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The Sun and the Wind: Introspection and Clarity on Mad Men

It's fitting that when Don Draper attempts to organize his thoughts, he does so with a pad and pen rather than Roger's confessional cassettes.

Don's writing--reminding him of those 250-word essays he wrote before dropping out of high school-- is part of a concerted effort to gain some clarity in his life, to unburden his mind even as the last vestiges of his true self slip away in the wake of Anna's death. While Don might look the part of the carefree summer man, the internal struggle raging within him is anything but placid.

Throughout this week's episode of Mad Men ("The Summer Man"), written by Lisa Albert, Janet Leahy, and Matthew Weiner and directed by Phil Abraham, we see glimpses of a very different Don Draper, one painfully aware of his own mortality--hence the look of horror at his actual physical condition while swimming--and of the coping mechanisms in his life. He sees for the first time perhaps the way that alcohol affects him, the way that it swimmingly fills his brain, pushing his fears and concerns to the back of his brain. He's traded clarity for false comfort.

It's interesting then that Don would choose this time to back away from the booze, to attempt to find himself on the page, to unjumble his thoughts into something lucid and cogent, and to attempt to change, something he's able to do at the end of the episode: to choose to delay gratification in a way that the old Don Draper never would have.

After all, as we learned in this week's episode with a hat tip to Aesop, the sun's approach is always preferable to that of the wind.

It's interesting that Aesop's fable should loom so large over this installment, which juxtaposed Don's voice-over narrative as he wrote down the facts of his current situation against two other storylines: one involving Joan and Peggy at the office, each enmeshed in a power struggle, and that of Betty and Henry in Don's old house. In all three circumstances, the choice between brute force and gentle supplication--between the wind and the sun's differing methods of achieving the same ends--are utilized to great effect.

In the fable, the sun and the wind enter a competition to see who can make a man remove his coat first. While the wind attempts a direct assault on him, the man simply draws his coat tighter, whereas the sun simply slowly warms him and the man easily removes his jacket. According to Faye, "kindness, gentleness, and persuasion win where force fails."

It's a method that Don seemingly embraces in his apparent conquest of Faye Miller, in fact. Despite the fact that she has turned down Don's advances in the past, his knowledge that she has broken up with her boyfriend result in a different tack, as she agrees to an actual date rather than the after-work dinner that Don proposes. After that dinner, she's keen to go back to his place but Don chooses to simply drop her off at her place instead. He's not only happy sleeping alone, his whole body filling the bed like a "skydiver," but he's also grown up a bit since his fallout with Betty. His dalliances might have been suitable for a twenty-something but Don isn't as young as he used to be, the generation gap between him and Bethany Van Nuys a vast chasm that's growing by the day. By gently rejecting Faye, he embraces the gentleness of the sun, whereas the old Don would have kicked up a fierce gust. (It takes Faye by surprise, in fact. She didn't expect him to be quite so gentlemanly in that moment.)

Don's efforts--to pull back on his work-hours drinking, to take things slow with Faye (even as he receives some, er, pleasuring from Bethany in a different cab ride)--point towards a path of redemption for this reluctant bachelor. He's discovering his own simple pleasures--the cool spots of the bed he can hold onto when he's sleeping alone--as well as the transformative powers of altered thinking. By attempting to find clarity, he's finding his new self. His act of writing, of self-discovery, are paving stones on this new path. He can make due with what he has, rather than mourning what he's lost. He can choose not to follow in the footsteps of Roger Sterling but forge his own journey, reclaim his wounded pride, and put the past behind him.

He does just what when he travels to Ossining to pick up the last of his things from the house he once shared with his family. When he arrives, he finds the cardboard boxes--labelled simply "Draper"--dented on the sidewalk, placed there as one might refuse on garbage day. As he pulls up, he sees Henry mowing the lawn of his old home, his place usurped by another man, his castle now no longer his. The old Don may have drowned his sorrows in a deep glass. Instead, Don packs up the boxes in the trunk of the car and then puts them into a dumpster. He doesn't tear up over the crated-up possessions, the symbols of his old life. Rather, he accepts them and then puts them behind him, consigning them to the rubbish bin of yesterday. They don't define him. Not anymore.

But it's Betty who finds that it's more difficult to let go than she imagined. Henry maintains that he has a cordial--if strained--relationship with his ex-wife but insists that he doesn't hate her, whereas Betty's vociferous hatred of Don reveals that not only is he still taking up room in their house but in her heart as well. She can't move on and a chance encounter at a Manhattan restaurant (where Don is on a date with Bethany) stirs up a host of unresolved feelings and animosities towards her ex-husband.

It's interesting that Betty's looks would be so perfectly captured within Anna Camp's Bethany: the scene plays up the similarities in their looks, their hair, their blue dresses, and earrings. What Betty sees reflected back at her is a looking-glass into yesterday, a painful reminder of what was and what will never again be. She sees Don's happiness and it stabs her precisely because she herself will never be happy. She traded one marriage for another, one domineering husband for a different one, one unhappy situation for yet another. She and Henry might have "everything"--the house, the kids, the marriage, but Don has something that she will never achieve: freedom.

Betty downs a drink and then another, she runs off to the ladies' room, but she can't escape what she feels. Her scene--and the subsequent pouting in the car--demonstrate her own tempestuous nature, the wind in her very veins. But she changes her tune later, thanks to an offhand comment made by Francine (the always welcome Anne Dudek, here in her first Season Four appearance), who says that Don has nothing to lose and she has everything.

If she causes a scene at Gene's birthday party, she risks looking foolish in front of her friends and further upsetting Henry after she "misbehaved" at that dinner. She can choose to be the wind or take the path of the sun: choose to be welcoming, kind, and persuasive. Choose sunniness over brusqueness. Which she does spectacularly, welcoming Don and finally allowing him time with Gene. Even as Henry visibly prickles, Betty tells him that it's alright. "We have everything," she whispers. Even as she says it, she looks at Don and sees just what has been lost.

While it's perhaps a thawing of the iciness between Don and Betty, it doesn't mean that things will be coming up roses between them. However, it does point to each of them taking a different approach with the other and perhaps finally coming to terms with the new circumstances they're in right now. Perhaps by being gentle with each other, they can turn that gentleness on themselves...

Back at the office, Joan discovered unpleasantly just how little power she truly has at Sterling Draper Cooper Pryce, as she saw herself for the first time as a relic from another time, yet another symbol of that gap between Roger's generation and those of the immature, over-confident young men of Joey's.

Spinning out of last week's confrontation between Joan and the creative team over the messiness of their office, Joan was not only the butt of several jokes this week but of a pornographic drawing of her and Lane, one that capitalized on her seductive nature and her (perceived) menial job. Whereas she ran Sterling Cooper with an iron fist, she doesn't have the respect here that she once did. Hell, her office is used as a thoroughfare between two points, rather than as a place of sanctuary. Her kingdom is so small that the two doors of her office are less defendable battlements than they are a symbolic revolving door.

And it's true that Joan's loss of power isn't limited to her career. Her marriage is hanging on by a thread as Greg prepares to leave for basic training, after which he'll be shipped out to Vietnam... and, as Joan knows in her heart of hearts, likely won't return to her. Her remarks to the boys of creative that they too will likely be sent over there and die in the jungles is scathing but only too true. It cuts to her heart of her own fears that Greg is being sent to die.

Even as she tearfully prepares to send him to his fate, she discovers just how truly alone she really is. She has no one to talk to, no one to confide in, and certainly no one who understands her. Certainly not Peggy Olsen, who wrongly believes that she can ingratiate herself to Joan by firing Joey.

Don empowers Peggy to fire Joey and Peggy offers Joey a lifeline: he can apologize to Joan but he refuses. He rails against her because he sees in Joan a mirror image of his own power, the pen around her neck, flaunting her sexuality to get her way, a joke of an office peon who believes she has power because she makes men stare. (He even goes so far as to piercingly call her "mom," a reflection of last week's episode where Joan said to the boys that she wasn't their mother.)

Peggy's firing of Joey reinforces her role of authority within the agency, even as she witheringly tells Joey that Don doesn't even know who he is, putting him down even as she raises herself up. But in doing so, she chose to make herself the "cold bitch" in the equation, the wet blanket who ruined the boys' fun and lacked a sense of humor about the "joke" at hand. Furthermore, in doing so, she carved out a role of power at the expense of Joan herself. While unintentional, Peggy wresting control of the Joey situation revealed Joan to even less capable of defending herself. She was reduced to little more than a secretary, wounded at the hands of the cruel boys who had to have someone else bail her out and save her.

Joan wanted to be less outwardly brutal. She would have preferred to handle it her own way, to apply persuasion (the sun, again) and get Joey kicked off the Sugarberry account rather than blow in, guns blazing. It's the choice between Aesop's feuding natures, but it's also a sign of the times. Joan isn't as young as she used to be; could it be that Joey saw her usefulness in the same way that Don sees Miss Blankenship's? That both have outlived their day in the sun?

As the elevator opens and Peggy is left agape, the sad truth about the two roles that women in 1960s workplaces could take is made all the more apparent. Peggy might have willingly taken on the role of "humorless bitch," but she ripped Joan down from whatever level of power she had made for herself, reducing her to the role of "meaningless secretary," a woman unable to fight her own fights. Someone in need of rescuing.

In the end, perhaps progress is about what's gained as much as what's lost. While Don may have set foot on the road to redemption, the times are being less kind to Joan Harris, for whom I imagine heartbreak is only just beginning. The summer might have arrived for Don Draper, the scent of chlorine on his skin, but one can only hope that, even in the cold months to come, he can hold onto his invincible summer.

Next week on Mad Men ("The Beautiful Girls"), Peggy receives a romantic gift that could compromise her career.

Comments

Anelise said…
At first, I wasn't too sure about the use of narration in this episode (especially as Mad Men is so brilliant at using the things left unsaid) but I did totally believe that Don, at this point in his life, would turn to the pen and page to help make sense of things.

The exercise, the date with Faye, the throwing away of boxes from his old life all point to a new Don (dawn?) and I'm looking forward to seeing just what lies ahead for this new incarnation of Don Draper.
Sarah T. said…
Did others find the lack of music as the credits rolled symbolic? That represented Don's clean state to me and I was very moved by the ending of this week's episode.

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