In the world of Mad Men, some days you’re the ketchup bottle and some days you’re the french fry. And in this era of change and experimentation, it’s a time of great discovery for our characters.
Joan is discovering that no matter what her title or how much money she brings home, she’s going to have to suffer under the impression of others that she didn’t deserve her partnership. Harry is discovering that the partners are still undervaluing him (and the sea change in advertising he represents) after all these years. Dawn is discovering that her fear in her job is leaving her vulnerable. Don is discovering that serving as someone’s mentor inevitably results in getting bitten. Megan is discovering that Don will never give her the support in her career she expects and in fact, is going to get more emotionally abusive the better she does at it. And yet, despite all the backbiting and disappointments, LOVE (or the 1968 version of it) is in the air.
Since we know just how much her many fans were salivating for a Joan storyline, let’s deal with her first. It’s funny, because we watched a bunch of random 1st and 2nd-season episodes this weekend just to get a feel of how much each character has changed over time. Every character but Don has, by the way; many of them radically. Anyway, we noted just how much of a bitch and Queen Bee Joan was back in the early days of the show. And we don’t mean “bitch” in the sense that she was strong and ambitious and difficult to deal with; we mean she actively went out of her way to hurt or humiliate other people and enjoyed it while demonstrating no ambition at all except to be seen as the prettiest in the room at all times. The famous “basket of kisses” scene really stood out to us as an example of how far she’s come in 8 years. In the scene, she was either condescending or outright nasty to every woman she interacted with, while literally bending over to show her ass to the men watching. And the only man in the room she spoke to got treated to a nasty crack about his alcoholism even though, unlike every other man in the scene, his behavior was utterly benign. Does that even sound like the Joan of 1968? To be perfectly honest, when we had that realization of how much she changed, we began to wonder if it was all that realistic; especially in a show with at least one of its themes being about how bad people are at the act of change.
So at first, we found her behavior toward Scarlet and Dawn to be a little left-field, but as it all unfolded, we realized we were getting a glimpse of the old Joan; the one that never really went away, even after the disappointments and mistakes that softened (and focused) her in the ensuing years. We have a feeling that, like everything Mad Men-related (right down to buttons and ashtrays), this will be highly debated, but we didn’t think Joan really acted properly toward either of the secretaries. A time-clock violation is certainly punishable, but since SCDP allows pot-smoking and sleeping in the office (among so many other things), and so many of its employees seem to be able to come and go as they please, we thought she was on pretty shaky ground to be so furious and she had practically no standing at all to fire anyone on the spot. Scarlet and Dawn have never been portrayed as anything but excellent secretaries. Not to mention just how unprofessional – and cruel - it was to yell “Scarlet, you’re fired” across a public space, in front of other employees. No, this was not Joan at her best; not by a long shot. And considering she used to leave the office in the middle of the day to meet Roger in hotel rooms – and left in the middle of the day last season to go hop in a Jaguar with Don and get drunk – it leaves her something of a hypocrite. But at least in that regard, she was in good company. Hypocrisy was in the air this episode almost as much as free love was.
At the same time, she’s dealing with a pissed-off Harry who, being Harry, can’t express a thought without offending someone; usually a woman. Again, this will be debated wildly, but we think Harry had a point about everything except how Joan got her partnership. He really is terribly undervalued and he really should have a partnership by now; especially with Lane out of the picture. But because he’s an asshole, he essentially had to go and call Joan a whore in front of everyone. This, by the way, was why we had such a hard time believing last season that Joan would sleep with a client to get a partnership; not because she was morally opposed to it, but because everyone in the office would know and she’d be exposed in a way she never had before. Remember, people at SCDP still gossip about whether or not she and Roger had an affair, 14 years after it started; 2 years after it produced a baby. She’s good about keeping her cards close to her chest. The money and security must have been enough to overcome the anxiety about it, but now she’s dealing with something she must have known was coming. And while she deals with Harry quite well face-to-face (for the most part), it’s clear that her ongoing low-level humiliation and utterly illusory power is causing her old Queen Bee habits to resurface.
At home, a visiting friend thinks her life from the outside looks far, far more exciting and rewarding than Joan does, inadvertently uttering a line that could have been a mantra for second-wave feminism: “I don’t care how they make you feel, it’s right in front of you for the taking.” After indulging in a little bit of free love and downtown-hip partying at the trendy Electric Circus (a scene that ranks with Roger’s acid trip as something so perfectly sixties but utterly incongruous with your view of the character), it seems to us that Joan moved forward by surrendering any vestiges of her old job as a secretary, passing them on to Dawn and giving her something of an unexpected promotion. This perpetuates a cycle of women on Mad Men getting unexpected promotions due to office and personal politics that happen independent of them. Peggy got her promotion because Don wanted to humiliate Pete. Joan got hers because Lane knew the company couldn’t pay her the 50,000 dollars the partners agreed upon and would find out he embezzled. Megan got hers because Don was running from the darkness and impulsively decided to marry her and give her whatever she wanted. And now Dawn makes a small step forward because Joan got called a whore in front of the other partners. Echoing Peggy, Dawn decides to make Joan her mentor, telling her that it would be better to have every other secretary hate her if it meant she had Joan’s respect. We are digging this outcome. A Joan/Dawn relationship seems so unlikely (especially since the old, bitchy Joan wasn’t exactly enlightened when talking to black girls; just ask Paul Kinsey’s old girlfriend), but this has real possibilities. If Joan is shedding the last of her secretarial self and grabbing the executive title by the reins, then it’s exciting to know she’ll have at least one person looking up to her while she suffers slings and arrows from assholes like Harry. And she will; for decades to come.
Don is a much, much bigger hypocrite than Joan, though. He thinks cheating only “counts” if no one knows about it; which is why he can stand on his principles and loftily declare that SCDP will not go after Heinz Ketchup and then sneak into an office with Stan to get high and work on a Ketchup pitch. It’s also why he can call his wife a whore for play-acting at adultery and immediately go home and actually commit it. “You kiss people for money. Do you know what kind of people do that?” And in our imaginary Mad Men script, where characters always say the perfect thing, she would have replied “You LIE to people for money, you asshole.”
This marriage is over. When Don calls his wife a whore, it means it’s the end. We just hope it doesn’t take as long to dissolve as the previous Draper marriage. It’s all a question now of whether Megan feels she can put up with the emotional abuse or whether she finds out about the affair with Sylvia, which seems increasingly likely. After calling Megan a prostitute, Don rather heavy-handedly puts a penny in Sylvia’s hand and mimics exactly the seduction scene portrayed on the soap opera set, pushing her back on the bed, pathetically attempting to duplicate and insert himself into a scene that wasn’t about him and making it all about him. Eerily, and creepily, it also mimics the way he saw his Uncle Max bed his mother. He’s shocked to find out that Sylvia prays for him. After years of this, we’re no longer enamored with any of Don’s mistresses and tend to roll our eyes at these highly meaningful scenes with women he will almost certainly discard once they get too close to figuring him out. We suppose there’s some hidden depth revealed by Sylvia’s kindness and empathy, but to our eyes, it just looked like another form of hypocrisy; someone who refuses to examine their own actions while passing judgment on someone else’s.
Peggy, for her part, is more Don Draper than Don Draper himself now. Let’s talk about those pitches for a second. Both Don’s and Peggy’s were very, very good pitches. But more than just being good, they laid out their entire professional history to us, and not just because Peggy slyly nicked Don’s “change the conversation” line (to his regret and simultaneous admiration). First, both ads were extremely similar; a blown up image on a white background with simple, declarative black copy; very much in the iconic style of sixties advertising, which, at its best, demonstrated a perfect blend of text and picture in as economical a manner as possible. But Peggy inadvertently gave the client exactly what they thought was missing from Don’s: a bottle and the word ketchup. In that respect, you could say Peggy’s pitch was “better” than Don’s in that it anticipated the client’s needs and served them. On the other hand, you could argue (as we do) that Don’s was actually a much more sophisticated ad that worked by withholding information and letting the imagination of the viewer fill it in. Don knows that letting people come to their own conclusions – or giving them the illusion of such – is a far more powerful tool in advertising than simply telling them what they should think, as Peggy’s does. In many ways, Don’s pitch for Heinz is similar to his Hawaii pitch from a couple of weeks ago; it’s too subtle and sophisticated for the client but it demonstrates that he’s still very good at what he does. It’s just that advertising is as much luck and connections as it is talent; something that was illustrated by neither Peggy or Don winning the account as it went to the much larger J. Walter Thompson agency.
It’ll be interesting to see how Don and Peggy interact going forward. She’s no longer a student or even a former student. She’s a very good competitor, nipping at his heels. And this is the first time he’s really come to that realization. We have a feeling she and Stan are fine. He knows how this business works and flipping her the bird seemed like a friend annoyed with another one rather than a friend ending their friendship.
So that’s where we are now in 1968. Free love and swinging (otherwise known as “cheating”) is in the air. Joan is embracing second-wave feminism and declaring herself an executive, even as she knows she’s going to have to fight for every bit of power she’s owed. Peggy is destined to hurt Don someday by besting him and they both know it. Don is an asshole and a hypocrite. Harry’s still an asshole, no matter how good he is at his job. Megan is going to get very, very hurt soon. Dawn is a good girl trying to do right who just learned the important lesson that she’s got to look out for herself first in this world and she’s going to learn from the master on that front: Joan Holloway Harris.
[Photo Credit: Jordin Althaus, Michael Yarish/AMC]