‘Mad Men’ Week 4: Westward NoJustina Mintz/AMC
“I had money, and I had none / I had money, and I had none / But I never been so broke / That I couldn’t leave town.”
—“The Changeling,” The Doors (recorded 1970)
For a sec there, it seemed like Mad Men really would end with Don Draper jumping out of a skyscraper window … and cannonballing right into a pool in sunny Los Angeles, California!1 But Don’s attempt to manifest Sterling Cooper’s destiny westward was headed off at the pass by Jim Hobart. After a very serious rally by the home team, McCann head honcho Hobart deflated its (and our) high hopes in an instant. I must be as dumb as Stan, because for a moment I believed the move west was what the show had been advancing toward all along. Don has always flirted with living out west, dating back to his quest to find Anna Draper, while keeping one foot firmly in New York. It’s part of his inability to commit. He is forever trapped between coasts and identities. How do you describe California in a way that doesn’t provoke jealousy? It’s impossible, Don.
Sterling Cooper West — like Rachel Menken or Ken Cosgrove’s fiction writing career — was another football that Matthew Weiner’s Lucy pulled away, mid-kick, from the viewing public’s Charlie Brown. But unlike Pete, I really do believe that “whatever happens is supposed to happen,” at least when it comes to TV shows. Do I think Weiner has something else up his sleeve for the last couple of episodes? Sure I do. Do I want to guess about what it is? No! What’s the fun in that? I trust Weiner to drive. Ted Chaough is the only person with a positive outlook on The Last Merger, and he’ll be the first to admit it’s because he checked out creatively long ago and now cares more about checking into the honeymoon-period hotel with his girlfriend. (Ummm, Peggy is still single, Ted!) Everyone else is freaked out for good reason. This is the end, beautiful friend.
This week Mad Men finally gave the people what they want: group scenes with the major principals. All the sentimental first-season pairings had scenes: Peggy and Pete, Joan and Roger, Don and a drink. The episode was about power exchanges, how new elements disturb established dynamics. Everyone dealt with power struggles, the problem of who has what George Costanza calls “hand” (as in, “the upper”) in a situation. Don wrote what I can only imagine was a brilliant and ridiculous speech about Sterling Cooper West and the California dream that we will never get to hear, but which I will spend the rest of my life trying to construct in my imagination. Sample key terms: orange groves, Mark Twain, the smell of jasmine on a warm summer night, dry riverbeds filled with gold bricks, a beautiful solitary palm tree standing against a perfect blue sky.
The Campbell name may have a bad reputation, but the Campbells shone, as Trudy returned and stoked Pete’s anger toward a prep school that dared to put Tammy on a waiting list. United in their entitlement and inherited privilege, Pete and Trudy rekindle something. They always made a great team. Of course the school didn’t outlaw nepotism, donations, and legacy admissions — it turns out this guy MacDonald just has a personal beef with the Campbells. Like, all the Campbells throughout history. Don and Roger reference Shakespeare, but Pete gets the most Shakespearean line in Mad Men history: “THE KING ORDERED IT!”
MacDonald claims that Pete is descended from a long line of selfish cowards and rats dating back to the Massacre of Glencoe. Pete responds by sucker punching him in the face.2 While Pete and Trudy don’t touch lips, they end up on better terms than they’ve been on in years. They share a worldview — a belief in old-money systems. They believe that life is a path that begins with fancy, expensive prep schools, leads to Ivy League colleges, and ends in a position of status conferred by employment or marrying well. They continue to demand that things operate this way, even though their own coddled existences have made both of them miserable and frustrated.
Joan is still being romanced by Leisure Suit Larry when Roger, another tan old man, steps in to tango. She rebuffs his desire for her companionship — I doubt she even knows that he’s got Marie Calvet waiting at home, and that Marie will murder Joan if Joan touches Marie’s man. You saw Don’s face when Roger revealed his secret lover’s identity: That bitch cray. Joan also sharply rebuffs Pete’s need for maternal comfort over the agency going down, having noticed that Hobart didn’t address her in the meeting when he was handing out the big accounts. Even if they don’t screw her, she’s still screwed. It took her years to earn the respect of her colleagues at her firm, a struggle that had nothing to do with her intelligence and everything to do with how male coworkers treated her based on her beauty, body type, and femme presentation. She can’t bear starting from scratch again at McCann.
Peggy may have bonded with Julio the neighbor boy last year, but she’s still not too comfortable around kids. Stan senses that the sometimes-uptight Peggy is even more tense than usual, and he gives her the very good advice to treat the kids like little adults instead of tiny alien beings. Any Mad Men viewer knows why Peggy is weird about this, but Stan isn’t aware of the backstory, which is why his joking that she hates kids sets her off in a very real way. Peg, like Don, always initially thinks the cure for her personal anxieties is MORE WORK! This usually works temporarily but rarely pans out in the long run. Don and Peggy both live at the office for a reason: They hate going home to their empty apartments at night.
Don, alone again naturally, just wants someone with whom he can go toward the darkness rather than into the light. Remember when Christopher Moltisanti got with Julianna Skiff and they started smoking heroin together? That seems like Don’s idea of romance, except he’s more likely to climb into a bottle with someone like Dirty Diana. Don always mistakes oblivion for romance. Too bad Midge is almost definitely dead, having fallen victim to addictions even more ruinous than his own.
Suzie, the child actress’s mother — the Dina Lohan of 1970 — reappears on the scene to reclaim her lost moneymaker, and Peggy is livid. It’s not a coincidence that Suzie is 8, close to the age of Pete and Peggy’s love child. Peggy is irked by this openly bad mother; the sight preys on her Catholic guilt that she is a bad mother who abandoned a child. Stan tries to lighten things up but just pours salt into the wound with an offhanded remark about his virility. It invokes the original sin of Peggy’s life: that she is not a man. Peggy makes herself truly vulnerable to Stan, and I cried my face off during her monologue about giving up her child for adoption. Peggy doesn’t tell Stan that the baby’s father was Pete Campbell, presumably because Stan would start laughing sooooooooo hard. Peggy and Don both rarely get close to anyone, but when they do, boy, do they ever. Peggy and Stan never so much as kiss (although he implies he is single again). They end up doing something even more intimate: They hang out on the phone without talking.
Hobart tells the partners they’re “dying and going to advertising heaven,” but all they hear is the “dying” part. Hobart lingers on “Co-ca … Co-la” to make the tip of Don’s mind-tongue take four steps to trip out at the thought of working on Coke. The very sound “Coca-Cola” is so evocative that I went out and bought one immediately after the show, as I am programmed like a dog to want a thing when its name is said.3 To be fair, Don and Coke truly are a match made in advertising heaven. If anyone was ever qualified to rhapsodize about the American Dream in order to sell sugar water that tastes like carbonated robot sweat, it’s Don (Dick) Draper (Whitman), of the Horatio Alger life.
Having closed down the bar, Don attempts to hit up the dingy apartment where Diana lives. Diana has evacuated, and a young gay couple has moved in. “You want another drink?” Look, I’m not gonna lie: I was hoping Don might shrug and have the gay threesome. I may have yelled, “GO FOR IT, DON! IT’S THE SEVENTIES! TRY BEING BICOASTAL JUST ONCE!” at the TV, but who can say? Just remember, Don: When you think there’s nobody left in your life to call, you can always call Meredith. Shirley’s image of office busybody Meredith wearing a bell like a cat killed me. Somebody promote Shirley to copywriter immediately!
The episode ended with a Dean Martin song from 1954 called “Money Burns a Hole in My Pocket” — the pop string arrangement evoking a time before Mad Men takes place, the days when Don Draper’s Rat Pack persona was still being formed. Dean Martin was born in Ohio. He dropped out of high school and became a bootlegger, illegal croupier, and amateur boxer as a teenager. Martin “played drunk” in his public persona,4 but the whiskey he tippled onstage was apple juice. In real life, he supposedly always knew when to call it a night. “Dean Martin” was an Anglicized version of Dino Crocetti, his real name. During Season 1 of Mad Men, I was certain that Don Draper’s secret identity had to do with ethnic assimilation — that he was really Dino Draperioni or Donald Draperstein. I was wrong, but not that wrong. Dick Whitman was poor and white, and Don Draper is rich and white. Dick was born with a lot of appearance-related privileges, and he developed intelligence and humor to grease the wheels, but he is nobody important’s son. Don’s underlying fear is always about status — that he will be kicked back down the ladder as quickly as he ascended it.
Peggy and Don share an obsession with work, an optimistic view that art can change the world, and a populist attitude that advertisements can be art. They also share a background: They both came from nothing. Everything they built in their lives, they made for themselves. They support populism because they weren’t born elite, but they also support capitalism because, against all odds, they have become elites, and the only way to achieve social status you’re not born with is to buy it. Their shared heritage of self-invention is one of the show’s lodestars hanging over the seasons, just like Roger’s casual racism or Ken’s and Pete’s competitiveness.
Name changes are symbolic of something fundamental about the American Dream — the ability to reinvent yourself. They deviate from the American aristocracy, where a name’s worth is often related to its age. The Campbells, MacDonalds, and Sterlings are dynasties. “What’s in a name?” — for real, though. America isn’t as meritocratic as it advertises itself as being; in a lot of ways, it’s just like the Old World. Roger envies Don’s bottomless ambition, and Don is jealous that Roger never had to develop any real ambitions beyond “Don’t spend all of your money” and “Have sex with every beautiful woman you meet.” Maybe Roger’s life is empty, but it’s a comfortable emptiness, padded with money and French décolletage. Don has nothing if he doesn’t have his soapbox at the office — and it was pulled out from under him. Hobart talked over Don’s pitch in the boardroom, and the assembled company talked over his final announcement.
California is often a final stop and last resort for people who desperately need to reinvent themselves (again). I always thought Don might end up there, with his far-out ideas and (sometimes) laid-back sense of humor, but the prospect now seems dimmer than ever. I’m not sure he’d even like Los Angeles. He didn’t seem to like it so much the last time he was out there. He’d look pretty silly growing his sideburns out, and anyone who drinks as much as Don does shouldn’t drive. But that doesn’t mean he needs to stay in New York. Don needs to go somewhere they appreciate aging legends, where the modern pyramids are still being built, where Dean Martin will begin a residency in 1973. A place you can still smoke cigarettes indoors, even today. He should move to Las Vegas.