Mad Men: A Tale of Two Cities
Oh thank God. Hallucinatory drug trips, rioting in the streets, schizophrenic breakdowns, and corporate intrigue. A simple and uncomplicated episode of Mad Men. After the collective online freakout over a T-shirt after the last episode, we can’t think of anything better for the Mad Men conversation: a “moving the pieces on the board” episode, setting up things likely to pay off by the finale, but not necessarily dripping with symbolism and meaning, the way the last several episodes have been. The audience (and a whole bunch of weary recappers and reviewers, no doubt) could use the break.
But here, have a theme anyway:
“They don’t know our name because we don’t know our name.”
Jim Cutler’s admonition about the tenuousness of the newly merged agency is as good a choice for a theme as any other in this largely themeless episode. If there was any throughline weaving through the various stories, it had to do with characters not knowing who they are or where they fit in the scheme of things, and how that can leave them vulnerable while standing on the shifting sands of 1968.
Let’s talk about Joan first, because she made the biggest leap forward of all the characters. What we loved about this storyline was the way the creators held back from giving the audience what they most wanted to see. Sure, it’s exciting to see Joan move into a new area in her career, but it was a more sophisticated and realistic choice on the part of the creators to depict her as unsteady and making some potential grievous errors. In other words, it would have been fun, but ultimately unsatisfying from a storytelling perspective to just have Joan ace the whole thing from top to bottom. Instead, there were several (quite painful to watch, we have to admit) indications that she was not only in over her head, but that she wasn’t as supremely knowledgeable about the company or her career as we’d all like to believe. First, she completely misread the setup as a date, when her friend Kate (who, as you might remember, worshipped Joan and saw her as way more powerful in her job than she actually is) was actually throwing a tremendous business opportunity her way. To Joan’s credit, she pivoted smoothly on the realization and we had to give a little cheer when she had that revelatory moment of picking up the check for the first time in her life.
But when you listen to what Joan actually had to say both times she met with the Avon guy, it was nothing but banalities about listening to the client. When he pressed her on the specifics of SCDPCGC, the only thing she could mention was media placement, because it was a job she once briefly performed. In other words, it was the only thing she could bring to the conversation, because almost all of her work knowledge is administrative in nature. Notice that when he mentioned checking out of his hotel at the second meeting, she perkily responded with, “If you had been a client you could have left your key at the front desk and we would have taken care of that,” because that’s something Joan would know after almost two decades doing administrative and low-level managerial work for the company. And nothing was more cringe-worthy than the way she describes her job: “I’m in charge of thinking of things before people know they need them.” That’s true in some respects, and she’s admirably good at her job, but it’s depressing that she really only sees herself as someone who serves other people in the company and can’t even come up with an empowering way of saying it. Her self-written job description could be applied to a servant just as easily.
And worst of all, she stepped all over Peggy’s brilliant spiel about her own family’s Avon lady and the emotion-filled memories she has of her. That’s all straight out of the Draper/Olson playbook of instantaneously casting a product or company in a warm glow of emotional responses and connections in order to woo the client. She could have had the guy eating out of her hand, but Joan didn’t see what Peggy was doing. How could she? She has no experience at all in this world. Which brings us to our next painful revelation: everyone who yelled at Joan this week was pretty much in the right.
It’s easy (and satisfying) to hate Pete, but he had a point. More than a point. Avon is 25 million dollars in potential billings. It’s the height of recklessness for Joan to fuck around with that, not to mention a serious breach of protocol for her to cut Pete out of the meeting like that. She took it on her own to have a meeting with a potentially huge client and made sure that no one from accounts was present. She very well could have been fired for that, partnership or no. In her defense, she has spent years watching the movers and shakers of the industry around her take exactly the kinds of risks she took. She didn’t do anything that Roger or Don or Pete might not have done. The difference is that she has no power to defend herself and very little practical knowledge to rest her risk upon. It’s absolutely understandable why she did it, though. In her own words, she didn’t want to be “pushed off the diving board,” which she’s coming slowly to realize, she’s been pushed off it over and over again in her life and her career. This is a desperate, last ditch effort to secure some power and respect for herself. And let’s be clear here: she’s not a fool. For her to do this for Avon shows a savviness and self-awareness that should be commended. If ever there was a client tailor-made for the charms of Joan Harris, Accounts Woman, it would be Avon. She’s not likely to ever get such a perfect opportunity for herself again and she felt she had to take the risk to go after it.
And she and Peggy finally had the conversation they both needed to have with each other in order to move forward in their relationship. We wondered a couple episodes back, when the two characters were reunited, if Peggy was going to have a problem with Joan’s ascent to partner and how she got it. Turns out, she kinda does – and that’s perfectly in character for Peggy and perfectly understandable given her own story. We know Joan and understand her the way the viewers outside a story can understand a character, but to Peggy – and to everyone else in the story – Joan is someone who slept her way into a partnership, and that’s not something most people – then or now – could call an admirable act. Peggy would naturally have an especially tough time handling it, given her own history with Joan – and all of that came beautifully roaring to the surface in their argument. If you think Peggy was being a judgmental bitch, we suggest you view some of the scenes between these two characters from seasons one and two. Peggy was right; Joan never really supported her career goals and in some ways, actively derided or undermined them. Remember when Joan had the Xerox machine put in Peggy’s office? Remember when she said “Peggy, this isn’t China. There’s no money in virginity?” We all love Joan now, but it’s good to remember that she wasn’t always the most sympathetic character. And besides, Joan’s crack to Peggy, “You were so brave, letting Don carry you to the deep end of the pool,” was incredibly nasty and condescending.
It’s to Peggy’s credit that she really does want to see Joan succeed, but we don’t blame her a bit for bringing up all the ways Joan put her down back in the day for wanting something more than a husband out of life. And now that she saved her ass with some quick thinking (which earned her gratitude from Joan; something she refused to give when Peggy fired Joey for sexually harrassing her), we hope that these two can have the friendship and professional relationship that we know would benefit them both tremendously. We know it’s probably too much to ask for, but we’d love a scene with Peggy in Joan’s apartment, just hanging out and getting to know her. These two women have felt isolated in so many ways in their professional lives and they’ve allowed their obvious differences to get in the way of having an ally in the struggle. In many ways, the story of Joan and Peggy is the story of second-wave feminism. If they can overcome their differences and harness their collective power in the face of overwhelming opposition, they could change the world. The grand irony of it all is, Joan’s empowering moment rests literally on … Avon calling.
In other SC&P news, Bob Benson is not the horrible slimeball the internet seemed to want him to be. He does not appear to be a corporate spy, government spy, or Don’s illegitimate son. He’s just a corporate climber whose practice of hanging around and trying to make himself appear indispensable finally paid off this episode with a promotion to the Chevy account. He also appears to have something of a relationship with Ginsberg. Not a sexual one, but they clearly know each other well enough that Bob can punch through Michael’s latest outburst and get him back to the appearance of civility with some good old-fashioned affirmations. His love of the creative department and tendency to hang around down there has been repeated all season long. Our theory that he’s gay got a boost (or got shot down, depending on how you look at it) when Ginsberg asked him point blank if he was a “homo,” and Bob just laughed and avoided the question.
As for Ginsberg, we hate to sound so gleeful about it, but we got a TON of shit last season when we opined that his “I’m from Mars” monologue was indicative of schizophrenia or some other serious mental health issue and we do so love being proven right. We’re petty that way. Really, the question of Ginsberg’s mental health has always been hanging in the air. He’s never been appropriate or able to handle normal communications, and he’s been prone to outbursts from the second he was hired. It seems to us the only reason he’s still got a job is because, first, he’s good at it, and second, the people of the company all have some understanding that he’s not mentally stable, especially if he has a tendency to say things like, “I can’t turn off the transmissions to do harm; they’re beaming them right into my head.” Honestly, we hate to spin out any more darkly murderous conspiracy theories in a season dripping with them, but that’s a pretty ominous line in a season full of ominous moments. “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” he says to Bob. As we said in the first Mad Style of this season, “Ginsberg is running headlong into the counterculture styles of the late ’60s, even as he works to sell Dow chemical to the masses.” That dichotomy is proving too much for him to bear. As an aside, his calling Stan a “mother hen,” was the most adorable moment of the season.
As for Don, his latest trip to California turns out to be the worst of any of them. Without the angelic Anna or the too-good-to-be-true, no-crying-over-spilled-milkshake Megan to anchor him, he spins off into overindulgence and yet another flirtation with death. Again, we hate to add to all the conspiracy theories, but it’s pretty ominous that Don hallucinated that dead soldier right after he hallucinated the perfect Megan. Then again, there was a heavy implication that Don was the one in danger of dying. “My wife thinks I’m M.I.A., but I’m actually dead,” the soldier says to the man who’s been M.I.A. from his wife all year. “Dying doesn’t make you whole,” Dead Dream-Soldier adds. “You should see what you look like.” Yikes. Don promptly heads out to the pool (after real-Megan advised him to go for a swim and blonde lady told him “There’s a pool full of water out there”) and pretty much re-enacts his suicidal Hawaii ad from earlier in the year, becoming a suit floating in water.
We didn’t mind these scenes, but they did feel like a return to Don spinning his wheels. He’s dangerously reckless with drugs and alcohol, cynical to a fault (as Megan noted), fatalistic, still wallowing in mommy issues (“There’s an extra nipple here,” says the blonde who offers him the hookah), unfaithful, and still fantasizes about Megan being the perfect wife and mother figure to him; still expecting someone else to save him from himself. “What do you think it is?” he asks Dream-Megan. “A second chance,” she replies. “Everybody’s looking for you” is the last thing she says to him before disappearing.
And finally, while all this emotional turmoil is going on, Jim Cutler proves himself to be far more than a wry silver fox. We can’t say we quite understand what his long game is, but he’s clearly thinking of the agency in different terms than any of the original SCDP players and appears to be scarily adept at manipulating things to get a desired outcome. So SCDPCGC becomes SC&P because Jim has plans to split the company “And not in half,” as Ted noted. Don, Peggy, Joan, Roger and Pete seriously need to get their shit together, because they’ve let a fox into the henhouse and they’re all so caught up in their own stories that they can’t see what’s happening right in front of them. Once again it’s poor, angry, petulant Pete who sees what’s really going on but can’t get anyone to agree with him because he’s so fundamentally unlikeable. “This is not the same business anymore!” he screams impotently, and he’s right. The old rules and old guard no longer function as they once did. They’re in a dangerous, tumultuous time and Pete sees portential disaster on the horizon. But if no one’s going to listen to him, then he’s going to take a cue from the zeitgeist by tuning in, turning on, and dropping out. Pete smoking pot was easily one of the best images of the entire series to date and perfectly sums up the underlying theme of this season, which is how much the counterculture is invading all aspects of American life. There’s a reason those Carnation executives were so angry.
[Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC]