Monday, October 4, 2010

Mad Men: The Survival of the Fittest

This Mad Men season began with a reporter  flummoxing Don by asking: "Who is Don Draper?" The reporter didn’t have to ask what Don Draper does because his meteoric rise in the advertising industry was already a matter of public record. The point of the question was to locate the secret of Don’s success somewhere in his underlying character. Don couldn’t come up with an answer to that question because he wasn’t much given to thinking about himself, and didn’t have much of a self to think about. This Mad Men season has mostly been about Don’s starting to ask himself whether that’s a worthwhile way to live and not having a ready answer.

We already knew that the real secret of Don Draper’s success is his extraordinary capacity to recast himself to the dimensions of the social space he aspires to fill. The combination of his revulsion at the prospect of following in the footsteps of his cruel and dissolute father and the unlikely turn of events that ended his military career in Korea enabled Don to choose not only what he wanted to do, but who he wanted to be. That’s what prepared him to take advantage of every opportunity to move up a rung on the social ladder, from a bewildered soldier in Korea to a hustling used-car salesmen in the big city, from the guy able to find Roger Sterling just the right fur for a demanding new mistress to the high-powered advertising executive who’d pushed Roger aside professionally.

Dick Whitman’s impersonation of Don Draper is an artful metaphor for the social, psychological and commercial dislocations of the 1960s. Last night’s episode showed us which characters had it in them to keep their footing when the ground beneath SCDP shifted with the loss of the Lucky Strike account. Pete and Peggy managed to maintain a precarious balance because they share some of Don’s restless desperation. Roger didn’t because his desperation is of an entirely different order.

Pete’s never had Kenny Cosgrove’s natural flair for charming clients. But he’s still been driven to prevail over Kenny professionally (note how Kenny reports to him abut Lucky Strike) out of the oedipal disgust he feels for the father who never forgave him for not taking his prescribed place in the legal profession. Now Pete’s missing the birth of his first (legitimate) child because he’s trolling for clients with Don at the funeral of a prominent ad man. Watching the blank expressions on the face of the shamefully neglected widow and daughter while eulogists drone about the sacrifices that the deceased was willing to endure to get a client reminds both Don and Pete how much their professional ambition has cost them.

Peggy came to Sterling Cooper determined not to be anything like her cantankerous mother or her cowering sister. She started off trying to follow in what she thought were Joan’s footsteps by coming on to Don on her first day as his secretary and by sleeping with Pete during her first week. She’d soon find an alternative avenue of escape from her past when Freddie Rumson gave her a chance to write some advertising copy. Following that path has cost her plenty along the way, but it’s also what prepared her to fill Don’s shoes at SCDP (despite some misplaced lipstick) while he’s out of the office trying to drum up new business.

Roger’s been losing his balance since Mad Men’s first season. When we first met him he was the consummate ad man whose capacity to capture and hold onto clients was matched only by his capacity to hold his liquor. We soon found out that the liquor part was an empty pretense when Don maneuvered him into depositing both his liquor and several dozen oysters on the feet of a prospective client. This year we found out what we’d long suspected, that Roger’s only major account, Lucky Strike, was inherited from his father.  Roger has managed to hold onto it over the years only by sucking up to Lee Garner, Jr., another dissolute son who’d inherited unearned commercial stature from his father. The emptiness of Roger’s professional pretenses has been dramatized this season by his humiliating failure to get his memoirs published—the advance copies that his wife presented him with at the end of last night’s episode looked like they’d just come off the vanity press.

All of this was driven home last night in another perfect Mad Men moment. Although Roger had known that the Lucky Strike account was lost for weeks before his colleagues found out about it, he’d kept the news to himself in a pathetic display of vanity. When his colleagues find out and confront him with the bad news, Roger pretends for their benefit to be pleading SCDP’s case with Lee Garner over a phone that he’d secretly disconnected.

Here in a single image, Roger Sterling is revealed as the antithesis of Don Draper. We've spent nearly four seasons watching Dick/Don be the consummate ad man while he impersonates another man. Now we see Roger revealing his unvarnished self by impersonating an ad man.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Your insight is amazing!! Loved your post. But, inquiring minds want to know, do you think Joannie is still pregnant with Roger's baby or do you think she got the abortion???

Ron Replogle said...

I think she's going to have Roger's child as part of her transformation from a woman of the 1950s to a woman of the 1960s. She's too self-aware to end up a prisoner of male fantasy. I think you could see a little of that self-awareness on her face in the terrific scene when Roger comes to her apartment seeking consolation.

Mad Woman said...

I love the way you analyze Dick/Don and how he's handling the Lucky Strike crisis and contrasting it with Roger. One of the previews from next week gave a hint about what might happen next. He said something like "no one from the agency knows about this." I wonder if he's not going to blackmail Lee Garner Jr into shoving some of the work back to SCDP? How else are they going to survive in the near term. Clients are dropping like flies. Not even Heinz can help them make payroll. I'm thinking either blackmail or maybe getting acquired. Can you imagine an agency with Don and Chaough?

Also, you didn't mention anything about Don and his harem: Megan and Faye. I think they are all just playthings in his life -- not particularly what matters to him. But now I think he's going to marry Megan, not Bethany.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Megan, did anyone think she looked kind of horsey last night? She was so beautiful and perfectly coiffed in all the episodes going into last night. But for some reason, she seemed to have lost that softness when she went after Don ... and scored.

Anonymous said...

this is my first time readng you and will definitely not be my last, great work...

any thoughts on Don and Joan holding hands under the table during the Clio Awards?

Ron Replogle said...

Joan got where she is by knowing what men need and giving it to them on her own terms. On the day of the Clios I think that Joan sensed, correctly, that Don needed a big sister's reassurance and gave it to him.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Joan and Don will ever have a romantic relationship. It would be too weird. There might be sexual tension cropping up from time to time, but I think it would ruin that dynamic that Ron is referring to. I think this holds with Peggy and Don too. No chance they would ever get romantic with each other.

There are two shows left this season. I can't help thinking all is not right with the world with Pete and Trudy's baby. The labor time and hospital scenes were never very reassuring. I still think something is going to happen between Peggy and Pete vis a vis their love child which she said was adopted but is really with her sister.