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
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?