Monday, October 11, 2010

Mad Men 412

A line or a circle? Businesses, comic strips, and all human lives have to decide if they see life as a progression or a cycle -- one thing after another, or the same things over and over. There's more than one proverb arguing for each perspective. The last time Charlie Brown tries to kick the football is indistinguishable from the first time. And so it is with addiction and other character flaws. Don's constant inconstancy, Roger's elegant callousness, the firm on the brink of catastrophe. Is Mad Men taking us on a journey or in a circle?

The Heinz man says that "food is cyclical" and he's convinced that beans would inevitably return to the position of dominance that ketchup had taken over, "But I don't have that time. So I want to force the issue." The mid-Sixties was a perilous time to begin waiting for the past to return. Unhappily, for many the rear-looking optimist, the past was not to come back soon or ever.

For an addict, the past is all too certain to repeat. And so this episode brought back Don Draper's first on-air dalliance, Midge Daniels, whose life chose a most unfortunate moment in which to freeze. Once upon a time, Don might have left Betty for Midge. Now Midge is being prostituted out by her husband so one or both of them can get another heroin fix. Midge and her husband disagree on whether he reminds her of Brendan Behan (an incurable Irish drunk who died at 41) or Dylan Thomas (an incurable Welsh drunk who died at 39 -- actually, not far from Midge's apartment). Behan or Thomas -- they have this to look forward to. (Incidentally, for the number-minded fan, the Consumer Price Index lets us calculate that all of the prices for which Don is offered Midge, as well as the massive inconveniences that Pete Campbell faces, tabulate 7-to-1 in today's dollar's.)

Which brings us to Don, who has habits of his own. He's tamed alcohol down to a manageable intake. The explosive potential of his infidelities simmers with bookend shots placing Megan literally between Don and Faye. Don didn't think about his actions leading to the end of his business relationship with Faye, so he certainly didn't think about it outing their personal relationship. When Don calls Megan his bodyguard, he may be giving his future self a line to rue, if Megan proves to be less cool-headed than she was when she promised perfect discretion on their night they had sex in his office. Faye unknowingly provides the same potential when she tells Don to have "his girl" make dinner reservations. (Don may subconsciously have Ted Chaough's prank in mind when he chooses a place the Kennedys used to frequent.)

The overall geometry lesson is clear: When life is bad, you wish it to be a line leading to change. When it is good, you wish it to be a circle. Fate curses you by offering you the opposite. Sally's mental wellness is a line... she shows progress and can start cutting back sessions. Betty's is a circle: She still yearns to see a child psychatrist (even with the comic animals painted on the wall), years after her first psychiatrist fairly or unfairly compared her to a child. In order to break Sally's burgeoning relationship with Glen, she agrees to let the family move to another town. Much earlier, Betty had nurtured Glen's crush, itself a remarkably childish fixation, and the worst Betty has to risk from his contact with Sally would if he told Sally that her mother had confided in him when he was even younger.

Much as that plot resembles The Graduate, the end of the episode will inevitably be compared to Jerry Maguire, with Don's treatise promising higher ideals to the world, infuriating his colleagues (who can't do away with him just yet), and garnering the admiration of both Megan and Peggy as a two-headed stand-in for the Renee Zellweger character. And yet, that comparison is categorically too favorable to Don. What drove Don to write it was not an actual epiphany but a calculated risk that the open letter would be good for business. As the firm faced a vicious cycle (every potential new client believes, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, that the firm will not survive the next few months), Don's letter was an attempt to do as Peggy suggested when she turned Don's words back to him, to "change the conversation." Don can't accept his colleague's criticism, but neither can he Megan's praise. He lets her know that he is interested, as we always have known him to be, in seeming rather than being. And she knew that.

But when we first heard in the voice of his journal that he was quitting tobacco, did we think that he meant he was quitting his personal habit or anything otherwise lofty and not merely making a business move? Did we think that he ripped the binding out of his journal for nothing? The creators are to be commended if we believed that Don was on a line and not a circle, because he had a lit cigarette in his left hand while he spelled high ideals out with his right.

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My previous Mad Men Season Four breakdowns:

Ep 01 Public Relations
Ep 02 Christmas Comes But Once a Year
Ep 03 The Good News
Ep 04 The Rejected
Ep 05 The Chrysanthemum and The Sword
Ep 06 Waldorf Stories
Ep 07 The Suitcase
Ep 08 The Summer Man
Ep 09 The Beautiful Girls
Ep 10 Hands and Knees
Ep 11 Blowing Smoke


  1. brilliant as always, Rickdad. thank you.i definately thought Don would be quitiing smoking, as the "journal scene" unfolded - but how could he... I am hopeful for SCDP (could the C in Cooper be replaced by the C in Campbell?). I got the same feeling, as the show went through all those reading Don's article in the NY Times as when Don had the wall street interview at the end of Public Relations. hopeful for tomorrowland.

  2. Your commentary is amazing! My wife and I read it after watching each episode. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and for enriching the show we love so much.

    Greg M.

  3. m4mm, thanks! I felt the contradiction as soon as he started writing, but I myself was duped for a moment, thinking something like, "Oh, Don intends to quit... but it will be hard." Well, maybe Tomorrowland will be for Don what his vision of California was for the Madison Square Garden campaign, changing the conversation from malignancy to renewal.

  4. Greg -- thanks! I'm very happy to hear that you enjoy it.