Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "The Good News" (season 4, episode 3)

Mad Men - "The Good News" (season 4, episode 3)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of seasons four, five, and six. The last season will be covered in the summer of 2022 (now updated to winter 2021-22). I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on August 8, 2010/written by Jonathan Abrahams and Matthew Weiner; directed by Jennifer Getzinger): A year ago, Don Draper found himself in the midst of a contentious divorce and radical workplace shakeup - he did not have the mental space to do much other than act and react. Now, as 1964 gives way to 1965, he has all too much space and time: While employees like Joan plead vainly with Lane for a longer vacation (her husband is headed to Vietnam in a couple months and this may be their last chance to get away), Don wanders off to Mexico with a sense of obligation and resignation, of "I guess this is just what bachelors do," rather than excitement. However, he never makes it to Acapulco. A short stopover in L.A. to visit Anna initially yields minor bittersweet bemusement; her water-stained wall needs painting, and he quickly decides her bohemian college student niece Stephanie (Caity Lotz) needs something else (is it just my faulty memory or did the always-horny Don once show a modicum of restraint?). Happy to be in a place where he can just be known as old family friend Dick sleeping on the couch, this particular trek to the Pacific is not intended to resolve or temper an existential crisis, but simply to find momentary comfort in the midst of general spiritual exhaustion. Instead, he's confronted with the dying of even this flickering, modest little light: when he attempts to bed Stephanie, she gently tells him that Aunt Anna is dying of cancer but doesn't know it. The next morning her mother Patty, who doesn't disguise her contempt for Don, dismisses him as "a guy in a room somewhere writing checks" and demands that he not ruin Anna's final months. Despite immense reservations, he complies - maybe as much out of a low opinion of his own significance as respect for the woman who helped him the most and asked the least.

Back in New York, Joan - staging an indoor tropical dinner straight out of the sham honeymoon in It's a Wonderful Life - is touched by Greg's usefulness as he stitches her up. In this moment at least, she can feel she is part of a caring, reciprocal relationship while the more powerful Lane is not. (Ironically, this revelation is achieved when Greg adopts his professional, rather than domestic, persona.) There is a hint that Lane's pennypinching refusal to allow the Harrises their getaway arises from his own resentful jealousy. When Joan receives roses from Lane with a card reading "Darling, I've been an ass. Kisses, Lane," it quickly comes out that his secretary confused two gifts: the more formal apology intended for her and this personal attempt at reconciliation intended for his wife, soon to be ex-wife, in London. Don finds a lonely Lane in the office by himself on New Year's Eve; without the heart to go to Acapulco, instead he gets stinking drunk with his partner, heading out to a comedy club where they're ridiculed as a gay couple until their call girl dates show up. They entertain themselves throughout the night, a different version of the relax-and-just-enjoy-the-moment energy Don experienced with Anna and Stephanie, but when morning comes he's left with the same facts he confronted in December: a job with little joy, non-working hours to fill with drinking, screwing, and other distractions, another year passing by, like all the others have and will, until the day when it's as if none of them ever happened at all.

My Response: There's something particularly poignant about the role California plays at the outset of the fourth season. When this location was introduced back in season two, it felt like a stunning expansion, the sunny, wide-open terrain visualizing Don's - or rather, in this context, Dick Whitman's - liberation from the lie of his East Coast life. (In this sense, the strange wealthy swinger family served as a crucial in-between element, an overtly radical catalyst to move us into the more subtly radical, yet simultaneously reassuring, little house in San Pedro.) Now, the location feels smaller, weaker, less able to pose an alternative, partly - if paradoxically - because what it's posing an alternative to is itself smaller and weaker. The two poles of Don's life are greatly diminished: with his nuclear family detonated, there is no depth or warmth (however stifling) to call him back home, and with Anna dying - and the secret she represents no longer particularly significant - the adventure of the West is evaporating like a dream in the first moments after waking. That last point seems particularly important: for better or worse, the Whitman/Draper secret was a structuring fact in Don's life, invested with tremendous power even if that power took the form of intense anxiety. It offered meaning, representing and giving shape to hidden, psychologically resonant class barriers, family traumas, and historical displacement.

And now? The secret, known both professionally and romantically, can no longer represent a threat to his nonexistent marriage nor to his bulletproof career. Something mostly viewed as a negative is shriveling away before his eyes; perhaps he never knew how much he'd miss it. In a way, we can view Don's realization of this ending as a shift in Mad Men - representative of a shift in the culture at large - from modernism to postmodernism (although I'm hesitant to apply that term as early as the mid/late sixties given the larger-than-life quality of those years, the era certainly set that stage). What I mean by this is that Don's post-Korea predicament cultivated a lie while positing a truth underneath, whereas now he's left with a meager meaninglessness, neither lie nor truth. Met with a dull hangover and a conference table full of file folders, "Gentlemen, shall we begin 1965?" plays as a bleak closing line. Of course, with half the show - and decade - remaining, I'm sure the anticlimax will be lifted...for a time.

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