Monday, August 16, 2010

Last Night’s Mad Men

In Mad Men, the drama happens at the intersection of art and commerce. That holds, most obviously, for the ad agency, where moving product is the measure of creative inspiration. But it’s also true of the main characters’ identities.

The two characters who’ve undertaken hubristic projects of self-creation, Don Draper and Peggy Olson, have used their creative gifts to fabricate personas that enabled them to escape their social class. They don’t have, or at least aspire not to have, characters that constrain their choice of masks. In that respect, they present a vivid contrast to the hard-wired characters of Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell.  They're both creatures of class privilege, scrambling to maintain their socio-economic position while the commercial and cultural ground shifts under their feet. The fact that Roger has the character of a loveable scoundrel while Pete’s character is impossible to love doesn’t change the fact that, in each case, character is destiny.

The original sin of the self-creators is pride. Don’s now getting his comeuppance for not knowing his place, or imagining that he never had one to begin with. The original sin of the hard-wired characters is hypocrisy. Roger’s still laboring to repress the shame he feels, as the inheritor of his father’s wealth and social status, for selling his birthright (the original Sterling Cooper) to finance his repudiation of the obligations he owed his first wife.

Last night’s episode recapitulated the Don/Roger dynamic through the characters of Peggy and Pete. We see Peggy trying on and shedding personas as if they were dresses on a rack at Saks. First, she’s a sexual ingénue with the laughably earnest boyfriend, slipping on another woman’s wedding ring to see how it feels. We knew her before she was a virgin, when she was abandoning the child she bore after a one-night-stand with Pete during her first days as a secretary at Sterling Cooper and enjoying “nooners” in the Hotel Pierre with Duck. Later in the episode, she has morphed into a knowing proto-sixties chick, expertly parrying the Sapphic advances of her new friend while she’s taking a long pull on a joint, before making out with a complete stranger in a closet while she’s hiding after the police raid. The wedding fantasy is the farthest thing from her mind.

And then there’s Pete. When his father-in-law inadvertently spills the beans about Pete’s wife being pregnant Pete can’t suppress his joy at the prospect of visibly taking his father’s place at the head of an imposing family table. Yet that doesn’t keep Pete from using the pregnancy to extort more work out of the father-in-law's company, confident that his father-in-law’s sense of familial responsibility will keep him from revealing Pete's underhanded tactics to a daughter who still holds her husband in delusionally high regard. As Pete gets on with his career, he's getting better at making himself presentable, but he can’t suppress his inherent thugishness for very long.

The final scene expertly brings the contrast between Peggy and Pete to a dramatic head.  Learning about Pete’s impeding fatherhood, and that he used it to pry more business out of his father-in-law, has Peggy banging her head on her desk in the privacy of her office. We can't tell whether she’s experiencing jealously at not being the acknowledged mother of Pete’s first child or something entirely different. In the final scene, when Peggy’s on her way out of the office she manages to capture Pete’s eye long enough to elicit an expression of longing from him. Is she reminding him, and herself, of the person she was when she started out at Sterling Cooper, and experiencing a pang of remorse about how much of herself she’s lost along the way? Or does she sense that, despite Pete’s newfound business success, his being a prisoner of his character makes him an easy mark for an ambitious shape-shifter like her?

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