From the onset, we all expected a different kind of show out of Mad Men when we heard the premise, “A show about an ad agency in the 60s.” Our minds immediately rushed to The Beatles, Woodstock, Flower Power, social revolt, all the hallmarks of the time that we consider the 1960s…which all happened in the later half of the decade. If you’re to take a fashion designer’s look at a decade, they believe a decade’s fasion does not begin at the onset of the decade, but roughly halfway through. So what we consider the 60s didn’t actually start happening until about 1965. That philosophy extends to Mad Men, as we’ve hit the mid-point of the century and change is now upon us, with last night as the cresting of that wave.
For a show that looks at the future, they have spent an awful lot of time setting up how unmovable the past is. We have seen vivid illustrations of how things were, from children being hit by neighbors as a guide to parenting to those same children being put to work as bartender. Racism was not only still in the social fabric, but Roger’s despicable blackface routine at his wedding was still goofy fun. Sexism was as normal as men still wearing hats. The young guys in SterlingCoo (the Chipmunks of Ken, Pete, Harry, and Paul) all worked to be older, seeing their youth as an albatross keeping them out of the wood paneled offices that their parents’ and people in power of that generation inhabited. It was a generation that wanted to be older and hold on dearly to what had come before. And, as we know, it’s a fool’s errand; the people concerned with how things are about to be deluged by a flood of people concerned about how things are going to be. This particular story point has run through the show since the beginning (the first scene in the pilot has Don asking a black man for advertising advice, after all), but has not truly become tangible until this season. It’s only natural that last night’s episode, entitled “Tomorrowland,” would be about the future.
Take stock of the characters at SCDP who have survived these four seasons (and five and a half years in show time), and think of those among the sad, older crowd shown the door last episode. Pete is the number one account man and the only choice to bring into the American Cancer Society meeting. It’s a position he’s earned, and we can see that by how positively he contributes to Don’s pitch. A Pete of even a few years ago would get in the way by saying something terrible to kneecap Don or finding a way to put his foot in his mouth. Now he helps ensure they can move forward with the account. Peggy, the girl of bangs and catholic guilt, has developed into a copywriter who can find a possible account (through her lesbian, Village-based friend), get a meeting with them, effortlessly pitch campaigns, and nail the meeting and the account.
Ken Cosgrove, who at one time seemed willing to do whatever it took to move forward, knows that a job is just a job and refuses to sacrifice his life for it, clearly separating his life and his work in a way that Roger and Don (the men who charge him the job) never learned how to. Joan finally puts sexism into words, able to see that womanly charms that helped her get a mid-level position are the same things that hold her back from moving forward. Her frank discussion with Peggy is well earned, and frankly, it’s about time that discussion happened. Here are our two strongest female characters in their first illuminated conversation describing what it is to be a woman at this firm. It’s a step Joan wasn’t ready to make as recently as the “unflattering sketch incident” a few episodes ago. She’s a person who has begun to make decisions for herself (keeping Roger’s baby, circumstances be damned), unlike the person who was living out the “happiness” blueprint (marry the sure-thing doctor, even though he raped you). And Harry is turning into the scumbag, smarmy, soon-to-be TV Network head we all will loathe just nicely.
The most drastic changes in this episode–and this series–are held for those who once lived inside the Draper house in Ossining, now all boxed up and ready to be sold to another fortunate family. From the onset of the series, when the family was nearly an afterthought towards the end of a booze-and-confidence-filled romp in the pilot, the problems of the Drapers have led the way and shaped the story. Don could not reconcile his past with his present, let alone his future, carrying the guilt of taking another man’s life and grafting that opportunity onto his own life. Betty has never shaken off the title of “Daddy’s Little Girl” and refused to become an adult, merely taking the steps that one takes in adulthood and passing it off as growing up. And with their friction and mindsets trapped in their own troubles, they leave poor Sally without anywhere to turn to for comfort, advice, or help.
Let’s start with Sally, since her transition is easiest. She’s simply growing up. As we recount the various situations Sally has been through (and, in turn, the myriad levels Kiernan Shipka has breezed through in her already impressive young acting career), it’s easy to see how far she’s come. In many ways she is more of a stable adult than her mother. Finding no support at home, she turns to Glen, and gets what she needs on her terms. She is completely in control of the relationship. As we all waited for Glen to do something creepy or weird, Sally Draper never felt that anxiety because she knew she was ok. When she tells her mom that she “doesn’t even know [Glen]” it’s true; at least, she doesn’t know him like Sally does. When Sally is told that she’s an exceptional little girl by her therapist, she smiles, but it seems like it’s something she already knows. Even as she acts out at SCDP a few episodes back, she has the self-awareness to say that things won’t get better when Megan says they will. And, in the same resigned tone, she understands this problem and faces it with a courage that allude both of her parents.
And if Sally is going up, then Betty is most certainly coming down. She is unable to shake anything that has happened to her. Betty carries on like a child, refusing to look in to the future for a second to help plot out what becomes of her. She recklessly fires the only constant in her childrens’ lives because she cannot recognize that Glen, 9-year-old, is not necessarily who Glen, current age, is. Betty sees people as black-and-white, most clearly in Don. Don was a knight in shining armor who was always supposed to be righteous and charming and flawless and who now presides in a world of cartoonish evil. Everything he does and says is wrong and unfounded. It’s the all or nothing stakes of a child shoehorned into a world of adults. She refuses to change or self-analyze for a second, and that is ultimately her downfall.
In someways, that same aspect is what drives Don to his biggest change, obviously his engagement to Megan. It certainly wrings of a certain, “what the fuck?!” quality, but it isn’t really as crazy as we might think it is. Don has been on a constant battle to figure out where he lies on the great Don Draper-to-Dick Whitman spectrum. We’ve seen him at his most Dick (cowardly, proposing to run away with Rachel in season one, his utter panic a few episodes ago with Faye) and Don (nearly every business transaction, how he dealt with his brother, and nearly every interaction with Betty), hoping he’ll reconcile himself to what he was like out in California with Anna towards the end of season two. There was a serenity in Don when he was around her that never left the west coast. For most of this season, he continued to wrestle with who he is and what that meant. Was it as a booze hound, a loser, someone who didn’t deserve love, evidenced by paying a hooker to slap him repeatedly during sex? Or was he someone who could become something better? The question was summed up in a conversation with Faye as her data negated an ad slant Don was working on, you cannot judge what people have done in the past and assume that’s what they will do in the future.
That certainly comes true in his courtship of Megan, as it is both something old and something new. Megan is a forward-thinking, powerful brunette, the latest in a long-line of Draper approved women. She has a lot in common with Rachel Menken, Midge, and Bobbi Barrett: intelligence, cunning, power, confidence in knowing what she wants and dead-set on going for it (coming on to Don in the office, specifically). But Megan also has a sweet, gentle, forgiving side that could best be attributed to Anna Draper. The way she acts around Don’s kids is the mother he always wanted, while he married Betty because that’s the mother he had and thought was needed. Everything you need to know about her happens when Sally spills the milkshake. She’s forgiving in a way that no other woman has been in Don’s life. She’s someone who can see forward with him, understanding the long-term positive effects of the New York Times ad regarding smoking. Hell, she speaks fluently in French! Don would spend hours alone in a dark movie theater watching foreign movies to get a sense of what is going on around him, now he might have someone to share it with. She is the caring, interested partner he’s never had, let alone a spouse. For a character who spent so much time stradling two identities, a person who also tried to balance work and pleasure, he might have tripped on the best of both worlds in Megan.
In the same way he is able to easily sell his kids on the idea that “Dick” is some sort of old nickname, he might be able to sell himself on the same thing. Maybe he’s done beating himself up over what had happened and will finally be ready to accept what will become. And, in marrying Megan, he becomes younger. In many ways this could be seen as a cynical gesture; hell, look at what Don did to Roger over something incredibly similar. But Roger was not trying to re-make himself, as we can clearly see this season as he spouts “Silver’s Gold.”
Don is a man trying to make a change for the better this season, for himself, his company, and his family. As Don talks to the executives at the American Cancer Society about why he printed the ad, he states, “I think in my heart it was an impulse, because I know what I needed to do to move forward.” Finally, as he describes teenagers, “the truth is that they’re mourning for their childhood more than they’re anticipating their future.” Maybe Don has finally bought in to a campaign that gives him happiness.