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?


  1. Nice piece, Cathy. I love the scene with Peggy skating. There is a beautiful exchange between Peggy and Roger just before then, in which she tells him how bad things were when he was running things.

    "Is that really how you will remember it?"

    Peggy shakes her head.

    She knows she will remember it through rose-tinted nostalgia.

    For me, it is a key scene. The time, the career, the people, they were not so good, but we hold them in affection; we remember the good and forget the bad. Mad Men is about our own nostalgia and our shared nostalgia. The oozing beauty of the whole show is a ruse — it is not meant to be realism, it is about our vivid memories, which are unreliable and selective.

    Sterling plays the music and Peggy skates to his commands, "C'mon, again from the top."

    And she does so, competently, diligently; a woman trained to obey.

    While Joan rebels and is kicked out at 50 cents on the dollar.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Philip. I, too, really enjoyed that scene with Roger and Peggy. I like what you have to say about nostalgia and selective memories--both those of the characters and ours as we watch this show. I have had so many conversations with people through the years about this show in which someone brings up how she or he remembers one of the events depicted or how a character's actions bring up something in one of our own lives; those triggered memories shape how we interpret this show and enhance--perhaps sometimes detract--from the experience of watching it. Your comments give me a new angle to think about that. Thanks!

    2. Are you going to keep blogging after the show has ended? If so, what about?

    3. I just watched the show tonight and got so worked up I had to go searching for you blog again, Cathy. I was disappointed Joan didn't fight the good fight, too, but she IS a realist, plus she didn't have enough of a case--yet. Phil, your thoughts about Peggy obeying just like a woman are really disturbing. I see your view but I didn't read it that way. She finally succumbed to Roger's coaxing and chose to play hookie--rebelling by not reporting dutifully. I love that scene where she's walking down the hall with the painting!! I've been pretty nonplussed by these last few episodes but this one pulled me back in, and I'm totally anxious about how to "resolve" it all in just two episodes.

    4. Julie, I also saw Peggy as rebelling with her long stint with Roger at the old office. There have been a wide range of interpretations of the women's actions in this episode. It's interesting to read the different takes on them.

  2. Yes, I think so, Philip. I'm first planning to do some reflective pieces here on some of the Mad Men characters--what can we say about them overall, their development, what do their story arcs mean? kind of thing. Perhaps something about the show over seven seasons and what it offered as way of commentary on/interpretation of our culture, if I feel so inclined once I see how it ends. But, then I'm thinking about starting a blog that would give me space to write about other TV shows that interest me--"Orphan Black," "Sherlock" and "Elementary," "Outlander," "Doctor Who" are some of my favorites right now. I originallly started this one as a means to share thoughts about Mad Men with some of my colleagues and friends. We used to talk at work on Monday mornings and engage in email exchanges. One of my co-workers suggested I start a blog, and I finally did. The audience grew beyond my personal circle, and I'm finding it fun, so I think I'm game to keep on with some other subject matter. Any suggestions?