Last season’s finale — with the rebellion against the British, the start of SCDP, and Joan’s return — was a fan-frenzying orgy of wish fulfillment. Last night’s melancholic capper couldn’t have been more different — and likely left a lot of fans feeling betrayed. But not me.
Okay, so a few other things happened: Joan didn’t have that abortion after all. Peggy and Ken scored a a quarter-million-buck panty-hose account. Married Harry hit on a pretty girl like he was some little Roger-in-training. Vandalist-psychologist Glen yet again proved he was the most mature person on the show. And Betty most definitely did not get a grip on her rage issues (poor Carla!), and Henry got a good sense of how little things would change for him. But all anyone’s going to be talking about is how that ring appeared like Chekhov’s gun in the first act and went off in the third. Don and Megan … And, well, the thing is, it’s just that, you know … You spend four seasons and over 50 hours of television with a guy — you think you know him, and then he just up and marries some 25-year-old woman you’ve seen onscreen for maybe twenty minutes?
The WTF look on Peggy’s face when she stares at Don, stunned and disbelieving and disappointed? I expect Elisabeth Moss was standing in for most of last night’s viewers. And, sure, this wasn’t the best episode of a spectacular season — “The Suitcase” was the apex in so many ways, from script to performance — but it wasn’t out of character. So, even as a tide of critics are rising on Twitter, I’m going to argue for why it worked. If you hated the finale, you were likely disappointed that, after a season of grappling with change and self-awareness, Don didn’t just end up with the wrong woman, he didn’t change enough. And if you loved or at least respected the finale, it might be because Don’s impulsive, ill-informed decision made a certain sort of sobering sense. Either way, you can’t say Don didn’t warn you: “People tell you who they are,” Don wrote in his mid-season diary, “but we ignore it because we want them to be who we want them to be.”
Last night, Don even gave his own line a new twist when he told Megan, “I feel like myself when I’m with you — but the way I always wanted to feel.” In other words, Don, who spent most of the season telling himself who he was, would rather forget that messy introspection because he’d rather be who he wants to be — and Megan seems to make that possible. “You can’t tell how people will behave based on how they have behaved!” Don once yelled at Faye, wanting desperately to believe that people — including divorced executives — weren’t so predictable that they’d just do what everyone expected. And what did Faye predict? That Don would be married within a year. Well, Faye was right. She was always right. And maybe that was part of the problem.
Faye has so much to offer: smarts, sympathy, insight, lamp-rattling sex, genuine self-sacrifice. But not romance, or at least Don’s fantasy of it. On paper, they seem like a great match — except for the fact that Faye is awful with kids and perhaps requires too much from Don. In the first scene, Faye gives Don a pep talk: Get your head out of the sand, confront your past, remember it’s not all about work … And if Don follows her prescription, where will it get him? “Stuck trying to be a person like the rest of us.”
As advice from a friend, it’s solid stuff. But from a lover to a dreamer like Don, or from a salesman to a customer, it’s just not going to close the deal. Faye is selling everyman comfort to a man who’s always craved his own unique drama. All that work? Just to be like everyone else? Faye would like Don to keep doing that hard nitty-gritty work of digging into his past, but he’s already thrown out that journal. He’s ready to cannonball into the future.
“I’m in love with you, Megan. I think I have been for a while.” Sorry, Don, but you’re talking about a it-took-a-while-for-the-cable-guy-to-come while, not an I-know-you-well-enough-to-marry-you while. The proposal is rushed, sudden, and ill-informed, plain and simple. All Don knows is that she’s pretty, tall, bad at answering the phones, and that she likes the arts, advertising, kids, and, most important, him. But it’s important that she’s not just good with kids, but great with kids (a Von Trapp!). And there is that one moment when you see something real. In the diner, Sally knocks over a milkshake and for a split second it’s chaos: Sally recoils, horrified. Don violently jerks his head around to find a waitress. It’s like a grenade rolled out onto the table. And then sweet, calm Megan says, “It’s just a milkshake,” defusing the crisis. It’s a strange and brilliant little vignette — the kind of thing that’s almost impossible to describe when you try to explain how much you love Mad Men. And it clarifies that Don is falling in love with Megan, in large part, because she’s not Betty, exploding into rage, or Faye, nervous and freaked out around the kids. She’s not high-strung and unpredictable. This season has been all about how the work world eclipses everything else for these people. Part of Megan’s appeal is that she’ll let Don go back to thinking about work and nothing but work. (“I learned a long time ago not to get all my satisfaction from this job,” says Joan, and Peggy scoffs, “That’s bullshit!”) All Don has to do is accept Megan’s love. For now. Of course there will be more; that’s what next season is for. For starters, Megan is wearing the ring of the widow he stole his name from. What will she tell the gals in the office pool when they ask about her antique? “It’s from someone who was very important to Don”? Huh?
Was the American Cancer Society pitch Don’s worst ever? It felt like the first sign that his one genius go-to pitch — variations on nostalgia — might be going out of style as the sixties roar into gear. In the middle of the most spectacular youthquakes in American history, Don is looking at teenagers and thinking that they’re “mourning for their childhood more than they’re anticipating their future,” as Don says, in a reprise of his Carousel pitch, or his Glo-Coat pitch, or almost any other pitch he’s ever made. Don’s talent as an adman has always been to touch that raw nerve in himself that he doesn’t quite understand, like a Method actor using that painful internal thing to connect with customers. But he’s grown so far away from this new generation. Images of “mothers and daughters, fathers and sons … playing catch”? Really? Even Don is making this decision to move away from nostalgia and his past (Faye) and into the young unknown (Megan). Like his son, he doesn’t want to ride on elephants, he wants to fly jets.
In a way, Megan is an adman’s dream: She’s a cipher, an attractive brand with no history onto which he can project any dreamy vision of Tomorrowland that he wants (in the way the colonists once feminized the New World). Faye’s almost right that Don only likes beginnings. What he most likes are open-ended fantasies. Don sells dreams, and the beginning is when these fantasies are at their most pure because that’s when they’re completely unencumbered by reality. Megan’s Tomorrowland is just the latest escapist fantasy Don has conjured up over the years. He was about to escape with Miss Farrell before he left her idling in his car; he begged Rachel Mencken to run off with him and start a new life; he asked Midge to fly to Paris. Each of those fantasies was a ridiculous failure because he was married. But if he’d been single? Don’s sudden proposal was shocking and strange, but it wasn’t out of character.
Maybe that’s why Don has so much trouble sleeping at the end of the episode. Whether or not his engagement works out, he rushed into it. For starters, in the final shot, Megan’s happily asleep, but Don is still awake, likely with cold feet, staring at his crummy apartment’s dirty window. The soundtrack plays “I Got You Babe,” and, sure, it could be romantic and dreamy, except it’s one of the most excruciatingly irritating songs ever recorded. It’s also being sung by Sonny, in the early years of his second marriage to the younger Cher. Of course, that marriage ended in a brutal divorce.
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