I've blogged before about my hesitation to write about Mad Men, partly because after an episode I often don't know how I feel, partly because plenty of other writers do know how they feel about the show and express themselves so well. It's difficult for one perspective to capture a series as dense and elusive as Mad Men, so thankfully the insights of Alan Sepinwall, Matt Zoller Seitz, James Wolcott, and others have each taken a unique angle, combining to cover nearly all the bases in this whirlwind fourth season. Additionally, Michael Cusumano at Serious Film (a terrific blog new to me), recently posted a tremendous overview of S4 that is all but impossible to top.
Yet while the general consensus for season four has been overwhelmingly favorable, last week's finale, "Tomorrowland," polarized opinion more or less down the middle. Seitz thought the episode "had a pleasurably off-kilter feel," and Jim Emerson zeroed in on a couple of key scenes to demonstrate how Mad Men has brought "rich, creative, cinematic work" to television. Wolcott touted some "gold-star moments, coupled with a couple of glamorous shots worthy of Hollywood in its prime" during Don Draper's latest life-changing visit to L.A., yet was left with the feeling that the masterful buildup of dramatic tension in the offices of SCDP "dipped and melted into soft curves" as the focus turned abruptly to Don's falling in love (or something) with Megan amid "a bouquet of dud lines." Tom Shone wasn't buying either: "The writers were trying to put a supertanker through 180 degrees in the space of one episode, and then pass off the viewer's whiplash as part of the plan."
Normally I share Shone's disdain for that type of argument, having heard it for everything from the abysmal sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Magic as a metaphor for drugs -- they're not going to do that....Oh, they just did) to Spielberg and Lucas's Indiana Jones and the Shit Made Up as They Went Along. It's the kind of reasoning that takes creative responsibility away from the creators and puts the onus on the audience to be entertained. For all that, though, I think Matthew Weiner has spent this season engaged in a dialogue with his viewers -- not in an overtly-meta way like Chuck or Community (both of which I like) or flipping the bird like David Lynch's Twin Peaks or Chris Carter's X-Files (both of which I ended up loathing). Weiner's discussion topics have occasionally popped out of the narrative, from the fan-fic wish that Joan's vile husband will get fragged in Vietnam (with Weiner seeming to indicate via Joan the unlikelihood that this will happen) to his distaste for spoilers (Harry Crane's revelations about upcoming soap opera episodes) to stage directions woven amusingly into dialogue (Don suggesting to Peggy "Let's go someplace darker" in "The Suitcase" reminding me of Jules telling Vincent in Pulp Fiction, "Let's get into character").
The larger conversation that Matthew Weiner appears to be having with us has to do with our preconceived notions of what narrative should be. I began my summary of last season by quoting Matt Seitz's brilliant observation from a couple years ago that Mad Men is "a show which explores the systematic dismantling and destruction of the authentic self, and its replacement by manufactured images and feelings, the very images and feelings Don Draper is so adept at creating"; and I ended it by alluding that Weiner was doing something similar to Joss Whedon's famous mission statement in his Buffy-era heyday, giving his audience not what they wanted but what they needed. While I still think Matt's description of Mad Men remains the most definitive, season four seems to be questioning whether a person's original self is in fact the "authentic" one.
Believing this to be the case leads Matt (and other critics and viewers) to be rather harsh on Don Draper's impulsive decision to marry Megan, calling it regressive following his promising baby-steps forward out of alcoholism and self-denial. But a regression to what: the prison of being Don Draper (Matt's thesis)? to the dreamland of Megan over the real-world of Faye (from Logan Hill and Emily Nussbaum's lively discussion at New York magazine)? becoming a mental infant like Betty (the patently tedious debate at Slate)? Bert Cooper quoted a Japanese expression at the end of season one: "A person is whatever room he is in; and right now, Donald Draper is in this room." Dick Whitman may be Don's real name, but that doesn't necessarily make him the "real" Don.
It's intriguing that the episodes that experimented the most with upending this season's narrative conventions featured sojourns to California. Earlier in the year, "The Good News" began with Don's discovery that Anna had cancer and ended with his raucous outing with Lane Pryce on New Year's Eve. In terms of pure plot, the first half had nothing to do with the second -- indeed, it felt as fractured as an egg -- yet it was essential in setting up Don and Lane's bonding out of loneliness and despair. On a larger level, Don's detour with Megan undercut the momentum toward what was shaping up to be another Draper-saves-the-firm climax, and I think "Tomorrowland" was all the better for avoiding going to that well again. More accurately, I went to bed disappointed and woke up delighted, laughing at how deftly Weiner had put one over on me.
Was the Megan diversion a half-assed decision or by intricate design? Hard to say, though Don himself possibly said it best in "The Suitcase" when Peggy admitted that she was struggling with an ad campaign, unable to distinguish a good idea from a bad one, and Don replied, "There's not much difference." Megan first appeared in the secretary pool rounded up by Faye Miller (in "The Rejected," S4's first superb episode), a bit player who also happened to be a striking presence in the form of Quebecois actress Jessica Pare. Megan remained along the margins of the rest of the season, yet I must admit I looked increasingly forward to seeing her even if she had little to offer beyond a willowy frame and a sexy overbite. This gradual recognition was reflected at the end of the later-season "Hands and Knees" by Don's sudden recognition of Megan's presence, a wordless coda that seemed more puzzling then than it does now. One by one, the other women in Don's life circa. 1965 fell by the wayside: Bethany vanished, Allison fled, Miss Blankenship kicked the bucket. Faye was the obvious choice to be the future Mrs. Draper, but we should all know by now that Mad Men doesn't do obvious. (Similarly, I think it's safe to assume that Megan will not prove to be a conniving bitch, as suggested by some, nor will she be a doormat left at home with the kids.)
In hindsight, the ascent of Megan was revealed in subtly suggestive ways, and Don's actions as true to the essence of his character as his impromptu full-page ad denouncing Big Tobacco. His sweet nothings to her in "Tomorrowland" were as blase as Wolcott said they were but I felt that was the point, Don's starry-eyed notions of true love hopelessly cliched yet echoing last season's flashback to when he first told Anna about his engagement to Betty. (It echoes real-world notions as well. About a year ago somebody I know, a college professor, and not the most faithful guy around, uttered the Hallmark sentiment that "love is hard work, but worth it," and his wowed student minions responded as if it were a pearl of wisdom handed down from on high.) And Don's proposal was preceded by the same quiet reflection he did in the immediately prior "Blowing Smoke," only without Midge's painting in front of him. For me, it was the best kind of plot twist that fiction has to offer -- out-of-nowhere yet inevitable, hiding in plain sight.
"Tomorrowland" doesn't rank among the very best of Mad Men -- namely "The Suitcase," this season's crown jewel, the kind of rarity in which everyone who watched it knew that they were seeing something special -- but nor did it feel as bumptious as "The Summer Man" (which one wag called "Don Draper: Private Eye," in reference to some laughable use of voiceover) or "Chinese Wall," mediocre hours to which a couple of aforementioned critics gave a pass. It was arguably the weirdest episode of the series since Betty Draper took aim at her neighbor's pigeons, and capped what I thought was the best season since the first. It also made me regret alluding to Whedon in my summary of S3. Claiming to give fans not what they want but "what they need" strikes me now as a rather arrogant position, resting on the dubious assumption that the creator of a series automatically knows what his viewers need. For all I know, in the abstract, that may be something Matthew Weiner agrees with. But in practice he's searching for answers as much as his complex not-quite-hero, toeing the line between fantasy and reality, selfishness and selflessness, good ideas and bad ones, needing and wanting.