The pleasures Peggy takes from advertising – an industry which shortly after gifting her Hokusai’s erotic masterpiece Roger describes in almost monstrous (octopoidal!) terms – are anything but vanilla
‘This business doesn’t have feelings: you get bought, you get sold, you get fired. If the account moves, you move. Even of your name’s on the damn door, you should know better than to get attached to some walls.’
Most people, most women, would probably run a mile from something so transparently horrible: the sexism, the aggression, the indifference. But Peggy is able to perform the magic trick of transforming all the dross into gold. To understand how naturally this comes to her we need look no further than her immediate response to Roger’s doom and gloom.
“Well hopefully I’ll have that problem some day.”
To Peggy’s mind her fear is “exciting”, the often terrible problems she faces “challenging”, and as she says, she needs this stuff. It’s what gets her out of bed in the morning. It’s revealing that almost all the exchanges between Roger and Peggy this episode, not just the one detailed above, repeat this cycle of misery and cynicism which somehow over the course of their conversation resolve themselves as pleasure and hope. Even more so that the end result is this:
I understand that there’s an end of the world absurdity to the Roger and Peggy double act’s curtain call this episode, but Weiner’s reaching for more than that. To both of them, often considered the most childlike of all Mad Men’s principles, SC&P was a playground, even if they could be forgiven for failing to notice it at the time. And that’s what this scene, with Roger leading with an elegiac but carnivalesque tune and Peggy slipping frictionless across the office floor, is really speaking to. How much they loved the place, and how, like kids playing in the blitz torn London streets, ultimately they made the hostile world of advertising their own. Their antics are as much about their past as where they are now – about who they were as much as where they’re likely end up: Roger, the wisecracking but waning patriarch, the old order on the outs since the 60s started, and Peggy the eternal new girl, the creative spirit of youth weaving in an out, dancing really, between what we realise is not wreckage but SC&P exploded and unpacked, deconstructed right down to its essentials. This number has been going since Mad Men began, only here it is being made explicit.
There’s something of the Situationists’ detournement about all this too, an expression of an irreverent and punkish attitude which up until the point Peggy saunters in through their doors, a cigarette dangling from her lips and painting in hand, McCann has been sorely lacking. And it makes sense that we dissolve to white. Just as the Situationists in their derives made up new names for the streets they aimlessly stalked, so too, we hope, shall Peggy rewrite the roadmap for the corporate environment through which she travels. One thing’s for certain, people like her were responsible for the advertising world’s industry wide shake-up in the 1970s.
Before she gets to the great octopus itself however, she’ll have to contend with its young, McCann’s mostly male staff, and it’s on this personal level that Peggy will initially make her mark. What will these people, who have no inkling of the subtext Cooper and Peggy instinctively slather across it, make of Roger’s present (which btw – and I can’t believe no-one’s noticed this – depending on whether Hokusai is recognised in Mad Men’s universe makes her a very rich person indeed)? I imagine the prevailing view will be that Peggy is perverse, definitely creative. But in the end the painting’s octopuses and masochistic overtones aren’t really the point, rather, simply, that Peggy, a woman of all things, digs sex. Or to whittle it down to the basics, Peggy will disturb the all male higher ups at her new office because she’s a woman possessed of any desire at all, which is to say that she’s a flesh and blood person. At this point in time, and especially at a place like McCann, there’s nothing more countercultural than that.
The painting’s original owner, Bert Cooper (quoted in the title of this piece), could only envision a man imagining the Fisherman’s Wife’s ecstasy because in the early 1960s the concept of female pleasure was still a sexual and ideological revolution away. Still, though, as a Randian he would have applauded the self interest and agency Peggy demonstrates this episode. In fact if he knew her better – at all! – he would have applauded Peggy full stop. Peggy is often spoken of as Don’s protege, and before it all turned sour I think it’s fair to say that Bert saw his relationship with Don in a similar light. To demonstrate this Bert gave Don a copy of Atlas Shrugged, the bible of so many self made men and women, but in the end he found the solidarity he initially felt he shared with Don to be false. In contrast, Peggy, who has some way to go before she experiences anything like the ennui Don felt at the top of his game, has yet to let the spirit of Cooper down, and I think he would view this symbolic passing of the torch in a more than favourable light. Cooper was no feminist, none of them are, but he’d know his painting was in the right hands.
This is one of the stories, mirrored by Betty’s decision to study psychology, that Mad Men wanted to tell, the story of the cultural shift in the 1960s which saw women transition from object (the dreamt of) to subject (the dreamer). Miraculously, like a dog sitting up and playing the piano, it turns out the woman in the centre of the frame wasn’t conceived of by anyone but herself.
And later when she’s done with octopus, you just might meet her around the boardroom table, licking her lips.
April 30th, 2015
In Shoot, Mad Men’s ninth episode, Jim Hobart tried to coerce Don into leaving SCDP by reviving and then threatening to take away his wife’s modelling career. By that time, Betty, a mother of two, hadn’t done any modelling for over half a decade, but when Jim dangled the possibility of a test shoot in front of her, and for Coca Cola no less, she jumped at the opportunity to carve out some space in what was becoming an increasingly claustrophobic marriage. Don let everything slide right up until the point Jim mailed him the proofs, with the unspoken message: Join us or we’ll wipe that smile from your wife’s face. Two minutes later he was in Roger’s office renegotiating his salary, and Betty was back to being a housewife.
But why? Despite Don’s admonishment to Jim – “I can’t exactly say that was a big league move” – it’s not his would be employer’s lack of character that decides the day, but the physical evidence that Betty’s career is a nascent reality. As long as it’s just a conversation around a dinner table Don can ignore the modelling, but when he’s holding the proof in his own hands, his wife beaming up at him out of the frame, well.. that’s another story altogether. It’s the irony that does it in the end, the way the photos, which depict a faux family picnic, perfect parents, perfect kids, reveal the lie which powers Don’s actual marriage. Because the only real thing about this scene is Betty’s smile, a smile which speaks of how wonderful it is to be doing something for herself, away from the life the images supposedly celebrate – and Don can’t stand it. This subtext is laid bare in seasons five and six, when Don reacts badly to Megan’s return to acting, but, watching it again, Shoot gives us all the subtle clues we need to know what he’s really thinking. Anyway, whether it’s Betty being used as a bargaining chip or selling her smile to the highest bidder, what irks Don the most is to see her transformed into a commodity, and, even worse, that she welcomes this degradation. It’s easy to parse this as simple sexism, and on one level it is, but there’s something deeper going on too.
Don’s career, his whole life, has been defined by his irrepressibility. Even before Mad Men begins he’s reinvented himself, and after that it’s endless – he ruthlessly cuts off all family ties, he won’t sign a contract, he’d rather start a new company than work for McCann, he won’t settle for one woman, he forces a company merger when he grows bored, even the thought processes behind his ad campaigns resist market research…. There’s no point listing it all. The point is that when this man says his life “only moves in one direction: forward”, he means it. Don won’t be caged. Until – finally – he is.
Which brings us to the present day, McCann and Coca Cola. Sadly there is an irony at the heart of Don’s life too, and it’s that the very genius which for so many years fooled him, and us, into thinking he could game capitalism in the end makes him its most perfect servant. He thought he was always out ahead, but every step brought him one step closer to the corporate hell he left in the dust at the end of season three. For a success machine like Don Draper being absorbed into McCann was always inevitable, and the escape hatch he conjured the first time this threatened to happen, SCDP, was little more than a final proving ground. Frankly as valuable as he is, he’s the super-brand’s advertising industry equivalent. His costuming in Time and Life’s final scene, black and red, as good as confirms this. Don, the game’s best player, bought and sold at last.
He’s won, but in the end what does advertising heaven look like?
A perfect, empty life.
Midway through her photoshoot, Peggy asks McCann’s art director how it is that the coke bottles she’s holding are already open. His answer, the title of this piece, resonates with Jim Hobart’s command for SC&P’s management to stop struggling and surrender –
“We don’t want life to look difficult now, do we?”
That’s just it though, the story of Mad Men, of SC&P, of the 60s themselves, is defined by difficulty, by struggle. Life is defined by struggle. What Jim’s offering is the other thing. Will Don Draper take it?
I’ll leave you with his final words to Roger after recommitting to Sterling Cooper at the end of Shoot.
“If I leave this place one day, it will not be for more advertising.”
“What else is there?”
“I don’t know, life being lived? I’d like to stop talking about it and get back to it.”
“I’ve worked with a lot of men like you and if you had to choose a place to die it would be in the middle of a pitch.”
“I’ve done that. I want to do something else.”
In Time and Life Don really did die in the middle of a pitch, a pitch for the future of his company. He died and was replaced by a product.
I give him one episode. Maybe two.
*Ronnie Gittridge, Shoot
The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave
To the dark and the endless skies
A lot of ink has being spent trying to puzzle out whose face Roberta Flack’s song refers to. Everyone is right. Here’s something else to think about.
It’s Don’s beautiful face, and the singer is Dick.
A lot of times the relationship between Don and Dick is described in oppositional terms. When will Dick take over? Don’s keeping Dick down!, etc. I know, I’ve been guilty of that stuff myself. Often it’s the most useful way to talk about their relationship. Don, after all, has been drowning his alter ego’s voice out for years. Now that Don’s on his last legs however, I think maybe it’s time to reflect on just what Don has meant to Dick.
Don was Dick’s way out of poverty, his route to New York and into advertising. Don gave Dick the confidence to approach women who under any other circumstances would have dismissed him as little more than a tramp. Don made Dick, for a short time, the master of everything. He was pure possibility, and he gave Dick the universe. Just like in the song.
Their relationship may be on the outs right now, but Dick was in love with Don for a very long time.
It’s okay to mourn.
*Freddie Rumsen, Time Zones