Monday, October 11, 2010

Mad Men: There's a time for beans and a time for ketchup....

So the guy from Heinz tells Don: "There's a time for beans and a time for ketchup."

That statement was one theme of this episode, a theme that is dominating the last half of this season. A can of beans is food. When times are tough, you buy food. You don't buy the little things that make food taste better. This is the situation that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is in. Some members of the firm feel at risk of becoming part of this 1930's scene:

Panic sometimes crosses the faces of the partners for whom this is a real memory of what hard times means. “It’s because we’re desperate—they can smell it on us,” Don tells the partners. Fear of failure eliminates the possibility of a little humor like this:
But there has been another important theme running through this season.

“What’s it like?” Don asks. Midge shockingly explains “It’s like drinking a hundred bottles of whiskey while someone licks your tits…it’s heroin, Don, I just can’t stop.”

Addiction or "substance abuse" has been a theme this season. And it brings us to the real twist of this episode. By bringing Midge back from Season 1, we see a person who was a happy, promising, bohemian artist who is being destroyed by the ultimate addiction.

We can tell this has made a huge impression on Don and has him thinking about the whole issue of addiction.

Now bring out the other woman who frequently focuses Don's mind, Peggy. She draws him into one of the better pieces of dialog. After it's clear that they aren't going to get the Virginia Slims account (the cigarettes for women) and everyone is down in the dumps, Peggy approaches Don saying she's been thinking about the firm.

Peggy asks: "Why don't we just change our name. If this was a dogfood we'd change our name."

When Don explains that it wasn't an option as the firm had just started, Peggy plants an idea.

"You always say if you don't like what they're saying about you, change the conversation,"  she responds.

Don, dismayed, says "To what? What they're saying about us is true."

Peggy: "So there's nothing we can do?"

Don: "Sure there is, we're going to sit at our desks and keep typing as the walls fall down around us because we're 'creative,' the least important most important thing there is."

(We'll come back to Peggy in a minute.)

If we were following the dialog back when Don was talking to the guy from Heinz, we know that it ended when the guy told him to leave the negotiating to "accounts."  Yeah, right, "accounts." "Creative" got a Clio this year,"accounts" failed in a way that has threatened the very existence of the firm.

Don mulls all this over and "changes the conversation" as Peggy suggested for better or worse, without consulting the other partners. That it is a full page letter in the New York Times essentially denouncing tobacco is going to make waves.

About the letter, Megan notes, “I know it’s all about “he didn’t dump me—I dumped him’.” She also notes that it changes the feel of the firm. "I love that you stand for something." to which Don honestly replies, "That's not what it's really about."

Here we have a continuation of another theme this year - Don Draper. This Don Draper isn't interested in playing the fiddle of complaining and self-pity while his ship goes down. Of course he has to tell a lie to maybe make it all work.

At this point, we have to take a little history detour about a real life character of the period. Among the message slips Megan hands Don is a call from Emerson Foote. "I wonder who he is" she muses. That's your cue to Google his name. That Don didn't recognize his name is not likely as we can see from his 1992 obituary in the NY Times:
Emerson Foote, the outspoken co-founder of the Foote, Cone & Belding advertising agency and former chairman of McCann-Erickson Inc., died on Sunday....

The two agencies he led rank among the biggest in the world today, and Mr. Foote, tall and distinguished-looking, stood as one of the giants of the industry. He became known to the general public for his acerbic views of tobacco advertising, which eventually prompted him to leave advertising. He was a former chain-smoker and was a director of the American Cancer Society.

Mr. Foote resigned as chairman of McCann-Erickson in 1964, saying he was opposed to handling cigarette accounts. He was then a member of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer and Stroke and endorsed the Surgeon General's report that linked cigarette smoking and lung cancer.

He ridiculed protestations that billions spent on promotions had nothing to do with people taking up the habit. "I am always amused," Mr. Foote said, "by the suggestion that advertising, a function that has been shown to increase consumption of virtually every other product, somehow miraculously fails to work for tobacco products."
He certainly should have been in Don Draper's field of vision, but this is fiction, after all. Still the firm is being approached by the American Cancer Society.

Now back to Peggy, the symbol of the changing status of women throughout this show. We learn that Faye has to leave because her firm can't risk losing tobacco company business by remaining associated with SCDP.

As she leaves, Peggy tells her:  "They respect you, and you don't have to play any games."

Faye responds: "Is that what it looks like?"

You can't tell what Peggy gets from that. We know that Faye has portrayed herself as a married woman in order to thread her way through the jungles of the very sexist business world of that period. We don't know what else she has done in her career to get ahead.

In Sunday's Washington Post an article written by Stephanie Coontz headlined Why 'Mad Men' is TV's most feminist show explains about the show:
Historians are notorious for savaging historical fiction. We're quick to complain that writers project modern values onto their characters, get the surroundings wrong, cover up the seamy side of an era or exaggerate its evils -- and usually, we're right. But AMC's hit show "Mad Men," which ends its fourth season next Sunday, is a stunning exception. Every historian I know loves the show; it is, quite simply, one of the most historically accurate television series ever produced. And despite the rampant chauvinism of virtually all its male characters (and some of its female ones), it is also one of the most sympathetic to women.

"Mad Men's" authentic portrait of women's lives in the early 1960s makes it hard for some women to watch. Over the course of its first three seasons, I interviewed almost 200 women from the same era for a new book on the Greatest Generation's wives and daughters. Many had suffered from the same numbness that plagued Betty Draper in the first season. They had seen psychiatrists who were as unhelpful and patronizing as the one Don Draper hired for his wife, or they had been married to men who displayed a sense of male entitlement similar to Don's. Those who had worked, whether before or after marriage, had experienced the same discrimination and sexual harassment as the female employees at the show's ad agency.

Yet to my surprise, most of these women refused to watch "Mad Men." Not because they found its portrayal of male-female relations unrealistic -- in fact, many recounted treatment in real life that was even more dramatic and horrifying than that on the show. It was precisely because "Mad Men" portrayed the sexism of that era so unflinchingly, they told me, that they could not bear to watch.

The rest of us, however, should tune in for a much-needed lesson on the devastating costs of a way of life that still evokes misplaced nostalgia. We should be glad that the writers are resisting the temptation to transform their female characters into contemporary heroines. They're not, and they cannot be. That is the brilliance of the show's script.
Everything else about this show notwithstanding, it can, and is, being used in sociology and women's studies classes already.

Most of the women in this show win or lose partly because of their relationship with Don/Dick. Men are not that significant for him except as foils to mislead for his gain. And that is something he has in common with the women. He has had to discard his identity to advance, he has had to lie, he has had to manipulate the men around him, all because his talent would never have gotten Dick Whitman in the front door except as a janitor.

In this episode, the men partners are livid at Don. Most particularly Bert Cooper, apparently quitting the firm in disgust, says of Don: "We have created a monster." (Does this mean we'll see even less of Robert Morse?)

Only Pete among the men sees Don's talent in terms of respect. And once Don bails him out financially, he's relieved, and though still apprehensive, willing to let Don's gamble play out.

We don't know if Don has saved the firm. Probably we won't know after next week's season finale, but it has been an intense ride this season.

As usual, there was too much to cover in this episode. But I can't ignore completely what's happening to Sally. For she has attempted in the Don Draper mold to reinvent herself in order to get along with her mother, whose neurotic mind sees male and female roles in some weird version of the traditional model. Sally's psychiatrist sees Sally's reinventing herself as progress. Really? Or as a psychiatrist does she sense Sally is in danger from her mother.

For Sally, who is after all still a child, this isn't working out too well. Betty catches her hanging with Glenn and assumes ... what, exactly? Based on her strange intimate past with Glenn the boy, of which Sally is ignorant, Betty decides it's time to move the family to Rye. She knows this will crush Sally now. So she does it, knowing that her psychologically troubled daughter is making some progress. Some mother you've got there Sally.

And as this episode ends we hear Etta James singing "Trust In Me." Well, maybe Don has made the right move....

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