“Mad Men,” the pop-culture force that returns to AMC television next Sunday after a long layoff (which allowed everyone to catch up with the series on Netflix), is a series whose characters have gone through all sorts of large, seismic changes over these last four seasons. Starting today, and running through the entire season every following Monday, we're going to cover what these people have gone through, all before the massive social upheaval about to level our favorite members of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Price -- the cresting of a tsunami that they can't even begin to see coming.
Over four seasons, the people we first met at SterlingCoo have all been sifted and whittled down to the remaining few at the new SCDP. Through the years, a very specific line of succession has shown itself, a case of the old guard against the new kids poised to one day take their places. It is a line that has been weaved throughout the history of the show, going so far as to title episodes in that direction. “For Those Who Think Young,” “The New Girl,” and so forth all point to the same universal idea: the forward-thinking ones will move forward, the dinosaurs will perish. The only question that remains for the next three seasons is just when that day will come, and who will end up on what side of the line?
Roger Sterling, the formerly ambitious, active, and talented accounts man, now sits in an office he doesn't understand and watches as a bird moves swivels his head up and down. Such is the excitement left in his life. Roger is set in his ways, holding onto one big account (Lucky Strike), a gig that was handed down to him, making him in charge of not screwing it up. In Season four, he even refuses new business because of a twenty-year-old grudge with the Japanese over World War II, ignoring any semblance of personal growth and putting his own biases of these former enemies turned allies (in both political and economical terms) over the growth of the company.
His new marriage, consummated by dumping his long-term wife with whom they have a recently-married daughter for the Hot New Thing in the office, has cooled. The big fish finally escapes the line, as Lucky Strike relieved SCDP of its duties near the end of this season, leaving the company near death and Roger with a Rolodex full of deceased accounts contacts.
His enthusiasm for the job is matched by fellow grey-hair Bert Cooper, who gets so upset with the new direction of the company that he leaves his creation right before last season's end. At least he got out early; this is the man who believes that civil rights are too much to just dole out, creating a slippery slope. His kind -- like the “astronaut”/sexual hellcat Ida Blankenship -- are not long for this world. Better they get out now before it gets messy.
The new account men at the firm show a decidedly different outlook on their jobs, even though they have similar backgrounds to two of the firm's old stalwarts. Pete Campbell always seems to be ahead of the social curve, as Don mentioned in S3E13's “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” fighting against his staunchly WASP upbringing and general conservative leanings to lean liberal and towards the future. This season, he learns that he has a child on the way just as as another "C," Bert Cooper, is out the door. Could Campbell's name be up in the office when the series kickstarts next week?
Pete is also one half of the best -- and only -- stable, healthy relationship in the show's universe, shared with his wife, Trudy. They've been quietly building a real hard-earned, loving marriage over the past number of years. Notice when Pete comes home with the news that the family has to sacrifice $50,000 to keep the company going, which means a sacrifice of their move to Greenwich. Watch the fair give and take between Pete and Trudy -- two loving adults who are asserting their weight -- with Pete eschewing his drink at the end of the heated discussion to accept his inevitable defeat for the greater good. This is something he certainly wouldn't have done a season ago, let alone did anyone think it possible when he watched his lascivious character trample through the show's first few seasons.
The same kind of change on the norm occurs with Ken Cosgrove, who refuses to play golf with a possible business partner who just so happens -- wink wink, nudge nudge -- to be one of his new father-in-law's friends. And he refuses, staunchly, going so far to say that he "isn't Pete," because his wife is his life. He reiterates, “his actual life.” It'll be interesting if both of these men continue on this seemingly separate track, or if we're just seeing the beginnings of the Cooper and Sterling characters at this point in their lives, leaving time for the inevitable drop, reading through Sterling's Gold later in life and recognizing it's closer to their own biography then they'd probably feel comfortable with.
The two characters tasked with keeping this entire ship running forward are curiously having great troubles at home, wrestling with the possibilities of the future while dealing with unearthed issues from the past that continue to get in their way. Lane Price has taken to this new land completely and wholly. Free from the rigid social and monetary strata of England, he has been able to shake his 'yes, sir' teachings and branch out into the world on his own. If his wife doesn't like America, she can go home while he plays with chocolate bunnies at the Playboy Club (of which he's a key-carrying member).
This free-wheeling spirit -- no doubt aided by an early-season party session with Don Draper during that man's downward spiral, which Lane saw as behavior fit to emulate -- is knocked out of his mouth, quite literally, by his father, brought over from the Atlantic to set Lane straight. To get him to straighten out his house. The dutiful Lane returns to his happily, coalescing self (it was his greatest asset to his employers at PP&L) and brings his family back, assuming the mantle assigned him yet again.
Joan has been stuck in-between since we first met her. The queen bee of the bullpen, she was also the secret love of one of the two men whose names graced the window in reception, towing a very severe line of actual and realized power. She left that on-the-side relationship with an older man to hitch her wagon to what, or, more appropriately, who, was expected of her: a rising doctor, soon-to-be surgeon, who will take care of all her days as she transitioned from running an office into maintaining a simple house out in the 'burbs. Whether or not she actually wanted this seems besides the point.
Instead, Joan ends up with Doctor Greg, a surgeon with “no brains in his fingers,” who selfishly chose being a doctor in Vietnam over finding a new profession in the states, leaving his wife at home. This is compounded on the fact that he selfishly took sex from his wife on the floor of his boss's office a few season's earlier, a harrowing image the audience (and Joan) wouldn't soon forget.
In a moment of weakness, further exasperated by an alternately thrilling and terrifying mugging incident, Joan ends up with something new out of her old fling with Roger: a child. After attempting to “take care” of yet another baby, she realizes, essentially, that she's too old for this shit, and will carry the baby through term., acting as if it's the husband's, though science would think otherwise. Let's hope it's a little girl, as that would motivate many more female empowerment talks with Peggy. After relegating herself to the role destined to her in the past, it seems that Joan is finally realizing the role she should have, and that doesn't include a promotion that is title only.
Ah, Peggy Olsen, the erstwhile underdog, who takes this season to explore what she really wants. One of the larger moments comes when she decides that getting married is no longer a priority for her, nor is she interested in the trappings that come along with it. Take the boyfriend she carries through the opening of the season: a well-meaning bore, he is kept at an arm's length by Peggy “the virgin,” living as the kind of proper girl that nice guys married. In some way, she was setting herself up for a life more in line with Don, living a lie in order to appease others and keep a good face to the rest of the buttoned-down society.
But halfway through, she realizes that isn't the life she's after. This is a Peggy who believes so thoroughly that her and women like her don't want to marry, it creates a schism with Freddy Rumsen, the man who gave Peggy her start in the copywriting industry before eventually sacrificing himself, his position, and his office, to her continuing rise through the ranks. Peggy is far too concerned with smoking pot at "happenings" and making out with fringe writers while the police descend upon the area, while her lesbian friend flees with the avant garde film director whose movie was running in the background. Not to mention the newfound connection and respect that has been reached with Don, which is too long to discuss here.
And what of Don? In this dynamic, he is cast in the role of the stuffy old guy who eventually gives way to the rising Peggy Olsen. But at this specific crux in the series -- and, in extension, the life of Don Draper -- he has the ability to rise with the kids. The best way to figure this out is to see who's on his arm, as the women in Don Draper's life define his station, his outlook, and his ambition.
The son-of-a-whore was raised by his father's proper wife who treated him like a troublesome burden throughout his life. After having the good fortune of being the only witness to one man's horrible death, aided by the bumbling Dick Whitman's bumbling hands, he assumed the identity of Don Draper, starting over completely and remaking himself anew. Along the way, he actually meets Donald Draper's wife, Anna, who assumes a comforting mother role for Don. Of all the people who should hold such a crime against Dick, she shows nothing but care and sympathy, the first woman in his life to do so.
Betty, the woman he was so excited to marry when essentially saying goodbye to Anna, was the exact type of wife expected of a man like Don Draper. She went to the right school, had proper manners, knew her place, and would surely transition from trophy wife to active mother without too much of an issue. Little did he realize that she was a petty, juvenile monster who treats her poor children with the same kind of burden given Dick. And all Don's ever wanted her to be is the kind of mother that he never had.
For that, and many other ego-boosting reasons, Don slept around behind her back, leaving the frigidity of their married bed for a line of increasingly less ambitious affairs. When we first meet Don, he snuggles up with the artistic, bohemian Midge before swinging for the fences with the rich and iconoclastic Rachel. After Betty learns he's fooling around on her, Don pledges his best behavior before settling for the perverse and powerful Bobbie. That soon gives way to playing with fire by going after his daughter's teacher, a woman whose connection through his family is just as dangerous as the fact that she leaves just around the block.
What could have been the start of a new life after submitting his Get Out Of Marriage For Half! Card, the perpetually independent Don is shown instead as a man set adrift. The young nurse up the hall was a classic Draper type (sympathetic but assertive brunette, cute and sexy, just enough of a stretch in age to keep him working hard). And she does ends up bringing him to bed...to treat him like her alcoholic father. Far from the dashing, debonair lady killer we once knew. His ambition eventually reaches only as far as the reception's desk, starting a messy affair with his new secretary, Allison.
We know now why it was an ironclad rule of Don Draper's life to not fool around with the help after she freaks out and causes a scene in the offices of SCDP. This after the initial reason for their romantic tussle came because he needed to be helped home from the company party, in which the former Master of the Universe was being called “pathetic” by the staff. THE Don Draper. Pathetic! As he's reduced to cleaning up the pieces after Allison trashes his office during work hours, pushing the shards underfoot and diving back into his never-ending glass of whiskey. All of these mistakes, pressed by a man whose life philosophy is to purge any and all issues out his mental backdoor, don't really amount to much personal betterment.
After cleaning himself up -- essentially picking himself up from bottom -- Don engages with two women, but ends up getting engaged to one. There's the sentimental favorite, Dr. Faye, a grown woman who is kind and generous, sticking by Don when he is at his most weak (when the U.S. Government might do a background check on him and find out that, well...he isn't him). She's not only there for him, she even accepts this issue with support and love; quite the opposite of Betty. That means should she win the race, right?
While that one point is glaringly different from Betty, they both share some of the same deficiencies. Dr. Faye is by nature removed from humanity, seeing all of our faults and reactions as the latest in a continuing series of choices as mathematical proofs, figuring out how we tick so as to attune advertising to play along the same tempo. She sees people like Neo sees The Matrix, facts and figures instead of heart and soul.
This is most evident when Sally breaks away from her mother and ends up at the SCDP offices. Don dumps his daughter in Faye's lap in what she correctly guesses is a make-or-break test. It does not go well. She blames this maladroitness in identifying with the girl as a failure of learning "child psychology." That's the kind of tender, loving care that an engineer has for his or her calculator, not a growing, emotionally-troubled budding teenager. To get with this mature blonde women would be a step a rational man would make, essentially replacing Betty with a better version of Betty. It is expected, it contains no risk, and it would only slightly better the family's situation. It is the exact kind of move that goes against everything Don Draper stands for.
Then there is Megan, whose ascension rides right along with Don's nadir. She is the embodiment of everything that Don has wanted while also allowing for a fresh, new future. He used to cut out on work to watch New Wave films; she is part French and fluent in the language, as evidenced by her call home to her mother. He wants to find the perfect mother for his children; she has experience dealing with scores of nieces and nephews, and ends up teaching the Draper kids songs in a different language to get little Gene to sleep while on vacation. When a spill occurs at lunch, she treats the whole affair as the accident it truly is, exhibiting patience and acceptance when everyone at the table braces for a demeaning screamfest. The look on the table's faces when the unexpected occurs is priceless.
Don wants a strong brunette who can assert herself in situations; she practically forces Don's hand in his office, nearly taking advantage of a weak man instead of the usual other way around. The icing on the cake comes when she asserts that this is not only what she wants, but that she can carry that burden silently, unlike some secretaries. Don needs someone who can accept him for who he is while he futzes with the alchemy to create the best version of himself, tinkering with the assertiveness of Don Draper and the kind, loving, fun Dick Whitman he's' only shared previously with Anna and, recently, Peggy. Meagan cares for the man underneath and appreciates the ad master's work, supporting and understanding the "Why I'm Quitting Tobacco" New York Times op-ed that the rest of the muckity-mucks (save for Peggy) don't see the value in.
To marry this girl, especially so soon, is the kind of move that an irrational kid makes, not a grown adult. It spells out one of two stark futures for Mr. Draper. This could be the downturn of an impressive career that is already on its backend, like watching a basketball player who can no longer drive to the basket who settles for jump shots. Maybe the Don Draper we meet at the beginning of the series was just about near his peak, culminating in the brilliant sell of the time machine in S1E13's “The Wheel." Ever since has been the beginnings of a painful, steady decline. Maybe he's just following in the foolish mid-life-crisis-affected decisions of Roger Sterling, leaving a sad, worthless future for him to toil in just around the corner.
Or, he may have reinvented himself as a man of her age. Maybe he is going to once again make himself anew, like the souped-up drag cars he saw when he visited Anna as she was on her last leg (pun unavoidable). Here is something old completely re-imagined as something new, different. Bobby Draper isn't kidding around when he says, “I don't want to ride an elephant, I want to ride a spaceship” in the season's closer, the appropriately named “Tomorrowland.”
This is a series that has continually divided people along generational lines, from backing JFK or Nixon in season one through this past season's fight between Liston or Ali. It's prescient to note that Don has repeatedly backed the wrong horse in these splits. This situation speaks for the overall question at the heart of the show, one that affects all of our favorites from SCDP: adapt or die. Don Draper has either successfully changed his outlook for future success or has just thrown away any hope for such a turn.
For the record, I'm pulling for the latter. And yet, I wince, because all dramatic signs point to the former. Boy, do I hope I'm wrong.