‘Mad Men’ Week 2: You Don’t Bring Me Flowers

Michael Yarish/AMC

“You may be sweet and nice, but that won’t keep you warm at night / ’Cause I’m the one who showed you how to do the things you’re doing now”

“Hot Burrito #1,” The Flying Burrito Brothers (1969)

Valentine’s Day sucks. There’s no getting around it. It’s easily the second-worst holiday, after New Year’s Eve. (Easter is cool. There’s candy and ham.) It’s been six years since we spent Valentine’s Day with Mad Men. In the Season 2 opener, “For Those Who Think Young,” Don and Betty spent a clichéd expensive romantic evening at a hotel, with the emphasis on “spent.” Even with all the picture-perfect trimmings like lingerie, flowers, champagne, and a beautiful blonde wife, Don could not get it up. You can paint a pretty picture, but you can’t control the weather. That’s what I hate about Valentine’s Day; there’s too much pressure, mostly from corporations, trying to seduce you to buy things you don’t need. The social commands that permeate advertisements and works of fiction are amplified by holidays, including birthdays. During certain times of the year the They Live agenda seems more blatantly apparent: MAKE MONEY, MARRY, REPRODUCE. People aspire to unrealistic ideals and then are still unhappy when they manage to achieve them. With each new goal comes an amnesia about what happens when you get your wish; you shrug and make another, bigger wish.

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1969 was a tipping point for free thinking, but not at SC&P! They should shoot Jurassic World at the ad agency, because it is full of free-roaming dinosaurs. Bert Cooper proves to be less Zen than we hoped when he tells Joan that they can’t have a black woman at the front desk. Roger tries to tell a hilarious story about how he got called a racial slur, but nobody laughs like they used to. Lou Avery is just an asshole. In the earlier part of the decade, Sterling-Coop was a hotbed of outrageous casual racism and sexism. As the late ’60s gear up, things are not much better. Now the more disgusting remarks just tend to happen in hushed voices behind closed doors. Even Ginsberg’s joke in the elevator about Peggy masturbating on Valentine’s Day was way over the line, both because it was inappropriate and because it was horribly true. Picture it: Peggy pulling out a box from underneath the bed and putting on a record to mask the sound as she straps on the Relax-a-Cizor, only to notice that the cord is frayed beyond repair. In the corner Peggy’s unseen cat chews guiltily on electrical wire.

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As a boss, Peggy is caught in a number of binds. She can’t participate in the creatives’ camaraderie, but she also can’t complain about being the butt of the joke. She hated Don when he was in charge. Now that she’s in charge she just hates herself. She’s miserable at work and at home. Whatever personal satisfaction she used to find through her work has been overwhelmed by acrid self-pity. She has nobody to share her victories with or complain about her office problems to. She’s at work so often that it’s really the only place she has the opportunity to meet men, but the guys she works with are wifed up, way too old, or still actively playing the field. Stan may be Peggy’s de facto office husband currently, but he still has weekend sex partners. Platonic emotional intimacy with coworker friends is all well and good, but Peggy needs to get boned, properly. Whenever Peggy comes close to feeling like just one of the guys she gets reminded unkindly that, no, she isn’t. Peggy already knows that she desperately needs to get laid; she doesn’t need everyone in the office telling her so. Can’t she hire a hot dude to man her desk?

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Everywhere at SC&P women are working double shifts. Joan has two jobs, Dawn covers two desks, Peggy is tasked with playing Don Draper from behind her desk while struggling to keep her own neurotic Dick Whitman inside. She doesn’t do a very good job with that, but it’s easy to see why. Peggy needs a wife. She needs what every working person needs; a helpmate to cook dinner, pack lunch, do the laundry, and make the bed, because she doesn’t have time to do any of that shit even if she wanted to. The dirty dishes piling up in Peggy’s sink are not the problem, they’re a symptom. Sure, a lot of these duties could be fulfilled by hiring a maid, but probably the last thing Peggy should do is get involved with another female subordinate from a lower economic class. She is not exactly acing the dynamic with Shirley at the office. She liked proving herself to authority figures more than she enjoys being one herself. And how can she possibly pretend to feel powerful at work when Ted Chaough has reduced her to a heartbroken idiot inside?

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And so somehow the once bright-eyed Peggy Olson has become a nightmare person who yells at others when they are embarrassed, drinks too much, and takes wasted afternoon naps. In short, she has become Don. But where Don’s power was a pussy magnet, Peggy the boss lady seemingly repels everyone, male and female. She’s so concerned about not seeming weak that she’s obnoxiously strong, feeling sadness and expressing it as anger instead of tears. Meanwhile, according to the shareholders, Don is now referred to as a woman, specifically derided with comparison to a pestering, hysterical ex-wife. He cried at a meeting about chocolate, and the company decided to go another way. There’s no crying in baseball, and it’s all baseball. Don spends his workless days bored and lounging around the house like Betty used to do. He is trying to hold off on booze, so he’s been overdoing it with TV and junk food. He combats loneliness by leaving the TV on all the time, keeping himself surrounded with parasocial friends. (Remember when Don used to read books?) Maybe a 2014 Don would watch prestige television dramas, but he’d probably also watch a lot of dreck, just like the rest of us. Don likes sitcoms, whose long-form immersive world and character construction can be just as deep and detailed as a good drama’s.

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There were a lot of sitcomlike plot twists in “A Day’s Work”; Sally got stuck in the city, Peggy mistook Shirley’s flowers for hers, Joan had to clean up all the messes as always. Unlike Peggy, Joan plasters over her hatred of the workplace with smiles. This always worked out great for Joan’s male superiors, who remained ignorant of their awfulness, and not so great for Joan, who suffered in silence. The dudes in charge prefer Joan’s maternal approach because they don’t see how much emotional labor it actually requires. They think it comes naturally somehow. Peggy’s bluntness comes out of honesty — she could not get away with lying comfortingly like Joan does. Peggy sometimes seems to lack empathy, which may have even helped her climb the ranks so quickly. She can actually be very warm in the right setting, but nothing has been the right setting lately. She doesn’t want to be a bitch. She just wants more choices, to not feel boxed in, to be able to let the sunshine in instead of being frozen on an ice-cold balcony. Let it go, Peggy.

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Cross-coast miscommunication is a reality no matter how cutting-edge the technology. Being virtually broadcast somewhere simply isn’t the same as being there. Often even being there doesn’t stem the flow of misunderstandings.

If the situation with Peggy and the dozen roses was out of a sitcom, it was a socially progressive Norman Lear sitcom. Shirley is afraid to call Peggy out because it would be putting her job on the line, and Peggy is more likely to take out her rage and humiliation on Shirley than anyone else because Shirley has no leverage in the situation. Peggy is put upon by the so-far one-dimensionally evil Lou Avery, but since she cannot blow up at Lou she blows up at Shirley. Which especially sucks, because Peggy should know better, having once had Shirley’s job. She is angry that her worth as a woman depends on getting flowers from men on a socially mandated holiday, and embarrassed that she knows all this and still wants the flowers anyway. Peggy has always had a frumpy fashion sense, but at this point she’s seen as so desexualized by everyone that she seemingly has started to believe it herself. What she needs is a long weekend at one of Roger Sterling’s acid orgy parties, or a quickie with a flight attendant on a trip to California.

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Dawn and Shirley both receive more character development in this episode than they have to date. Dawn gets Joan’s old office, and with it comes a desk and possibly a plotline. Peggy’s meltdown, coupled with Jim Cutler’s decision to rib Roger by moving Joan upstairs, ended up being all to Dawn’s benefit. Maybe things don’t happen for the right reasons, but does it really matter as long as they finally do happen? Dawn and Shirley bookend their break-room gossip sesh by calling each other by the other’s name, a nod to all the times they must stifle the urge to correct their white male superiors when they mix up the nomenclature of two easily differentiated black women in the office. Just as the men are clueless about all the times the female employees secretly grit their teeth, the white people at SC&P are totally obtuse about all the times when Shirley and Dawn roll their eyes at the office’s racism.

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All teenagers have a face they make when their parents are being huge losers, but perhaps none are so masterful as Sally Draper’s. Having set the bar for her disgust with Don pretty high last season by witnessing her dad’s extramarital coitus interruptus, Sally has to figure that it can only get better from here. Right? Anyone who has a dad and has ever driven anywhere has had the experience of fighting in the car, trapped together on the road to somewhere until you make up, with the optional score of The Turtles’ “Elenore.” Sure, Don wasn’t at the office and he’s been lying about going to work every day, but at least he’s not drinking, right? She could have found him passed out in a pile of vomit, or plowing into a hooker he’d paid to dress up like Abigail Whitman, or dangling baby Gene over the side of the building. Sally is 14, but a New York 14, so she’s jaded and sophisticated way beyond her years. She’s got reasons! She’s seen enough adults behaving badly to know the whole system is broken. Her models for heterosexual relationships between men and women are terrible. The best one is Betty and Henry Francis, and he treats Betty like a child.

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Betty, like Peggy’s cat, remains offscreen this season, but is referred to as if she indeed exists somewhere in the world, like Maris on Frasier. When Sally reads Don to filth on their road trip, he initially reacts defensively by comparing her to her mother, but Betty could never tell Don what his problem is as eloquently as Sally does. That is because she is Don’s daughter, and she has inherited his ability to dominate a conversational table when need be. She knows how to frame an example so there’s no wiggling out of it. Where Don saw a seductive, earthy woman in Sylvia Rosen, Sally saw only a weird middle-aged woman in daytime robes who lived downstairs and smelled like meatballs and Aquanet. Every time Don floats up a new lame defense mechanism, Sally immediately and expertly shoots it down. Maybe she’ll be a lawyer when she grows up.

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Sally’s contempt for everything, like Peggy’s bad attitude, is merely a shield against getting hurt. It’s not so different from the old-school masculinity that Don Draper embodied and Dick Whitman disproved; it’s a front. If you prevent people from ever really knowing you, you can take away the risk that they will damage you permanently. But that’s the whole thrill, as Pete’s blonde trixie reminds him. Without attachment, there is nothing at risk whatsoever. And no matter how rational the waking brain may be, the unconscious lizard brain wants whatever it wants. That’s why Peggy can’t get over Ted, no matter how much she knows their relationship is impossible. It’s why Pete was ready to fuck his new girlfriend right there on the grody carpeted floor of that show house. And it’s why Don lusts after difficult, unavailable women his own age but sometimes can’t get it up for the hot young babes he’s married to. What’s with the persistence of self-destructive traits through millennia of human evolution? Might as well ask why there are cockroaches.

Filed Under: Mad Men, TV, Matthew Weiner, Recaps

Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ mollylambert