Mad Men recap: Season Four ends with a puzzle; is it a masterpiece or misguided mess?
Admission time: From the moment I first began watching this fourth season of Mad Men, I have had a bias nagging at the edge of my brain -- one that has been hard to shake and has informed every analysis I've written this year.
It stretches back to the show Mad Men creator Matt Weiner worked on before this one, HBO's stellar mob drama The Sopranos. And it involves the moment I felt that show got so wrapped up in confounding expectations, avoiding typical TV moves and subverting fan expectation that it forgot to do something every television series really should do -- entertain viewers.
(For anyone who dares reading this before watching the finale episode, "Tomorrowland," know that I will be discussing lots of spoilery details from here on.)
This is how I felt sitting through Sunday's Season Four finale of Mad Men, an ambling, fitful episode capped by the only move Weiner had left that could surprise fans who have been dissecting every possible turn for weeks: Don Draper getting engaged to his secretary, Megan.
In simple terms, it fits one of the show's larger themes: People change, but not that much. Jon Hamm's Draper has been through the wringer this season, and there was hope he might emerge from his bitter divorce and drinking issues with enough self-knowledge to face the stone in his shoe that has hobbled every recent relationship -- his assumption of another man's identity during the Korean War.
But in choosing the adoring secretary who first slept with him as a career move over Dr. Faye Miller, an independent woman who knows his secret and urged him to come to terms with it, Draper has returned to the same web of lies and hope for an idyllic family that doomed his previous marriage. Miller's parting words to Draper ("I hope she knows you only like the beginning of things") resonates; as does the scene where the adman is pitching the American Cancer Society on targeting youth ("They're mourning their childhood more than they're anticipating their future," he tells them. You wonder: does Draper know he's talking about himself, too?)
Proposing after picking up an engagement ring in the effects of his deceased friend Anna -- the wife of the man whose identity he assumed -- Draper hands Megan an artifact from a history about which she knows nothing. After seeing how well his secretary gets along with his kids during a trip to Disneyland in California, Draper seems to see a way back to the days before his secret was known; before his family was fractured and self confidence was shaken. But for this fan, it felt like taking a 40-year desert trip only to learn you'd walked in a giant circle -- what was the point of all that pain and desperation if we land almost back where we started? Yes, it happens in real life; but that only comes back to my original point. In the end, this isn't real life; it's a TV show.
Elisabeth Moss' plucky Peggy Olson remains the only character to flower this season -- first, in building an exciting relationship with a young rebel and his pack of bohemian friends; this week, by nailing the only new business the firm has seen in 10 weeks. Once again, we see her as a young Draper in the making -- seizing on an opportunity uncovered by a conversation with friends to realize a small panty hose company had fired its previous advertising team. Now, more than ever, Peggy seems a surrogate for the first wave of Baby Boomers about to take over the world.
January Jones' Betty (Draper) Francis has become a harpy so aggravating it is hard to even feel sympathy for her. It has been odd to see a character who once sparked such viewer sympathy as the clueless wife of heroic philanderer Draper become so deliberately unlikeable. I find myself wondering -- has Weiner not allowed Betty any redemptive grace notes because Jones couldn't handle the scenes as an actress? Regardless of the reason, having her fire the longtime maid/nanny for allowing creepy neighbor kid Glenn to visit Sally was likely the last straw for us and an increasingly regretful Henry Francis. Again I feel the heavy hand of a producer avoiding cliche and hobbling a great character in the process.
As much as Matt Weiner resists it, though, he must improve how Mad Men deals with the race -- or more importantly, how the show avoids dealing with it. I can understand the impulse -- given what was happening in the civil rights movement and race relations in 1965, introducing major black characters risks derailing the story from the settings he clearly prefers. But a show which only depicts black people as Playboy bunnies, muggers, elevator operators and a maid (fired for knowing her employer's children better than the lady of house) leaves an awful aftertaste. It is time for Mad Men to step up in the one area where producers have been taking the easy way out.
I have been told by much more accomplished storytellers than myself that this season was among the series' best. But I have been deeply ambivalent about the episodes, and Sunday's finale left me more convinced than ever that we have seen a gifted TV showman dazzling us with misdirection and craft when the actual story falters.
Yes, it was wonderful to see Peggy and office manager -- excuse me, director of agency operations -- Joan Harris exchange a gossipy, defenses-down moment. And I thank Weiner for not leaving us hanging between seasons about Harris' pregnancy, which she appears to be fobbing off to her Vietnam-bound husband as his own, though viewers know agency partner Roger Sterling actually did the deed (what will he do when he discovered she didn't abort the baby as he thought? Probably whine the way he has through most of this past season).
But where last season ended with the promise of our characters starting a new firm and taking new chances, this season ends with sorrow and the sad message that we never change as much or as positively as we might like.
It was fitting that Weiner would place the second-to-last scene in the old Draper house we have come to know over four years. As both Betty and Don leave is walls headed toward uncertain futures sparked by unfortunate motives, viewers are left mourning the past and wondering: How will these two screw this up next season?
Dunno about you, but I was hoping for a little more from the best drama on television.