Sunday, August 1, 2010

Reflections on Power and Self-Medication

Mad Men, Season Four, Episode Two, "Christmas Comes But Once a Year"

If Christmas is going to be like it was in this episode, it's a blessed thing that it only comes once a year. Sheesh-- We see the return of Freddy (not a character I've missed, but, as I'll explain later, I think there's a good thematic reason for his re-appearance tonight), the creepy Glenn (still not sure what all to make of him), and the super creepy Lee Garner, Jr. (extra boos and hisses at him for having driven Sal away). The ending song was, appropriately enough, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," typically a humorous look at Christmas Eve night through the eyes of a child who still believes in Santa and so assumes her mother is committing the faux pas of kissing someone other than her husband. But, since the audience knows that Santa is actually "Daddy," it can be sung in a light-hearted, fun way. We know there's no problem. Not so in the world of "Mad Men." The bouncy, happy singing of the song at the end was in jarring contrast to what we'd been watching during the hour before.

The little girl here--Sally--is sophisticated enough to know that there is no Santa, that her daddy typically played that role. So, she sends her and her brothers' Christmas requests addressed to "Santa Claus c/o Don Draper." But she also, sadly, knows that this year her mother won't be kissing Santa Claus. "Santa" won't even be allowed in the house on Christmas. The closing line of her letter is poignant. She's asked for a locket with her initials engraved on it, but what she really wishes is that "you could be here Christmas morning to give it to me." Don's secretary is reading this letter to him, so he tries to mask the feeling this line evokes in him; he's only partially successful. The second saddest line of the night was Don telling his neighbor Phoebe, who's accused him of hating Christmas: "I don't hate Christmas. I hate this Christmas." But, that's pretty much the last of Don as sympathetic character this episode.

Then there's Roger, who's made to dress up as Santa to kiss Lee Garner, Jr.'s butt. The riff on "Mommy Kissing Santa" goes from sad to perverse here. Garner's upset that they don't have a Santa at the SCDP Christmas party and at first tries drunkenly to cajole Sterling into putting the suit on. When Roger declines, however, Mr. Lucky Strikes (69% of the new firm's business once they've acquired the Ponds account) orders him: "Put it on, Roger," sounding like a man ordering a woman to put on some sort of risque costume she's uncomfortable with for sex. The firm gives him a gift of a Polaroid camera that he later uses to photo each employee sitting on Santa's lap, barking at them to do so against their will in a strange, rather perverted parody of department store Santa rituals with children. First creepy abuse of power we see.

Next abuse of power is Don with Allison, his secretary. She reads him his mail, shops for gifts for his children, and--when on the night of the office Christmas party, Don leaves his keys at work, not realizing this until he's home at his door, drunk--brings his keys all the way to his apartment for him. She tells her friends that she'll have to meet them wherever they're going after the party since she needs to deliver his keys and will probably "have to get some food in him." A man (her boyfriend or date?) says, "He's pathetic." Indeed. When she shows up to let him in, he's almost passed out on the floor by the door. Declining her offer to make him something to eat, he lands on the couch. She walks over to say 'good-bye' and he makes a move on her. At first unresponsive to his kiss, she tells him, "Don't." I was hoping for another response like that of the blind date last week. Don needs more women to tell him 'no,' but Allison acquiesces. They have a quick go at it on the couch without even undressing and she leaves to "meet someone." The next morning at work, she is clearly anticipating something from him as he tells her to come into his office. She wants this to go somewhere. He makes no mention of their sexual encounter, though, merely thanking her for bringing him his keys and giving her her Christmas bonus. As she opens the envelope back at her desk, she sees two $50 bills and Don's note: "Thanks for all your hard work. Don." She puts a piece of paper in the typewriter and gets back to her work as "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" begins to play. Don's been her Santa with the bonus; he's more than kissed her; and now he'll pretend that nothing happened.

It may look like Don the Asshole is back in full force after half a season or so of him being much more sympathetic. And he is certainly a jerk here. But, put this in the context of the extra excessive amount of drinking he's apparently been doing (and I'm saying this about someone who's always drank a lot without appearing to be intoxicated). Phoebe, his down the hall neighbor, mentioned that he's drunk every night when he puts his keys in the door. This attempt to self-medicate seems to me to have to be connected to the sadness and guilt he feels over being separated from his kids, especially during the holiday season. Last week saw him paying a prostitute to "punish" him. So, what is he doing with Allison? Using her as he uses booze to try to blot out the awareness that he's alone in this apartment with no family? This, of course, is a poor way to deal with his problems, but as we see with his refusal to take the psychologist's test, he's not willing to probe his past to "sort out [his] deepest conflicts" as she names the task psychologists try to fulfill in their work. He'd rather just numb the pain. (I'll leave aside for now her odd assertion that psychologists and advertising creators are in "the same line of work." That seems like just her way of trying to justify using her skills in the service of selling consumer products more effectively.) So, has Freddy, the recovering alcoholic, been brought back to highlight the contrast between facing one's issues and the path of self-medication and the abyss Don has sunk himself into? They certainly represent antithetical ways to use one's power over one's own behavior.

There are other reflections on power presented in this episode as well: Peggy attempts to figure out how to use the power of her sexuality in the relationship with her new boyfriend. While I love Peggy, I've never gotten her taste in men, from Pete to Duck. This new one seems so young in comparison to her. What does she see in him? He's so naive, thinking he'll be her "first." But, why does she hold off on going to bed with him? Might she really think she'd like to marry him? Or is she just feeling a desire to be married period? When she confesses to Freddy her uncertainty, he advises her not to have sex with him if she wants to marry him. When she says, however, that she's not sure if she wants to marry him, Freddy tells her not to lead him on. The next thing we see they are in bed together. Why? Has she decided she doesn't want marriage and figures Freddy's right that he won't want to marry her if she's slept with him? Does she decide she should just be herself and not lead him on? What is it about marriage that she wants? Is she the evening's representative of what the psychologist refers to as the conflict between who we really are/want to be v. who we're expected to be? Is she feeling the social or familial pressure to marry?

It was an interesting episode, but all around, one of those Christmases I'd just be relieved to see over.


  1. What was most shocking last night? The return of Creepy Glenn? The return of Freddy? Or, the casual comment, describing Don, by one of his young co-workers: "He's pathetic". Who would have thought that the word pathetic would ever be applied to handsome, powerful Don?
    But Don is pathetic - drunk, denied entry into his own "home", being turned down by women, forced to pay for sex (even with Allison, a willing participant, in the form of a "bonus" - if he pays, it doesn't mean a thing).
    I haven't thought it all the way through yet, but I think there was a lot last night about the price of "things" - be they sexual encounters, office parties, or psychological examinations of what consumers really want. Seeing the dapper and ironic Roger, forced to wear a Santa suit and have employees sit on his lap for pictures, reinforces the price he must pay to keep the number one client - the horrific Lee Garner, Jr. - happy. And Peggy, sleeping with that man/boy/whatever - the price she pays for not spending NYE alone.
    As ever, the best moments of the evening belonged to Joan. In a tender gesture to Roger, she wears the dress he admires on her. And let's face it - the woman can lead a Conga line.

  2. It is sad to see the once powerful and respected Don be called out as "pathetic" by someone who works for him. How far the mighty have fallen. And somehow in a small office like that, others always knows what's going on in your personal life. Don had always managed to keep a respectful distance between himself and his employees, unlike so many of the others at Sterling Cooper. He had no scruples about sleeping with clients (Rachel) or wives of clients (Bobbie), but kept up better office boundaries than most. His liason with Allison was a mistake that I expect will come back to bite him in some way later on.

    Thinking about how the episode reflects on the price of things is an interesting way to go. In addition to the instances you mentioned, Don is certainly paying a heavy price for all of his secrets and infidelities in his marriage, while his children--Sally in particular--are paying a heavy price for something that's not their fault.

    But, yes, Joan can conga.

  3. Great blog. Yes, I agree that Don's sympathetic side comes from his attempts to repair and reimagine his own lousy childhood through his own family (hence, I suppose that one woman's comment to him that he'll be married within a year because he's just this sort of "type"). That is the poignant side of Don, especially in light of his utter failures to create anything approaching the ideal family, and very understandable given his past. Maybe he has to come to terms with his own rejection of his childhood family (his brother especially, I'd imagine), if he's to stop acting out the hate them/love the fantasy dynamic he has going on in that arena. What I wonder more about perhaps is the womanizing/exploitative side of Don. Where did that come from exactly? The fact that his own mother was a prostitute who "abandoned" him by dying in childbirth, and leaving him to the "sorry people" who raised him? The adoptive mom's neglect/cruelty? A combination of all that + the culture undoubtedly. The loving "angel" of a mother that he compliments Betty for being after she gives up the modeling job would seem to suggest the same sort of disregard real women/love the fantasy dynamic in that arena too.

  4. It is interesting to observe these characters, who are at the forefront of crafting public perception, yet are also as enmeshed with the culture's mythology as 'ordinary' people who don't spend a lot of their time thinking about such things. Part of Don does subscribe to the "angel in the house" version of femininity, though he also supports and promotes the new directions that Peggy and Joan want to take themselves in the workplace. I suspect that, having been deprived of a loving mother, he desires/needs that sort of force in his life and so turns to the "angel" myth since that's what's available. You're right, Debbie, that he's got this love/hate dynamic going on with the idea of family that he needs to resolve if he's to be a successful family man. Getting a realistic vision of what a family can/should be would be helpful as well. Where his exploiting women side came from is an interesting question. You've hit on some reasonable possibilities. His childhood experience certainly gave him some cause to hate and resent women. But, he also has the potential for good relationships with them, the real Mrs. Draper being the best example of that. His relationship with Peggy is sometimes very positive too. It was touching to hear him say "Merry Christmas, Sweetheart" to her in this episode. It wasn't at all said in a come-on kind of way or even a demeaning kind of way. It seemed caring. One of the bloggers I read on Monday called it Don's acknowledgement that Peggy is the only person in the world who loves him (platonically) in spite of knowing so much about him. He's nothing if not complicated, which, I think, is what keeps me from throwing in the towel with him when he behaves as atrociously as he did on this episode. He's always fascinating.

  5. Good points. It would be nice to see more of Don interacting with the real Mrs. Draper. Some mysteries still there to unpack. The relationship with Peggy is indeed complex. Interesting to think through the encounter between the two surrounding the ham caper.

  6. How he responded to Peggy re the ham incident is particularly interesting if you buy the interpretation that he then turned around and used her tactic with the Jantzen Swimsuit people, which I think is an interesting possibility. Both of the episodes so far this season seem better to me after I've discussed them with others and read others' blogs on them.