Sunday, November 1, 2015

Mad Men’s Ambiguous Take on Masculinity

Instead of spending some of my summer further reflecting and writing on the show, as I’d planned, I spent it recovering from an accident. I’m finally getting back to the wrap-up blog posts I’ve been thinking about. This fall, I worked on a presentation for an academic popular culture conference. My topic was masculinity in Mad Men and my focus was on Don. I read him in the context of Barbara Ehrenreich’s 1983 book, The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight of Commitment. Here are some of those thoughts on just ONE way to understand Don Draper. I'll have more. (In some places, I borrow from past things I’ve written on this blog.) I’m interested to know what you think about them. It’s long, just so you know:

In the first episode, Rachel Menken--who is doubly marginalized in Madison Avenue’s WASP-y patriarchy of 1960 for being both a woman and a Jew—says to Don, “I don’t think I realized it until this moment, but it must be hard to be a man too.” While I have often discussed—as have many others--how Mad Men deals explicitly with the sexism women endured in the 1960s and the variety of roles that became available for characters like Peggy, Joan, Megan (and even at the end, Betty) to create as the decade progressed, I haven’t as often written explicitly about the show’s take on masculinity and the change the 1960s culture wrought on male identity, yet, it is even more central, if more subtle. From the series’ very first episode, we see—in Don—a man with a secret identity: an ad executive in the City with a beatnik girlfriend and the power to shape the public’s opinions on a deadly product, who also possesses the idyllic suburban home, beautiful wife, and requisite son and daughter. The City/Suburbs identity split covers over the deeper Don Draper/Dick Whitman split, and through seven seasons, we watch our protagonist “don” multiple identities and ways of performing masculinity. From our first encounter with him in a close, dark, smoky bar, jotting ideas for how to sell men cigarettes to our last glimpse of him on an open, sunny Pacific ridge, imagining selling world harmony and Coca-Cola to a diverse group of young people, the show has offered numerous takes on manhood.

Writing on the “masculine mystique” in Mad Men after the series had aired four seasons, Jeremy Varon (in an essay in the book Mad Men, Mad World) compares the masculine ethic there to that of Mob movies and TV shows like The Sopranos, with their move to “school the viewer in the mechanics of a subculture that dispenses with both the most sacred rules and the quotidian norms of ‘straight’ society while imposing its own” (260). He reads both The Mob genre and Mad Men as creating worlds in which men can indulge in the forbidden just at the boundary of socially acceptable behavior. He argues that this mirrors a prominent male fantasy in our own world (261).

As we have seen continuously, most of the male characters in Mad Men live out this fantasy, yet in the seasons after Varon published his essay, Don evolved a great deal in his understanding of himself and his performance of masculinity. While his was no linear progression—and there are numerous other possibilities to draw out in future readings--I want to argue in this post that one way to read Don’s fluctuating masculinity is through the lens of Ehrenreich’s book, which is a study of shifts in American masculinity from the post-WWII era through the post-Vietnam years. She documents a change from a focus on the breadwinner role to a rebellion against it—most notably through Playboy’s construction of masculinity as free from all familial and monogamous commitments--to a more androgynous role for men that emerges out of a reaction to the extreme violence of the war in Vietnam. I think we can read Don as embodying each of these roles while also rebelling against each of them. We can see his constructions of his masculinity and his reactions to what the world around him imposed through three of his most memorable advertising pitches: the Kodak Carousel, Jaguar, and Hershey, and speculate about the series’ end focus on the Hilltop Coca-Cola ad.

 Of the “breadwinner” role, Ehrenreich writes that “by the 1950s and ‘60s psychiatry had developed a massive weight of theory establishing that marriage—and, within that, the breadwinner role—was the only normal state for the adult male. Outside lay only a range of diagnoses, all unflattering” (15). Think poor Sal. In the 1950 bestseller, The Mature Mind, H. A. Overstreet describes the scientific and psychological efforts to understand human maturity. Ehrenreich quotes him: “[T]he person who cannot settle down, who remains a vocational drifter, or the person who wants the prestige of a certain type of work but resents the routines that go with it, are immature in their sense of function” (qtd. on 18). Whom does that sound like? Additionally, in 1953, psychologist R.J. Havighurst laid out eight developmental tasks of early adulthood that included “selecting a mate,” “learning to live with a marriage partner,” and “starting a family” (qtd. in Ehrenreich 18). “If adult masculinity was indistinguishable from the breadwinner role,” Ehrenreich notes, “then it followed that the man who failed to achieve this role was either not fully adult or not fully masculine” (20). 1950s diagnoses of “immature” men ranged from “manifestation of unnatural fixation on the mother” to homosexuality (20). We see Don continually both trying to live that breadwinner role and transgress against it.

As an infant and child, Dick Whitman was poor, unwanted, unloved, and abused. As the adult Don Draper, he sought out the love, security, and respectability that the ideal nuclear family might bring. Yet he is continually anxious, in part because he knows he is living a deception. As psychologists of his time saw it, “heterosexual failures and overt homosexuals could only be understood as living in a state of constant deception. And this was perhaps the most despicable thing about them: They looked like men, but they weren’t really men” (Ehrenreich 26). Don walks around during the early seasons knowing that he is one thing on the outside and another on the inside. He desires the breadwinner role, yet also feels—with the male novelists Ehrenreich also cites--that “Adjustment as preached by the psychologists was not the route to adult masculinity, but to emasculation” (32). How better to fight against emasculation than to engage in numerous affairs? In the Season One finale, while his family life is in disarray, he gives his pitch to Kodak for their Wheel, which he renamed "Carousel."  

Recall all of the nostalgic images Don offers in his heart-rending presentation of Betty and him as newly-weds, as expectant parents, as happy parents of young Sally and Bobby, all suggesting that they were blissful and perfectly suited, that he is the ideal breadwinner. Yet after it was over, after he’d reduced Harry Crane, of all people—remember the first season when Harry wasn’t quite the full-of-himself ass he became later on?—to tears, Don slogged home to an empty house. Betty had taken the kids to her father's for the holiday without him, and we last see Don sitting on the stairs, alone. The role is a sham. Does that mean his masculinity is also a sham? Two seasons later, that marriage ends in divorce after Betty discovers Dick Whitman. But Don’s confession to her begins a process of letting Dick out little by little. During his Season Four status as a single man, Don often adopts the Playboy model of masculinity that Ehrenreich chronicles as one of the rebellions against the breadwinner role. Yet, as his Don/Dick dichotomy is less rigid, his expression of masculinity at times is less rigid and conforming too.

In one of the most powerful—and devastating-for-me-to-watch--episodes, Season Five’s “The Other Woman,” recall Don creating the Jaguar ad pitch that is a brilliant argument against the use and commodification of women that is central both to those in his world and to advertising in his era. Yet Don doesn’t all of a sudden turn into a feminist activist. He takes this stance after his partners vote to prostitute his friend and colleague. When Pete first pitches the idea to Joan, she says, "You're talking about prostitution." "I'm talking about business--at a very high level," he retorts. Business=prostitution. But, as I wrote at the time, anyone who thinks that Joan's transaction is not qualitatively different from any other person's business transactions (and Matthew Weiner expressed that position in an interview with Jake Tapper on April 4, 2013: “I don’t know if [Joan having sex with Herb] was anymore prostituting yourself than Pete telling American Airlines that his father had died on that plane.” What!?! He did concede that it was “a tough thing to do.”)  has only to look at her eyes when Herb, the head of the Jaguar dealers' association, begins to undress her and when he talks to her in bed after they've had sex. Her eyes glaze over and focus nowhere; she is gone. Only Don--Don Draper, the frequent user of women extraordinaire--knows different and refuses to participate in the agency-as-pimp-enterprise. Don—Dick Whitman—who comes from a woman who sold her body and a man who paid her money for the sex; Don/Dick, who later lived in a whore house among women who were commodities and watched his pregnant stepmother prostitute herself for a place for her, her child, and her step-child to live. He was forged in the oven of objectified, commodified women and men as consumers of them. And, while aspects of Don’s performance of masculinity conform to this model, in this instance, he will not have it.

In the ad pitch, Don develops the tag line that Michael Ginsberg came up with: "At Last. Something Beautiful You Can Truly Own." He masterfully speaks truth about desire and how to work with it to sell cars AND critique his audience at the same time. He opens up talking about beauty: "when deep beauty is encountered, it arouses deep emotions. Because it creates a desire--as it is, by nature, unattainable." These beautiful things are always out of reach. The camera keeps cutting from Don's pitch to the scene of Joan with Herb in his hotel room the night before. And Don is explicitly targeting his campaign to those men who lust after just women's bodies. "I thought about a man of some means, reading Playboy or Esquire and flipping past the flesh to the shiny, painted curves of this car." At one level, we're supposed to see Joan as the beautiful "thing" that is desired--like the car. But, Don is also skewering Herb--whom he hopes he has kept Joan away from. For Don isn't just talking about beautiful women here. He refers to "deep beauty." He refers to "deep beauty" in the context of an ad about Jaguars--a car that he has admitted to others that he doesn't like. He doesn't think Jaguars are beautiful. And if they do have any beauty, it is just surface beauty. Joan, on the other hand, has the "deep beauty" that Don names. And, Don knows that Joan is deeply beautiful. We’ve seen it in his respectful interactions with her at various points. We saw it in his defense of her and his pleas not to sleep with Herb--who only sees her surface beauty. Joan's deep beauty has aroused deep emotions in Don--and they are not emotions that lead him to try to bed her. He is set apart from the other men in the episode in this recognition and it is a sign of how much his character has evolved. He's coming to recognize that women aren't, and shouldn’t be, men’s to control. And with that, his commitment to the traditional breadwinner role, and to the Playboy model of use and move on as a form of rebellion, is truly shaken.

In Barbara Ehrenreich’s schema, a shift in masculinity occurred again in the U.S. in the late 1960s as the war in Vietnam and opposition to it were engaging citizens in ideological battles. She paints with a broad brush, but for segments of the culture, this rings true: “The war discredited American foreign policy even in the eyes of our Western allies; within America, it discredited the style of aggressive masculinity kept fervently alive by two decades of Cold War anticommunism” (105). Dick Whitman went off to fight in one of the Cold War police actions. His Don Draper was born out of the violence of war. In the last two seasons, we see Don experiment with performing the more androgynous expressions of masculinity Ehrenreich points to, including vulnerability, honest expression of “non-masculine” emotions, and stepping into the world of counter-cultural spirituality, in which he is able to merge disparate parts of himself: a feeling, happier, more androgynous man looking for peace, with the artful crafter of images into advertisements that commodify the experiences that shape him.

In the finale to Season Six, Don starts out giving a pitch to Hershey's that is full of nostalgia and a false image of his childhood. The candy is "the childhood symbol of love," Don lies. But then Don looks over at Ted Chaough, the partner who had just confessed to Don his need and desire to start over with his family--for his kids—wanting to be a better father. And there's Don, bullshitting about his own father, his family life in disarray again as his daughter continually rejects him. Don glances down at his hands that start to shake and--tells the truth. Which is also a touching story. He tells all of them sitting at the table--three of his partners and the candy execs--that he was an orphan raised in a whore house; that he was unwanted and unloved; that the closest he got to feeling wanted was when one of the "girls" let him go through her johns' pockets while she was with them and root out the change; and, that Hershey's candy bars made him feel "like a normal kid...It was the only sweet thing in my life." Making himself emotionally vulnerable (traditionally feminine?) in this way loses Don his place in the firm, but gains him a stronger sense of self and relationship with his children, particularly Sally. It’s Thanksgiving again, like the timing of the Carousel ad, but, unlike the first season's Thanksgiving, Don doesn't spend this one alone. He's with his children. And begins their day with some truth-telling to them too with a visit back to where so much of his emotional damage occurred. He's taken the steps to move into a more (in traditional terms) “feminized” expression of his masculinity.

Skipping ahead to the series finale: Don heads to California, gets dragged to an Esalen retreat by Stephanie, is abandoned there by her, whereupon he suffers something of a breakdown. He makes his second “person-to-person” call to Peggy. She tells him, "You can come home," but he doesn't know where that might be. Mystified and worried, Peggy asks him "What did you ever do that was so bad?" Part of his confession centers on his worries over masculine identity: "I took another man's name and made nothing of it," Don tells Peggy as he cries. While Peggy and Don have long had a relationship in which each cares for the other, in this instance, Don is reduced to (again in traditional gender terms) a feminine mess of emotion uncontained, while Peggy plays the traditional masculine role of reason and support (though she’s also clearly frightened for him.) Though he initially scorns the retreat for its elements of hokum, Don finds his truth in the story of the very ordinary man who feels invisible: "It's like no one cares that I'm gone" has always been Dick Whitman's fear, born of having been a child who no one wanted to be there. As Don moves toward this stranger and hugs him, then goes out to view the ocean and sit contentedly in meditation, I argue that he has reached this more androgynous identity of which Ehrenreich writes. As he apparently imagines the Hilltop ad and we watch the “real thing,” he sees young men representing a range of masculine expressions: with varied hair lengths, they are clad in everything from Don’s more typical suit and tie, to t-shirts to brightly-colored African print shirts to Nehru jackets. They are interspersed with a diverse group of women. Is he moving toward a greater blurring of gender binaries? Though the ending raises a number of fascinating questions, it seems that, in part, it is about holding what can be seen as binary opposites together in one space: the ad is both idealistic and happy AND it commodifies the yearnings of the sixties movements. Don (since Weiner has publicly stated his intention that Don be seen as the creator of the Coke ad, I’ll remove the sense of ambiguity that I originally wrote) expressed in this ad the truth that the violent, warring world could use a little harmony. And with that truth, enmeshed in and inseparable from the pathos of world peace, the big lie that Coca-Cola is "the real thing.” As he becomes more androgynous, as he is better able to bring together the masculine and feminine sides of his self, as he is merging the Dick/Don duality, he seems also able to use his artistic side to bring together his new insights about self and world AND go back to the self who is the consummate ad man.


Monday, May 18, 2015

"The Real Thing"

Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Fourteen, "Person to Person"

I was ten years old when McCann-Erickson first aired its legendary "Hilltop" Coca-Cola ad in 1971. I must have been captivated because I remember acquiring the sheet music to bring to my piano teacher so I could learn to play it. As excellent advertising does, this happy, feel-good, sugary commercial tapped into the emotional state of a war-weary country, still plagued with the previous decade's violence of political assassinations, urban riots, and police brutality toward civil rights and anti-war protesters. The youth counter-culture, at its best, represented an idealistic quest--perhaps naive, but genuine--for love, unity, and one human family that transcends boundaries of race and nationality. McCann expressed in its ad the truth that the violent, warring world could use a little harmony. And with that truth, enmeshed in and inseparable from the pathos of world peace, the big lie that Coca-Cola is "the real thing." If you want one, you need to buy the other. And with the choice to end this brilliant series about advertising and the quests, weaknesses, yearnings, struggles, and screw-ups of those men and women who create, exploit, dream, and consume it with this ad, we receive a glimpse into some of the show's main themes: that in our post-modern world, it is difficult--if not impossible--to discern what is "true" and "real," (if there even is any referent to those words), AND that while people and institutions can and do change and re-create themselves (I was happy about that one), such change is incremental and not linear.

Had someone asked me to list out possible final glimpses of Don Draper, sitting half-lotus, meditating on a California oceanside cliff would never have made it to the top 100. But, while preposterous, it also makes sense. Don has long been on a quest for meaning and always been attracted by California, the land of new starts and make-believe, and of one of his soul-mates, Anna Draper. Like the ocean, his psyche and spirit have been pulled toward a shore of growing self-awareness and authenticity--and back again toward the depths of oblivion, self-absorption, and con-artistry. It was the Season Two finale that saw him walking out into the ocean, arms stretched out, ready to be a part of the inter-connection that Anna spoke to him about. Despite years of attempting to run from his past, in Season Four's "The Summer Man," he recognizes in his journal that "when a man walks into a room, he brings his whole life with him." He's been trying to come to terms with this life for a long time and with increasing intensity this last season or so. From his truth-telling about his childhood to the Hershey clients, to the trip with his children to the whore-house of his childhood, to his last episode warnings and second chance offered to the young con-man of the hotel, Don has been attempting to be more authentic, to the point of leaving his work as a "con-man" advertiser. But, after each of these steps forward, Don--like any real human being--isn't completely transformed, never to revert back to earlier behavior. This episode finds him a drunken mess again after receiving the news of Betty's impending death. All journeys to the center of the self are, to some degree, selfish--even if necessary to be a better person in relationship with others. Betty calls Don on the selfishness of his hobo lifestyle with the punch-to-the-gut line about his children after her death: "You'll see them as much as you do now, on weekends. Oh, wait Don, when did you last see them?" Yet, it's only with Don that we see Betty able to cry over her death sentence. Despite years of separation after years of a deceptive marriage, they have a strong enough connection that they don't even need to complete their thoughts. "Birdie," he says through his tears. "I know...." she says before hanging up.

So, Don heads to California, to the home of Stephanie--as close as he can get to Anna after her death from cancer--the one person who will greet him as "Dick." Still not sure who he is, he goes to someone who knows he is Dick Whitman, while hoping that she will allow him to be Don Draper--to be her family. But, while she sees he is in trouble and invites him to the retreat with her, she angrily tells him, "You're not my family." After she abandons him there, a seriously despairing Don makes his second person-to-person call to Peggy. She tells him, "You can come home," but he doesn't know where that might be. Mystified and worried, Peggy asks him "What did you ever do that was so bad?" His confession centers on his transgressions against family: "I broke all my vows, scandalized my child," he begins. It is these sins that have left him with no home to go to. "I took another man's name and made nothing of it" reflects his fears that he has done nothing useful with his talents and his professional life. While there is much hokum at the retreat, and much that can foster a me-centered lifestyle, there is also room for genuine soul-searching, and Don finds his truth in the story of the very ordinary man who feels invisible: "It's like no one cares that I'm gone" has always been Dick Whitman's fear, born of having been a child who no one wanted to be there. Like advertising, the retreat is selling some things that people don't need, and offering some truth. What will Don do with this latest new revelation? Go back to New York and his children? Back to McCann to create the Coca-Cola ad that commodifies the yearnings of the sixties movements? Or is the juxtaposition of the smiling, meditative Don and the "Hilltop" ad a reminder that no matter how much we may learn about ourselves, there is also this cultural push and pull between awareness and commodification? That humans will never reach "nirvana," but will always vacillate between a desire for family, for "person to person" connection, and for worldly goods that can more easily assuage our existential anxieties and yearnings? I like that Weiner and Crew have provided no definitive answer to Don's next step. It leaves space for imagination, reflection, and relation to his character. Though some will always want a bow tied around a wrapped-up narrative, this show would not have been true to itself had it offered one.

And, while it might look like the other characters' story arcs have achieved more closure, that's not necessarily so. The Campbells are back together, boarding their Lear jet for Wichita, still after wealth and prestige, but also family unity and connection. The final image of them suggests happiness, but they have not yet reached their destination. Things are still "up in the air" for them. What will these New Yorkers think of living in a small Heartland city? Will Pete be able to remain faithful to Trudy as he'd promised? What is in store for them? We cannot know; a number of scenarios are possible.

The Peggy/Stan shippers will be happy, I am sure. While I wasn't rooting for them to be together, I like the final image of them: at work, Peggy typing, Stan looking over her shoulder. Has she found a way both to have her career and have some happiness in love? Stan has come miles from our first introduction to him. He has gone from a sexist jerk who did not want to accept Peggy as a professional to one who urges her to do what she is good at and is happy to do the work he enjoys from behind her. But, they have both had relationships before. We can't know how this one will work out.

Roger, too, is focusing on personal relationships, making provisions for Kevin in his will and entering his third marriage--this time with a woman close to his age. They both seem happy and keep bickering. We see them mid-toast, but can't know for sure how it will end.

Joan has chosen her work over her unreasonable man: "I can't just turn off that part of myself. I would never ask you to choose," she tells Richard, evidence that 1970 is a hard time for a woman to have both a committed relationship and a career. But, she has grown miles from the office manager she once was, whose goal was a husband and house in the suburbs. I hope that she'll make it in her new endeavor, but we cannot know for sure. She,  like Peggy, knows it's a risk.

The only character, indeed, about whom we can say with any certainty what will happen is Betty. She will die soon. But, she has grown and changed through this as well, allowing Sally to be with her and help her. Perhaps acknowledging that Bobby also knows what is happening. The ad--whether Don or someone else at McCann created it--tells us that Coke is "The Real Thing." Yet, it is not. The only thing that we can know for sure is real is that we will, like Betty, someday die. And perhaps that advertising will always lie to us. This show has always had an existentialist focus, and this ending carries it through: leaving us the image of a dying woman smoking a cigarette, and leaving open the question of what we--like the other characters--will do with the time we have remaining.

There is so much else that I could say about this episode, this season, and how they wrap up the series. I'll be thinking and writing more about those questions in the weeks to come, so stay tuned.

Monday, May 11, 2015

"The Gift"

Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Thirteen, "The Milk and Honey Route"

What an utterly sad Mother's Day episode! Since "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," our introduction to this series, presents advertisers' work to persuade smokers that cigarettes will make them happy, despite the news reports of links to lung cancer, and since we have watched Don, Betty, and numerous other characters smoke like chimneys over seven seasons, I shouldn't be surprised that at the end, someone receives a lung cancer diagnosis. But, I was not expecting this conclusion to Betty's story. To me, she has been at times a compelling character, but at other times a frustrating or infuriating one. I've found the writing of her screen time to have been uneven: they developed her as a richer character when married to Don, and less so after their divorce. But, she has always been beautiful and almost always graceful. She was brought up to be a lady and to conform to what society and her mother expect of her, though she tells Sally that she has fought for things in her life, and we have seen her do that. Since the title of tonight's story refers to a 1931 book with the subtitle "A Handbook for Hobos," I went back to my writing about the other episode about hobos, Season Three's "The Gypsy and the Hobo." It features an empowered Betty who confronts Don about his identity after discovering his box of Dick Whitman papers and mementos. When a lawyer she consults tells her just to go home and work it out, she handles it her way, and later does fight for a divorce and marriage to the new man she loves. She was capable of going against society's dictates to stay married no matter what.

My favorite image of her is still the one of her standing in the yard in her housecoat, cigarette hanging out of her mouth, rifle at her shoulder as she shoots at her neighbor's birds. She could be a fighter, but this time when Henry and Sally urge her to fight, she declines. Is she--as they think--giving in too easily? Is she just being the "good girl" her mother taught her to be, accepting her fate too willingly? Or is she being wise and much more accepting of the inevitability of death than most Americans? She displays an existentialist's awareness that one can't avoid dying and vital self-knowledge that she does not want an extra six to nine months if they come at the price of painful and debilitating treatment. She tells Sally, "I've learned to believe people when they tell you it's over. . . . I don't want you to think I'm a quitter. I've fought for things in my life. It's not a weakness. It's a gift to me. To know when to move on." She's moving on with grace. And not ceasing to live until it's really time to go. While Henry sees no reason for her to continue going to class, asking her "Why are you doing that?" she responds with "Why was I ever doing it?" I was feeling so sad for her, thinking how unfair it is that now she's finally doing what she told Don she'd always wanted to do, this happens. But, life is unfair; she was going to school because she wanted to learn and grow. So, until she can no longer do that, she's determinedly going to keep learning and growing. Bravo to her! And while she won't give Sally the fight she wants and won't let her take care of her ("I watched my mother die; I won't do that to you"), she gives Sally the beautiful gift of the letter: "I always worried about you because you marched to the beat of your own drum. Now I know that's good. I know your life will be an adventure." Sally and Betty have had their battles over the years; some of them featured Betty trying to make Sally be like her. But, as she's preparing to die, Betty gives her daughter the gift of letting her know that it's okay to be herself. And, that she loves her for it. Our final glimpse of her is her struggle to climb the stairs at the college. She doesn't fit in, hasn't tried to look more hip like the kids. But, she's there, fighting in her own way. Marching to HER own drum.

I'd like just to stop there, as this is Betty's episode, but should make a couple of other brief observations:

--Don, we discover, has chosen the hobo life for now, charting out his next stretch of the journey over the phone with Sally, consulting the map on his hotel room bed. His wanderings must stop for a week when his car breaks down in Kansas. At the urging of the man who runs the small hotel, he attends a VFW event and after too many drinks, tells the other men the story of accidentally killing his CO in Korea. They all understand that "you just do what you have to do to come home." This seems to be another catharsis for Don, though the next day finds him getting beaten by the men when they think he, the hobo, has stolen their money. This stretch of road is no longer the "milk and honey route." He offers advice to the young man who actually did steal the money: that since he's committed a big crime, "if you keep [the money], you'll have to become somebody else. And that's not what you think it is. You think this town is bad now. Wait 'til you can't come back." Through his words, we continue to see some of his thinking about his own position. There's been some fan speculation about him pulling another identity shift to escape, but he neither wants nor needs to do that again. He is free to live the life of a hobo for as long as he chooses. He doesn't need a new identity to do that and has no horrible family from whom he wants so badly to get away that he'd "die" to do it. He ends up with no car, smiling on a bench waiting for a bus, with his one small bag beside him. But, for how long will that smile last? He'd promised Sally he'd call her again in a week, so he's about due to talk to her again and receive some sad news. Don has had to deal with Anna's death and more recently with Rachel's. These have shaken him greatly. What will he do when he finds out Betty is dying? The "Land of Milk and Honey" might not be long in front of him.

--And then there's Pete, who finally figures out--after talking with his brother about it--that he is the way he is with women because his father was that way. Has he really learned something? Will he change? He tells Trudy that he's "not so dumb anymore." So, it looks like he'll be moving into the Kansas that Don is vacating. Will it be a "Land of Milk and Honey" for the Campbells? This story arc conclusion felt a bit too pat, but I've never liked or trusted Pete. Trudy seems wary too. Who knows? "Mad Men" isn't Victorian fiction with its reward of virtue with marriage and punishment for sexual promiscuity with death, and it shows particularly strongly tonight when someone who has transgressed against so many in such arrogant and contemptuous ways seems to be granted the happy ending of remarriage, and Betty Francis--no saint, but nowhere near the sinner Pete is--is fated to die in her early 40s.

One more week to see what is in store for Don, his soon-to-be motherless children, and Peggy.


Monday, May 4, 2015

"Not a Very Comfortable Place"

Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Twelve, "Lost Horizon"

When Roger's secretary informs him that she won't be moving to McCann, she says, "Advertising is not a very comfortable place for everyone." She means that it's not a comfortable place for black women. But, as the episode progresses, we see that advertising at McCann is not a comfortable place for a number of the SCP personnel--for Joan, for Peggy, for Roger, for Don. With the Orwellian plaque asserting the McCann conference room as a place for "Truth Well Told" guiding us through this hour, we catch glimpses of just what is wrong with big advertising.

While Jim Hobart calls Don his "white whale" that he has wanted for ten years, he tells Joan, "I don't care about your SC&P partnership," speculating that she could only have achieved it if "someone left it to you in their will." It's clear that the other men at the new firm--Dennis and Ferg--only want her there as their plaything. These men aren't truth-tellers; they are tellers of whatever narrative will get them what they want. Joan is not to take work seriously by getting concerned about clients and working to keep up with her accounts. "Who told you you got to get pissed off?" Dennis asks her. "I thought you were gonna be fun." With Ferg, she'll get the "respect you deserve," as long as she consents to take unnecessary trips to Atlanta with him. When she complains about Dennis' behavior to Ferg, he retorts, "He has a wife and three children. He's not going to work for a girl." Her prediction of last week that she wouldn't be taken seriously at the new firm was proven correct all too quickly. When Joan brings up the Women's Strike for Equality that happened on August 26, 1970 (the 50th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that granted women the right to vote) to Hobart, I was hoping for a good old feminist showdown to last more than a few hours. I was disappointed she gave in too easily, but perhaps she was just being practical and realistic. It is, after all, 1970. Her new lover described a court case as a way not to win, but to deliver some pain to the other side. They still deserve to get embroiled in one even if Hobart is right that their influence over the New York Times is a sign of their indomitableness at this point in time. But, perhaps we'll get to see what she does with her quarter of a million dollars--still a lot of money today, let alone in 1970. Start her own firm?

Draper Harris & Olson is the new logo I'd like to see, if Don survives his drift around America with a hitchhiker in his "shiny car in the night." Peggy's already been deemed a secretary in the first days of the new arrangement. After her fabulous fantasy power stroll down the hallway with shades, cigarette, and Bert Cooper's painting of an octopus having sex with a woman, you know she's not going to put up with the lowered position and status they have planned for her. While she and Joan have never gotten along real well, they are both smart enough to recognize each other's talents and value. And, for all of his faults with women, Don is a man who respects and admires intelligent, strong ones. When all the yahoos at McCann show they are incapable of working with women as equals (despite Hobart's protestations about Joan having to go it alone were she to file a lawsuit because "women love it here," we know his female employees have formed a "ladies' club," to regularly meet for "a bitch session."), Don is the one man on Joan's side, telling her, "I can still interfere." When she responds with, "No, I'll figure it out," he affirms, "of that I am certain." The three of them could make a great team.

Though odd disjointedness and surreal fantasy dreamscapes feature prominently in this episode, they make sense in the context of upside down notions of "truth well told." If it's a lie that the "creative" men sitting around McCann Erickson's table, listening to a "researcher" spin out a series of stereotypes of Midwestern men, tell the truth well, then we must go elsewhere for the truth. With Ed, the creative ad man not being brought along for the McCann ride, we get a glimpse of what advertising might look like if it told the truth: Dow Chemical's aerosol can cleaning up a quagmire of its own making in Vietnam. That's too subversive for Peggy, who still wants to work with the big boys, but, she's gradually pulled into Roger's bizarre parody of "Phantom of the Opera," which entices her more deeply into the labyrinth of deserted SCP corridors with spooky Hammond organ music. Roger Sterling's is always a masked face; we rarely get to see the truth of what he feels, but Peggy is right when she tells him, "You need an audience." They speak truth to each other when she retorts to his complaints of losing his firm, "You're acting like you had nothing to do with this..." and he tells her, "This business doesn't have feelings." As the evening progresses, she has a bizarrely good time, roller skating around the old office to Roger's phantom music on an organ that has no business being in a business office, but generates a feeling of fun. It's unrealistic, but what is reality when you work in advertising? What is truth?

In more surreal dream-like action, Don has an additional post-death visit from a Jack Kerouac-quoting Bert Cooper. His literary tastes have changed after death apparently, his last author to quote while alive having been Ayn Rand. The shade of Cooper engaged in some truth-telling of his own, noting that Don "always liked to play the stranger" and reminding him that in heading to Racine, he's trying to get "to a waitress who doesn't care about you." Don finally does tell the truth to Diana's ex-husband when he says that he was worried about her. "She seemed so lost." Mr. Bauer offers up his truth in terms likely too reminiscent of Don's step-mother for comfort, and Don is off again, avoiding his commitments and what to do with the truth of his feelings about big-time advertising, like David Bowie's astronaut, "floating in a most peculiar way" down the highway, at the end heading off to St. Paul with the hitchhiker because it doesn't really matter where he goes. He just wants not to be "sitting in the tin can" of McCann's spacious Manhattan office. I laughed when, after Hobart irately told Roger that Don had walked out of a meeting on Wednesday and not returned--his "great white" had gotten away again--Roger told him, "He does that." He does indeed. He usually comes back, but with just two more episodes to go, will he this time? Or will he finally recognize that it's "not a very comfortable place" and definitely not a place where truth is told well?

Monday, April 27, 2015

"What's In a Name?"

Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Eleven, "Time and Life"

When Roger laments the loss of the Sterling name--"No more Sterling Cooper. And no more Sterlings"--Don of the stolen identity and buried birth name retorts with a stolen line: "What's in a name?" But, as the partners know, an ad agency by any other name would not smell as sweet. Even Ted, who welcomes the chance to "let someone else drive," knows that being part of McCann Ericson is not the same as being SCP or Sterling Cooper West. The "name change" represents so much more: loss of autonomy, control, and identity. And represents different changes to different members of the team.

To Ted--the least striving of the bunch, who now wants a calmer life in which he can focus on nurturing a good relationship--being absorbed by the large firm is a relief. To the blue blood Roger, who's never worked very hard, it means a loss of the family name. As the father of a daughter whose child has another man's name and the father of a son whom he cannot acknowledge, who also has another man's name, his agency was the only Sterling legacy. Now it is gone, sold off for the millions they all lusted after a year ago.

Pete, too, had to contend with a battle over his blue blood name this episode: huffing and puffing that a Campbell has always attended the elite school that won't take poor little Tammy Campbell, how dare they decline her, he must punch the snarky school headmaster because that's what blue-blood gentlemen do to defend the honor of their women folk, I guess, though I wouldn't know for sure since my blood is more reddish brown, and I have never attended an elite private school, nor even ever been anywhere near Connecticut. But, surprisingly, after it was all over, Pete--who is typically the most whiny, angry, and/or expressive of a strong sense of entitlement over events he doesn't like--is the most sanguine after Ted. He tells Joan, "For the first time I feel like whatever happens is supposed to happen." He says this after he and Joan leave the group at the bar because he wants to check in with Trudy, who he recognizes has also had a really hard day. What? Pete maturing? If this lasts until the end, it will be quite the surprising, but nice, character development to wrap-up with.

How Don is reading this change is a bit harder to suss out at this point. In some ways, it's the biggest hit to him, the man who has always been able to mine the pain and screw-ups of his life and create out of them supremely persuasive and often beautiful advertising campaigns: the Carousel, the suitcase, the Hershey bar. He has on more than one occasion taken the firm at crisis points and lifted it out of the ashes to be reborn and re-formed. Yet this attempt did not work. Jim Hobart wouldn't even let him finish his pitch. It's Hobart who attempts to persuade them, through re-defining what has happened: "It's done. You passed the test. . . . You are dying and going to advertising heaven. . . . Buick, Ortho Pharmaceutical, Nabisco, Coca-Cola. Stop struggling. You win." But the partners know they have not won. And, while Joan tells Pete that "Hobart listed off accounts for everyone but me," after last week, when Don couldn't believe that all Ted wanted out of his work were bigger accounts, after he mused to his tape recorder about how "It's supposed to get better," I wonder if Don will be the one to opt out of Hobart's heaven. He's the master of re-defining, re-naming, and re-creating himself. Perhaps he will do so again now. Because the name is not as important to him. His autonomy and ability to act and create are.

Although these professional changes present varying levels of challenge for the men, it is the women of the episode who are most strongly affected. From the black secretaries who worry that the new firm won't "need one more black girl," to Meredith, who makes a surprisingly strong stand for herself and the other employees when she tells Don that he must talk to them because everyone is so worried about what's going to happen, to Joan who knows "they won't take me seriously there" after all the hard work and fight and putting-up-with-bullshit she's gone through to make partner at SCP, the women's positions are most precarious.

Yet it's through Trudy and Peggy--and even Tammy--that this episode most effectively demonstrates that even more than a name, what matters is one's sex. What's in a name? Not much for the women, who trade their names for a man's when they marry. Yet this name trade can be seen to stand for so much more. For Joan, it's the possible loss of recognition of her intelligence and worth as an executive. For Trudy, it's the situation of a suburban divorcee: being hounded by all the husbands at parties and school officials when she checks out schools for her daughter. She had wanted nothing more than to be a suburban wife, but now seems to be recognizing that this particular suburban life is not all it was cracked up to be. Her daughter fails her 'draw a man test,' only getting on to paper a head and a necktie. Some psychologists would likely theorize that this is because she lives without her father in her home, and it has stunted her emotional growth. But, what if it's a sign of the lack of wholeness and the emotional barrenness of these men--who, in the drawing, are only heads, but not hearts? (And on this show penises, but one could argue that their frequent sexual encounters with women they hardly know are also indicative of a failure to relate emotionally). When Jim Hobart walked out of his conference room, he left a tableaux of the five SCP partners, sitting in a row on one side of the table. Each one of them--the woman included--has been divorced; some more than once. Each one lives alone, partnerless. Only Joan, the woman, lives with her child. Peggy spends the episode having to work with children, which only serves to remind her of the sacrifice she made for her career. She argues to Stan that "no one should have to make a mistake and not be able to move on like a man does." She's right about how women and men shouldn't have to give up different things for their careers. But, don't these characters demonstrate that all of them--the men and the women--have given up too much in the realm of human emotion and relationship and closeness for their careers? And perhaps because they're too afraid to finish up that drawing of the man that is only a head.

Yet, interestingly, when faced with a career- and life-changing day, each one of them reached out or went in search of someone to love. Joan calls the new Roger; "I just wanted to hear your voice," she tells him. Ted leaves the gathering at the bar to meet the new woman he's in a relationship with; Roger leaves to go to Marie; Pete leaves to contact Trudy; and Don goes off in search of Diana. Peggy shares her deepest secret with Stan and the next day wants him just to stay on the phone with her while she's working. Who knows where they will go next with all of this. These characters are great for back-tracking, but they made some interesting emotional acknowledgments and movement tonight. We'll see where it takes them.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

What's Next?

Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Ten, "The Forecast"

While the first two episodes of this half season drew us backward: into an exploration of Don's losses, into a focus on the relationships to which he can never return, this episode looks forward. It invites us to consider--with Don and others--what might occur after our time with them is finished. What's next? What's "the forecast" for their lives?

In the guise of preparing the "Gettysburg Address" speech on SCP for a McCann retreat that Roger will attend, Don wanders from colleague to colleague to suss out ideas on where the company is headed. But, it's soon clear that this is merely cover for his quest for a direction to and the meaning of his own life. His apartment "reeks with failure," according to his realtor, and while he protests that "a lot of wonderful things happened here," we know--and I expect he does too--that that's untrue. So, as President Lincoln sought to make meaning out of the deaths of tens of thousands of people on the fields of Gettysburg, Don Draper (on a much smaller scale) takes Roger's inflated metaphor for his talk and tries to engage others in discussions on the meaning of life. When Ted responds to Don that he hopes for perhaps a tire account, or bigger yet, a pharmaceutical company, "That's your dream?" Don wonders. "Bigger accounts?"

He pulls Peggy closer to where he wants to go, using her performance review to get her finally to say that she wants to create "something of lasting value." "In advertising?" he laughs. She just gets aggravated with him, though, retorting, "This is supposed to be about my job, not the meaning of life." When he responds, "So you think those things are unrelated?" we can glimpse what he wants, but she storms out of his office, thinking he's being critical of her aspirations, but I see him as trying to figure out his own.

When he's musing on the speech into his tape recorder, he says, "Four score and seven years ago. We know where we've been and where we are. Let's assume that it's good. But it's gonna get better. It's supposed to get better." How can Don Draper--who's so seriously mucked up his life and relationships--create something of lasting value that will make his life get better? For all of his faults, he does have a sense of how it should go. Though he should never have told Mathis the story about his comment to Lee Garner, Jr.--and Mathis shouldn't have been dumb enough to re-use it--Don does tell the younger man the truth when he says that he needs to fix his own mistakes and deal with his own problems. Is that what Don is finally--or again--trying to do? Mathis tells Don that he has no character; "you're just handsome." That's often true, but Don strikes me as giving it a sober effort in this episode.

He also has not been a good father in so many ways, but is right when he tells Sally that she is like him and Betty. For better and worse, we all are created out of the forge of our families, our childhood highs and traumas, our cultures, our time periods. Don knows that he is like his parents in many ways, that killing off Dick Whitman and adopting a new identity did not shed him of the dead young prostitute mother, the cruel father, the fundamentalist stepmother, the whore-house setting, or the grinding poverty. But, his advice to his angry daughter--who dreams "to get on a bus, get away from you and Mom, and hopefully be a different person than you two"--offers a kind of hope, both to her and to him: "You may not want to listen to this, but you ARE like your mother and me. You're gonna find that out. You're a very beautiful girl. It's up to you to be more than that." And, it's up to Don to be more than just the handsome, but characterless, man Mathis accuses him of being. When he stands outside his sold apartment door, is he on the threshold of something new? Or will he again step back into the old? Or find some balance between the two?

--And--more briefly: is Joan also poised on the cusp of something new with the new Roger? It all moved very quickly, but there's not a lot of time left in the show. Will she have really found love before it's all over?

--And Glen Bishop. Yikes! I wasn't expecting him to be the means of bringing the later part of the war home, and don't know why we needed to have this minor character make an appearance in the show's wrapping-up stage, but, since Weiner apparently feels his reappearance is necessary, I'll try to make some sense of it beyond just saying "Eeew, creepy! Leave Betty alone!"

While I get a kid having a crush on an attractive adult neighbor (I had one of those when I was young too), Glen's means of expressing it has always creeped me out. Betty handled it better this time than when he cut some of her hair off as a souvenir when he was little, but did he really expect her to give herself to him as his going-off-to-war present? Not believable. So, I'm going to assume something beyond a literal interpretation is suggested by the whole scene. Does Betty have some sort of mystical meaning to Glen? Is she the beautiful Helen over whom war becomes worth being fought? Or a courtly love figure? The beautiful married woman sung of from afar by the medieval bard? But, what happens when the warrior actually talks to his idol on the pedestal? When she doesn't accept that role, the facade of the noble warrior starts to fall away: "But you understand why I'm doing it," he wants to believe, but instead Betty--one of the few characters left who does support the war--says, "Do you want me to say that I like it?" "I know you do," he presses on, "because I'm brave and I want to protect this country and everyone in it." Yet he and Betty both know that's a slogan. When she looks skeptical, he confesses that he's really going because he flunked out of college. His myth of the beautiful woman to fight for "was going to be the good thing that came out of it." He leaves on another lie--or at least a promise that cannot be kept--when Betty tells him, "You're going to make it. I'm positive." It's a kindness to send him off with, but her actions later with Bobby's toy gun show that she is now disturbed by and questioning the enterprise. It's an odd way to get at the way Vietnam was still a force in American life in late 1970, but it's either that or just "Eeew, Glen, stop."

Either way, the episode ends with questions about what's next for a number of the characters. And only a few more episodes to suggest where they might be headed.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Back to the Beginning

Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Nine, "New Business"

In the car as they head to the golf course to meet clients, Pete talks to Don about the challenges of being a high-profile businessman post-divorce. He admits that his failed marriage was his fault and worries, "What if you never get back to the beginning again?" Don doesn't answer him, but his actions demonstrate the paradox of his life (perhaps of any life): while he knows he can't get back to the beginning--in terms of starting again; there are no do-overs--at the same time, his loveless beginning will always be a part of him and will forever drive him: to continually seek the love that was withheld from him in his childhood and to muck up his relationships when he thinks he has found it.

In the evening's first scene, we see him in the Francis kitchen, making milk shakes for his sons and himself. They all seem to be having fun, but when Betty and Henry return, Don takes his leave, with a kiss to the top of Gene's head, without drinking his shake. At the door, he turns back to look with sadness at the family he failed to make work. There's another man at the center of it now, and Don is the outsider. There's no way he can go back to the beginning with Betty and their children.

We next see him alone in his dark apartment, on the phone with his soon-to-be second ex-wife. The pained look from the Francis home returns as he hangs up the phone. With no apparent emotion, he later writes Megan a check for a million dollars to give her "the life you deserve" and to end their fighting. This is another failed relationship that he knows he cannot go back to the beginning to fix.

Yet, he holds fast to the quest for a meaningful relationship, pursuing Diana--a woman whom he thinks is simpler, with her Avon shampoo and a ranch house in Racine, Wisconsin--to the new restaurant at which she waits tables. She at first acquiesces to his request for time together, but Don soon discovers the extent to which she--like he--has been emotionally damaged by loss and feels herself unworthy of giving and receiving love anymore. He initially relates well to her, expressing his sympathy for the death of her daughter and taking time off work to comfort her in the room his children inhabit only every other weekend. But when he later visits her rented room, the "dump," so like the place he chose after his and Betty's break-up, he realizes that she too thinks she doesn't "deserve any better." After she discloses that she left a second daughter back in Wisconsin, Don realizes the extent to which she has allowed her child's death to wall off her core self: "I told you about my heart," she says. "I don't want to feel anything else. When I was with you, I forgot about her. I don't ever want to do that." Don places the guidebook he'd bought her on the bed before he walks out, but I can't see Diana being guided out of her hell of deep sorrow anytime soon. Does Don's leaving signify his respect for her feelings? A recognition that she's right, and it's not wise for her to be in a relationship at that point? His awareness that since she is incapable of being a mother to her own surviving child that he's not going to get from her the mothering he often looks for in a lover? Whatever his leave-taking means, all it leads Don to is an apartment that is now not just empty of other people, but also of every stick of furniture. Our last glimpse of him drives home just how very alone and isolated Don Draper is.

While Don is continuing last week's focus on loss that began with the death of Rachel, other characters provide fodder for continued reflection on the culture of commodification that these advertising industry workers create. The photographer, Pema, opines that "All art is selling something," when she decides to place her photographs at the service of an ad campaign. The episode takes this further, though, when it demonstrates that all relationships are about selling something. Everything is a transaction: in ordering all of the Draper furniture onto a moving van, Megan's mother asserts, "I took what you deserved." She then offers Roger sex in exchange for the few hundred dollars she needs for the extra work of the movers. "Please, take advantage of me," she moans to Roger--who is ever-accommodating in that regard. Don exchanges a million dollars for an end to fighting and divorce negotiations. Harry expects sex from Megan in exchange for his advice about an agent, and she has the idea planted in her head that perhaps the reason she is not offered leading roles is because she is not following directors to the casting couch. (As scummy as Harry is, he might not be wrong about that.) Stan has a hard time at work; now he not only has a female boss, but he is told he has to contend with a female photographer. "It's hard to keep my balls at this job," he says while leaving Peggy's office. Once he's able to put his balls into play again, though, asserting his manhood with Pema in a bit of darkroom sex, he's willing to exchange this for his approval of her work. He's on familiar footing. The woman who was threatening has now--he thinks--been placed under his control. He exudes enthusiasm for her being placed on a number of accounts. Peggy, however, is in charge of this transaction, and she's not having it. Completely disconcerted by Pema's advance to her, she refuses to consider her for another job. And Stan, disconcerted by the idea that he might not have put Pema under his control, refuses to believe Peggy.

While this episode jumped around a great deal, I found most interesting the situations of the three women with whom Don has to contend as he faces his existential position with regard to Pete's question on beginnings. Betty may actually be in a position of beginning again. After last half season's struggle with judging Francine for going back to work after not finding her family to be enough, and her fights with Henry over her right to her opinions, Betty has declared her intention to go back to school. Don is dismissive, but she seems not to care about his opinion. I hope the show gets back to her to explore this more fully; I find the offer of nothing more than an enticing glimpse into her possible future frustrating, but it's an intriguing development.

Megan is unsure which story to tell herself about her divorce. When her sister refers to it as her "failure," she fights back, arguing that the States are in the 20th century. She is a modern woman following her own path and career. When with Don, she sounds like Roger's version of Jane that he whined about to Don earlier: "I wasn't going to give you the satisfaction of knowing you ruined my life" and "I gave up everything for you." Is she letting her mother's and sister's judgment get to her here? Is she feeling hopeless, after her lunch with Harry, about the career that she never gave up for Don? For all of his serious flaws as a husband, Don did provide the financial support that allowed her to quit office work and pursue acting full-time. She's right that Don is a liar, but is she lying to herself about what's happening too? She seems truly stuck between having no desirable beginning to head back to (her family-of-origin is a mess; her marriage is a deceased mess) and the recognition that the career she does desire might have too high of an entrance transaction fee.

Finally, there's Diana. A character I wish we'd have more time to get to know. There's no going back to the beginning for her either. With her grief for her dead child strangling her ability to be a mother to the child she has left, she outcasts herself to a shabby, unhappy room in a big, unhappy city, having managed--perhaps--to find, and then reject, the briefest of respites in the arms of a man who also feels unloved and unlovable.

An interesting, but most unhappy, episode.

Monday, April 6, 2015

"Is That All There Is?"

"Mad Men," Season Seven, Episode Eight, "Severance"

This episode is fraught with tensions. As it begins, a sexy woman, dressed in not much more than a fur coat and high-heeled shoes, walks into a room with Don Draper's gaze on her. He stands near a window, smoking and flicking the ash of his cigarette into a paper coffee cup in his left hand. He rather seductively tells her what to do: "You're not supposed to talk. Just tell me how you feel. . . . Look at yourself [in the mirror]. Do you like what you see?" She complies with his continued demands, putting her leg up on a chair as a woman's voice-over draws us into a story: her father saved her from their burning home when she was a child. Watching the fire from the street, she wonders, "Is that all there is to a fire?" The camera pulls back to reveal a group of men on a couch taking notes, and my question is answered. This is an audition for a commercial, not the foreplay to Don's latest dalliance.

The opening scene rather brilliantly encapsulates the questions and issues to be dramatized: What is real and what is fantasy? Can Don Draper and other characters ever direct what occurs in their lives or are they always subject to the whims of fate--that director across the room? Can one--particularly the women--escape the objectifying gaze of those of a higher social status? Can there be meaningful human connections forged in the world of modern advertising, which is always about commodification and acquisition? Will these characters ever be satisfied (look in the mirror and like what they see)? And then there's the reference to fire, repeated several times: the child saved by her father. We then learn from Joan that "department stores are being blown up by radicals every day." Fire is used as a form of protest against capitalist excesses. Later, Joan herself tells Peggy that she wants to "burn this place down" after the women have been subjected to sexist disrespect by the team of McCann men with whom they'd been meeting. The fantasy of fire is used to express anger and hurt over unjust treatment.

The 1969 Peggy Lee song bookmarks this episode--an atypical way for the show to use its weekly song. Raising the question "Is that all there is" to fire, to love--to life, essentially--the music expresses Don's existential anxiety over the losses he faces and the tension between them and the excesses he engages in to avoid them. Though we don't hear the chorus to the song, it hangs in the air, heavy with relevance:

Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing.
Let's break out the booze and have a ball
If that's all there is.

In a March 29, 2015 interview published in The New York Times, Matthew Weiner discussed his perception of how his show "mines" the secret shame that all people feel, and that leads to a sense of isolation: "We're all alone. And we all have a fake identity." While I observed in blog posts on the first half of this season that characters like Don, Peggy, and Pete were making moves to bridge that isolation and forge more meaningful relationships with others (Don with Sally, Peggy's Burger Chef campaign on a new kind of family that included Don and Pete), in their post-sale of the firm to McCann, they once again are essentially fragmented and alone, seeming to revel in the luxuries the new money can buy, but not finding real connection. We barely see Don and Peggy together. Peggy and Joan are working more closely as a team, but instead of allies in the face of the dismissal and sexist comments they receive from men in the field, they once again have an elevator spat as Peggy opines that Joan should dress differently if she doesn't want to be told she should be a brassiere model, and Joan retorts, "I don't expect you to understand." Peggy makes the first of the show's references to the fact that non-partners in SCP resent the millions the partners made in the sale of the firm when she spits back, "You know what. You're filthy rich. You don't have to do anything you don't want to!" But, Joan is doing what she wants to do. She just would also like to dress in her style while doing it, and be respected for her brains and ability. Instead, she and Peggy--intelligent, creative ad people--are objectified by the gaze of the three males across the table from them as much as the fur models are.

Peggy is attempting to create a social life for herself when she accepts Mathis' offer of a date with his brother-in-law. She and Stevie hit it off, laughing and drinking through a long dinner that ends with  Peggy proposing a trip to Paris. That falls through when she can't find her passport and the next morning, she wakes up hungover and questioning whether they could have a relationship that will go anywhere.

Don starts out the episode seeming on top of his world, if in a superficial way. He's back on the team, leading the audition for the fur ad. He has a date with a model and a mustached Roger sitting between two young models. They've been someplace fancy, but are ending the evening at a diner, where Don is comfortable enough to tell stories about his step-mother, uncle, and their impoverished past. Roger tells the women, "He loves to tell stories about how poor he was, but he's not anymore." The implication is that Don really is moving forward. When he gets home and calls his answering service, he has messages from three women among whom he can choose to spend the night with. But, he doesn't seem happy. With his arm around a young, beautiful, well-dressed model in the diner's booth, he is more drawn to the hard-working waitress with the John Dos Passos novel sticking out of her apron. When he arrives home and turns on the light to reveal the empty apartment, he looks sad. Megan is gone. There is no hint at all of his children in this episode. We could be back at the series premiere in which we don't find out until the very end that this man with a lover in Greenwich Village has a wife and children in the suburbs. The stewardess on lay-over whom he calls to spend the night seems there just to dispel the isolation; she allows him to don a mask so that he doesn't have to deal with the question, "Is that all there is?" As in Peggy Lee's song, he is just dancing so he doesn't have to stand still. The news of Rachel's death, though, forces him to slow down.

Don has a special sensitivity for seeing the shades of dead people as they're on their way out of this life. Anna Draper appeared to him in "The Suitcase" (Season 4.7), saying nothing, but smiling beneficently at him as he wakes from a drunken nap on Peggy's lap. At the end of the last episode of Season 7, Part 1, he sees the recently deceased Bert Cooper engage in a song and dance routine, exhorting him to realize that "the best things in life are free." He seems in this episode to be trying on the lifestyle of the millionaire he's become, but also to recognize that it doesn't offer the best things in life. So, when Rachel Menken Katz enters the room, clad in a fur coat, for an audition, he is thrown off guard. It can't really be her, can it? Her message to him is that he's missed his flight. All he can think to say to her is the ad slogan-sounding "You're not just smooth. You're Wilkinson smooth." What the hell does that mean? A day or so later when he receives the news that Rachel had died the week before, Don is thrown into a search for what it all means. He visits the Dos Passos reading waitress and receives some quick sex in the alley. For him, it seems to be one of those attempts to hold fast to one's physical nature when forced to face the gaping hole of mortality--especially the mortality of someone younger than oneself. For the waitress, it is what she expected she'd have to pay out for the glib $100 tip Roger left her to make up for having been rude. "You got your $100 worth," she tells Don. "You can go." But, he doesn't want to go. He wants to talk to someone with substance. To someone who reminds him somehow of Rachel.

He makes an awkward visit to the Katz home while the family is sitting shiva. Rachel's sister makes it clear that he is unwelcome: "I'm not sure what you're looking for here." Don just wants some knowledge. He wants to know what happened, what her life was. "She lived the life she wanted to live," the sister tells him. "She had everything." "Good," Don replies, his face full of pain. Whether or not Rachel actually did find full satisfaction in the life she had, Don is shown the disparity between having the life one desires and living the one he has made for himself when he confides that he is about to be divorced for the second time. He's alive, but a failure at relating: to his wives, to this lover who is now dead. Rachel is dead, but leaves behind a husband, children, sister, and others who grieve her passing. He returns yet again to the diner, to the woman whose social status is closer to the one in which he was raised. He again wants answers; he is again looking for meaning--"Is that all there is?" The waitress can only tell him, "When someone dies you want to make sense of it, but you can't." Then she leaves him to sit alone at the counter, again in isolation, listening to Peggy Lee sing, "And then one day she went away and I thought I'd die, but I didn't and when I didn't, I said to myself, 'Is that all there is to love?'" Another thought-provoking question to add to the one that begins the episode. This time it is Don who is the object of our gaze, and it seems clear that he does not like what he sees when he looks into the mirror within. A haunting beginning to these last few episodes.....