Mad Men season 4 episode 12 review: Blowing Smoke

It’s the penultimate episode of Mad Men, and the vultures are circling above Don Draper’s ad agency. Here’s our review of Blowing Smoke…

4.12 Blowing Smoke

SCDP is a company in terminal meltdown. Its customers are seeping away, and its finances are at a dangerously low ebb.

To make matters worse, the glimmer of hope given by Faye at the close of the last episode is immediately extinguished at the start of Blowing Smoke – in one of the most quietly stinging rejections in Mad Men history, a Don Draper is politely knocked back by prospective client, Heinz.

“I bet I could get a date with your mother right now” a company rep says, after Don delivers an unusually desperate and spluttering pitch over dinner.

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A later opportunity proves similarly disappointing, as another potential client, which could have earned SCDP an agency-saving $5 million, evaporates into the ether. The news of Lucky Strike’s departure has clearly travelled far and, sensing imminent death, SCDP’s clients are staying away in droves.

With SCDP’s partners all forced to pitch in to pay their employees’ wages (an expense Pete can ill-afford), tempers become frayed, and as the first round of workers are quietly let go, the atmosphere in the office is grim.

Desperate and running out of ideas, Don takes it upon himself to make one final, impulsive gamble – sitting down at his typewriter after a few scotches, he hastily drafts an open letter, headed “Why I’m quitting tobacco”, and has it published in the New York Times.

“We welcome all other business because we believe our best work is ahead of us,” the letter reads, having explained that SCDP will no longer be advertising cigarettes. A bold move designed to put a cool, positive spin on the company’s rejection by the tobacco industry, it’s not a popular one among Don’s fellow partners.

“It’s suicide! It’s insane!” Pete laments. Roger, with evident relish, sardonically adds that it’s “good not to be the reason this agency’s going down anymore.”

Blowing Smoke is a tense, pressure cooker of an episode for the most part, and the future now looks particularly dim for Don’s once majestic enterprise. The late possibility that the Anti-Smoking Lobby may be interested in working with SCDP provides a tiny escape route, but this could well prove to be too little, too late.

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In what is an otherwise engrossing episode, the blood-on-the-carpet events at the office are regularly intercut with the more quotidian developments at Betty’s house. In a rare instance of what feels suspiciously like filler, we’re treated to scenes of Sally talking at length with creepy youth Glen, or playing cards with her psychologist.

It seems rather too late in the series’ narrative for these scenes to have any meaningful impact on next week’s finale, and merely serve to undercut the various sackings and arguments over on Madison Avenue.

Nevertheless, Blowing Smoke provides a serviceable point of entry for the season’s final 45-or-so minutes. The script zings with its usual resonance (Bert Cooper once again gets in a fantastically odd line, directed at Don: “Get me my shoes. We’ve created a monster!”)

There’s a beautifully constructed shot early on in the episode, too, where Faye and Don chat in the foreground while vampish secretary Megan types away behind them, that serves to underline the literal love triangle that will almost certainly come to a head next week.

With SCDP’s future dangling over the abyss of ruin, and less than six months before the banks call in their debts, Don appears to be living on borrowed time.

I can’t wait to see how (or even if) all these narrative loose ends will be tied up and, most of all, whether Don’s maverick gamble has saved the company, or merely hastened its fall into oblivion…

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Read our review of episode 11, Chinese Wall, here.

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