Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Mad Men 407

As has been the case all season, the episode has a single theme driving the beat, and this time it was toughness. The client case, Samsonite, featured the only luggage of the day that strove for durability. The current event de jour was the Ali-Liston fight that marked the coronation of the then-23-year-old boxer, known for his toughness in taking punches, though in this fight, he won early by giving one. The distinction between giving a punch and taking one is useful to consider in the episode's main plots involving Don and Peggy. From the pitched football commercial and the bad news that both Don and Peggy suffer to the state of Don's and Duck's respective livers, the protagonists in the episode take punches instead of giving them. That holds true when Don throws a punch and fails to connect. But he takes punches very well episode-long, and is likely in a far better situation by the end than at the beginning. Because in cultivating Peggy as a confidante, Don has done himself the first favor we've seen in a long time. He may even have hit bottom and rebounded towards a happier future, although this is far from certain.

The counterpoint of toughness, (male) weakness, was inevitably on display. Peggy's uncompelling beau, Mark, fasting without his upwardly-mobile woman to the ironically-chosen tune of La donna รจ mobile, was in both senses of the word pitiful in turning the shame of being stood up into a noncommittal breakup. Don wept openly in front of Peggy and bemoaned his life in ways beyond the day's signature tragedy. The alcoholics' vulnerability was a token of amusement for Roger, just as Roger's unintended exposure in the form of the found audiotape was a token of amusement for Don and Peggy. The loss of male power was most literally brought to bear in the form of Bert Cooper's unnecessary orchiectomy, a revelation that explains the previously obscure reference from two episodes ago to "Lyle Evans, M.D." that Roger made when explaining to Cooper the eternal animosity he felt regarding the Japanese race. The weakness of the weaker man was also on overt display in the two lost fistfights of the episode: Ali's knockout of Sonny Liston (still rumored to be a fix with Liston having taken, allegedly, an intentional dive) and Don's laying out by Duck (likely fixed more by alcohol than by Duck's war experience).

The point of this episode's theme was not to show several men (and articles of luggage) swapping physical injuries. It is to peel back the characters, primarily that of Don Draper, to reveal their inner core. We didn't see or care to see if Don ended up with physical bruises. We saw instead the evidence of the deeper injuries -- the best answer yet to "Who is Don Draper?" Injured by the loss of his sole confidante Anna (a loss whose impact on himself he notes; the tragedy in terms of Anna herself, he omits), Don hurriedly replaces her with Peggy. This is a turn of events so beneficial to Don that we might surmise that he forced her into the late night of work precisely to help bring about that end. It is noteworthy that of all of Don's many secrets, only a small number of them are still withheld from Peggy by the end of this: Principally, the occupation of his mother; and, the great ruse of switching identities with the first Don Draper (and the latter fact, remember, is already known to half the partners at the firm). It would be a comparatively small matter now for Don to complete the act of coming clean and make Peggy every bit the insider that Anna was. She's a good choice: smart enough to understand him; moreover, he already knows one of her secrets -- the what, but not the who of her pregnancy. Moreover, we see Peggy suffer in the face of numerous gibes, from Trudy, her mother, and Mark, that she is not as young and pretty as a woman in search of a husband could be.

Running the "toughness" angle between the different subplots gets to the core decision facing Don. He sees the boxing matchup as a same battle between approaches to manliness. He hates "Clay" not because he is threatened by African-American masculinity, as Peggy's father was by Nat King Cole's. He hates him because "He's got a big mouth. 'I'm the greatest.' Not if you have to say it. Liston just goes about his business. Works methodically." Liston, as Don encapsulates him, is what Don chose to be in the interview that began this season -- the interview that didn't work because the firm needed Don to be a visible star. The interview that ended the season premiere had Don selling himself like Ali. But this was a put-on. Don still hates having a big mouth to the point that he hides himself, destructively, from the contact that he obviously needs. He opened up a bit to Faye last week, and much more so to Peggy this time.

It's a tribute to the high quality of the series that this episode can offer, spread across Don and Peggy's several conversations, possibly the most open discussion of the creative process that we've seen, and that that seems like the sidebar to the real interest -- what is going on with this particular bunch of fictional characters. And that it matters less that we see the great adman and adwoman trying to find the right pitch for a product than that we see Don working on a more important item: himself, the self that has been edited and tweaked countless times to arrive at this obviously inadequate, all-too-often drunken man on the verge of collapse.

Roger deftly makes fun of the Alcoholics Anonymous members in comments to Don, who sorely needs that advice. Don may chuckle at Roger's comments, but just going about one's business of vomiting in the work bathroom is losing, not winning. Duck shows us, in a collapse that plays out in seconds over a phone call (and later over Roger's carpet), how much a man with his -- and Don's -- problem with alcohol can disintegrate when he tries to be tougher than his problems. Duck shows us a man who is in his professional and social life like Liston laid out before Ali. Don was on the way there last episode, and he's on the path to this outcome midway through this one.

Don is working out the problem of his life all episode long. He's unintentionally speaking of himself when he says, earlier in the long night, "I'm not so sure about it. I mean, every time we get into this, we abandon the toughness element. Maybe there's something to the elephant." The strong, solitary figure, silently trying to resist all that's outside -- Don is the elephant. And as the night wears down, and Don's weaknesses are exposed, he draws more and more strength from turning to Peggy, eventually giving up everything and placing his head in her lap, not as a sexual overture, but out of need for comfort.

If there is hope for Don Draper it is that as he considers holding onto toughness, in the ad and in himself, that he says "The best idea always wins and you know it when you see it and then it happens." After turning to Peggy, he is the Don Draper of Season One again, mystically fresh, with the winning idea. Whatever their clasped hands mean, Don has gotten closer to the best idea about what he needs to be when Peggy asks, about his door, "Open or closed?" and he answers, about a new self who has a confidante by his side, "Open."


  1. What I find funny, Rikdad, is that I recommended your site to my wife....she's a big Mad Men fan.

    Much like my comments about your insight on Batman....she mentionned that your really "get" this show.

    Looks like you have a different fan base now. :)

  2. Am loving the Mad Man analysis as much as the Batman stuff. Well, maybe Batman more, but only because Grant Morrison comes up with some fiendish puzzles.

    Have one prediction for the series. Dr. Faye Miller predicted that Don would be married within the year because he was that 'type'. Up to now she has resisted all of Don's advances, making her more elusive and attractive in his eyes. What are the chances of Don marrying Faye before the end of the series? Or certainly before the end of the twelve month period.

    Sorry about the deleted posts - had made an error that neeeded to be fixed.

  3. Awesome post after an awesome episode! This morning I found that I kept coming back to the fact that the one time in the episode--perhaps the one time all season--that Don actually refused a drink was at the end of The Suitcase. He asked for a drink, Peggy confronted him with his drinking. He confessed what he really wanted--not to drink, but to be able to deal with the phone call he knew would be bad. When Peggy brought him the drink he laid his head in her lap instead.

    Which I just realize completely goes back to Roger's hilarious phone call about the AA guys. When asked how to deal with a tragedy (like killing someone in a motorboat) Roger responds with drinking, exactly as Don is doing throughout the ep. But in the end the better idea--vulnerability--wins out. Don knows it when he sees it. And it's the moments when he's opening up that he seems the toughest throughout the episode.

  4. Excellent post. Your point about the parallels between Don and the need to be like Clay/Ali but being more drawn to Liston is compelling and cannot be argued with. Wow.

    I don't think Don will marry Dr. Faye. I think Allison is going to get knocked up and he marries her out of obligation.

  5. JMD, I'm glad she enjoys. This second, newer topic for my blog may seem ad hoc, and to some extent it certainly is, but I think the two main foci, Grant Morrison's Batman work and Mad Men are both worthy of comment, and I've enjoyed trying to bring the same approach to both. Thanks for the kind words!

  6. Patrick, it seems like Dr. Faye is going to be particularly compelling for Don in that she's both attractive and smart. They have almost zero professional agreement, so if they do get together, it would be on some level a Hollywood stereotype: the couple that feuds until they embrace.

    I think we'll find out sooner or later that she's "a type", too. Isn't everyone?

  7. sistermagpie, great observation! Actually, last episode, another commenter here, imkimiam, also watched Don's drink and noticed that he left it untouched, and then Peggy brought it to him. I need to follow the props more carefully -- those actions must be in the script.

    No doubt, Roger's comments are a foil for what's happening with Don and Duck. I'm not sure if Don is an alcoholic per se as opposed to a man battling depression with alcohol, but he's flirting with his own destruction in either case. Roger either doesn't see that regarding Don's recent situation or doesn't care... perhaps he would even relish seeing Don brought low.

  8. agmcfc, I don't think I can predict where Don's future lies, either professionally, socially, or medically. I don't think this series wants to be an 80-hour version of Leaving Las Vegas. If the societal parallel is the point, it's fair to say that the late Sixties were a time of upheaval, but not utter destruction. An interesting quality of the series is its willingness to make large jumps in time, especially between seasons. We might first see Don's next marriage abruptly, several months into it.

  9. Rickdad -- Very thoughtful comments and wonderful observations. I think I'd have to own the DVD and rewatch the series to hone in on some of your more salient points. I do have a different take on the final scene. I believe Don's response to leaving the door open was part reference to his and Peggy's relationship and mostly an overt desire to air out the literal and figurative stench of emotions that clouded the office the night before. He was clean and fresh, and he wanted the physical space to be that way as well.

  10. WOW! Batman and Robin #14 might be the best issue yet