SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, slip out of those uncomfortable clothes and watch last night’s Mad Men.
As if aware that viewers would be toggling between Mad Men winning Emmys on NBC and Mad Men earning them on AMC, the drama aired a startlingly timely episode showing us that, if Jon Hamm can’t wrest an Emmy from Bryan Cranston, Don Draper can at least bring home a Clio.
Building an episode around awards and their discontents raised all sorts of parallels, ironies and metacommentaries for Mad Men, but they’re sufficiently inside-baseball that I’ll save those for the hail of bullets. Thematically, “Waldorf Stories” brought the show back to a focus of this season: the dichotomy, and the connection, between Loser Don and Winner Don.
We began season four with a pretty unsparing look at Loser Don: divorced, miserable, uncharming, getting sloppy drunk and slapped around by a hooker, preying on his secretary. Last week’s “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” was a change-up because it reintroduced us to Winner Don, having a moment of shining competence and triumph in his cunning con of Teddy Chaough over the Honda account.
In “Waldorf Stories,” though, we saw that Winner Don, in a way, is the guy who makes Loser Don possible. You can see the victory curdling in his mouth even before he actually tastes it, as he tells Peggy that awards recognize your achievements by the point when they no longer feel like your own. And both in the office and outside it, you can see Don’s recognition for the Glo-Coat campaign swelling his self-regard and sense of entitlement: he deserves to be praised—alone, with little sharing of the credit—treated like a genius, feted with liquor and sex on demand. Of course Faye should swoon for his clumsy come-on; of course the Life cereal suits should swoon for his first pitch.
We’ve seen variations of this behavior earlier this season, as when a drunken Don claimed Allison on his couch, then offered her a $100 cash bonus and the chance to write her own letter of recommendation. It turns out the behavior is no more appealing when he’s holding a little gold statue.
Of course, this is Mad Men, so things are complicated. “Waldorf Stories” also gives us more of Don’s founding myth, filling in the story of how he came to jump from the fur business into advertising. And we see that here, as with so much of Don’s lonely early life, he really did do it largely alone—feeding, perhaps, his later perception of himself as the solitary, privileged genius. It turns out that the official story of how he came to Sterling Cooper—”discovered” by Roger—is just another concoction created to fill in the blanks of another drunken memory lapse.
Just as Dick Whitman created “Don Draper,” so did Don create a myth, which he’s allowed Roger to believe all these years, that serves both their purposes. Roger gets to believe that he was the visionary who saw the latent talent on Don (the sort of vision, Roger complains, that they don’t give awards for), and Don gets an origin story that says he came to Sterling Coop on his merits. Instead, it was another Dick Whitman con job. Like so many things in their business, it was a deal concocted out of chutzpah and a bottle, as Don convinced Roger that he had drunkenly offered Don a job and forgotten it.* And that Don did later prove his worth only confirmed for him that he was exceptional, and that he really did do it alone.
*[Or did he? I should note that we never know for sure whether Roger made the offer or Don invented it; Alan Sepinwall reads it the former way, but I thought the show was tipping us that it was the latter, especially since Roger seemed to end their bar session in the flashback by blowing furrier-Don off. Either way, it’s a nice touch, maybe better for the lack of clarity: in the end, it’s not the unknowable truth, but the agreed-on story, that matters.]
But young Dick/Don, however talented, did not ultimately get his job because he was creative—not in the advertising sense, anyway. He got it because he was audacious; he got it because he was hungry. And now Don has the opposite problem: he’s overstuffed, engorged, yet still driven to consume more and more, whether metaphorically (in bed) or literally (from the bottle, leading him to a weekend bender/blackout, brilliantly visualized by having us see him go to bed with one woman and wake up with another).
The hunger, on the other hand, is manifest in the younger associates around him, like Peggy, who sheds her personal pique (and her clothes) to prove a point and assert command over the new art director. (“I’m hungry!” she announces after stripping to work. “You want anything?”) Where sex is a professional reward for Don, for Peggy, a woman in the ad business, it’s a challenge: faced with a man using her supposed prudishness to put her in her place, she calls his bluff, asking whether he can work in the room with a live nude girl: “You’re chickenshit. I can work like this. Let’s get liberated.”
It works in the room—Peggy shuts Rizzo up and gets the job done—but there are still issues with Don, the once-hungry comer who now instinctually gobbles up all the glory for himself. Believing that she contributed to the Glo-Coat ad as well (how much she actually did, the show never explicitly settles), she doesn’t get to so much as attend the Clios, and she literally has to invite herself into Don’s victory parade as he struts around the conference table with his trophy before his drunken pitch to Life. (Later, as she realizes that Don doesn’t even remember having stolen Danny’s “Cure for the common…” pitch, Elisabeth Moss does a fine job showing Peggy pragmatically modulating her contempt for her mentor, as she tells him to “fix it.”)
Pete Campbell, meanwhile, has to assert his dominance in a different way, taking a development forced on him (the return of Ken Cosgrove) and trying to defuse it as a threat to him. Pete’s a pragmatist, Lane tells him, and Lane is right, to an extent. As we’ve seen before (with Clearasil, for instance) Pete first reacts emotionally, then looks for a way to turn his humiliation into an advance with a bold surprise move—in this case confronting Ken and asking if he’s willing to accept Pete as his boss.
Ken nods. But has Pete really won so easily? We’ve seen before that where Pete competes through aggression, Ken’s strategy is often to smile and shrug, then beat you while you’re not paying attention. Maybe he’s accepting that Pete his finally won their competition. Or maybe he recognizes that sometimes you have to eat a big bowl of something you don’t want and wait for your chance. That, after all, is Life.
Now for the hail of bullets:
* OK, so that awards storyline. It would obviously have been conspicuous and meta enough simply airing on an Emmy night after Mad Men had won for its first two seasons. (I don’t know if the timing was so directly intentional, but Matthew Weiner had to know at least that the episode would air around the time of the Emmys, if not the same night.) But it becomes especially ironic—maybe even distractingly so—if you know Mad Men’s particular history around the Emmys. The episode, for instance, focuses on Winner Don’s difficulty sharing credit with those around him—Peggy, Roger, the kid with the bad portfolio—and last year there was a mini-controversy when Kater Gordon, the assistant-turned-writer who shared a writing Emmy with Weiner for season 2’s finale, left (or was pushed from) the show a couple months later. It’s hard not to wonder whether on some level the episode was some sort of commentary—if not on this particular incident, or the general issue of credit-sharing between showrunners and writers, then on the nature of awards and fame. As I said above, this is sufficiently inside-baseball that it doesn’t effect my read on the episode as a whole—and frankly, whatever staff politics there are or aren’t on Mad Men does not make what’s on the screen any better or worse as a drama; good TV is good TV. (Nor would I know exactly how to read it as metacommentary: apology? apologia? self-justification? self-deprecation?) But coming to it after seeing Weiner again take the spotlight at the Emmys it was, at least, a little weird.
* Don’s drunken pitch to the Life guys involved a set of callbacks to earlier pitch meetings, played this time as farce. His reference to “nostalgia” played like a sloppy reprise of his memorable Kodak pitch in season 1—but where there it was eloquent, here it seemed like shtick, or like Don lazily rehashing an old pitch. And Life’s rejection of his first idea, on the grounds that it would be over its customers’ heads, recalled the Jantzen pitch in the season opener—and you could feel the tension in the room, as Pete rushed to move past the rejection, maybe worried that Don (puffed up with ego and alcohol) would blow another gasket.
* As usual, nice accretion of small details in the flashback scenes. I’m not sure if there were contextual clues to the exact year of the flashback, but Joan looked ravishingly early-’50s (and it was a nice touch showing future-ex-wife Betty as the model in Don’s fur ad). And just as California Don/Dick is characterized through his stylistic difference from New York Don, you see this earlier Don’s greenness and naivete not only in his behavior but in his less-elegant suit.
* I wasn’t around to comment on the last couple of Mad Men episodes—and thanks to Richard Corliss for his stellar fill-in work—but how are we feeling about Mrs. Blankenship? As much as I’ve enjoyed some of this season’s lighter elements, they sometimes seem—in tone and dialogue—like they’re taken from a different show than Mad Men. (Not a bad show, just a different show—Mad Men has always been hilarious, but usually in a more wry way. I’ve also felt that about some of the caper plots, like last week’s, which are fun and impeccably done but seem to operate on a different plane of reality from the rest of the show. But having read comments, I know I’m in a very small minority, because the fan base seems to love them.) All that said, I admit I got a kick out of Don setting up his interviewee to get yelled at by Blankenship: “I don’t work for you!”
* And speaking of wryness, Lane rarely fails to crack me up at least once an episode, here describing the assets Ken would bring to SDCP, including “a beverage called Mountain Dew!” Hey, who can blame him? Nearly half a century later, and I’m still not entirely sure what that stuff is.