Sweater Manifesto

A blog about American zeitgeist and other things.

Category: Mad Men Musings

California Dreamin—Going West the Default Option in Mad Men’s Season Six Finale

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The last episode of the season of Mad Men finds a number of central characters seeking a new start and a new life in the City of Angels.   Los Angeles may be “Detroit with palm trees”, in the words of Don Draper (a useful line at the time to get Stan off his back about relocating there), but with the Sunkist account providing the prospect of an anchor client for the firm, it’s time to heed the words of Horace Greeley a century earlier and “go west”.

For Don, it’s an opportunity to give up the bottle and rekindle his flagging relationship with Megan, while reliving the moments when things were still young in their relationship and the possibility of happiness with the younger woman was palpable.   For Ted, it’s a way out of a relationship that will destroy his family, and lead him down the path that has made his nemesis, Don, such a sad basket case.   For Pete, it’s the means of starting over, and getting away from an increasingly manipulative and malevolent Bob Benson (yes, that Bob Benson- the fallen Christ figure who’s beginning to look like Jesus’ opposite, literally killing Pete’s chances of a successful tenure as lead on the Chevy account by suckering the notoriously awful driver into getting behind the wheel of a stick shift Camaro, with embarrassing and career deflating results.  Not to mention his shaky choice of friends– at the very least his pal Manolo has married Pete’s mother for her money, and at the worst, has thrown her overboard during a honeymoon cruise as shark bait to hasten the collection of said money).

Don Draper’s noblest gesture- allowing a stricken, panicked Ted to go out to LA with his family in his place in order to save his rival’s marriage- may ironically have destroyed his own marriage while sending Megan to Hollywood stardom.    Don pleads for understanding from a fed up Megan when he breaks the news to her that LA is no longer part of the plan, and she notes that she has all kinds of meetings with producers already lined up, implying that she’s moving with or without him.    Chalk this up as an ingenious plot device hatched from the fertile brain of Matthew Weiner in order to send Megan to what we’ve thought all along was her manifest destiny.   It’s Don’s idea, but she acts on it by getting herself written off her soap opera, and he’s likely left behind, temporarily or perhaps for good, his vision of a “bicoastal” relationship notwithstanding.  Last year, it was Don walking off the set of Megan’s commercial breakthrough and back to his former ways; this year, it’s Megan walking out the door toward a new life, leaving Don to contemplate what’s next for him.    Whether he intends to win her back or go it alone is left tantalizingly unsaid.

The plot is propelled by Don’s belated but real recognition that he has a drinking problem, when he wakes up in the drunk tank after having punched a preacher who had the misfortune of looking to save souls in the wrong bar, engaging Don in a conversation that harkened back to—what else? —a distasteful episode with a preacher in his former life as Dick Whitman.     Don being Don, thinks that pouring some booze down the sink and moving to California are the only things he needs to do to avoid the DTs.   But as he finds during his pitch to the Hershey’s people, it’s not that easy.

About that Hershey’s chocolate presentation—when a lot of the dust settles from this season, and scenes are argued about for their seminal importance, Don’s true confession about his upbringing in a whore house and what a Hershey’s bar really meant to him (as he calls it “the only sweet thing” in his life) is sure to take on a life of its own as a mini-classic.    It has the emotional resonance of the Carousel pitch from year one, and while Harry Crane wasn’t there to run out of the room in tears, there were no doubt a lot of moist eyes across America watching as Don, channeling the young Dick Whitman, having run out of places to hide and literally spent and dissipated from his lifetime of deceit, unspools the most nakedly honest two minutes of his life in front of total strangers and aghast (and at least in Ted’s case sympathetic) colleagues.   The Carousel pitch was about the “ache of nostalgia” for a simpler time when life was better or more fully realized.  The Hershey’s confessional was about the ache of a scorned young boy searching for something- anything- that would bring him recompense for the rejection he felt every day just by living.     In this scene as in others in this excellent season finale, Jon Hamm has reached for something extra in taking his characterization- and character- to a new level of complexity and richness.   This scene is Matt Weiner’s gift to Hamm and the one that will surely resonate with Emmy voters.

What makes the scene more resonant and ingenious is the reaction the partners have to watching essentially a train wreck unfold before their eyes.   It reminds viewers of how much of the show still rides on the formidable coattails of Hamm, and how often the scenes around the conference room table hinge on the reaction shots of others to his verbal wizardry.   You can see the minds of the old pros Sterling and Cutler (the great John Slattery and the career resurgent Harry Hamlin) spinning, trying to figure out how to weave an acceptable narrative out of Don’s behavior that will keep the meeting from ending in disaster.    You can also see Ted—who may at this point understand Don better than anyone—change his aspect from tortured resignation at the impending implosion of his life to concern and sympathy for Don’s plight.   It is noteworthy that in the penultimate scene of the season, when the partners convene to give Don his temporary walking papers, it is Ted who is elsewhere, perhaps too respectful to be present for Don’s humiliation.

Ted’s crisis is in the form of a beguiling Peggy Olson, who vamps it up in a short, suggestive outfit that clearly is meant to turn Ted’s head and turn on his libido.  And it works—Ted confronts Peggy at her apartment at the end of her date, confesses his love for her and promises her that he intends to leave his wife and start a new life with her.   Since this is Peggy, and her taste and track record with men is ridiculously bad, we have a sense that this is not going to end well, and it doesn’t, with Ted giving her the prototypical “you’ll thank me one day” speech while breaking her heart.   Ted has been the anti-Don all year, and while his behavior with Peggy is Don-like, he really doesn’t have it in him to cheat, lie and break up his family.   We can see that as he slinks into bed with his wife after betraying her, showing her the kind of tenderness and affection that men about to leave their wives generally do not display.   He knows that leaving his wife will destroy a good part of what make him who he is, and so he stops himself at the brink.   What booze is to Don, Peggy is to Ted, and so the two men are looking to go west to avoid the very thing they believe will kill them.  And in a display of selflessness that would have been unheard of before this episode, Don gives Ted what he wants.     As Don says to Dawn on his way out the door, “have a great Thanksgiving, sweetheart”, and he essentially has said the same thing to Ted a few minutes before when telling him that he’s stepping back from his LA adventure in favor of Ted.

Ironically, the move to Los Angeles is considered a “demotion” when Don suggests that he go out there instead of a more junior person, like the eager Stan, who lobbies him for the role at the beginning of the episode.   The partners still see LA as the boondocks and don’t really get the attraction.  What they do know is that they love the Sunkist business, and Sunkist has insisted on an LA presence.    Sometimes it’s not great business decision-making but sheer luck- or an insistent client- that turns a decision of necessity into a great decision.    And, there’s no doubt that with so much economic activity shifting to the West Coast well into the seventies, this promises to be a great move for the firm, especially with the earnest Ted Chaough, newly recommitted to his marriage and his children, at the helm of the enterprise.

Thanksgiving is a mixed bag for Roger, as Joanie allows him to participate in Kevin’s life, but at the price of watching the ubiquitous Benson taking on the head of household role by carving up the turkey.   Benson, now thoroughly revealed to be a manipulator at a world class level, turns the knife a bit into Roger’s gut, by noting that Joanie’s mom went out and had her hair done for him, as if it’s only Gail and not Joan who would be attracted to a geezer like him.

And in a subtle surprise, Thanksgiving is the day that Pete says goodbye to Trudy and his daughter Tammy, to venture out to Los Angeles, ostensibly on his own.    Pete has always been a bit ahead of the game when it comes to where the ad business is going, so perhaps he’s the one SCP person going out there for the right reasons, rather than to get away from or get cured of something.   Carving a turkey for Benson seems appropriate, given how adroitly he carved Pete out of Chevy and perhaps out of the agency for good.     The havoc Benson may be able to cause, given his increasingly iron grip on the Chevy account, is only hinted at, but it’s likely that his guile and amorality will play a significant role in the final season.

The episode’s name, “In Care Of”, comes from the letter from the government requesting Sally Draper’s testimony about the intruder, Grandma Ida, from the past episode.   The irony is that Sally is beyond Don’s care, and charting her own Don-like course as the new scourge of Miss Porter’s.   In a “like father, like daughter” move, Sally uses the alias “Beth Francis” to score some beers and entice her classmates into getting drunk with her.   Unlike her dad, who has gotten away with this behavior for far too long, there are immediate consequences, starting with being suspended from school.    The suspension is yet another signpost along the way that reveals to Don that a new path for his imploding life is called for.

For those who see Peggy Olson as the female Draper, there’s a huge payoff at the end of the episode, as the firm that Don conceived is left essentially in her care.   Peggy, tossed aside by Ted and left again alone with only her work to occupy her, is last seen sitting in Don’s office, feeling her mentor’s vibe, perhaps only a small consolation for the love that she has lost again.

So much of Mad Men’s power are the echoes and reverberations from previous episodes and years.  Three years ago, in “Shut the Door, Have a Seat”, it was Don calling the shots, leading the conspiracy that led to the formation of the new firm. In this episode, it was Don taking a seat, as the partnership administered the tough love that at one point—with a Don at the height of his charismatic and creative powers– would have been unheard of.  A subtle irony is that Bert Cooper (the reliably excellent Robert Morse), essentially background noise for much of the year, reasserts himself and takes the lead, much as he did years ago in a more encouraging time, when he first urges Don to take his seat at the table of New York movers and shakers.   Don Draper, the indispensable ad man, is told by the firm’s oldest name partner to go home and not come back until the partners are good and ready to see him again.   In a way, it was Draper’s sheer audacity and innovativeness that emboldened the SCP partners to do away with him, as through the merger he had conceived he bought himself additional management firepower in Ted Chaough and Jim Cutler. The irony of Duck Phillips coming back inside with a job candidate while Don is going down, is a bit heavy handed but appropriate, and Don takes his comeuppance grimly albeit gracefully.

This is the resignation of a man who knows he has a mountain to climb.   What is yet to be seen is whether he decides to take the hike.   The scene with the three Draper kids at the end, where he at last provides the puzzle pieces of himself in a desperate attempt to reconnect not only with the wayward Sally but with his own sad and forlorn past, may be the first step.   Whether it is or not will have to wait for the next and final season of this groundbreaking series.   Season Seven—Bring it on!!

Author’s Note: 

 

  • There’s nothing like kicking a city when it’s down, and Detroit these days is nothing if not down for the count, given the decades of corruption and cupidity that has brought it to the brink of bankruptcy.   For the Mad Men cast, Detroit isn’t a dysfunctional city but a place for dysfunctional clients, and that’s the source of their antipathy—and Bob Benson’s opportunity.   The implication is that among the city’s shortcomings yesterday that led it to where it is today is a case of hubris, borne at a time when it was Motor City and the center of the automotive world.
  • While Don’s “Come to Jesus” moments are more numerous and played for more emotional resonance, the other character who leaves the season in a more hopeful but lonely place is Pete, who is reconciled to his mother’s passing and his failure at Chevy and seemingly is seen striking out on his own in California (although never overtly stated what he plans on doing once he gets there).  Trudy pointedly says that Pete is free not only of his mother, but also “them”, undoubtedly referring to SCP, and the fact that he along with Ted are not present at the partners meeting ejecting Don from management underscores this supposition.  Given how frustrated Pete has become about Don’s antics, if he were still partner he’d want to have a ringside seat for Don’s emasculation, but as he says earlier, he has bigger issues on his mind.  It will be interesting to see where this leaves Vincent Kartheiser in the final season- he has been a worthy foil to Don for all these years, and one can assume we’ll see Pete among the palm trees next season.  He had better learn how to drive proficiently if he intends to stay out there, though.

 

  • One of the loose ends not tied up in this episode is whatever happened to the Avon account.   Joan is still standing and her presence is felt lightly but decisively in the “Don is toast” scene.  So did she get Avon?   It’s not like Weiner to leave a plot point dangling like this, so I’m assuming this will be resolved either overtly or subtly some time next season.  

 

  • Last week, I mentioned that Kevin Rahm, who plays Ted, was not in the opening credits.  I was as wrong as I was about Peggy’s flat being on the West Side rather than the East Side.  For this as well as other small and larger mistakes this year (the use of protégé rather than mentor was a good one), I apologize.   And now I take my leave.  

 

 

Submitted by Harlan R. Teller

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Don the Merciless Reigns Supreme in Mad Men, Season Six, Episode Twelve

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Don Draper as Rosemary’s Baby?    That’s the thought I had watching the ad man crumple into a fetal position after an aggrieved and outraged Peggy Olson, tried beyond her patience by his continued vindictiveness and jealousy about her relationship with Ted Chaough, calls him “a monster.”    Clearly, Peggy’s closeness to Ted brings out Don’s demonic side, and in this episode we’re treated to what petty and petulant lengths Don will go to humiliate Ted and put Peggy back in her place- preferably by his side, as opposed to Ted’s.

When the episode begins, the long-suffering and supernaturally patient wife Megan is reviving a clearly over-served husband the morning after, finding him camped out in the extra bedroom (in and of itself not a good sign for their flagging marriage).  Listless and bored by his life (and his wife) and blocking as best he can his estrangement from his daughter Sally, Don finds something to rouse himself with when he and Megan check out a late afternoon showing of “Rosemary’s Baby”, the cult black comedy phenomenon that made Mia Farrow a star and short hair literally molded to a woman’s scalp the “in” thing among young American women.

On the way out of the theater, Don and Megan run into Ted and Peggy, who have gone to see the movie to ostensibly do some research for a breakthrough TV spot for St. Joseph aspirin for children that parodies the famous final scene of the film.   Clearly uncomfortable at having been caught at the movies by Don and Megan, Ted and Peggy make a hasty retreat, each with separate excuses for not joining the Drapers for dinner- but not before Don’s competitive juices and jealousy kicks in like a balky Jaguar suddenly brought to life.   The last time Don saw Peggy at the movies was when they ran into each other during an afternoon, both seeking creative inspiration.    It was something that Peggy learned from Don- the movies as a creativity igniter- and now she’s sharing the technique with her new mentor and object of affection.

Of all the women that Don has loved, lusted after and seduced, it is finally clear after almost six years of the show’s run that the most important woman in his life is the one he has never known carnally.  Peggy is Don’s alter ego, someone he instinctively feels knows and understands him- someone whose talent he is not too selfish to have recognized, cultivated and promoted.   She is also someone he seeks approval from, as evidenced in the justifiably celebrated episode, “The Suitcase”, when the most important thing in the world to him becomes her endorsement of his “Ali-Liston” Samsonite ad.    He can’t bear the thought that her creative drive and enthusiasm is being channeled, nurtured and cultivated by someone else.   So, he sets out to destroy the bond between Peggy and Ted, and by the end of the episode, an embarrassed Ted treats Peggy like she’s radioactive, and Don has his revenge.  But other than being sweet, it is just another bitter pill that pulls him deeper and deeper inside of himself.

It’s not that Don doesn’t have any justification for taking the action that leads to Ted and Peggy’s extreme discomfort.   Ted and Peggy are literally acting like school kids around their coworkers, taking on the kind of goofy aspect that teenagers have when they are first falling into love.  Virtually everything they say to each other is brilliant and funny, and when brainstorming with the creative staff, they act like there’s no one else in the room, except when Ginsberg suggests a bathroom break.  Ted is smitten not only by Peggy, but by her big idea for the St. Joseph’s campaign, so much so that he’s willing to risk having the agency absorb a huge amount of out of pocket expenses for the concept that he thinks is going to win Peggy a Clio.    Ted figures he can talk the client into spending the extra cash after the fact, but Don scotches that idea by giving the client the heads up about the revised upward budget before they have a chance to shoot the ad.   I’d like to say that what Don did was out of bounds, but in fact it wasn’t.    Spending unauthorized funds on a project isn’t exactly in the account management handbook, and it’s no way to exercise financial responsibility, especially in a relatively small firm.   So on that thread of fiscal justification (which ironically is something in which he has rarely shown the least bit of interest), Don hatches his plan for convincing the client to spend additional dollars on the ad.

He succeeds by making a devil’s bargain—invoking the name of Ted’s partner Frank Gleason to make the sale, claiming to the client (who was clearly fond of Gleason) that it was essentially the dying man’s last idea and his testament to the ad business.    And he makes that outrageous claim while dangling Ted and Peggy over a pit of fire, allowing them to twist slowly enough to feel the heat before springing his particular lie on the client.   There has rarely been a more suspenseful moment in the history of the show than when Don tells the client that for Ted, the commercial was “personal”- looking for all the world like he was about to tell the client that Ted was doing the commercial for Peggy’s love, rather than as a tribute to a dying partner’s final request.     The horror on Ted’s face as he begins to realize the extent of Don’s perfidy and the lengths he will go to mark his territory was certainly as real as anything caused by what’s on the screen during “Rosemary’s Baby”.    So much for that favor Ted did for Mitchell Rosen—for Don that’s yesterday’s news, as is his commitment to play nice in the sandbox with his new partner.   Also forgotten is Don’s promise not to pursue Sunkist, once the orange producer offers to sign on the dotted line for a TV campaign three times the size of Ocean Spray.

If the classics are more to the viewer’s liking than a 60s horror movie, perhaps Don Draper is Shylock.   The title of the episode, “The Quality of Mercy”, is drawn from Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”, and refers to Portia’s eloquent appeal to Shylock to show mercy to her husband.   Don, like Shylock, is intent on getting his pound of flesh, but rather than money, he’s looking to break the back of Ted and Peggy’s relationship, putting Ted in a subservient position to him and reeling Peggy back into his orbit.   It is a merciless mission, and he executes it to perfection.

More merciful- and perhaps craftier—is Pete Campbell, who takes to heart the adage “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”   After learning that the mysterious Bob Benson is, above all things, a complete fraud, he decides to let Benson stay at the firm under his conditions.    It is a sadder and wiser Pete who has learned his lesson from trying to out Don for lying about his own antecedents back in Season One, and all it won him was enmity from Don and a lecture from Bert Cooper.  This time, Pete realizes that the rattled Benson will be willing to do about anything to hang onto his job, and uses that knowledge to maintain control of the situation, deciding to handle Benson as one might a cobra.   This has been a great year for Vincent Kartheiser as Pete, but this episode contains clearly his best and most subtle work of the season.   His admission to Duck that he’s seen Bob’s situation before—an allusion to his knowledge of Don’s real past–is so brilliantly played that he turns a simple sentence into a profound and revelatory moment.  His brief and well-underplayed satisfaction at the bargain he has struck from the overmatched Benson strikes just the right balance between relief and joy.  In this episode, Kartheiser milks every potential drop of sympathy for a character that is always complex but very hard to root for.

So, the mystery of Bob Benson is solved.  He may be gay, or may have been using subtle signals as a misdirection play in an attempt to gull Pete into intemperance and self-destruction (which means that I’m sticking with my initial take on this last week that the jury is still out).   He is not a spy, or a counterculture mole digging up dirt on the manipulations of the ad business, or doing an Abe-style expose on the excesses of capitalism.   He’s not- as I perhaps alone have speculated—some kind of Christ figure that has mysteriously landed among their midst to support staffers in times of crisis and preach a self-help gospel.   He’s not Don Draper’s illegitimate child, as some blogs have speculated, but he is in a sense a Draper descendant, someone who has recreated his past in order to shape his future, albeit perhaps more manipulative and calculating than Don in making that future happen.    The battle of wills between Kartheiser as Pete and the impressive James Wolk as Benson- and the subtle slippage of the Benson mask as Pete learns more about him—is one of the most satisfying features of this impressive penultimate episode.

Always impressive as well is Kiernan Shipka as Sally, who decides that her revenge on her father will be to burn up a bunch of his money on Miss Porter’s, one of the most exclusive boarding schools on the East Coast.   Sally’s guileless guile serves her well, as she passes a test from her hazing-obsessed prospective classmates by luring her lifetime pal Glen (now looking leaner and longer in his later teen years) to campus, complete with booze, reefer, cigarettes and a truly creepy friend who’s looking for a make out session with our heroine.   Sally plays the situation for all it’s worth, and learns a valuable lesson about the usefulness of the “damsel in distress” card.    While she doesn’t want to give Don credit for anything in her life at this point, her talent for subtle manipulation comes from her dear old dad.   I still think that Sally has a thing for Glen, and his Sir Galahad routine, somewhat unexpected but truly poignant, solidifies her regard for him and demonstrates her ability to bend situations to her will.   She’s a Draper, whether she stays beyond the reach of her father or not.

This is a season in which some of the strongest and most welcome performances have come from subsidiary players, as opposed to the main cast.   Alison Brie, Linda Cardellini, Harry Hamlin, James Wolk and to a lesser but immensely entertaining extent Julia Ormond have lifted and enriched their material and crafted indelible characters throughout the year.    But this episode was for the big guys and gals, and they come up big.    And I include in this circle Kevin Rahm as Ted, who while still not in the upfront credits has become a huge factor in the show.    His reaction to Don’s spiel to the St. Joseph’s client struck the appropriate balance of shock and horror, and his confrontation that follows makes it clear that while able to mix it up with Don he knows full well he has been wounded and compromised.   The mortification is written on his face, as he has given the hypocritical Draper the opening to take the moral high road about putting the needs of the business above personal feelings.   It’s a sad moment, and Rahm plays it with the right amount of humility and resignation.

But the whole show this week—and perhaps the series as well—comes down to Don and Peggy and the battle of wills between these two strong minded, supremely talented and ultimately flawed characters.    Don and Peggy…Peggy and Don.   Who knew when she was first introduced to Don as his naïve, raw and green secretary that she would one day be more than a match for her charismatic Alpha male boss?   It may be the ultimate genius of Mad Men, that she is all of that, and then some, and that we thoroughly believe it.   The last scene is Peggy as Portia, grieving at the harm that Don has caused Ted, and she brings all of the moral outrage, eloquence and ferocious loyalty that she can muster to the task.   She knows that by scampering home and away from her that Ted has conceded to Don and perhaps given the tormented Draper a bit of his flesh in the bargain.    She may not get what she wants from her passionate diatribe, but what she misses after her departure is that she has reduced Don to a fetal state.   These are bravura, “bet the ranch” performances by two great actors at the very pinnacle of their game, and if the Emmy voters deny Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss their awards yet again this season, it will be at the risk of their own credibility.    It doesn’t get any better than this.

Submitted by Harlan R. Teller

 

Author’s Note:  I’m sure there will be much ado this week about the clever reenactment of the St. Joseph’s ad for Don’s edification and approval.   For me, the entire bit was worth listening to Jon Hamm channel a crying baby and the sight of Christina Hendricks as Joan role-playing a Jewish mother prescribing chicken soup- a truly inspired bit of business.   But the real question is what Peggy is symbolically doing by offering the hypothetical aspirin to a Don who has been thoroughly distracted by the simple physical gesture of Ted’s placing his hands on Peggy’s hips.   Is Peggy offering Don a sacrament to assuage his tortured soul, or is she the mother that he never had, ministering to him in a way he has never experienced?   Yet another example of how comfortable these two consummate pros feel in the skins of these characters, and the layers of meaning they can convey from such simple gestures and looks. 

One Door Opens, Another Slams Shut in Mad Men Season Six, Episode Eleven

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My favorite band of the sixties was The Doors, fronted by legendary front man Jim Morrison and his brilliant accomplice, the recently departed keyboard genius Ray Manzarek, who kept the flame of the renegade band alive for more than four decades.  The name of the band came from a line from William Blake, referencing the doors of perception, which ostensibly would open up when listening to The Doors’ moody mix of extraterrestrial rock and roll, punctuated by the sultry, evocative voice of the mercurial Morrison, who died from a heart attack (and failed liver) at the ripe age of 27 in Paris in July 1971.     In July of 1968, The Doors– at the top of their creative powers and one of the most popular and revered bands on the face of the earth, released “Waiting for the Sun”, the band’s only album that ever reached #1 on the charts.  The album included one of their most famous–and overtly political–songs, “The Unknown Soldier”, a searing and controversial exploration into the heart of darkness known as the Vietnam War.

It turns out that Sally Draper doesn’t need William Blake– or Jim Morrison, for that matter– to open doors of perception at her tender age of 13; a regular, garden variety door will do. Last year as a tweener, she opened a door that found Roger Sterling and Marie Calvet in flagrante, which was tough enough to handle and certainly enough to ensure that young lady a lifetime of therapy.  But this week, another door opened that provided a bit too much clarity about her philandering father–with potentially tragic consequences to follow.

Her break-in to the Rosen household found her dad collecting on a favor from an old friend– the sensual Sylvia Rosen, her passion for the nonpareil ad man suddenly reignited by Don’s initiative to rescue her sullen, idealistic son from a potentially fatal excursion to Vietnam.   Mitchell Rosen, looking and dressed like a Jewish Morrison, all sullenness and attitude encapsulated in puffy shirt and bellbottoms, stole the heart of the susceptible Sally in an earlier and very brief encounter in the lobby of Don’s coop building, and she was trying to retrieve a missive her mischievous girlfriend Julie had left for the young man that catalogued the extent of Sally’s puppy love.   Sally uses a ruse to con the doorman out of the Rosen’s apartment keys, and while she’s trying to retrieve the letter, she espies her father reunited in a coital embrace with Mitchell’s mom.   Sally’s reaction is shock, horror and betrayal, while Sylvia’s is guilt and humiliation.  Don’s reaction is to try to figure out a way to spin it so that what looked like sex was simply a means of his “comforting” Mrs. Rosen.   As Don says to Sally through a door that stays closed to him, “it’s complicated.”   I’ll say.

What’s complicated is the tangled web of deceit and lies that Don has woven in a desperate attempt to recreate himself.  And, now, as the result of a favor that he does for the Rosen family- courtesy of a favor done for him by his partner and rival Ted Chaough (in return for Don’s granting Ted the favor of keeping his finger off the self-destruct button around his clients), that web finally seems to be unraveling.   Who says that no good deed goes unpunished?

“Favors”, the eleventh installment of this astonishing season of the celebrated dramatic series, is ostensibly about the favor that Don does for a stricken Arnold Rosen in helping to get his son out of the draft, after Mitchell, in a youthful burst of idealism and idiocy, tears up his draft card and is reclassified as 1A.    But it’s really about parents and their children- what makes their relationships tick, the subtle indignities that each party heaps on the other, and the lengths we will go to keep our kids out of harm’s way, even when we’d like to lock them up in the basement and throw away the key.

Pete, acting as “parent” to his own dementia-afflicted mother, finds out that she didn’t really like him any more than the rest of us do when he was growing up, even as he struggles to try to take care of her and pull her away from the clutches of a male nurse that takes his role as a companion to the addled parent perhaps a bit too literally.   Betty, knowing she’s losing control of her intemperate oldest child, and struggling to maintain some semblance of parental authority as Sally heads to Don’s flat for some early teen adventure.   Peggy, reminded about the child she gave away, when Pete’s mother in her confused state mistakes her for Trudy (Elizabeth Moss’ range in this scene, as she migrates from shock and horror to the recognition that the old woman isn’t really talking about her at all, is truly vast).   Ted, tempted by his attraction to Peggy, ultimately resolving to remain committed to a woman with whom he seems to have virtually no relationship with, because of the love of his two boys.  Sylvia and Arnold, clearly angry with their son yet frantic to keep him out of the war, are willing to do whatever is necessary to save him from the consequences of his own precipitate and immature actions.    And Don, recognizing his own terror in Korea and his decision to recreate his life in order to escape from the carnage and potential death, thinks of his own underage children and is moved to find a ruse for keeping the Rosen child from having to endure a war that he finds repellent and unnecessary.

The final shot of the show is of Don walking dejectedly back to his bedroom after failing to reach Sally with his “this is adult stuff that you don’t understand” BS, firmly closing the door to his daughter and puzzled wife and no doubt working his way toward a stratagem that will get him through another day.   At this point, what’s Sally to believe–her enigmatic father or her own lying eyes?   Even at thirteen, it’s not hard to figure out what’s going on (the younger Dick Whitman certainly knew the score when peeping in on one of his stepmother’s sessions with one of Uncle Mac’s clients).    One door opens–a door to perception–and another door closes, and we’re left to consider the potential wreckage to Don’s marriage, not to mention any kind of future relationship with his children.

And we find that perhaps the only person left in Pete’s life who is willing to provide him with unconditional love is the enigmatic Bob Benson, who in a truly creepy scene tries to talk Pete out of firing Manolo Colon for ostensibly servicing his mother’s carnal needs while implying that his own feelings for Pete may be not merely Platonic.   Last week Ginsberg, who has no filter and sometimes can be unwittingly perceptive, asked Bob if he were gay.   This week, Bob seems threateningly close to making a pass at Pete; but then again, perhaps it’s just a physical closeness meant to try to reach Pete in a more profound and convincing way than otherwise possible.  So, is Bob the reincarnation of the ill-fated Salvatore Romano, or is this a total misdirection play on the part of Matt Weiner, who wants us to assume that appearances are reality when they’re really not.   Either way, James Wolk as the ubiquitous Benson continues to keep us guessing in a performance has us engaged every moment he’s on the screen, keeping his performance along the surface of Benson without revealing the psyche underneath.

What is most tragic about the episode is that we see a selfless side of the Draper persona in this episode- whether he’s thinking about his own terror in Korea or fear for his underage sons or perhaps the more deeply embedded need to be a worthy friend to a man that he no doubt admires (but has shamelessly cuckolded), there’s no doubt that Don goes out of his way to help Mitchell avoid Vietnam.  When he calls the Rosen household to tell Arnold the good news- that Ted has gotten him a gig as a pilot in training- he has no intention of reigniting his relationship with the tempestuous Sylvia.   But when Sylvia, in a fit of motherly gratitude and misplaced remorse for the way she’s treated Don welcomes him back to her bed, Don’s egotism and self-indulgence gets the best of him as usual, ensuring that his one good deed will certainly not go unpunished.

Submitted by Harlan R. Teller

Author’s Note:

  • Did everyone else enjoy hearing Ted call Don an “asshole” as much as I did?  Ted is the one person in Don’s life who is willing to confront him with uncomfortable truths, and call him out on his childish and self-destructive behavior.   Increasingly, Ted is the anti-Don– tempted by Peggy, he remains the constant albeit miserable family man, while Don’s recklessness continues to threaten his life, career and marriage.  Ted is as ambitious as Don, if not more so, but he speaks in team-oriented language and looks holistically at the business, while Don focuses on himself and what matters to him.   Even Don’s attempt to generate a discussion of the war with the Chevy execs at dinner, while ostensibly about Mitchell’s predicament, is an exercise in self-indulgence, as it jeopardizes the firm’s relationship with its largest client.  Any rational assessment of Sterling Cooper & Partners has to have Ted’s arrow going up while Don’s is going down- way down.
  • I find it particularly rich that given the many women that Don has taken advantage of and betrayed, Sylvia feels guilty about her treatment of Don.  In essence, Sylvia has become the “Don” in their relationship, with the added element of sporadic Catholic guilt.   Turnabout is fair play, and given that this episode gave us another helping of Linda Cardellini’s compelling portrayal of Sylvia, perhaps that’s a good thing.
  • The conversation about conflicts hit close to my home, as it is one of the key issues any agency has to navigate, especially a smaller one like Sterling Cooper, where the principals are frantic to build critical mass.  We all become attached to our own clients– it’s not a Draper phenomenon.   What’s most interesting is that Pete has seemingly swung over to the Chaough/Cutler “team” by taking over Ocean Spray, and seems happier than when he was carrying water for Don.  This may have a longer-term impact on the agency balance of power.  Time will tell.
  • And will someone give Peggy the phone number for the Orkin man??  They had been in business for 67 years by the time this episode is supposed to take place.   At this point it’s probably a better option than offering sexual favors to your pal Stan.

Across the Great Divide- The Political Becomes Personal in Mad Men, Season Six, Episode Ten

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The anti-war demonstrations at the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968 form the backdrop for more intimate albeit less physically dangerous conflicts among the Mad Men cast.  The conflict between the demonstrators and Chicago police are mirrored in numerous ways throughout the episode- doves versus hawks, baby boomers versus the Greatest Generation, Democrats versus Republicans, intense New Yorkers versus laid back Los Angelinos, and closer to home, Joan versus Pete, who sees Joan’s involvement in cultivating a relationship with the new marketing director at Avon as yet another encroachment on his turf and diminution of his role at the firm.

The demonstrations and subsequent physical confrontation in Chicago—later termed a “police riot” in the Walker Commission report– is an allegory for the internal conflicts- both personal and political, happening at the merged advertising firm that at the beginning of the episode is still searching for an identity and struggling to migrate from an “us versus them” to a “we” mentality.  The opening scene at the office is almost a tutorial on the need for merger integration and branding expertise, with Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin, continuing to impress) noting that if the firm doesn’t define itself,  “the world will do it for us”.

While the John Slattery-helmed episode is called “A Tale of Two Cities”, reflecting yet another sensual and surreal Don Draper excursion into the foreign country known as the West Coast, it is really a tale of two agencies- the successful one being run by Ted Chaough and an increasingly Machiavellian Cutler versus the fraying-at-the-edges one being at least nominally helmed by a distracted Don Draper and his own Silver Fox sidekick (more silver but perhaps less sly), Roger Sterling.   The divide becomes so pronounced that Ted needs to rein in his older, affronted partner from keeping him from staging a palace coup while Don, Roger and Harry are on the West Coast.   By the end, however, the one consensus builder in the group, Ted Chaough, lands on an elegant solution to the firm’s identity (Sterling Cooper and Partners, which eliminates both he and Don from the firm’s business cards), while demonstrating once again that he’s the one partner capable and wiling to play the long game.

Unless you’re a big Betty and Henry fan (come on, admit it–you’re not), this episode had something for everyone- an increasingly assertive yet still-enigmatic Bob Benson, who provides a Tony Robbins-style pep talk for an internally-riven Michael Ginsberg, the volatile young copywriter experiencing near-paralysis at his guilt over participating in a presentation at Manischewitz; an all-female team (Joan and Peggy) pitching the firm over a business breakfast (ironically to the male marketing director of Avon); a beautifully realized moment where Joan, at home at night folding baby clothes, realizes what she’s looking at on television and is moved to tears, contemplating the world gone mad that her son may be inheriting; and  a brilliantly shot scene where Don and Megan on the phone are watching the riots at the same time across the continent, commiserating with each other while each tells the other exactly what they need to hear (an interesting counterpoint to the Bobby Kennedy assassination scene two episodes back, where the Drapers were physically together but worlds apart).

But the scene that I’m sure will be burning up the blogosphere over the next week are not any of those, as well developed as they were.   And, no, it’s not the great final scene where a stressed-out, outraged Pete, his protests about Joanie’s behavior deflected by first Ted and then Don, retreats to the creatives’ inner sanctum, snatches a joint from Stan’s lips and, surrendering to the “que sera” vibe around him, begins to toke up.  (Whether the joint will lead to Pete’s growing a beard to accompany those long sideburns, or at least mellows him out enough to stop considering any meeting called without him a personal affront, will no doubt garner some speculation.)

What is going to make the biggest impact, however, is the ominous, foreboding climax of the great set of scenes in LA, when Don, once again under the influence of mind-altering drugs (hashish the drug of choice in this case) hallucinates the presence of Megan–her long, flowing raven hair parted in the middle and looking mind-bendingly beautiful as a flower child–who just happens to catch Don in mid-seduction with a spaced out blonde.   Megan tells Don that she’s quit her job to devote more time to him, and has no problem sharing him with the rest of the female population, because, let’s face it, we’re in LA.  Then beatifically smiling at him, she rubs her belly, signifying that she’s pregnant, telling him that they now have a “second chance”- perhaps referring to the miscarriage from earlier in the season, or the opportunity to recommit to each other and save their tottering marriage.   Don follows her to the bar, where Megan disappears.  In her place is the GI from the first episode who was shipping off to Vietnam after marrying in Hawaii.   His right arm has been amputated and he tells Don that he’s dead, and that if Don thinks the GI looks bad as a dead man, he should take a look at himself.    Then, we cut away to Don at the pool, looking in the water at his own floating, lifeless body, when none other than Roger dives into the water, retrieves him and brings him back to life.

For those who are buying into the premise that rather than All My Children’s femme fatale Erica Kane, Megan’s character is actually modeled after Sharon Tate, the ingénue actress and star of Valley of the Dolls who was brutally murdered at husband Roman Polanski’s home in Benedict Canyon almost exactly one year later (while pregnant with Polanski’s child) by the Charles Manson family, this scene is your “tell.”  Polanski urged Tate to live a hippie lifestyle, and her motto was said to be “live and let live”, which would explain why Megan was so copacetic about finding Don in a clinch with another woman.   Also, a lot of strange people evidently kept coming in and out of the Benedict Canyon mansion, in much the same way that strangers and former lovers- real and imagined- seem to find their way into the unlocked Draper flat.

For others who have believed that Don’s steady personality disintegration and obsession with death this season would lead to his own, there’s ample evidence of that, as well.  But one thing is for certain- there is nothing the least bit benign about this scene, and unless Matt Weiner is just messing with our heads, something disquieting this way comes.   Don had also imagined seeing Betty in his first trip to the Coast, but that was for just a moment, and his reverie was interrupted by his encounter with the appropriately named Joy.   This time, there is something so spooky and off-kilter about his conjuring up of Megan- and the juxtaposition of Megan’s appearance with the dead soldier–that the scene has the unmistakable air of tragedy wafting over it.    Remember Megan’s horror earlier in the episode while watching the Chicago riots- at one point, she says, “all it takes is for one blow to the skull to land to change your life forever.”   Keep in mind that, like the kid in “The Sixth Sense”, Don does see dead people- Anna Draper and Adam Whitman have appeared to him in other altered states.  Are we to believe that the young GI has been a casualty of war, and if so, what are we to think of Megan’s appearance, or of Don himself, face down in a California swimming pool?

One plot line that lives on is Joan’s continuing sense of guilt for sleeping her way to her partnership, and her continuing attempts to show that she’s more than a coolly efficient administrator and truly deserving of her partnership status.    Joanie cuts Pete out of a follow up meeting with the Avon exec, after a typically condescending Pete tells her in essence that she shouldn’t worry her pretty little head (and killer body) over the next steps with the client- that he has things under control and she can get back to her real job.    Christina Hendricks, always exceptional, may have done her best work yet in this episode, especially in the penultimate scene in the show, where we see her famous self-control begin to slip while sitting with perfect posture and hands clasped in front of Ted and Pete as they tear into her- then struggling to reassert her sense of poise when Peggy figures out how to get her out of the room.   Peggy invented a ruse to save Joan- a fictitious phone call from the Avon client- that reaffirms the somewhat frayed bond between the two women.   Both earlier had seen the other as having received favored treatment from powerful men as a means of succeeding, and their resentments flared.    For a moment, at least their conflict receded a bit in a show of female solidarity.   We can’t say the same for the other agency principals- or the country, for that matter.

Submitted by Harlan R. Teller

 

Writer’s Note: This episode was the most overtly political of the show’s entire run, and featured a truly searing confrontation between Air Force Veteran Jim Cutler and Michael Ginsberg over the war- the older man calling the younger one a hypocrite for taking a salary for working on Dow Chemical, and the younger man calling Cutler a fascist who only cares about business- all in response to Ginsberg’s frustration over the Democrats not putting a peace plank in their convention platform.   While much of Hollywood, including Weiner, veers to the left- and some of this is baked in the creative cake of much movie and TV fare– I find Mad Men to be remarkably even keeled and intellectually honest about the politics of the day and the grievances and fears that divided the country.   Other than one gratuitous swipe last year (when Henry Francis calls George Romney- Mitt’s father- a “lightweight”, clearly meant as a commentary on the younger Romney), Weiner tends to show a more morally and politically complicated world.  For example, while Cutler can be unlikeable, it’s more about his manipulative and egocentric nature, rather than his politics. (In fact, we don’t really know what his politics are—only that he wants to keep them out of the office, which is actually a very good idea).  While the Carnation executive is somewhat of a cartoon cut out of a conservative, with his fear of the Bolsheviks being at the gate and his admiration of “Dutch” Reagan, some of the more annoying characters over the years have been committed leftists like Abe and Roy (Midge’s beatnik boyfriend from Season One whose shallow, formulaic indictments of the ad business Don swats away like flies).    I think Weiner knows that Mad Men fans cut across the political spectrum and is one activity that may truly be considered bi-partisan.   

All Pain and No Gain for Mismatched Lovers in Mad Men, Season Six, Episode Nine

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I have to admit, I’ve never been a fan of Abe’s.   I find his idealism to be an excuse to act smug and superior to others, and his egalitarian impulses borne of the need to lecture his fellow men about their own moral shortcomings.   I never believed he was truly proud of Peggy or understood what she did as advertising professional, nor did he much care about it.   And while Abe would practice what he preached about social injustice to the point that it literally almost killed him, he showed himself to be as graspingly ambitious in his own way as any Mad Man.  Peggy and Abe were as mismatched as they come, and the survival of their relationship over the years was as contrived a plot point as ever hatched from the fertile brain of Matthew Weiner.

But even I could not find a more creative- or invasive- means of severing that struggling relationship than Weiner did in the ironically named “The Better Half”.   In a sense, a terrified Peggy’s accidental stabbing of her nudnik lover was a fatal blow to a relationship that seemed on life support since their moving into the “gentrifying” neighborhood on the lower East side.    And while the blood flows in the ambulance, Abe tells Peggy what he really feels about her- which is she is a timid little flower who works at a job he despises in an industry for which he holds the same contempt as Midge’s lover Beatnik Roy did those many years ago.    But that’s all ok, because her stabbing has given him a great conclusion to some magnum opus that he’s crafting, ostensibly for New York Times magazine.   Well, Abe, good for you- have a great article and a nice life.   Game, set and mismatch is over.

We all hope that Peggy can do better, but given her history with men and the head fake at the end of the show that her recently confessed swain Ted Chaough gives her, we don’t hold much hope.   I’m laying better odds that Peggy is the first female CEO of a major advertising agency than she ever finds real love.   Peggy may be destined to always be the better half.

Meanwhile, another mismatched pair find their way back into bed, the original Mad Men fun couple of Don and Betty.   “Thin Betty” came back in full force with a vengeance in this episode, not only being her imperious, ego-driven (and Grace Kelly-gorgeous) self, but also looking hot enough to ignite the passion of both a major Republican donor and a gas station attendant looking like he’s wandered off the set of “Deliverance”, all in a 24-hour period.   (Of course, just to maintain Weiner-style attention to detail, “Deliverance” was several years later).   The ability of Betty to have men see her through the eyes of other men stimulates the two primary men in her own life- a rejuvenated Henry Francis, who jumps her in the limo after having to watch his donor friend do everything short of giving her the keys to his hotel room, and the suddenly amorous ex-husband Don.

Being out in the woods with a bottle of whiskey and mosquitoes hovering in the air have a bracing effect on both former spouses, but what is most interesting about the Don-Betty seduction scene is that Betty is fully in command (second most interesting is Don’s comparison of having sex to climbing a mountain).      She realizes that she will never hold his attention other than through sex, and so she uses that to get what she wants, which is validation from her original and most coveted lover that she is, indeed, still the desirable debutante that she was when she first met him.  Then, it’s back to reality and Henry, as her better half- whatever that is in the context of Betty- reasserts herself at breakfast with Henry the next morning.

“The Better Half” title is taken from the struggle that Megan is having trying to play a dual role on her soap opera.   She thinks she’s acting like two different people, but evidently not different enough, to the point where she fears she’s actually going to be fired from the show.  Meanwhile, everyone around her is acting like two selves, with the good one warring with the bad.    Arlene lets her inner lesbian out at Megan’s flat, after hearing Megan out and drinking parts of two bottles of wine that she interprets as a come-on rather than a plea for help from the younger woman.   Roger tries to act like a father and grandfather but ends up looking in need of parental supervision himself.  And Don and Ted continue their psychological warfare over dueling creative visions (for margarine, of all things,) finding it hard to put their rivalry aside and focus on those positives that make the two of them great advertising men.

While we wonder whether Pete Campbell even has a better half (and while his true better half, Trudy, continues to be offstage raising their child while Pete copes with his increasingly demented mother), he gets a pep talk that appeals to his better nature from the unsinkable Duck Phillips, back in the saddle and soberly (and successfully) pursuing a career as a headhunter.    Duck advises Pete in a depressingly lit interview at Pete’s sad city pad to get his personal act together, as it will help him give off a much more confident vibe as he searches for options beyond SCDP, etc.    (Great to have the smoothly professional Mark Moses back in the picture, no matter how brief.)

The big loser for the episode other than Peggy (although I think Abe’s exit is addition by subtraction) is Roger, who may be getting his groove back professionally but has let his Peter Pan act burn away any opportunity he may have to lead a normal personal life.   Roger’s rejection by both his daughter and Joan (the former after he ill-advisedly takes his four-year old to the movies to see- what else- “Planet of the Apes”) is appropriate but nonetheless heartbreaking.   We want Roger to be a better father and grandfather, but we know- and they know- that he can’t.

We’re perhaps less surprised than Roger to see the ubiquitous Bob Benson showing up at Joanie’s in his shorts for a trip to the beach, but while the two of them seem to be together, Bob shows none of the manly swagger that one would assume he’d take on if he and Joan were really an item.    Both of Bob’s halves just might be good, and we’re simply not yet buying it, continuing to believe there is a hidden agenda behind his do-gooding.    Credit James Wolk for creating a persona for Bob in which the text seems to be the subtext, unless it’s not– most brilliantly played in the scene with Pete, when he recommends a nurse for Pete’s mother and looks for all the world like he cares for Pete in a thoroughly unadulterated way.  It may be a while before we find out whether Bob is the realization of our ideals or justification for our cynicism.      But one thing seems apparent, and that is that Joan and Bob are a serious mismatch, especially with him in those shorts.

The irony is that the one person who is actually supposed to be playing two roles is really the most unitary character in the show.  Megan has been much maligned by other reviewers, but I believe that Jessica Pare has found the right tone for her character and has stuck to it steadfastly for the entire year, and in this episode it has paid off.   Megan is a fully realized person trying to bear her problems with equanimity and consistency.   She loves her job and loves her man, and is trying to balance each successfully.     There’s no better or worse half to Megan, and that’s what makes it so very difficult for her to play those two distinct roles.

Megan doesn’t give in to Arlene’s advances, even if it means that she gets fired.   She confronts Don when he comes home from camp when it would be easier to go with the flow and take advantage of his momentary tenderness.    Megan knows he’s been gone, because as she says plaintively to him, “I’m here.”     The question is at the end of the scene with Don (which Jon Hamm pulls off with enough ambiguity to make us wonder), does Don realize that Megan is his better half?

At the end of the episode, Peggy is in the same spot she was in at the beginning, wedged between two mercurial protégés, in some ways the two halves of her own personality, but cut adrift from a failed relationship and uncertain of her future.    The closing of Don’s and Ted’s doors leaves Peggy symbolically exposed, but perhaps in better position than ever to chart her own course and be her own person.    It’s Peggy time, and not a moment too soon.

Submitted by Harlan R. Teller

Don and Ted’s Excellent Adventure Takes a Sadistic Turn in Mad Men, Season Six, Episode Seven

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In the midst of the semi-organized chaos surrounding the merger of SCDP and Gleason Cutler and Chaough, Don Draper’s season-long squeeze Sylvia comes down with a fever- and unlike the famous Saturday Night Live skit, it’s not going to be satisfied by “more cow bell.”   It’s something only our international man of mystery, Don, can satisfy.   Sylvia’s itch becomes Don’s cue to descend into a brand of sadism in the bedroom and the office that was almost painful to watch throughout this episode, otherwise largely about people and relationships in transition.

The world is changing, perhaps too quickly for Don to process.  While clients are reviewed and employees relocated or riffed, he decides to bring order to his life by essentially commanding Sylvia to be his love slave, only existing within the walls of Room 503 at the Sherry Netherland Hotel.  Linda Cardellini, continuing (and perhaps ending) her brilliant work as the guilt ridden yet compliant and complicit lover, treats Don’s commands with a mixture of shock, disbelief and excitement, delirious to be so desired by her lover but at the same time a bit scared about where this turn into the darkness is taking her.   A hot looking red dress from Saks- marking Sylvia as Don’s scarlett woman- does a bit to assuage her concern, but, let’s face it, being locked up in a small hotel room waiting for the man in your life to deign to come around, with no distractions other than the sound of your own thoughts (which run to fury with your husband and motherly concern for your son) can freak out the most ardent lover.   The only thing Don didn’t do was handcuff her to the bed, and I was waiting for that.   By the end of the hour, Sylvia makes a decision that shifts the balance of power between the two and disrupts Don’s equilibrium, perhaps for good.   Plus, she probably avoided the handcuffs, which probably were going to emerge from the Draper repertoire next.

At work, Don moves quickly to mark his territory and show Ted Chaough who came out on top of this “merger of equals”.   While sex is not an option as a weapon on Ted, he uses his other favorite pastime, booze, to subjugate Ted to his will.   As a peace offering after slighting Ted earlier in the day, he comes into Ted’s office with a bottle of scotch and two cocktail glasses–always appropriate in Mad Men world–and he offers to brainstorm with Ted about Fleischman’s margarine.    Predictably, while Ted gets drunker and less able to keep up with our hero, Don becomes more articulate and insightful, ultimately coming up with a fully fleshed out creative concept out of thin air (you can almost taste the pancakes, as Don’s word picture makes margarine seem like a sacrament).    As a coda, Ted staggers into the creative bullpen, and veers far away from the oleo and into conducting a straw poll about who the creatives are supporting in the upcoming election.  Of course, the majority supports Bobby Kennedy, but one staffer’s support of Nixon seems to be the stimulus for Ted to pass out.

The next day, Peggy Olson makes it clear which side of the Don/Ted divide she is on, when the next morning she quietly reads Don the riot act, telling Don that she understands what he’s is up to and she doesn’t appreciate it.    She makes a damning declaration, telling her former mentor that she had hoped that some of Ted would rub off on Don, rather than the other way around.    Then, in a truly audacious turn that would have been unthinkable to the Peggy Olson of old, she intimates that the reason Don merged with Ted’s firm was to get her to come back to SCDP.    Peggy leaves Don with another Draperism that, from the look on Don’s face really stings, when she advises him to “move forward.”   Don has lost the ability to handle Peggy, and his haplessness in sitting still for a brief but scathing lecture from his subordinate is an eloquent counterpoint to his determined domination of his lover, still at the time holed up in Room 503.

This was a revealing episode for the increasingly endearing Ted Chaough, who in ways both small and large reveals a big-hearted sense of humanity that represents a spark of light in an otherwise dark and foreboding episode.   Ted gives up his seat in the staff meeting to a secretary after Pete Campbell imperiously demands that one be brought into the meeting room for him.  He is egalitarian and respectful with the creatives in soliciting ideas for the margarine pitch, while using words like “groovy” and “rap” in a stilted but appreciated effort to connect with them on their level.

And, he is a loyal and encouraging friend to his dying partner, Frank Gleason (Craig Anton, very affecting here as Ted’s source of moral support) sharing a brotherly moment at a hospital bedside, where the dying man provides some excellent career advice about how to handle his new SCDP situation (He counsels Ted to let Don “win the first few rounds”).   Kevin Rahm, who served largely as comic relief as a skittish neighbor on “Desperate Housewives”, does some particularly strong work in this episode, as he continues to subtly reveal deeper layers of Ted’s character, conveying real poignancy in his scene with Gleason.    He is becoming the yin to Don’s yang, and by the end of the episode, you begin to root for him to come out on top and give Don a strong dose of his own medicine.   He begins to do just that when he literally takes the driver’s seat on their harrowing flight to visit the Mohawk people- the tables turn and Ted is in control and knows what’s coming next, while a sweaty, shaken Don beats a terrified retreat into the book that he has purloined from Sylvia.

Speaking of darkness and descent, it becomes painfully clear that Pete is disintegrating before our eyes, increasingly paranoid and hysterical over real and perceived slights and terrified about losing his rightful place as the lead account man in the merged company.  What makes this plot line resonate even more is the parallel descent of his imperious mother, who clearly is suffering from Alzheimer’s or some other mental defect as she still thinks her husband is alive, confuses Judy and Trudy, the two Campbell spouses, and is generally disoriented.   She has such little credibility in Pete’s eyes that by the time she informs him in her scattered way that Robert Kennedy has been killed, Pete thinks she’s referring back to assassination of the president and pays no attention to her.

Another glimmer in the darkness is supplied courtesy of Roger Sterling, who fires Bert Peterson for the second time with such relish that you imagine Roger having Bert for dinner with some fava beans and a good Chi-ant-i.    His obvious joy at the prospect of ridding the newly combined firm of the sycophantic, ineffectual account man is evident in every word that Roger happily utters.     Roger is again a man in full, a major client win under his belt and happy to throw Peterson and his threats of client departures under the bus.

We would have hoped that Don would have reached his limit with Sylvia and been the one to call it quits and try to get his flagging marriage back on track.  But it’s Sylvia, with a well-developed Catholic sense of shame and an increasing concern with the person she was becoming with Don, who tells Don it’s over.    Don returns to his own apartment a defeated man, barely hearing a word Megan tells him while she recommends they go back to Hawaii together (when you’re hearing music that’s drowning out your wife’s voice while she’s telling you excitedly that she wants to cavort in a bathing suit with you in the middle of Paradise, your marriage is clearly in a world of hurt).

Next morning, Megan sits crying and unbelieving about yet another assassination- Bobby Kennedy’s.   Don sits on the bed inches from her but a thousand miles away, grieving not for another dead Kennedy but for the death of another relationship.    That final, brilliantly composed shot tells you all you need to know about where the Draper marriage- and the country- is headed.

Submitted by Harlan R. Teller

 

Author’s Note.  So, what’s with this Bob Benson guy?   Is he just a brown nose who is a nicer, more tolerable version of Pete Campbell, or is he a truly good person thrown into an Alice in Wonderland environment where he’s just trying to be helpful, get along and make his way in the world?   I thought he demonstrated genuine concern with Joanie’s illness, and brilliantly manipulated the crusty nurse who was roadblocking Joan from getting treatment.   Joanie is suspicious, but perhaps her mother is right- sometimes you need to accept acts of kindness for what they are.  Then again, Joanie did save his job- just as she thought he was trying to do in being her knight in shining armor.  Maybe you can be good and do yourself some good at the same time.   I think the jury is still out on the bright, good looking young man.   Then again, perhaps he’s the “Man with a Plan”, in the episode title.  At least one friend of mine thinks his name is going to end up on the door.

And, perhaps I’m looking a bit too closely for connections, but “Reach out in the Darkness”, which closes the episode, was recorded by the now forgotten duo of Friend and Lover.   We know by the close, that Don’s own friend and lover one floor below is gone, probably for good.

Don and Dick “Crash” Into Each Other during Mad Men Season Six, Episode Eight

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While poor Ken Cosgrove is the victim of a real car crash at the beginning of this episode–joy riding with a bunch of mid-level Chevy managers whose idea of fun evidently is torturing advertising client execs–the ultimate collision in “The Crash” happens in Don Draper’s life, as his ability to keep his memories of Dick Whitman at bay literally breaks down and the boundaries between his past and present seem fuzzier and more easily breached than ever before.

Don begins the episode frustrated both personally and professionally- rebuffed by Sylvia after she founds out about his lurking at her back door and angered by General Motors’ bureaucratic inertia in dithering over a new ad campaign for the Chevy that the merged agency came together for and won.   And on top of that, he espies his former protégé, Peggy Olson, sharing a quiet moment consoling a heartbroken Ted Chaough about the death of his friend and partner, Frank Gleason.  And that’s just in the first fifteen minutes.     Shot up with Benzedrine to keep the creative juices flowing, up against a client that doesn’t swoon over his brilliance and cast adrift by his very Draper-like lover, it’s not long before the Dick Whitman flashbacks start appearing like subliminal “popcorn” signs flashing at an old Drive-In movie theatre.

The merging of the professional and personal lives of our protagonist- one of the season’s primary motifs– plays out during one of the most hyperactive episodes of the year and possibly of the show’s entire run.  For those who complain about Mad Men’s leisurely approach to plot development, this episode is Matthew Weiner’s resounding rejoinder.   “The Crash” is essentially Mad Men’s brain on speed, and it is a wild ride.    In one episode, we get the death of a partner, a break-in, a car crash, the introduction of a “Dr. Feelgood”, the reappearance of  “Thin Betty” (who obviously took a couple weeks off the show to get into shape for husband Henry’s political campaign- better looking but still surly and self-righteous), an unrequited pass at Peggy by the increasingly endearing Stan, and a tap dancing Ken Cosgrove, who, while high on speed, does a passable imitation of Donald O’Connor to demonstrate his newly pain- free legs while providing an amusingly painful riff on the life of a client man.   All this, and Dick Whitman loses his virginity, predictably to one of the “hookers with a heart of gold” who inhabit his Uncle Mac’s House of Horrors.

Meanwhile, in the precarious present, the speed-fueled Don is ostensibly working on a new campaign idea for Chevrolet and imploring Ken to get him into the room with the Chevy brass so that he can pitch his ideas in person (making the bizarre assurance that “the timbre of my voice will be as important as the content”).     But that’s not what Don is really up to, as Peggy realizes in a horrifying moment near the end of the show, when Don calls them all into his office to hear his Big Idea.    She realizes- as we have suspected all along- that the idea was not meant for Chevy, but rather for something (or namely someone) else.   For the first time in his career, Don is pitching a woman, and the room he wants access to isn’t a boardroom, but a bedroom.   Ostensibly, the object of this pitch is Sylvia, but it could be any other woman who was ever in his life.    This is Don Draper at his most vulnerable, putting the pitch of his career together to sell himself as deserving of love.   Clearly, the timbre of Don’s voice would be important in that context.

Weiner perhaps could have been subtler about this, as he uses a mysterious young woman (who later turns out to be Gleason’s daughter, finding a somewhat dubious means of coping with loss) as the messenger of this plot point.   She touts herself as a mind reader of sorts, and the question she thinks she hears Don wordlessly asking is “am I worthy of love?”   If that’s not obvious enough, she finds a stethoscope (probably Dr. Feelgood’s but perhaps a reference to Arnold Rosen) and when she puts it up to Don’s heart, she can’t hear anything.  She speculates that it’s broken (the stethoscope, not Don’s heart), but we’re faced with the prospect that it’s actually the latter- Don’s immediate and startled reaction to her remark.   She then propositions Don in that carefree, consequences be damned kind of way that make us baby boomers nostalgic for the sixties (in my case, NOT!), and ends up as the lovelorn Stan’s consolation prize after he strikes out with Peggy.

So what’s the previous creative work Don is looking for that will change his life and bring his lover back to him (while doing nary a thing to help Ken Cosgrove keep those rambunctious ad guys at Chevy from endangering his life again)?   An oatmeal ad with a mother who looks suspiciously like the prostitute who nurses him back to health and introduces him to his manhood—all the way down to a beauty mark on the mother/prostitute’s cheek.    If there were ever any doubt that much of Don’s creative inspiration comes from his own life, that oatmeal ad puts it to rest.    The line is “she knows what you need”, and it’s very much a line that any ad creative type would love- they like to believe that they understand human behavior and what drives wants and needs, and through entertainment, clever messaging and inspiration they can scratch that all-so-human itch like no one else.

During the brainstorm for yet another round of Chevy creative, Peggy utters a line that may be the theme not only for this year but every other year that we’ve watched the tormented Draper run just ahead of the demons on his heels.   She says, “the child is father to the man”, a famous line from William Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” whose premise is that the older we get, the further away from the divine we become, and the more we yearn for that glimpse of divinity we had in childhood.  Although in this context it has an ironic twist, given what we know about the unfortunate and strangely passive Dick Whitman’s childhood.  In this context, it really means that the past for Don Draper is prelude-the manipulations of the people around him as a child; from the kindly prostitute to the physically abusive stepmother- all conspire to create the repressed, insecure adult he has become.   It is the Wordworthian romantic view of nature and man’s role in it stood on its head (who says being an English major doesn’t have its advantages?).

Finally, we can celebrate the timely and welcome return of the precociously talented Kiernan Shipka as Sally to the show, anchoring a truly memorable scene- an exercise in Kabuki theater with an African American thief (a remarkable turn by Davenia McFadden) who has broken into the Draper household, claiming she is the kids’ “Grandma Ida”.   The balance the gifted young actress strikes between credulity and skepticism, and the finely honed balance the older actress deftly strikes between kindness and malice, imbues this scene with real tension.     When the older woman leaves, we breathe more easily.  Not so the negligent father, who when confronted with the aftermath of Sally’s strange adventure, predictably crashes.

Some random questions:

Joanie and Bob sitting in a tree somewhere?   So where is the fun couple (if indeed they are a couple).  They’re nowhere to be found this week.

Longest elevator ride?  We hear neither the timbre of Don’s voice nor the content of his remarks while he and Sylvia take an agonizingly long elevator ride down at the end of the episode.   After coming up with all of those “words of love”, Don is angry, uncomfortable and somewhat tongue-tied post crash.  And what is that enigmatic look on Sylvia’s face as she watches Don stalk out of the elevator?   Is she thinking of backsliding?

Most appropriate song, or what?    Cass Eliot’s “Words of Love” may be the most appropriate musical selection the show has offered.   Clearly, Don was looking for those words that Sylvia had never heard before- something beyond the exceedingly warm embraces of his hyperactive libido.   But Don was also looking for words of love from others, to compensate for the crater-sized hole at the center of his own life.   It’s an appropriately haunting way to close out the show.

Will one night with Herb last a lifetime?    Joanie’s partner-clinching tryst with the sleazoid Herb is the plot device that keeps on devising, when at the end Don notes that every time he gets a car account the agency “turns into a whorehouse”.    This not only relates to his flashbacks of his own virginal deflowering, but also alludes to the way Joan locked up the Jaguar account and a partnership all in one coital fell swoop.  Don’s long memory- and his resentment that his own creative prowess didn’t carry the day- doesn’t bode well for the widening rift between him and Joan.

Who’s got a fork?  Can someone tell Megan what’s going on, so she can stop trying to save her marriage, move to Hollywood and collect three or four more husbands?

Submitted by Harlan R. Teller

 

Strange Bedfellows, Unlikely Alliances Dominate Mad Men Season Six, Episode Six

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I have often called one of Mad Men’s great strengths to be the intensity of quiet moments- a longing gaze about things past, a rueful look between two estranged partners, the caress on the cheek that carries meaning and import.   Well, there was none of that in Season Six, Episode Six.

The episode was certainly intense, but it was never quiet.    Bravura and showy performances among the core members of the ensemble cast underpinned some truly unexpected developments- events that will undoubtedly play out for the remainder of the season, if not for the series stretch run.

The show began with a potential initial public offering of SCDP and ended with a merger of convenience between SCDP and Cutler, Gleason and Chaough, with Elisabeth Moss as Peggy showing genuine confusion, concern and excitement all in one exhilarating moment as both of her mentors order her to write the press release that announces the merger and christens this episode (titled “For Immediate Release”).    In between, a dizzying array of alliances and break ups reorder the Mad Men cosmos.

Joan for the first time shows her frustration with Don, voicing the “it’s all about Don” mantra we’ve heard from other characters in the wake of Don’s disastrous dinner with the oily Herb the Jaguar Guy.   Joan, seven figure payouts dancing in her head, was finally about to get her ultimate reward for compromising her principles and body through her liaison with Herb, and Don in a fit of ego and pique screwed it up.   For Joan, this was the ultimate disrespect, and a sad irony, given the chivalry Don displayed throughout the Herb episode.

In turn, Don’s break with Herb and Jaguar works like an aphrodisiac with his increasingly frustrated wife Megan, as their lovemaking threatens the bedroom walls,  while Megan’s French Canadian mom (Julia Ormond, in a small but unexpectedly hilarious reappearance) sits in the next room, ruefully listening to the result of her motherly handiwork while chain smoking and downing yet another bottle of wine– and showing a languid kind of pique toward the AWOL Roger when he phones to ask for forgiveness (and a word with Don).    For once, Megan accepts her mother’s advice before the fateful dinner with Herb, wears a flashy outfit that shows off her leggy, youthful frame, and this, in addition to the Herb-sized piano that comes off Don’s back at dinner seems to do more than Sylvia’s absence to reignite the dormant Draper ardor for his soap opera star wife.   The dinner scene, where an increasingly bored and frustrated Marie cracks wise in French as she loses her patience with the Herbs is a minor Mad Men classic, solidifying Ormond’s stature as one of the series’ most memorable supporting actors.

While Bert Cooper, Joan and the increasing agitated and lonely Pete Campbell conspire to bring a huge payday and badly needed outside capital to the still-fledgling enterprise, Don and Roger solidify their own often-shaky alliance through Roger’s landing of an opportunity to pitch Chevrolet.  (The pitch is for a new car, which sounded alarmingly like the car that in Spanish is translated as “won’t go”.  We’ll see if that’s what it is, since they landed the business.)

Don once again does some of his best thinking on a barstool, as that’s where he and Ted Chaough hatch the plot that brings their two firms together and wins them the Chevy business.   In a great scene where the two leave their respective stools long enough to pitch each other with their ideas for the new Chevy, we are reminded that beyond the booze, sex and dangerous liaisons, these guys- like others in their orbit- truly get off on making great advertising.    It’s a “dad loves his work” moment, and an important one, demonstrating that Don and Ted may be competitors and may not even like each other, but they share something in their love of craft that is truly transcendent.

We also witness the continued resurgence of Roger Sterling (with the parallel, equally astonishing star turn of Sterling alter ego John Slattery), as he completes his transformation from a puppy dog begging for Pete Campbell’s scraps to becoming the central player in putting a halt to SCDP’s brief but scary slide from potential IPO darling to potentially failing enterprise.    Roger has shown a remarkable facility for getting women to help him pursue business (through his socially connected corporate and first wife Mona, and later the conveniently Jewish Jane Siegel, who helps Roger try to land Manischewitz), but nothing comes close to his alliance with Daisy, the deceptively bright and wily flight attendant who plays his wingman to help him sidle up to the Chevy exec at the gate (and who later conveniently misplaces the competition’s luggage).    `

Finally, we’re reminded of the poisonous relationship between Pete and his father-in-law, as even the “mutually assured destruction” moment of finding themselves face to face in a brothel can’t deter Trudy’s outraged daddy from sticking the knife in Pete’s back.   Without Vick’s and Jaguar, there’s no IPO and no fat payday to compensate Pete for the increasing void at the heart of his life.   And, no Trudy, who sees Pete’s betrayal of her dad as the final nail in the coffin of their dying marriage.

Some may view the big question coming out of the episode as can Don and Ted find harmony and success (while putting their dueling egos aside) battling the ad behemoths together?   Perhaps it will be old pros Roger and Jim Cutler (the gracefully aging and former Sexiest Man Alive Harry Hamlin, essentially playing Slattery/Sterling’s less charming but equally smooth doppelganger) that take the edge off the Don/Ted relationship and keep the merged ship on an even keel.

But for me the more interesting issue may be whether Peggy and Abe’s relationship can survive their adventure in the gentrifying upper West Side and, more importantly, Peggy’s fantasies about Ted (not to mention his advances toward her).   I’ve always considered Abe and Peggy mismatched- she’s been a counter culture dilettante rather than a true believer like Abe, and she seems much more suited for the Upper East Side condo that she lost out on than a fixer upper in a “transitioning” neighborhood.   My prediction is when Nixon wins the presidency (rather than one of Abe’s two heroes, the quixotic Gene McCarthy and the star-crossed Robert Kennedy), Abe and Peggy’s relationship won’t make it through the inauguration.

Author’s Note:  In the “here’s something I’d never thought I’d hear” department, Dr. Rosen, complaining to Don about “pissing my life away in New York City” when Dr. Michael DeBakey takes the honor of doing the first heart transplant away from him (after which, Don counsels him to make his own breaks, ironic given that it’s Roger’s ingenuity that has given Don his latest shot at redemption).  And in the “here’s something that’s hard to believe” department, imagine a company doing an IPO working with one investment banker sitting on a couch with an adding machine, rather than a conference room full of number crunchers, lawyers, and, yes, PR consultants.   Pretty hard to believe, but after all, it was 1968 and the SCDP offering would have been pretty small potatoes.   Finally, in the “here’s something I’ve never seen before” department, there’s an advertising person writing a news release.   Now, that’s something completely different.

Submitted by Harlan R. Teller

Tide of Emotion Rises to Flood Levels in Mad Men, Season Six, Episode Five

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The assassination of Martin Luther King is the historical event that takes center stage in this week’s Mad Men, in a way that we’ve never experienced before on the series.   It leads to some of the emotionally richest content the show has ever produced, as the focus on personal relationships and families  (both real and contemplated) causes main and subsidiary characters alike to come to grips with where they are and where they may be headed in the wake of the celebrated civil rights leader’s slaying.

Most of the eruptions and upheavals of the sixties have been hinted at, suggested or integrated seamlessly into the series’ overall narrative.   Even the Kennedy assassination, while deftly portrayed in “The Grown Ups”, still felt a bit of a sideshow to the final dissolution of the Drapers’ marriage.   The King assassination is handled differently.  The announcement–made after actor Paul Newman takes the occasion of the annual advertising awards to make a brazen and politely received plug for his favorite 1968 Democratic nominee for president, Eugene McCarthy–opens some raw wounds and picks at the scab of others.    In a way, the characters find themselves picking at the wallpaper to find what’s underneath, like Bobby Draper in the opening sequence of the episode.

And, in the confusion, sorrow and rage over Dr. King’s death, the Manhattanites cope with a scenario that has them thinking about the fate of their favorite city and whether it will ultimately lie in ruins, as Charlton Heston discovers it in the final scene of “Planet of the Apes” –or at the very least become a bad real estate bet, given Peggy’s nervousness about bidding on a condo a few short blocks from the civic discontent peripheral to but at the psychic heart of the drama.    (The touching “father and son” scene in which Don takes Bobby to see that exercise in ‘60s apocalyptic movie-making drew perhaps a too-obvious parallel to the preoccupations of the Mad Men cast, in particular our hero, but it was affecting and effective nonetheless.)

In a strange way, the King assassination opens what may be one of the most hopeful episodes we’ve seen in a long time, as many of the characters demonstrate real grace, compassion and love in the wake of the desperately tragic event.    Pete in his halting and ultimately ineffective way reaches out to Trudy, a kindred political spirit who had shared his outrage about the Kennedy assassination and is equally stricken about Dr. King.   Megan reminds us of one of the reasons Don fell in love with her, as she is there for Don’s kids in a way that Don is not (at least, until his concerted lapse back into fatherhood with a quietly freaked out Bobby).   Henry has an epiphany about his career and the trajectory he wants his life to take, and Betty is there to support him and, ostensibly, provide some physical comfort at the end of a harrowing day in Harlem.  (And, Betty just might be reconsidering that brunette look, which would be a good thing).   Joan shows real tenderness and feeling toward Dawn, manifested by a very awkward attempt on her part to embrace and console the younger woman when she makes her somewhat disoriented and agitated appearance at the office.

Finally, Abe makes a declaration in a wonderful scene with Peggy that is a reminder what fine work Elisabeth Moss as Peggy has done through the years.    As Abe lets drop that he has been thinking of what part of New York he’d like to raise his and Peggy’s kids, Peggy realizes for the first time that he is in it for the long haul.  The hyper-talented Ms. Moss beautifully renders the play of emotions across Peggy’s face as she realizes that Abe may indeed be her lifelong partner .

To punctuate the almost strange juxtaposition of so much hope with such profound tragedy and fear, the show leaves it to Michael Ginsberg’s father to not only clarify in one sentence why “The Flood” is such an aptly named episode, but also deliver possibly the series’ single funniest line.   The sagacious dad notes that it’s in times of crisis that men and women want to be with each other.  He notes that the animals entered the ark at the time of the flood “two by two”, and wonders if his son intends to hop on board with his father, rather than a woman.

It really is a bit of an ark out there in the wake of the King assassination.  Some characters are pairing off for good (Abe and Peggy), others are taking on water and perhaps trying to bail at the same time(Don and Megan) while still others are on the shore looking on (Pete and Trudy), or wondering which partner to jump on board with (Ginsberg, his choice being between his father and the comely young Jewish schoolteacher he has been awkwardly fixed up with).

Meanwhile, tragedy doesn’t blunt ambition, as at least three characters see opportunity in its wake, or at least perform some mental calculus as to how it will serve or deter them.  Abe sees the tragedy as an opportunity for a New York Times byline and Henry decides it’s time to head to Albany as a state senator.  And, Harry Crane, his life essentially consumed by the vagaries of the primetime TV schedule, nearly comes to blows with Pete, who sees vulgarity and racism in Harry’s concern with losing client dollars over “make goods” resulting from preemptions.    It’s a fight that feels very contemporary while at the same time highly appropriate for the period, and it’s a great virtue of the MM staff that the writing results in a scene played right down the middle.

A new character sees opportunity in the ruins, as well.   The mysterious Randall Walsh, a bow-tied cross between Howard Hughes and a New Age shaman, makes his strange appearance (the fine character actor, William Mapother, from Lost).   He channels dead Indian chiefs and thinks he can communicate through telepathy, and he’s believes that Dr. King has come to him in a dream to help him find a different way of communicating about commercial real estate- very different.    Obviously, Roger knows him from a previous life, and takes everything he says with a huge bucket of salt.     Walsh represents a jarring interlude in the show, and it will be interesting to see if his storyline is drawn further, or was simply comic relief.

The penultimate scene in the episode is one of the more remarkable exchanges between Megan and Don throughout their relationship, in which perhaps for the first time Don reveals to another human being what he truly is feeling.   His confession that his sorry childhood had numbed his response to becoming a father, followed by an equally heartrending admission that he’d been transformed into a loving parent gave a glimpse through the dark and foggy window that obscures his tortured soul.   Jessica Pare as Megan makes you truly believe at that point in time that she could squeeze at least a lemon’s worth of real humanity from Don.    It provides a glimmer of hope that while the Draper marriage may be heading for the rocks, but there’s the potential for navigating around them, particularly if the Rosens have to stay in DC for any particularly length of time.    As Don looks out at Manhattan after putting Bobby to bed, perhaps he’s finally trying to come to grips with his life, rather than scheming for his next assignation with Sylvia.   Or perhaps it’s one of many curveballs that Matthew Weiner has thrown at the viewer- difficult to hit and hard to predict.

Author’s Note:  William Mapother’s appearance reminds me of his raging, uncompromising performance as the grieving widower and father of a wife and daughter killed in a vehicular manslaughter and who, in dissolution and despair, unwittingly enters into an affair with the young woman who killed them.   The movie is Another Earth, written and co-starring the indie favorite Brit Marling (Richard Gere’s CFO daughter in the fine 2012 film  Arbitrage), and is not only a stirring depiction of two emotionally damaged people looking for salvation, but a thoughtful rumination on the potential for alternate realities.  It’s well worth a look.

And does anyone think that Don and Megan’s apparent rapprochement in this episode has to do with her being “Megan Draper” the ad copywriter at the New York Advertising Award dinner, rather than the soap opera actress “Megan Calvert”?     Plus, she won the only SCDP award of the night.   Reason enough for that fatherly peck on the forehead from Don on her way out the door with the kids.

Submitted by Harlan R. Teller

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

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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