In our “AV Talk” about Mad Men’s season premiere, I mentioned that I have one lingering concern about the show, and that’s my worry that Matthew Weiner’s stubborn insistence on keeping Don a lost soul could lead to creative stagnation, turning Mad Men into one of those shows (like House or The Sopranos and so many others) where story arcs repeat from season to season with minor variations, in order to forestall anything like progress. Matt Zoller Seitz made a similar point in his much-commented-on pan of “The Good News,” and I confess that early in that episode I was more in the Seitz camp. I was never as exasperated as he, but watching Don have his one remaining place of comfort yanked away did leave me wondering if the triumphant push ahead of the Season Three finale meant nothing.
But then came that astonishing second half of “The Good News,” which to me represented Mad Men in top form. No matter whether the overall story’s progressing or not, Mad Men excels at long sequences like the Don/Lane bender (intercut with Joan’s injury). Sequences where viewers honestly don’t know what’s going to happen next or what it’s all supposed to mean. Sequences that are all about mood and momentum, and a sense that all these characters are being pulled ahead almost against their will, before they can get their bearings or decide how they feel about it all.
In the second half of these week’s episode, “The Rejected,” I thought we were headed toward one of those kind of sequences in Pete’s family dinner. Earlier in the episode, Pete had met with his father-in-law Tom Vogel at a bar, intending to tell him, apologetically, that SCDP was going to have to drop the Clearasil account, because the product was too similar to the higher-billing Pond’s. The account had been a favor by Tom to Pete in the first place, which would’ve made the meeting all the more uncomfortable—except that Tom derailed the conversation by accidentally spilling the news that Pete’s wife Trudy is pregnant. So the pieces were all in place for the big dinner: Trudy had promised to break the Clearasil news to her dad, and who knew how he would to react? For that matter, given that Trudy’s only been pregnant for a short time and has had fertility problems in the past, perhaps there’d be some kind of sad but not-all-that-unexpected medical emergency. I tensed up in my easy chair, waiting.
And then Mad Men threw a curve, by having Pete swoop in, push Trudy aside, and tell Tom the Clearasil news himself, by way of angling for the rest of Tom’s company’s business: the cough syrup, the vapor rub… all of it. A six-million dollar account. It was all over in less than a minute, with Pete sipping a cocktail and Tom, defeated, calling him a son-of-a-bitch.
Instead, “The Rejected”’s version of the Don/Lane bender arrived via Peggy, in truncated but still compelling form. In an elevator, Peggy meets Joyce, a photo editor for Life magazine, who’s holding a stack of female nudes (stamped “rejected”) submitted by one of her friends. Joyce interprets Peggy’s friendliness—and interest in the nudes—as flirting, and so she asks her out, to an art show/happening by her photographer friend David. When Peggy arrives at the party, a lot happens at once: she gladly takes a few tokes from Joyce’s grass, while nonchalantly rebuffing her new friend’s sexual advances. Then she meets Joyce’s friends: David, who looks down his nose at Peggy’s offer of some freelance work at SCDP, and a firebrand journalist named Abe, who hides with Peggy in a closet when the party gets raided.
All told, “Peggy at the party” takes up maybe two minutes of screen time, and yet so much comes of it. We see once again how far Peggy has progressed from the woman she was back in Season One—or even at the end of last season. In a business that thrives on new ideas and creativity, Peggy has made herself into the most open, plugged-in person at SCDP. And yet for all her new friends’ snobbiness, they have a valid point when they question what she’s going to do with all these experiences she’s having. Is she just going to use drugs and rock ‘n’ roll and sexual adventurousness and screenings of avant-garde films as fodder for cooler-looking commercials?
Unlike the aimless character-building of the second half of “The Good News,” the big scenes in “The Rejected” were far more pointed—though I confess they still snuck up on me, to the extent that I didn’t feel the full weight of the episode until its final few images. The big image—beautifully framed and scored—had Pete standing in the lobby with his new clients, feeling chummy and successful, while Peggy stands outside the office’s glass door with Joyce and her counter-culture pals. The irony is plain: Who’s really The Rejected here? These stuffy executives or the people standing a few feet away, behind glass—the people whose tastes and concerns are, as we know, going to define the decade they’re now in?
Ordinarily, I’d find that kind of underlining a little obnoxious, especially when it relies on the “what we know now” factor. But “The Rejected” earns it by developing Pete and Peggy as more than just symbols. Though the episode never states it outright, Weiner clearly means us to remember that Pete had a fling with Peggy in Season One, and that she got pregnant, and gave their baby away. When Peggy congratulates Pete on Trudy’s pregnancy, she gets so flustered that she returns to her office and bangs her head against a table. Then she lies down on the couch, feeling depressed right up until the moment that Joyce calls to ask her to lunch. Peggy’s reflecting on what she gave away when she gave away Pete’s baby: namely the kind of rocket-ride-to-the-top life that Pete’s now leading. But Joyce and her crowd whisk her away from all that—and, perversely, perhaps toward even greater success in the near future.
As for Pete, he’s been waiting his whole life to be right where he is now. Over the first three seasons, Mad Men has emphasized all the ways that Pete is still a child, even though he aspires to sit at the grown-up table. Now he gets to be what he’s always wanted to be: a rainmaker at his firm, with a beautiful wife and a child on the way. The problem is that he’s been chasing a dream that's about to be out-of-date. When he has lunch with his old cohort Ken (Cosgrove! Accounts!), Ken tells him how lucky he has it to be at the beck-and-call of a half-mad creative genius like Don Draper instead of at a place run by old businessmen, where “whoever pours the last drink gets all the credit.” But Pete doesn’t get what Ken means, so Ken congratulates him on the baby-to-be, sighing, “Another Campbell. That’s just what the world needs.” (And once again, Pete doesn’t get that he’s being mocked.)
The other image that closes “The Rejected” is less blunt, though in a way more impactful. After we see Peggy and Pete exchange looks from different sides of the glass—with Pete’s side stamped “Draper,” by the way—we see Don walking down his sad, underlit hallway to his sad, underlit apartment, and passing by an old woman who refuses to answer her husband’s question of whether or not she bought pears, saying curtly, “We’ll discuss it inside.” This is the place where Don Draper lives now: far removed from both Pete’s “man on the go” world and Peggy’s “tune in turn on” world. In his private life at least, Don’s taken himself out of the game.
In his business life though, Don remains progressive. When Dr. Faye Miller conducts a research session to determine what young women are looking for and how Pond’s Cold Cream can help them get it, she discovers that women are still staring at themselves in mirrors and worrying about whether the way they look will help them get a husband. (Even Peggy, holding Faye’s wedding ring for her during the session, tries it on briefly, and gets an approving look from Don.) So Faye says that she’s going to recommend that SCDP follow Freddie Rumsen’s suggestion—and the client’s wishes—and pitch Ponds as marriage-bait. But Don doesn’t want SCDP to make old-fashioned ads that sell old-fashioned ideas. He thinks that with the right commercial, he can make women change their mind about what they want. He says—partly from experience, and partly with a sense of self-hope—that when it comes to consumers, “You can’t tell how they’re going to behave based on how they have behaved.”
I’m encouraged by that line myself, and hope that Don takes it to heart. I also hope that he’s a little shaken by his climactic encounter with the pear-obsessed oldster. Because I still think that Mad Men has a little bit of a Don Draper problem right now. It continues to be a show with great style and atmosphere, able to pivot from melancholy to hilarious in a manner of minutes, and it continues to be a show that rewards the scrutiny that fans give it, as seen with this week’s sublime Pete/Peggy compare-and-contrast. But Don is what the show’s really about, and if it’s going to keep saddling him with the same problems—arrogance, insensitivity, conflicted feelings about the past versus the future—then it’s going to become increasingly frustrating.
This week, for example, Don’s big storyline involves the aftermath of his one-night-stand with his secretary, Alison. She tries to take a personal interest in Don, by asking about the photo of Anna Draper he receives in the mail, but he won’t let her in, so eventually she breaks down crying during the Pond’s research session, and spills her problems to Peggy. (Peggy then gets mad that Alison thinks she had an affair with Don herself, and snaps, “Your problem is not my problem.” And she means that on multiple levels). Alison resigns, and asks Don for a letter of recommendation, then gets mad when Don tells her that he’ll sign whatever she writes on her own behalf. Because all she wants, really, is for him to say something nice to her or about her… to show that she meant something to him. (She might even be willing to work for Don again if he said the right thing. Joan as much as offers to intercede on Don’s behalf, but he declines.)
So, back home in that moribund bachelor pad, Don gets out his old Olympia typewriter and starts to write a letter to Alison. But he only gets as far as, “Right now my life is very…” before he pulls out the paper and crumples it up. I love Mad Men, don’t get me wrong. And I liked “The Rejected,” a lot. But sooner or later, Weiner and his writers are going to have to figure out how Don would’ve finished that letter.
-This episode was directed by John Slattery. Can’t say I spotted any auteurist touches of note, though the episode was well-acted and quippy—two Slattery hallmarks. Plus there was a clever visual gag early on during a conference call with Lucky Strike, where Don and Roger run down the new rules for cigarette commercials on TV, and note that the actors can’t be shot from low angles… like the one that John Hamm is being shot from at that moment.
-Lots of good bits during that Lucky Strike call, including Don staying off the phone until Alison prompts him that Lee’s said “Don,” and Roger telling Lee that even though they can’t use athletes in commercials anymore, they can still use sports, like horse racing. (“Lee, the jockey smokes the cigarette.”) In the end, they disentangle themselves by saying, “Oh my God, there’s some kind of fire,” and hanging up.
-Never let it be said that Mad Men doesn’t let small symbolic details go by. Don’t think it’s insignificant that Pete throws over Clearasil (an adolescent’s medicine) for cold cream and vapor rub, or that Don loses the bright young Alison and is stuck with the hard-of-hearing Miss Blankenship.
-Hey there was a Bert Cooper sighting! He was hanging out on a couch in the lobby.
-Peggy tries to show off her new cultural awareness with her fellow copywriter Joey, saying, “Did you know Malcolm X was shot?” To which Joey shakes his head and says, “Do you ever read the stuff between the ads?”
-Not much of Joan this week, though she’s anxious when everyone takes over her office during the Pond’s research session, and she has a wonderfully withering expression when a co-worker says the two of them were left out of the focus group because, “We’re old and we’re married.”
-That Dr. Faye is awfully clever, isn’t she? Changing her clothes, taking off her ring, and pretending not to have a nametag so that she can seem ordinary to the focus group… all very smart.
-Did I hear right? Did Joyce say to Peggy, “You look swellegant!” (If so, I liked that better than her other big line this week about how Peggy’s boyfriend “doesn’t own your vagina.” That sounded like a sitcom joke from 2010, not something from 1965.)
-Why do I think that if you went to a party today in the same New York building where the party took place in this episode, you’d still see a guy wearing a costume bear head?
-David’s film at the party resembles the found-footage work of Bruce Conner, who was active around the same time.
-I enjoyed the genuine happiness of Pete and Trudy, even if Pete remains something of a pathetic figure. I also enjoyed Lane congratulating him sincerely after first saying that Trudy’s pregnancy “should take the sting” out of losing Clearasil. The latter’s a great scene especially because it makes good use of this season’s greatest piece of set design: the post in Pete’s office that keeps him from seeing what’s right in front of him.
-Great to see Ken again, huh? And great to get his insights on his brief time with McCann, which was full of more retarded people than a state hospital. I demand more Ken! (More Ken! More Ken!)
-My thanks to Keith for letting me be one of his vacation fill-ins. Next week, Todd will be carrying the baton.