All words: Alan Zilberman and Peter Mergenthaler
Good morning, and welcome to BYT’s weekly MAD MEN hangover! In lieu of a traditional recap, I instead offer a somewhat edited, highly spirited debate between myself and a fellow TV junkie. Joining me is Pete, my old roommate who helped jumpstart my obsession with serialized TV dramas. Without further ado, let’s get into what’s new at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce!
- Betty, Henry and the Draper children leave Ossining. When Betty learns that supernanny Carla allowed Glen to say goodbye to Sally, she fires her on the spot. Henry takes the news poorly.
- Short a sitter, Don takes Sally, Bobby and Gene to California on business, and he recruits jowly, wily secretary Megan to mind the kids while he’s at meetings. She acquits herself well and gets her hair did, so Don proposes to her. Upon returning to New York, he breaks up with Faye, who is understandably pissed.
- Through sheer competence, Peggy and Ken (but mostly Peggy) land a pantyhose company — the agency’s first new account since losing Lucky Strike. Don gets his foot in the door with the American Cancer Society. Things are looking up for a downsized Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
- We learn that Joan didn’t go through with the abortion all those weeks ago, and she’s told Greg that it’s his.
Alan: Things took a turn for the domestic in Mad Men’s season four finale. After a year of inebriated philandering and despite Faye’s best efforts, Don becomes another ad executive cliche by proposing to his secretary.
Pete: Or, depending on your perspective, Don’s secretary seduces him into an engagement. Megan’s a climber.
Alan: That could certainly be the case, but I think Weiner et. al want you to contrast Faye and Megan. Consider Don’s impersonal break-up scene with the older, more experienced woman. We leave her alone in her office, and then Megan promptly walks into Don’s, willing to service his every need. It’s an interesting interaction of independence and subservience.
Pete: The only reason we saw the break-up scene, I think, was to prove that Don’s finally comfortable with being one person. He might be making a mistake, but at least he’s making it in front of everybody. Megan’s already told Don that she admires him and “Miss Olson” and, after enough study, would like to do what they do. She’s definitely closer to that goal now than she was the episode before.
Alan: Still, Don’s affection for Megan grew only when he saw how lovingly maternal Megan could be with his children. Faye did a good job with Sally, to be sure, but she trembled at the thought of interacting with Don’s daughter. His judgment may be skewed, but he seems to value harmonious interaction with his kids and a mother figure.
Pete: For sure. I’m not questioning the dimensions of his attachment to her, but had he spent a few more months probing those feelings, her Lady MacBethiness might have become more apparent. In any case, it’s clear that both of them have a lot to learn about each other.
Alan: Most certainly. I just hope the writers don’t take Don down the Roger path (i.e. a man who cannot connect with his younger wife). Do you think Don is deluding himself? Up until this episode, he seemed reluctant to articulate his feelings, and here was have him flat-out say “I love you” to someone else. I found his openness jarring.
Pete: It was, but he’s always been a different dude altogether in California. Things always get frostier in New York — more clothes, less skin, fewer nakedly emotional moments. I think Megan’s fascinating, and I’m glad the show is keeping her around, but I’m not sure what we’re meant to feel about Faye being kicked to the curb. I was profoundly irritated. Especially if this is just about Weiner subverting expectations.
Alan: Before we get further into Weiner’s subversion of expectation, I want to also discuss the scene between Don, Peggy, and Cosgrove. You mention how California relaxes Don. He was still feeling the same euphoria when he congratulated Peggy and Ken over their good work. Whereas the profoundly NY Don might have been gruff, Jon Hamm made Don appear absolutely giddy with the news. This seemed to upset Peggy, who probably felt Don’s joy was disingenuous.
Pete: I think it’s the honeymoon effect, pure and simple (I know, they’re not married yet, but I’m reaching for a metaphor I can’t quite think of). In other words, this, too, will pass. There’s no reason to think Don can make this work any better than any other entry in his disastrous relationship catalog, aside from Megan’s facility with kids and the fact that she can deal with spilt milkshakes. I think Peggy’s frustration was just the fact that, for the second time this season, her company-sustaining achievement isn’t being celebrated the way it ought to. Anyway, maybe it’s the cantankerous old man in me, but I think Faye would be a wonderful person to grow old with. And I really, really like how Cara Buono played the part.
Alan: I completely agree on all counts, but wonderful as Faye may be, it makes more sense for a man like Don to choose Megan over her. With regard Peggy’s success and its tepid response, I thought that the panty hose subplot was handled well. Mad Men primarily chronicles a by-gone era, so it’s nice to see when professionals entertainingly handle their job well.
Pete: Can we just talk about how incredible Elisabeth Moss is? Watching her make her pitch to Topaz, I was struck by how different this Peggy was from the dowdy, sheepish, unknowingly pregnant Peggy of the first season. And yet, Moss has never employed any really flashy tricks through the process. It’s been a subtle, incredibly layered transformation. She’s my favorite actor on the show.
Alan: I’m not sure how Weiner envisioned Peggy’s arc when he put pen to paper, but Moss transition has certainly been seamless. I also reflected on first-season Peggy as watched this episode, particularly in light of her commiseration with Joan in her office. Their shared laughter/cynicism implied mutual respect, which is a far cry from Joan’s initial “sex sells” attitude. Without an actor as strong as Moss, this change would be a stretch.
Pete: Their closed-door bitch session was the best scene of the episode, I think. It really accurately reflected the bizarre peaks and valleys of a work relationship — one week, you’re at each other’s’ throats; the next, you’re commiserating over the fact that your bosses are idiots. I complain to an incredibly religious, endlessly quotable veteran of my newsroom almost daily about the strain our work puts on our psyches. She invariably tells me two things — that I need Jesus, and that I must learn to do what she’s done — separate her occupation from her vocation. That’s more or less what Joan told Peggy this episode. Next time my colleague says the same thing, I’m going to pull a Peggy. “THAT’S BULLSHIT.” And hopefully we’ll laugh about it.
Alan: One can only hope the addition of cigarettes and booze will soften your use of profanity.
Pete: The bosses usually have left by this point, and our building is smoke-free. It could be incredibly cathartic!
Alan: No doubt! While on the subject on Joan smoking, I’m guessing her tobacco habit isn’t exactly healthy for the baby she’s carrying.
Pete: The link probably wasn’t as documented back then. But yeah … that’s going to make for a miserable episode or two.
Alan: In the episode where Joan visits the abortion clinic, our commentariat thought it was OBVIOUS Joan kept the baby, and kudos to them! This development may lead to intense season in Mad Men’s next season, but for now, I’m a little disappointed with Weiner’s bait and switch. I can understand why Joan would choose to keep the baby, but the choice from a writing perspective strikes me as the easier one.
Pete: I was so bored by that thread that I didn’t even take the time to speculate about whether she might have kept it. Looking back, the sequence does seem deliberately clipped. Maybe we should have known. I just can’t imagine an episode in which this is resolved in a dramatically satisfying way. Odds on Greg making it home?
Alan: I was thinking about it this morning. If it’s summer of 1965, America’s involvement in Vietnam is about to kick into high gear, in which case he’s undoubtedly fucked. My good friend and fellow Mad Men addict speculated a handicapped Greg might return home, which would certainly leave Joan reeling.
Pete: I sincerely hope that the show sets this on the back burner, either to be dealt with at a later date or to be forgotten altogether.
Alan: Word. Let’s jettison the Joan discussion in favor of Betty. She further cemented her status as the show’s least-likable character when, after she caught Glen with Sally in Sally’s room, she fires Carla. Henry is understandably pissed, and again their seemingly stable marriage shows cracks.
Pete: I never thought of their marriage as stable — I’ve watched enough real-life passive-aggressive-hostility-boiling-into-open-warfare in my day — but this one’s a different bird. Henry’s barely interested in who Betty is; he seems content with the fact that she’s around, period. Betty, meanwhile, is over the glamor of being married to Henry Francis. Her “oops, look at the time” run-in with Don at the end of the episode was pathetic and sad.
Alan: I wonder what was her best-case scenario for how that reunion would play out. Did she think she could rekindle the relationship with her ex-husband?
Pete: That was the furthest thing from her mind, I think. She just needs to be around him.
Alan: Can we talk about how horrible her decision was to fire Carla? She’s been the most stable element in the lives of the Draper children, and Betty’s brusque scenes with her further cement her parental ineptitude.
Pete: You’re right, but what’s to say, really? We’ve agreed before that Betty is an incompetent, selfish, impulsive terror. This is the ugliest manifestation of that yet, but it isn’t surprising.
Alan: Agreed. Final thoughts? How does this season compare to others? My take is that while the finale is a strong one, it lacks the excitement of the season three finale. Still, most every character ends up in a place that feels right, even if some are less interesting than others.
Pete: I thought it was a sublime season and a great episode, even though the Faye sendoff really, really bothers me. I get that Weiner doesn’t like to be second-guessed — some of the Internet speculation about the finale was hilarious, including the rumors of Sally Draper’s demise — but this surprise engagement thing was especially far afield.
Alan: It’ll certainly give Weiner and his writers interesting dramatic ground to explore, especially since Don’s highs and lows are signs of a man who’s more vulnerable and thoughtful than in seasons prior. Parting shot: I really, really hope the abrupt departure isn’t the last we saw of Bert Cooper.
Pete: I won’t hazard a guess there, although I wouldn’t be disappointed if the show were done with him. His Zen-like fogey routine was entertaining but ran its course.
Alan: I just grew a liking to the old fart. Well Pete, it’s been a tumultuous season. Till next season!
Pete: Until next summer!