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'Mad Men' recap: 'There is no fresh start'

October 18, 2010 |  7:47 am

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Well, that wasn't what I was expecting. 

After a run of "Mad Men" episodes in which the agency's financial situation took precedence over just about everything else, I expected a finale in which Don wooed some big new clients. Instead, we got a finale in which he wooed a 25-year-old French-Canadian secretary. Is Don Draper really just a hopeless romantic?

Buried within most "Mad Men" episodes is a line of dialogue that acts as a kind of skeleton key for the episode. Sunday night, it was Henry who summed it up best when he told Betty, "There is no fresh start. Lives carry on." That, to me, is an apt summary not just of this finale, but of the entire fourth season. (It's also, not coincidentally, an allusion to AMC's "A Fresh Start" promotional campaign). As much as each character might try, starting anew is never really possible.  

Of course, Don, whose attempt to make a fresh start has propelled the show for four seasons now, knows this better than anyone.  As the episode began, Faye gave him some sound advice, telling him to "take your head out of the sand about the past." She is right.  So long as the feds aren't knocking on Don's door, "Dick Whitman" is only as much of a ghost as he allows him to be. In California, Don heeds Faye's advice, introducing Bobby and Sally to Stephanie, and even going so far as to say that "Dick" is his nickname sometimes. It's not the whole truth, but it's a start. (One sure way to ruin a family vacation? Telling your kids about that time you were in Korea and this guy accidentally blew himself up with a cigarette lighter)  

California has always had a mythological resonance on "Mad Men," and we saw that once again in this episode. Don, whose identity switch was sort of an act of manifest destiny, is always at ease when he's out West. Even though California is the one place Don is still known as "Dick," it's also a place of fantasy and escape for him, the promise of an idealistic future. (It's no coincidence that he takes the kids to Disneyland, or that this episode is called "Tomorrowland")

I am not sure if this augurs well for the Megan-Don nuptials. As Don tells his betrothed, "I feel like I’m myself when I'm with you, but the way I always wanted to feel." It's the second half of that sentence that I find worrying. Don feels like himself when he's with Faye, but not the himself he wants to feel like. Sure, he can open up to her, but it's about his anxiety and fear. When he's with Megan, he doesn't feel those things at all. Ultimately, Don chooses Megan, a woman who doesn't know about his past, and doesn't seem to care about it -- at least for now. "I know who you are now," she tells Don. I suspect Don could tell Megan all about his past and she would accept it the same way Faye did, but I don't know if he will. Megan is kind, intelligent, wonderful with children and even kind of funny, so in most departments, she's already miles ahead of Betty. But I am a little worried for our Don; I imagine he entered his marriage to Betty with the same starry-eyed romanticism (in fact, based on flashbacks with Anna, we know that he did), only to have the disillusion set in and the affairs begin to pile up. Another way of putting it? I'm less concerned about Megan than I am about Don.  The ending of the episode, with Don gazing longingly out the window to the strains of "I've Got You, Babe," was painfully ambiguous. Was it a "Graduate"-style, "What have I gotten myself into?" moment?  Or just a pause for romantic reflection?

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When it comes to the choice between Megan and Faye, I am torn. I am happy that the poor, neglected Draper kids will now have their own Maria Von Trapp, but man, Faye really got the shaft. Don's rejection was particularly harsh given how much he has opened up to Faye -- and all she did for him professionally. It's a scenario that I think will be familiar to many women: You do the hard work of making someone into a good boyfriend, then your new-and-improved boyfriend moves on to someone else. It's like you found this great fixer-upper, you gutted the whole place, pulled out all the ugly vinyl siding to reveal the original moldings underneath. Then all of a sudden someone else is moving her furniture into your exquisitely remodeled home. So not fair! Faye tells Don, "I hope she knows you only like the beginnings of things," and I am afraid that she might be right. For Megan's sake, I hope she's wrong.

Betty is almost as upset as Faye at hearing the news of Don's engagement. Her accidental-on-purpose run-in with Don was pathetic but in no way surprising: We all know that Betty will always carry a flame for her ex. I loved the immediacy with which Betty conjured the name "Bethany Van Nuys" (which, by the way, is a name that's perfect for saying disdainfully), and how Don laughed at the mention. Like Don, Betty has had a rather tumultuous season. Despite some notable low points, she was also evolving at her own glacial pace, mostly because of Henry. By a complete accident, she ended up married to a grown-up, one who challenged her petulant behavior -- unlike Don, who usually just chose to ignore it. If anything, Henry has the ability to make her more miserable than Don: He's a decent guy with no dark secrets in his past, so Betty has no one to blame but herself. All of which may be why, just as Betty seemed to be moving forward, she instead did the unthinkable and fired Carla, with no other motive other than spite toward Glen. It was Betty's lowest moment in a long time -- and possibly ever. Even Henry is aghast: "You didn't want to move because you wanted the kids to have some stability, then you get rid of their nanny since they're born?" he asks in dismay. It really is remarkable how much chaos Betty is willing to create in other people's lives in order to avoid any kind of self-reflection. She hates Glen because he reminds her of her own vulnerabilities, and because of this, she's willing to isolate Sally, fire Carla and alienate Henry. Is Betty really this afraid of herself?  

Betty may be increasingly isolated, but the women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce finally seem to have formed a lasting bond. After five long years as "frenemies," Peggy and Joan finally had a wonderful, girlie bonding moment at the news of Don's engagement. "Whatever could be on your mind?" asks Joan, cool as ever, as Peggy waltzes into Joan's office and slams the door shut. Finally, something these two can agree on: These men are a mess. But the truth is, there's more to their bond than mere scorn for the messy personal lives of their male colleagues. "I learned a long time ago not to get all my satisfaction out of this job," Joan says, unconvincingly. "That's bull----," replies Peggy. They both laugh, because they both know that it is just that. They're both invested completely in their jobs, often at the expense of their personal lives, so that's why the jubilation over Don's engagement rankles. (I'm also guessing that Peggy was also a tiny bit peeved about Don's sweet but unintentionally patronizing "she reminds me of you" comment.) The womanly commiseration between them was a wonder to behold; wouldn't it be great if next season we got a "Suitcase"-like episode starring Joan and Peggy?   

Joan's professional frustration is no doubt more acute given the utter disarray of her life at home. Surprising almost no one, Joan did not actually go through with the abortion. As insane as it sounds, I think she made the right choice. Heck, Roger even gave her permission to do exactly what she is doing -- keeping the baby and pretending that it's Greg's. That's not to say he's going to approve. In all likelihood, we are not going to see the moment when Roger finds out what Joan meant when she said "we avoided a tragedy," which is frustrating. I keep imagining the baby will come out with a shock of bright white hair, and the secret will immediately be out. That's obviously not the case, but I have no idea how Roger is going to respond to the news. Will the deception feed his feelings for Joan, or stamp them out altogether? Oh, and in case you're keeping score, that means that approximately 50% of all Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce employees have a secret love child with a co-worker. Harry really has his work cut out for him next season.  

It's been a revolutionary season for the characters on "Mad Men," but also for the show itself, which has taken some considerable creative risks over the last 13 episodes.  As with all risks, some paid off (Miss Blankenship as comic relief), while some didn't (the diary), but at the end of the day, "Mad Men" is graded on its own exceptional curve. It's going to be a long, long wait until Season 5, that's for sure. Matt Weiner has a very frustrating habit of marrying off people during the show's hiatus, so I'm guessing we'll pick up once Don and Megan are already hitched. Will Megan continue to work?  Will she and Don have a baby? And, oh yeah, will the agency survive?  

Let the speculation begin. 

-- Meredith Blake 
twitter.com/MeredithBlake

P.S. Check in later Monday for my report from Sunday night's "Mad Men" finale party.  

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Upper photo: Don pops the question to Megan (Jessica Paré). Credit: Michael Yarish / AMC

Lower photo: Joan (Christina Hendricks) and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) dish on Don's engagement. Credit: Michael Yarish / AMC

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