Finale Watch: Mad Men, Rubicon
Jon Hamm, James Badge Dale
The times, they are always a changin' on Mad Men, but as often happens with this fascinatingly unpredictable series, the changes come where you least expect them. After the last several weeks of intense workplace drama, priming us for another game-changer in the wake of Don Draper's anti-tobacco manifesto, Sunday's thoroughly absorbing and entertaining fourth-season finale takes a startling hairpin turn back to the personal. Cut to the headline: Don's getting married. To Megan!
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The main action: While Peggy triumphantly lands a new pantyhose account, the first win for the troubled agency since the Lucky Strike defection, Don takes the kids to California, world of Tomorrowland (the episode's title), and has a personal epiphany about his own future — as it relates to his tormented and once-hidden past — in the lovely and toothsome presence of Megan, the ethereal secretary-turned-nanny who is every inch the anti-Betty. (She's pressed into service because Betty impulsively fires long-time housekeeper Clara, an inexcusably and unforgivably cruel act, the latest blemish on the former Mrs. Draper's lack of character.)
Don opens the hour by meeting with the American Cancer Society, who are understandably intrigued by his tobacco screed, and he pitches a campaign aimed at the rebellious young generation that plays on one of Don's specialties: nostalgia. "The truth is: They're mourning for their childhood more than they're anticipating their future. Because they don't know it yet, but they don't want to die." Sounds like a mid-life crisis brewing, and how better to act upon it than with a head-turner like Megan.
The question remains whether Don can sell us on his newfound happiness with Megan, to whom he unexpectedly proposes, transcending while fulfilling the old marrying-the-secretary cliché — using the engagement ring the real Don Draper once gave his beloved Anna, and which she has bequeathed to "Dick." Don's identities collide when he takes Sally and Bobby to Anna's house, and Sally notices the painting and writing on the wall. "Who's Dick?" she wonders. After a long pained pause, Don reveals, "Well, that's me. That's my nickname sometimes."
The walls are starting to come down, and what's really unfair about all of this is that Dr. Faye is the one who helped get Don to this point during their bed therapy sessions. She sends him off to California after their final overnighter with the instruction to "take your head out of the sand about the past." And when he asks her what will happen next, she replies, "Then you're stuck trying to be a person like the rest of us."
Be careful what you wish for, Faye. Don is especially receptive to Megan's beguilement after settling affairs at Anna's house and getting the ring from Stephanie. He becomes enchanted and smitten with Megan throughout this trip. She (unlike the awkward Faye) is great with the kids, barely flinching over a spilled milkshake — the sort of mishap that used to send Betty into a face-slapping tirade — and she sees only the best in Don, telling him the morning after their romantic night in the hotel, "I know that you have a good heart and I know that you're always trying to be better." He demurs that he hasn't always succeeded, and she assures him, "I know who you are now." Magic words to this self-reinvented man, who tells her, "I feel like myself when I'm with you, but the way I always wanted to feel."
He calls it love, and seems almost as shocked as Megan when he proposes. But back at work, making the announcement, he's beaming ear to ear. A good, if kinda ridiculous, look on Don. Even more so after he hears the news from Peggy and Cosgrove about the new Topaz pantyhose account: "We broke the streak! What a great day!" The ensuing one-on-one between Don and a quietly flabbergasted Peggy has extra resonance given what they've gone through together this season, especially during their dark night of the soul spent in the office on Peggy's birthday (a high point for the entire series). "You know she reminds me of you," Don tells Peggy. "She's got the same spark. I know she admires you as much as I do." A peck and a hug, and it seems genuine enough.
But this is followed by my favorite scene in the entire episode, putting an appropriately cynical and sardonic spin on the situation. (Because, really, who didn't watch the proposal and shout back sentiments like "Oh no!" and "Too soon!" and "For real?" and "Wake up!") I played back this exchange several times just to savor the words and the delicious performances of Elisabeth Moss and Christina Hendricks. "Whatever could be on your mind?" coos Joan as Peggy enters, slamming the door in WTF mode. Here's poor Peggy, having saved the company (in her mind), and once again upstaged by a pretty face. "It's not as important as getting married. Again," Peggy bristles. Joan, remarking on her own unheralded in-title-only promotion, has seen it all before. Men. Honestly. "I learned a long time ago to not get all of my satisfaction from this job," Joan says, smugly. To which Peggy responds, after a pause, "Bull----." And they both laugh, knowingly.
All that's left is for Don to break the news to the other women in his life. The breakup over the phone with Dr. Faye is nasty and bitter. "You've been very important to me," Don assures her, haltingly, to which she crisply retorts, "So you're not going to put an ad in the New York Times saying you never liked me?" Touché, Faye! "I hope she knows you only like the beginnings of things," she barks before hanging up, crying.
In what may be our final look at the former Draper household in Ossining — the Francises are moving to Rye, and I doubt there was much of a neighborhood farewell party — Don runs across Betty with one last packed box (it's pretty clear she arranged for this "accidental" meet) and she grins when he reaches deep in an empty cabinet and finds a hidden bottle of booze. One last drink in the empty kitchen. Old times: some good, many not so good. "Remember this place?" Betty says, wryly. Don answers: "I do." (As do we.) They talk about change and how everything is different, and Betty reveals, "Things aren't perfect." It's a poignant moment, but at this point it's hard to feel much sympathy for this spoiled, cold ice princess. They walk off in separate directions, and we fade out for the season with Don in bed with Megan as the soundtrack goes to "I Got You Babe" from one of the decade's more star-crossed celebrity couples, Sonny and Cher. (And we all know how that ended.)
The course of true love ... As Megan tells Don when he's talking her into the California trip, "Please. Stop the advertising."
Other points of note:
We kind of suspected it, but the reveal is still effective when Joan is on the phone to her military husband and we learn she has kept the baby (from her tryst with Roger) and has told her husband they're expecting. She teases him with a "Yes, honey, they're bigger," even more incentive for smarmy Greg to take a cold shower while stationed overseas.
Speaking of Roger, the episode's biggest laugh comes after the announcement of the engagement at work when Sterling pipes up, "Megan, could you get us some ice?" Off her stunned look: "I'm TEASING!" But you figure he approves, or at least is amused by the whole situation. Been there, married that.
Also bringing the funny: Harry Crane, falling all over himself to impress the fired pantyhose model Carolyn Jones ("like Morticia") who Joyce has brought in to introduce to Peggy, setting up the Topaz storyline. And lest you think there's no redeeming values left in the office, how refreshing to see Cosgrove refuse to exploit his future father-in-law (unlike Pete) to bring in new business.
But is there any redeeming quality left in Betty Draper Francis? Her firing of Carla, after the servant lets creepy little Glenn say goodbye to Sally in her room, is the last straw. Even weirdo future-serial-killer Glenn has Betty's number: "Just cause you're sad doesn't mean everybody has to be!" It gets worse when Henry confronts Betty, revealing she didn't even give poor Carla a recommendation. "I don't understand what you're doing," he declares, and when Betty gripes about how he never stands up for her, he responds, "No one's ever on your side, Betty."
Henry also tells her, "There is no fresh start. Lives carry on." He's about half right.
Lives do carry on, and carry us along with them, but each new season of Mad Men gives us a fresh start with which to look at these characters and their ever-changing world as it hurtles into a turbulent future. Can't wait to see what next season brings for all of them. Even Betty.
Meanwhile, AMC also wrapped the first season of Rubicon Sunday, and I'd be lying if I said I was as eager to see more of this ponderous story. The final hour spends a lot of time telling us things we already knew about how API, under the direction of the imperious Truxton Spangler, had been manipulating world events for the personal profit of a cabal of sinister mystery men. Anyone who got too close to the truth, or who got fed up with the hypocrisy of it all, were either rubbed out or driven to suicide. The latest operation is certainly timely and disturbing, culminating in the explosion of an oil tanker in Galveston Bay with all (planted) signs pointing to Iraq, with the implication being that cooked-up intelligence can launch a misbegotten war. (Sound familiar?)
It's a provocative premise, but mired in pretentious posturing and glacial pacing, though enlivened by terrific acting by all of the twitchy, edgy principals. With one lamentable exception: Miranda Richardson as Katherine Rhumor, the widow of a conspirator who blew his brains out in the first episode. She always looked the part, but was wasted in a severely underwritten role. Even in the finale, when she tremulously watches a videotaped message from her late husband (embedded in a copy of Meet Me in St. Louis) and then contacts Will to make an ill-fated drop so he can see a message from his murdered mentor, she has virtually nothing to do. And then she's gone, killed in broad daylight after a hit man subtly injects her with some sort of poison as she dithers in front of the Bethesda Fountain. Her handler (Annie Parisse's Andy, a decent twist) looks on and mysteriously walks away as Will cradles Katherine, having left her twisting in the wind at least a few minutes too long. And how Will has the freedom to come and go, forever leaving his fellow API analysts in the lurch, becomes an inadvertently funny running joke through the hour.
Annoyingly, not a lot is resolved in this finale. An exhausted Will (his grief and frustration nicely conveyed by James Badge Dale) confides the truth about the conspiracy to a troubled Miles, while their pompous colleague Grant gets promoted into Will's job by Spangler and the prickly Tanya makes a lot of noise about quitting. "I sort of hate it here." I sort of do, too, but to be honest, the workplace conflicts always tended to be more intriguing and entertaining than the overarcing and rather obvious conspiracy storyline. Meanwhile, Spangler himself runs afoul of his conspiracy buddies, who insist he stop the current operation (he won't), calling him arrogant and accusing him of putting them at risk because of what Will and Katherine have unearthed. We later see the cabal take a silent vote, and then flowers are delivered ominously to Spangler's office along with the symbolic Four Leaf Clover Mark of Death. Looks like his days may be numbered as well.
The final scene is the long-awaited confrontation between Will and Spangler, on the API rooftop, as Will accuses API's founder of all the crimes, including his own attempted murder and the death of David that triggered his suspicions. "We all make choices along the way," Spangler orates, but Will corrects him that David didn't choose and neither did he. "You did this." Spangler can't really argue with that, telling Will to go ahead and write his report. "Knock 'em dead. I'm sure it will make for very exciting reading." (More exciting than Rubicon? Let's hope.) Spangler's final salvo: "Do you really think anyone is going to give a s---?"
He walks off, leaving his four-leaf clover on the ledge for Will to find. Which he does. And it's over.
I'll give the last words to my favorite character, Arliss Howard's enigmatic boss man Kale Ingram, who confides to a distraught Will: "Intelligence is largely a failure business."
Rubicon was never less than intelligent, but on so many levels of engagement, I have to conclude this one was a failure, a self-important dud.
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