Monday, August 30, 2010

Mad Men 406

Peggy recalls the announcement of Don's nomination for a Clio. Don let everybody pat him on the back even though, Peggy reveals, she came up with the idea. And, she tells Stan, Don thought that she was clapping for him. Stan asks her, "Who claps for themselves?"

In this episode, Don, certainly. Also Roger, Peggy, Pete, Ken Cosgrove, Harry, Ned Elliott, Ted Shaw, Danny, the supposed Major General Alvin, and Harry Crane. And, Stan, let it be noted, you yourself. Like most episodes this season, "Waldorf Stories" has a single theme running through each of several subplots and this time it is the desire for and overreaching for credit and acclaim. Three flashbacks simultaneously develop this theme with regard to Roger while also helping to answer the season's central question, "Who is Don Draper?" The flashbacks also mythologize the show's untold backstory, showing us how Don insinuated himself into Sterling Cooper in the days when Roger's hair had some pigment, Joan was the woman on his arm, and Don didn't know how to color coordinate.

We've seen Don bask in the glow of acclaim before. In last season's "The Color Blue", his face told it all when he was recognized for excellence at Sterling Cooper's fortieth anniversary celebration. But only his face. This time, when Don is given recognition but doesn't have Betty on his arm as a stabilizing influence, (and she herself as an ego-sating trophy), the event brings out every worst instinct he has, leading to a horrific all-weekend drinking binge wrapped around two one-night stands who met one another. In this episode's past as well as present-day narration, "Who is Don Draper?" is most easily answered in terms of ambition and a craving to be "a very important man at a very important agency". Past-tense Don wanted to be like Roger. And as the episode also told us pointedly, "Be careful what you wish for, because you'll get it."

The flashbacks show us that Don is much the same man now that he was then, a man whose very syntax works, despite his brilliance, in limited patterns. He tells Roger, "I don't think that's how it goes" and tells Danny, "That's not how it goes." He pitches his ill-advised bid to meet with Life Cereal's executives while drunk by saying "What do you say we put a cherry on this thing?" Later, his pass at Faye begins with "What do you say we get outta here and really celebrate?" And in a pattern larger than mere words and phrases, Don has wished to become like Roger and by now, to an extent that is almost hard to watch, it turns out that he has.

Don and Roger are both successful, but can't be told that enough. The self-defeating nature of such a strong desire for positive reinforcement is put on display many times. Beyond the desire to actually do good work (what Don tells Faye matters, though he's nowhere near actually possessing that mindset), these men and others like them desire the explicit recognition for it to the point of requesting it, and manipulating events to help keep it for themselves to the exclusion of others' success, not to mention to the exclusion of the truth. Roger defines himself to Joan as a man deserving of credit for finding men like Don. But what the flashbacks show us is that Roger didn't evaluate Don's talent; he did everything possible to reject Don and ended up unable to recall hiring Don while drunk; it is a fact either that Roger made such an offer or that Don recognized when Roger was drunk enough that Don could fabricate the story of Roger having hired him without the lie being caught. Certainly the ad men's usual lies increase in frequency when alcohol is mixed in. Don's mid-bender lies to Betty, Doris, and Peggy pale in comparison to his taking the credit for an ad campaign that Peggy thought of. That is, if her memory is accurate, and she's not imagining a larger role for herself in the Glo Coat ad, something that is suggested when she admits that Don came up, at least, with the cowboy concept for the ad.

Peggy doesn't have to worry about suffering the harmful effects of receiving too much acclaim. Any that she deserves for the Glo Coat ad has been directed entirely to Don, and if there were any acclaim left over, Roger would want it. She takes heaps of disrespect from Don and everyone ranging from Stan to Miss Blankenship. And she's not only putting the sexist pig Stan in his place when she uses her bare body to arouse and tease him; she's also getting an ego boost thanks to her body when her career is determined to deny her credit for her mind. Indeed, fact that women could only get recognition for their sexuality is highlighted by the fact that the one woman from the firm who is invited to the awards ceremony is not Peggy, who worked on the prize-winning account, but Joan. In an interaction that we cut in too late to witness, Joan entertains the advance of some unseen ad man, to which Pete says, "That was not a business proposition" and Joan replies, "Catch more flies with honey." Joan may just have received enough positive recognition in her lifetime that she actually cares more about the business ramifications of such an interaction than one more opportunity to have her ego stroked.

The minor characters in the episode provide a veritable tidal wave of moments when they, too, crave their moment in the sun. Lane responds to Harry's Red Skelton story, "I surmise due to the usual nature of your stories that that's someone of note." Danny, whose name is not coincidentally like Don's, puts famous ads by other people in his portfolio. The "general" calls attention to his quilt of decorations. The first of Don's two conquests won an award for a jingle that is the Star Spangled Banner.

Inflating one's self is only one approach to ego. Downplaying others is a path to the same result. While Don has taken the credit for Peggy's work, and to her chagrin is in the process of doing so with Danny.
Astonishing given the later revelations, Don early on tells Peggy, "You finish something, you find out that everyone loves it right around the time that it feels like someone else did it." He means that it feels like someone else, in the abstract, did it even as she knows that she actually did! And she's not above cutting others down when the time comes. When Peggy needs to get back at Stan, she says, with an anatomical second meaning referring to his earlier arousal, "I only changed one small thing".

While Don and Roger are busy illustrating "Pride cometh before the fall", the moment priming Greek tragedy in the episode is when they witness and respond to the public self-humiliation of Duck Phillips, the duplicitous former colleague who sold the company from under them and bedded Peggy in hotel rooms. Duck, a relapsed alcoholic, attempts, but badly, to heckle the presenter at the Clios. Roger and Don laugh at Duck's drunken attempt to capture the spotlight. In the same weekend, they'll both hit resounding lows helped by the mixture of alcohol and ego. The only consolation for Don and Roger is that they go on to do so before smaller audiences.


  1. Your Mad Men reviews are consistently excellent! I've thoroughly enjoyed them.

    Some other points about this episode I noticed:

    Both Don and Danny got into advertising because of their horrible ads. Don thinks Roger Sterling was playing a joke on him because Danny's cocky naivety eerily paralleled his own start, complete with a bad book.

    Don gave advice about his drink in the board room, "Make it simple, but significant." Peggy was listening. She returned that drink to him, unsipped, on the corner of his desk when he refused to budge with regards to taking undue credit. Later, Peggy lets Stan shine in the presentation of his ad design, saying, "It's true, I only changed one little thing." Another small but significant gesture, covertly demonstrating to her ego-inflated peers that what has transpired is not lost on her.

    Don told Doris that his name was Dick, as evidenced by her using that name when she woke up. It also shows how they both woke up in bed with somebody different than the person they thought they laid down with the night before. Later, Don can't look Doris in the eye when he says "I had a great time" but stares at her directly when he says "I'm really sorry I forgot I had plans." It's a sincere apology to the wrong person. A substitute blond for the one he can't have (Betsy), and the one he needs professionally (Faye), but can't step up to meet. And of course, Anna, who is his home, and slipping away.

    This is at least the second time this season that Don's name was used to signal the shifting line of his public/private world and his past/present. Two episodes ago, Anna addressed her letter to 'Dick' as 'Don', showing that she understands him and his need for discretion, despite that they both see and address each other as they really are. That also dovetailed nicely with the whole privacy theme, outlined in this nice Slate piece/comment:
    And, as my friend from MetaFilter, Cool Papa Bell noticed, Don opens the episode reading a letter from someone who knows him well and ends it unable to write one to someone who doesn't.

    Anna, Faye, Doris, Betsy (the four diametrically opposed blondes)...Rachel, Allison...Peggy, Joan...all of this juxtaposition of who he can and can't have, who he rejects (or rejects him), paired with themes of abandonment, anonymity, etc...all this surely will come to a breaking point soon.

    Can't wait to see it all, and hear what you have to say about it.

  2. kim, i am,

    her name is Betty (pet name Bets) nickname for Elizabeth, very popular with girls born in the depression era, not Betsy.

    Rik, you overlooked Don's workproduct which Roger noticed immediately: Betty in a Heller mink om an enlarged promo ad.

    Both Roger and Betty converged in Hellers and changed the course of Don's life: He had it made in the shade, except he can't hold onto anything valuable.

    Last season:
    Roger: "You are not good at relationships, because you don't value them."
    Don: "I value ours." (It sounded phony, because he never had a role model to emulate value.)

  3. iamkimiam, that's a fantastic series of observations! Perhaps Don's contempt for Danny is another way of loathing his former self. I particularly like your focus on the supporting characters in terms of what they mean to Don. (E.g., to whom he owes an apology, and to whom not.) That's a perspective I'll try to remember in the future.

    It seemed like episode 405 moved Don to a more stable place, and away from a breaking point, but now that looks like a short spell from the overall trend.