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 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 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