“It’s so simple when it’s someone else’s life, isn’t it?”
In a week when I’ve failed to get an interview for a job I’ve actually done before, Mad Men’s existential angst, and particularly Don Draper’s increasingly obvious obsolescence, seemed particularly redolent for me. This week’s was a somewhat lighter affair than the sturm und drang of recent episodes, with a less compressed timescale and focus; more , in fact, like the high quality soap opera it really is. But even a comparatively frothy episode like this one, written by series creator Matthew Weiner, had plenty of moments of acute and often painful character observation.
We got to see more of the Don/Megan dynamic this week, a recurring motif this season as Don looks increasingly antediluvian next to his young, with-it new wife. Trying to find some music for a Chevalier Blanc ad campaign that would satisfy the clients, Don was baffled by the trendy stylings of the Beatles: “When did music get so important?” He had, in fact, no grasp of contemporary music at all, and it’s telling that for anything ‘new’ he has a default plan – “I’ll ask Megan, she’ll know.”
But Megan, it turned out, was less than happy with her new role as cultural zeitgeist barometer for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. She may be a talented copywriter, but she doesn’t like the job. She thinks, in fact, that it’s pretty worthless in the overall scheme of things, and has been secretly going back to her original ambition – acting. This became clear after she spun two separate lies to first Peggy then Don, to cover her attendance at an audition.
The tenacious Peggy was the first to find out the truth, in a scene where Elisabeth Moss made her seem terribly fierce. Dragging the facts out of Megan in the women’s bathroom, Peggy was shocked that Mrs Draper would want to do anything else than copywriting. It’s an interesting insight into Peggy’s character, and one that came up previously in her late night chat with Dawn; having struggled so hard to get where she is, she makes the erroneous assumption that every woman wants the same thing. It’s almost a distillation of some of feminism’s more tyrannical directives, that a woman can’t be happy unless she’s struggling to be where a man is. Thankfully, I think feminism has more or less moved on from that kind of assumption these days, but then, Peggy’s in 1966.
So naturally, Peggy was furious that Megan would so carelessly toss away a career that she herself has struggled to achieve for years. It made for an uncharacteristically bitchy relationship between the two, though in truth that’s been brewing since Megan so effortlessly snagged the Heinz account. It seems, basically, to be jealousy of someone who got such an easy break into the business and then has the affront to be genuinely good at it. Can it be that Peggy too is beginning to feel the bite of younger people snapping at her heels?
If we once thought Peggy might be a bright future for the agency, Pete Campbell always looked like the promise of a dark dystopia. Thankfully, his general ineptitude made him seem less of a threat. So it proved again this week, as he embarked on what, for most characters, would be a torrid and scandalous romance with the wife of his philandering morning train buddy.
But this is Pete, and Don Draper-style affairs never work out for him unless he pays for them. Hence, after one night of torrid passion, his incessant badgering of the oddly philosophical Beth seemed to totally put her off. She didn’t want to talk to him on the phone, she was totally freaked out when he turned up at her house with her husband on a totally contrived pretext, and she failed to show up at the illicit tryst Pete organised, leaving him once again fuming at his lack of success. But as the episode ended, with the two of them leaving the station in separate cars, she drew a little heart at him in the window mist. Might he not have failed as utterly as usual? One crumb of comfort – at least he’s finally passed his driving test, though he appears not to know what a Stop sign means.
Don, meanwhile, spent the first half of the episode in blissful ignorance of his wife’s impending career crisis. When she finally told him, he spent the rest of the episode in denial about it, pretending everything was fine. And yet it clearly wasn’t; Don’s never seemed so ill at ease than when discussing Megan’s departure with Joan, who seems to be becoming the office Wise Woman (if she wasn’t already). As if his discomfiture wasn’t enough, he had the misfortune to almost stumble into a massive Existential Metaphor, as his call to the elevator resulted in the doors opening on the yawning chasm of the empty shaft. Even Don seemed to recognise the enormous significance of… whatever this represented, looking as disturbed as a character in a particularly traumatic Twilight Zone.
Don being Don, all this pent up emotion had to result in an explosion at a not entirely appropriate moment. And so it proved, as Peggy, substituting for the now-absent Megan in a pitch to Cool Whip, flubbed the crucial line that was meant to be the big ad hook, and Don blew up in her face in front of several General Foods employees. But Peggy’s going from strength to strength these days, and she gave as good as she got, telling him that it wasn’t her he was angry with (as was obvious to everyone but Don). Don, in return, told Peggy a few hard truths – Megan left not because she disliked the job but because she disliked the kind of people that did it. People like Peggy. It was a heavy scene masterfully topped off with a genuine belly laugh, as the GF employee sternly told a visibly astonished Don something I don’t think he’s ever hear before: “I’m sorry, you can’t smoke in here.”
Actually there were quite a few laughs this week, reflecting a script that was as frothy (and yet tellingly artificial) as Cool Whip. Roger, often the source of much of the show’s humour, wasn’t around much this week, but his old rivalry with Pete surfaced as he presented the younger man with a complimentary set of skis from a client. “Are they going to explode?” Pete enquired nervously, making me laugh so hard I almost spilled my tea. Still, beware Roger bearing gifts; who knows what his motive is there? Later, bugged by Don’s incessant calls to the office where she was working late, Peggy made the unfathomable decision to pretend to be a wrong number: “Pizza house!” (yelped in an unidentifiable accent).
And to top things off, after a couple of weeks’ absence, the eye-burningly hideous checked sports coats were back in evidence, courtesy of Stan and Ginsberg, who seem to have affirmed their acceptability as office wear at SCDP:
However, even they couldn’t compete with a new style of hideous sports coat, as worn by the flamingly gay member of the Chevalier Blanc group, which seemed to be made out of a deckchair:
I guess the Summer of Love is almost upon the denizens of SCDP – as was made abundantly clear by a final montage of the gang’s angst, soundtracked by the Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. As with the recent use of ‘Time is on My Side’, a perfectly apposite choice, and one flecked with irony; earlier, Don had been discussing how the Beatles never allowed ads (or TV shows) to use their work. Which used to be true. And this week’s episode of the TV show Mad Men ended with a Beatles song. For an episode so heavily freighted with philosophy and symbolism, that was so meta it was perfect.