“A secretary is not a pet, nor an erector set,” they sang in the 1961 Robert Morse musical How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying -- but try telling that to Don Draper. In Mad Men’s jawdropper fourth-season finale, he drop-kicks his brilliant, drop-dead gorgeous girlfriend Dr. Faye Miller and pops the question to his secretary du jour, Megan –better known as “Who the hell is that?” (as Roger Sterling blurted when Don announced the engagement). Draper secretaries come and go like Spinal Tap drummers, but Megan turned a one-night stand into a giant diamond.
Faye was a startling enough interloper this season, as stunning a blonde as January Jones, only perfect marriage material for Don: warm yet driven where Betty was frosty and aimless, a hard-shelled chick who clawed her way up without breaking a fingernail, put up with no Don nonsense, then got all melty-maternal in his hour of need, setting up meetings to help save Don’s firm, selling out her all-important integrity to spy for him.
But she flunked the Stepmom Test when Don’s daughter threw a tantrum in the office. Weirdly childless for that era, she doesn’t do mothering, except for hunky alpha males. Megan, a dish despite teeth spaced like tombstones (a startling flaw mentioned in the script), won Don’s wandering hand by soothing his kids, salving his family wound – she’s the anti-Betty. Like David E. Kelley stressing the sheer lovability of Ally McBeal, Weiner seems puzzled and offended that people find Betty increasingly monstrous.
He evidently doesn’t get it that her gorgonic horrors are precisely why she’s increasingly insanely great. Faye Miller has Marilyn Monroe’s nuthouse pseudonym, but she’s the soul of sanity. Betty has the batshit craziness of Sylvia Plath, whom she was partly inspired by. Froth-flecked maenad Sylvia tore up her husband’s manuscript into quarter-inch bits, and Betty tears up everyone in sight. She treats her housekeeper Carla like one of Bull Connor’s mad dogs chomping on Martin Luther King marchers. It looks like Betty’s new guy has caught on to the beast within Betty’s beauty. Will he drop-kick her like Don did Faye? And would Betty respond with the sharpness and class Faye showed when Don dropped the bomb?
Faye’s fatal mistake: she ordered Don to face his bad past; Megan urged him to flee to Tomorrowland. Faye refused Don twice before tumbling; Megan is a sweet pushover – smart, winsomely poking fun at him, but never pushing back (Not yet. Stay tuned.)
Don’s engagement is so amazing nobody seems to notice when Peggy walks in announcing she’s just saved the firm by landing the Topaz account (for what would be $1.7 million in modern dollars). Nor does anybody really notice Joan’s hollow no-cash promotion. Maybe Roger noticed that Joan didn’t go through with that abortion, but no worries, since she’s sold her dumb husband in Vietnam on the notion that it’s his kid (oddly, as her character grows more pregnant, Christina Hendricks seems to be losing weight – an excellent career move if so).
As Peggy sagely observes, "A pretty girl walks by and everything's out the window."
If the Season 4 finale never quite reached the high-water mark set by Don’s legendary, better-than-Koufax pitch for Kodak Carousel in the first season finale, Season 4 as a whole is head and shoulders above the show’s smash debut. I used to be so peeved, I wrote a Film.com screed, “Has Mad Men’s Creator Gone Mad?” I said the show was so robotically emotion-free and dramatically etiolated, it was “like a tenth-generation copy of itself on that enormous new Xerox machine that epochally arrives at Sterling Cooper…The storytelling is sparsely parsimonious, perilously dependent on the resonance of a few preciously fetishized details. As William Gass said of reading Proust, one wonders first if it will ever end, and then, in despair, if it will ever begin.”
Well, in the spirit of Chaplin and Herzog eating their shoes, I hereby eat my acidulous words. Weiner has gone from plot-parsimonious to gloriously and skillfully profligate. His characters have grown, and their ramifying lives entwine in fascinatingly imaginative ways. Übercritic James Wolcott kvetched that Mad Men entirely overlooked the essence of the ‘60s – fun, a giddy sense of change and limitless possibility – and I got it. But now Mad Men gets that too. Weiner is stepping out of The Sopranos’ shadow – he’s a made guy now. A TV indie godfather in his own right.
When Season 5 starts, will anybody not be watching?