Don Draper would be appalled by this, but we’re about to give away a professional secret. We’re about to tell you how to write a Mad Men recap. It’s very simple. First, you watch the latest episode. Then, you watch it again. If you’re lucky and observant, you won’t have to watch it a third time. See, what you want to do is find that one line of dialogue that sums up the entire episode. Matt Weiner and company are very thoughtful about making sure that tired reviewers like us will be able to find it. In fact, Season 5 almost felt like a love letter to the show’s legion of recappers and reviewers because sometimes there was more than one line per episode that could reasonably serve as the thesis statement. And sometimes, to the consternation of many of those reviewers, bells, whistles and flashing lights, with a title card that reads “And now for tonight’s theme…” would flash on the screen to helpfully let us all know when Something Important was about to be said.
The season five finale was, in many ways, a return to the kind of vagueness in theme and purpose that, to our way of thinking, characterizes the heart of the show. It was not, however, a return to the kind of shocking developments or talked-about scenes that characterized previous season finales; from Peggy going into labor and Don delivering the “Carousel speech,” to the Magnificent Seven breaking down doors in the Sterling Cooper offices and stealing their way to a new company, to Don making a marriage proposal that shocked everyone with its suddenness and seeming randomness. Strangely, what we were left with was a somewhat muddled finale that seemed to be cycling through a bunch of themes and scenarios, checking in on most of the major characters (if only briefly, in some cases), while focusing mainly on continuing the stories of two of the show’s more controversial characters: Pete and Megan. But thankfully, all we needed was one brief, crackling scene with Don and his former protege (and now equal in status) Peggy to pull that theme out of his mouth and set it on the table for everyone to mull over.
“That’s what happens when you help someone. They succeed and move on.”
Don is consumed by fears, despite the James Bond front he puts on for the world. The most prevalent of his fears, and the one that tends to spur on most of his worst actions and impulses, is the fear of being abandoned. And you don’t say “fear of abandonment” about a man unless you’re willing to talk about his mommy issues. Don’s biological mother abandoned him physically by dying and his adoptive mother abandoned him emotionally by never showing him the slightest bit of love or affection. Like with so many men, these maternal relationships wound up playing themselves out again and again with every female with whom he comes in contact. In the case of a thousand affairs, mistresses, and one-night stands, his fear of their rejection and abandonment played out with him keeping them all at arms length, with the option at all times for him to walk out first. With his three central relationships with women, his fears manifested in ways much more controlling and even sinister. He almost literally tried to imprison Betty to keep her both from knowing too much about him and from leaving him (because the two go hand in hand). He pulled Peggy up out of obscurity and gave her a chance, only to box her in and berate her at every turn to ensure that the realization of her worth and talent would be kept from her as long as possible. With Megan (and the failure of his first marriage behind him), his fear of abandonment spun out of control and manifested itself, oddly enough, in an attempt to mold her into something like a sexier version of Peggy; a sharp, go-getting copy writer who will also show him her tits in the office on command or run out with him in the middle of the day to go on an adventure to Howard Johnson’s, but still help him save an account from the brink of disaster with some quick thinking and masterful role-playing.
Unfortunately, Megan, like all the other little dolls in Don Draper’s toybox, eventually decides she has wants and desires of her own, independent of Don. For Don, this is the death knell of their relationship; the first tentative step toward its inevitable end. It’s impossible for him to see it any other way, which is why he’s been less than enthusiastic about her acting dreams, even though he’s been fighting these feelings all season. But Megan doesn’t do subtext and if there’s one trait she possesses that makes her both good for Don, but unlikely to remain a feature in his life forever, it’s the tendency to demand confrontations and conversations. No one else in his life ever does that with Don and most people who know him wouldn’t even make the attempt, but Megan does it constantly; putting her needs, wants, and frustrations out on the table and demanding a response to them. It’s both a little healthy and a little childish at the same time.
Megan has been quite the controversial character this season and we don’t think we’re going out on a limb when we predict that her actions this episode will be wildly debated. While it’s true that with this episode we saw the culmination of all those allusions to her childishness and selfishness all season, we honestly have no problem with her hitting up Don for a little help in her career. He acted put out by it, and while his line “You want to be someone’s discovery; not someone’s wife,” sounds wonderful on the surface, it’s so much bullshit when you remember how he handed her a job as a copywriter just because she said she wanted one. He was fine with giving her a fully-crafted career when it suited his fantasy of her, which makes his reluctance to help her get one part quite the hypocrisy.
But Megan is perfect for the part – which was alluded to much earlier in the season when Butler Shoes mentioned they wanted a French type for their Cinderella ad (and obviously, with the latest Beauty and the Beast ad, they’re cycling through the fairy tales). The scene with Don watching her reel in the conference room was a bit vaguely presented, but we’re fairly certain we’re supposed to see what Don saw: that Megan is luminous on film and has real star quality. Despite the protestations and put-downs of her cold and bitchy mother, it becomes obvious to Don that Megan isn’t necessarily the dilettante that everyone has been assuming. Granted, he bases this entirely on a presentation of her looks with nothing of her assumed talent on display, but that’s par for the course with how Don sees her and sees women generally. The point is, Don realizes not only that she’d be perfect for the ad, but that she really does have what it takes. As Peggy said of her back when she first announced her acting dreams, Megan is “just one of those girls.” For Don, this realization is akin to a declaration that she’s leaving. She obviously doesn’t see it that way, but for Don, walking away from her fairy tale into the darkness of the set beyond was a walk away from the dream that this marriage was going to be his salvation. It may not literally be over yet, but it’s emotionally over for Don. And the single young ladies of Manhattan better brace themselves.
As overwhelmingly strong as Don’s fear of abandonment is his guilt, which consumes him just as much. What better way to set off Don’s worst impulses than by detonating a bomb of abandonment AND guilt in the middle of his life? Lane’s suicide has dredged up the rottenness Don is convinced is at his core. And since the show has to be occasionally obvious to the point of distraction, we got a literal representation of that with Don’s tooth and his hallucinations of his dead half-brother Adam, whom Don also drove to suicide through carelessness and a need for control in his life. He will, as Adam helpfully told us, always be “hanging around” in Don’s life, feeding his guilt and challenging his self-worth by reminding him of who he really is.
There was a motif of men in rooms with other men’s wives that played out: Roger and Marie, Pete and Beth, and in a twist, Don, the ultimate philanderer, sitting down with Rebecca, not to commit adultery but to make himself feel better and cast himself as the hero once again. Rebecca was having none of it, and while her anger with Don for awakening a destructive ambition in her husband could be said to be slightly displaced – after all, she was seen cheering his career aspirations on over and over again – she was absolutely right to point out that his $50,000 check was merely a payback of money already owed to Lane and not in any way an example of him doing her any favors. He expected gratitude and dispensation and she wasn’t in the mood to give it to him.
As for Pete, the only thing that interests us about his ennui is when it results in him getting punched in the face, which happens often, thankfully. To be honest, we didn’t find his depression particularly engrossing all season, especially when it mostly comes down to a long commute that he hates and the fact that Trudy has a baby other than himself to take care of. We’re not unsympathetic, but considering we just got finished watching Lane destroy himself after being subjected to enormous stresses, we can’t work up much interest for his storyline. And having him deliver a suspiciously poignant and well-written monologue explaining his actions and then having Trudy give him exactly what he’s wanted all season, an apartment in the city, felt a bit too much like the whole arc had just been wrapped up in a bow. We would have rather seen more time spent with Peggy and Joan, considering the massive changes both characters have undergone.
Joan is both more assertive and business-like than ever, if that can be believed. She clearly feels the need to fill Lane’s shoes as the responsible one among the partners. What’s interesting to note is just how badly the other partners react to a female voice expressing concerns or telling them what to do. Granted, they were never terribly respectful toward Lane, but they treated Joan like a nagging wife in that meeting. She’s got an uphill battle with that group. Still, she seems largely unperturbed by their sexism (which makes sense, given the long years and myriad ways in which she’s had to deal with it) and quite confident and happy in her new position. Let’s face it; if you’re a Joannie fan, that shot of her lined up with the partners and looking out the windows of the finally realized second floor to SCDP was thrilling.
As for Peggy, she seems ridiculously happy as well. In fact, all three of the female characters this episode were ultimately depicted as happy and upwardly mobile in their careers. How telling that the male characters, by comparison, are depicted as rotten (literally), depressed, or, in the case of Roger, irresponsible and pleasure-seeking. Meanwhile, Stan and Ginsberg struggle to come up with a pantyhose tag line (and fail spectacularly) and Peggy is seen berating two young male copywriters in much the same manner Don used to berate her. The women all wind up doing quite well and the men are all depicted as floundering. Even the supremely damaged Beth Dawes was in a more serene and peaceful place than Pete by episode’s end.
So what happens next? Will Peggy land the Virgina Slims account and make advertising history by coining the legendary tagline “You’ve come a long way, baby?” As thrilling as that would be, we almost hope it doesn’t come to pass because it would be way too literal and on-point for her character. We tend to think the rather down-to-earth view outside her hotel room window (it sure as hell wasn’t the Eiffel Tower) indicates that the soaring heights of a possible award-winning campaign that changes the face of women’s advertising might not be a given just yet. She’s doing amazingly well, but if she really does land the Virgina Slims account, she will have easily surpassed anything Don has done. A thrilling prospect, but we’re not sure if that’s where the show’s heading just yet. If anything, their conversation hinted that she’s still open to returning to the rapidly expanding SCDP, but it would have to be as Don’s equal, and just like Peggy obviously does, we have a hard time picturing such a thing ever happening.
Much more to come in our Mad Style post later this week, including Joan’s attempt to fill Lane’s shoes and Peggy’s brand new power color. And if you really think we have anything else to say about the show worth listening to, then you can listen to Tom discussing the costumes of the season with Studio 360’s Kurt Andersen here.