Monday, October 24, 2011


AMC's hit TV show Mad Men entered its fourth season having pulled a massive storyline "game changer" to close Season 3 - the break-up of advertising agency Sterling Cooper and the divorce of its main character, Don Draper, from his wife Betty.  If this was not America and entertainment was not a consumer product that corporations monetize, the show would have ended on the ambiguous final shot of "Shut the Door, Have a Seat" - Don, having hung up the phone by wishing his soon-to-be ex-wife well in her life, opens the door to the makeshift office of the new Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce - an open room in The Pierre Hotel.  This parting view offers hope and optimism tinged with uncertainty, much like our own lives and experiences.  The first three seasons of Mad Men formed a perfect narrative arc that slowly but inexorably destroyed the unblemished (albeit phony) facade of Donald Francis Draper, Creative Director, Sterling Cooper, married father of three, down low philanderer and cipher to all around him until, broken, he is forced to pick up the pieces of his life and start anew.

Of course, TV *is* a consumer product and Mad Men is one of the most critically acclaimed television programs of the last 30 years, so no matter how elegant the 39 episodes that made up Seasons 1-3 were in telling the story of Don Draper and the other characters in the program, ending the Draper marriage and launching Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was a logical plot device to extend the series, continue exploring shifting social, political and gender mores and deepen the development of the show regulars.  Beginning 10 months after the close of Season 3, the fourth season of Mad Men delivers a giant wink to its viewers with the very first line of the first episode, when a reporter interviewing Don asks him - "Who is Don Draper?"- a question, writ large, at the core of the show.  As a framing device, the early scenes of "Public Relations" do one of the many things the writers of this show excel at, allowing the action and dialogue to fill in the temporal gaps while paying due attention to the window dressing of shifting style, attire and culture. The agency has moved from its modest hotel room to prime real estate in the Time Warner Building, the partners hustle new clients and the hierarchy that once separated Bert and Roger (and to a lesser extent Don) from the rest of the staff has been removed. 

Unlike seasons past, where Don and his life were the clear and dominant center of the narrative, one of the most compelling parts of Season 4 is how the writers widen the show's lens to focus on the other main characters and how the 1960s, now halfway over, but in many ways just starting, begin to affect their lives. These changes are shown most clearly in the story lines of the main female characters, Peggy, Joan and Betty, but also in the smaller female roles of Sally, Dr. Faye Miller (a street wise but formally educated psychologist who conducts market research for the agency), and the secretaries in the office pool.   Indeed, whereas prior seasons sometimes fell back on a cliché of grab ass, casual sexual harassment in the workplace, Stepford wife suburban ennui and mistress as sexual object, Season 4 is a rich tapestry for exploring the challenges that women faced in the mid-1960s in balancing work and home, the expectation of marriage and children and sexual liberation. 

Nowhere are these competing tensions seen more clearly than in the person of Peggy Olsen.  Having been tapped as Don's number two in the new agency, Peggy is clearly feeling her creative oats and desires professional advancement; however, she also wrestles with the societal expectation of marriage and children.  Peggy takes responsibility for firing an obnoxious underling, blows off a fancy birthday dinner with her boyfriend and family in favor of pitching ideas with Don ("I know what I'm supposed to want, but nothing is as important as this office"), and, in the season's final episode, when the agency is teetering, lands a new client through ingenuity and pluck.  Peggy battles for respect and advancement in the workplace throughout the season and shows, by its conclusion, that she is beginning to master the finer points of advertising and client development and has grown immeasurably as a copywriter. 

By the same token she wants marriage and children, just on her terms.  This nuance is the seed of what will become in decades to come one of the defining issues for women - how to balance the desire for a rewarding career and family, but because this idea is relatively unknown in 1965, it weighs heavily on Peggy. When she runs into Peter's wife Trudy in the bathroom on her 26th birthday, Trudy reassures Peggy that "26 is still very young." During a focus group, Don spies Peggy trying on Dr. Miller's wedding ring and Peggy has a big blow out argument with Freddie Rumson over the meaning of Pond's Cold Cream as a product to help women attract men for marriage.  Even so, Peggy is removed from the secretarial pool, who commiserate over the bad behavior of ex-boyfriends, beauty tips, and define themselves entirely by their ability to attract men.  When Allison, Don's secretary, dissolves into tears at the thought of a drunken romp that Don tried to forget but meant the world to her, she expects Peggy to sympathize with her (wrongly assuming Don had slept with Peggy too), but instead, Peggy snaps "your problem is not my problem, get over it."

At the same time, Peggy is very much a young woman who wants to experience and enjoy life as a liberated 20-something in New York City.  Peggy's liberal bent, which was shown in prior seasons through her smoking marijuana, befriending Kurt, a homosexual, and healthy sexual appetite, continues here.  Her stodgy boyfriend is jettisoned for Abe, a socialist rabble rouser, she is non-plussed by an advance made by new friend Joyce ("your boyfriend does not own your vagina" ... "yes, but he's renting it") at an art house party and she becomes more socially aware by challenging the policies of a client, Fillmore Automotive Parts, in not hiring blacks (to which Don retorts, "our job is to make men like Fillmore, not make Fillmore like negroes [sic].").  This open-mindedness notwithstanding, Peggy is savvy enough to understand the commercial (monetary) value of the art she sees at the house party and seems surprised when the artist who produced it does not see it too. 

While Peggy hovers near the ground that is slowly becoming the women's liberation movement, a few paces removed from her is Joan Harris, whose competing desires for stability and family on the one hand and a successful career on the other, show how even a few years age difference can color how one views the world.  While Joan and Peggy are separated by less than 10 years, they inhabit different professional and cultural spaces.  Joan's view is backward looking and she clings to the middle class ideal even as its pulled out from under her at every turn.  Her doctor husband enlists in the Army so he can be a surgeon and is sent to Vietnam.  Her curvaceousness, which garnered the attention of powerful older men when she was younger, is now mocked and ridiculed by a younger generation who see her as a combination of shrew and harlot to be objectified on the one hand and disobeyed on the other. Although her abilities as an office manager are unmatched, when she receives a promotion to Director of Agency Operations, it is without a raise.  She can turn a low-rent Christmas party into a bacchanalian festival in no time, but what she senses is that the life she wanted for herself, with a husband who provided for her and children to take care of, is slipping away. When a heat of the moment sexual encounter with Roger results in her getting pregnant, instead of undergoing a third abortion, she grasps for a final chance at motherhood, as fraught with risk as that decision is.

If Joan sought a cautionary tale on the peril of suburban domesticity, she would need look no further than Don’s ex-wife Betty. Having run off with divorcee Henry Francis, Betty finds herself locked in the same trap of her own creation.  Same house, same kids, same car, just a different man sleeping next to her.  She adamantly refuses to move out of the home she and Don shared even though she and Henry end up paying Don rent to live there, is belittled as a "silly woman" by Henry's mother and gets drunk at an important dinner meeting Henry is having with a political connection after seeing Don dining with a younger woman.  Betty's childishness comes into sharp relief over the course of the season in her bonding with Sally's child psychologist Dr. Edna, her jealousy toward Sally over Glenn, the neighborhood boy Betty befriended back in Season 1, petty jealousy toward Don ("he does not get to have this family and that"), firing of long-time maid Carla (even refusing to write a letter of recommendation for her) and immaturity any time she does not get her way.  Indeed, after an argument with Henry during the final episode, there is a clear implication that she sets up a "chance" meeting with Don at their former home in Ossining in the hope of mending fences with him and maybe even trying to seduce him.  Betty's immersion in the suburban, stay-at-home mother model makes her the least equipped of the main female characters to adapt in the rapidly changing 1960s.   

The fast pace of cultural and personal change is being felt under Betty's roof by her precocious pre-teen daughter Sally.  Sally's character development is pronounced during this season and the impact of her parents divorce is clear.  Her cries for attention pinball between petulance, as seen when she acts out at the Francis family Thanksgiving dinner and when she lashes out at her father when he returns her to Betty after Sally runs away to the city ("I'm not going.  I hate it there."), and self-expression, by cutting her own hair to get attention and masturbating during a sleepover party. For her behavior, she is sent to therapy with matronly Dr. Edna, who, quickly sizing up Betty (and Betty's maternal limitations), steers Sally toward a course of conflict avoidance and passivity.  While this strategy works for a little while, the final straw between Sally and Betty occurs when Sally befriends Glenn, Betty discovers the friendship and forbids it.  This becomes the tipping point that finally pushes Betty to leave Ossining but not before firing Carla after finding out she allowed Glenn into the house to say goodbye to Sally.

The writers utilize a subtle touch with the female characters and go to great lengths to show the nuance and complexity of how women (and girls) had to navigate a society that was moving quickly into a modern age that would uproot long-held gender stereotypes. In this way, we are shown that greater choice was not an entirely positive thing for women at that time.  Five years before, housewife or secretary appeared to be the two basic life options, but as the workplace opened in different ways, new challenges were created.  Dr. Miller wears a wedding ring even though she is not married to ward off men, but takes the ring off when she’s conducting a focus group. She is put in the position of defending her life choices but feels diminished by them. Betty’s role of mother and housewife, prized just a few years ago, now appears marginal and limited. Peggy and Joan, both of whom are veterans of the workforce, still struggle against stereotypes and fight for recognition.  In the wake of Don’s announcement of his engagement to Megan, they have the following exchange:

Peggy:  You know, I just saved this company.  I signed the first new business since Lucky Strike left.  But it’s not as important as getting married.  Again.
Joan: Well, I was just made Director of Agency Operations.  A title, no money of course. And if they poured champagne, it must have been while I was pushing the mail cart.
Peggy: A pretty face comes along and everything goes out the window.
Joan:  Well, I learned a long time ago to not get all my satisfaction from this job.
Peggy: That’s bullshit.
<Both Laugh>

Peggy and Joan, who at times circled each other warily, share a moment of solidarity crafted out of a mutual feeling of disrespect and lack of appreciation. They foreshadow similar challenges women would face as more of them entered the job market and had to struggle for validation and acceptance. 

From the other side of the spectrum, the male characters are also experiencing a certain amount of dislocation.  Long accustomed to complete hegemony in the workplace, a wink and nod attitude toward marital infidelity and generally treating women more as objects than equal partners, as 1965 dawns, the men of Mad Men begin to see a world that looks less familiar to them.  Nowhere do we see this disorientation more intensely than in the person of Roger Sterling, who, although to the manner born, now finds his place at work marginalized.  Having never worked hard to corral accounts because of the long-term (and highly lucrative) American Tobacco (Lucky Strike) portfolio, Roger's skills as an account manager have eroded and he spends much of his time on a self-indulgent memoir filled with insider gossip and slurred memories of a life of little effort or struggle. A man locked in his past, Roger retains deep bitterness about World War II, which he shows in his antipathy toward the Japanese businessmen of Honda Motor Company, who are interviewing agencies to market its motorcycle and is wistful for a life he never had with Joan ("all the good stuff was with you.").  When the opportunity arises to write a different future, Roger is ambivalent.  The loss of Lucky Strike and Joan's accidental pregnancy offers Roger a second (third?) chance, but his behavior belies his cowardice.  With Lucky Strike, he buries the bad news, fakes a trip to North Carolina to try and “reclaim” the lost account and, when he admits the rouse to Joan and she snaps at him, whines "don't yell at me."  Similarly, instead of fully supporting the idea of her keeping the baby, he visits a doctor with her to get an abortion referral (though gentleman he is, he does offer to pay for the procedure). 

Roger's polar opposite is Peter Campbell, whose professional development and personal growth turn him into the stable core of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.  Having shed his entitled attitude and gotten his hands dirty in the business, Peter rises in Season 4 as an account manager just coming into the prime of his career.  His care and attention to North American Aviation has turned it from a small account into a nearly $4 million a year billing.  When Trudy gets pregnant, he's ruthless enough to leverage his father-in-law's pride into expanding the Vick's Chemical portfolio, dumping Clearasil on a smaller agency and receiving back a larger set of consumer products in return.  Finally, when his former rival from Sterling Cooper, Ken Cosgrove, is recruited to work at SCDP, Peter quickly establishes the pecking order, disabusing Ken of any idea that they are still peers and further cements his standing when Ken refuses to use *his* father-in-law to cultivate new business after Lucky Strike leaves.  Pete's maturity is also shown in his refusal to consider leaving SCDP when Ted Chough offers him a name partnership in his firm and even when he debates tapping into his child's savings to help keep SCDP afloat when money becomes an issue at the end of the season.  Trudy ultimately delivers a baby girl and Peter's home life is far more normal than in seasons past, there is no philandering, no tantrums resulting in dinner being tossed off the balcony, and much less alcohol.  In short, Peter is a man growing into the responsibilities and obligations of an executive who is earning his stripes, has ceased taking shortcuts to the top and is growing as a husband and father. 

Although Season 4 offers a more expansive exploration of these supporting characters, the heart of the season and the show remains its fascination with the tortured psyche of Don Draper.  Having filled in the final pieces of Dick Whitman's backstory in Season 3, which tellingly opened with a flashback to Archie Whitman's visit to a prostitute after his wife delivers a stillborn child and ended with the senior Whitman dying in front of young Dick from a horse's frightened kick to the head, and stripping away both the personal and professional foundation upon which Don Draper functioned, Season 4 explores what happens to a man suddenly unmoored.  The early results are not promising.  Don's personal life is a shambles of bottomless glasses of Canadian Club, aggressive advances towards a rotating cast of women including his next door neighbor, secretary, 18-year old niece of Anna Draper, diner waitress, female advertising executive and Dr. Faye Miller, and a venality at work that serves to underscore the insecurity of his ego and need for validation (Peggy: “We are all here because of you.  All we want to do is please you.”).  If Season 3 closed the loop of Dick Whitman's entrance into the world and shoddy upbringing, the death of Anna Draper in Season 4 takes away the one person who Don Draper opened up to completely and forces him to confront his future without a true loved one. 

Anna's death is a central plot point of Season 4 and is handled in two parts.  In "The Good News," Don pays what he expects to be a brief visit to Anna on his way to Acapulco for New Year's.  The visit begins with Anna's niece Stephanie tagging along with Don and Anna to a local bar where Don and Anna engage in a post-mortem analysis of Don's failed marriage.  In discussing Betty's discovery of his true past, he says, "Once she knew who I really was, she never wanted to look at me again.  Which is why I never told her in the first place."  Even with all his professional success, material wealth and plaudits, not only did Don not see himself as good enough for a woman of Betty's background (Main Line upbringing and Seven Sisters college education) but knew from the get go that the woman he wanted to marry would not accept a "whore child" who rose from hardscrabble roots to earn everything he achieved.  Anna greets this intimacy compassionately, saying "I am sorry she broke your heart," to which Don, in a wonderfully self-aware moment, responds "I had it coming."  The catharsis which we expect from this admission is instead subverted later that evening when Don drives Stephanie home and she tells him that not only does Anna have terminal cancer and is unlikely to survive long, but that the prognosis is being withheld from her.  The following morning, Don wants to stay and help, to retain the best doctors and get second or third opinions, but he is reminded by Anna's sister that he is merely "a man, in a room, with a checkbook."  With that, Don chokes out a goodbye, knowing he will never see Anna again. 

The second part of this storyline occurs several episodes (and in "show time" months later) in "The Suitcase."  Don receives an urgent message to call Stephanie but refrains from doing so, knowing the call will only confirm what he already knows. Instead, he skips out on a client dinner and the Ali-Liston II fight to work on a pitch for Samsonite, tormenting Peggy into staying to help him even though it is her birthday and she has dinner plans with her boyfriend.  The evening is eventful for reasons unrelated to Anna's passing, but when Don finally musters the courage to make the call in the wee hours of the following morning, he is still crestfallen.  As it happens, Peggy is in the office when he makes the call (the two had passed out on the couch during the early morning hours) and watches his reaction. When she asks him what happened, he says that the "only person in the world who really knew me died."  At that, he bursts into tears, pulling himself into Peggy in a moment of deep vulnerability and pain.  Anna's passing pulls the last piece of Don's old foundation away but Peggy’s presence assures viewers that a new figure is there to take Anna’s place. A tight shot of Don's hand in Peggy's serves as visual confirmation of their cemented bond. 

Anna’s death serves as the emotional climax of “The Suitcase,” however, the night and early morning Peggy and Don spend together is equally telling for reasons unrelated to Anna.  First, we get to the core of Peggy’s unhappiness over the CLIO-award winning Glo-Coat commercial.  She thinks Don has taken all the credit for its creation without properly recognizing her contribution.  A huge fight ensues, with Peggy claiming the idea as her own, Don disagreeing and reminding her that all of her ideas are ultimately his ideas and that her “thank you” is the money she receives as salary.  He also chastises her eagerness for career advancement, essentially telling her that she would be nothing without him. 

While Peggy stews in her office, Don stumbles across dictated recordings Roger made of his memoir, discovering embarrassing details about Ms. Blankenship (a sexual hellcat) and Bert (a eunuch).  Don shares the tapes with Peggy and they head out to a bar to listen to the Ali-Liston fight.  There, Peggy's abandoned baby comes up when Don asks if she ever thinks about her child and she responds " … sometimes, playgrounds ..." and Peggy reveals a nagging insecurity by asking Don why he never made a pass at her.  He begs off (calling her “cute as hell”) but the audience understands that Don is paternalistic toward Peggy and does not view her sexually, but rather as someone he shares a deep emotional bond with, which, for Don, is far more powerful than a sexually desirable woman.  The night continues in a seedy diner, where they discover each saw their father die and lands back in the office, where Don throws up from overindulging before squaring off with an equally drunken Duck Phillips, who snuck into the building to defecate in Don's office.

The events revealed in “The Suitcase” are the last pieces in a puzzle of connection between Don and Peggy that began when Don saw a not-as-naive-as-she-looked Peggy come up with the "basket of kisses" tag for Belle Jolie lipstick, carried through Don's visiting Peggy in the hospital, encouraging her to move on with her life, Peggy's discreet handling of Don's car accident, and his recruitment of Peggy to join him at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.  What the evening confirmed was that Don and Peggy are kindred spirits, people who came from limited means, who value work over personal relationships (which they struggle with) and share an intense privacy about themselves that they reveal to very few people. 

As the episode ends, Don has turned over a new leaf - his vomit stained shirt is gone, replaced with a crisp and clean one, his hair is back in its slicked back place and his door, frequently closed, is now open. When the season shifts to its second act, summer is in the air, the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” is introducing sights, sounds and smells that laid dormant during the colder months and Don is ruminative, writing in a journal, swimming at the local YMCA (advice Anna had given him to help clear his head) and monitoring his drinking. The remaining time we spend with Don focuses on two related beliefs Don holds about human behavior.  The first, that "people don't change" and the second, that "people tell you who they are, but we ignore it, because we want them to be who we want them to be." Don does try to change, at least for a time. 

Change is something Don deeply desires but struggles with.  Any sign of stress is met with a knee jerk move for his trusty Canadian Club, but to his credit, he directs his new secretary Megan to keep track of how many drinks he has (daily limit: three), he starts dating Dr. Miller and shows up to baby Gene's birthday party without incident.  These small building blocks are easily relatable to anyone who has experienced deep trauma and longs for a new beginning.  Changing patterns of behavior is hard, Don’s tentative entrance to the Francis home for Gene’s birthday is poignant, but he quickly makes himself comfortable, scooping Gene up and tossing him in the air. 

We root for Don to change, to better himself as a man, but the ultimate conceit behind the Draper persona, of someone who is not who he says he is, cannot be so easily altered.  Even though he is comfortable enough with Faye to divulge his “secret” desertion from the Army, instead of doing the hard thing, of coming clean and seeking forgiveness for his actions, he puts the firm in jeopardy by directing Peter to terminate the agency’s contract with North American Aviation when he learns the Department of Defense has “red flagged” his security application. This decision is doubly damaging because Roger is secretly holding back the fact that Lucky Strike has also parted company with SCDP. 

In his personal life, Don is offered a similar choice between what is hard (but potentially rewarding) and what is familiar (and easy).  Faye Miller is close to an equal – a smart, insightful and no bullshit professional who encourages Don to come to grips with his checkered past but also offers him the potential for a fully-formed, adult relationship.  Then there is Megan.  She is in no way Don’s equal and does not ask him to consider his conduct or behavior, she validates it. 

Don and Faye first interactions are choppy – he blows off a test she gives to the agency’s main characters and she later observes that although he’s recently divorced, he will re-marry within a year.  When he objects to that comment, she casually reminds herself that “no one likes to be told they are a type.”  Don pursues Faye but she has enough awareness to reject his advances while he is drinking and waits until there’s a time where he appears more stable.  Their first date is chaste, she encourages him to attend his son Gene’s birthday party, they have an easy rapport and pleasant time, but, in a sign of his attempt to change, Don ends the date in the cab instead of following her into her apartment building. 

Although the relationship seems promising, Don quickly reverts to type.  Imposing on Faye to babysit Sally at his apartment when Sally runs away from Ossining and then asking Faye to talk to Sally when Sally refuses to leave the office at the end of her unplanned visit.  Faye is “not good with children” and she gets angry with Don for placing her in that position and also is reminded of her own decisions about career and motherhood. 

Things head further south when SCDP must scramble for new business in the wake of the loss of Lucky Strike.  First, Don leverages his relationship with Faye to get a meeting with one of her other clients who is dissatisfied with their current ad agency.  Don makes this request without shame or concern for Faye's ethics, missing entirely her discomfort with mixing the professional and personal.  In his life, work *is* everything and everything is done in service of getting ahead.  In her world, there is the office and there is her personal life.  Next, when Don takes out a full page ad in the New York Times explaining that SCDP will no longer accept tobacco accounts, it results in the separation of Faye's company from SCDP, something he did not even stop to consider.  Don's tunnel vision about his career and job blinds him to the people around him and how what he does impacts them. 

During this time of turmoil, Don mostly succeeds in keeping his drinking under control thanks in part to his new secretary Megan.  Megan begins the season on the periphery, one of a number of secretaries at the firm who assist in arranging meetings and parties.  But she ascends to Don’s desk after the death of Ms. Blankenship and quickly shows her resourcefulness when Sally falls in the office and Megan consoles her.  When Don stays at the office late one night, they have sex, but Megan is confident enough in herself to essentially tell Don that she is not Allison, a former secretary Don also had sex with, and their liaison will not impact her work. 

When Betty fires Carla, who Don had expected would accompany him on his trip to California to handle the sale of Anna’s house, Don asks Megan to join him.  There, she is a veritable Mary Poppins, teaching Sally and Bobby a French lullaby and calmly tidying up a spilt milkshake instead of making a scene. Laying in bed together one night, Don and Megan have the following exchange:

Don:  You don’t know anything about me.
Megan:  I know you have a good heart and are trying to be better.
Don:  We all try, we do not always make it.  I have done a lot of things.
Megan: I know who you are now.

This conversation is telling for several reasons.  First, it shows that Don has a high level of self-awareness about himself, his past and the less than good odds he will successfully change.  Second, it appears that he wants to engage her in a conversation about those “things” he has done, which would also suggest personal growth on his part.  Third, she gives him a pass both for his anticipated failure in changing (he’s “trying” after all) and in sharing his past shortcomings, because she “knows” who he is.  A changed man would not take that pass, he would say “No. You really do *not* know who I am and this ‘change’ you’re seeing is predicated entirely on my survival instinct and need to avoid losing my agency and career.”  Instead, Don puts a ring on her finger and asks Megan to marry him.

This scene is a perfect bookend to a much different conversation Don has with Faye at the beginning of this same episode.  Don has already revealed to Faye that he was a war deserter and this breakthrough encourages her to push him to come to grips with his past:

Faye:  If you resolved some of your personal issues maybe that sick feeling will go away. You don’t have to be alone.
Don: And then what happens?
Faye:  Then you are stuck trying to be a person like the rest of us.

A future stuck “trying to be a person” holds no appeal to Don.  Instead of confronting the issues that have haunted him for so long, Don chooses a woman who will let him continue his charade.  Further, all of the introspection and self-examination Don did in writing is literally torn to pieces when he pens his “open letter” to the New York Times.  While the symbolism is a bit heavy-handed, destroying the evidence of his inner thoughts in favor of burnishing his public reputation allows Don to reclaim his image as an implacable executive in total control of his life. 

When offered the choice between a mature, open and challenging relationship with Faye Miller and a familiar, caretaker for his children who does not push him to confront his past or go into therapy, Don confirms his own belief - people do not change. He exchanges Betty for a newer Betty with (what appear to be) better parenting skills instead of staying with Faye, who is awkward around children and forces Don to face uncomfortable truths. When Don informs Faye of his engagement, she insightfully responds that his intended should know “you only like the beginnings of things.” 

This incident is one of several that illustrate Don's general view toward women - they are in his world to be bent to his will and needs - they clean his apartment, watch his children, are offered money and "thank you" when one of his kids aimlessly wanders the subway, monitor his drinking, act as sexual supplicants and when his business is in danger, violate their own ethics to please him.  The two most common phrases Don utters to women are “Thank You” (typically for doing something to clean up one of his messes or avoiding the creation of one) and “I’m Sorry” (usually for acting in a callous, unthinking or selfish way). Don has told us who he is, over and over again, yet the women who orbit him fail to see it because they want him to be someone else.  While Don’s change is ultimately within the power of the show’s writers, consistency in his character would suggest that his relationship with Megan will be ill-fated and brief.

Lastly, Season 4 offers small insights and images that provide a richer mosaic of how the relationships between the main characters have evolved and changed.  One particularly poignant moment occurs at the end of “The Rejected,” where Peter, having expanded the Vick’s Chemical portfolio, is in the lobby with the other partners from SCDP and executives from Vick’s.  The group is homogenous, all white, middle-aged (except Peter) and male.  Through the glass doors, Peggy emerges to meet Joyce and her friends for lunch.  They are multi-cultural, young men and women and more casually attired.  Peggy and Peter catch one another’s eye as she heads for the elevator and the camera lingers on that moment, so pregnant with meaning – of what could have been and what is. 

Other winks and nods occur when Don, in a moment of drunken hubris, perverts his own classic “Wheel” pitch from Season 1 in a meeting with Life Cereal and winds up repeating a slogan that was told to him earlier that day by a failed job applicant (who he ends up hiring to avoid embarrassment).  Another tidbit is shared in the lone flashback episode, “Waldorf Stories,” where we learn that Don essentially tricked Roger into giving him a job many years ago by getting Roger drunk and then just showing up to work the next day claiming Roger had hired him.  We learn that Betty has taken over Don’s study, that place of such dark meaning during their marriage.  When Stephanie calls Don “Dick” in “Tomorrowland” Bobby asks his father “Who’s Dick.”  The question itself is the mirror opposite of “Who’s Don Draper” and Don’s complicated relationship to and feelings for his own children are wrapped up in that simple question.  His answer, “It’s me. It’s my nickname sometimes” is sufficient to placate Bobby but means so much more. 

Ultimately, Mad Men provided its fans with yet another great season of writing, acting and character development.  As with all things related to the upcoming 5th season, little has been revealed.  We know that the show will run, at most for 7 seasons, but true fans hope that temporally, the writers have the discretion to avoid the sight of Don and the gang in loud polyester leisure suits and awful sideburns.  No one wants to contemplate the sight of wife swapping at a suburban key party in 1973.  What will make Mad Men continue to resonate with its fans is its realistic portrayal of the human condition.  People may not change, at least except around the margins, but if life is not about trying to be better, of sometimes failing but pushing forward, than we are all resigned to Don’s fate, of continually raising a mask and hiding from the world. 

Henry Francis perfectly summed up this worldview.  In “Tomorrowland” he and Betty have a fight when he learns she has fired Carla.

Betty:  I wanted a fresh start.  I’m entitled to that (emphasis added).
Henry: There is no fresh start, life just carries on.

A lot of Mad Men is about what people think they are entitled to or deserve.  Henry, wizened from years in politics, life and a failed marriage, is realistic enough to know that no slate is ever wiped clean, but rather, it is what we do with our time that counts. 


  1. Megan said, "I know who you are now." Now being the operative word. She (they both, perhaps) may be naive and blinded by love, but she is telling him she doesn't need to know the gory details: what's past is prologue.

    Megan thinks she knows quite a bit about Don, and she does. Being his secretary for a couple of months, and hearing the scuttlebutt for a few before, give her the impression she's seen him at his best and worst, and heard the rest. (She clearly knows more about him that Betty did when they got engaged.)

    This is a false impression, because he does have that deep dark secret, but on an emotional level, it might be true. We'll see.

  2. Terrific piece. I agree that the ending of season 3 seemed like a series finale, and I would have been satisfied with that. I am curious to see where the upcoming seasons take these characters, and whether or not they can change. I predict Don will continue to adapt when required.

  3. Thank you for your interpertation of the Mad Men story since it has filled in many of the blank spots I had concerning characters other than Don. I am of the mindset that Megan is not exactly who she presents herself to be either, and Don could be confronted with a wife who decides to switch personalities on him in return (career vs. mommy with the former taking the lead role).
    Waiting for S5 has been torture indeed. Keep up the excellent work!

  4. I'll second the sentiments above about this excellent commentary.

    I don;t know the blog etiquette, but you ought to consider posting to the Basket of Kisses blog. You certainly have the chops to become a semi-regular contributor.

    There's another guy, forget his blog name, who does the occasional contribution.