As someone who is coming to the Mad Men finale “Tomorrowland” criticism late, I feel as if there might not be a whole lot of value in me spewing thousands and thousands of words with my interpretations when there are so many great writers who have done an exceptional job since 11 p.m. last night. So here’s what I’m going to do: I’ll certainly be discussing the contents of the episode and including my interpretations, but I’ll also be examining something a little different in reference to Mad Men.
But first let me direct you to all sorts of other, great reviews. You can find links and analysis from my buddy Myles McNutt over at Cultural Learnings and pick up a dozen other links on News For TV Majors. There are literally more than 20 great write-ups out there and if you have the time, read them all.
With that out-of-the-way, I wanted to frame my thoughts on the episode in a slightly different context because I am so confounded by this episode that I feel like this is something I have to do. This episode has garnered strong reactions from folks all over the internet, but it seems as if almost all the critical thought I’ve read on it has been positive or at least following some sort of objective, detached analysis. The comments, of course, have been more negative.
Thus, I’m wondering and have been wondering all season, is Mad Men unable to be legitimately disliked or even hated, particularly by critics? Let me explain this a little further. I know that people can certainly hate the series, just as they can hate anything. Jason Mittell has written an interesting piece on the matter and I can imagine there are some critics out there who don’t have the same reverence for the series in the way that most of us do. I understand that.
But for those of us who watch every episode and generally love every one of those episodes, when an effort like “Tomorrowland” comes along, I’m intrigued by what happens in the responses. I think I can objectively say that this is one of the most, if not the most frustrating hour of the series yet. But how or if does that influence the analysis, which in the case of this series, seems much more interested in extracting themes, making connections and doing more, I guess, analysis than criticism?
I don’t mean to suggest that critical opinion of Mad Men is skewed or that the great critics who compose 3,000 word analysis on individual episodes are blinded by what’s in front of them. However, Mad Men requires a certain kind of analysis that is, in my opinion, different from what happens with most series and it’s perhaps difficult to get out of that framework it’s possible that we should. Maybe.
Moreover, I’m intrigued by how Matthew Weiner’s auteur vision influences the critical opinion. More than any other series on television, we know who these stories are coming from, we understand Weiner has complete control over his characters and whatever else. There’s a sense of authority that we give him that I don’t think any other showrunners get (except maybe Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad).
And Weiner absolutely plays into that relationship by never admitting anything in interviews and rarely responding to criticisms of his series. For example, an interview posted today with Vulture, he more or less refused to accept that Betty is an awful human being by saying that all mothers are kind of like Betty. Not only is that a wide assumption on his part, but one that seems bull-headed in his inability to address that other people might have something to say about his characters. Same goes for his shock that fans could have actually figured out that Joan decided to keep the baby instead of having her third abortion.
Therefore, when Weiner zigs the story when we expect it to zag (which, in my opinion, he does too often just because he knows he can), it’s embraced as “Well, that’s just how Mad Men is.” To some extent, I buy that. We shouldn’t be overly critical of a series that wants to continue to defy audience and critical expectations and most of the time, we should actually celebrate it.
But if we take all these things and compile them together, it paints this interesting relationship that critics, professional or amateur, have with Mad Men. We expect it to subvert our expectations and praise it for doing so. We yield to Weiner’s vision because why wouldn’t we? He hasn’t really let us down before, has he? And we analyze the series with a tinge of detachment that’s perhaps more about analysis than criticism.
So, what the hell happens when the series delivers an episode like “Tomorrowland?”
So many people I’ve talked to or read have discussed how they spent most of the episode thinking it was all a dream, that all Don’s pain and suffering and then subsequent improvements couldn’t all be buttoned off with an engagement to his idealized secretary Megan. We are all kind of let down by Don’s decisions made in this episode, whether it’s his desire to avoid any real life complications (which would occur in being with Faye) by getting hitched to a blank-slate of a woman or his lack of self-awareness by making sure everyone in the office new about the engagement.We are all let down again by Betty, who crosses another line in firing the ever-loving Carla and then refusing to write her a letter of recommendation just because she allowed Sally to see Glenn one last time and subtly hints that Betty isn’t really a good mother. I personally spent a lot of time screaming at the television, “NO NO NO DON NO” and it seems that other people felt the same way.
Thus, let me ask this: When does being let down in a massive way by the lead characters equate to being let down by the series?
This whole season has been about Don’s fall from grace and slow build back to the top and so of course, Weiner subverts expectations yet again by having him make a fairly stupid decision that suggest Don hasn’t really learned anything. He could have embraced his complex and adult life with Faye, but as soon as she knew the secrets of his past, things were too complicated. Don doesn’t want to worry about the past anymore, he’s had enough and in Megan, he has a woman who doesn’t care about who he was as long as she likes who he is now.
For Don, this is a cheat. Just like when he ripped all the pages out of his journal last week, Don’s just trying to start fresh with an idealized life (in this case a woman who supposedly loves him for who he “is,” even if that’s a total lie and one who takes care of his children in a way that makes him feel like the father he “is,” even if that’s also not really the truth). He thought getting a divorce, moving to the city and running a new firm would bring him the fresh start he needed, but as that’s fallen apart, so has Don. And as Faye says, he only likes the beginning of things.
With all that in mind, we can almost guarantee that Don and Megan won’t last. We know this is a mistake, one that negates some of the progress this complex character has made over the past 12 episodes and one that avoids the realities of life. The same goes for Betty. We know that her marriage to Henry is already crumbling. Hell, the other characters know this.
But when an entire season is leading to one thing and yet again gives us something different (in this case Don making another stupid decision instead of righting the ship) while avoiding the plotline that really carried the last few episodes (Peggy helps keep SCDP alive, but there isn’t any sort of stabilization or really much focus on the agency storyline at all), should we be critical? Is it our fault for expecting anything from Mad Men at this point? Should we just take the rapid, dream-like pace for what it is (a metaphor for how Don is feeling going through those motions) because it supposed serves a specific purpose without maybe criticizing it for being too fast or too dreamlike?
I don’t know. I don’t have any answers to these questions. I just wanted to get these thoughts out there because I oftentimes find myself struggling with the balance between analysis and criticism and I’m wondering if other people feel the same way. I don’t want to say the series is critic-proof or something, but that’s not the case. But it does exist as this weird case where we can’t truly knock an element of the story because it’s supposed to mean something important and be part of this very specific viewpoint and path. I’m not saying that “Tomorrowland” is an awful episode of television or even a mediocre one, but I’m wondering if there’s a time when frustrations with characters and stories within the text become frustrations with the text itself? Something to ponder over the long break (and it will probably be even longer this time) before Mad Men returns.