Tuesday, September 7, 2010
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 è 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."