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Soft Secrets and Hard Truths: The Crumbling of the Chinese Wall on Mad Men

"Why is it whenever anything good happens, something bad has to happen?" - Peggy Olson

Peggy's question, coming on the heels of news that Lucky Strike has pulled out of the agency, might as well be about the series itself, which does take a particular joy in tormenting its characters just as they've achieved some semblance of happiness. It's a question about causality that's deeply rooted in her Catholic upbringing. Because Peggy is happy in her personal life, after tumbling into bed with Abe, does it mean that her work life has to fall into chaos as a result?

This week's stunning episode of Mad Men ("Chinese Wall"), written by Erin Levy and directed by Phil Abraham, seeks to examine the fallout from the Lucky Strike bombshell, a major blast that could signal the end for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce just as the fledgling agency finally got its wings. That the news would be delivered by an acquaintance of Ken Cosgrove rather than by Roger Sterling himself points to just how deep a state of denial Roger is in at the moment, unable to admit that he failed to keep his sole client happy and jeopardized the entire agency.

But, in keeping with Peggy Olson's pondering about the inner workings of the universe at large, all things--even our 1960s ad agency microcosm--tend towards entropy. That inexorable end looms large here as Don Draper attempts to rally the troops and send them into battle but there are certain wars, as everyone learned at the time, that can't be won.

The whiff of desperation swirling around the halls of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce might signal the beginning of the end for this experiment. Don's decision last week--to kill the NAA account lest the truth about his identity be found out--have startling repercussions here in the light of the news that Lucky Strike, the agency's largest client is consolidating its brands over at BBDO. David, after all, can't always slay Goliath and the advertising industry is likely littered with the corpses of other independent, boutique agencies that weren't able to rise to the top.

The agency's dire straits and its potential death is neatly juxtaposed with the birth of Pete and Trudy's baby, a daughter for Pete, a legitimate child to replace the one he bore with Peggy. Life goes on, the cycle keeps on turning. Even in death, there's life.

Which might be why, though he chafes at the suggestion, that Pete might consider jumping ship and heading to CGC as his father-in-law Tom pushes him to do. Don's outburst at Pete at the emergency agency meeting shows that there are definitely sore spots there, particularly as the one thing holding Pete back is that he's a partner at SCDP, has a major ownership stake. But Ted Chaough is playing hard ball. He knows that he's got Don over a barrel and, while his efforts might be to "hobble" Don as Pete suggests, he's making serious overtures to Pete Campbell, offers that include a full partnership and his name on the door.

Will Pete's ambition win out over loyalty? That's the real question here. And with Pete go the accounts that he brought into the agency in the first place. While everyone is looking to Roger to fix the situation with Lee Garner Jr. and to Don to guide them somehow, it's Pete who actually wields the power to save them or sink them. What's terrifying is that no one seems aware of how much his decision could ultimately cost them.

The atmosphere at the agency is thick with concern. Is it, as Stan believes, the last days of Rome? Are people clinging to anything in these desperate times? Peggy's relationship with Abe is anything but desperate, a chance to see Peggy carefree and happy, the salt water in her wavy hair a reminder of just how young she is, the opening scene with its clowns-in-a-tiny-car scene a portrait of a very different America than the one at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, a drug-fueled youthquake about to erupt. Here, Peggy isn't a powerful copywriter but rather another girl at the beach and, while she chafes against getting on Abe's lap in the car, his gentle brushing of sand off her arm positions her in a very different role than we've seen Peggy in before: confident, in control, in touch with her sexuality.

Stan's attempt to seduce Peggy, however, remind her of how easily she can be put in her place. Turning him down again, Peggy is allowed to go to a hugely critical Playtex pitch with red lipstick smeared all over her teeth. An opportunity to humiliate her in front of the clients. Fortunately, the client in question seems sensitive to her plight and attempts to gently inform her about her mishap (which Peggy comically misreads)... and the account isn't lost due to Stan's minor revenge plot. (In fact, Peggy's pitch about softness and sensuality wins them the approval of the Playtex executives.)

Roger, meanwhile, engaged in some kabuki theater in an effort to save face with the rest of the SCDP partners, faking a call to Lee Garner, Jr. in which he railed at the Lucky Strike owner for blindsiding him with this news... and then went so far as to fake a trip down to Raleigh in an effort to convince Lee to change his mind.

While Roger's scheming was shocking, it was also utterly depressing, the lengths that this man will go through to save face, the vanity that is shattered when his promised thirty days fail to bear fruit. The lengths he goes to, the shadow puppets and sleight-of-hand, reveal a man at odds with himself, a man so deeply sunk into denial that he can't come clean to anyone about his failure.

Except, that is, to Joan Harris.

Throughout his life, Joan has remained emblematic of what's been missing from his life, the one thing he prized so dearly but couldn't leave his wife to embrace fully. The one who got away. The one, he thought, that he had gotten back again.

Joan's horror, upon learning that Roger knew about Lee and was calling her from a Manhattan hotel, was the falling of the scales from the eyes, the first time she saw with clarity again of what Roger truly was and what he would always be: a scared little man clinging to the last vestiges of his vanity and ego. In one fell swoop, he had not only endangered her marriage to Greg but also her job as well.

I'm not entirely sure what he expected Joan to do with the information, the equivalent of a smack across the face. It may have woken Joan out of her reverie and brought her back to reality, may have crumbled any semblance of a wall between them but it also broadened the distance between them to an insurmountable chasm.

When Cooper lashes out at Roger, telling him that Lucky Strike never took Roger seriously because he never took himself seriously, the same applies to Joan Harris' perception of Roger as well. He never took her seriously either. He claimed to love her but he left Mona not for Joan but for the silly Jane. His inscription to her in the first copy of his autobiography, "Sterling's Gold," is "to my loving wife." But nowhere does he indicate that he actually loves her in return. She might be proud of him but the same can't be said for Roger.

Despite the book's title, everything Roger touches doesn't turn to gold, after all, but to excrement.

Don, meanwhile, attempts to do whatever he can to save the agency, trying to placate their current clients and attend a funeral to drum up new business. But he's reduced to smashing his beloved Clio Award when Glo-Coat follows in Lucky Strike's footsteps and pulls their business. Everything Don has built has the potential to crumble around him.

Which might be why he demands that Faye break her "Chinese Wall" and share privileged information with him about her other clients, insisting that she help him save the agency. Faye is shocked that Don would ask her to break her moral code and betray her own ethics to save him. She would never ask him to do that for her. The two argue and Faye storms out of his office, a new complication to their relationship, considering that Don had just only recently told Faye about his real identity, a major breach in the shield around his heart.

But rather than work off his frustration, Don falls prey to his new assistant Megan's cunning. She fixes the Clio Award that he threw across the room and launches a campaign to win Don over, appealing to his vanity (teach me!), his male ego ("I just want you right now"), and his logic ("I'm not going to run out of her crying tomorrow"). While everyone may have looked at Megan as a posh mannequin, the former receptionist not only has brains but ambition and drive. She doesn't just want to be Peggy Olson, she wants to be Don Draper. She's educated (she studied literature) and is an artist. She wants it all. (As opposed to Allison, she doesn't appear to be after Don's heart, just his ability to advance her career.)

And, though he knows that he shouldn't (especially after everything that happened with Allison), Don does fall on the couch with Megan. Everyone one of his senses is screaming at him to stop but he can't help himself. Don's fatal flaw has always been in his pants and his inability to put a stop to Megan's very obvious advances might just signal the end of his relationship with Faye, with a strong and sensitive woman who knows him, flaws and all.

Which might be why Don was so surprised to see Faye outside his apartment later that night. But rather than scrawling a break-up message on that envelope, she's there to tell him that she broke her code of ethics for him: that she got him a meeting with Heinz because she "wanted" to.

And then he ends up back on the couch, this time with Faye. But rather than fall into easy sex with her, she just wants to sit with him, resting her head on his chest, a picture of false domesticity. The weight of his betrayal rests heavily on Don in that moment, feeling Faye breathe peacefully, knowing that she saved the man she loved from potential ruin. While he screwed his secretary because she offered herself to him.

Depressing all around, considering how hard she tried to keep that Chinese Wall between them. But some walls were always meant to fall down, some confidences to be broken. And some hard truths, one supposes, will eventually come out.

Next week on Mad Men ("Blowing Smoke"), in the midst of a crisis, Don runs into an old friend.

Comments

Bella Spruce said…
I was disappointed (but not surprised!) by Don' behavior. I'm glad that Faye is still in the picture, though, and didn't just break it off with him. It will be interesting to see if Don continues his new arrangement with the ambitious Megan or if he actually does try to make things work with Faye.

And I'm very curious to see what will happen to the new agency. You're right in saying that Pete actually has the most power right now, which puts him in a very interesting position.
Anonymous said…
I was disappointed by Don, too. Every time I think he's going to stop being a playboy and be faithful to one woman, he does it again. I still love Don Juan, no matter what he does, though.

This season went by so fast, I can't believe there are only two more episodes!

Dee

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