On 'Mad Men,' coming a long way, and going away forever
You were only a bird in a gilded cage
A beautiful sight to view
So dainty and delicate you seemed
No rights would they give to you
When you said you should vote
and you said you should smoke
The men were all in a rage
The way of the world said you should remain
a bird in a gilded cage
You’ve come a long way baby
To get where you’ve got to today
You’ve got Virginia Slims now baby
You’ve come a long, long way
This whole season of "Mad Men" seemed to be about coming so far that you circle back to where you started. It’s easy to lose your way in a house of mirrors, with your reflection always shining back at you.
Megan was the secretary-turned-wife who turned out to be accidentally good at being more. Copywriting came easily to her and so she grew bored and wanted to try her hand at something where she’d have less control. As an actor, you’re at the mercy of other people. She also craves the drama. Don and she are united in this, just like when they sold the idea of magic beans to the client. Now that she isn’t getting that drama professionally, through roles in plays, she seeks it out in her home life. She gets drunk and puts on a show.
“Please, it’s the only thing I’m good for,” she tells Don when he can’t kiss her because of his rotting abscess. “This is what you want for me to be, waiting for you at home. It’s either that or I’m terrible.”
In season one, a rival agency asks Betty to do a Coke ad, but it's just a way for them to try to woo Don. Don lets it happen in order to protect her feelings but it’s not like he takes her work seriously. If anything, it’s an embarrassing reminder of the kind of man he is, one who is married to a former model with a need to see her fleeting beauty captured on film. He’s always loved Megan most—and we have too—when she was going against type. He first proposed to her when she acted like a proper mother to his kids, but he himself is most turned on by her when she’s taking charge. He is enamored of genuine talent, so when he told her not to quit the agency it was as much about how it pained him to see her talent as a copywriter go to waste as it was about wanting to keep her under his thumb. He wanted Megan to be both his “discovery” and his wife.
At SCDP, Megan felt compelled to prove her own worth separate from Don but she never felt entirely committed to the role of the modern career woman. It was so much more relaxing to regress, to giggle dreamily while her strapping husband fixed the sink. And now that she’s away from the judgmental eyes of progressive women like Peggy, she’s free to return full circle back to the role of trophy wife. She’s never much cared about how it might look when it came to her needs. “Ken, Stan and Ginsburg will be there,” Don tells her after she asks him to submit her screen test for an ad campaign SCDP is working on. “They know you.”
Peggy meanwhile is about to make a name for herself selling the same product that her mentor Don swore off in his one of his great shining moments. At SCDP, Peggy bristled at being assigned women-only products; she told Roger she could sell wine to the Jews with the best of them. But she doesn’t seem to mind now that she’s on top, coming up with a top-to-bottom campaign for a cigarette marketed to women, a product that amazingly hadn't already been developed in 1967. But no matter how much fun it is stay in a hotel, won’t the allure of selling a product “for which the work is irrelevant because people can’t stop themselves from buying it” wear off? She came her long, long way in order to head up a campaign whose gist is that women are so much mens' equals that they have the right to poison themselves same as they do.
Some people may have found the Don and Peggy movie-theater scene cozy, but to me it rang false. One of my favorite moments in the whole series was when Peggy said goodbye, and it crushed me a little to watch a much weaker scene come on the heels of that. Their running into each other felt oddly rom-com, and the money line—“That’s what happens when you help someone; they succeed and move on”—would’ve been better left unsaid. It had already been floating under these last two episodes anyway. It was the undercurrent to Don’s coldness with Lane and the reason the bags under Don’s eyes have grown so heavy and dark.
“You really do have the same eyes,” says the nurse about Pete and Rory Gilmore. When they first met, Rory told him that his eyes were the color of earth, but now they’re more the shade of the apocalypse, as blank and ravaged as hers. Again, I had problems buying this scene, even though I looked up electroshock treatment and it does erase the memories of the distant past.
I prefer when "Mad Men" has the texture of a short story, not when it tries outright to read like one. (Also I’m sorry, Rory, but I wish you were being played by a different girl. You seem to be the only one on this show whose acting role-model is January Jones.) It’s an enviable position, though, the one she is in, the ability to wipe one’s mind of the bad memories. Pete says it’s just for people who can’t solve problems, but are the shock treatments really so different from the dose of world-blocking-out noise he administers to himself every night with his hi-fi and headphones?
Pete tells Rory his “friend” is sick, but everyone on this show is. They’re all desperate to take the right medicine. Megan’s getting drunk, Roger’s dropping acid and Don is breathing in the dentist’s ether. He’s visited from the Ghost of Season One, back when his double life was the main motor propelling the show: his brother Adam. Don has kept secrets his entire life and so it’s no surprise that he’s able to keep the reason behind Lane’s death from the rest of the firm. The only evidence of his involvement is, again, those bags under his eyes and that tooth, the pain of which he thought would just go away if he ignored it. Lane’s wife tells him it may be the difference between cultures that she isn’t one to wallow, but Don is no stranger to repression. Lane came from a galaxy far, far away called England and when he was told it was his turn to return to the home land, he chose an alternative route.
Joan did too, in her quest to get where she is. She either took a short cut or the longest route ever, depending on how you look at it. After decades of sitting at her desk, she now can’t stop climbing higher and higher. The firm is expanding toward the sky while the spirits of the rest of the staff are sinking. Joan makes an X where the staircase will go and Pete says he will finally have a view like Don’s. In the same way that women have earned the right to die of lung cancer too, Pete has fought hard to be able to replicate his hero’s mistakes. He’s become a tiny figment of a landscaper's rendering, sitting by the pool while Don is inching closer, as the agency floor number grows bigger; he is on his way to becoming the falling man in the opening credits (even though I think we’re done with death on this show for awhile.)
Dawn the secretary came a long way only to be relegated (disappointingly so) to a character who feels more invisible than if she hadn’t been written in at all. Ginsburg looks like he’s going to be the focus of next season, since he’s the only one with enthusiasm for the job. “It’s a great thing to take advantage of hopeless people.”
He’s come such a long way in such a short time that he’s grown disillusioned with Don twice as quickly as it took everyone else to.
Sally spent the season racing along the path toward adulthood and then, the moment she arrived at it, turned on her heels and tried to regain being a kid.
Maybe the only way forward is out the door. If you stay in the room too long, the ideas get stale, the clients get pissy, the liquor cabinet gets emptied out. Megan’s mum has a rendezvous with Roger. She defies his expectations by showing him that a real woman both abandons her grown daughter and refuses to parent a grown man. Don begs his dream-sequence brother not to leave him but then he runs into Peggy coincidentally at the movies. She hasn’t strayed as far as he thought but it’s so hard to tell what is real anymore.
Megan wants his help being the officially sanctioned beauty to his beast, but he’s made it clear how that always turns out. They succeed and move on. So why does he do it? Partly out of love, I’m sure. He even has faith in her. If any one believes in the selling power of a Super 8 film, it’s Don. It happened in the Kodak carousel episode in season one, and maybe that memory is in Don’s mind as he watches Megan’s screen test now: how good at everything he once was.
It could be argued that he helped her as a means of being able to keep her, set a gilded bird free and all that. To me, though, the moment Megan presented herself to Don to as just another pretty girl in a commercial, instead of the woman who wants to write the lines for some other random girl to say, she lost some of her luster to him.
That relief he talked of to Lane about is also in the quitting-tobacco letter he wrote seasons ago. “Recently my advertising agency ended a long relationship with Lucky Strike cigarettes and I’m relieved." He “realized here was my chance to sleep at night” instead of selling “a product that never improves, that causes illness, and makes people unhappy…. We knew it wasn’t good for us but we couldn’t stop.”
Megan and Don’s marriage has had its moments of peace but they’ve been embedded inside just as many days filled with aching teeth, murderous fevers, smashed bowls of pasta, screeching car wheels and sleepless nights. Don’s great fear of abandonment could also be his ticket out. That last scene in the bar, where he’s looking like the cat who ate the bird, certainly indicated that he had escape on his mind.
“I suddenly feel this door open and I want to walk through it,” says Rory to Pete, and then, “I should go.”
“Because it works.”
Starlee Kine is a a frequent contributor to PRI's "This American Life." She has written The Girl, a weekly look at "Mad Men," every Monday this season. Previously: On 'Mad Men,' pain, pride and violence outlast enlightenment.
Find all of her writing on 'Mad Men' here.
Photos by Michael Yarish/AMC.