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.
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?