Over the past few months, Antenna contributors have been writing about Mad Men, each from their own perspective. These have been diverse writings, covering a wide range of topics of academic interest, and what makes Mad Men such an interesting series is that nearly every episode can be approached with any one of these topics.
Take, for example, “Tomorrowland.” The fourth season finale is likely going to be a polarizing episode in terms of audience response, taking Don Draper in what some may view as a self-destructive direction, but in constructing those moments Weiner does little to change the series’ rich thematic tapestry. While I initially felt as if the finale’s marginalization of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and their predicament kept it from truly wrapping up the season, in thinking about the approaches taken throughout this project I realized that it is more cohesive than I imagined.
While the agency may have been marginalized in the episode, my response to the Topaz account was still influenced by Devon Powers’ look at the state of advertising in the 1960s.
When the show lost its one prominent recurring minority in Carla, Don and Betty’s nanny, I thought back to pieces from LeiLani Nishime, Allison Perlman and particularly Kristen Warner (who focused specifically on Blackness and Carla’s role in the series) which dealt with the role of race within the series.
My attention to Megan’s attire during the Los Angeles scenes may have been initially trivial, but as that story developed I considered her fashion in light of Elana Levine’s analysis of the fashioning of femininity.
As Don” fell in love” with Megan, I thought both on Jennifer Clark’s discussion of masculine detachment (and his decision to attach himself to Megan in particular) and Joe Wlodarz’s investigation of the eroding barriers between the personal and the professional (which seems apt considering he is marrying his secretary).
As Peggy visited with Joan to gossip about Don and Megan’s engagement, I returned to both Anne Helen Petersen’s take on the role of gossip in the show and Mary Beth Haralovich’s look at how Peggy serves as our guide throughout the series.
As Sonny and Cher’s “I’ve Got You Babe” swelled up during the final scene, I recalled Tim Anderson’s piece on the role popular music plays in the series’ narrative.
And as the episode came to its conclusion, and Twitter lit up with responses, I reflected upon Louisa Stein’s piece on how Mad Men’s fandom operates, and how the show’s unique fan community will respond to the finale’s event.
But, in the end, perhaps the biggest question goes back to Krya Glass von der Osten’s piece which started us off: with hype at an all-time high for the series, did season four live up to our expectations? There is no question that there were some strong individual hours of television, with “The Suitcase” likely one of the series’ best efforts, but the collective season has been more difficult to gauge. Don and the agency have both spent the season in a state of flux, while numerous other characters have had opportunities to move forward but ended up stepping back. After the substantial change created by last season’s finale, the instability of the circumstance it created has made the characters less likely to make any dramatic changes; until Don’s decision to marry Megan, the characters were reacting more than acting, whether it is Joan and Roger’s affair being the result of a mugging attempt or the agency’s collapse being the result of Lucky Strike’s departure.
However, what I find most interesting is those moments trapped between action and reaction: was Don’s New York Times ad a confident action, or a desperate reaction to Lucky Strike’s departure? And was his decision to marry Megan an action to regain control of his life, or a reaction to the short-term stability she offered and its potential role in solving his identity crisis? When we start pondering Don’s motivations, we get trapped in a vicious cycle wherein his true purpose seems hopelessly lost, but this has always been the case. Don’s actions in the finale are just as confounding and complex as they were before, and so we can still frame this finale – as disruptive as it first seemed, to me at least – in the context of previous seasons.
Perhaps what is most telling is that Don Draper did not seem to act out of desperation: while his decision may be sudden, and impulsive, it did not have the sense of fear which has driven previous behavior. And similarly, there is no desperation from Matthew Weiner in “Tomorrowland”: the episode may be eventful, but it never seems as if there is no control over the series’ future. It may not nicely bring all of the season’s themes or storylines to a close, but Mad Men’s fourth season finale offers the promise that those themes and storylines will continue into subsequent seasons, and that’s enough for me.