“If you don’t like what they’re saying – change the conversation.”
This was the first episode of Mad Men this season in which Matt Weiner had no writing credit – and it showed, in a definite change of tone from his usual portent-laden melancholia. Instead, it came off more like the soap opera it basically is, beneath the existential trappings. Appropriate, given that one of the major subplots involved Megan’s work on the fictional soap opera which gave the episode its title.
This was definitely a lighter episode than usual, by Mad Men standards at least, but Erin Levy’s script was still a cleverly constructed masterclass in subtlety. It seemed straightforward and linear, but all the plots cunningly wove around and intertwined with each other in an episode that concerned itself, first and foremost, with the women on the show.
One of the tropes of Mad Men is to reflect quite how badly women had it in the 1960s, and this was one of the episodes that chose to make that a major theme. It was far lighter in tone than the previous meditation on the issue, last season’s shocking The Other Woman, which saw Joan compromise her principles and sleep with a client to gain the firm an account and herself a partnership.
Joan was probably the main focus this week, as she reflected on exactly what ‘sleeping her way to the top’ had actually got her. Partner she may be, but as she puts it, “I’ve been here fifteen years and they still treat me like a secretary”. Significantly, she still seems to run the office secretarial pool, which is surely below the usual duties of a partner in an advertising firm. And when she exercised even that authority, firing Harry’s secretary Scarlett for skiving off work and having Dawn punch out her time card, Joan was still overruled by the other partners.
In the nicest, most condescending of ways, of course. Don, Roger and Bert have a sense of old-fashioned chivalry that borders on the patronising, while Pete seems to still have some guilt over basically manoeuvring Joan into whoring herself for an ad account. The incident with Herb Rennet from Jaguar has still never been openly discussed, but it got pretty close here as Harry barged his way into a partners’ meeting to protest about Joan firing his secretary.
Dropping heavily loaded remarks about deserving to be a partner himself because he’d actually earned it, Harry made everyone else seemingly frantic to avoid actually confronting the issue. The thing is, in a sense he had a point – he was farsighted enough to set up the TV department, against Roger’s wishes, at a point when nobody took TV advertising seriously. He has made a major contribution. Unfortunately he’s also made a fool of himself, and his behaviour has probably swayed both Bert and Roger against ever granting him his wish. That might come back to bite them – boorish he may be, but he increasingly holds a large part of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s fortunes in his sweaty little paws.
After valiantly defending Joan by assiduously avoiding the subject of how she got her partnership, the men in the room still didn’t back up her decision to fire Scarlett, and she backed down with a palpable sense of annoyance. Palpable to the viewer, anyway; Don, Bert, Roger and Pete didn’t seem to notice it.
Luckily for Joan, her old friend Katie was visiting Manhattan, which occasioned a girls’ night out, and a quite un-Joanlike bit of flirting with a waiter and casual rumpy pumpy at a bohemian nightclub. It was understandable – given her frustration at work, no wonder she wanted to let her hair down. It was amusing to see her wake up, hungover and still in the previous night’s clothes, in bed with her friend (no, not like that – at least I don’t think so). But it was also sobering to see Katie’s perspective – she worships Joan for her achievements, which must make Joan all the more bitter about how she got them.
Other people’s perspectives were another recurrent theme this week, as Don’s secretary Dawn finally got some character time. She’s been rather neglected since her introduction, given one episode to interact with Peggy and otherwise just efficiently doing her job at SCDP. But she’s very significant – in a time of growing civil rights for African Americans, she’s still the only non-Caucasian at the firm, or in the show for that matter.
So it was good to see her perspective on life at SCDP, as she discussed it with her best friend after work at a diner (where, noticeably, all the clientele were black; so much for the end of segregation).
Dawn may work at SCDP, but she’s still very much an outsider herself, and conscious of her precarious position. As a black woman, she’s doubly disadvantaged against the prejudices of the era. No wonder she felt intimidated enough to go along with Scarlett’s plea to fake her time card.
Her outsider status caused her to give perhaps the most accurate summary of the show’s tropes I’ve ever heard, describing life at SCDP: “everyone’s scared. Women cry in the ladies’ room and men cry in the elevator. It’s like New Year’s Eve when they empty the garbage, there’s so many bottles.” An amusing bit of lampshade-hanging, perhaps? And yet, by the end, the irony was that Dawn is plainly desperate to be a part of this life she has such contempt for.
Peggy was on show too, in a payoff to last week’s hints about the Heinz Ketchup account. Pete was secretly scheming for his holy grail of condiments to come to SCDP, despite Don’s misgivings that Heinz Beans supremo Raymond hated Heinz Ketchup honcho Timmy. Much clandestine to-ing and fro-ing occurred at the office on the mysterious ‘Project K’, with Stan secretly drafting a campaign to present to Timmy at a secret hotel rendezvous.
Just when it was beginning to look like this would be the only plot thread not to involve the female characters, Peggy showed up with Ted Chaough just as Don finished his pitch. And as he listened trepidatiously at the door, she gave a Draper-style pitch that just blew his out of the water. She’s certainly learned from – and perhaps surpassed – the Master. And it looks like he knows it.
In a final twist though, the Ketchup account went to neither of them. And Ken turned up with the bad news that Raymond had discovered their secret plan and yanked the beans account forthwith. As a gamble that didn’t pay off, that was pretty bad; though not as bad as the spanner it threw into the works of Peggy and Stan’s friendship. It’s obvious where she got her advance information, and you could see Stan’s face fall as the penny dropped.
The final lady on show in this week’s quartet was Megan Draper, in an amusing but slight subplot that perhaps got more screentime than it really deserved. Megan’s character in her daytime soap was being given a Big Plot of her own – and it included her first love scene.
Knowing Don as she does, Megan didn’t expect him to be happy about it, so she went out of her way to explain it to him reasonably, even inviting him to dinner with head writer Mel and his wife, fellow cast member Arlene. Dinner in Mad Men is always fraught with danger, but thankfully the worst this one had to offer was a none too subtle invite for a foursome – the look on Don’s face was a picture (in fact, the one at the top of this page).
Yet when it came to it, Don found himself less able to ‘”tolerate” the love scene than he’d said, turning up at the set to watch his wife at work for the first time. It can hardly have been a coincidence that the ‘love scene’ in question came off as a cheesy version of every Don Draper seduction ever – including Megan’s own. Perhaps that was why he was so infuriated he felt the need to storm off leaving his wife in tears again.
Where’s Bob Benson?
Only one sighting of the mysterious Bob this week, lurking genially in Creative for no clear reason. As usual, he cheerily asked Don how he was doing, and as usual, Don ignored him. Just who is he, and why does Don hate him so much?
More dwelling on Vietnam this week; Mel and Arlene discussed it as a divisive TV ratings killer for the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, therefore bad for the ad business. Dow Chemical, the friendly manufacturer of household chemicals – and napalm, and Agent Orange – was back in SCDP’s sights, as Ken and Harry persuaded Ken’s father in law, the CEO, to counter bad press from the war with a TV variety show. Yeah, that’ll do the trick.
Mention was made of the upcoming Presidential election too. “The trouble is, Nixon thinks he’s still running against Kennedy,” Ken opined, to which Harry replied, “so does Johnson.” In the event, of course, Lyndon Johnson lost control of the Democrats and was forced to stand aside in favour of George Wallace. He lost – and Richard Nixon got his first term. Elsewhere, rising star of the Senate Bobby Kennedy was mentioned in passing on the radio – I wonder if this year’s season will climax around what happened to him as the third did for his brother?
And the trendy bohemian nightclub visited by Joan on her girls’ night out was a real one – Manhattan’s famed Electric Circus, so hip that at one point the Velvet Underground was the house band. They’d gone by the time Joan visited, and she had to make do with the soothing sounds of Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot singing ‘Bonnie and Clyde’.
Dedicated Followers of Fashion
The 70s are just round the corner, and colours are getting brighter and more gaudy. Eye-burningly hideous checked sports coats were back in a big way this week, with Harry Crane sporting no fewer than three throughout the ep. I’d say the winner was this repulsive green effort sported by Heinz’s genial Timmy, complete with paisley cravat:
Speaking of Harry, his increasing success has enabled him to seriously decorate his office. The result, compared, say, to the elegant style of Roger Sterling’s, is less than pleasant to behold:
But that’s as nothing compared to how his secretary is decorated. The unfortunate Scarlett wore at least three garishly vile ensembles this week, but this has to be the most hideous, as she trooped down the corridor with Harry like bit part players in The Avengers:
Thank heavens for the restraint and sanity of Megan Draper:
Oh all right, that’s just her TV costume. And isn’t that Emmanuelle she’s reading?
This was (by Mad Men standards) a pretty light and frothy episode, though not without its depths. The points about women (and race, for that matter) were well made in a fairly understated way, and as ever the dialogue was endlessly quotable. Yet, for all that it was about the women, it was still Don Draper we came back to at the ending. Locked in another doomed embrace with the irresistible Sylvia, he wondered aloud whether she prayed for absolution after their trysts. No – “I’ll pray for you… to find peace.” Peace? Don Draper? He wouldn’t know what to do with it.