Last night’s Mad Men episode took its title from Ruth Benedict’s 1946 anthropological study of Japan The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. That volume figures in the plot as a stage prop; reading it inspires Don Draper to plot the strategy that will win SCDP the all-important Honda account under inauspicious circumstances. But its content figures into the plot more crucially.
Benedict sought to make exotic Japanese social practices intelligible to westerners by contrasting oriental “shame cultures” with occidental “guilt cultures.” “Shame” is what we experience when we value ourselves according to how other people value us and perceive that other people think we haven’t lived up to their standards. “Guilt” is different inasmuch as we can experience it even when other people are unaware of our misconduct or mistake it for upright behavior. It’s a matter of our not having lived up to the standards we apply to ourselves. (It only makes sense to say we’re “ashamed of ourselves” when contemplating one of our transgressions because we have the capacity to cast ourselves simultaneously in the roles of an actor and a spectator to our own actions.) What made Japan exotic to westerners, according to Benedict, was that it upheld social standards not primarily by appealing to the conscience of potential transgressors, but by conditioning people to fear social ostracism above all else.
Throughout this season, we’ve been made painfully aware that, with the demise of Sterling Cooper and his marriage, Don has lost his mojo without knowing exactly what winning ingredient is missing from his personality. Now we know. Last night Don regained himself by recovering the shamelessness that has been the secret of his success all along.
The one thing Don and his new office antagonist/love object Faye Miller have been able to agree upon is that advertising is about the difference between what we want and what’s expected of us. An artful ad moves product, then, not only by making people want it, but making them ashamed not to want it. Draper mobilizes other people’s shame more expertly than anyone else because no one is less beholden to other people’s valuations. Indeed, with the exception of Anna in California and Bert in New York, what other people think about him is largely an artifact of Don's advertisement for himself. (Faye’s counterfeit wedding ring and Joan’s immediate comprehension of his strategy for winning the Honda account suggest that they’re the closest to being Don’s peers in this regard.)
Last night Don was obliged to contend with prisoners of shame. The episode opens when Don gets a call from a New York Times reporter trying to get his reaction to a quote from a business competitor who measures success by his being seen to be out-competing Draper. The first sign that Don’s finding himself is his pitch-perfect response to the reporter: “never heard of him.”
Throughout the rest of the episode, Don’s confronted by people buffeted about by the reflection of themselves they see in other people’s eyes. Roger Sterling tries to kill the Honda pitch because he can’t cope with how working for a Japanese firm would look in the eyes of fallen WWII comrades. Betty is all aflutter, first, because Sally cut her own hair in a way that will make Betty look like an inattentive mother during “picture day” at school, and then, because Betty’s mortified that the mother of one of Sally’s playmates caught Sally masturbating at the sight of Illya Kuryakin during a sleepover.
We know Don’s back in the saddle when he shames the Honda executives into giving him the account by pretending to look down his nose at them for running an unfair beauty contest among ad agencies—where the unfairness is itself an artifact of Don’s manipulation of his competitor’s vainglory. We’ve already discovered from their subtitled Japanese communications among themselves that these executives view Don and his SCDP colleagues with contempt. But they still care enough about how contemptible people see them to enable Don to use their shame as a lever for his own purposes. That's advertising.
Don’s being shameless doesn’t make him guiltless. He's guilty for being an inattentive father to his children and friend to Anna and, ultimately, for having a character so insubstantial that he can recast it at will. But it's his shamelessness that sets him apart, professionally and morally, from the rest of Mad Men’s characters.