Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood
Tarantino has crafted an elegiac ode to a time he’s only experienced through books and movies.
Let's start at the end, that is with the last two shots of the "Mad Men" Season 4 final episode, "Tomorrowland." The penultimate image is a beaut, with Don and Betty in the dark, empty kitchen of the house they once shared. Don is there to meet a real estate agent. Betty, the blonde in the blue Disney Evil Queen coat, has returned to box up some things she "forgot" from the cabinets in the guest bathroom. Don, characteristically, has a secret he hasn't forgotten about -- a fifth of whiskey stashed in the cupboard above the oven. They share a few sips from an old ornate bathroom cup and Betty, ostensibly speaking of the kitchen in her new house which she will probably have remodeled, looks Don in the eye and says, "Things aren't perfect."¹
Yeah, it's a cliché (Betty almost always sounds like she's reading a script), but in this context it's also a wonderful moment, poignant and funny. Because she says it almost as though a) she believes "things" actually could achieve a state of perfection; and b) she thinks imperfections are shameful secrets and this is an intimate confession -- never mind that Don knows perfectly well what a mess she is. His reply -- which could be read as tender (letting her off the hook) or pointed -- is delivered/deflected with a gentle smile and received with understanding: "So, you'll move again."
Don tells Betty he's engaged to Megan, and the two leave the kitchen in opposite directions, Betty with a box under her arm and Don with her keys to his house in his hands. The camera lingers for a while on the bottle and the flowery yellow cup on the counter, all that's left of the "Don and Betty" who once occupied this space together.
Dissolve to: Don and Megan in bed in his Greenwich Village apartment. She's asleep, her head on his side. He's awake in the dark. As Sonny & Cher's "I Got You Babe" comes up on the soundtrack, Don turns his head toward the window and the camera floats away from the bed, looking out his window at the window across the way. More frames. Out that window, that's where Season 5 is, and neither he nor we know where that's going to lead. "Tomorrowland," indeed. Is Don already having second thoughts about proposing to Megan? Is he just contemplating their future? Or, as Faye says to him, does he only like the beginnings of things?
The lyrics, about two poor young kids in love, just starting out, play against the reality of Don's life (the prospect of a second marriage to a younger woman), but maybe he feels like he's getting a fresh start -- despite Betty's husband Henry's insistence that there's no such thing:
They say we're young and we don't know Won't find out until we grow. Well, I don't know if all that's true 'Cause you've got me and baby I've got you.
It's the epitome of the sentimental teen music, with its melodramatic Spector-esque wall of sound, that Don joked about earlier, in his meeting with the American Cancer Society board. And now it's part of the soundtrack to his life.
"Mad Men" is always suggesting directions the story and characters might take, whether they eventually do or not. (Remember when Sal and Kitty had Ken over for dinner?) People make decisions, take risks, have epiphanies, take action or don't, and live with the consequences. This season it seemed to relish finding those moments in which there's no clear distinction between right and wrong, because they are inseparable. Like when Peggy fired Joey for his disrespectful attitude toward Joan (after Don told her that if she thought it was a big deal, she had the authority to act on it). But the way Joan saw it, Peggy was just confirming her own power -- and confirming to the young guys in the office that Joan was a mere secretary and Peggy was "a humorless bitch." And both women were right, and both women were wrong. Because, as they say in "Chinatown," they have to swim in the same water we all do.
So, is Don questioning his impulsive offer to marry Megan? I think he first fell for her when he saw the way she and his daughter hugged each other after Sally, running from Don and refusing to go home with Betty, fell in the hallway of Sterling Cooper Draper Price (in "Beautiful Girls"). No coincidence, then, that the proposal comes right after the scene in which Sally spills her milkshake and Megan handles it without getting flustered. Don, conditioned to Betty's overreactions to everything, is about to yell... and then takes his emotional cue from Megan who, at 25, seems in some respects more emotionally mature than he is.³ In the very next scene, he offers her a ring.
Remember how demeaning Don thought it was when Roger married his (Don's) secretary Jane? "No one thinks you're happy," he told the smug Mr. Sterling in Season 3's "My Old Kentucky Home." "They think you're foolish." Now, Don either doesn't remember, doesn't care, or sees no similarity between what he and Megan are doing and what Roger and Jane did. And perhaps the decision was not so impulsive after all. Recall the way he looks through his office doorway at Megan, putting on her makeup, at the end of "Hands and Knees" (to a cover version of the Beatles' "Do You Want to Know a Secret?"). And the persistent presence of Megan, framed between Don and Faye during a meeting in the glass-walled conference room in last week's "Blowing Smoke."
Once Don gets to California (Disneyland!) with the kids and Megan as a last-minute nanny (Betty having fired Carla for reasons even she herself doesn't fully understand, having to do with Glen Bishop), everything just starts going... right. Director/creator Matthew Weiner creates an almost satirically idyllic vision of Southern California perfection, from the French song Megan teaches the kids to perform for him, to Don and Megan's dreamy kiss on a balcony (capping a conversation about her imperfect teeth), with a movie-moonlight-on-the-ocean backdrop.
Don doesn't even entirely lie to the kids when they see "Dick + Anna '64" painted on the wall in the living room of the house that belonged to Anna, the only person in the world who ever really knew him. This is the trip he'd promised Anna, only she's no longer here and Megan is. Then he learns that Anna wanted him to have her engagement ring -- the one he gives to Megan with the explanation that it's a family heirloom.
The dissolve from the California restaurant to Don's bedside proposal is like waking from one dream into another. It took me a few moments to realize they were back in Don's apartment and not in the motel. From Don's point of view, we can understand why he says to Megan, "Did you ever think of the number of things that had to happen for me to get to know you?" In "Mad Men," these kinds of epiphanies are almost always both genuine and delusional, and/or manipulative, at the same time. (And, essential to Don's notion of who he is, he says she makes him feel like himself, the way he always wanted to feel.)
The last time we saw him in this bed, it was with Faye -- he was in Megan's position (just waking up) and Faye was in his, dressed for work, sitting on the bed. She told him that if he can resolve some of his feelings about his past -- and he doesn't have to do it alone -- he might be feel "more comfortable with everything," after which he'd just be "stuck trying to be a person like the rest of us." A week later, Faye is part of the past. She's yesterday and Megan is tomorrow.
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Don: You don't know anything about me.
Megan: But I do. I know that you have a good heart. And I know that you're always trying to be better.
Don: We all try. We don't always make it.
One of the mysteries of the episode: Don knows that's not true. We don't "all try." Roger Sterling? Pete Campbell?⁴ Do they try? How much does Don even try? Is this just another sales job? What "Mad Men" shows us is that we all have ingrained patterns of (self-)destructive behavior that we try to overcome. This conversation, which is both modest and self-serving on Don's part, is the result of the last thing Allison, the secretary he slept with before Megan, said to him: "I do not say this easily, but you are not a good person." Don says that Anna, and now Megan, make him want to be a better person. How hard will he try? That's one of the big questions for Season 5.
One key moment is a shot from the inside of Anna's barren living room -- another house, like the former Draper home, that is being emptied out. A big black slab moves disturbingly across the screen, as the camera passes behind a post to reveal Don, Sally and Bobby framed in the screen door as in a family photo. What first seems ominous becomes comforting -- as the scene itself does. In that image, it seems, some dark barrier between past and present is wiped away. (Thank you, Mr. Chabrol.)
This episode is full of words that don't quite sound the way they're intended, or meanings that circle back around on the speaker -- like Faye's advice, Joan's new Director of Agency Operations title (without additional compensation), or Don's heartfelt statement to Peggy, the one woman who knows him better than anyone, including Megan: "You know, she reminds me of you. She's got the same spark. I know she admires you just as much as I do." This sets the stage for a rapprochement between Joan and Peggy, who vent their frustrations over cigarettes in Joan's office.² Joan (still pregnant, she and Peggy have more in common than either of them knows) snipes that Don will probably make Megan a copy writer because he's not going to want to be married to his secretary. Peggy is both hurt and offended: "Is that what he meant?" (Remember that the night Megan had sex with Don in his office, it was on the pretext that she wanted to learn more about the business. Was she sincere? What are her ambitions now?)
The lines between personal and professional are getting all mixed up. Pete tries to get Ken to use his future father-in-law as a connection to a high-level executive at Dow Chemical. Ken doesn't even know how ironic he's being when he congratulates Don: "I hope you have all the happiness that Peggy and I had signing this account." Peggy tells Joan, exaggerating for dramatic effect, that she has just saved the company by signing the first new business since Lucky Strike bailed: "But it's not as important as getting married. Again." When Joan claims that she learned "a long time ago to not get all my satisfaction from this job," Peggy calls bullshit -- and they both crack up. Like Faye in the first scene, they're both referring to a "Chinese Wall" (title of Episode 11) -- this one between work and... whatever non-work is called. (And Ken is the only one who declines to breach it.)
And then there's the ice. In "The Rejected" (Episode 4), Don scolded his secretary Allison for not having his office bar stocked, then sarcastically asked Peggy and Faye if they'd brought any ice with them. Later in th same episode, Pete melds his work and home life in the presence of his father-in-law when he calls out to newly pregnant Trudy, off-screen, to ask if they have any ice. And when Don and Megan announce their news, leave it to Roger to quip, "Let's have a toast. Megan can you get us some ice?" (beat) "I'm teasing!"
If only Jane had been there.
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It's been a lousy year for feature films but "Mad Men" and Olivier Assayas's "Carlos" and "Breaking Bad" have shown that rich, creative cinematic work is being done for television in the long-form series and mini-series formats.
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¹ This echoes what Pete said to Peggy in the Season 2 closer, when he told her she was "perfect" and he loved her and wanted to spend his life with her because Trudy didn't really know him, but Peggy did. And then she told him that she could have had him, could have shamed him into being with her, but didn't want him.
² Remember that the episode's second scene was a meeting with the American Cancer Society board, whom Don impressed with his "change the conversation" letter/ad in the New York Times announcing that (after the near-fatal departure of Lucky Strike) Sterling Cooper Draper Price would no longer represent tobacco companies. Afterwards, he describes his role: "I just looked him in the eye and convinced him I was some kind of idealistic businessman." Always playing parts, that Don Draper.
³ Do not underestimate Megan. Faye was history the moment she slept with Don after having stood up to him so spectacularly ("I think you're confusing a lot of things at once"). Even violating the "Chinese wall" by getting him a meeting with
Hormel Heinz made him appreciate her devotion to him, and simultaneously diminished her in his eyes. Megan has been straight with him: she wanted to have sex with him and promised it wouldn't be awkward. She never acted like she expected anything more. She let him come to her. The question now, of course, is whether Don will continue to want her now that she's agreed to be with him.
⁴ Pete is such a sadistic prig. Notice how much he enjoys putting Ken through exactly the same father-in-law wringer Roger put him through in "The Rejected." Of course, he still sees Ken as his competition, even though he is technically his inferior. But I keep remembering what Lane said about the two of them. Pete does a fine job of making clients feel he is meeting their needs. "Mr. Cosgrove," however, "has the rare gift of making them feel as if they haven't any needs."
Above: Betty in her doll house.
Above: Don's California casual look.
Above: If these walls could talk... Well, they do.
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