You should read the rest of that poem, ya boob. -Stan Rizzo
The subject of Ayn Rand has come up before on MadMen. Bert Cooper once remarked that he wanted to introduce her to Don, and thought she would love him. She reappeared in in the margins of this week's episode, "Dark Shadows," as the story presented myriad examples of UN-enlightened self interest. Confrontations were the mode of the day; many of my notes take the form of "Betty v Megan," “Roger v Peggy,” or "Ginso v Don" and so on.
Last week I speculated that Don would have to find his solo form again after relying on Megan and Peggy and Ginso for so long, and this week we saw Don use means both honorable and not to attempt to get his mojo back. He came in on a weekend to get some work done, which is admirable, but started his work by sifting through Ginso's ideas, not so honorable. He sat with a dictaphone for a while working on a pitch for SnoBall, a cool drink for kids. It seemed as if he was trying too hard to "be Don Draper" rather than just doing his job and trusting that he was Don Draper. His "Devil" pitch made a light product serious and heavy, trying to recapture the emotional magic of his Kodak Carousel pitch, but it didn't fit the client as well as Ginso's lighter material did. Later he'd have both his and Ginso's ads ready for the pitch, but leave Ginso's in the cab, which on one hand is having faith in himself, but on the other hand, since he'd told Ginso as well as Pete, Ken, and Harry that he was going to pitch Ginso's idea, Don's executive decision had him acting in bad faith, and in self interest. Upon learning of the betrayal, Ginso had no qualms about confronting Don directly. When Don callously rebuffed him, Ginso said he felt sorry for Don, which was intended to sting. Don replied, "I never think about you at all.” That barb did sting, because we know how close to the truth it is.
The ladies in Don's life got in on the confrontational action, too. Betty, Megan, and Sally all squared off with each other by turns in a skillful round robin of passive aggression. In an early scene Megan, newly dedicated to her craft of acting, is teaching Sally how to cry on command. This is a key scene with multivalent meanings. One, of all the people on the show who should not receive a crash course in emotional manipulation, Sally tops the list; two, Megan's expertise at crying on command calls into question the truth of every emotion she has displayed to this point. It is easier to excuse her many manipulations of Don if they are based in genuine emotions including love. If the emotions were even occasionally faked for effect, that speaks quite poorly of Megan's true character. At this point, when many of the characters have been laid bare, it's Megan who remains the most intriguing, the most shrouded in mystery. The common sentiment that Megan is a joy and a miracle and the best thing that ever happened to Don is understandable, but it stands opposed to the very clear inklings of a dark side to Megan that could be very dark indeed. With only four episodes left (I think,) and Megan no longer at SCDP, I wonder what more we'll learn of her. Of the three women, Megan handled her confrontations, with Betty and later with Sally (spurred by Betty indirectly,) with the most aplomb. She did the right thing, and had little other choice, in the argument where Sally confronted her about Anna Draper and lies and truth. And when, from Megan’s point of view, Betty came into her apartment uninvited, Megan stayed polite but drew an appropriate boundary line to protect herself, "I think you've seen most of it."
Betty had indeed seen more than she wanted too, but she may be on the path to realizing that her worst battle is not with Megan, but with herself. It's been unclear for a few seasons whether Betty is just immature, as evidenced by her odd relationship with Glen and her attachment to Sally's therapist; or if in addition to being immature (which she definitely is,) she's also just a bit of a rotten person. She did some awful things this week, using Sally to "poison" Don and Megan from a distance stands out, but there was another scene that led me to question her fundamental character. When the Francis-Drapers were sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner, they all said what they were thankful for, and both Bobby Draper's and Betty Francis' thanks were severely shallow.
Bobby: I’m thankful that I have two houses, and they’re both really big, and I got a new sled.
Betty: I’m thankful that I have everything that I want. And nobody else has anything better.
In addition to the stunted development and general meanness, there’s a part of Betty that defines success by other people’s failure, and then goes about engineering those failures to prop up her own self-image.
Sally got caught in the middle between the two Mrs. Drapers, but somewhat brilliantly played her way out. She veered between seeing Megan as a best friend and an evil stepmother, largely spurred on by Betty’s immature decision to let Sally in on Don’s big secret. As it turns out, had it not been for Megan, Betty’s strategy here would’ve worked. When he found out about what Betty had done, Don flew into a rage, went into Dick Whitman childlike-panic mode. Only Megan’s perspective helped him avoid an angry confrontation with Betty, which Megan convinced him was exactly what Betty wanted, “the thrill of having poisoned us from 50 miles away.” This speaks volumes about Megan and Don’s relationship, but it also tells us, retrospectively, about why Betty and Don worked for so long. Each was to a large degree suffering from a stunted development, brought about by the particular circumstances of their childhoods. We’ve seen a good deal of Don’s (Dick’s, that is,) and learned a little about Betty’s from her family. It makes sense that two adults who are in large part grown children should find each other and reinforce each other’s immaturity. It stops making sense when those two people have children. Sally responded to all that went on around her this week by breaking the cycle of verbal violence. When Betty wanted to get Sally’s report on what havoc the mention of Anna had wrought, Sally denied Betty’s wishes, saying, “Daddy showed me pictures, and they spoke very fondly of her.”
Roger’s conflict since his acid trip has been largely internal. This week we saw him fall back on two tricks he’s used already. Having already had Peggy do secret off-the-books work for him to help him land a client, this week he tried the same tactic with Ginso, hiring Mike out of his own pocket to help Roger land Manischewitz wines. Similarly, having already tapped out Mona as a networking source, Roger turns to his now second ex wife Jane for help at the dinner with the people from Manischewitz. Roger is forcing himself to realize that he doesn’t have a lot of skill. The lion’s share of his success came from one client, Lucky Strike, and when they lost that, he had little more than charm to fall back on. And even his charm is in question if the only people he can turn to for help are employees and ex wives. And now even Roger cannot be missing the fact that there’s a limit to how far he can push this strategy. When Peggy confronted him about using Ginsberg instead of her, Roger replied, straight from Ayn Rand:
Peggy: You are not loyal, you only think about yourself.
Roger: Were we married? Because you’re thinking about yourself, too. That’s the way it is. It’s every man for himself.
But for Roger, this truth is a dark revelation. He looks sad to be realizing it even as he’s proclaiming it to Peggy.
It’s getting harder and harder to tease out themes and significances as the season moves on. This is part and parcel of the MadMen phenomenon; seasons work a certain way. Early episodes are spent exploring new relationships and establishing some season-long themes; middle episodes twist them around and provide some standalone stories with the thematic elements in the margins; and late episodes point toward the conclusion, which generally brings about a significant change or two and a heightened sense of drama or tension. To oversimplify, they spend two thirds of a season making you wonder what might happen, and in the last third, some stuff actually happens.
Last season it was obvious that they were heading for disaster. The season started with Don winning a Cleo and ended with divorce, downsizing, loss of largest client, Joan pregnant with Roger’s kid while her husband is in Vietnam. This season I have no idea what to expect in the last few episodes, and I think the season long story is the better for it. There’s enough good and bad in the season until now that we could be headed either way from here. Perhaps we’ll end with the same rich ambiguity that’s permeated the whole season, and there’ll remain some good and some bad, and much to think about, when the last scene fades.
Odds and Ends:
It’s been tough to avoid the chatter on the internet about this episode, some people are expressing severe displeasure about it. In a season of 13 episodes, one is by definition going to be the weakest. Even though I didn’t think this one was it, I think I have some inklings as to why that sentiment exists. I think people don’t like to see Betty be so consistently childish and vile. Episodes where she is revealed to be deeply flawed tend to displease the audience across most of the seasons.
I found it troubling that even though Betty can’t be certain Weight Watchers is working for her, she’s perfectly willing to spout a load of WW lingo at Henry when he has a career crisis. Likewise her attitude in Weight Watchers meetings was fairly snide and self serving, as well as denial-laden.
Megan’s acting career is not exactly rocketing off the ground. She admitted her jealousy over her friend’s landing an audition for “Dark Shadows” even though she thought the show was crap. Later, on Thanksgiving she’d insist that Don keep the doors and windows closed because, “the air’s poison.” I’m thinking if she doesn’t land a role or two soon, this environmental sensitivity could take her over a cliff à la Julianne Moore in the movie [safe]. (Which everyone should see, it’s one of the best performances by a lead actress in film history.)
Somebody finally made the joke about the C in SCDP standing for Campbell now rather than Cooper, and of all people to make the joke it was Roger. There’s a cloud hanging over Roger’s head though, and I don’t know how durable is the smile he uses as his umbrella.
The question whether Don will in fact get his mojo back may be answered by the quality of his pitch this week. I did not like it, as mentioned above, it seemed he was trying way too hard. I think he’ll spend the last weeks of the season playing catch up, and dealing with the fallout of Megan’s departure from the firm. This season we have only seen Don make one real client pitch, and it was the one two weeks ago that was actually Megan’s idea. I can’t imagine them letting an entire season go by without at least one good 100% Draper pitch, but time is now officially dwindling.