Appearance Is Everything


Don handles his affairs more discreetly than Pete, but both men find themselves cut down by episode's end. (Photo Credit: AMC.)
Don handles his affairs more discreetly than Pete, but both men find themselves cut down by episode’s end.           (Photo Credit: AMC.)

A topical synopsis of the this week’s “Mad Men” (titled “The Collaborators”) might match the pitch and pallor of Megan’s soap opera. There was a lot of sex, smoke and blood.

Don and Pete are sleeping with their neighbor’s wives; Megan considers an abortion. Pete’s new fling is beat up by her husband; Trudy issues a verbal restraining order (VRO?) against Pete. Peggy leaks a secret; Joan pours herself a stiff drink. But “Mad Men” is “Mad Men,” so while the hour was chock-full of good, old-fashioned drama, the meat of it was heavily marinated in charade and allusion.

The plot parallels the extramarital dalliances of Don and Pete, highlighting the differences between their respective approaches toward infidelity. And in the end, the episode suggests that while sin is sin, fortunately for Don (and unfortunately for Pete), “it’s all about how it looks.”

With Trudy’s blessing, Pete has purchased an apartment in the city. After some dinner party flirtation, Pete lures his neighbor’s insipid wife, Brenda, to his Manhattan pied-a-terre with the promise of Broadway tickets. He greets her much like he would a client, offering to take her coat, pour her a drink, put on some music and change the temperature. He compliments the color of her lipstick and escorts her to the bedroom. Afterward, as Brenda is gathering herself to leave, she suggests next steps in the relationship, including various clandestine modes of communication and real Barbie dream phone material. These insinuate that she’s been toying with the allure of an affair for quite some time. But Pete seems uninterested, annoyed and eager to hurry her along.

This somewhat choreographed exchange between Pete and Brenda is contrasted by the passionate, opera-inducing romance that unfolds between Don and Sylvia. “Everything [works] out perfectly” for Don and Sylvia when their spouses skip out on dinner plans ((due to illness and emergency), both insisting that the two of them “have fun” together, alone at a candlelit dinner. Sylvia is initially tense and bothered by the trusting innocence of her loving, life-saving husband, but Don swoops in with a solid pitch:

“Now I understand. You want to feel shitty, right up until the point that I take your dress off – because I’m going to do that. You want to skip dinner, fine. But don’t pretend.”

If anyone other than Don Draper had delivered this, Sylvia may have realized that he’s not saying much of anything, and he’s kind of being a dick.  But it’s Don, so Sylvia responds by ordering him the steak diavolo and telling the waiter that they are in a bit of a hurry.

The variations between Pete and Don’s methods of persuasion in many ways mirrors their respective approaches to client interaction. Pete is a salesman, baiting suburban housewives with the promise of Broadway tickets and cosmetic compliments before closing the deal. But Don is an adman. Unlike Pete, his unfaithful tendencies seem to develop from an internal, desirous nostalgia, or as he called it in the Season 1 finale, “pain from an old wound.”

The correlation between Don’s past and his cyclic disloyalty is suggested through this episode’s flashbacks to Dick Whitman’s childhood, which are invoked upon Don’s encounters with Sylvia. We learn Don (aka Dick Whitman) spent his adolescent years in a brothel, run by his Uncle (“The Rooster”) Mac.  Through anecdotes from previous seasons, we know that Don respected Mac, so it makes some sense, given his indiscreet exposure to loose conceptions of marriage that, as an adult, Don has become a master at transforming “the affair” into an art form.

Unfortunately for Pete, his afternoon with Brenda is brutally revealed to his wife Trudy when Brenda’s bloody face arrives knocking and screaming at the Campbell’s backdoor. Brenda and her husband had gotten into a violent fight, presumably about the affair, and she did not know where else to go. Trudy immediately comforts crumpled Brenda, while Pete, alarmed and unprepared to be juggling the presence of his wife and mistress, is his terrible self. Pete’s apparent unease directly contrasts the finesse with which Don navigates an equivalently triangular scene between him, Sylvia and Megan, during which he casually reminds Sylvia of their dinner plans with a “See you tomorrow.”

After Brenda has cleaned and iced her face, Trudy escorts her to an inn for the evening, which is when, we deduce, Brenda tells Trudy about the affair. Trudy, who has tolerated Pete’s reckless tactlessness for a whopping five seasons, finally puts her foot down. The following morning, she tells Pete on his way out the door that their marriage is over (sort of), clarifying that she would have continued to tolerate his indulgent affairs had he possessed the decency to keep them discreet. “ Couldn’t you just pretend?” she asks. “I let you have that apartment […] She lives on our block.”

The episode further illustrates the distinctions between Don and Pete’s approaches by reintroducing Herb, the miserable, paunchy Jaguar dealer whom Joan is asked to sleep with in last season’s “The Other Woman” in order to secure the Jaguar account for the firm (and a partnership for Joan). The arrangement was ironic in that the “sale” of Joan in as many ways undercut (both literally and figuratively) the poetry of the Jaguar campaign, along with the credibility of the agency. “Jaguar: At last, something beautiful you can truly own,” relies not on the guarantee of satisfaction, but the potency of desire. This is similar to the way that Don has no intention of leaving Megan, and his affair with Sylvia is contingent upon its frivolity.

In this episode, Herb insists that Don persuade his superiors at Jaguar that a larger portion of its budget be allocated toward the rudimentary exposure of his dealership and “moving cars” rather than focusing on developing the Jaguar as a luxury brand. “I don’t want another thing with some schmuck on his lawnmower, fantasizing that he’s gonna win the Grand Prix driving a Jaguar,” Herb says. “I need foot traffic. Get em in the door so I can move metal.”

Herb’s boorish greed, reminiscent of his indecent proposal with respect to Joan, disgusts Don and reminded me of his response to Peggy’s shy boldness at the start of Season 2. After her insistence that “Sex sells, ” Don responded:

“Just so you know, the people who talk that way think that monkeys can do this. They take all this monkey crap and stick it in a briefcase, completely unaware that their success depends on something more than shoeshine. You are the product. You feeling something. That’s what sells. Not them. Not sex. They can’t do what we do and they hate us for it.”

The agency’s persistence in placating Herb’s crude demands seems to not only insult Don’s ego by undermining his creative talent, but also appears to affect Don’s ability to tolerate his own selfish sins. Don tells Sylvia he doesn’t feel guilty about the affair because he doesn’t think about it. “This never happened.” But this foolproof method of denial is tested when Don returns from Sylvia’s (maid’s room) and discovers that Megan is awake, waiting up to tell him that she had a miscarriage earlier that week. Her exhaustion over the guilt of considering an abortion and not telling Don is the complete opposite of Draper’s denial. Megan’s confession coupled with Herb’s unvarnished gluttony seems, finally, to have an impact on Don.

In the episode’s final scene, Don stands in the hallway outside his apartment, unable to walk inside. He sits down against the wall, suggesting that while it’s possible to romanticize sin, guilt is an entirely different beast.


Mad Men Returns: Peggy Leans In, Roger Breaks Down, and Don Jumps Off


Is Don searching for salvation?
Don used to sell happiness. Now, he pitches suicide. Is he seeking rebirth or salvation? (Photo Credit: AMC)

When we left Donald Draper at the close of Season 5, he was walking off the bright sound stage of Megan’s acting debut toward a dimly lit bar. The scene closed with a young, attractive woman approaching him and asking, “Are you alone?” as the overture of the James Bond theme “You Only Live Twice” faded into the credits.

In several ways, it feels like that scene should have opened Sunday’s Season 6 premiere, “The Doorway.” Even Don’s first line – a voice-over of an excerpt from Dante’s Inferno (because who doesn’t like to read about Hell in paradise) – could be read as a prolonged response to the young, attractive woman’s hovering question. “Midway through our life’s journey,” Don reads, “I went astray from the straight road and awoke to find myself alone.”

But “The Doorway” didn’t begin on Don and Megan’s holiday in Hawaii. Instead, the dream-like opening shot (Megan’s scream and a doctor’s face, administering CPR) is from the perspective of doorman, Jonesy. After Don and Megan return from their tropical vacation, we flashback to them seeing him falling to the ground, experiencing a heart attack. Luckily, new friend Dr. Arnold Rosen rushes to the rescue, as Don stands speechless and Megan calls for an ambulance. In short, the opening scene of Season 6 is shot from the perspective of a man quite literally coming back to life.[1]

Much like last season, this week’s episode included its share of allusions to death. But more subtly, this opener heavily focused on rebirth and transformation. There seemed to be a pure, meditative quality underlying the character plot lines  Perhaps it was because several new characters were introduced, and in many ways seemed to be driving the action, but I thought the familiar cast (Don, Roger, Betty and Peggy) seemed particularly introspective about their respective relationships between role and circumstance. It was appropriate that the episode ended with a New Year (1968), a fresh start. [2]

The rebirth theme was most directly alluded to through Don’s pitch for Sheraton’s Royal Hawaiian Hotel. After all, he didn’t go on vacation to Hawaii – he had “an experience.” He suggested that the ad feature a picture of a man’s suit and tie strewn on the beach, with footprints leading to the water and the tagline “Hawaii: The Jumping Off Point.” But the client felt the image suggested suicide, which surprised Don, since the association hadn’t occurred to him. “This make you think of suicide?” Don asked Art Director Stan after the meeting. “Of course!” Stan responded. “That’s what’s so great about it.”

Don’s pitch made me think of the final scene of Season 2’s “The Mountain King,” where Don walks into the Pacific Ocean after his three-week hiatus in California. It makes sense that a man so accustomed to reinventing himself wouldn’t associate this kind of baptismal ritual with suicide. Perhaps in the same way he didn’t recognize how incapable Lane Pryce would be at moving forward after scandal, Don is proving himself to be almost toxically resilient.

Peggy also has a bit of this freakish knack for adaptability. We’ve seen in previous season’s how much Peggy mimics Don in spirit, but it’s perhaps most clear in this episode when we see her thriving as a creative director at her new agency. Upon coming up with a brilliant campaign for Koss Headphones under pressure, her boss congratulates her, telling Peggy she’s “good in a crisis.” This scene again made me think of Season 2 and its references to Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency, along with Don’s guidance to Peggy at that time.[3]

There was also a lot of taking and leaving behind in this episode. It is curious – for a show about advertising – how many of the character vignettes centered or culminated around once useful objects becoming, in one way or another, useless.

For Don, it was a lighter. While in Hawaii with Megan, Don ends up alone at a bar.[4] He then meets a young Private Dinkins, who is on R&R from Vietnam and has come to Hawaii to get married. He notices that Don has the same army-issued gold Zippo lighter inscribed with their names and the line “In life, we often have to do things that just are not our bag.”

He drunkenly asks Don to give away his bride at the wedding, since all the hotel employees that would otherwise substitute “just look like the enemy.” It all sounds a little too emotional for Draper, until Dinkins, in his stupor, bangs out: “Look, I believe in what goes around comes around. One day I want to be a veteran in paradise. One day I’ll be the man who can’t sleep and talks to strangers.” That gets Don, and he agrees to give away the bride, while Megan snaps a picture.

Somewhere in the exchange, the boys exchange lighters. Don doesn’t discover this until he’s back in New York City attempting to radiate Draper dominance in front of the camera for a SCDP publicity photo shoot. Upon noticing that he inadvertently, in a small way, has stolen yet another soldier’s identity, his face drops. I would like to have seen that photo. This small thing seems to disrupt Don for the remainder of the episode, from vomiting at Mimsey Sterling’s funeral to stumbling through a pitch for The Royal Hawaiian resort. Like some bad luck charm, Draper had no interest in becoming Dinkins.

For Roger, it was a shoeshine kit. Roger has replaced his Dictaphone with a psychiatrist. Last season, we left him naked on an acid trip and this season we find him fully clothed, lounging in a psychologists’ chaise, ranting and musing about the meaning of the meaningless of life. Most of the things he says in are depressing in flavor, but sprinkled in sterling wit: “Experiences are nothing. Like pennies you pick up and put in your pocket, they mean nothing.”

At the office, Roger demands to have his shoes shined before his publicity portrait. “No one is going to see your shoes,” his secretary Caroline ensures. But he is adamant she contact Giorgio, the shoeshine boy. Later that day, Caroline enters Roger’s office sobbing, to tell him his mother passed away from a stroke in the bathtub. Roger is unmoved, practical, almost comic about the news. “I suppose I’m in charge of the arrangements,” he says. “[My Aunt’s] a fruitcake, she’ll want to have a seance.”

At the funeral, Don throws up, Roger throws a tantrum and then throws everyone out. He seems verbal and unimpressed with the entire notion of grief.[5] When Roger asks Caroline when Giorgio is coming to shine his shoes, she responds that he’d passed away, but that his shoeshine kit had been sent over, since Roger was the only person that had inquired his absence. Roger looks stunned, takes the shoeshine kit into his office, closes the door and breaks down in tears.

For Betty, it was a violin. Since Betty’s marriage to Harry Francis, we’ve watched her transform (or regress?) from a statuesque, steely-eyed fox of a woman to a kind of awkward, innocent adolescent girl inhabiting a pudgy homemaker’s body. In this episode, we’re introduced to her daughter Sally’s friend Sandy, who frequently spends time at the Francis household and is accustomed to repaying their hospitality with impromptu violin recitals. “Please play,” Betty says. “It makes me feel so much.”

Betty especially seems to enjoy Sandy’s company, despite her awkward playful urging that Henry rape the girl. In a meeting over a midnight snack and cigarette, Sandy confides in Betty that she didn’t get accepted to Julliard and plans to runaway to a tenement in the East Village. Betty advises against it, encouraging Sandy to tell people she wanted to finish high school instead of moving onto Julliard so soon.[6] Regardless, Sandy runs away, and Betty later chases her like an owner searching for a lost puppy on St. Mark’s Place.

It was uncomfortable watching Betty’s blonde-and-baby-blue-self poke around the hip and dirty tenement where she thought she might uncover little Sandy. When she found Sandy’s violin, she decided to hang around and help the team make goulash on the hunch that the girl would return for her precious instrument. But Betty is stunned to learn that Sandy had sold the instrument to one of the tenants and put the money toward a ticket to California. The tenant she sold the instrument to seemed particularly keen on putting Betty right in her place, grabbing her purse, mocking its contents and calling her a nark. “We don’t like your life anymore than you do.” Betty leaves without the violin.[7]

It was interesting that several of the product campaigns introduced in this episode had a sharp, sensory edge.  Air fresheners! Headphones! Cameras! Everything, even the Hawaiian vacation, was about heightening some experience through the consumption of a product. It proved to be poignant that Don’s meeting with creative, when he rejects their prosaic usage of the word “love” in an air freshener campaign, is interrupted by a visit from Jonesy’s savior, Dr. Rosen. “Why are we contributing to the trivialization of [love]?” Don asks, “It’s like a drug, it’s not domestic. What’s the difference between a husband knocking on a door and a sailor getting off a ship? About 10,000 volts.”

The scene quickly turns when Don notices Dr. Rosen standing in the doorway. “These are great,” he closes with and ends the meeting. We learn in the last few minutes of the episode (through structural reveal similar to the pilot) that Don is sleeping with Dr. Rosen’s wife, Sylvia. This gives his rant on love, along with most other events in the episode, new light and weight.

Overall, the season began much like the series itself. Although most of the characters have undergone drastic transformations through the last few years, Don’s persona – the centerpiece of both this episode and of the pilot – appears to have regained its signature, impervious gloss.

One thing has changed though, a small distinction that suggests the anxiety of life is beginning to permeate Don’s perpetual ease. In the pilot, Don equates advertising with happiness, but in “The Doorway,” he unintentionally associates it with suicide. Ironically, Don aligned cigarettes with happiness and paradise with death. Roger says it best: “You know, we sold actual death for 25 years with Lucky Strike. You know how we did it? We ignored it.”

It’s a subtle shift, but still suggestive that in some small way, even Don, despite all the pomp, is in the market for some form of salvation.

[1] Again, “You Only Live Twice” is almost stupidly applicable here.

[2] Or as The New York Times headline put it: “World Bids Adieu to a Violent Year, City Gets Snowfall.”

[3] “This never happened,” Don tells Peggy, after the shock of her pregnancy. “It will shock you how much it never happened.”

[4] Classic Draper.

[5] Roger vents to his psychologist: “My mother loved me in some completely pointless way and now it’s gone. So there it is. She gave me my last new experience. And now I know that all I’m going to be doing from here on is losing everything. Dammit. I don’t feel anything. All I’m doing is acknowledging life, unlike this analysis, will eventually end. And someone else will get the bill.”

[6] Sandy’s response? “It’s incredible how fast some people can come up with lies.”

[7] We discover later that Betty quite characteristically responds to this much like a 14-year-old girl who was just bullied at the school dance would respond. She dyes her hair dark.