Sweater Manifesto

A blog about American zeitgeist and other things.

Month: May, 2014

Roger Takes a Giant Leap, While Bert Steps off the Stage in “Mad Men”, Season Seven, Episode Seven

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If we can put a man on the moon, then surely at least some of the major characters on “Mad Men” can finally, at long last, demonstrate some personal growth. That seems to be the theme animating “Waterloo”, the midseason finale episode, as Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk—and a cross section of what passes for the characters’ families watching this seismic event with a sense of wonder, awe and the opening of new possibilities—is the framing device for most of the episode.  

 

As Peggy Olson says to the Burger Chef execs during the pitch that most Mad Men devotees assumed that Don Draper was going to make, things will never be the same after this.   And the same could be said for many of our protagonists.   Take Peggy herself, whose nascent maternal instincts bubbled to the surface during her heartbreaking scene with Julio, when we learn how much she truly cares for the taciturn little boy and how much he cares for her in return when she learns that he’s the latest in a long line of men who will be bailing on her.  

 

Take Don Draper, who has been humbled by his demotion to copy jockey and in this episode finally given his walking papers by his once-devoted wife, whose love for him has been purged out of her by his faithlessness and inattention.   Don willingly and gladly takes a back seat to Peggy at the pitch, and watches with pride as his protégé does a brilliant, Draper-like presentation that weaves together the moon landing with what’s happening to society at the dinner hour and then delivers a winning concept with emotional resonance.  

 

But then there’s the surprise of the night- Roger Sterling, the wise cracking Peck’s Bad Boy who has made a career out of living off his charm and his preternaturally adroit client relationship skills, stepping up and making the giant leap that not only will save his friend Don’s tottering career, but also make all of the SCP partners exceptionally wealthy. And, doing it in a way that outsmarts his nemesis Jim Cutler and foils Cutler’s attempt to remake the agency in his own image, starting with ousting the problematic Draper and then elevating Harry Crane to some kind of savant status when it comes to buying media.     John F. Kennedy had a vision of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade; Jim Cutler has a vision of selling data mining services to other agencies’ clients.  

 

Roger takes matters into his own hands, after being stung to the core by long time friend and mentor Bert Cooper’s harsh but true assessment of his less than stellar leadership skills, and later heartbroken by the older man’s demise.  He works out a deal to sell 51 percent of SCP to McCann, in return for his remaining president and keeping autonomy as a subsidiary of the larger ad firm.   And, he stipulates that Draper be part of the package.   Then, he outmaneuvers Cutler in the partners’ meeting, as the dollar signs in the partners’ eyes assuage any ill will they may feel toward Don.   Whether working for “The Man” again will be close to being as romantic as starting your own business and working for yourself remains to be seen.   But while Bert Cooper’s ghost at the end of the episode may say “the best things in life are free”, money still talks, and sixty-five million dollars with 1969 buying power speaks very loudly indeed. Loud enough for the conniving Cutler to vote with the rest of the partners for the deal, once he sees that his bloodless coup has come to naught.

 

What starts out as Don’s “Waterloo”—returning from exile to rally the troops, only to lose, and ostensibly be sent back to the furrier business where he started as a copy editor (perhaps a bit more prosaic than ending up with Napoleon at Elba)–becomes Cutler’s, when his brazenness at unilaterally sending a separation letter to Draper based on the latter’s busting in on the Commander cigarette meeting (and ostensibly thereby breaching his contract)—becomes a bridge too far for the other partners.   Even Joan, who supports Don’s ouster, tells Cutler ominously that he shouldn’t have done it.   Cutler’s gambit animates Roger and leads to his bold move—he’s no Neil Armstrong, but perhaps he has more leadership potential in him than old Bert was willing to admit.  

 

However, Roger would lose and Jim would win, were it not for the one pitch that Don does take on during the partners meeting before the vote on the McCann merger.   It’s the pitch of Don’s life, as it keeps him at the firm and makes him very wealthy at the same time.   His one-time nemesis, Ted Chaough, is the tie-breaking vote, and he is a broken man, clearly miserable about his marriage and his estrangement from Peggy and burned out by the advertising business.     Earlier, Ted essentially threatened to kill his Sunkist clients by purposely crashing his plane on Route 66 with them in it, and seems to have no passion left for anything or anyone.     Don trots out a variation of the Freddie Rumsen “do the work” pep talk that ended the first episode of the year, and strangely enough, it works.   The work—and all that comes with it—may be the most genuine aspect of Don’s character, his evocation of what the work means to both of them seems to resonate with his miserable partner.   Ted votes against Cutler and for the third time in eight years, SCP will change ownership.  

 

But Roger’s Armstrong-like seizing of the day is far from the only surprise in the episode.   For at the end of a fast paced (for Mad Men, that is) 47 minutes Matt Weiner demonstrates that he not only has a firm grasp on the period in which his characters exist, but also the history of his own star performers.   For those of us who remember Robert Morse as a young, boyishly good looking and energetic song and dance man in the late 50s and early 60s, his parting scene was more than appropriate.   Morse pulls off a version of “The Best Things in Life are Free”, complete with dancers from the secretarial pool, and he does it in character and in his stocking feet.   It is an inspired bit of business, and a fitting tribute to both his character and Morse himself.   It’s a very considerate and entertaining way for a consummate pro to exit from the Mad Men stage.  

 

After Bert’s death, it becomes “game on” for the principals who Bert leaves behind.   Even more fitting is the timing of the old man’s death—he has just watched the moon landing and heard Armstrong’s immortal words, uttering “bravo” in response to the astronaut.   Now that he’s heard what he may have considered the perfect line of advertising copy, all that’s left for him to pass gently into the night.     There have been more shocking and emotional departures from Mad Men, but this particular one was handled with great sensitivity and panache.  

 

As always, there are questions that linger at the end of this mini-season, some of which tantalize this reviewer more than others, to wit:

 

Why is Don so dejected after Bert finishes his song and dance number?   Is it sinking into him that he’s about to go back to working as a captive of a larger agency, once again losing control of his own destiny?   Does he think Roger won’t sustain his own interest and they’ll miss the old man more than they think?   Or did he just have some bad pizza for lunch?

 

Will Mona and Roger get together and become surrogate parents to their grandson? Or will Joan and Roger reunite and become a nuclear family with their son?   With Roger’s big move, it’s highly likely that the free love-fest that has taken up residence in his hotel is history.

 

What happens if SCP doesn’t get the Chrysler business?   Jim from McCann is seemingly buying them based on the promise that they’ll get the business, which is really an odd basis for forking over more than 30 million dollars to a group of people.   Never underestimate the machinations of Bob Benson, who is already upset at Joan’s rejection of his marriage proposal, and is the new ad director at Buick.

 

Will someone take Ted’s pilot’s license away from him before he kills someone, possibly himself?   Will his return to New York resurrect his career, as well as his relationship with Peggy?

 

Will Megan finally land a part? She was reading a script when she had her “Dear Don” phone call. She’s getting dangerously close to her “sell-by” date for a starlet, and Don has offered to put her on the Draper payroll until she starts to see some money coming in. But perhaps there’s more than going to movies and hanging with her various actress friends in her future.

 

Will General Motors remain the colossus of the automobile industry? Will NASA continue to up our lead in the dominance of space? Will Burger Chef redefine the family dinner experience for a new generation of Americans? Sadly, we don’t have to wait until next year’s final episodes to know the answer to these questions.

 

Since this is my last post for a very long time, here’s a bit more for your blogging dollar, based on some additional observations:

 

  • Roger watches the moon landing with his ex-wife Mona (John Slattery’s real life wife, Talia Balsam), his son-in-law and grandson, rather than the hippies who have been cohabitating with him.   Perhaps this is another sign of Roger’s belated maturity.   It’s probably also a sign that Marigold (Margaret) isn’t coming back any time soon.   
  • If Megan’s unexpected but long overdue kiss-off of Don is the last we see of Jessica Pare, she, too, will have had a great exit. Her pause to take a gulp of wine before saying goodbye to Don was expertly played and exactly the right touch.   We all held our breath for just a moment, along with Don.  And then, all of us (including him) were relieved.
  • I’m sure the irony is not lost on anyone that the two people with the most screwed up family situations were the ones pitching the creative for the Burger Chef pitch (actually, throw Harry and Pete in there, and you’ve got a foursome of family dysfunction).   It does underscore the point– driven home by the four of them watching the moon landing together in their hotel room– that families are indeed changing.

 

  • In area of personal growth, Betty continues to be left behind.   She’s a perplexing character, who doesn’t deepen with continued familiarity.   Here in this episode, she’s given very little to do, other than dish with one of her college pals about Don being like an old, bad boyfriend. Where we are going with this character is anyone’s guess.   Probably nowhere.

 

  • Speaking of Betty, raise your hand if you saw a flash of her in daughter Sally’s insouciant, off-handed and self-conscious cigarette smoking at the end of the great telescope scene with the smart, nerdy kid staying with the Francis’s.   The has a bit of Betty’s style, and more than a touch of her mother’s manipulative side, as she knows exactly what she’s doing when she kisses that star-struck kid.  

 

  • Note to Henry: the 50s is calling and it wants its short sleeved polo shirt back.

 

  • Meredith’s clumsy and inappropriate pass at Don was more than a bit ridiculous. Taking her in small doses is fine, but that scene was beyond the pale. I suppose this passes for comic relief for the series.

 

  • I wonder whether Roger’s gambit was as much about denying the annoying Harry Crane a partnership as it was outmaneuvering Jim Cutler and saving Don in the process.   It appears that other than parenting a child that doesn’t know that Roger is his father, the only thing that Joan and Roger share these days is a visceral dislike of Cutler’s favorite media buyer.  

 

Back at you next year!   Please post!

 

 

Submitted by:

 

 

Harlan R. Teller

 

 

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Peggy Does It Her Way, Finds “The Strategy” in “Mad Men”, Season Seven, Episode Six

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It was all going so well. Megan and Don, back in their Manhattan pad together, making love and eating breakfast on the deck and acting for all the world like the happy couple they were a the beginning of their tempestuous and maddeningly inconstant marriage.   Don might have been keeping the fact of his marriage so far under wraps that the new employees at SCP don’t even know he’s married, but no matter. He still seems newly engaged and determined, yet again, to make things work with his French Canadian siren.

 

And then, at the end of a long and frustrating day, Peggy Olson utters what is undoubtedly the most cerebral come on you’ll ever hear on this or any other day, when she invites erstwhile mentor Don Draper to “show me how you think.”   After she follows his advice, which is essentially to drink many scotches, lie down on the couch and then try to come up with something better than she’s got, she figures it out—just in time for Frank Sinatra singing “My Way” to waft into her office.   Perhaps a bit heavy on the symbolism, given that she’s a working woman who is meeting life on her terms and, rough patches notwithstanding, is winning.   But with just a bit of ambiguity, because, after all, she came up with the new idea doing it Don’s way.

 

What happens next will undoubtedly be the subject of intense and conflicting conversations all across Mad Men Nation, at least until Matt Weiner settles for all of us what actually happened.   It’s a scene that literally blotted out the previous, excellent 40 minutes of an episode just packed with meaning for so many characters, representing a profound meditation on the nature of family and relationships in the remaining embers of the tumultuous sixties.  

 

Just before the light goes on in Peggy’s creative brain, she and Don have a prescient conversation about the breakdown of the nuclear family, even then showing the signs of fraying that has become endemic in the modern era and the omnipresence of the television that has disrupted the family dinner.  Peggy and Don turn to themselves, with Peggy confessing that she just turned thirty and is starting to become one of “those women who lie about their age.”   Peggy asks Don whether he ever sat down to dinner with his family, and after Don deflects what is surely a painful recollection of his joyless family past, he tells her that he worries about a lot of things, but never Peggy.   The younger woman smiles at that—protégés tending to enjoy the approval of their mentors, no matter how many unflattering and compromising situations they have found them in over the years—and then asks the older man what he worries about.   And, then all the pretense of Don’s dalliance with marital fidelity falls away, as he confesses that his worry is about never having done anything and not having anyone in his life.   From that very personal and uncomfortable confession from her reflective creative partner, Peggy shifts somehow to the core creative idea that sticking her head into the cars of women homemakers across three states and asking them probing questions about their meal preferences couldn’t help her with.   Cue Sinatra, and then cue the slightly worn and rumpled (and a bit out of shape) Draper.

 

Don asks Peggy to dance, and after she hesitates slightly, she rises to the bait and he begins to squire her around the office, Frank doing his immortal voicing of Paul Anka’s song (written expressly for the Chairman of the Board) in the background.   It’s all very awkward, like a couple of adolescents at a school dance who have never held each other before and are a bit embarrassed about it.   And then, it happens.   The booze and the relief of having unlocked the key to the Burger Chef creative strategy having relaxed the increasingly prickly and frustrated copy chief, Peggy lets her head fall onto Don’s chest.   Don, a bit surprised by this, has a wave of emotion pass ever so slightly across his face and then—in a gesture reminiscent of his impromptu (and unscripted) kiss of Peggy’s hand years ago—he bends down and kisses her head.     As the camera moves out and away from the two, we are left to wonder what comes next, because if Don Draper loves anyone other than his struggling and sassy eldest child Sally, it is certainly his thirty year-old protégé Peggy Olson.

 

This is great artistry, done to perfection by two consummate professionals (Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss) who literally have come to inhabit these two characters and the complicated relationship they have enjoyed from the very beginning. It is also something that is only possible on episodic television, where the twists and turns of their relationship have been given ample time and room to breathe, ripen and mature.   And, still, the scene is played with such nuance that by the end, we really still don’t exactly know what we’ve just seen. For those of us who have been perplexed and a bit stymied by much of what we’ve seen this season, the Don/Peggy scene, coupled with the final scene of Don, Peggy and Pete in a local Burger Chef, in essence making Peggy’s point about family being where you find it, is truly a money shot.  

 

When the three ad pros sit in a booth and the camera pulls away to show that the restaurant décor is a facsimile of a house, you realize that Peggy is onto something.   The burger chain, which closed its doors in 1996 but was still going relatively strong when SCP was pitching the business, does seem architecturally to share Peggy’s intuition about the changing dynamics of the American family and how places like Burger Chef (and its far more successful competitors) were appealing to this dynamic.   We of course know that whatever great creative Peggy was able to come up with, wouldn’t ultimately save Burger Chef, which fell behind, was ultimately rebranded as Hardee’s, and disappeared from the scene in 1996.  

 

This is a kinder, gentler Don Draper during this episode, and it wears very well on him.   He is trying very much to be a team player, so when earlier at Pete’s behest he sits in on Peggy’s highly polished yet somewhat banal reenactment of a domestic scene featuring a mom buying Burger Chef for her family, he lays back despite obvious doubts about the premise of the campaign.   But he can’t help being Don Draper, and in an effort later to provide a thoughtful suggestion to Peggy (actually a bad idea, which is to focus on the kid rather than the mom), he inadvertently plants a seed of doubt in Peggy about the validity of her own handiwork.  

 

What makes Peggy great—and Draper such an admirer of her—is that she won’t settle for what’s convenient or easy, in contrast to her boss, Lou Avery, who is smitten with the original campaign because it reinforces his own prejudices about what an American family should be.   Don and Lou are from the same generation, but while Don is allowing himself to be dragged kicking and screaming into a new era, Lou is very comfortable being stuck in time, which is why Peggy’s paean to 50s domesticity, represented in her original work, is so appealing to him.  

 

We also find out in this episode that Pete is still in love with his wife and willing to let his smoldering girlfriend, Bonnie Whiteside, cavort alone and unescorted around Manhattan (dirtying up her sandaled feet in the process) while he lies in wait in his former suburban house for Trudy (the great Alison Brie) to return from a date.     It seems that everyone acts differently when they’re back in New York, perhaps yearning for a time when things were different, and Pete is definitely in a New York state of mind.

 

But Joan seems much more interested in Bob Benson’s news that SCP is losing the Chevy account than in entertaining the younger man’s proposal of marriage, clearly a marriage of convenience that the possibly well-meaning but manipulative Benson sees as his ticket to upper middle class bliss as a newly minted executive at Buick.   (If his offer of a Platonic relationship were not unsettling enough for the still vibrant Joanie, his exhortations about the joys of living in Detroit would probably be enough of a turnoff, even if back then they could have afforded a mansion and now could probably buy an entire city block).  

 

But the big winner of the night is the absent Harry Crane, who is voted in as partner as a response to the loss of the Chevy business.   Jim Cutler proposes the idea, and it’s right out of the Don Draper playbook- as he has said many times, if you don’t like what’s being said about you, change the conversation.   Cutler wants to change the narrative about SCP, from struggling mid-level firm that can’t keep a car account, to forward looking visionary who has a new computer run by its favorite nerd.   I still struggle to see how focusing on media selection in a creative business is a winning new business strategy,but Don- along with most of the other partners- votes Harry in, based on his “loyalty” (an irony, since Harry showed more loyalty to Don than to the firm in the last episode), and Roger and Joan find common ground in thinking it’s a bad idea.   But they’re both compromised- Roger missed the signs given off in the sauna by the McCann guy about potential changes at SCP involving a key person, and Joan failed to give Roger a heads up that she knew about Chevy.   Roger dismisses Joan in a way we’ve never seen him do after retreating to his office for some liquid reinforcement, and she stalks off.   Obviously, the New York state of mind does not extend to these erstwhile lovers, although it remains to be seen whether they end up teaming up as allies as the firm begins to fracture into blocs.  

 

Meanwhile, Don and Peggy will always have Sinatra, and Burger Chef.   And in a world that is upside down and starved for love and affection, doesn’t that feel like some consolation?

 

 

Submitted by:

 

 

Harlan R. Teller

 

Writer’s note: Did anyone else see the irony in the use of “My Way”, given that one of Burger King’s more successful ad campaigns years ago was “Have it your way?”, focusing on the difference between it and McDonald’s?   And, will Kevin Rahm have anything more to do by the end of next week’s episode than look forlorn and kibbitz a bit on transcontinental conference calls?   Might a potential Don-Peggy coupling break him out of his season-long torpor?

Scenes from Two Failing Marriages Dominate “Mad Men” Season Seven, Episode Five

 

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You knew this was going to be a “very special Mad Men” even before the opening credits, when the AMC staff announcer warned viewers about sexual content, in a manner reminiscent of the run-up to an episode of “Justified”. And, Matt Weiner certainly didn’t disappoint, coming across with a ménage a trois so intricately choreographed that it was reminiscent of an aquatic scene in an old Esther Williams movie.

 

The recipient of this sexual largesse was a tired and slightly drunk Don Draper, on the West Coast ostensibly to check up on his very pregnant “niece”, Stephanie, who has flown the coop with a $1,000 check before Don hits the door of wife Megan’s Laurel Canyon home.   After smoking some weed with her pal “Amy from Delaware” and cleaning up the debris of a party with her “actor” friends, Megan is ready to go to some unusual lengths to make this a weekend for Don to remember. This, after earlier in the night Megan has performed a vampish dance with a guy looking suspiciously like Roy the Beatnik from the show’s early episodes (featuring the freewheeling and ultimately tragically fated Midge). So, the two women seduce Don, and the ad man, protestations aside, responds viscerally and positively.  

 

Then morning comes, Don’s in bed with Megan and Amy, followed by an exceptionally awkward scene in the kitchen, the latter a bit flustered and embarrassed and the former frustrated that her strategy hasn’t led to some kind of resurrection of affection in Don.   If the Draper marriage were on life support before shooting the adrenaline of a three-way into the morphine drip, it is certainly now about time to pull the plug.

 

There’s really no more reason for Megan to be in LA than for Don to remain in NY at this point.   Her acting career has hit a full stall, and she’s spending her days hanging out with the aforementioned Amy and fielding calls from her fellow struggling actors.   It’s all about the California lifestyle for Megan, and she’s been fully seduced by it.   Plus, if she and Don were actually in the same city for more than two days, they’d have to actually work on their marriage, and neither of them want to do that, because they’d have to admit that it’s all over but the occasional sex orgy.  

 

Plus, don’t we have a bit of an issue with show continuity? Last time we encountered Megan, she was telling Don it was over and then tolerating a less-than fulfilling bi-coastal phone conversation while Don made a half-hearted attempt to win her back.   In this episode, all of that seems forgotten, as when Don presumptuously asks Megan to take care of Stephanie, Megan responds cheerily about it and looks forward to Don making the trek back to LA to have his little family reunion.  What happened to Megan’s resolve to call it quits?  

 

It’s enough to drive one crazy, and indeed, that’s exactly what happens to Michael Ginsberg, who is transformed from being eccentric (and almost comically over-the-top) to a full-on nut job, all because of the leviathan-like computer that he believes is taking over his mind and revealing a pretty healthy dose of homophobia.   His first strategy for dealing with the humming in his head was strange enough- trying to seduce Peggy Olson in her condo.   His second strategy- cutting off one of his chest nipples in order to relieve the pressure from his brain, and then giving the offending body part to Peggy as a gift, lands him in a gurney on the way to a mental hospital.   That Peggy realizes that Ginsberg has crossed the Rubicon from annoyingly strange to truly sick shows there’s hope for her yet, and Elisabeth Moss plays the scene with just the right amount of horror, shock and sympathy.  

 

Speaking of horror, there’s the return of Betty after a one-episode hiatus, and we find that the pettiness, selfishness and immaturity that has been the hallmark of her approach to both of her marriages is beginning to finally get to the preternaturally tolerant Henry Francis.   At a progressive dinner, Betty reveals that she didn’t get the memo that Henry- evidently now a Congressman or state representative- is now against the war in Vietnam and supporting Richard Nixon’s effort to extricate the US from the decade-long quagmire. Betty seems pretty into the war effort, and assumed Henry was, as well.   Either she didn’t bother to check signals with Henry on this, or she simply doesn’t care.   Since Betty has elevated self-centeredness to an art form, I’d bet on the latter.  

 

Just to add salt to the wound, Betty bows out of the rest of the dinner with a “headache”, leaving Henry to meander around the neighborhood stag and putting him in a foul mood.   While Don at least has two stoned women to bed at the end of the night, there’s no such luck for Henry, who must be left to wonder what in the world motivated him to break up the Don and Betty’s marriage.     Maybe he should have had a heart-to-heart with Sally beforehand, who after breaking her nose in a mock swordfight and coming home to her mother and stepfather, seems to be permanently alienated from “Betty”, a term she uses contemptuously to refer to her mother.  

 

This episode reverses the previous proportion of office activity to personal stories, as there is only one plotline devoted to the office, but it’s a significant one—the machinations by Jim Cutler and his favorite “adequate” creative chief, Lou Avery (comedian Allan Havey) to get rid of Don once and for all.   The strategy involves winning the new Commander cigarette- newest from the Philip Morris line up- and then forcing Don’s resignation or firing because of the “open letter” he wrote several years ago, in which he atoned for working for cigarette companies.   Through a strange alliance with the insurgent (and gossip-prone) Harry Crane, Don learns of the plot, shows up unannounced to the clandestine meeting with the client and offers to fall on his sword to land the account- or run the creative effort, using the Intel that he gained from sleeping with the enemy.   It’s the old Don–slick, smooth, articulate and convincing—who walks in and out of that client meeting. No strange digressions about his deep dark past and total command of the situation and the room. Jim and Lou are less than enthralled with the performance, but Don feels pretty satisfied, choosing to interpret Lou’s parting shot (“you’re really something”) as a compliment, even as he knows full well that it’s not.  

 

That scene, coupled with Lou’s semi-unraveling when his creative staff finds his sketches of a cartoon character called “Scout” that he evidently thinks will bring him riches, establishes the circumstances for a potential Lou meltdown and a Don ascendancy.   Don now has his nose and a good deal of the rest of his body inside Lou’s tent.   The creative staff clearly respects him more than they do Lou, and the “Scout’s Honor” comic strip that is Lou’s pride and joy reinforces how clearly out of step he is with the current Zeitgeist, not to mention his own staff.   This is underscored when he attempts to connect with them by making a ridiculous comparison between himself and Bob Dylan.

 

The scenes with Megan and Stephanie are particularly well played, as Megan’s surface friendliness is stripped bare pretty quickly after she sizes up the younger woman.   Megan calls Stephanie “beautiful” and Stephanie says that Megan is “magnetic”, but it is clear that both women are uncomfortable with each other, and with the prospect of sharing their affection for Don.   And, there’s the undercurrent of regret spiced with resentment on Megan’s part, as she sees the visibly ripened and Madonna-like Stephanie in full bloom at the seven-month mark of her pregnancy—and being less than enthralled at the prospect.     Megan maneuvers Stephanie out the door by warning her about Don’s possessiveness and buying her off with the aforementioned $1,000 check.   It’s a passive-aggressive move on Megan’s part, and it demonstrates that the wound of her miscarriage is still just beneath the surface, not to mention her impression that Don seems to care more about this almost-total stranger than he does about her.     After all, he’s coming to LA to see Stephanie, not Megan.  

 

It’s interesting that both Don’s and Betty’s marriages are unraveling at the same time on different coasts.   It makes one wonder whether these two will ultimately decide that they belong together again, inflicting their own brand of solipsism on each other rather than disrupting the lives of everyone else.   Perhaps with only two episodes left, we’ll at least have the strands of these marital subplots resolved, even if Don is still playing the long game at work.   It would be nice to have something, anything resolved in this fascinating but frustrating brace of episodes as consolation for waiting yet another year for the inexorable conclusion.

 

 

Submitted by:

 

 

Harlan R. Teller

 

 

The Devil and Don Draper: Decoding “The Monolith” in “Mad Men”, Season Seven, Episode Four

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I’ll say one thing about the partners of SCP—they’re pretty creative when it comes to human resources strategy.   Their handling of Don Draper is a case in point. Their approach to dealing with their brilliant albeit troubled founding partner goes something like this: you bring him back to the fold and put a bunch of restrictions on his behavior to keep him in line.   Then you park him in an office and forget he’s even there, treating him with not-so-benign neglect and passive indifference, evidently in the hopes that he just gets frustrated and goes away.

 

Finally, you are forced to bring him into a new and challenging piece of business, and you pay his former protégé (and secretary) an extra hundred bucks a week to handle him as her new not-so-willing employee, and you give her no direction whatsoever as to how to make this exceptionally uncomfortable situation work.

 

Given this scenario, it should have been no surprise that Don reacts to all of this in a way that is sadly true to form—he goes on a bender, proving in the process that things really do go better with Coke, especially when the Coke is replaced by the better part of a bottle of Roger Sterling’s purloined vodka.

 

It is left to the newly steadfast friend Freddie Rumsen to remind Don of who he is and where his duty lies.   He tells him “do the work”, and that simple word- work- has a talismanic power for Don Draper.   He takes that counsel to heart, and the next day, while erstwhile friend and ally Peggy Olson strategizes as to how to handle her recalcitrant employee, Don assures her very simply and quickly that he is on board and will get the job done.   And, that’s where we’re left at the end of the episode- Don having put paper in his typewriter and beginning to effortlessly bang out new “tags” for the Burger Chef campaign.   Oh, and also looking soulfully out the window, ostensibly trying to figure out how his life has come to this impasse and what in the world he can do to extricate himself from it.

 

The larger question is where it leaves the series, as by the time that last scene appears, we’re feeling like Don- looking out the window and wondering what comes next.   There are only three episodes left in this flight of Mad Men, and what’s happening is anyone’s guess.   While the show has always been much more plot driven than character driven, there are times when it seems like the themes of the show keep recurring and the characters, while demonstrating growth, often seem to be standing in place.   We think Don is facing up to his issues and problems and trying to be a better person, and then he falls off the wagon because his feelings are hurt. We think Roger is trying to be a better, more attentive father while bonding with his clearly troubled and searching (and extremely annoying) daughter, then he leaves her with her new commune friends after an impromptu mud fight, essentially giving up on his halting but sincere attempt to be the father that the wayward Margaret (now “Marigold”) never had when she was growing up.    We hope that Peggy is learning a bit more about herself as a person after having so many spectacularly failed relationships, but the optimism on that score is about nil.

 

And while there was a glimmer of hope that the condescending gasbag known as Lou Avery was showing some humanity to Peggy while giving her a raise, it turns out that it was more of a payoff for her to keep Don away from him and immersed in the fast food account than any real regard for his stressed out and increasingly petulant copy chief.

 

So, where’s Mad Men going?   Well, maybe it’s going to the devil, a theme introduced by Don after downing Roger’s vodka bottle.   This is courtesy of a very strange little scene between Don and Lloyd, the very earnest young computer-leasing guy, who heretofore looked to Don like a potential ad client. In Don’s boozy state evidently takes on the aspect of the “Man Downstairs” himself, come to SCP with his demon computer in an effort to take men’s souls.   At least where the conversation seemed to be going before Freddie pulls Don away from the startled leasing guy and out of the office, ostensibly to a Mets game, in this season of 1969, when the Mets would win the World Series and break Cubs fans’ hearts (and, when many suffering Cubs fans would feel permission to believe that the devil was clearly a factor in the Mets’ amazing stretch run).

 

Perhaps Lloyd is the devil because this clean-cut young ex-IBMer, still wearing Big Blue’s signature uniform of a white short-sleeved shirt and a string tie, has expropriated the creative department’s lounging area, in favor of Harry Crane’s new computer.   (We all know the devil never appears to mortals as a red fire breathing guy with a pitchfork—more often than not, he’s a mild mannered young man who entices you to part with your soul, in this case, in return for bringing your media department into the modern age via a contraption to which the episode, entitled “The Monolith,” may owe its name).     Perhaps the “soul” of the creative department is being sucked out of the office in favor of a soulless machine.   Whatever the motivation for Don to go into his devil riff, it’s pretty much of a turn-off to Lloyd, which is too bad, because unlike the Hershey’s pitch at the end of last year that was Don’s undoing, Don had earlier made a pretty great case for how advertising could help Lloyd’s business.

 

If the question the direction Matt Weiner is taking Mad Men is an open issue, I’d say the question of where he’s taking Peggy’s character is a puzzle as well. Peggy continues to wallow in her personal unhappiness and her cynicism about her new boss, although the additional hundred large a week does at least give her a momentary boost.   The astonishing lack of sensitivity that she displays in dealing with Don, coupled with her inability to articulate a strategy for the Burger Chef campaign, does remind the viewer that for all her strengths, she’s still a relative novice as a manager, and her touch is far from deft.   Making Don come into her office, rather than at least showing her former boss and mentor the courtesy of visiting his, struck me as a particularly immature and vindictive thing to do.   Perhaps a better run organization might have provided Peggy with a bit of management skills training before sending her out into the wild without a compass to try to supervise Don Draper.

 

One Mad Men character who is settling into his environment in great style is Pete Campbell, once the quintessential denizen of Manhattan and now totally enthralled with the West Coast and fantastic LA, as the Doors would call it. And, Pete’s LA woman is pretty taken with him, especially when he’s talking business with a once and future client (the guy from Burger Chef, who the beautiful Bonnie Whiteside thinks is checking her out, when actually he’s staring at Pete).   As mentioned in a previous post, Bonnie is at her most sensual when she is either talking business or watching business conducted, and it’s interesting that Pete seems to have got that figured out by the time the scene shifts to New York.     If I’m right, the Pete-Bonnie coupling is not going to be long for this world or series, unless, perhaps, the devil intercedes.   If we next see Lloyd in Los Angeles, we’ll know that something’s up.

 

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Harlan R. Teller