“You have a fundamental misunderstanding of what went wrong here.”
This week saw an episode of Mad Men that took the often fruitful approach of focusing on just a few of the characters, and juxtaposing plotlines both professional and personal. On the personal level, we had Roger Sterling’s family crisis with his disappearing daughter. And while last week delved more successfully into the pit of Betty’s soul than Don’s, this week had more insight into Sterling Cooper & Partners’ former alpha male. As is often the case, it wasn’t pretty.
Despite being nominally the lead character in the show’s ensemble, Don has been getting less and less sympathetic over the years. It’s all very well introspectively examining your own existential crisis, but Don’s streak of selfishness has increasingly dragged in everyone around him. He’s occasionally struck by altruistic self-awareness and makes theatrical Big Sacrifices for those he’s hurt; then he goes straight back to being a self-obsessed dickhead.
Having seemed chastened last week when he meekly accepted the admittedly punitive terms imposed by the partners so he could return to his beloved job, this week saw his nasty side flare up again. The reason? Caught up in Jim Cutler and Roger Sterling’s power struggle, he found himself assigned to creative work on a new account, fast food giant Burger Chef. The catch? He was to do the work under the aegis of Peggy Olson.
Don and Peggy’s relationship has, over the years, ricocheted from friendship to mentor/protégée to mutual respect to outright dislike. But this is the first time Don has been put in the position of being Peggy’s subordinate. And however supportive he may have been in the past, he plainly couldn’t cope with it.
As ever, Erin Levy’s accomplished script left his motives somewhat ambiguous. Was he chafing at the situation because he was working under a woman? Or because he was working under, specifically, the woman who has seemingly overtaken him at the company he founded? Or (perhaps) both? Whatever was the case, his reaction did not paint him in a favourable light. Behaving like a petulant child, he ignored her, disobeyed her, and tried to get his foot back in the door with new business for the agency.
Don did not come off well this week, and richly deserved the putdowns he received from Peggy, Freddie Rumsen, and notably Bert Cooper. Bert has always been portrayed as genial on the surface, but ruthless beneath; here that surface was stripped away as he coldly dismissed Don’s tentative attempt to introduce a new client, the freelance techies installing the agency’s new computer.
If we (and he) been left in any doubt, Bert’s brutal treatment of Don made it clear that the intention was that he should never return to the agency. His response to Don’s protest that he co-founded the agency was jaw-droppingly cold: “along with a dead man. Whose office you now inhabit.” Bert being a rather reclusive figure, it’s always a rare joy to see veteran movie star Robert Morse bring him to life in the show; as the agency’s elder statesman, it’s always implied that his is the final word. And if so, for Don, it was not a good one.
Not that that excused his response, nicking Roger’s vodka and drinking it neat from a Coke can like a naughty teenager at the high school prom. Don’s been unlikeable in many ways before, but I think this is the first time I’ve seen him acting like a child denied what it wants. Given that drinking at work was one of the things explicitly forbidden in the terms of his return, this was like a kid’s middle finger up to authority.
And of course, it fed into his recurrent problems with alcoholism. The show’s been accused on occasion of glorifying the hedonistic use of booze all day long in 60s business culture, but Don’s occasional lapse into full-on drunkenness have not been pretty. You may think he looks the epitome of 60s cool under most circumstances, but not when he’s staggering around the office slurring his words and throwing random insults to virtual strangers.
Presumably his doomy, portentous remarks to computer installer Lloyd (“You go by many names. I know who you are. You don’t need a campaign, you’ve got the best campaign since the dawn of time.”) are the normally unspoken thoughts that lurk in Don’s head all the time. If so, it’s further evidence that his existential angst is best kept to himself.
It was significant that, of all people he could have called to join him for a drunken excursion to watch the Mets play at Shea Stadium, he chose Freddy Rumsen. As the show’s most prominent recovering alcoholic, I’ve often found Freddy to be more of a cypher than a character (even his last name seems like a lame gag). He belongs to the same faded businessman archetype as Shelley Levene in Glengarry Glen Ross, or Ol’ Gil in The Simpsons and has most frequently been used as an awful warning to the rest of the characters as to where they could so easily end up.
Nonetheless, Joel Murray is a talented actor and has done well with a fairly sketchy part. Levy’s script this week gave him some unexpected backbone as he showed up at SC&P to be confronted with an obviously poleaxed Don, and like a sponsor from AA, took firm charge of him. I assume the implication of Don’s call to Freddy was that, at some level, he knew he needed help, and Freddy was the most qualified to understand how.
So it’s significant that it was the advice of Freddy – a recovering alcoholic usually held as an example pour encourager les autres – that finally got Don to belt up and act like an adult. Not Bert, not Roger, and certainly not Peggy, who he yet again treated abominably. Caught up in the usual power struggles, she wasn’t naïve enough not to notice – “they don’t want to give me Burger Chef, they want to give me Don”. So she ended up facing her first real struggle with an insubordinate ‘junior’, and it was only Don’s eventual realisation that he was acting like an ass that resolved the situation. That’s a bit disappointing, and yet probably realistic; Peggy is hugely good at her job, but still a comparative novice at the poisonous office politics so dominant in the business.
All of this played out against an all-too-literal depiction of the show’s frequent theme of obsolescence, as Harry Crane’s much longed for supercomputer was being installed – where the Creative lounge used to be. Ben Feldman was at his hilarious best as the rebellious Ginsberg, trying to preserve some small (actually, too large) remnant of the old culture – “they’re trying to erase us, but they can’t erase this couch!”
Despite Don’s semi-serious jibe (which foreshadowed later events) of “how many humans have you replaced?”, this is a huge deal. So huge that Don’s initial return to work found the office deserted like the Marie Celeste, in one of those portentous sequences the show does so well. But the staff hadn’t deserted en masse – they were all upstairs watching Jim Cutler smugly use this innovation to further cement his power in the office. His summation – “why not let anyone who sets foot in that door know that this agency has entered the future?” – was also a reminder of the show’s continuing preoccupation with the tumult of change.
Roger Sterling too was dealing with signs of the times in what, initially, seemed to be a typical ‘B Plot’. That scene back in ep1 when his daughter mysteriously forgave him “everything” with a beatific blank smile was indeed a hint of things to come – Margaret had run off to a tumbledown hippy commune, abandoning her husband and son and taking the name ‘Marigold’. Not surprisingly, this didn’t sit well with her uptight mother, Roger’s ex-wife Mona, who turned up at the office demanding that the more laid back Roger do something about it.
Their trip to the commune was both humorous and surprisingly revealing. With ‘Marigold’ refusing to leave, Mona took off and left Roger to bond with their daughter. Thing is, over the last few years, Roger has shown himself to be plenty open-minded to the emerging counter culture, so it was amusing to see how well he fitted in. Peeling spuds in his shirtsleeves, he commented, “I haven’t felt this close to nature since I was in the Navy”.
Initially amusing, the plot thread took a turn towards pathos when father and daughter had a bonding moment as they slept in a ramshackle barn, looking at the night sky through the broken roof. But it finally got actually serious the next day as Roger, refusing to let ‘Marigold abandon her son – tried to bodily drag her home. Only to be confronted by a tirade about his own failings as an absent and negligent father, which clearly struck home.
Despite that he’s frequently the show’s most entertaining character, Roger is more than just a comic relief buffoon, and many of his actions have verged on beating Don for arrogant selfishness. Here, it was nice to see him brought up short by the realisation that he’d effectively ‘abandoned’ his daughter just as thoroughly as she was ‘abandoning’ her son.
I must say though, that hardly excuses her doing the same thing despite having that knowledge. Roger was thoughtless, his daughter came across as just plain selfish, complaining, “how he can he be happy when I’m not?” As Mona commented earlier, “she is a perverse child who thinks only of herself”. And if you’re so inclined, that could easily have summed up so many of the late 60s dropouts, however idealistic they may have been.
Where’s Bob Benson?
I’m pretty sure now that we’re not actually going to be seeing Bob this season, which is a shame. Nonetheless, his presence continues to hang heavy over the show, notably for old nemesis Pete Campbell. Smirking smugly after bagging the Burger Chef account, he triumphantly exclaimed, “let’s see them give this one to Bob Benson!”
Nothing concrete this week, but there was a lot of talk of the impending Moon landings. Defending the new IBM computer, Lloyd pointed out to Don that you could hardly land on the Moon without such a thing; to which Don responded, “what man laid on his back looking at the stars and thought of numbers?” Roger and ‘Marigold’ were talking about it too, staring at the moonlit sky – “do you think we’ll really put a man up there?” It’s April 1969 now – by July, she’ll have her answer.
Pete’s new client Burger Chef were a very successful fast food chain at this point, but by 1996, they’d ceased to exist. Their competitor causing so much worry, H Salt Fish & Chips, are however still a going concern, should you ever feel the need for “Authentic English” food while in California.
In popular culture, Don avoided actual work with a copy of Philip Roth’s satirical novel Portnoy’s Complaint. Published that January, the book went on to cause a storm of controversy over its explicit depictions of sexuality, particularly amusingly bizarre examples of masturbation. Whatever else you may think of Don, his choice of reading material is always interesting.
Aside from the commune’s rusty truck, there was only one car on display this week – Roger Sterling’s Lincoln Continental. Not sure what year it’s from, but it’s not new; riding shotgun, Mona was heard to complain that “nothing works”.
Amusingly, John Slattery has already advertised Lincoln in a genuine 2010 ad campaign.
Dedicated Followers of Fashion
Roger was as immaculate as ever in an exquisitely tailored blue suit. Until he fell over in the mud.
Floral dresses are very in at the office, usually with very short skirts and knee length boots. Here’s the vapid Meredith modelling a couple:
Peggy, meanwhile, has plainly found a theme for the year – deckchairs with cravats:
Perhaps not up there with classics like The Suitcase, this was still a solid, entertaining piece of drama capably scripted by old hand Erin Levy. The Roger B plot felt a bit throwaway, but was, like everything involving Roger, hugely enjoyable. Don’s plot, on the other hand, was a necessary slap in the face for the character (again). I doubt it will take, it never has before. Still, well played by Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss; I sympathised with Peggy, having been in similar situations myself.
The tangible arrival of the future, the looming new IBM computer, hung heavy over the episode, director Scott Hornbacher underscoring every office scene with the sound of hammers and drills as if to emphasise its all-consuming nature. As ever with Mad Men episode titles, the most obvious ‘Monolith’ to be seen was this new technolocigc al monstrosity. However, the other obvious reference is to the previous year’s big movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which featured not just a Monolith that transforms Mankind, but also a murderous computer. No wonder the staff at Creative feel threatened…