By Caryn James | James on Screens June 11, 2012 at 1:15AM
Matthew Weiner loves to tease Mad Men viewers and keep them off guard, so of course the season finale refused to give us the expected, explosive plot turn. There were enough of those in the past few weeks: Joan agreed (yes, agreed) to be pimped out to a client, Peggy quit, Lane killed himself. You want more? And throughout the season, Don gradually discovered he was not married to a doormat. Now that it’s over, we can see that this season – a season as good as this spectacular series has ever been – was mostly about what would come to be called, soon after the Mad Men years, sexual politics.
The season’s central and most controversial figure in that theme, of course, was Joan, who came through as a saddened, toughened survivor. It was not a total shock that she’d sell herself to a client for a night in exchange for the partnership that would give her financial security and – even more – the equal footing with men that she was never going to earn any other way. She believed she had limited options; she used her most powerful, and as she saw it only weapon, sex, to get ahead.
Mad Men, of course, is about selling things, and the scene in which Joan sells herself was staged perfectly. She turns her back on the client so he can unzip her dress and practically shudders; she can’t bear to look at him, or metaphorically at herself in his eyes. But she never seems sorry afterwards; she has made her cold-blooded choice, with no self-pity, which oddly enough makes her seem like a tragic heroine.
It was not a bit surprising that Pete went to her with the client’s proposition ( he may be young, but in the area of sexual politics, he’s a troglodyte) or that Don indignantly stomped out of the meeting about it. It was somehow more shocking that Roger caved so easily. His one redeeming feature through the series has been his affection for Joan, however callously he has treated her. Now he’ll have to do more than stand naked at his hotel room window (as he did in the finale) to seem vulnerable or pathetic; at this point he seems beyond redemption.
Peggy’s trajectory is much different from Joan’s, partly because she’s younger, partly because she doesn’t have Joan’s looks or flamboyant sex appeal to trade on. Relying on her brain to get ahead, Peggy has positioned herself as one of the boys – and from our contemporary perspective we can see that as one more limiting option.
The finale included another of the droll hindsights that pop up in the show: in Peggy’s new job she is forced to start smoking to try to get a women’s cigarette account. The episode left it to us to fill in the now-infamous “You’ve come a long way, Baby” advertising tag-line for Virginia Slims, maybe the most insulting attempt ever to cash in on feminism.
But women were not the only victims of that era’s pressure to live up to sexual stereotypes. Lane killed himself because the man is supposed to be the macho provider, sending his son to college, keeping face even with his own wife; he couldn’t bear to face that failure. The only consoling aspect in his death was that he had been so deeply unhappy.
There were other shifting identities throughout the season. Philandering Pete, successful at work and commuting to the suburbs, has become old-Don, as he and Trudy go through the motions of the deadened lives that Don and Betty once had.
And Fat Betty? That was mean, but fun. Really, Betty Draper was a whiner and a pill from the start; even if the fat suit was a joke about January Jones’s real-life pregnancy, the weight gain was just the comeuppance that Betty, who always valued her beauty-queen aura, deserved.
But poor Sally! She accidentally spied her sexy stepgrandmother going down on Roger at Don’s awards banquet -- and after Roger had been her own charming, avuncular dinner date. She got her first period while on a secret date with Glen, then rushed out of the museum and back home. Adolescent Sally is actually rushing right into the culture’s battle of sexual politics that Mad Men is so pointedly anticipating. (Virginia Slims was introduced in 1968, just in time for Peggy to get the account; Kate Millett’s book Sexual Politics, which gave the phrase currency, was published two year later.)
None of this would have the same drama or immediacy without Jon Hamm, who grounds the series in the complex reality of Don Draper. Don’s personality and the secret of his past has been the series’ driving force, and even though that issue receded into the background this season, it zoomed into the forefront again at strategic moments. When he gave Lane a chance to resign rather than be fired for embezzlement, Don said he knew a little something about starting over, a reference that meant much more to us than it did to Lane. And in the season finale, Don kept seeing the ghost of his dead brother, Adam, who also hanged himself. He is still haunted by his past and facing an uncertain future.
We’ve known from early in the season, when Megan embarrassed him with her “Zou Bisou Bisou” song, that his younger wife had a mind of her own, and did not entirely understand her husband. We could see that however much Don wanted this marriage to work, her independent streak would pull against his expectations of the perfect mate, smart but satisfied to stay in his shadow and be taken care of. Don may be forward thinking about advertising; about sexual politics, not so much.
In the finale, after he helped her get an acting job in a commercial, he left her happily on the set dressed as a Beauty in a fairy tale and walked into the shadows. It felt very much as if he was leaving the marriage behind. Of course then he walked out of the shadows and into a bar, where he ordered an Old-Fashioned (nothing is accidental on this show) and two young women hit on him as the end music played “You Only Live Twice.” Don may be heading into his fourth life - he was Dick, then Don married to Betty, then Don married to Megan – but let’s not quibble about numbers. He is one of television’s classic, endlessly fascinating men.
Take a look at this behind-the-scenes view of the final episode, with Weiner and the actors. Or jump ahead to the end, in which Weiner says of the scene in which Don walks away from Megan: “She’s gone.” That may be as close as Weiner has ever come to giving away the next step. Or maybe he’s just teasing us again.