Crossing the Border from Lubricated to Morose
One of my favourite tropes in the tv blogosphere wrt/ Mad Men is the perpetual, “here’s what Mad Men was about this week” statements that frame almost every one. It’s all about money. It’s all about loss. It’s all about identity. Yeah, I’ve played this game too, I know. And I’m going to play it again – not to definitively say what this week was about, but rather to offer a possible rubric for its interpretation. One way we can frame this episode – nay, this season – is in the bubbling up of history in our psyches. LIFE, it’s a scary concept – so how do we sell it? With nostalgia – that thing we remember – or didn’t know we remembered – that makes us sad…that thing in our history we try to hold back, but which grips us nevertheless because we haven’t dealt with it – that thing that makes us drink too much, lose days, sleep with strangers, find ourselves surprisingly sexually confident, lose ourselves in work and, yes, even buy cereal. Nostalgia is a powerful and ugly thing. In the first few seasons of Mad Men we as an audience started dressing better and drinking more because the nostalgia for that classy bygone era was so powerful. Now we’re seeing its ugliness, I for one am looking at my liquor cabinet and gorgeous new red dress and wondering if I’ve made some mistakes.
Perhaps the most painful-to-watch history for me involved the actual flashbacks. At first I thought Don’s eager younger self felt false – much as the passage from season 1 sexy Don to current pathetic loser Don has been swift and immense, at least we can see the seeds of today’s Don in the former Draper. But this younger furrier bore little resemblance to the guy we knew and know…at least I felt that until the drunken LIFE cereal scene, in which Don appeared so childlike I could see his return to the green guy he once was while selling retail (apparently Mad Men’s purgatory as we recall Joan’s foray in the department store too!). For me the interpretation of this relationship between youth-Don and drunk-Don hinges on one question – a question we can’t answer. Did Sterling really give Don a job in his confused drunken state, or did that childlike Don have a moment of unexpected shrewdness and play Roger in his ignorance? I don’t think it’s clear, and if it’s the latter, then this drunk/childlike Don’s shrewd capacities might be even more dangerous than his blacking out, confused ones. Of course, the history repeating itself as Don slowly becomes the aspects of Roger he has pitied, derided and hated – typified in the turn of events that leads to Jane’s cousin’s hiring – is at the fore, but it’s this connection to a man who may have once been innocent as a dove and wise as a serpent that thrills me the most.
The dangers of drink is a theme continuing to rear itself this season. And if we had any doubt, our brief shot of Duck, apparently a drunk again, heckling the Cleo’s announcer clued us in to the approaching danger. As Don began to bed the jingle singer and his eyes grew heavy and the night faded to day, I gasped – oh my, is he really falling asleep during a blow job?! I was horrified, but not nearly as horrified as I would become. Losing an entire day, waking up with his waitress remembering none of it?! This kind of black out is shocking enough. But more intriguing to me is to wonder who that sister “Dick” was eating french fries with in Doris’ restaurant might have been? Again, as happens consistently this season – we can guess but we can’t know. And that matters – because if Don is losing himself enough that he can become Dick again for a day – then history is resurfacing in ways that are going to cause some real problems!
As Roger’s problems bubbled to the surface last week, verbalized to an uninterested Joan, I wondered if we would return to memories of their affair. This week’s episode let us know that their love – and it really seems to be love – goes back even further than we’d realized. Don was casting Betty in ads, but they didn’t seem to be married yet (no ring on Don or Sterling’s hands!). That puts the flashback in the early 1950’s – at least 5 years before the opening of season 1. The sweetness between Joan and Roger (and Don? that hand holding scene was incredibly powerful! but why?) endures as one of the deepest relationships on the show.
I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention Peggy – poor Peggy, excluded from the Cleos (great nod to the Emmy’s by the way) because the fourth ticket needed to impress clients, and Peggy just doesn’t have what Joan does…or does she? For all the ways everyone pegs Peggy as prudish, we should remember her own history. We originally met her in the doctor’s office requesting birth control. Her big break in the ad world came when she figured out a weight control device could be used for sexual pleasure. She might not have boobs the size of basketballs, but the girl has some erotic chutzpah…enough to be able to mock a guy masturbating in the bathroom because she’s too much for him! The previews for the episode reminded us that Don sees himself in Peggy – perhaps his redemption this season – if redemption is to be found – will come in his return to the parts of her that animate him, and not the history he struggles to avoid.
Ok, that’s plenty for me – what did you think? What do you make of Pete? And Dr. Faye? With the arrival of Jane’s cousin, do you think we’re going to bring Jane back into the picture for a showdown with Joan?
I agree completely with your connection between the young Don and the drunk Don – it was like seeing a mask begin to melt leaving a distorted, sloppy, clown face where slick Draper used to be. The real question for me is why did Don want to win that Clio so badly? Maybe it was just revenge and in-your-faceness to his nemesis at Gray, but his nervousness and excitement was palpable up to the moment his ad was announced the winner. When does Don Draper ever turn to anyone and check that he looks OK? When does he clutch the hand of a friend/colleague under the table (and yes, that scene was one of the best tiny details of the episode. Joan’s power may be tied to her more traditional gender roles, but she has indeed become a bedrock of that firm, as irreplaceable as any of them)? Was the Clio the ultimate sign that he had made it in a business he had longed to join since he was an eager young fur peddler? It is fascinating that if winning that award was the apotheosis of Don Draper’s rise up the ladder of success, the next logical action was for Dick to come out of the shadows in a drunken orgy blackout.
When I first watched Don and the cocktail party lady getting it on, I thought, wow, this is the first time we are seeing Don score with a woman who actually welcomes his advances whom he isn’t paying. Then when he woke up with Doris, I had the twisted thought that perhaps he had fantasized the entire first hookup, and in fact had ended up in bed with another prostitute. My own guess at what happened in the interim was that he went home with cocktail party lady, got it on (or maybe feel asleep in flagrante delicto?!), woke up still drunk/kept drinking, ended up in Doris’ restaurant with first lady friend eating fries. First lady friend went home, after which Don/Dick told Doris she was his sister, and Doris amiably agreed to come home for round two.
Like you, I was wary of the parallels between Jane’s cousin and the younger Don – it all just seemed so obvious. And also like you I didn’t really buy the younger Don until I saw him in “freewheeling creative genius” mode in the Life pitch. More than all the other asinine things we have seen Don do this season (and previous seasons), this was the most embarrassing for me to watch. Perhaps because Don’s whole identity is built around mystery and intrigue: how does he do it, creative boy genius, turning out the perfect idea in the shrouded den of his imagination? Watching him fumble with half-baked ideas suggested his fallibility more than any one failed campaign ever could. And seeing Peggy’s disgust and disappointment mirrored my own. Though I loved it when she gives him a dressing down in perfect Don style, reversing the tables for a moment.
By the end of the episode I was less intrigued by the ingenue Don used to be (and yes, I think it is a wide-open question if he wasn’t playing Roger’s weakness to land that job) and more fascinated by imagining how he transformed himself into the man of mystery he is today. Roger kept hinting in his memoires that he should get the credit for Don’s rise to fame, because he discovered him. Though in reality he didn’t recognize his potential genius at all and was conned/shamed into giving Don a job. And I kind of loved that they didn’t show us much of younger Don’s book, and what they did show was not particularly stunning. Perhaps there really was no reason to suspect that Don had any spark of promise to show for himself other than an unlimited capacity to recreate himself as needed.
I know I keep going on about Don, but I loved that we were given such a full dose of the main man this episode. The portrait is not flattering, but it is rich and bitter and beautiful in its own fraying edges way. One senses a train wreck coming: one too many drunken nights and Don will tell his real story to the wrong person and what is left of the world he built will crash around him. Or, perhaps even more tragically, he’ll just devolve into dead weight like Roger, writing fictionalized memoirs in a boozy haze.
If sooner or later Don’s day is going to pass, is Peggy indeed his heir apparent? If nothing else this episode showed that she has the bravado to match the best of them. I loved her pragmatic approach to Stan’s tiresome boasting. Nothing like testing the new found freedom of the sexually liberated than seeing who can actually work without their clothes on. I also like how Peggy is figuring out the new generation that she hasn’t quite joined, trying to understand what makes them tick, willing to get on board with the revolution, provided it actually seems headed somewhere. I stick with my hope that she will be our ticket into the the late 60s counter-culture.
There is undoubtedly more to say, but I am worried I will cross the board to morose and will wrap it up.
Eating life by the bowlful,