This review contains spoilers.
6.4 To Have and to Hold
Remember when Mad Men was all duck-egg blue and split-pea green? When housewives buried their neuroses inside layers of meatloaf, and men clinked 11am whiskies to congratulate one another on being kings of the universe? How things change. Now, it’s all space-station white, go-go boots, and psychedelic neon. The men are repeating themselves, the women are talking about their careers, and two black characters are having a conversation with each other. We’ve come a long way, baby.
Dawn’s character being fleshed out is a welcome and necessary addition to the show, and particularly prized was her summation of SCDP. Like Megan’s season five, “What is wrong with you people? You’re all so cynical. You don’t smile, you smirk”, Don’s latest secretary’s verdict was similarly biting, “Everybody’s scared there. Women crying in the ladies room, men crying in the elevator… It sounds like New Year’s Eve when they empty the garbage, there’s so many bottles”. She may have said she has no ambitions to copywriting, but Dawn certainly has a way with words.
In a canny reflection of the shifting cultural sands, this week’s episode saw Don, Roger, Pete, and co. shuffled off centre-stage, and replaced by a series of conversations between the show’s women. Erin Levy’s To Have and to Hold paired Joan with old friend Kate, Megan with fellow actress Arlene, and the aforementioned Dawn with bride-to-be Nikki. Where was Peggy in all this? Leading the Cutler, Gleason and Chaough charge in the dirty fight for Heinz ketchup, and looking at former colleagues Don, Pete and Stan from across the battle lines.
Not that Peggy was entirely absent from the other women’s scenes. Dawn leaving the office late and Megan’s workplace promotion echoed Olson’s storylines of old, and even Kate’s ‘treat yourself’ make-over advice to Joan’s mother recalled Peggy’s discarded pampering pitch for Pond’s Cold Cream. Miss Olson casts a long shadow over Mad Men’s career women, who this week, were preoccupied with their status.
Joan, the envy of her married-with-kids friend, spent the episode weighing up whether or not her encounter with sweaty Herb from Jaguar had been “worth the risk”. A partner by name, Joan’s ignominious route to the boardroom – now the subject of office gossip – threatens to undermine her already shaky position, as this week’s spat with Harry proved.
Megan too, was left pondering whether her extra scenes at work stemmed from her sex appeal instead of her acting ability after she and hubby “James Garner” were propositioned by a swinging writer/actress couple on the show.
Not that either character need worry. Which of many of Mad Men’s professional starts didn’t originate in either a seedy scheme or a birth right privilege? Peggy, Ginsberg, Harry, Stan perhaps… Don got his chance by feeding Roger too many martinis and lying, Roger by being born a Sterling, Pete by being born a Campbell, Dawn because the firm was publicly shamed into hiring her, Joan thanks to sweaty Herb… It’s Mad Men’s most straightforward treatment of the American Dream perhaps: get to the start line how you will, it’s the way you run the race that counts.
That ethos even seems to extend to company accounts, remembering the circumstances in which Heinz came to the firm in the first place. At the behest of lover Don, Dr Faye abused client confidentiality and was rewarded by being swiftly dumped for a younger, supposedly less complicated model. Don evidently did his double-think trick on those sordid beginnings when he preached folksy loyalty about the account to Ken last week, chiding him that “you have to dance with who brung ya”. Not only didn’t Don dance with who ‘brung’ him that account, he also went behind Ken’s back to woo a more lucrative slice of the Heinz pie, thus proving that the SCDP boys are every bit as duplicitous with their clients and colleagues as they are with their wives and girlfriends.
(Incidentally, hands up who mouthed the words “change the conversation” along with Peggy at the Heinz pitch? Don found himself peeking in another doorway this week, but it was SCDP, not his step-mother he watched getting screwed.)
Nowhere was Don’s hypocritical, bare-faced mendacity clearer though, than in his dealings with Megan this week. Mrs Draper’s star was rising on her soap opera, as her character (hopefully not just an excuse for Jessica Paré to swap the bikini for a fetish French maid outfit…) was given a love affair. Don continued a real life dalliance with Sylvia, yet admonished Megan for her fictional bunk-up on set, likening her to a prostitute and undermining her professional success, “You kiss people for money, you know who does that?” We know you do, Don. There are liars, and there are damn liars, and then there’s Don Draper.
Since Anna died and Peggy left, Mad Men has given Don few opportunities to be nice to anyone. We see him bullish at work, hypocritical and reactionary at home, egotistical in his mistress’ maid’s bed (when Sylvia reveals that she prays for him, he asks “For me to come back?”, “No, you arrogant sod, for you to find peace” she half replies). Since he took up with Sylvia – a relationship that seems to be based on little more than the soap opera lust seen between Corinne and her horny boss – the old patterns returned, and what sympathy I had for the character waned. I left this episode preoccupied by a worrying question: am I over Don Draper?
Not yet. Mad Men has proved itself worthy of our trust when it comes to character and season developments. If Don seems to be treading old ground, if his relationship with Sylvia verges on the boring, then there must be something up Matthew Weiner’s sleeve, I reason, some point to Don being this charmless man. You have to hand it to a show that so roundly inspires audience devotion, we’re happy to accept it’s smarter than we are. Let’s hope that continues to be so.
Read Frances’ review of the previous episode, The Collaborators, here.
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