When I was riding the subway the other day, I had a sudden and depressing thought: what if the fifth season of Mad Men was delayed forever? What if for some reason the contract disputes rose up again? Or some act of God caused the production to halt? What if all we had were four seasons of perhaps the greatest television drama of all time?
After I recovered from my initial panic and despair, I realized that if for some reason there were no fifth season of Mad Men, it wouldn't be so terrible for the series to end where the narrative was left at the conclusion of Season Four. Imagine that the series ended with "Tomorrowland," the final episode of Season Four. Our last image of the Mad Men universe would be that of a pensive Don Draper, handsome in the purple-grey darkness of his bedroom, with his new fiancée, Megan, lying next to him. Megan is young and beautiful and sleeping with seeming ambivalence. Meanwhile, Don looks out the window; he is never satisfied, never completely sure of what he wants or of what he can give to the world. His ad agency is in a tenuous position and it is very much his fault for putting it there. And then the Sonny & Cher plays and we are left with the closing credits. At the end of Season Four, Don is yet again starting a new chapter of his life, a chapter that has the potential to be charming, sweet and successful or possibly nothing but another short-sighted failure, which is very often the range of conflict on Mad Men.
Now, when you think about it, concluding on that note is not a terrible way to end a series. However, we will be getting fifth and sixth seasons of Mad Men so the story will continue. The fifth season is set to start on Sunday, March 25 and will presumably jump ahead in time to the end of 1966 or the beginning of 1967. The world of the early 1960's, which was simply an extension of the 1950's, will be over and the true "1960's," as the decade is now known in its commoditized form, will have begun. That last image of Don in bed from "Tomorrowland" marks the end of the original Mad Men world-the end of the early 1960's, as we know it-and the beginning of something new. How will the characters we've come to know so well fit in with the social change of America in the later part of the 1960's? How will Don maneuver and interpret the psychedelic movement as it exhibits the wants and desires of the American youth? What characters will fail to embrace the changes of the decade and be left as stagnant relics of the past? These are the questions and possible stakes of the upcoming season of Mad Men. But in order to speculate what will happen, we first have to trace where our favorite characters were left at the conclusion of Season Four.
We've already covered the general stopping point of Don's narrative at the end of Season Four, so then we move on to Don's protégé, his spiritual other, Peggy Olsen. In "Tomorrowland," Peggy and Ken Cosgrove combined powers to land Sterling, Cooper, Draper Pryce's first business in approximately ten weeks. Yet she was left disappointed by Don's engagement as well as the fact that Don seemed to choose the conventional path to happiness rather than the harder path, the path he and Peggy seemed to metaphysically connect over and agree on in "The Suitcase."
It was quite clear in "Blowing Smoke" that one of the founders of the firm, Bert Cooper, had resigned in the wake of Don's ad in the New York Times and left the agency and thus the show behind. However, what will become of that other "founding" partner, Roger Sterling? Roger's complete mishandling of the Lucky Strike situation last season showed how desperate he had become to remain relevant at the firm. He is not as hungry as Pete Campbell and, as the Lucky Strike fiasco exhibited, his rolodex is not what it used to be. Roger is surviving on his charm alone at this point. It has carried him throughout his life, but how much further will it carry him, especially in the face of what is coming in the late 1960's. Harking back the ex-pats and bravery in World War II will no longer carry any currency.
When we speak of Roger, we can't help but speak of Joan. Joan and Roger's long-standing, frequently dormant, romance sparked up again last season when they had sex after they were mugged on the street. The result was that Joan became pregnant and in one of the season's twists, decided to keep the baby, telling her husband Greg, who is in the army in Vietnam, that the baby is theirs. Depending on where the show resumes, Joan will either be very much pregnant or will have already given birth. Joan, once the woman who had all the answers, who knew how to get the life she wanted, has now had to piece together that life from various places: a failed doctor husband, a child from her long-time secret lover, and a position of office power that is constantly undercut by her presence as a sexual object. How will motherhood or pending motherhood change the Joan we've known, or rather, the woman that Joan has become? Will Greg, her disappointing husband, find out the truth while he is in Vietnam, or will that be a confrontation for season six?
Pete Campbell is already a new father by the end of Season Four, but how will he take to the new role? Pete already showed signs of maturity throughout the fourth season and became more of a likeable character than he had been at any other time during the series. His handling of Roger's tantrum in "Chrysanthemum and the Sword," of Don's secret in "Hands and Knees" and of the Lucky Strike fallout all exhibited his value to the company not just as an account man, but as a human being. And was his look and smile at Peggy in "The Rejected" between the glass doors a mark of acknowledgement that their romance is over, or is there still something remaining between them? The show might very well be cast in a new light with the late 1960's as its backdrop and it could cause a shakeup for the, mostly, conservative Pete; especially because Peggy will most likely be embracing the generational changes taking place.
Finally, we come to the Draper-Francis family, namely the two women of the household: Sally and Betty. These two were at odds throughout much of Season Four, with Betty even bringing Sally to a therapist that she, Betty, also used as a means to vent her own, childish, frustrations. Last season Sally became perhaps the most intriguing character on Mad Men. She will be a teenager as the next season starts and there is no telling how she might be influenced by the counterculture at school or outside of it-she was already listening to Beatles records in Season Four. Will her sexual curiosities continue to persist as she becomes more, naturally, sexually aware? And how will she and the notoriously close-minded Betty coexist under the same Rye roof? Or perhaps Betty will be too preoccupied with the disintegration of her second marriage. "Tomorrowland" showed Betty and Henry Francis very much at odds, with Henry finally confronting Betty on her inability to "move forward" as Don would say. "There is no fresh start. Lives carry on!" Henry yells at her as they are moving out of the Draper household. Betty is trapped by her own small-minded views. She wants to move on, she wants to create a fresh start, but it is very often impossible to do that when you share children with someone. She doesn't have the courage to leave Don behind and perhaps she doesn't want to. The last image we have of Betty in Season Four is her looking longingly at Don as he tells her he has gotten engaged to Megan. The two of them stand in the empty Draper kitchen that we've come to know, sharing a mug of rye that Don had hidden and they talk about the house and the changes in their lives. Betty is yearning for Don and like Don, she doesn't know what she wants out of the world, nor what she can truly give to it. She has an inclination of her intelligence and her importance, but can't place it with an actual want or tangible desire that would allow her to "create" or to find a purpose in the world. Instead she remains a longing "housecat"-she is seemingly very important, but with little to do.
There is no telling where Mad Men will resume when the fifth season starts at the end of March. However, we know that even if the series had ended after four seasons due to contract disputes or production disputes or any other act of God, that we would have been left with a satisfying ending. Satisfying because the end of Season Four left us with this many questions to ask, this many situations and characters to ponder the fates of. And these questions aren't due to any forced or unfulfilling narrative conclusion; they are due to the depths we have known the characters and the journeys they have taken. No matter how the series ends, we will still have questions about the fates of our characters; and that is how it should be. We should miss these people when they are gone, because we have spent time knowing them and thus trying to know ourselves. If Matthew Weiner has been this successful after four seasons, just imagine what he'll do with Season Five and Season Six. And lord knows how much we have all missed Mad Men.