Mad Men has always been very clever about utilizing real products of the time to comment on the very people who are scrambling their asses off to make the public buy those products. In the early days of the show, the characters and the company of Sterling Cooper were dominated and defined by the brand Lucky Strike; a product name that evokes action and good consequences (even if it was a product defined by passivity and bad consequences). Since the heady days of “It’s toasted,” many walls have come tumbling down for these people and in light of that encroaching feeling of societal decay and deterioration, it’s perhaps not surprising that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is being defined, at the moment, by something that is not what it’s supposed to be; something that is a fake version of a real thing, meant to fool you into thinking you’re getting the same thing. From the name “Lucky Strike,” with its 19th Century air of can-do-ism, to “Cool Whip,” a name that signifies nothing, serving as a weak description of a product that exists to mimic something far superior to it. In the end, it’s a bowl of chemicals in a room that’s called a kitchen but that anyone can see is really a laboratory.
Things not being what they’re supposed to be was a theme all over this episode. Megan is not a copywriter at heart, even though she’s good at it. Pete is not a skier, but he’ll awkwardly snatch up a gift of free skis because they signify his importance, just as Pete will fetishistically hold on to anything that he feels signifies his importance; e.g., the rifle. That singing group is not the Beatles but they sound enough like them that middle-aged people like Don can’t tell the difference. Peggy is not Megan and when you shove her into Megan’s role and expect her to use Megan’s set of skills, you get a supremely embarrassing scene for everyone (because “Just try it” is NOT “Just taste it.”). Things not being what they’re supposed to has been a theme for Mad Men since the very beginning and played itself out in ways big and small, over and over again. From the Draper marriage to fake Ann-Margrets; when things are not what they’re “supposed” to be, people wind up disappointed by the results. That’s the grand irony of the world of advertising; you spend countless hours and dollars selling an image of something to the public, and it’s an image that no product could ever live up to, which means that advertising is the business of, first, lying to people and then ignoring their overwhelming disappointment.
“Overwhelming disappointment” could be a caption under a picture of Pete Campbell right now. Like everyone else who’s fanatic about the show, we spent the weeks before the season premiere watching previous seasons and trying to guess where certain characters were going to go this year. Of all the possibilities for story and character development for which we eagerly offered hypotheses, depressed, possibly suicidal Pete Campbell never even occurred to us. What’s interesting about his deep malaise this season is that it’s largely unexplained. When Betty was having psychological problems, no one needed to have it explained as to why; the unhappiness of her life in Ossining was apparent to anyone who viewed it. But with Pete, things aren’t so clear. He’s a junior partner in an agency that values his work highly; he’s married to a woman he seemed to be quite in love with for a good while there; and he’s got the baby and the house in the Connecticut suburbs, all of which are indicators of his success and the achievement of his dreams. But Pete always wanted to be a bigger man than he actually is; awkwardly “seducing” various women in inferior positions (Peggy, the German nanny, the model, the prostitute), fondling a rifle while dreaming of hunting and killing some large animal, and trying over and over again to get Don Draper to bestow his blessing upon him. Pete, ever the child of privilege, wants it all and wants it now, and whenever he doesn’t get exactly what he wants (which is always), another piece inside him breaks off and floats away. He is defined by want. This is why he and Don will never be close with each other; because Don is defined by his ability to make people want.
Whatever the reasons, Pete this season seems determined to fuck up his life as much as he can. And in a move that would only be notable to someone outside his life, watching it (i.e., us), he put another notch in his “trying to be Don Draper” belt by inadvertently sleeping with … Betty Draper. Or at least, Betty Draper from 5 years ago; right down to the house, the shirtwaist dresses, and the housewife ennui. It says something about the desperation he’s feeling that he would essentially follow Harold home just so he could ambush his wife. Beth doesn’t seem like the most stable person in the world and this act of adultery bothered us more than most of the ones depicted on this show because it was the act of two people who don’t seem particularly sane at the moment. There’s been a lot of death and suicide imagery this season and quite a bit of has revolved around Pete, from the rifle, to the car crash films, to the Don crack about wanting to shoot yourself for spending Saturday night in the suburbs, to – and this was the most heavy-handed of all – Pete’s mentioning of the suicide clause in his life insurance; the writers have invested a lot of energy into promoting a black cloud of doom over Pete’s head. Personally, we have trouble buying it just because they’ve sold it so hard to us. Death does seem to be coming for someone this season, but it almost seems too pat to have it be Pete. Then again, we’ve never seen him as down as he is right now.
Someone else deeply unhappy in their current role is Megan Draper. Unlike every single other person on the show, however, Megan is capable of doing something about it. Mad Men is populated by people who seem to be resigned to their fates and who are letting this tumultuous decade get the better of them. Change occurs in the lives of these people but they all have a tendency to just let it happen or to let things deteriorate and escape at the last second. It almost never comes at the end of a sentiment like, “I don’t like this. I’m going to change it.” And sure, Megan had some difficulty getting to that point, not least of all because she was afraid to tell Don, but in the end, she did something that even Peggy had to admiringly admit “took a lot of guts.” We thought Peggy was at first a bit too hard on Megan but after a second viewing, her anger made a lot more sense. For one, Megan put her in the position of having to lie to Don; for another, it represented a mindset that Peggy couldn’t possibly comprehend: “You don’t WANT to do this?!?” To Peggy, who had to fight like crazy to get where she is, it’s unfathomable that someone who had it all handed to her is going to walk away from it. She eventually came around to respecting Megan’s decision, but her initial thoughts were a lot closer to Joan’s highly cynical take that Megan was now just another dilettante second-wife to a wealthy man.
Don, for his part, is trying to give Megan what she wants. It’s rare for the show to give Don any credit for growth, but having him come right out and say that he didn’t want Megan to become bitter and disappointed the way Betty was demonstrates a serious leap forward in empathy for him. It also demonstrates a surprisingly deep understanding of what went wrong in his first marriage. We would have assumed that he thought Betty ended it because of Henry or because of Dick Whitman, but he seems to have gained an understanding that Betty ended it because she was deeply unhappy in her life with him and never got to be the person she thought she was going to be. Even better, he seems to have gained an understanding of how much of that came down to how he treated her. So it speaks well of him that he is being supportive of Megan but he’s confused by it and fearful of what it means for him. He doesn’t understand the young; doesn’t understand their music, and when faced with the prospect of his young wife doing something his middle-aged self can’t even wrap his head around, he is literally staring into the abyss. Sure, it’s an empty elevator shaft, but the symbolism couldn’t have been any more apparent. Don’s scared about this turn of events and so tired of trying to figure the world out that he can’t spend more than a minute listening to The Beatles imploring him to turn off his mind, relax, and float downstream, before turning it off in befuddled, middle-aged disgust and shuffling off to bed.
Much more to come in our Mad Style post later this week.
[Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC]