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?
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
April 18th, 2015
Home invasion was a theme this week, what with Pima intruding upon Stan’s darkroom as well as his and Peggy’s deepest fears, Don strongarming Diana’s affections to the point that he was granted access to her private pain palace and Roger hammering the final nail into the coffin of Marie’s marriage. Then there was this:
There was something anxiety inducing about the Calvet girls picking through Don’s apartment. It wasn’t just that it unearthed old ghosts, although it did, at least in this viewer, a flood of memories both good and bad. It was that we didn’t know what they would find. What could they find though? After all, Megan knows all about Don’s past – this isn’t Betty rooting around in his draws in season one. Only somehow it all feels familiar, the same hint of impending disaster in the air.
If there was any doubt about the symbolic nature of Tricia’s wine stain then New Business puts all protestations to bed. Mad Men has a history of using these kinds of devices – remember the tear in Bobby’s wallpaper in The Flood which represented the absence of a stable, ordering father figure? – as metaphors for its character’s concerns. Here the gash-like stain functions in a similar way, standing in for the deep emotional scars inflicted by Don’s childhood. Scars that have never healed and from which there is a direct throughline leading right up to the present day, to Don’s sex mania and an air hostess spilling a drink on his floor. It doesn’t matter that Marie is ignorant of all this, it’s enough that she understands Don as a damaged person who damages those around him – which is all she needs to see this gaping wound for what it is.
Weiner and his staff could have made the stain anything, whisky, a cocktail, whatever, but they chose wine. Wine because it’s a woman’s drink, it’s bacchanalian and permanent. Sex – abandoned, chaotic behaviour – that never washes out. It will be there forever. It has been there forever. The stain is a doorway into Don’s dirty private life, which he never gave up even while married to Marie’s daughter. And it’s sitting there slap bang by her old marital bed, a grisly reminder of just how badly Megan was treated.
At the time though, it was invisible. Nothing was conclusive. Megan, to paraphrase Don in Time Zones, didn’t know… but she knew. A whiff of another woman’s perfume here, a late night disappearance there, too many client meetings – all the stuff that used to plague Betty’s thoughts. But in New Business there’s indelible evidence that someone else has been in Megan’s house. It doesn’t matter who, this woman has worn so many different faces, what matters is she was always there, lurking out of sight.
Don’s nightmare in Mystery Date ended with him murdering his dream lover, another home invader, and depositing her under the bed. He was that afraid of his old, wild nature returning. But at last the blood has trickled out, the crime scene laid bare, the criminal exposed.
At the end of New Business his apartment, his life, is gutted.
Only the stain remains.
*Marie Calvet, New Business
April 16th, 2015
Pima Ryan, an emotionally opaque high end photographer with a control freak bent, was entertaining enough without delving into themes or subtexts. Her detached interest in her subjects both on and off camera, almost as though she were looking through the bars at animals in the zoo, was a real pleasure. As was her bland expectation that she should play a larger part in putting together the Cinzano advert for which her work had been commissioned. Most amusing of all though, was the way she set about trying to manipulate her SC&P contacts, Stan and Peggy, into making her a more permanent fixture.
Stan was easy pickings. The character’s ongoing concern that his lack of photography chops will make him redundant was transparent right from the off – and Pima pounced immediately. First by prodding at his anxieties, then by confirming them. Only after this, when he was at his most vulnerable, did she fuck him. Not long afterwards Peggy was subjected to a slight variation on this mind-game, but this time with Pima deploying Peg’s fear of being alone against her. Needless to say it didn’t work. Later, when Peggy caught wind of what happened from a boastful Stan the whole thing backfired, Pima’s seduction techniques called out for what they were, a cheap hustle to get more work, and any possibility of future freelancing was nixed for good. So as I say, all of this made for a very enjoyable 45 minutes, however it was also illuminating. Because Pima’s real textual function apart from highlighting the concerns of Mad Men’s supporting cast, was to hold a candle up to Don’s behaviour, a guy who’s a better hustler than she could ever hope to be.
What makes Don such a good liar? He believes his own bullshit. So when he tracked Diana down, we couldn’t blame her for being taken in. The difference between us and Diana though, is that we’ve seen and heard it all God knows how many times before. The sorrowful looks, the illusion of deep communion he somehow conjures after having spent one night with his mark. All that sad fucking music. Urgh. That music doesn’t mean what Don thinks it means, because its not about the beautiful tragedy of two lost souls finding each other, not anymore. It’s about hopelessness. The worrying prospect that Don will never find a way out of his cycle, a stream of relationships doomed to fail before they start, all because he can’t relate to his lovers as living, breathing people. Which is why Megan and Sylvia feature in this episode of course, to remind us where Diana and Don will wind up if by some outside chance they make a go of it.
It’s really interesting actually, to see what time can do to Don’s old tricks. Even though at the time many people saw Don’s proposal to Megan for what it was, me included, at least back then the scenes between the two of them felt romantic, albeit in an adolescent way. Now there’s very little charge whatsoever. Don’s as eloquent as he ever was, his words perfectly timed, the content ostensibly moving, but when he tells Diana she “isn’t the first thing to come along”, that he’s “ready”, we know there’s nothing underneath. Nothing but the cheap hustle of, in Megan’s words, “a ghoul” looking to feed off a new prospect – just as Pima fed off Stan and Peggy.
Both Don and Pima put on a good show, but as Peggy and Megan point out it’s all bluff. Just a suit (which, no, Don doesn’t sleep in!), a swanky apartment and the whiff of soul. There’s the illusion of substance, that there’s something more going on, and oftentimes people fall for it, but… not this time. When Don finally gives Diana some breathing room, the spell wears off and the product is revealed for the tawdry thing it is. Two people in a room sharing what exactly? Some shared pain, some grief. Nothing to build a life on. A quick fuck in the dark, that’s all it was.
*Peggy Olson, New Business
Since McCann’s acquisition of SC&P each of the principles, with the exception of Peggy, are by most earthlings’ standards stinking rich. And as John Dos Passos warned in his USA Trilogy (featured in Diana the waitress’s pocket in the second scene), this has come at the cost of their humanity. The episode’s most gruesome severing of all, and I think the one Matthew Weiner really intends for us to reflect on, is an internal one. All the characters are alienated from their own personal stories, the progress they made over the last two seasons abandoned and left to rot.
In no particular order:
Ted Chaough, the family man who once fled New York to escape an affair, now has an apartment in the city where he hosts cocktail parties for Vogue models.
Don Draper, who up until last episode appeared a reformed man, is on fuck overload. His life is emptier than ever.
Roger Sterling, “Leader”, has consigned his predecessor’s example to the rubbish heap, firing long term colleagues without batting an eyelid. This was the man who described his old nemesis Jim Cutler’s plans for SC&P-as-it-was as “Everyone goes”. An insight which spurred Roger to sell the company to McCann in an effort to protect it. Now he couldn’t give a shit.
Joan Harris, a woman who was learning to trust other women and to play the business game on her own terms, is drowning her sorrows in dresses and demeaning other women along the way. (Many fans will be glad to see that she and Don have resumed an at least cordial relationship, but I can’t help wondering if this is cash related too. From Joan’s perspective – something I may go into at a later date – she still has good reasons to be angry with Don. The relatively pleasant scene between both of them is, I’m afraid, probably indicative of yet more unfinished business. More karma yet uncleaned.)
Peter Campbell describes his current situation thusly: “I thought I was really changing my life when I went to California. Of course, now it sorta feels like a dream, but at the time it felt so real. [....] Look, here I am!”
That’s because it was real Pete, not like the reality distorting bubble of money you’re currently floating around in.
While Kenny’s story, its resolution as grim as any of the above, felt a bit pat this time around, I applaud its unpleasantness. It doesn’t just illustrate how having power can see people acquiesce to their baser urges, but demonstrates exactly what can happen when you sever or deny a part of yourself, as SC&P has just done – it comes back to bite you on your ass.
Much has been made of Roger’s ridiculous moustache, but it’s key to the whole thing. Mr. Sterling isn’t a serious man on the path of self actualisation, but a comedy general straight out of a Carry On film. And this along with all the other bad taste 70s accoutrements the show’s wearing right now, all that lurid grotesquery, is in the end not funny but disturbing. It’s a warped world, with a rupture running right through it. It was a violent, horrible episode, its totem product one of the world’s most successful razors – the kind of account that can split your soul in two.
It’s made Don Drapers of them all.
*PFC Dinkins, A Tale of Two Cities