Monday, August 23, 2010

Mad Men 405

The Chrysanthemum and The Sword, Ruth Benedict's 1946 study on the culture of Japan, rests on the central premise that Japanese culture exerts influence on the individual through the threat of shame. In contrast, many Western subcultures such as Roman Catholicism rely on guilt as a comparable motivational force. The distinction comes down to whether or not one must be caught to feel punished. Shame as a motivating force is an apt lens to hold up to Don Draper, who is avidly immoral when certain of not being caught but is consumed with the fear of having his secrets found out. Whether or not that book or this idea offer accurate insight regarding Japan, the distinction between guilt and shame is the central principle for the episode as a whole.

In the episode's central non-business subplot, the idea of guilt and shame are at the forefront of Sally's two peccadilloes. When Sally cuts her hair in an obvious bid for attention, everybody's care is for the shame it might bring upon them: The sitter's reaction is "Your dad is going to kill me... Do you understand I'm in worse trouble than you are?" Don's reaction is that when Betty finds out that he will be "in a river of shit" and he presents Sally with a hat covering her hair, to stall the revelation a moment longer. Finally, in a darkly comic circuit of mutual shame, Betty believes that Sally's misbehavior is for the purpose of publicly punishing Betty herself for the divorce.

Later, when Sally is caught masturbating, Betty's reaction is a spotlight on her hypocrisy: She tells Sally that this is not to be done privately or publicly, but later tells the psychiatrist that it's something she herself did and still does ("mostly outgrew it"). Shame becomes an endlessly rising canon: the resort to psychiatry itself is something that Betty has hidden from Henry, and that Don wants to keep from the world, asking the dense Miss Blankenship, "Lower your voice, please."

Don has always been a reliable source of hidden truths. Early in the episode, a crushing blow to him is contained in a brief interaction with Miss Blankenship: A call to California has gotten no answer. Cultural references ranging from "Help Me, Rhonda" to Selma, Alabama place this episode in March 1965. Months after Don's visit with the real Mrs. Draper, she is likely succumbing to cancer, and Don no longer has anyone with whom this many losses can be acknowledged.

In fact, given the supposed overarching distinction between Japan and the West, the only person in the episode who comes across as a firm representative of the West is Roger Sterling. Though he's utterly isolated for putting a stubborn war grudge ahead of business interests, the principle driving him is all internal: "I made a pledge to a lot of men you'll never meet not to do business with them." He may as well be abstaining from sin in order to please the heavenly saints -- Roger absorbs heaps of shame upon himself to stand by that principle, with xenophobia that is as reprehensible as it is brilliantly executed, with barbs covering unconditional surrender, the atomic bombings, and seppuku.

Maybe because of the particular subculture of advertising, "where the truth lies", anybody driven more by guilt than shame should likely have found an exit long ago. Don, putting his much-lauded brain to use by reading the episode's eponymous work of nonfiction (he channels George C. Scott's Patton: "Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!"), devises a stratagem to destroy his personal adversary Ted Shaw, depending on Don's ability to make the Japanese executives lose face in his meeting with them. Don, who could just as well be speaking of himself when he quotes "A man is shamed by being openly ridiculed and rejected. It requires an audience." correctly understands that the Honda executives can be controlled with shame, and so he launches a plan involving a fake commercial, and he manages to manipulate his nemesis into providing the stimulus for that shame. We should not be surprised if Peggy later cites Don's scheme after he criticized her for staging a fight over smoked ham in the season opener. If all of the racial stereotypes advanced by the episode were true, it is hard to imagine that the translator could bring himself to tell his bosses "You did not honor your own rules." This capped a masterful deceit to drain both cash and honor from Shaw's ad agency, set to the caper jazz from Season Three's finale.

To be successful, drama relies upon character development and not just character. The surprising twist in this episode may be that Don is growing rather that spiraling towards a fall. His "Japanese" outlook is eminently on display when he expresses amazement that a trapeze artist would confess to Dr. Faye Miller a key truth about his relationship with his father. "He said that?" Don asks with characteristic distaste for such personal revelation, especially where one's father is concerned. "Why does everybody need to talk about everything?" But the more he talks with Faye, the more he starts to open up. Soon he's talking about his divorce, his kids, Sally's problems -- just the sort of things one would expect Don to hide. The great mystery laid down by this episode is: Why does Don open up to Faye? Is it that he sees another shallow Betty in the all-too-similarly-named Bethany? As he loses Anna Draper, is he looking for someone to share the truth with? Does he see in the PhD with the fake wedding ring, which she ironically removed as a facade within a facade last episode, someone who lives as he does, with three-level lies? Or maybe he's not developing at all, and thinks that opening up might be a way to win another battle in his never-ending war for sexual liaisons with every attractive woman around him. Thus far in the series, Don's simple self-serving motives have yet to be trumped, and could just as well have been the subject when Joan asked "Not very subtle, are they?" and the translator ogled her signature physique while answering, "No, they are not."


  1. Great blog - I enjoyed reading this.

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  3. You are the best reviewer i've read online. you nail it every week!

    your introspection deserves a tete a tete with David Mamet!





  5. I thought it was interesting how Don kept being stuck in the middle of other people's conflicts - but he was kind of putting himself there.

    He put himself between Roger and Pete. He put himself between his daughter and ex-wife. I'm not sure what that portends, but it seems like he's more willing to go the extra mile toward preventing what he has left in life from falling apart. Roger and Pete having any serious kind of drama could cause harm to SCDP, which is what he has left of his career (although it at least has some potential to grow). The kid having trouble with the ex-wife could cause harm to his visitation rights, which is all he has left of his old family.

    I wonder how much that factored into his canny choice to completely fuck over his "competition" later on in the episode by turning the tables on everyone. Defensive mechanisms, for certain.

    Except with Faye. He, which I guess I predicted but wasn't that hard to figure out, opened up to Faye. And in doing so totally got some inside info about her, too. Clearly her vulnerability is for Don to show a little bit of his vulnerability.