I’m not sure who first came up with the slogan—or, to use the word of choice from this week’s episode, idiom—“The cure for the common ___.” It seems to be one of those bad-but-infectious advertising clichés like roadside restaurants boasting “Warm beer and cold food” or campus flyers reading “Sex! Now that we’ve got your attention…” This week’s episode of Mad Men gives the idiom an origin story while providing illustrations of how careers get made as much through hard work and persistence as raw talent. And how people who don’t remember that could lose what they’ve got. Aspiration may not be as good as perspiration, but either one beats coasting.
And Don is coasting. At least this week. Not that it’s hard to blame him. After taking home a major award he cruises unexpectedly into a previously canceled pitch meeting for Life cereal. Though slurring his words, he still gets through a pitch for a classic Don Draper notion, one that mixes wistfulness, nostalgia, and almost hurtfully poignant childhood images to maximum effect. He’s got the perfect slogan for the campaign, too: “Eat Life by the Bowlful.” But when it gets rejected by the Life representatives, Don decides that he’s got the talent to pitch ideas off the top of his head. So he does. They’re terrible. Some of them aren’t his own. And the clients go for the worst one, the one that wasn’t even his to pitch.
There’s a series of shots toward the end of this episode, which flashes back to Don’s first meeting with Roger and the annoying persistence (and booze) that got him his job at Sterling-Cooper in the first place, that position Don, Roger, and newcomer Danny, the source of the “cure for” phrasing in such a way that we’re forced to consider their relationship to one another. Here’s Roger, the man who gave Don his shot, almost by accident. And here’s Don, reluctantly giving a shot to a kid even more wide-eyed than he was when he met Roger. But, whether Roger acknowledged it or not, Don showed a bit more raw talent than the new kid. So will Danny rise to the occasion, or is this history repeating itself as farce? And is Don sliding into a Roger-like position, becoming a sideline boozer using his seniority as muscle and the absence of a need to prove himself as an excuse not to try all that hard.
He’s certainly matching Roger drink for drink these days. Note the way, at the Clio ceremony, Joan eyes Roger warily as he tips back a glass while, on the other side of her, Don does the same. His Life pitch meeting, however immediately successful, is the first time we’ve seen his drinking interfere with his work. His personal life, already a bit of disaster, really hits the rocks this week. Again unable to make any time with Faye, he goes home with someone I’ll just call the Cake Topping lady. (I doubt Don remembers her name either.) Then, in a neat bit of editing that nicely encapsulates the lost weekend quality of Don’s after-hours existence, he wakes up next to a woman whose name he can’t forget because she wears it on her nametag. When he was married, drinking less, and more confident, Don used to attract complicated, interesting women. (Which isn’t to say they weren’t each messes in their own way; you kind of have to be to want to be with Don.) Now those sorts of women elude him. He beds those who throw themselves at him or those who probably end up going home with a customer most nights. At work he’s coasting. Away from it, he’s slipping. It’s also worth nothing that this is the first time we’ve seen his drinking get in the way of his parenting. Whatever else has been going on, he’s always been there for Sally and Bobby. Not this week. (Meanwhile, a drunk-again Duck Phillips haunts the margins as a living cautionary tale of how low one can go.)
Meanwhile, Peggy works. And works through adversity. Not only does she have to pick up her mentor’s slack, she has to work with a new art director named Stan, a sexist blowhard who insults her talent and looks to her face. Until, that is, Peggy calls his bluff in the most sexually aggressive way possible. The result: the beginnings of what looks like a successful campaign.
I’m not sure I know who Peggy is anymore. I don’t mean that as a criticism. I don’t think Peggy knows who Peggy is anymore, and that’s part of what makes her character so interesting and, for the last couple of seasons at least, fun. She has removed herself, at least for now, from the shackles of the morality she grew up following. But it’s not like she’s turned hedonist, either. Her foray into exhibitionism this week had one goal: getting the job done. (Well, maybe two, since putting Stan in his place seemed pretty important to her too, even if that was ultimately incidental.)
Peggy’s asserting herself now, even with Don. And the more she asserts herself, the harder Don pushes back. The opening of this episode suggests he berates her habitually, but that’s now part of their dynamic. Whether that will shift at all given the way Peggy plays tough with Don at the end of this episode remains to be seen. I don’t think it’s likely, however. Barring a total Don Draper meltdown—which I wouldn’t rule out—they seem comfortable in their tense working relationship. It works, too, even if it baffles others. Allison assumed they’d had an affair. Stan simply speaks insultingly over her as Don’s “favorite.” They have an understanding that’s only theirs, and that vexes outsiders.
Whatever it is, it comes from the chemistry of people who know each other well. One of the most fascinating aspects of this week’s flashbacks are the way they allow us to see Don and Roger before they were at ease with each other. Don plays the go-getting golden boy. Roger plays an archer version of himself. Ditto the scenes with Roger and Joan. They’re still playacting their way into the parts of lovers. Never slouches, Hamm, Slattery, and Hendricks deserve some extra credit for what they do in those scenes this week.
Also of note: Ken and Pete redefine the terms of their relationship. Sort of. Does Ken just allow Pete to think he’ll be deferring to him is enough? Or is this the beginning of a new dynamic between the two? I honestly couldn’t tell. Ted Chaough continues to stoke the fires of his rivalry with Don. And Roger finds that maybe it’s not that easy being a memoirist. “I always liked chocolate ice cream but my mother made us eat vanilla because it didn’t stain anything.” Compelling!
The show around that poignant memory, however, remains extremely compelling.
• One of the other Clios went to Byrrh, a wine-based aperitif whose failure to catch fire in America illustrates that even great advertising can’t sell something people don’t want.
• Here’s a vintage Life ad from the early ’60s. The emphasis is on nutrition with out poignancy. And also on odd pronunciations of “protein.”
• Neat, and a little odd, that this awards show-themed episode ran opposite the Emmys. I’m guessing that was a coincidence, but seeing interstitial congratulating the show on its awards as they received them while watching Don talk about the pros and cons and professional adulation made for a weirdly meta experience. “You finish something you find out everyone else loves right around the time it feels like somebody else did it”: There’s the voice of experience behind those lines.
• Fans of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Gilmore Girls will recognize the newest addition to SCDP as the talented, diminutive Danny Strong. Strong’s comic skills translate well here, as does his skill for dark undercurrents. He may be an untalented nobody, but he’s an untalented nobody who recognizes when he has someone in the position to give him what he needs over a barrel. (Plus: those shots of Hamm towering over Strong = instant hilarity.)
• Thanks to Scott, Noel, and Todd for filling in for me while I was on vacation. I really missed writing about the show, however, so I plan to stay put the rest of the season. That means next week’s post will likely go up a little later than usual as I’ll be somewhere without Internet on Sunday night. I’ll put up a bare-bones post so you can talk about it and post my review on Monday morning. Cool?
• Finally: The handholding. What's your read on that moment?
Monday morning additions:
• Did anyone else hear Peggy's voice on the phone when Don first answers? I could have sworn that was Elizabeth Moss at the beginning of the harangue until it cut to Betty.
• Did Peggy call new receptionist Clara "Meganeck"? If so, hilarious.