SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, fake-call a close friend and pretend to watch last night’s Mad Men together.
God help us, but Stan Rizzo actually had it right this episode: “It’s the end of the world,” he told Peggy—by way of trying to get in her pants, naturally, but perceptively nonetheless. Picking up from the Lucky Strike bombshell and building a bridge to the end of the season, the more functional-than-lapidary Mad Men episode “Chinese Wall” took a look at several principals at SCDP facing the possible extinction of the firm, and showed us what aspects of their personalities came forward in their darkest hour.
Don Draper: Unsurprisingly, an episode about the possible end of Don’s agency focused largely on him, and in a way it showed Don more contemptible than he was as a vomiting, blacking-out drunk. Some of Don’s behavior here can be ascribed to stress, though you can respond to stress by rallying those around you (as he tries to publicly, addressing the staff meeting) or by turning on them (as he does behind closed doors, placing blame, rightly to be sure, on Roger Sterling, and less fairly on Pete Campbell).
But Don’s big failing came where it so often does, in his Achilles Trousers, as he ended up fulfilling his lawyer’s wishes and shtupping his secretary for the second time this season. As we’ve been suspecting here at Tuned In, Don went for Megan after all, for the reasons I might have suspected: he was down, and he saw in her a pretty, subservient woman who took care of him. (When she asks how she can help him, he asks her to make him stop at three drinks; it’s like Don to want the women in his life to take responsibility for his actions, and thus in some sense be blameworthy when he fails them.) And it happened, pointedly, after Faye asserted that she would not take care of him the way he wanted—by subordinating her career to his and breaching ethics to tip him off to vulnerable clients.
We did see him assert the Don Draper version of willpower, hesitating twice before finally having sex with Megan. But (and this is a tribute to Jon Hamm’s inhabiting of the character) what seemed at first like Don’s having trying to avoid his mistakes looks, in retrospect, like he’s learned a much colder lesson from them. When he stops and tells Megan that this is not a good idea, and that he can’t afford to make another mistake, he doesn’t mean that he has a good woman in Faye, or that he shouldn’t be banging women that he has the power to fire. Instead, he’s essentially saying, “Listen, babe, Little Don would be happy to oblige you. But I need to know you’re going to be cool about this, and not fall apart like the last girl.”
Megan passes the test with flying colors. She shows a side of herself Don and we have not seen before—that she has an artistic-literary background, that she claims to be interested in creative work—but more important, she tells Don just what he wants to hear: that she won’t “run out crying” (ouch!) and that she’ll give Don no problems, expectations or reasons for regret.
Megan passes Don’s test just before, heartbreakingly, Faye is to pass the makeup test, by failing her own ethical standards. When she shows up at Don’s apartment, she’s handing over more than a meeting with Heinz. She shows that she’s decided to abandon her principle, and perhaps jeopardize her job, rather than risk ending things with Don. It’s not just the Chinese Wall that breaks at the end of the episode; Don has broken Faye.
Peggy: In contrast, Peggy’s reaction to the news at work is colored by what’s going on in her personal life, not the other way around. At first she takes the the news sanguinely, floating as she is on a cloud of new love. Then, when Don tells her not to kid herself that things are under control (essentially, that he expects her to be smarter than the rest of the staff whom he just fed a line), she says, “Every time something good happens, something bad happens. I knew I’d pay for it.”
It’s a line that harkens back to her history, in which a career advance is balanced by a personal setback, and vice-versa: she gets promoted to copywriter, for instance, and discovers that she’s pregnant. Knowing what we do of her background, there could be religious or family guilt at work here—don’t get too full of yourself or you’ll get cut down. But it also represents the dilemma she’s found herself in as a working woman, in which the expectation is that she can have a happy personal life or a fulfilling professional one, but not both. (See Faye, above.)
Yet Peggy, in maybe the one optimistic note in this gloomy episode, ends up rising to the stress test. Maybe because of her nature, or maybe because she’s simply not as invested (and thus terrified) as a partner in the business, she pulls herself together and uses her personal, and sexual, happiness to come up with a pitch for Playtex that kills. (In a nice touch, what looks like a lewd tongue gesture from the client is actually a hint that she has lipstick on her teeth.)
Roger: Sterling, meanwhile, is at his lowest point ever in this episode. Having lost the client that was keeping the firm afloat (and thus, possibly lost the inherited legacy he feels he never really earned), and realizing that things with Joan are really and truly over, he slinks through this episode like a man who’s outlived the end of his own life. (At one point, I thought the episode might be setting up a suicide attempt.) No funeral with grateful clients and a mournful wife and daughter for him, summing up the fullness of a fruitful man’s life. Instead, he seems to regress in the face of crisis, carrying himself like a self-pitying boy in trouble.
Rather than bring the partners in on the loss of Lucky Strike, we learn, he’s kept everyone in the dark. (And other than make some drunken phone calls, it’s not clear what if anything he’s tried to do with the grace period Lee Garner Jr. gave him.) In fact, he appears to put more energy into covering up his deception—the fake phone call to Lee, holing up in a hotel while in “Raleigh”—than to trying to salvage his business. On every front, Roger is surrounded by evidence that he’s lost his last chances: with work, with Joan, and—judging, at least, by the copies of Sterling’s Gold that seem destined to moulder in a box—at immortality. In the end it’s Bert Cooper who gives him his most devastating assessment: “Lee Garner Jr. never took you seriously because you never took yourself seriously.”
Pete: For Pete, meanwhile, “Chinese Wall” is a story of beginnings, even as he faces a disaster at work that takes him away from the birth of his daughter. (Not that anyone in his circle expects him to be there, anyway.) The question is whether family man Pete is beginning to make a life himself for him and his family, or whether, as his father-in-law tells him, he’s “had his folly” and it’s time for him to get practical and put in 30 years working for somebody else. (That somebody else, the hint is, being Teddy Chaough.) That Don—for it seems the millionth time—ends up pushing him away just as Pete has one foot in and out the door doesn’t help matters, or SCDP’s cause. It’s the beginning of the future for Pete, Trudy and baby. But which future?
Now for the hail of bullets:
* Apropos of nothing but the photo above, but I’ve been wondering all season if anything’s going to come, story-wise of Harry Crane’s going Hollywood and becoming immersed in the TV business. If not, opportunity missed. (It seems odd for Harry to have survived the end of season 3, only for the writers to have used him almost entirely as comic relief this season.)
* Very nice breakup scene between Christina Hendricks and John Slattery, particularly in how the dialogue stays static—essentially, one and another variation on Joan saying “This can’t happen anymore”—yet we see the conversation progress, from denial to acceptance.
* The coup de grace to Don’s composure comes when he gets dropped by Glo-Coat, to which he responds by throwing his Clio away. Megan retrieves it, saying she suspects he’d want it back in the end. He says she’s wrong, but I don’t believe him; what he wants, I think, is what a pouting child does—for Mommy to notice his tantrum and make a grown-up decision for him. Maybe that was really the moment he decided that he’d sleep with her.
* It’s interesting that, just as she ends up sleeping with Don, as seemed inevitable, Megan shows that she’s much more savvy and insightful than she’d ever let on, particularly in this perceptive exchange: She tells Don that he hardly knows her, to which he says,”Well, you haven’t been here that long.” “And you don’t know how long I will be, so why get to know me?” She may have just summed up Don Draper in one sentence right there. Let’s hope she keeps her wits about her; she’ll need them.