Reality Bites, Illusions Die Hard in Mad Men Season Six, Episode Four

by sweatermanifesto


Editor’s Note: This week, “Mad Men” muser Harlan R. Teller  contemplates the infidelities and illusions the SCDP crew and others live by and the toll it is taking on them.

Before the “Twilight” series reignited America’s strange fascination with vampires, there was the British horror factory, Hammer Studios, which cranked out variations on the “Dracula” theme in the fifties and sixties.    The Hammer entry for 1968 was “Dracula has Risen from the Grave”, featuring the darkly patrician Christopher Lee in the title role.

Invariably, Lee as Drac would be about to put his teeth into the comely neck of the virginal leading lady, when he would notice a discomfiting site- a cross dangling around her neck- a true buzzkill for any enterprising vampire.   Lee as Dracula compels the bewitched beauty into snapping off the cross, and he continues on about his business, making quick work of her neck and consigning her to a grisly immortality, usually terminated by a stake through the heart.

Evidently, Don Draper was a Hammer studio fan- or is symbolically Dracula himself- because of all the cringe inducing, craven behavior he has already exhibited in the first four episodes of Season Six, it’s unutterably sad, disconcerting final scene that leaves the most profound and troubling impression.    Megan’s “fake” seduction on the set of her soap opera somehow gives the hypocritical Draper license to engage in his real infidelity, and as he bends over the enthralled Sylvia to seduce her once again, he spots a cross around her neck.   In homage to Lee, it brings Draper up short.  But what really works like garlic is when she tells him that she prays that his restless and troubled soul finds peace.    Sylvia- her carnality and Catholicism mixing it up like warring tribes in her own morally compromised soul- is one complicated piece of work herself.

In response to Sylvia’s comment, the look of sad, hopeless resignation on Draper’s face- fighting with his inflamed libido for primacy- reminds us once again that Jon Hamm is arguably the finest television actor never to win an Emmy.  And it sets up a Hammer-like variation on a theme, as Hamm as Draper gently moves the cross to Sylvia’s back, and he continues his seduction.  Fade to black– and the darkness that has enveloped the production like a plague the entire season.

Infidelities and illusions are the themes of choice in this week’s entry.    Joan’s friend comes to New York to bask in the reflected glory of Joan’s life as a carefree career girl and advertising agency partner, tries her hand at a clumsy seduction in the bargain, and sees that life as Joan may not be all it’s cracked up to be.    Scarlett, the increasingly emboldened Harry Crane’s secretary, uses stalwart Dawn to make it look like she was working for the five hours she wasn’t.    Timmy, the full-of-it Heinz ketchup guy, creates the illusion that Draper and his adversary, Ted Chaough, really have a shot at his business, only to award it to J. Walter Thompson.   And in return for Don betraying his own motto of “dancing with the one who brought you” (an ironic statement if there ever was one), Raymond the Heinz beans guy fires SCDP without even giving them the traditional ninety days’ notice.   Meanwhile, Peggy is disabused of any illusion that her friendship with Stan is still intact, as he flips her a middle finger during an encounter at a local bar after the pitch.

Then there’s the illusion of the soap opera world, in which Megan continues to thrive, witness a new story line that has her taking on a lover while getting to know the husband and wife producing team perhaps a bit too well.   Which leads to a rare bit of levity, when at dinner the husband and wife invite the Drapers back to their apartment to smoke some grass and perhaps do some swinging (might be my imagination, but it appeared to me that both partners were more interested in Don than in Megan).     The good humor ends in the back of the cab, when Megan tells Don that the couple had been married for eighteen years; clearly both have the same thought, namely, if their lives are going to be as sad as the soap opera couple eighteen years down the road.

In an attempt to assuage Ken Cosgrove’s frustrated father-in-law and Dow Chemical senior executive (the reliably compelling Ray Wise), Harry Crane peddles the illusion that Dow could turn around its corporate image- sullied at the time by antiwar protests over the dropping of Dow-produced napalm in Vietnam) by sponsoring an hour-long variety special hosted by the original sportsman/celebrity himself, Joe Namath.   The idea that a one-hour show featuring vamp-of-the-moment Joey Heatherton gyrating around a stage with “Broadway Joe” would do anything to burnish a company’s corporate reputation is one of the stranger conceits of the show’s history.  Even stranger is Harry’s claim that he deserves a partnership because of the idea (a partnership bid that the two original partners, Sterling and Cooper, defuse in an amusing scene where they give Harry money as opposed to what he truly wants, which is respect.  Meanwhile, Harry is faced with the indignity of having to stare at Bert Cooper’s argyle socks throughout the exchange).

The saddest illusion to be shattered is that Joan’s status as firm partner- while largely deserved and perhaps overdue- was earned in the clear light of day in the office, as opposed to the darkened hotel suite of a prospective client.    Her liaison with Herb the Jaguar guy continues to haunt her, and is casting a pall over the agency.   It’s hard for the leadership of an organization to have moral authority, when they’ve colluded in an immoral act that is at the root of their success.    Which is why when Harry calls them out on this in his awkward bid for partnership, everyone in the room looks at one another and has literally nothing to say.

Meanwhile, Dawn, Draper’s highly efficient, even more highly principled African American secretary, takes center stage, or at least a side stage, as her scenes with her engaged friend represent a Shakespearean interlude, with Dawn commenting on the goings on at SCDP as if she were from a distant planet here to analyze the strange behavior of earthlings.  Her comment about throwing out the empty liquor bottles as if every day was New Year’s Eve at the firm is priceless.    And her observation that so much of the office behavior is fueled by fear is particularly trenchant.

By the end of the episode, Dawn allies herself with Joan, at the risk of her relationship with the other secretaries, as she sees something innately dignified and principled in the older woman’s demeanor that she’d like to emulate- and of course, there certainly is, which makes the compromise that Joan forged even more heartbreaking.    Given the premise on which Joan reached her high perch in the pecking order, it’s entirely possible that Dawn has set herself up for even more disillusionment.

Author’s Note: “Mad Men” showrunner Matt Weiner prides himself on the truthfulness of even the smallest details on the show, which makes the Heinz ketchup pitch particularly perplexing.  It’s true that Doyle Dane Bernbach had the business for a long time, but they didn’t lose it to J Walter Thompson.  In fact, DDB kept the account until 1973, when it was turned over to Leo Burnett, which ultimately created the famous, Carly Simon-inspired “Anticipation” campaign.   It’s a mystery why Weiner fabricated something that could so easily be fact checked, but then again, all those SCDP clients really weren’t serviced by Don Draper, were they?

Submitted by Harlan R. Teller