Monday, August 16, 2010

Mad Men 404: The Rejected

Youth will be served, but not right away. As the decade moves closer to its appointment with revolution and upheaval, the generation that brought change faced many obstacles along the way. Youth and innovation were the subject of more than one of this episode's title reference, "The Rejected."

That begins with photos rejected from LIFE magazine because the boss hates nudes. The photographer's show is raided by the police. Soon enough, Clearasil (a face cream for teenagers) is rejected in favor of Ponds (a face cream for aging women). Allison loses her job as Don's secretary to someone perhaps too old to be her grandmother. The new ideas of Doctor Faye Miller are predictably rejected by Don just as the youth and vigor of Ken Cosgrove have been wasted at the two firms that he's worked for since Sterling Cooper. Along the way, Pete Campbell's child is forgotten when Pete assumes that Peggy's congratulated are work-related. We even find out that Trudy's mother had her uterus removed. The older generation really doesn't allow up-and-comers a break in this episode. Least of all Malcolm X, who is shot.

The rejected strike back. The photographer insults Peggy's entire commercial existence ("Why would I ever do that?"), just a moment after his friend assumes that when she says that she's a writer, that she must mean something besides a copy writer. (Peggy kisses him in thanks for the insult. Or, more to the point, for being part of the generation she chooses when she leaves the white-haired men in suits on the other side of the glass door at the end.) Pete forcefully gets Clearasil to oust Pond's from the firm's business. Allison throws a decoration at Don. Faye once again lashes back at Don when he rejects the very axioms of her approach. And in the episode's final shot, Don closes a heavy wooden door on the old couple arguing with mind-numbing lethargy over pears. If the very old and their ways have no use for the young, the reverse is equally true. And when the sparks are done flying, doors close to separate them. The door that Peggy closes on the older admen could be right out of The Graduate, itself a movie about two generations turning their backs on one another.

Symbols of intergenerational strife are worn to death in studies of the Sixties. Fortunately, "Mad Men" builds these scenarios on the back of rock-solid characterization. When we first see the older-than-Moses secretary now serving Don, we don't need to see Joan Holloway's face to know what sort of misbehavior on Don's part she was insuring against.

When Pete Campbell unleashes a torrent of bile in the direction of his never less than pleasant father-in-law, we react first with the uncomfortable reminder of how thoroughly amoral he is; then with the memory that he is also impeccably pragmatic, wonder not if but how, in his calculation, the vicious attack must be in his best interests. He's not just venting steam ("Every time you jump to conclusions, Tom, you make me respect you less"); he scores the career-boosting business victory that he was angling for, and it only cost him the goodwill of a key member of his family.

And in the process of using the characters, well-defined over seasons past, to execute repetitions on a basic theme, this episode scored one of the best nuanced moments in dramatic television. When Allison's emotional disarray from the quickie with Don threaten to spill over into the focus group, and in so doing shame Don publicly, Don squirms, and a lesser payoff would have been to let the scene erupt noisily, with the largest audience possible. Such are soap operas. But Allison's comments, when she does voice them, end up with just the right audience of one. Her lachrymose outburst is not coherent to the typical mind, but Peggy knows exactly what Allison is saying. She knows that Don has taken advantage of Allison, and that Allison assumes that Peggy must have achieved her career success by giving in to Don's carnal impulses, too. The implied loss of prestige immediately kills Peggy's sympathy. And as we think that Peggy's above that, that Allison has it wrong, we remember that Peggy had thrown herself at Don and it was she who was rejected and how that -- and her momentary fling with Pete -- has to bruise her self image. Allison's not the enemy, just the messenger. The tension helps push Peggy, who was gazing at her engagement ring just before this upheaval, to choose the far side of the glass door at the episode's end.

Don and "Who is Don Draper?" were less focal in this episode than in the last three. But between his distracted approach (what we'd call "multitasking" today) in the call with Lucky Strike, the bottle that was empty because he'd drunk it all, and his squirming during the focus group, we see a Don Draper still in decline. The man who makes his livelihood knowing what people want to hear doesn't know that the woman who kept sidling up to him after their one-minute stand didn't want to have to write her own compliments as her send-off. And Don, philosophically channeling David Hume and Nicholas Nassim Taleb, is technically correct when he tells Faye "You can't tell how people are going to behave based on how they have behaved." But Faye's scientific form of determinism is just another noose he's trying to slip out of. Don, we can tell exactly how you're going to behave based on how you have behaved.

He should accept Faye. She belongs aside the admen. She so adeptly makes up for losing her planned ruse (a misspelled nametag) with another (a "lost" nametag). It's like she went to the same school where Don learned to make up fires to get out of calls he doesn't want to be in. And everything about Pete that Ken Cosgrove is referring to when he says with a brutal lack of conviction, "Another Campbell. That's just what the world needs."


  1. I have to disagree about Faye's "new ideas." They weren't new, they were old, because in that particular instance, Don was right. Faye's focus groups are a thing of the future, but Don's critique of them are too.

  2. The title of the episode was "The Rejected" by the way. Great article though!

  3. sistermagpie, nobody can critique Faye's approach until she lays it on them, but Don's critique is the reaction of someone who's got an existing method to a newcomer with a different one. Faye even says that she's heard it before.

    In this particular moment of the dialectic, Faye has the first word, but Don's championing an old method vs. her newer one.

  4. Alex, thanks! Ouch, the pain I feel getting that wrong!

  5. I don't think that the engagement ring (I believe I saw a wedding band as well?) is Peggy's. She gives it to Faye when she comes in from finishing the group, as though she didn't want to appear married in the presence of the girls who are seeking to wed.

  6. I agree with Sistermagpie. Faye, after her new-fangled psychology, comes up with the same pitch Fred is pushing for with Peggy and which she rejects -- no, women want more than marriage when they do what they can to look beautiful

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