Oh how the mighty have fallen. In Mad Men’s first season, Don and Betty Draper occupied a comfortable position at the top of the 1960 food chain. Both gorgeous and impeccably turned out in the most current fashions, they reigned over their respective worlds: Don as a superstar in advertising and Betty as the youthful stay-at-home mom. Of course the picture they presented to the world was a façade but at least they could hold their heads high in public.
Now it’s 1969 and forget that. They still look great but they’re out of step with the times. Betty is still decked out like a 1950’s TV mom, in dresses and heels (even at the farm!) Worse, she has to sit there and be condescended to by her former sad sack neighbor Francine, who may be wearing a hideous orange pantsuit but at least has a job in an office – three days a week with three phones ringing so frequently that she goes home at night with a sore neck and isn’t that wonderful. Betty’s clearly jealous. She already unloaded all her heavy artillery – that her big shot husband patched things up with “Rocky” (Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who was pissed when Henry ambitiously left the governor’s staff to be a top aide to NYC mayor John Lindsay) and that Henry is under consideration to be “A.G.” But it’s not enough to gain the upper hand.
Francine is suitably impressed with the Rocky news, but nothing beats that job in the travel agency office, especially when the alternative is “being in the home unoccupied all the time.” In an early shot in the Mommy Wars, Betty counters that children are their own rewards (this is the first time in the episode, but not the last, when one of the women tells obvious lies to herself.) And to prove the point, she marches right home and volunteers for Bobby’s field trip, to the clear shock of her poor vulnerable son.
Meanwhile, Don’s not in much better shape. He spends his day watching bad 1960’s movies and wondering if and when he will be released from professional purgatory. He’s still handsome (and all kinds of women, from secretaries to flight attendants are still drooling over him) but he’s clearly a man of the 1950s (he’s even reading a Time Magazine article about Dwight Eisenhower) and his clothes are dated. Once a master of his universe, the highlight of his day is now the moment when his former secretary Dawn brings him his mail and the office gossip, and he acts petulantly when she’s too busy to visit personally. Then, as impetuously as Betty, he agrees to go on his own field trip – to visit his wife when he learns that she’s losing it in California, chasing after directors and whatnot.
But there’s a big difference between Betty and Don. Don is growing in self-awareness and moral depth but Betty is stuck in a rut. When she gets home from her lunch with Francine, she announces “I’m going to change.” She means she’s going to put on a new get-up, but we are meant to take it ironically because we know she will never really change. Matt Weiner continues to express surprise that people don’t like Betty, but she is a horrible person. The best you can say is that she’s pathetic and that we should somehow feels sorry for her that the rules of the game have changed and that the woman she was raised to be is no longer valued; but even by the standards of 1960, she would still be considered a terrible mother. Off she goes on her field trip, and at first things are OK, as she actually manages to have a “conversation” with Bobby and even gamely drinks the raw milk. But she flips out when Bobby trades her sandwich for candy. When she reports back to Henry on what happened she sounds like a fourth-grader herself when she says, “It was a perfect day and he ruined it.”
Don’s field trip is almost as disastrous. He flies to L.A. to surprise and buck Megan up, and she’s initially thrilled to see him. But after a quickie (and we can assume it was pretty quick given that Don’s been living the life of a monk back in NYC) he rushes to the matter at hand, ham-handedly suggesting that her friends are handling rejection better than she is. It’s interesting that Don still doesn’t understand women very well, but then again he hasn’t had the benefit we modern men have had in reading instruction manuals like “Men are From Mars; Women are from Venus.” He thinks he can “fix” the problem by giving her a pep talk instead of just sympathizing and listening to her. Worse, he blurts out that her agent called him and reported her growing lack of confidence, meaning that one man she should be able to trust is talking behind her back to another man she should be able to trust, but can’t.
Matters go from bad to worse when Don finally comes clean to her about having been suspended from work. Trying the truth worked so well with Sally last episode, but Megan can’t handle the truth. She suspects he’s seeing another woman, which would be bad enough, but she’s even more horrified that he didn’t confide in his own wife about losing his job (actually, that happens a lot Megan, so don’t feel bad) and then made a conscious, sober decision not to spend his free time supporting her in California. In other words, his real mistress is not another woman but his job, something she can’t compete against.
But here’s where the difference between Don and Betty is most apparent. Betty reacts to the disastrous field trip with passive aggressiveness, but Don is a man of action. He immediately calls Dave Wooster at Welles Rich Greene and solicits a job offer. He immediately takes the offer to Roger Sterling, who tells him to come into the office on Monday and get his job back.
Roger’s habit of refusing to confront a problem until it is thrust directly upon him (seen most vividly when he didn’t tell his partners he’d lost the Lucky Strike account) precipitates one of the great scenes of office politics we’ve even seen. Since Roger hasn’t told anybody about his unilateral decision to ask Don back and then conveniently doesn’t show up until 12:30 p.m., Don arrives at the office unannounced and cools his heels while everyone asks “What’s he doing here?” He almost walks out but is saved by Michael Ginsberg, who asks his advice on a pitch.
When Roger finally arrives, we discover that he might be weaselly, morally appalling and a terrible human being, but he can be a sharper businessman than we thought. Just last episode we assumed he was going to be rolled by Jim Cutler, but it’s soon apparent that Cutler’s a bit of an empty suit himself. Roger forcefully makes the case that Don is a partner with a contract. It would be devastating financially to buy him out and worse to compete against him at Welles Rich Green.
There’s also a philosophical issue under debate. One side of the firm, led by Jim Cutler, doesn’t care about the creative aspects of advertising. He goes so far as to say, “This agency is too dependent upon creative personalities,” and he’s more than happy with Lou Avery, who is deemed “adequate.” Cutler is supported by Joan, who has her own history with Don (more on that later), but has been shown to care only about the nuts and bolts of advertising, especially the media buys. She’s the only one in the office who things Harry Crane is a whiz (although Cutler is catching on.) Roger, and to a lesser extent Bert Cooper, know that clients want the creative pizzazz that comes with advertising and they don’t like the way the agency is being talk about in the market.
In the end, the partners reach a compromise, but a compromise that is too clever by half. Instead of firing Don outright, they offer him a deal they think he can’t accept: he can’t meet with clients alone, has to follow a script that they approve, can’t drink in the office, has to take Lane’s office and worst of all, he has to report to Lou. And if he violates any of the terms, his partnership is revoked.
This is the low point in the show, which has been one depressing sequence after another. The deal is an insult and Don will almost certainly bolt. But then Matt Weiner pulls another great surprise out of his hat. Don looks at the terms and simply says “OK.” Holy Cow! And I literally laughed out loud. If the partners think they’ve seen office politics before, they haven’t seen anything yet, as the battle for the soul of Sterling Cooper and Partners begins.
Some other thoughts.
— I have to admit that I couldn’t identify the movie that Don was watching at the beginning of the episode and had to rely on others to figure out it was “Model Shop,” released in 1969. The IMDB summary: “George Matthews is a young man who is having a bittersweet affair with a French divorcée in Los Angeles. Waiting to be drafted, he is unable to commit himself to anything or anybody, including his girlfriend Gloria. While trying to raise money to prevent his car from being repossessed, George is attracted to Lola, a Frenchwoman who works in a “model shop” (an establishment which rents out beautiful pin-up models to photographers). George spends his last twelve dollars to photograph her, and discovers that she is as unhappy as he. Although Lola is unwilling to respond to George, their brief night of lovemaking gives both the will to deal with their respective problems.”
That sounds relevant to Don Draper. Here’s the trailer.
— Also relevant to Don Draper is the closing song over the credits, “If 6 Were 9,” an anti-establishment anthem by Jimi Hendrix. Here are the relevant lyrics: “White collared conservative flashing down the street/Pointing their plastic finger at me./They’re hoping soon my kind will drop and die,/But I’m gonna wave my freak flag high, high.” Don Draper may be the White Collared Conservative flashing down the street, but he’s as creative and impatient as any of the hippies celebrated in the song. He’ll be tearing stuff down at Sterling Cooper pretty soon.
— After two straight episodes set on very specific dates (Inauguration Day and Valentine’s Day 1969) this episode is set during a generic week in spring. The only hint of the period is the Time magazine that Don is reading, with its cover of Dwight Eisenhower, who died March 28, 1969. By the looks of the greening farm on the field trip, the events of this episode must be taking place in early spring, the week after Ike’s death, in April 1969.
— It seems pretty clear to me that Betty has an eating disorder. By way of explaining away why he traded her sandwich, Bobby says he didn’t expect her to eat it, and the first thing that Henry says to her when he gets home is “Did you eat?” (Her response, “I was hungry but now I’m not,” shows that she’s punishing Bobby by punishing herself.) It is possibly important that Bobby gave the sandwich away to a girl; Betty may equate food with love and assume that he has given his love away to another female. And making him eat that candy shows that she’s really learned how to weaponize food.
— Jim Cutler and apparently Peggy blame Don for what’s become of Ted Chaough, but Peggy should blame herself more than anyone. They don’t know that Ted came to Don and begged him to let him go to California instead of Don so he could save his marriage. Don basically sacrificed his own marriage for Ted’s – a marriage that Peggy was trying to break up – but he gets no credit from Cutler.
— I think we are supposed to infer that the reason the firm can’t afford a computer of its own is because the firm went into debt when Frank Gleason – the former partner of Cutler and Chaough – died. Because they rushed the deal, the Sterling Cooper partners didn’t know that Frank Gleason was terminally ill, and when he died, the firm presumably had to buy back his stake from Gleason’s estate. When Cutler says the firm has to look to the long-term, Roger gives him a dirty look and says he’s the LAST person to talk about the long term, since the firm won’t be out of debt until 1973 or 1974.
— I love how Harry Crane is so rude to Jim Cutler, and that Cutler appears to eat it up. He says to Harry, “You have stiff competition. I believe you to be the most dishonest man I have ever worked with.” And he doesn’t mean that as an insult. In fact, he wants to fund Crane’s beloved computer. Incidentally, the discussion about using data to integrate national and local buys was fascinating. Too bad Joan wasn’t there: she probably would have swooned in the office.
— Joan and Peggy have their own grievances against Don, which causes them both to lie to themselves: Peggy says, “Well, I can’t say that we miss you,” which is USDA-approved Grade A B.S. She hates working for Lou. And Joan says that things are working better than they ever have, which might mean they are working well for HER but she can’t seriously mean the firm is in better shape. As noted, Peggy blames Don for breaking up her and Ted, but Joan’s grievance is more subtle: she had slept with Herb from Jaguar to get that account, which Don then unilaterally dumped, thereby rendering her sacrifice meaningless. It’s dispiriting that she has joined the anti-Don cabal and you can tell she insisted on the provisions that prevent him from meeting with clients alone and without a script.
— When Megan’s agent calls, Don is initially more impressed that she might have met Rod Serling than anything else. Serling, of course, was a creative genius and also the initial screenwriter of “The Planet of the Apes,” which Don and Bobby went to see in the episode when Martin Luther King died.
— So many call-backs to previous episodes: Pirate Ken Cosgrove shows Don a photo of his son on the carousel in Central Park, which reminds him of Don – a clear reference to the most famous scene in the series, when Don pitched the carousel to Kodak in season one.
— Notice that the staff is happy to have Don back. Handshakes and hugs all around. The hoi polloi seem to understand that the agency is adrift without him. He may have ridden them hard and occasionally mistreated them, but he provided vision and leadership.
— The other chaperon’s crack about milking the wrong udders was nasty but, I think, well deserved. If a teacher is going to go braless the least she can do is keep her shirt buttoned so she’s not flashing those things in front of fourth grade boys.
— Peggy’s another one who never changes either – still bitching about those Clios. And boy does Ginsberg hate her.
— Speaking of Ginsberg, who was born in a concentration camp, it’s creepy to hear him say, about management’s decisions on who to nominate for the Clio’s, that “you shouldn’t give them the power to decide who should live and who should die.”
What an episode! 62 and a half minutes into the show I was about to slit my wrists, and then boom: “OK”, and I can’t wait for next week.
We could all learn something from the funeral home industry!