Last time I talked about Mad Men, I predicted that “[t]his season should mark Don becoming less relevant and Peggy and Pete moreso. They’re the face of the ‘youth culture’ that’s going to become more important as the Sixties roll on.” Well, the last few episodes (Ep5 through Ep8) have not been about youth culture. But otherwise I was right.
Pete and Peggy were each born into certain roles – Pete the blue-blood, Peggy the homemaker. In the first three seasons, each of them chafed (Peggy more than Pete) in the life they were born into. Pete doesn’t have a social consciousness that a contemporary audience would recognize. But his earnest attempts to sell Admiral televisions to African-Americans seem more genuine, albeit mercantile, than Kinsey marching in Alabama. Peggy had a chance at being a mother thrust upon her in Season 1 and decided she wouldn’t have it. The two of them have stepped out of their cradles and into their careers.
In S4, they take charge in more dramatic fashion. Pete takes the initiative in trying to impress the Japanese clients in “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.” Sure, he gets a lot of the details wrong – Pete’s doing double-duty as the Baby Boom and as a comic foil for Don. But Pete’s not coasting on his Ivy League connections any more. Note especially his confrontation with Roger in that episode. Roger and Pete come from the same world, but they no longer take the same sides.
(Tangent: I thought Roger taking refuge in patriotism was particularly clunky. Bombastic speeches about fallen comrades? Joan thanking him for making the world a safer place? What the fuck’s with this Aaron Sorkin bullshit? If I wanted protagonists talking about what the scene was about, I’d watch network television)
Pete throws his weight around when Ken Cosgrove returns to the office, reminding Cosgrove that they’re no longer peers. Ken – and I love Aaron Statton more than I should – swallows his pride and agrees. This isn’t supposed to endear us to Pete, even as a power play, but it’s more progress in the same vein. Pete’s no longer relying on his family name to one-up people. Now he’s relying on his career.
Peggy, meanwhile, struggles with being a career woman. Well, let me rephrase that. Every drama since General Hospital has devoted a B storyline to the woman who has to choose between Falling In Love and Pursuing Her Dreams, or between Raising A Family and Success In The Workplace. This is nothing new, and Mad Men wouldn’t be noteworthy for depicting it. Thankfully, Weiner and company have avoided the most obvious pitfalls and struck their own path.
(Tangent: … with the unfortunate exception of Peggy’s arc in S1. I can’t find any interpretation of Peggy’s behavior regarding her pregnancy that I’m comfortable with. Either she didn’t know she was pregnant [unlikely], she knew but she imagined it would just go away if left untended [unlikely] or she had a secret plan to deal with her pregnancy that we never saw on camera [poor writing choice]. It’s possible I missed something, since I wasn’t watching the show as closely back then. Still, I’m happier to be past it)
Peggy is not choosing between Raising a Family and Success In The Workplace. She’s made that choice. She’s a career woman. She wants to design compelling ads, the way Don does. Her struggle comes not from her internal conflict – which she acknowledges but moves past with little trouble – but from getting the rest of the world to accept her.
No one believes that she wants to do what Don does. Her boyfriend thinks she wants a traditional relationship, which is why his birthday surprise for her is dinner with her parents. Her coworkers think she got where she did either by sleeping with Don (Allison) or by being frigid (Eddie Rumsen, the new art director). And Don doesn’t understand why she can’t just abandon the rest of the world and plunge herself into work.
Peggy’s stopped ignoring the jibes that people mutter behind her back and started firing back. Sometimes she’s harsher than she needs to be, like when she yells at Eddie. Sometimes she’s more daring than a man in her position would have to be, like when she challenges Stan to work in the nude. Sometimes, like with Don, she just breaks down.
But Peggy remains the optimistic center of the show because each time she succeeds. Rumsen leaves her be – or at least acknowledges that Peggy’s someone he doesn’t have to worry about. Stan, having been broken in a way that most fraternities would frown on, treats Peggy with genial respect.
And Peggy and Don? No talk about them would be complete without recapping “The Suitcase,” one of the most touching and incredible episodes of the show so far.
The crux of Peggy’s relationship with Don comes during their screaming match – the mere fact of which is telling in itself. When Don got mad at Betty, his anger was tight and savage: grabbing her by the wrist, pitching his voice so as not to wake the children. When Don gets mad with Peggy, he’s drunk and impatient.
Peggy: You never say ‘thank you’!
Don: That’s what the money’s for!
Two sentences that summarize four seasons of storytelling.
Peggy’s story is a search for acceptance in a foreign land. Peggy wants to plunge herself into work with the same intensity that Don does. She finds certain parts of Don’s life deplorable – his alcoholism, for instance – but most of it attracts her. Being brusque to subordinates? Being called a creative genius? Casual sex? Sign Ms. Olsen up!
But only in Season 4 – and even here it’s a struggle – is she finding the door open when she tries it. Before, her attempts to speak up in meetings were ignored, downplayed or laughed off. She had to do more work than her colleagues, like stepping up to cover for Eddie Rumsen when he passed out drunk, in order to be recognized. To paraphrase Chris Rock, she has to soar to get what everyone else has to walk for.
The world is eager to give Peggy recognition – as a girlfriend, or a wife, or a mother, or a counter-cultural radical, or a humorless bitch. But that’s not the recognition Peggy wants.
Don, on the other hand, is a cipher without a soul. He has nothing but the mask that he puts on for the world. That’s what makes him so good at advertising. That’s what lets him outfox the Japanese at their game of etiquette. That’s what lets him schmooze with Roger Sterling, who’s far enough out of a midwestern farm boy’s world as to be effectively alien. That’s what lets him turn the Glo-Coat campaign into an award-winning conversation piece.
(Tangent: what made Don and Peggy’s argument so compelling, to me, was that both of them had a point. Peggy may have provided the genesis, but Don made it into a fully fleshed commercial. Peggy does deserve thanks, but the agency deserves the credit)
All his life, Don has been told what to want. He’s the ideal ad man because he’s the ideal audience for advertising: someone plagued by anxieties that he hopes achievements can solve. He gets a job – then what? He gets a family – then what? He becomes a partner – then what? Don’s used to accepting material substitutes in place of self-awareness (e.g., “that’s what the money’s for!”).
Now, having confronted the void of his self by saying goodbye to Anna, Don has to decide what sort of man he is. He’s started keeping a journal, a process of introspection which he loathes but sticks with. He’s trying to make himself healthier, albeit in small stages: swimming a few times a week, drinking in smaller doses. But more than anything else, Don’s future’s being presented as a choice between the three blondes in his life: Bethany, Dr. Faye and Betty.
Bethany’s younger and freer, but she’s not a ditz. She knows that Don is keeping her at arm’s length. And even if she’s willing to “make [Don] comfortable” in the back of a cab, she won’t let him any further in unless he opens up. Don has less problem opening up to Faye. He respects her work, plus she’s closer to him in age. But, on top of all that, she’s a professional at learning what people want. Bethany wants to be the next Betty Draper, high society wife – note how her eyes go wide when she spots her mirror image in the restaurant. Faye wants to be the next Betty Draper, recipient of pillow talk – lying next to Don at three in the morning, sharing theories on the zeitgeist.
(Tangent: the narrative seems to be preferring Faye, but I think the two of them are even. Both Bethany and Faye put up a good front of resistance, then melt as soon as Don gives them that off-kilter look in the backseat of a cab. They’re both eager to have intercourse with him. But Bethany ends the evening in her case; Don ends it with Faye. I could see Don ending up with either of them without much difficulty)
So what’s left? Season 4 began on Thanksgiving 1964. As of Episode 8, it’s June 1965 (presuming that “(Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” if not diegetic, was at least contemporary). Five more episodes in the season could take us back to Thanksgiving again. We still have the Voting Rights Act, Highway 61 Revisited, John Lindsay’s mayoral campaign and the Vietnam War kicking off in earnest. And I’ll lay two dollars that Episode 13 features someone watching the world broadcast premiere of the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.