Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Tomorrowland" (season 4, episode 13)

Mad Men - "Tomorrowland" (season 4, episode 13)

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 October 17, 2010/written by Jonathan Igla and Matthew Weiner; directed by Matthew Weiner): It's all happening so fast. No, not the business' recovery: the meeting with the American Cancer Society goes well enough but only earns "another meeting" (the board member whom the suddenly moralizing admen have their eye on as a potential client is, hilariously, the CEO of Dow Chemical). Peggy and Ken earn the agency's first new acquisition with a tiny hosiery company thanks to Joyce's initiative. And Joan is promoted to a title-only position with no raise and no real functions given SCDP's dire straits..."If they popped champagne," she practically spits, "I must have missed it while I was pushing the mail cart." But, at least for the moment, they're surviving - this storyline will have to continue next season as the fallout from Lucky Strike's departure can't subside this abruptly. No, what's moving at a lightning pace is Don's love life: from the early scene where Faye tells Don he doesn't have to go through his identity crisis alone to the concluding moment when he breaks her heart over the phone, no more than a week or two has passed. In that time, he's invited Megan to accompany his family trip to California as a nanny, slept with her a couple more times, been given the actual Don Draper's engagement ring by Anna's niece, and - to both his and Megan's surprise - used that ring to propose to his secretary. Peggy and Joan heap scorn on the cliché, and we can sense the incredulity of the male co-workers behind their cheerful smiles (Roger perhaps most of all, given his own experience). But Don is happy, not just to discover a level of immense comfort with his new lover but to be shedding the anxiety-ridden freefall that haunted him for the past several years.

Betty is far less pleased with her situation - "things aren't perfect," she acknowledges to Don when he finds her at the old home, transporting one last box of knicknacks, during his rendezvous with a realtor. (How fitting that Don is selling houses on two coasts in this finale, bidding farewell to both halves of his double life.) Heavyhanded as always, Betty not only forces the family to move because of Glen's transgressions but fires Carla - the family's lifelong caretaker - for allowing the boy to say goodbye to Sally. Henry is furious and the stubborn, viciously vindictive Betty (who refuses to even write Carla a letter of recommendation) may have reason to regret this decision. It's Carla's firing that leads Megan to accompany Don out west; if Betty had any glimmering, delusional hope of getting back together with Don (a ridiculous but palpable subtext, whether subconscious or calculated, during their run-in) she herself has now destroyed that possibility. Don's drama dominates the episode, aside from the Peggy/Ken rebound, but there's one other development worthy of note before the season concludes. Joan calls her husband in Vietnam and they casually discuss when she'll reveal her pregnancy to the office. Her rejection of Roger a couple episodes ago is cast in a new light: she has simply committed herself to pretending that this love child belongs to her nuclear family, although we also imagine she'll relish the distress on the callous cad's face when it registers. Don and Joan both have decided that they are free to write their own futures. The consequences for this freedom are, for now, distant on the horizon.

My Response: Well, I made two alternate predictions in the last entry and one of them was correct: Don takes the kids to Disneyland (offscreen) and makes some sort of peace with his Dick Whitman past. On the other hand, I was wrong about SCDP landing Walt Disney as a gamechanging client...it's clearly going to take longer for them to crawl out of the hole they're in even if things are (modestly) looking up. There were two other predictions I made silently and didn't share in the viewing diary for different reasons. One wasn't really a prediction so much as a realization. While editing my Journey Through Twin Peaks video essays this spring, I went looking for a clip of a Twin Peaks performer whom I knew turned up on Mad Men at some point. I hoped to avoid spoilers but the clip I came across showed Don with a new, young wife with short hair. Due to the haircut, I didn't recognize Megan as that wife for several episodes this season but after she embraced and comforted Sally the truth started to dawn on me. Furthermore, many years ago - when the show was still running - one of my few glimpses of a new episode involved a French wife. With that memory in mind, I wondered if Don was going to have at least a couple more marriages before the show ran its course, but "Tomorrowland" reveals that Megan is a native French-speaker (an earlier episode informed us that she grew up in Canada). So now I'm pleased to find out that I actually know less about the upcoming seasons of Mad Men than I presumed.

My other prediction was withheld because I questioned whether I was giving too much credence to particular tropes. I should have trusted my instincts! In "Hands and Knees," we never actually saw Joan entering the abortionist's office and the way the sequence was scripted and cut rang alarm bells, as did Joan's quasi-cryptic line at the end of the episode: "We avoided a tragedy." In particular, her awkward exchange with the young mother of a teenager (who had her own daughter at fifteen, a daughter who is now pregnant at seventeen), along with an earlier episode in which she discusses past operations with her OBGYN, suggested that maybe something snapped beneath the surface of the ever-composed Joan when she was reminded of her age, her past experiences, and the social group people presumed she was in now. That said, the "woman in a difficult situation decides not to have an abortion" scenario has been utilized so many times I decided that Mad Men wouldn't go that route and was instead offering a slice-of-life snapshot (besides, they already toyed with a similar concept when Betty had her baby). I can't say I blame them, however; obvious as it may be, Joan carrying Roger's child and deciding that she'll present it as Greg's to the world (and to Greg himself) is so obvious in its dramatic riches that it would probably be foolish for the writers not to embrace it.

Despite these big narrative twists, "Tomorrowland" is most effective for its character pathos. The Megan proposal feels both fundamentally wrong for all the reasons characters articulate and right in the moment in a way that keys us in to Don's own impulse. His breakup with Faye is, all thing considered, fairly low-key - it hurts just as much as we'd expect, no more, but that's plenty. Best of all perhaps is the onetime Draper couple's reunion in their empty kitchen. I've noted it already, several times, but the house feels so much smaller, shabby even, this season. All involved have outgrown these trappings; it's poignant enough to consider that the center cannot hold, all the more so to recognize that it collapsed long ago. This has been an interesting season, composed of echos and premonitions. I'd heard that the show "doesn't really get going" until the third or fourth season but I think the first may still be my favorite and it's possible this one may seem the slightest to me ("possible" only, because I can envision these episodes growing on rewatch). Yet as it draws toward its conclusion, I find myself impressed with so much of this solid, subtle, not particularly surprising work. The fourth season closed many doors while opening others and if I expect more from '66-'67, '68, and '70, I'm not sure we could get where we're going without the crucial hinge of '64-'65.

Next: (season 5 premiere) "A Little Kiss"Previous: "Blowing Smoke"

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