Monday, May 26, 2014

"The Best Things in Life Are Free"

Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Seven, "Waterloo"

This was an irony-rich episode. When the shade of Bert Cooper serenades Don--who had just voted for a $65 million deal making SC&P a subsidiary of McCann and all the partners millionaires--with a  Broadway version of "The Best Things in Life Are Free," complete with a dancing chorus of secretaries, it was more than just a fun send-off for Robert Morse, back to his musical roots and whatever version of an afterlife the writers believe appropriate for someone like Cooper. It offered commentary on several of the events and themes of not just this episode, but of this half-season, and posed some interesting, complicating questions.

After watching the awe-inspiring moon walk with his Black "help," who's all dressed-up in a TV character maid costume complete with white frilly apron, the not-yet-ready-for-a-Black-woman-in-the-reception-area founding partner sings "The moon belongs to everyone" (though they did stick an American flag in it; but then Neil Armstrong did say that it was a "giant step for mankind," not just Americans; so--a moment of "national pride" as Roger says to the gathered employees after the buy-out vote? a universal moment of connection, as Peggy tells the Burger Chef reps? Americans appropriating what belongs to everyone on behalf of everyone? a hugely expensive act of hubris, as the Francis' young house guest asserts and gets Sally to consider? some combination of the above?) At least in its depiction of characters raptly watching the event, the show seems to come down on the side of it being--like the Kennedy assassination--a defining American moment that brought disparate groups together in unusual community and family: Roger--who has spent the last few years drifting from family model to family model, through LSD-induced quests for meaning, landing most recently in the position of a city hotel suite commune dweller who criticizes his rural commune-dwelling daughter of being a bad parent--is sitting in a living room with his first wife, their abandoned son-in-law, and their space helmet clad grandson on his lap; Betty, Henry, and Betty's and Don's children are with another family (that of Betty's college friend who's visiting); and Don is in a hotel room with Peggy, Pete, and Harry Crane, sharing a seat on one of the beds with Peggy, whom he leans into as they both watch with wonder on their faces. Harry--master of TV advertising--nearly cries. Afterward, Don reaches out to his children via phone and chastises Sally for being cynical about the whole event. But, Sally is just trying on different viewpoints. She tries Sean's with her father, but after he calls her on it, she goes outside to the younger visiting son who prefers watching the sky through a telescope. He wants to avoid the mediated views of the families and of the news casters.  Yet even viewing through a telescope provides a frame for what one sees. And this ties in to one of the series' themes that I'll get back to.

To Don Draper, whose second marriage has just finally, and not surprisingly, been pronounced dead, Cooper sings "And love can come to everyone." This season has raised some intriguing possibilities around the question of Don and love. The compulsive womanizer has turned down the advances of a few women whom the old Don would have taken to bed: the airplane profferer of sleeping pills and forgetfulness, the woman in the restaurant when Don was with some other advertisers, and--in this episode--his new secretary. The only other woman besides his wife whom he's had sex with this season is the one his wife brought to him for the three-way and  Don didn't seem much into that. No, in this season, in this time after Dick Whitman was allowed to come out in front of his partners, his clients, and his children, Don/Dick has gone after the love he's never felt in more meaningful places than the beds of strangers and employees. And, he's found it: in the Valentine's Day drive and shared burgers with his daughter, in the platonic arms of a dance with his work daughter and soul mate Peggy, and over burgers and fries with his work family Peggy and Pete, after he and Peggy crafted an ad campaign for Burger Chef that urges viewers not just to buy fast-food sandwiches from their would-be client, but to buy the idea that families should gather around a table for food, fellowship, and connection and leave their TVs behind (one of the greater ironies for this firm that's just offered its TV guy a partnership).

These two points of focus on the moonwalk and on the Burger Chef campaign are intimately connected and indicative of the over-arching tension of Season Seven, Part One between those who are in advertising as a means to fuel and play out their creative energies and those who are in it for the business. Don tells Roger, "I just want to do my work. I don't want to deal with business anymore." And, as he tries to sell Ted on the deal with McCann, he shares with him how much, after his suspension, he missed his work. So much that he would "do anything to get back in. And I did..." He wrote tags and coupons, things he hadn't done since his early days. He believes that Ted also would love his work again if he too could do it without the stress of partners' meetings and worrying about business. Yet there is a tension in the creative people's vision of advertising, a tension that Peggy realizes after the moonwalk and before the pitch to the burger people: "I have to talk to people who've just touched the face of god about hamburgers." Their creative efforts are not spent on art for art's sake or art just for self-expression. It's spent on selling stuff in an increasingly consumerist culture. Yet it's a consumer culture that is also fraught with tension, a tension that Peggy again gets. She knows that Americans are not only hungry for fast food burgers, but are also hungry for human connection in a chaotic world: "We can have the connection we're hungry for. There may be chaos at home, but there's family supper at Burger Chef," she sells to the almost weepy-eyed Indiana businessmen. This is in stark contrast to Jim Cutler's vision for the firm as a business that can pinpoint media buys "with surgical accuracy." And hence, this final (for now) showdown between those in it for the technical precision and the money--Jim and Joan most notably--and those in it for the creativity and connection. Pete Campbell is straddling the line between the sides, sitting on the couch next to Joan at the final meeting, crowing over the millions he'll make and spitting out that Ted is being "selfish" as he thinks through his vote AND cheering on the return of "the Don Draper Show," "back from its unscheduled interruption."

Our world comes to us not directly, but mediated through frames--those created through stories ("every great ad is a story"), through computerized data sheets (though data always need to be interpreted), through songs, and through TV shows like "Mad Men." What will Don do with the song and the ironies that Bert Cooper shows him through it? At the end, after watching Bert with a sometimes puzzled, sometimes pained expression, he leans against a desk--thinking? And there, we'll have to leave him. Until next year.