to the center of a freakin’ Tootsie Pop, people. It’s a bit bigger than that, and while I’ll reserve final judgment for how the show deals with this in the future, I can’t say I’m particularly thrilled with this choice overall.” […]