Monday, September 27, 2010

Mad Men 410

"Do you want to know a secret? Do you promise not to tell?" Those are the lyrics of the Beatles ballad playing over the closing credits. But because it's an instrumental version, they, like most of the truths in this episode, are hidden.

That secrets are the common theme in every subplot in this episode is itself no secret. Early on, Don asks Sally, "Can you keep a secret?" Later, in bed with Henry, Betty says, "I don't want any secrets" while neglecting to tell him, a man defined by political ambitions, that she, his wife, has just lied to federal agents. In their elevator conversation, Pete answers Don's anxiety with "If you're asking if he knows how to keep a secret, he works for the Department of Defense." -- a line which presumes that Pete's friend is more devoted to hiding the truth than to his employer and nation.

If factually informed, as by Doctor Faye's research, this episode might be a tutorial in lying. It's not just that the characters in this episode have secrets. They lie more when they're caught. They lie when they talk about others' lies. Don smiles at his investor's suggestion that he's sleeping with Megan, because that's a scandal he could share with the boys -- and yet it's not true. Joan, anonymous at the abortion clinic, still lies to a stranger and says that she's there for her nonexistent daughter. Pete, who has kept two affairs -- one tinged with blackmail -- from his wife, grouses to her about how liars make life difficult for "honest people" -- a valid complaint, but Pete needn't worry because he doesn't know any.

The news of Lucky Strike's imminent defection is Roger's business-related secret, while Joan's pregnancy is the more immediate of his social secrets. That he suggests that he might leave his wife for her is another. He leverages Lee Garner, Jr., a man with significant lies in his life, into giving SCDP more time by reminding Lee of "all the lies I've told for you." Lee needn't worry too much about the debt incurred when Roger lies for him: Roger's lies come very cheaply. Later, Roger voices sympathy regarding the death of a client while callously thumbing through index cards for his next call. Wishing out loud  -- in front of the man's wife -- that Greg not return alive from Vietnam, Roger shows an almost sociopathic lack of care for anyone who's not him.

Lane has "gone native" in his new home, bearing a Mickey Mouse with red-white-and-blue balloons as a gift, when he expects his son but is met by his father. Lane has a secret girlfriend, who happens to be African-American as well as a Playboy Club bunny. To validate the care with which everyone else guards their secrets, Lane finds out that a cane across the head is the penalty for being found out.

And we are reminded that Don has more than reputation or a caning at stake should his secret past be found out: He is also guilty of desertion, a crime with no statute of limitations, and could face jail time -- in principle but not in practice, even the death penalty -- for a crime. He is rightfully grateful to Betty for hiding his secret. And for following his tactic of further evasion, as Don speaks elliptically once she suggests that they cannot speak freely over the phone. Pete seems to be savvy to this point, meeting Don in person and specifically avoiding the use of the phone. In so visiting, Pete sees Faye departing, and so finds out another secret that he claims he would have preferred not to know. Given the extreme lengths to which he went to find out Don's bigger secrets, this seems itself to be unlikely. Counter-truth tactics are second nature to everyone. Joan and Roger also switch to "code" when she opens his office door. Don and Faye do the same, to cover their relationship.

Finally, when the partner meeting takes place, Pete lies to explain why North American (fictitiously) fired SCDP. Roger, harboring a much bigger lie, berates Pete before giving a thumbs-up to describe business with Lucky Strike.

As the main action ends, Don eyes Megan with obvious intent. Joan's strategy to keep Don from his baser instincts lasted only as long as Miss Blankenship's heart held out. Don is ready to fall again. In keeping with the rest of the episode, this is an impulse than Don keeps, for now, to himself.

All of these private secrets come as second nature to the characters perhaps because their lives are built around secrets. As they propose an approach to advertising for the company that builds missiles ("You never need to say the word 'bomb'"), they scheme up an approach that doesn't mention missiles. The company's report is comically redacted with more black rectangles than it has words remaining. The exec from North American aviation addresses the black rectangles by saying "There'll be fewer black bars as the process moves forward." This prediction, not surprisingly, proves to be false.


  1. Make it go away!

    a. the baby
    b. the north american aviation account
    c. the lies and running
    d. all of the above

  2. Don could be in serious trouble and this could make for a great season finale with the men in black coming after him. Everything including the business could come crashing down with Lucky Strike leaving. I've watched all of Season 4 within a week and Don really is turning into a sociopath.

  3. Hey, Rikdad--
    I just discovered your blog. Enjoyed your secret-centric analysis more than any of the other analyses I read this week. Nice work!

  4. I noticed that the episode began with a contemplative Roger watching a toy bird rocking back and forth. We then see example after example of people deciding whether or not to reveal information to others … with varying outcomes. Seems like when you do, it's a surprise. When you don't, it's a secret. The potential rewards and risks of secrets and surprises were nicely illustrated throughout. And when they happen in multiples, things get really interesting. Poor Roger is sitting on a powder keg. Couldn't happen to a nicer guy ...

I thought Don's maneuvers were (as usual) the most entertaining. After his rejection of his daughter in last week's episode, Don concocts a surprise that delivers. Not only does he get to tell his daughter, and his daughter get to see the Beatles, but she in turn gets to tell everyone she knows that she's going (and went). Don takes care to remind her not to tell anyone that's she's going, gifting her with a concert and a secret of her own, sending her excitement to the stars. With a perfect Beatles fan shriek, Don moves from the back of the doghouse to the top of a mountain. He's a conniving bastard, and on matters other than Don, he is just that good. 

I can't wait to see what Lane does. He should have left the Bunny in charge ...

  5. John, I notice a treatment of Don which is similar, abstractly, to Tony Soprano. Tony was repeatedly led to the brink of self-awareness and change, but never did change for long. Don seems to have put the super-hard drinking behind him, but is as self-absorbed and "sociopathic" as ever. He's shown outstanding ability for self-advancement, but none for moral change.

  6. Leslie -- thanks for the kind words!

  7. Steve, great point paying attention to the unusual opening image. Another characteristic of that situation is that Roger is passive, doing nothing but watching the "fascinating" thing before him. His passivity is criticized in 411.

    Interesting take on the Beatles tickets. Don not only takes in Sally, but Betty -- noteworthy -- smiles for the first time all season in regard to anything Don-related. But, yes, for a man with deep pockets, it's not much of an effort, and he's not even going to listen to the music. His big show of parenting involves leaning on Harry a few times, then being present but inattentive for a couple of hours.

    His disregard for the Beatles, not surprising for a vet of Korea, is another reminder that he is a man of the past facing an era when change is about to come.

  8. The blog is great, but you miss the boat on the Beatles and parenting. His disregard is completely expected for a man his age. It would ring hollow and anachronistic if he was at all interested in listening to his daughter's music, especially when it's the polar opposite of his. Did your parents like what you did? Also, you must not have kids - being present but inattentive is a survival technique and I don't think kids care. My dad used to take me to baseball games, which I loved and which bored him to death. I appreciated, and still appreciate, the sentiment.

  9. Evan, true, his birthdate is likely to preclude Beatles fandom: I take this not as news but as a reminder of where he is vs. where the times are going.

    But I totally disagree on the second point for the very significant reason that Don is already almost entirely absent from his kids' lives. Tuning out at the concert isn't giving him a rare break from nonstop parenting. It's tuning out from what could have been a rare break from his nonstop tuning out. He's not dialing down the interaction from a lot to less. He's dialing it down from almost nothing to nothing.