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Afterimage: Changing the Conversation on Mad Men

"I thought you didn't go in for those kinds of shenanigans." - Peggy Olsen

It's fitting in a way that with Don Draper's life balancing precipitously on a knife's edge, that he would cross paths with a figure from his past whose own life has turned out to be even more tragically dead-ended than one could imagine. Offering a looking glass in which to view his own life's decisions, Don sees a fate avoided, a life worse than his own, an addiction that's unable to be sated, burning through the body of someone he once loved.

On this week's episode of Mad Men ("Blowing Smoke"), written by Andre Jacquemetton and Maria Jacquemetton and directed by John Slattery, things went from bad to worse for the partners at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, as they were faced with some tough decisions to make. Would they begin to lay off staff? Could they round up enough cash to guarantee a bank loan to keep them afloat for another six months? Would they be able to snare any new business with news of Lucky Strike out in the wind?

For the first time since the fourth season began, it seemed as though everything Don had worked so hard to built was slipping through his fingers like grains of sand. The advertising firm that had his name on the wall was little more than a sinking sandcastle, further washed away by every phone call, every bill, and every rejection.

Don had once advised Peggy to "change the conversation" when they didn't like the way the talk was going. It's advice that he takes to heart, making a decision that will either save the agency or sink it for good.

What does Don see when he closes his eyes? What is the afterimage that's burned on his retinas?

I wondered that it wasn't just a little too coincidental that Don would run into ex-lover Midge Daniels (Rosemary DeWitt) in the lobby of the building rather than in Greenwich Village, where they both live. Her jovial reconnection, the casual way she invited him over and informed him that she was married should have been a flashing red right to Don Draper, but he went along with her plans, despite his misgivings.

Arriving at her cramped studio apartment, he meets her husband, who immediately cops to the fact that Midge tracked Don down. Not to sell him her artwork, her new take on an afterimage but rather to use him for some quick cash to score their next fix of heroin. Now a hopeless addict, Midge is willing to sell Don anything--her painting, her body--for some cash. It's tragic and heartbreaking to see how far this bohemian painter had fallen, selling out her craft for the lure of heroin, selling out her time with Don for $120 in crisp bills.

He takes the painting anyway, though it's beside the point. I couldn't help but feel that if he hadn't given her the cash--proffered after she refused his check for $300--that she would start to cry and/or scream, to beg, to plead, to shake Don until he caved. Depressing, really.

Such desperation and was also wafting in good measure from the offices of SCDP this week as Don met with a Heinz executive--a meeting set up by Faye after she breached the Chinese Wall--and was met with still more rejection. Not a "no," per se, but rather a "not now," which is even worse when the agency needs all the new business it can get its hands on.

It's a dire situation that's compounded when Philip Morris uses a scheduled meeting with the agency to leverage a better deal at Leo Burnett, using the dying body of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as little more than a springboard. But Don isn't one to take defeat lightly. He's been an opportunist for his entire adult life. One doesn't steal another man's identity if they're prone to navel-gazing and altruism. Don is more than willing to get his hands dirty to protect his own self-interests. After all, the agency wouldn't be in such a dangerous position if he hadn't killed the $4 million NAA deal that Pete brought in.

While Peggy suggests that they change the name of the agency and start over (which is, let's not forget, what he did personally once before), he can't stand by and watch the agency he built crumble into dust. Instead, he opts to take Peggy's words ("If you don't like what they're saying about you, change the conversation.") and transform it into something daring and dangerous. He opts, once again, to change the conversation.

Don's decision to sit down and write "Why I'm Quitting Tobacco," was a brilliant payoff to the journal-writing of the past few weeks (a storyline that some viewers found out of character), an exploration of how to turn around any situation. Rather than admit defeat in light of Lucky Strike and Philip Morris' decisions, Don creates a scenario in which SDCP doesn't want to be in the business of supporting Big Tobacco on ethical grounds.

The juxtaposition of nicotine's addictive nature is nicely juxtaposed with Midge's own addiction, her afterimage painting ("Number Four") the creative ember that propels Don to write his treatise... and send it into The New York Times, where it runs the following morning as a full-page ad. It's a masterstroke of changing the conversation, of removing the shame from the agency and transforming it instead to a strong ethical stand.

Which isn't how the other partners see it, of course. Cooper immediately quits the agency while Pete accuses Don of throwing a tantrum. But what they don't see is that Don may have, with those few sentences, saved the agency entirely. Rather than be perceived as a sinking ship, the agency can instead position itself as a high-minded organization that doesn't need tobacco's business to succeed. It's changing the rules of the game itself.

Don claims that he can finally sleep at night without Lucky Strike on the books. While he's smoking a cigarette the following day, it's the message contained within that sentiment that's important. Even with the agency struggling to stay alive, Don's conscience is at ease. They're no longer pushing an addictive product on the public. Lucky Strike may have paid for his home and the agency's plush midtown offices, but they were built on the back of all-consuming addiction. Which doesn't make them much better than Midge's dealer or her no-good husband.

The art is inconsequential. For all the campaigns and the imagery and creative, they're selling their bodies rather than artwork, just as Midge had done earlier in the episode. Her painting was beside the point, whether Don chose to take it or not. A way of saving face with Don when all she really wanted was her next fix. The addict's closed eyes produce only one afterimage: the drug itself.

Don's "tantrum" at least leads to a call for a campaign on behalf of the American Cancer Society. It might not, as Roger says, put food on the table, but it's a prestigious PSA and will allow them to get new work on the air. It will allow them to at least maintain the illusion that they are moving forward rather than backwards. And who knows what it could lead to? They've successfully changed the conversation, after all.

Which is why I loved the final scene between Peggy and Don in his office as he asks her who she can live without, as they have no choice but to make staff reductions, all too familiar to viewers in the current economy. Relieved that her job is safe, Peggy is asked what she thought of the letter. Her response? A pitch-perfect reply that serves as a call-back to the season premiere's Sugarberry Ham caper: "I thought you didn't go in for those kinds of shenanigans."

Peggy, meanwhile, seemed genuinely touched by Faye Miller, inviting her to have a drink with her and reminding her that she wasn't being phony about it. Faye remains a touchstone for Peggy, an idealized image of herself, a successful woman who hasn't had to play games to get to where she is. "Is that what it looks like?" Faye asks her. Peggy's vision of Faye isn't quite truthful, it's an afterimage rather than the thing itself, an effort to place the trailblazer on a pedestal rather than see her for who she is.

I'm glad that Don came forward with Pete's $50,000 share. I had a feeling that he would, given his complicity in the chain of events that led them here and the fact that Pete has had to make sacrifices in order to conceal Don's secret. That said, Pete still seemed surprised that Don had done so, his thanks and Don's acknowledgment restricted to a series of nods exchanged between the two men.

But Mad Men has always been about what's not said rather than what is. Look at the conversation between Betty and Dr. Edna, in which the two dance around the issue that Betty needs to be in therapy. Given her past experiences with psychiatrists, Betty's refusal to seek help makes sense, even as she is in denial about the true purpose of her meetings with Dr. Edna, held in the guise of tracking Sally's progress.

Betty goes so far as to deny Sally's change of behavior in order to attempt to continue unburdening herself to Edna, who finally admits that she's "a child psychologist," even as she reluctantly agrees to continue her meetings with Betty. Betty can't free herself from that dollhouse, even as Sally continues to make leaps and bounds. She's realized that her anger is justified but that she can't provoke her mother, who is suffering from other "stresses" and that she lashes out at Sally because she can't cope. Over a game of Go Fish, Edna tells Sally that she's proud of her for the vast progress she's made, progress that includes an effort to be civil to her mother, to attempt to spend time with her and Henry and get her mother to see her as more than a child.

Which is Betty's fear as well. Her effort to infantilize Sally (and by extension herself, perhaps) means that she can keep her in that mythical dollhouse for longer. Sally's "relationship" with Glen disturbs that delicate balance. She can't be a child if she's a woman. She can't be safe if she's exploring with Glen (despite the fact that Sally won't even drink his offered "backwash," much less do anything more with her off-kilter neighbor). She can't be in control if Sally is setting her own rules.

But Betty seeing Glen and Sally together spark a new twist: rather than attempt to hold onto the house she once shared with Don, Betty is now only to willing to be rid of it, to escape the low element that's taking over their idyllic neighborhood, to take Sally far away from Glen, whose oddness Betty has glimpsed first-hand.

Is Betty growing up and taking responsibility? Or is the move just another punishment, another stress, another chip at the perfect veneer? Is she trying to protect Sally or herself?

As for Sally, who breaks my heart each and every episode this season, she throws herself on her bed, clutching the lanyard that Glen had given her, and sobbing into her pillow. Her keening sadness, her silent fury, and her innate fears are all beautifully manifested in that one scene, a little girl attempting to hold on for just a little longer to what she has.

Change is coming, for all of these characters, and there's nothing that any of them can do to halt the inevitable. Even if they all close their eyes.

Next week on the season finale of Mad Men ("Tomorrowland"), opportunity arises for Don and Peggy.

Comments

Penny Lane said…
Great payoffs with the journal (I love how he ripped out the previous pages) and with Peggy comparing Don's letter to the Honeybaked Ham "shenanigan" in the season's first episode. Brilliant.

I wonder if Cooper is really gone for good and whether we'll see him around next season.
Reaux said…
Next week's episode is "Tomorrowland"? Could that mean that the rumors about Disney saving SCDP are true?
Anonymous said…
since lucky strike is out of the picture, i keep waiting for them to bring back sal!
Anonymous said…
Such interesting food for thought...and I got a big kick out of Don's comment to Peggy that they're, "Creative, the least important most important..." component of the agency. I had to think about that a bit!

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