29
Aug
2010
Mad Men: Season 4, Episode 6
Waldorf Stories
Jordan
First things first, congratulations to Mad Men for its third consecutive Best Drama Emmy victory. Seeing as its the best, and probably smartest, show on television (in my humble, but rarely wrong, opinion), it was a deserved award; the show deserves extra points for airing an episode about Don winning an award at the same time it was winning an Emmy (and also for inserting a joke about how Jon Hamm was not going to win for Best Actor, when Don says, "Just because I got nominated doesn't mean they're going to give me an award."). While the cast and crew of the show were off celebrating much like the characters of the show were, Mad Men itself continued to explore Don Draper at rock bottom, and continued to show us just how low the man can sink.

First though, because its a show that loves to tear the audience apart, we got a glimpse of Don Draper acting like his old self again, reprimanding Peggy for just being good at her job, rejecting Danny Strong's dedicated, though not particularly talented young ad man wannabe, and winning a Cleo for an ad of his. For a brief, glorious moment, it looked like Don Draper might be back on top, but nothing is ever that easy on Mad Men, and so the rest of the episode bounced back and forth between Don going on the worst bender we've yet seen, and Don, in flashback, campaigning as hard as the man he rejected to win over Roger Sterling and a job at Sterling Cooper. What we saw at both ends was the unmaking of an ad man through alcohol, and the desperation of two men who are aging out of relevance.

Those two men, as usual, were Roger Sterling and Don Draper, and before I dive into the man I examine on a weekly basis here, I'd like to take a look at the fascinating and tragic character of Roger Sterling. Roger got into the ad game because of his father, and always felt cocky and entitled because of it. Yet it also left him feeling deeply insecure about what he does, and that insecurity has haunted him throughout his entire career (look, for example, at the moping he does to Joan in the bar, or the fact that he asks Don to tell him, "I couldn't have done it without you" before handing over Don's Clio). On the one hand, Roger knows that his worth to the company is largely unmeasurable, and that in fact hiring people like Don has made him very wealthy and very successful, but on the other, he knows that his job is one that will never get him recognition. "They don't give awards for what I do," he complains to Joan as he sips his umpteenth cocktail of the day, and he's right. What Roger also knows, though, is that probably his greatest professional success, the firing of mad advertising genius Don Draper, was a happy accident caused by a few too many cocktails one morning years ago.

I would be remiss if I didn't also touch on the revelation of how long ago Joan's affair with Roger began. That little fact, barely touched upon in the episode, speaks volumes about the connection we have all seen between the two of them over the years, and about how vital Joan is in both Roger's life, and in the firm. When Joan and Roger first got together, she was clearly very young, and she probably saw him as exactly the smooth, clever, successful man he hoped to be seen as. Over time, however, she grew to know the real Roger Sterling, and came to understand and love the insecure man whose professional worth was slowly slipping through his fingers. When Roger left Joan, right after the heart attack that served as the (most apparent) catalyst to his personal and professional downfall, he was leaving behind someone who understood and accepted him to recommit to a failing marriage. And later, when he left Mona, he leapt into the arms of a young girl who saw him, as he so desperately hoped, as smooth, clever, and successful.

On the other half of tonight's tragedy is Don, who drinks so much he literally loses an entire day, waking up with a woman he doesn't remember, never showing up to see his children, and slowly discovering that he, in his drunkenness, booked Peggy a hotel room to work in, plagiarized the slogan he sold to Life cereal, and lost the award that was his supposed reason for celebrating in the first place. The flashbacks that are interspersed throughout tonight's episode show us a Don Draper who is driven to achieve his dreams, and desperate to make something of himself; the episode that unfolds in Don's current life reminds us just how far this self-made man has fallen, and how much he can damage with his self destructive tendencies. Watching Danny (which may actually be the character's name, but is definitely the actor's) muscle his way into a job using his connection to Roger and (unbeknownst to him) Don's guilt over plagiarizing, it is hard not to compare him to both Don and Roger. Danny exists, not just as a personification of Don's guilt, but also as a way to reflect on Don and Roger, and how the former may slowly become the latter, coasting on reputation and name recognition rather than actually accomplishing anything, and drinking far too much on the side (notice as well that Don fails in his attempt to seduce Faye tonight, but immediately beds the woman who approaches him based solely on his name. Notice also, that in his drunken stupor, Don tells the waitress he picks up that his name is Dick). And on the margina of this episode about the dangers of over-drinking, and the personal hell that both Don and Roger exist in, we get a nice cameo from Duck, whose trip off the wagon has taken him to rock bottom as well, to the point where he drunkenly accosts the host of the Clio's and is forcibly removed from the event. Duck was always a cautionary tale for the heavy drinking protagonists of Mad Men, but now he seems more like just the next step in their terrible descent.

Meanwhile, if Don has stepped into Roger's shoes this week, its clear that Peggy has found herself in Don's, as she boldly perserveres to create a new campaign with a lazt, sexist art director, going toe to toe with him and even calling his bluff by getting naked. Part of this is to show him that she is in control, but more than that, Peggy seems truly dedicated to getting the job done. Last season, I think, we would have seen Peggy sleeping with Stan as a form of earnign validation that she is attractive and worthy of respect. This season, Peggy doesn't need that validation, nor does she need Don to admit that she does good work; now what Peggy needs is to do the good work, not to be recognized for it. Peggy's story across the entire series so far has beem a move towards self actualization, and this season we are seeing an actualized Peggy, taking control of her personal and professional life while those around her flounder and fall apart.

Finally, in another bit of expert editing, we cut near the episode's end between Danny extorting a job out of Don straight to Pete extorting respect (or at least the appearance of it) out of Ken. Last season, Pete was outperformed and humilated by Ken during their competition to become Head of Accounts. Now Pete has the opportunity to turn the tables and, never one to be a good sport, or to show any humility, Pete milks the moment for all its worth. Both Pete and Ken know that Pete holds the power, and Ken is smart enough to act the part of the meek underling for long enough to secure Pete's approval. Pete needs to feel superior to Ken, and Ken is superior enough to play the part of the inferior to get what he wants (were the tables turned, you can bet that Pete would be as petulant as ever at the idea of cowtowing to Ken). Pete revels in Ken's clearly manufactured deference, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms behind his head in relaxed triumph. I for one am interested to see how the dynamic between the two develops now that Ken has secured the job and will likely prove himself to be more useful than Pete all over again.

Perhaps the perfect cherry on top on the sundae that was this episode (to borrow a phrase Don uses in regard to the Life account) is the few scenes we get of Roger trying to write his memoir, and failing to come up with anything all that interesting to say about his adult life. Sure, he's more than willing to talk about how he loved chocolate ice cream but his mother made him eat vanilla so he wouldn't stain anything, but what the memoir scenes hint at is that Roger thinks, deep down, that he's never really amounted to much as an adult, and that maybe his story isn't worth hearing. His professional insecurity is what lead him out of retirement and into co-founding SCDP in the first place, but watching him struggle to remake himself, as Don was at least once so adept at, and coming up empty-handed shows us exactly how far our existential Don Draper may fall if he continues on Roger's path. Right now we are watching Don in free fall, but Don always has his ability to utterly remake himself to fit what he wants to be in his back pocket (or has he lost that too by this point?). Roger never had that, and is stuck, depressing as that may be, with himself. And that's something he has never been very happy with.

Grade: A

Notes:

-Danny Strong, since I held off on mentioning it above, is better known as Johnathan, high school loser turned one time superstar turned supervillain wannabe on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He was often excellent on that show, and it looks like he will probably be very good on Mad Men (he'll be around for at least a bit, as he appeared in the still maddeningly vague preview for next week's episode).

-We didn't see Sally or New Bobby (fuck you, New Bobby) this week, but I still got to think "poor, poor Sally" when I realized her terribly neglectful father wasn't coming for her and she would be stuck with Betty all day.

-"I told him to just be himself. That was mean, wasn't it?"

-"I'll have a seven and seven." "You have legs." Joan has certainly changed a lot since we first met her, and even more since she and Roger first got together.

-"Little kid, big bowl, big spoon." Not exactly Don's show-stopping monologue from "The Wheel" back in Season One. Its also particularly excellent that his campaign was getting at basically the same ideas of youth, nostalgia, and a sense of familial bond. My how the mighty have fallen.

-Joan and Roger's handholding was a great little moment, but I couldn't help but notice her disapproving look as Roger sipped his drink, and the fact that she then also held Don's hand and actually kissed him when he won the award. Don't misunderstand me, I'm not saying anything is going on between Joan and Don (they have great respect for each other, but in a professional way), just that Joan is disappointed in the man Roger is letting himself become right now.
Tags: Mad Men
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