Monday, September 27, 2010

Mad Men: Keeping Secrets

If I had to criticize this fabulous Mad Men season, I’d say that it hasn’t maintained prior seasons’ near-perfect balance of plot and character. In prior years, we learned most of what we know about the characters by watching them enact multi-episode story lines, like Don’s affair with Bobbie, his business relationship with Conrad Hilton, Grandpa Gene’s residence in the Draper household or Sal’s secret life. This season has mostly been about Don’s desperate efforts to get a bead on himself during a period of professional and personal stagnation. The state of Don’s self-consciousness has been dramatized mostly through inconsequential encounters, like the one-night-stand with his secretary that signaled his loss of self-command or valedictions like his physical and psychological parting from Anna (and from Dick Whitman as an aspect of himself.) What has been going on inside Don’s head hasn’t moved the plot along nor engaged the rest of the main characters to the degree it did in prior seasons.

Last night’s episode seemed to be making up for lost time by throwing a lot of new plot lines into the air at once. Don’s brush with the Department of Defense reminds us of his continuing vulnerability. Taking Faye into his confidence about his prior identity moved his personal life onto a new plain; now one person whom he barely knows is positioned to play the roles that Betty and Anna played separately in his prior life. Joan’s pregnancy brings her to an inflection point in her marriage, her relationship with Roger and her maternal aspirations. The loss of the Lucky Strike account presents a dire threat to SCDP’s solvency and Roger’s professional stature. Lane’s ambition to cast off the old-world constraints on his new-world sexual adventures is thwarted by a tyrannical father. Being made into Don’s accomplice brings Pete into SCDP’s inner circle with his own secrets to keep.

All of these plot lines turn on the connection between autonomy and secrecy. That’s always been the central dynamic of Don’s professional and personal life. He owes most of his professional and personal stature to his past success in controlling what other people know about him. This season he’s been trying to regain the balance he lost from last season’s disclosures: he’s no longer the professional free agent he once was because Bert Cooper found out enough about his past to blackmail him into signing a personal services contract; he lost his marriage because Betty found the shoe box locked in his desk. Now, while Don’s still shackled to Bert and Betty, he finds himself joined at the hip professionally with Pete and personally with Faye. It’s too early to say whether letting Faye in on his secret was a momentary lapse in self-discipline or a considered choice of intimacy over autonomy on Don’s part. When he was leering at his new secretary after the crisis had passed, it it looked like he was more interested in wild sex than in intimacy.

But Don’s wasn’t the only one negotiating a tradeoff between autonomy and self-disclosure.

Lane’s capitulation to a tyrannical father shows how loose lips sink self-navigating ships. He’d thought he’d cast off the moorings of old-world propriety that had put transgressive pleasures—like an interracial romance with a Playboy Bunny—out of his reach. His father’s cane reminds him that there’s something to be said for keeping one’s transgressions to one’s self.

Roger finds himself in an equally desperate situation. Lee Garner has him popping nitro glycerin pills at the news that Lucky Strike is taking its business to another agency. Roger begs Garner to keep it to himself for thirty days on the pretext that SCDP needs the time to manage that commercial calamity. But we soon find out that Roger really negotiated the grace period as a way of managing the personal calamity of his colleagues finding out that he doesn’t really bring anything to the SCDP table. All these years he’s used his inherited grace and accounts to persuade people that he’s a player in the advertising world. Now he’s getting out the old rolodex, only to find that his own commercial “contacts” are dead or otherwise indisposed.  I suspect that SCDP’s and Roger’s only hope is that they’ll get some leverage from the fact that Garner has a secret of his own.  Remember Sal?   I'll bet Don does.

Up till now, Pete owes his meager professional success to his boarding school and college contacts (think Jai-alai) and his readiness to extort business from his father-in-law. The worldly judgment of his wife Trudy has been his only other business asset. Now, by agreeing to withdraw from a major account in deference to Don’s secrets, he has established himself as Don’s professional peer.  In the process, he has gained control of a new business asset--Don's reputation. But this step up the professional ladder has erected a barrier between him and Trudy. He’s already had to conceal his rough treatment of her father from her. Now he senses that he better keep Don’s secrets from her as well. And don't forget the secret (unknown even to him) that he's the father of Peggy's child.  Pete's finding that being more Don-like and sharing some of Don's vulnerabilities is the price of professional success.

Although events are pressing down on her too, Joan’s the only one who manages to preserve some semblance of autonomy by playing her cards close to the vest. Her husband knows nothing about her alley-catting with Roger, and neither he, Roger nor we know whether she’s still pregnant. I’m betting that she is. We last see Joan on a plane (a train, a bus?), heading to an unknown destination, with the strain of keeping her options open showing on her face.

Update: Reader 2bfate reminds me that Peggy had told Pete about their child.


Anonymous said...

There are so many secrets and so much blackmail potential. What about Betty's whopper of a secret. She told Henry about the G-Men, but didn't tell him that she wasn't exactly honest in her answers. She told Henry she didn't want any secrets between them, but Don's true identity she's keeping to herself. What does this mean? Is she protecting Don out of love, fear, what?

Unknown said...

(I think it was Joan on a bus ,returning her to NYC.) Dons mask,so steely and secure, has become like an egg shell ready to crack open and reveal the yoke.It will be messy.The show can't continue with out that reveal in its future (2 more seasons?)The weight of his "baggage ",which everyone has, will break his camels back.It is constant judgment that makes us tired. Am I safe am I vulnerable ,safe vulnerable contained exposed,it is exhausting ,physically and psychically. I agree his sexual control is a relief for him and his hoping for intimacy an innocent dream.He doesn't have the tools for intimacy.He's chasing his mother in the blonds ,Megan like the prostitute are brunettes,they are allowed to slap him into being present. They alone will accept his "Dick",with all his fault lines.Nathin was jaw dropping for me and the recreation of the little boy under his fathers thumb. Wild. But the pink maternity nighty was comic relief.

Unknown said...

"And don't forget the secret (unknown even to him) that he's the father of Peggy's child." Perhaps you missed the episode a season or so back where Peggy told Pete about their child.

Ron Replogle said...


You're right, I'd forgotten. I've changed the parenthetical comment accordingly. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Wow, commenter Richard is right-on with his observations. You should be blogging, dude.

Mad Woman said...

Loved your post this week. I think Peggy's absence in this show sets her up for a big scene in the remaining shows (only 3 left this season and so much to deal with). For sure, Peggy and Pete will have to confront the fact of their love child, one way or another. I can't wait to see what the show's creator has in store for us as to how that is going to happen. Also, I think there is about an even split on the web as to whether Joan did or not abort Roger's baby. I think she's going to have it.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree that Joan did not abort. To me, she looked contented on that train (bus). Pensive, but contented. In 1965, I was 22 years old, working in NYC. In 1968, I was 25, living in Chicago and marching at the Democratic convention....those 3 years flew by in a blur. I am looking forward to seeing the NYC blackout of Nov 1965.