4.6 Waldorf Stories
Like Sesame Street for grown-ups, every episode of Mad Men has one or two over-arching themes that tie the narrative together. This week’s installment, continuing along its usual lines of crisply delivered brilliance, was brought to us by the subjects of power, ambition, creativity and booze – lots and lots of booze.
As SCDP prepares to attend the 6th Annual American Television Commercials Awards, Don flicks wearily through a hopeful interviewee’s decidedly thin portfolio, which consists of the same slogan repeated multiple times for different products (“The cure for the common chair. The cure for the common beer,” Don colourlessly intones), along with a few of several other people’s ads cheekily clipped and slipped in among them.
Don takes the interview to be a joke at his expense – dismissing this unusually short candidate (called Danny, played by Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Danny Strong) as a fantasist, he discovers that this man with one idea and fewer prospects is, in fact, Roger’s cousin-in-law.
We soon learn, however, through a series of jarring flashbacks, that Don’s start in the advertising business was similarly low-key. Originally working in a fur coat store, Don had dreams of breaking into Madison Avenue, and used a chance meeting with Roger Sterling as a means to get his foot in the door, leaving a portfolio of his work inside the box of a mink coat the latter bought for his then-mistress, Joan. Needless to say, the gambit failed – Roger dismissed the inclusion as “out of line,” and contemptuously tossed it aside.
Back in the present, Peggy’s struggling to get on with her new art director, Stan Rizzo, a singularly unreconstructed male even by Mad Men’s standards. Endlessly bragging about his love of naturism, he subjects Peggy to repeated put-downs about her appearance, lies stretched out on desks smoking and seeks inspiration among the cleavage-strewn pages of Playboy.
Meanwhile, Don, Roger and Joan attend the television commercial awards, and upon winning a prize for best cleaning product ad, proceed to get absurdly drunk.
Flushed with success and sweatily under the influence, Don rushes back to the SCDP offices for a meeting with a prospective new client, Quaker. When his inebriated pitch for the company’s product, Life Cereal, is politely shot down, Don embarks on a slurred stream-of-consciousness babble of hilarious, barely coherent slogans, concluding with the dreadful “A cure for the common cereal.”
Don’s too drunk to realise that he’s inadvertently stolen the only idea Danny the interviewee will most likely ever have, though the awfulness of the situation isn’t at all lost on Peggy.
In fact, Waldorf Stories sees Peggy’s character enter a new sphere of confidence and quiet control, and this episode absolutely belongs to her. The insufferable chauvinism of Stan Rizzo is put neatly out of joint by her abruptly stripping off in front of him, a scene that is as out of left-field and amusing as any in the season so far, and her later confrontation with Don over his accidental plagiarism is sublime.
Ah, Don. After a brief flirtation with greatness in last week’s Honda pitch, the once great advertising mogul again descends into a drunken mire of his own making. This is expertly underlined in a moment almost worthy of David Lynch, such is its perplexing dilation of time. Considerably worse for wear, Don sinks into bed with one woman, only to wake up, apparently a few minutes later, with someone completely different by his side. It’s only gradually that he – and we – realise that he’s missed out an entire day of his life.
In a final flashback, we see exactly how Don finally convinced Roger to give him his big break – after discovering the latter’s love of booze, Don treats Roger to a series of early-morning refreshments. A day later, Don shows up outside the doors of Roger’s office with an expectant smile on his face.
“Will you leave me alone?” Roger says. “You hired me,” Don replies. “You said ‘Welcome aboard.’”
Confused at this apparent lapse in memory, Roger ushers Don into the lift with him, and it’s then, as we see the faint look of triumph on Don’s face, that we realise that no such conversation took place, and that Roger’s been a victim of his own love affair with alcohol.
In the present, Don’s continual downward spiral – which has lead, humiliatingly, to his having to hire the talentless Danny after accidentally borrowing his idea – suggests that the demon drink may yet have the last laugh on him.
You can read our review of episode 5, The Chrysanthemum And The Sword, here.