The penultimate season of Mad Men opens in paradise. I’m overjoyed that the show is back, and I’m desperate to see how it all ends. No long introduction, and no treatise on how far we’ve come since the early days of season one. Let’s instead dispense quickly with the one big question that had loomed over the show from last season: would Don cheat on Megan?
The answer, of course, was yes, and while I don’t expect many would be surprised, I am a little surprised at some of the reactions I’ve seen published. This isn’t merely a case of monogamy ‘not being Don’s thing’—Don cheating was and is, quite simply, an inevitability given his chaotic childhood and his various addictions (sex and alcohol addiction, and perhaps a burgeoning addiction to pot). Don, a man who never had any real parents; who, as a child, saw his father die; who was subsequently raised by distant relatives that abused him; who carries, as aforementioned, the addictive gene in him—well, this is precisely the person who will cheat. He has to. He must to recreate the chaos from which he was borne. It is not simply an impulse that could be repressed. It is a charge that will always be carried out. It is, in a certain sense, his destiny. So, that didn’t surprise me, although it did surprise me that he chose the doctor’s wife, a man who he appears to be good friends with.
Another quick note on the matter of infidelity: but why cheat on Megan, who he appeared to be so enamored with? Because the fairytale home life he had imagined prior to their marriage didn’t come true. Megan had her own free will and her own desires, a fact which Don should have foreseen. He’s drawn to those creative types—the artist in the first season, the teacher in the third—but it’s almost as if they’re only good for a fling. They’re too much of a challenge for him; or rather, too much of a challenge to his conception of what he wants his life to be like, whatever that may be. I always wished he’d picked Cara Buono’s character (the blonde psychologist type in Season Four) instead of Megan, but things might have gone badly with her as well.
I enjoyed the episode, though I felt incredibly alienated throughout. It was as if I was cast in to this world that seemed very familiar, but where everything was just a few degrees off. Most of the men now have extra facial hair (or in the case of Harry, just horrible hair). Megan is dangerously close to becoming a ditsy, vacant celebrity, almost as airheaded as Betty, just in a different way. The office has changed. It’s packed with new staff and a staircase that is far too close to Don’s office, as if the space around him is caving in. Don didn’t speak for the first eight minutes of the show. And, although the doorman who collapses is his own person, you can’t convince me that he doesn’t look eerily like Don—so much so that when I was watching the show, I thought that Don was seeing himself dead in some kind of dream sequence.
Part of that alienation must have been generated by the recurrent death motif that hung like a pall over every scene. At least, it seemed to be every scene. From references to mutilated water buffalo to the doorman collapsing, to the funeral and to Betty being pulled over for her crazy, life-threatening driving, I got the sense that Don would really rather be somewhere else, and ‘not alive’ would qualify perfectly. Nothing was more reflective of this than the advertisement he pitched, which clearly augured death, despite the fact that he himself seemed not to pick up on that. And when it was noted by the clients that the ad was hinting at suicide, Don was appalled—appalled not at their opinion of his work, I thought, but rather at the fact that they were right, and that he was at all capable of producing such a piece. The work itself was great, and his save (that the man had died and gone to heaven, Hawaii) was almost as great, but that hardly mutes the grimness of it all.
It can’t have been a good time for Don anyway—the run in with the soldier reminded him of his false identity, and him pulling away with the soldier’s lighter reinforced that fact. He tried to dispose of it, but it came right on back to him when the maid liberated it from the trash. As has become abundantly clear over the course of the series, he can’t just throw his past away, as much as he might want to.
I’m very interested to see where Don goes from here. Is he really enjoying his job anymore? I didn’t exactly see any evidence to suggest he wasn’t, but there wasn’t evidence to suggest he was either. After two seasons of SCDP working on a shoestring budget, the workspace seems a little too big now. It just doesn’t feel like him. I expect we’ll see some kind of tension there, but I’m not willing to bet how it will manifest. And will he divorce Megan, or will she find out first and pull the plug? Or will he hide it successfully from her? Don’s character is most interesting when he’s broken and sullen and vulnerable, and I recognize that, but at the same time I hate seeing that—for all his foibles, he’s my favorite. There’s something about him that I adore, and I desperately want to return to the days when he was hitting a home run off every pitch that was thrown his way.
Because it’s popular to end recaps with a grip of bullet points, and because there’s a ton of stuff I haven’t covered, here are some disparate thoughts that don’t fit in with my inquiry of Don:
- “Betty, what the hell?” But, seriously, what the hell was that fantasy that Betty spun for us there? It sounded like one of those chat logs from To Catch a Predator. I mean, this isn’t verbatim, but it was basically, “You go into the other room and rape her, and I’ll hold her down and put a rag in her mouth, and that’s what gets you off, right? Right? Right?” Hey doll—slow down. I don’t even want to attempt to wrap my head around where that came from, whether it was in any way serious or whether she was just kidding, or what. I don’t know; I don’t want to know.
- Sally Draper has become even more of a teenager than I expected. To be honest, I didn’t really like her here. Last season it was clear that she was struggling, and that she’d been ruined by her parents. That isn’t any less apparent here, but now she’s just an annoyance. I can’t blame it on her of course—look at the dynamite individual that spawned her—but that doesn’t exonerate her.
- I didn’t feel too strongly about Peggy’s parts in the episode. She’s separate from it all now, and while I still feel a reunion with Don is coming—perhaps one that may be permanent—her little crisis didn’t move me in any way. I’ve come to realize that I was never a big fan of Peggy to begin with. I have nothing against her, but I have no real connection with her either. She’s always been, quite simply, there, another character in the works. I realize Weiner and co. had to show her for us to understand she’s still in the picture, and that she hasn’t merely been disposed with, but I would much rather have spent that time with Pete who, at the end of last season, was on the verge of breaking out into a Don-like duplicitous lifestyle. I hope we return to that thread soon and see what has become of him and the lovely Alison Brie.
How did you guys feel about the season premiere? Was it superior to last year’s two-hour special? You might recall the reception to that one was a little mixed. Where do you feel like Don is headed this season, and are there any other characters that we should watch for? Peggy, Pete, or Roger? Ginsberg, perhaps? What will this season’s empty elevator shaft moment be? The floor is yours.