Given that the third season of Mad Men came, with much fanfare, to an apparently ’game-changing’ conclusion, all eyes were on last week’s season four finale, “Tomorrowland” (written by Jonathan Igla and Matthew Weiner, and directed by Matthew Weiner), to one-up its predecessor. The episode turned out to be a much lower-profile affair; it confounded expectations by being shockingly not shocking. Fan predictions had ranged from the outright demise of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to Don (Jon Hamm) saving the firm at the eleventh hour by landing Disney as a client. Instead, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and Ken (Aaron Staton) work to keep the company chugging along by signing a significant but relatively small-time pantyhose company as a client, and Don proposes to his secretary Megan (Jessica Paré).
Season three’s finale was exciting because it was the dissolution of the two institutions Mad Men had long centered on (Sterling Cooper and the Draper marriage), and the beginning of something new. We came into season four with endless expectations, not quite knowing what turns the show would take, but demanding that they be groundbreaking. When we were introduced in the season premiere to the new, modish, brightly saturated set, it was clear that things had changed, and excitement was bubbling.
But as it turns out, the low-profile “Tomorrowland” is an apt distillation of a largely low-profile season. There aren’t a lot of sweeping plot arcs to speak of: it isn’t until the season’s home stretch that we even find out that the loss of the Lucky Strike account is the season arc (a distinction it earns almost by default). The characters deal with a variety of personal issues: Don loses Anna and develops a drinking problem, Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) has a baby, Lane’s (Jared Harris) marriage collapses yet continues on merely in the interest of being proper, Roger (John Slattery) gets Joan (Christina Hendricks) pregnant, and Peggy makes some new friends. None of these things present themselves as a clearly defined ’story’; they’re just things that happen, and that often seem superfluous to the overall flow of the episodes. Many of these things, Don’s drinking for example, and even the loss of Lucky Strike, develop so naturally out of what was already there it was often hard to notice that they represented a story at all. There’s no flashy California arc, or self-contained Connie Hilton story. No one even gets their foot chopped off by a lawn mower.
Yet at the end of the day the fourth season resonated with me more than the preceding seasons. Part of this is because I’ve been writing about it, which necessitates a lot of personal investment. But it’s also a season that capitalizes on a lot of things that it took the first three seasons to set up. We began Mad Men with Don Draper as the suburban family man, working on Madison Avenue and living an idyllic late-1950s life. The first time that Don is recognized as Dick Whitman sends him on a prolonged bender, during which he ditches his own child’s birthday party. He later comes home with a dog, not only as a way of buying his kids’ forgiveness, but also as an assertion of who he is and what sort of life he’s leading.
But Don’s was a life that was clearly falling apart. It was clear from the first episode that Mad Men is a deconstruction of Don Draper’s identity, expertly poking at the foundations of his life and exposing the lies that constitute his persona. Mad Men has always been more complex than a simple subversion of American life, but its primary mode over the first three seasons was nonetheless destructive. Season four is Mad Men’s first primarily constructive year.
’Constructive,’ of course, doesn’t mean ’successful,’ or even ’good.’ It simply means that this was a season where identities have to be built rather than dissolve, be they the identities of Don Draper or of the firm SCDP itself. The season opens with the question, “who is Donald Draper?” Don refuses to answer for a variety of reasons, but underlying them all is the simple fact that he does not know who Don Draper is. Over the rest of the season, we watched as Don tried to build a new life for himself and SCDP tried to establish its place in the advertising business, on the back of Don’s creative genius and the pocketbook of the Lucky Strike account.
This constructive mode carries with it a weight that simply wouldn’t have existed had Mad Men not spent its first three years being so meticulously destructive. Watching Don trying to construct a new identity for himself reflects back on the identity we’ve watched dissolve, and challenges assumptions we might have made about that identity. We know that Don is a liar. He left Korea assuming a false identity and he cheated repeatedly on his wife. We also know that he’s brilliant. And yet these essential character traits were largely inconsequential to landing Don the job at Sterling Cooper, or to Don meeting Betty (January Jones). It was so easy to read Don’s life as a clear narrative: he built himself from the ground up, constructed his identity and made himself who he was, through the deviousness and brilliance of his fabrications.
But the truth is, Don just sort of fell into his life. The narrative is something that was added later, giving his otherwise inexplicable developments meaning. We see this same sort of thing with Don’s letter to The New York Times: this narrative only comes in hindsight, engineered to provide meaning to something that was largely meaningless.
So if “Tomorrowland” and the season it brought to a close were light on sweeping narratives, it is by demand, because as Mad Men takes on the mode of construction, it’s also challenging the role narratives play in that construction. Things come together or play out the way they do largely beyond our control, and rarely for reasons that hang together coherently.
The story of this season has largely been that of Don not having the control he thought he had. I claimed last week that a lot of this season has focused on the distance between reason and event, which is basically just a five-dollar way of saying: we do not have the control over consequences that we think we do. Not only in the sense that we can’t directly influence our fate as much as we’d like, but also in the sense that often even our understanding fails to penetrate our situation in life, because most often there is no understanding to be had. Whatever sense we manage to make of what happens to us comes in the form of fabrication.
This isn’t to say that these fabrications are false: we will them into existence insofar as they have meaning for us. It’s like Don’s emphasis on the idea of nostalgia: we feel it for something we no longer have, and that has fallen beyond our control. Furthermore, nostalgia isn’t something that existed for us at that past time. And yet it exists for us now, as a construct or a fabrication. Don’s response to lacking control over his future is to exercise precise control over his past.
Don’s lack of control also doesn’t suggest some cold determinism or absence of free will. Quite the contrary, the reason Don proposes to Megan largely comes down to the same reason he wrote that letter to the New York Times: Because he can. But what either of these actions mean to Don in the future will have very little to do with the narratives Don has set out for himself in the present. Narratives always face the past, and in a very real way the story of Don’s actions will only be written after the actual events play themselves out.
“Tomorrowland,” like the entire fourth season, confounds expectations because it does exactly what its title implies: it faces the future. There are no big stories when you face the future, there are only things that happen. You turn them into a story later, and craft them into things to regret or feel nostalgia for. For all the consternation and introspection about who Don Draper truly is, he comes across, at the end of this episode, as a dumb, smitten teenager who has made a rash decision. We’ve journeyed to the core of Don Draper’s being, and rather than discovering some deep locus of truth, we’ve discovered a largely random impulse.
We make decisions and then we deal with the often unforeseen consequences. Our decisions are often arbitrary, or made out of desperation or frustration or simply because it feels right at the moment. We can watch someone handle a child’s spilled milkshake and in a moment make a decision that will forever alter the course of our lives. It’s irrelevant whether or not these actions accurately represent who we truly are: they become who we are. The universe doesn’t take the time to ask if our actions mirror our deep-down selves.
So what was it that we watched Mad Men deconstruct for its first three years? By appearances it seemed like we were watching a life dissolve because it didn’t reflect who Don Draper truly is. But Mad Men is seemingly thumbing its nose at the idea of a life reflecting who we truly are. In all likelihood Don married Betty for the same reason he’s marrying Megan: because he could. Certainly he had his own reasons, but those reasons don’t necessarily have to tell us anything about who Don Draper is, anymore than his proposal to Megan expresses something long-building about who he is, or than his Times letter says something about whether or not he smokes.
Maybe Don’s marriage to Megan will end worse than his marriage to Betty did, or maybe they’ll live happily ever after. Either way it will have nothing to do with whether the original constructive event was more or less authentic, or more or less of a fabrication. Whether or not the relationship accurately represents who Don is is something that can only written after.
This perspective casts an interesting light on Faye’s (Cara Buono) comment, which she makes after Don breaks the news about his engagement to Megan: “I hope she knows you only like the beginnings of things.” It’s when he moves beyond the beginning of things that Don begins weaving his takes of nostalgia. He quits acting on impulse and begins constructing his narratives.
In a sense “Dick Whitman” is the largest red herring in the history of television. All along we’ve thought this show was about the lies at the core of Don Draper’s identity. And yes, the core—the beginning moment upon which we found everything else—is invariably some sort of fabrication. But that beginning isn’t what is at issue for Don. The beginning is when you can say or do anything. It’s only later that events beyond our control constrain those things and we ultimately lock them into some meaning.
Don’s true issue is the very thing that allows for his brilliance: his obsession with creating meaning where there is none. So far this has made him a great ad man, it has led him to so much regret, and to much of the nostalgia he ascribes so much power to. The narratives Don creates speak transience of all things, and therefore, as he himself suggests to the cancer board, projects forward to his own death.
This would suggest that in a few years Don will simply be repeating this cycle. What remains to be seen is whether he can find some way out of it, a possibility hinted at by his letter to the Times. Lying just beneath the surface of Mad Men is an expression of the ultimate human freedom: we get to decide that something is what we always wanted even if it wasn’t; we get to turn something into our own story even if it really never was.
• My two favorite moments all season were probably the final scene of “The Suitcase” and the scene in “Tomorrowland” where Don cannot bring himself to lie about who Dick Whitman is. What beautiful television that was. The other great moment in “Tomorrowland” is, of course, the long-time-coming display of solidarity between Peggy and Joan, Peggy bitter that her news has been upstaged by Don’s engagement, and Joan bitter about her in-name-only promotion (amongst other things). If there are two characters on the show who understand all-too-well about the gap between reason and event that I talk about, it’s those two at that moment.
• At the end of my first full season of writing about Mad Men, this has proven to be a much more difficult task than I had first thought. With this piece coming in over a week since the finale actually aired, my record is cemented: I didn’t get a single recap in on time. Really I know the blame for this rests entirely at my feet, but my no-good, self-preserving self wants to pass the blame onto the show itself. With almost any other series you can absent-minded recap the episode’s events, make a few observations, add a witty comment or two and you’re done. We expect something more from engaging with Mad Men. So many great writers already cover Mad Men that at times adding my own voice seems superfluous. For better or worse I’ve taken the series as springboard to talk about my own ideas and my own obsessions. They might not always be what Matthew Weiner and his team intended, but they are always the products of my own relationship with the show. My hope is to offer readers something idiosyncratic. Mad Men is so much about perspective and how we interpret meaning into our lives, that I think it necessitates that we make our interpretation of it entirely our own. Reining in my own investment into the episodes for the sake of timeliness would have defeated my entire project. As challenging as this was, it was many times more rewarding, speaking from a selfish perspective. Not only did I learn to appreciate Mad Men in ways I hadn’t before, but I think I learned a lot about myself in the process. The ability of this show to open avenues of thought is truly remarkable.
• She’s always been great, but Kiernan Shipka came into her own this season in a way I can’t imagine many saw coming. You have to be good to be lucky, but with even its child actors coming up aces, Mad Men is a true embarrassment of riches.
• The other big breakout star this season: John Slattery. Yes, we know the man has acted a scene or two in his day, but this season he’s also revealed himself as a truly gifted director. His sense of comedic framing is a wonder to behold, and you can feel his perspective on the characters permeating through the lens. Peggy in a John Slattery episode is a creature all her own.
• Is there anything more depressing this season than the loss of Lane Pryce’s “chocolate bunny”?
• It would have been entirely out of character for the show, but I couldn’t help it: so much of me wanted Carla to just smack Betty.
• Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) used to be a pretty nice guy, right? Am I just imagining that?
• Don’s replaced his Canadian Club with a Canadian girl. What can you say, the man has excellent taste!
• Thank you so much, everyone, for sticking with me this season, and thank you for all the fantastic feedback I’ve received. I hope to be back on the House soon.
Luke De Smet is a freelance writer based out of San Diego, who spent way too much time obsessing about movies and television while growing up in rural northern Alberta, Canada. He’s currently attempting to avoid movies and television long enough to take up surfing, but is failing, miserably. You can follow him on Twitter.