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Cable Television Recap: Mad Men, Season Four, Episode Thirteen: "Tomorrowland"

Mad Men
Season Four, Episode Thirteen: "Tomorrowland"
Written by Jonathan Igla and Matthew Weiner
Directed by Matthew Weiner
Don: I feel like myself when I'm with you. But the way I always wanted to feel.
Oh, Mad Men. You old codger. Always taking one thing, thinking things are gonna go one way, then taking them in a totally different way. In the season finale of Mad Men (which originally aired two weeks ago and was just screened by me last night), showrunner Matthew Weiner pulled most of the strings together on the season in a unexpected, maybe understated, but ultimately effective way. My thoughts on this episode, the season in general, and where it ranks among a crop of excellent seasons of excellent television shows in 2010 coming right up.

One of the major plot strands of season four of Mad Men was seeing Don Draper deal with the fallout of his marriage with Betty. Throughout the first two-thirds of the season, we saw Don hit rock-bottom, both personally and professionally. His work at SCDP was shoddy, he was throwing cash money at his old secretary Allison like she was a real two-bit whore (pronunciation guide: think Ralph Cifaretto's pronunciation in The Sopranos - "whoooah") and he was finding himself at the bottom of a whiskey glass more than once. He spent an evening with his protege Peggy and, after getting confirmation that Anna Draper, the "only woman who really (knew) him," passed, shared a non-sexual embrace with her (in the season's clear highpoint, episode seven, "The Suitcase") and Peggy's memorable response to his assumption was, of course, "That's not true." Oh man, chills. Chills down my spine in that scene earlier this year.

So, Don, perhaps realizing on some level him hitting rock-bottom, started writing stuff in his diary, and started swimming early in the morning. Whether the thoughts in his diary were his, or were a mental exercise, is up for debate. Regardless, he picked up his diary again at the end of episode twelve, "Blowing Smoke," and drafted the letter that was published in the New York Times swearing off advertising for tobacco, coming off SCDP's loss of the Lucky Strike account (and, in the meantime, losing Bert Cooper as a partner.)

Long story short, this assumed chunk of soul-searching by Don apparently led him to spontaneously decide on proposing to his new secretary, Megan, while on a business trip with his kids. It's an act of desperation that is played extremely straight in the episode in nauseating detail. Did Matthew Weiner and the writing staff want us to be happy for Don? I realized that Don truly believes that fate truly did lead him to a hotel room with Megan in California with an engagement ring. But, the depth of Don's hypocrisy seemed even deeper than before.

That's when, thankfully, the other shoe dropped. After some phony platitudes about how happy she was, Peggy dropped into Joan's new office and ragged on Don. Peggy, having come off perhaps her biggest professional accomplishment of her career, is immediately one-upped by the office news of Don and Megan's engagement(*). It turned the contents of most of the episode upside-down by taking the mask off of what was really happening.

(*)Oh, to simpler times, when office romances between executive and subordinate were not treated by Human Resource Management as problems but rather celebrated.

Joan, of course, found herself with a promotion, albeit one that was "in title only," and, having seen her role as office sexpot ground down to a nub by the new generation of sexist young bucks who strolled through SCDP, reveals in her final scene that she did not, in fact, abort the baby that ol' Roger Sterling put into her earlier in the season.

And, Betty finds once and for all that moving from her house with new husband Henry Francis doesn't equate to happiness in her life. Brigitte aptly pointed out that Betty started wanting Don back after Henry called her on her BS: "There is no fresh start. Lives carry on." When she coldly fires Carla for letting creepy Glen visit Sally one last time, she finds herself with nobody left in her corner. And when Don drops the ol' engagement bombshell on her, it's pretty much over. Although we can all agree that Betty is pretty bad at parenting, I do hope that future seasons find her with a little less crappiness.

Interestingly, Don's romantic choice of Megan over the business-savvy Faye Vincent also perhaps signals his desire to stay in his double life role as Don Draper. I do wonder if his casual Dick Whitman revelation to Faye will come back to bite him in future seasons in some way. His choice of Megan signals, to me, that Don, finding himself at a crossroads between Don and Dick when Anna Draper passed away, ultimately chose Don. The short-term result for Don equals happiness, but I can't help but expect that as the '60s drive on, and people start doin' more and more drugs, listenin' to Country Joe McDonald, hatin' on the establishment like Don, the curtain will fall in some horrendous way.

As an episode, and really, as a part of four episodes to close the season, "Tomorrowland" had many individually good scenes, and wrapped up the plots and themes of the season well. As a stand-alone episode, "The Suitcase" served as the finest hour of the year. As a part of the entire Mad Men series, I think overall season four will serve as an excellent part of the rising action. As the characters found themselves midway through the 60s at the end of the season (and, thus, more than halfway through the planned chronology of the series as a whole), things are changing in ways nobody really expects. The foreboding scenes of Joan's hubby hanging out in Vietnam suggest the next couple of seasons will be more than tumultuous.

How does this season rank with other series this year? Well, ultimately I believe I will rank it at #2, behind the unbelievably great season of Breaking Bad, which I believe took the next step in its third season in being more than just a Totally Tense, Extremely Well-Acted And Written Thrill Ride that it was in season two, turning it into the same as what it was, but with an added level of character depth. I should add a caveat, too, that I think, ultimately, Mad Men, as a complete series, will rank among the greatest drama series of all time, probably somewhere in the top five, alongside The Wire and The Sopranos. And in fact, it may turn to be more cohesive than The Sopranos, as its structure of going from 1960-1970 means there are fewer perceived filler episodes/seasons expected to occur.

One thing is for certain: AMC be ballin' in dramas right now. HBO still wears the long-term crown (and has a series on its hands right now that I think has the potential to rank in that upper-upper echelon in Treme, a series that I love more and more every day), but AMC has had a stellar 2010.

Episode grade: A-; Season grade: A-.

Memorable quotes and other stuff:
  • "It's Glen. Are you decent?"-Glen, 13-going-on-73 and visiting Sally one last time.
  • "I love your teeth." -Don, to Megan, after she noted that her friend said she could never be an actress because of her big teeth. Meta alert!
  • "I just signed the first client in a while. But that's not as important as getting married. Again." -Peggy. Hilarius and sad.
  • "He'll probably make her copywriter. He won't want to be married to a secretary." -Joan, in the great conversation between Peggy and her.
  • "I have to tell you something. I met someone. I'm engaged." -Don, in his standard line to everybody who he has to carefully reveal his news to.
  • I think I will continue to blog on notable episodes of TV shows in this fashion here on the Blogulator. Any questions/comments/concerns you have on what I can do to make these posts most user-friendly would be much appreciated!
Because it got my brain churning again, and because of Chris' great TV post from last week got me thinking about my Top 10 drama series of 2010. Here's how they rank so far:

1) Breaking Bad. Brilliant cast, brilliant writing, emotional depth, pathos humor, all of which hit hit my TV show sweet spot. Best episode: "Fly."
2) Mad Men. See above. Best episode: "The Suitcase."
3) Treme. Like The Wire in terms of attention to detail, but more focused on the characters and the anthropologic stuff. Best episode: "I'll Fly Away."
4) Friday Night Lights. I'm only on season two but I'm hoping to reserve a spot for the final season on this year's top ten list. Best episode of season one: "Mud Bowl."
5) Lost. Its final season was pretty uneven, and certain "answer" episodes were clunky. But good Lord, that finale was incredible. Best episode: "The End."
6) Justified. Proof that crime shows can be more like Law and Order while still retaining its serial aspects. And Timothy Olyphant delivers one fantastic performance. Best episode: "Long in the Tooth."
7) Sons of Anarchy. Season three has yet to match the heights of its excellent second season. Feeling a little bored/tired of Abel being kidnapped still. But it's still a damn good show. Best episode (so far): "Home."

Slotting in somewhere else: In Treatment, Boardwalk Empire, Parenthood. Possible casulties of overindulgence of television: Terriers, Rubicon, The Walking Dead. Sorry shows, it's nothing personal. I'll probably catch up on you later if necessary.

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  1. Blogger chris | 1:14 PM |  

    Excellent review. I still prefer MM to BB, but it would be interesting to watch each ep of each show's 2010 season side by side and see how they compare. It'd definitely be close.

    I absolutely adore how MM looks like it's going to go one way and then it goes the other, but makes you feel dumb for thinking it would ever go the other way because of course that way that you couldn't predict makes way more sense for the characters. Did that make any sense?

  2. Blogger qualler | 1:26 PM |  

    Ooh, good idea, Chris. I think if I were to compare my fave ep to BB "Fly" to my fave ep of MM "Suitcase", it would literally be a draw. Eps 12 and 13 for BB, "Half Measures" and "Full Measures" would defintely take it for me over MM's "Blowing Smoke" and "Tomorrowland", episode by episode, whereas MM's first four eps probably get a slight edge over BB's first four eps. I love both shows a lot, but to me, BB is doing something that hasn't been done on TV before: an action-packed serial with excellent character development. MM is also extremely good at what it does, but to me is doing the type of show that has been done before (Sopranos comes to mind). Podcast topic!

    Yes, your second prgrph made total sense! Especially what happened w/Joan -- totes got me mixed up on what's gonna happen plotwise but then after thinking about it, I was going, "Doy, Qualler, obviously she's gonna do this or that."

  3. Blogger qualler | 1:28 PM |  

    Oh yeah, I was gonna also mention that it's up to you and me to watch The Walking Dead, cuz Brigitte and I watched the opening scene, and a cop dude shooting a zombie girl in the head in the opening scene was enough for Brigitte to say she wasn't into watching it. Comcast AMC HD On Demand yo.

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