Did you happen to catch Sunday’s Mad Men Finale? Entitled “Tomorrowland,” as always, the show served up a heaping dose of Yesteryear reality, tarted up in a no-detail-left-behind package of pitch-perfect mid-century style porn.
Initially–and despite the big jaw-dropper–I turned off the TV and thought about the women. Faye, the successful, independent, and beautiful doctor who challenged Don, encouraged him to be himself–even with some knowledge of his secret past–and seemed to have something verging on the serious with him… until, that is, Don took off to California with his much-younger secretary Megan, whom he’d slept with once before while working a late night at the office during which she proclaimed she was “interested in advertising,” and whom, in this episode, he asked to babysit during the trip after Betty canned the kids’ longtime nanny in a fit of temper. After a brush with his past that included the reclaiming of an heirloom ring, Don witnessed Megan leading the children in some sort of French nursery rhyme (just call her Megan VonTrapp), calmly cleaning spilled milkshakes, in a bikini and decked out for a night at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go. Ergo, he slept with her, promptly decided he was in love, and, in the long and grand tradition of ad men and their secretaries, proposed. Back at the office, Peggy scored a six-figure deal with some panty-hose slingers, but news of the interoffice engagement trumped hers, despite the fact that the agency was going under. Seeing her shock, Don attempts to–what? console her?–by saying of Megan, “she reminds me of you.” Just a little younger, more beautiful, maternal, and not quite so smart… And then Don picks up the phone to dump Faye, who takes it like a woman–an understandably pissed off woman. Oh, also: Joan got a promotion. In title only–no raise for you, Joanie. (In a New York Times piece in which the writer watched the finale with National Women’s Political Caucus co-founder and “How to Make It in a Man’s World” author Letty Cottin Pogrebin, the scene “prompt[ed] Ms. Pogrebin to laugh out loud and point at the screen: ‘We got the titles and not the salary.’”)
So much to say! (Alas, Joan and Peggy beat me to a fair chunk of it, in their hilarious shit-talking session in Joan’s office, post-engagement bomb.) But, hey, the show’s already been deconstructed and reconstructed, backwards and forward. (Although, am I the only one who calls “Foul” at the irony of all the critics who praise the show for its accurate depiction of an incredibly sexist time–and then describe Peggy, who’s started to prove herself professionally, as “increasingly arrogant?” For. The. Love.) But anyway. What goes on in the show is often shocking, but also not, because while wardrobe and workplace mores may have changed, certain human tendencies have not. Take even Betty, arguably the most shockingly-behaved character on the show. In a Washington Post piece entitled “Why ‘Mad Men’ Is TV’s Most Feminist Show,” which ran a week or so ahead of the finale, Stephanie Coontz says:
Betty Draper won most viewers’ sympathy in the first season because of her husband’s infidelities and lies. But since then, many have come to hate her for displaying the traits of the dependent housewife that Betty Friedan critiqued so vividly in her 1963 bestseller, “The Feminine Mystique.” She is a woman who thinks a redecorated living room, a brief affair or a new husband might fill the emptiness inside her, and her attempts to appear the perfect wife render her incapable of fully knowing her children of even her successive husbands.
Interesting, that. (And it’s little wonder that the Sallys of the world are the ones who led feminism’s second wave, looking to live lives on equal, independent footing. As Pogrebin said in that NYT piece, “You should feel sorry for [Betty]… She has such a stunted life.”) But those issues–of misguided attempts at filling the emptiness inside, or the lengths one might go to in the service of avoiding getting to know oneself or one’s family or dealing with one’s or one’s family’s shit–become even more interesting when you consider this, from a New York magazine post-finale-premiere Q&A with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner.
Faye seemed like Don Draper’s mistress type…
MW: No, I think Faye seemed like the next Mrs. Don Draper. She’s a professional and he’s an equal. I mean, who knows? There’s no stories about men in this situation. Maybe The Odd Couple. I realized because guys like this weren’t single for that long. To me, the reason this episode is called “Tomorrowland” is because it’s really about the choice between, “Do you want to deal with who you are, and live with that?” or “Do you want to think about the person you could be in the future and you’re becoming?” And Megan said, “Go to Tomorrowland.” Everything’s pushing towards that fact. Why don’t you be the person you want to be, and not worry about dealing with the person you are?
Excellent question, Mr. Weiner. And, while thankfully, much of what goes down in Mad Men‘s yesterdayland is relegated to the past, that question gets to me. In the show, both Betty and Don would rather do anything than figure out who they are and be that person. Whether they prefer Fantasyland or Tomorrowland is incidental; it’s the need for escape that’s the same. Betty is a frightful cautionary tale, an emotional infant who deals in temper tantrums; Don is… a frightful cautionary tale, an emotional infant who deals in advertising, cocktails, and sex. Either one would sooner quit their Lucky Strike habit than give up the chase and take a moment to think.
As Salon.com’s Heather Havrilesky put it:
But Sunday night’s “Mad Men” finale reminds us of what Matthew Weiner’s riveting drama captures best of all: the particularly modern affliction of dissatisfaction, a sickness that robs us of our ability to savor the moment, to relish the mundane details of our lives and delight in all of the joys that our comforts and conveniences bring. Perversely, the more comfortable we are, the more we want. We’re constantly distracted by the notion that we could do better or have more, that we might become someone new overnight, that there’s a magic pot of gold around the next corner. Whether it’s advertising or celebrity or culture or some twisted mix of radio jingles, cartoons, soap operas, political speeches and suspense thrillers, our cultural marinade makes us fixate on easy answers, shortcuts, and magical thinking. We’re each about to win the lottery; salvation lies just around the next bend, we just have to wait and see what happens.
Of course, Mad Men is fiction. But what about the rest of us? How often do we push down our real self, procrastinate the work of getting to know her, and instead obsess over changing our external circumstances, hoping they’ll offer us some sort of satisfaction? Or ignore who we are today in favor of who we think we’ll be tomorrow, what we think will satisfy us then? Or find ourselves categorically incapable of being in the here and now, distracted instead by the bright, shiny promise of what could be? It’s so funny, isn’t it, how, sometimes, somehow, we actually believe it’s easier to make decisions based on who we want to be than who we actually are–or possible to distract ourselves out of our dissatisfaction. I’m not happy, but maybe if I leave my philandering husband for this politician, or up and move my family across town, then I’ll feel better? Or, perhaps I’ll have a seventh scotch and screw my secretary–that should do the trick! Or, everything is great… but couldn’t it–shouldn’t it–be better?
Ridiculous, right? And yet. It’s kinda funny how that part carries the disturbing ring of truth, how Fantasyland and Tomorrowland hold such a timeless, universal appeal. I’m in a shitty relationship, but I don’t want to deal with it… I’m gonna cut my hair! And dye it, too! My job is sucking my soul… Time to plan a vacay! Everything is fine, but I sure am bored… maybe I’ll go back to school! Or maybe I should take up with that barista who makes a skull-and-crossbones in my latte foam… Or this: I’m so stressed out over the pages of final edits to my very first book, I just can’t deal… maybe I’ll pour myself a glass of wine, cozy up to the couch, and settled in to watch some salacious TV instead.
Although actually, for 56 minutes, that last one worked like a charm.