April 24th, 2015
There’s a lot of talk right now about how season 7.2′s Don Draper is Dick Whitman. All sorts of evidence has been cited, from Don telling stories about the past to his abject failures in areas where he once excelled. None of this is Dick’s doing however.
Matt Weiner, in more than one interview now, has said that the “engine driving the show is running down”. What he means by this is actually pretty simple. Just substitute the words ‘the show’ in the quote for ‘Don Draper’. The point isn’t the content of Don’s performance, whether he succeeds or fails at what he does – it’s that he’s still doing what he does, just badly. In the end the fiction Dick Whitman created, and he couldn’t have possibly known this at the time because Don unlocked the world for him, had limits. Don was a machine built for success, and once he’s achieved that success – the beautiful wife, the job – he has nowhere else to go. Think of Mad Men as an act in three parts, Matt Weiner does (a probably slightly misremembered quote: “A Mad Men sequel? To me seasons 4,5,6 are the sequel!”). The first act tells the story of a man with an apparently perfect life which comes undone because it doesn’t meet the needs of the people involved. The second act is about that man repeating the same mistake all over again because he hasn’t got to the bottom of what his needs really are and because this time things look different enough that he’s momentarily fooled into thinking he might be getting somewhere. Season 7, then, the final act, is where he finally moves on.
He can’t do that, though, until he’s certain his previous strategies won’t work and Don is no longer fit for purpose (We’ve known for ages, at least since a Tale of Two Cities, however that’s not the point!). So what we get at the start of seven is a last ditch attempt, a sped up version of everything that has come before – a superdose of business, money, sex and a relationship which failed before it even started. We know all this is Don because it’s his modus operandi. As I say above, this is what he does, what he was made for. It’s only when he stops doing this stuff – like in previous seasons when he went to California to visit Anna, a woman with whom he was actually friends, and to use a more recent example, midway through season 7 when he helped Peggy get to a point where she could realistically replace him – that we see Dick coming through.
Dick is close to the surface now, he’s nearly finished running his tests. When he’s ready to turn Don off and take over we’ll know about it. It won’t be ambiguous at all. Has it ever been?
April 24th, 2015
“Why don’t you tell me all of your dreams, so I can shit on them?”
From Peggy’s vantage point, further up the corporate ladder than she could have ever expected to go but with dizzying heights still to scale, she can barely conceive of someone who has stopped dead at the top with no idea what he wants.
What was The Forecast about? The future and what it might bring, our present and where we’ve ended up, and our pasts which may or may not determine both of them. Are we slaves to our histories, or are we capable of change? A question always dangling, like a Lucky Strike, from Mad Men’s lips, but now more urgent than ever. Because the engine driving Don Draper really is running down, and he’s got to figure things out sharpish if doesn’t want to wind up bitter and alone.
This week Mad Men was rotten with young people, they were everywhere, and, it turned out, found in surprising places. From where Don’s standing of course, they’re all young. Not just the actual kids, Sally, Glen, Bobby, Gene, Paula, Maureen, (Phew!), Carol, Sarah and Yolanda, but Pete, Peggy, Mathis and Ed too. All just babies with their lives still ahead of them, their dreams there for the taking. What happens though, when you’ve realised all your dreams? This is something Don wrestles with all the way through The Forecast, all these young people and their parochial little struggles to achieve…what exactly? The approval of some stuffed shirts from a biscuit company? That’s important? The look on Don’s face throughout the impromptu emergency hallway meeting between him, Pete and Peggy was hilarious. In fact every inch of him spoke of how completely trifling and ridiculous he found this apparently life or death struggle. The sheer absurdity of Peggy’s underlings referred to as her “men” as if they were fighting in a war.
The Forecast’s totem ad campaign sums Don’s point of view up perfectly. Because, like the show this week, its focus is on kids, this time millions of them, and how Nabisco can transfer the fickle little buggers’ loyalties from one brand of sweet treats to another – their new Peter Pan cookie. That’s how the world looks to Don presently: a sea of peter pans caught up in a web of trivial concerns as nutritious and fulfilling as a candy bar. Who cares if they prefer This to That? It’s all the same, all our experiences the same, just a sugary distraction from life’s lack of meaning, and death. There has to be something more, surely? However to Peggy et al their lives are meaningful. Most of them don’t have a safety net weaved out of millions of dollars to cushion their fall should they screw up, and they don’t yet know about the yawning void waiting for them beyond the horizon if they succeed. Right now that horizon is a long way off and the problem of getting everything you want is, to them, laughable, borderline offensive even. So when Mathis walks into Don’s office looking for advice after upsetting Nabisco’s representatives, he and Don are in very different places; and the advice when it comes reflects this. Don can’t take Mathis’s problem seriously, he can’t take any of this stuff seriously anymore, and his lack of engagement results in disaster.
Only not for Mathis, not really.
Well kind of really, it does after all see him not just losing an account but his actual job. Which to him is undoubtedly huge – only that’s my point. Mathis walks into Don’s office knowing he’s going to get fired, not because of what happened with Nabisco, but because he’s going to let Don have it. It’s an exchange which for all Don’s macho posturing and talk about what it means to have “character”, Mathis totally owns. Precisely because all of this does mean so much to him, and he has his say anyway knowing full well what the outcome will be; the definition of character if ever there was one. In contrast, all that Don takes away from the moment of exercising his power is the demeaning experience of being dragged down into the muck of a situation he couldn’t give two shits about. Only a few days before he was amused by Pete and his melodramatic threats to axe Peggy’s creative team, and it’s an irony that won’t be lost on him. What really stings though, the worst thing of all, is the knowledge that whatever happens to Mathis, the agony of losing one job and then the ecstasy of finding a new one, his life will continue to matter, whereas Don’s will remain senseless and absurd.
The Forecast is full of young people showing character actually. Sometimes it’s misguided of course, like when Glen makes his move on Betty, and when Sarah tries the same thing with Don (I cracked up when she thanked him for dinner – as if they’d just been on a date!). Other times shockingly on point. Yolanda and Courtney’s career mindedness springs to mind, as does Maureen’s refusal to take any shit from Joan. Wherever these youngsters applied it though, the same rock solid sense of themselves and what they wanted was there. The same bravery. It doesn’t matter that they don’t know their limits yet, it’s still a lesson Don could learn a lot from. He has to show some character too.
The irony is that while the Nabisco advert does reflect the way Don sees young people, it also reflects the way we see him: a child man addicted to the sweet hit of women and commerce, ranging aimlessly and in circles from one empty thrill to another, never satisfied, never fulfilled. The way out is clear though. If Don’s going to move forward and make sense of the void, he needs to put aside temporary pleasures and open himself up to the possibility of injury once more, if for no other reason than to get him back into his own skin and a world where there are stakes, real pain and real joy. Change isn’t impossible, but it is hard, it entails making decisions. Scariest of all it entails risk. Don can’t imagine a future because he’s scared of change, not because there isn’t one. He’s scared of what his disenchantment with sex, relationships and work means, and the possibility that he might have to re-evaluate his relationship with all these things if he wants more from life than landing a pharmaceutical.
He has to make the jump from dissolution to substance – it’s a leap in the dark and there’s no way of knowing where he will end up. Thankfully Mathis has gone on ahead, lighting the way.
April 18th, 2015
When Betty first brought up her doctor’s recommendation that she should seek psychiatric help, Don was angry. Which is another way of saying he was scared. He couldn’t cope with the idea that the life they’d built together wasn’t enough. But for Betty and Don that life was a prison, and if Betty didn’t find an outlet for her pain, then the next accident to befall her might have had far more serious consequences than the low motion car “crash” which prompted her to seek professional help in the first place. In the end Don saw this too, and acquiesced. It was Betty’s first, even if small and tentative, act of resistance.
At the time though, she was still being buffeted around by forces out of her control, most of them male. By her doctors; by her husband; by her psychiatrist, a textbook sexist freudian who treated her as little more than a hysterical child and who, against all psychiatric ethics, provided Don with detailed notes on every one of her sessions; and by her own emotions, which at that point she was a long way from understanding. She didn’t want to think about any of that stuff.
Until she did.
Betty’s story has really been about her encroaching agency, and now that she’s in a healthy relationship with a man who’s happy for her to have her own life, a career is the obvious final step. In the end the answer to Don’s question, the title of this piece, is the whole of Betty’s life without him. It was Betty speaking up to her psychiatrist about Don’s infidelities, even if she didn’t acknowledge this for years afterwards, that really set her on the road to where she is now. And it was Dr Edna, her daughter’s official and Betty’s not so official psychiatrist, who showed her what a woman could do – a woman who wouldn’t be satisfied working as a travel agent that is! Personally, wherever this story goes, I love that Betty’s considering this move. Why psychology? Because it maps her journey completely, from pawn to player – owned to owner. It’s almost too perfect.
*Don Draper, Ladies Room