SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, sneak off into the woods with a friend and watch last night’s Mad Men.
Sincerity, as the joke goes, is everything. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.
Last night’s Mad Men, “Blowing Smoke,” found Don Draper throwing a Hail Mary pass. trying to save his agency through another radical remaking of himself, this time taking Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce with him. And while the practical motivations behind Don’s conversion were obvious, that doesn’t mean it can’t be effective. Nor does it mean that Don was not on some level sincere—or at least, that the man who came to inhabit someone else’s identity can’t convince himself that he’s sincere about it, after the fact.
On the one hand, the reasons and timing behind Don’s we-didn’t-want-Lucky-Strike-anyway manifesto seemed clear: as Megan put it, it was a case of “He didn’t dump me, I dumped him.”He’s trying to jujitsu the possible death blow to SCDP as a stand of principle, and moreover, he’s taking his own advice, as presented to him by Peggy: change the conversation. Whether it proves to be genius or a disaster, Don has gotten people talking about something else besides his firm’s impending death. And yet it’s worth asking—after Don saw smack-addicted Midge living out her own private version of a Velvet Underground song, is it possible that he is also acting out of sincerity?
For Don, a believer in branding, who adopted another man’s identity so wholly that he became lost in it, it may just be that pretense and sincerity, calculation and transformation, are not entirely separable. That is, the way he has lived his life is that first you adopt the appearance and manner of the thing you want to be, and then you become that thing. You fake it ’til you make it.
In a sense, Don’s change of heart is more sympathetic if it’s calculated, if it’s not sincerely inspired by his seeing Midge’s addiction. After all, he’s been knowingly selling cancer for years; what does it say about him if it he doesn’t see the problem in it until he sees an ex-girlfriend strung out?
Maybe instead Don’s thought process is more complicated, his morality more situational. Yes, he knows what cigarettes do, and he’s seen the effects of addiction—especially to alcohol—in other’s lives and his own. But he’s lived his life in a certain place, in which that’s not his moral problem, in which someone is going to make money doing this job and it might as well be him. Well, now he’s not in a position to make that money anymore. But if he can move to this place—positioning himself in line with anti-tobacco sentiment that’s already out there, even if we haven’t seen much of it in Don’s world—well, then, maybe there’s market opportunity.
It is, perhaps, not the purest kind of conversion. And I’m not sure it will work—isn’t it Don’s motivation transparent to every ad agency and their clients (as it is to Teddy Chaough)? But at this point it’s worth a shot, because there seems no hope at SCDP trying to score conventional deals. (As Don points out, the accounts guys aren’t making things happen, so he has to take matters into his own hands.)
And it’s possible that, even if Don’s move is calculated, it can still actually and positively change him and his business. As Megan says, people feel good about Don’s move—which not only sounds principled but make SCDP seem like it is doing and not being done to—even though they can guess why he did it.
And the fact is, sometimes personal change comes after action, not before. In this episode, at least, Don seems to be maintaining an adult relationship with Faye, despite his dalliance with Megan last episode (which maybe really was a one-time thing). Maybe Don didn’t want to become the kind of man who could have a relationship with a strong confident woman with a career; maybe divorce, and then an alcoholic breakdown, forced that situation on him. But whatever his motivations, he has the chance tin his personal life as in his career to actually be the kind of man that circumstance has forced him to behave as. If that kind of change can save SCDP—if it can save Don Draper himself—then the purity of his original motives may be less important.
Meanwhile, the subplot returned to Sally’s struggle with Betty, a plot that might seem disconnected from the main storyline except for this: Sally too is employing a Don Draper fake-it-til-you-make-it strategy. Her psychiatrist congratulates her on how well she’s dealing with her mother—not necessarily by being less angry, but by modifying her behavior to seem less angry, which in turn removes reasons for conflict. You play the part of a happy person and, eventually, maybe you become a happy person.
For Sally, unfortunately, this strategy is less effective. For all of her progress in controlling her outbursts, she’s a child, not a free adult like Don, and she’s finally powerless to avoid conflict with Betty, who sees her meeting with Glenn and assumes the worst. (Informed partly by her weirdly intimate knowledge of the boy, which Sally is completely unaware of.) When it comes down to it, Don can takes matters into his own hands and publish an ad in the New York Times; but Sally is not the one who can decide whether the family moves to Rye.
Maybe Sally is running up against the limits of childhood. Or maybe she’s showing us that faking it can only carry you so far in the face of reality. With one more episode left in the season, maybe next week Don Draper will find out whether his faking it has made it.
Now the hail of bullets:
* It seemed pretty clear that the line of cigarettes Philip Morris planned to market to young professional women was what would become Virginia Slims, which launched in 1968. While it would have been intriguing to see the prospect of Peggy working on the account (as she undoubtedly would have), knowing that the brand was associated with such a legendary slogan—”You’ve come a long way, baby”—was a good hint that SCDP would not land the account. (Since, at least so far, we’ve seen the firm work with actual brands, but we haven’t seen it credited with actual ad slogans that we’re familiar with—although I could see a storyline where SCDP gets Virginia Slims, then loses it to the firm that would eventually come up with the famous line.)
[Update: Alan Sepinwall noted to me on Twitter that the pilot used the actual Lucky Strike slogan, “It’s Toasted,” though in real life it predated Mad Men by decades. Still, it seems that since the pilot the show made the decision to operate in the real world of real ad agencies and the real campaigns of the time—it’s referenced the legendary VW ads, for instance—so it still seems seeing SCDP create a slogan that’s still a household phrase would be jarring.]
* As with Betty, I’m glad to see that Mad Men is one of the only TV shows to realistically show that women do not magically lose their pregnancy weight the second they have a baby—even a tiny woman like Trudy.
* On a related note, this was maybe the first time in which we’ve seen significant division between Pete and Trudy on his career choices, as she warns him not to double down on a bad bet. Than Don spared him having to do so undoubtedly earned his loyalty for a while to come.
* Loved Teddy Chaough doing one of the most overdone Kennedy-borther impersonations this side of Mayor Quimby—and I was very relieved to find that Mad Men was not actually having RFK speak to Don on the phone that way.
* Jon Hamm did an excellent job showing the frightened desperation in Don before he decided to take the “quitting tobacco” gamble—from his trying-too-hard meeting with the Heinz beans man to his pacing and muttering, “red leather yellow leather” in his office. It seems as if Don became aware of how desperate he seemed, and decided he’d rather flame out on his own terms than lose out by frantically chasing business the old way.
* Great line from the Heinz meeting: “The way beans are funny, we can’t use that. We have to fight it, actually.” And a less funny but oddly insightful line: “There’s a time for beans and a time for ketchup” (meaning: a time of austerity and seriousness, and a time of plenty and frivolity).
* Don’s move may or may not save SCDP, but there were a lot of harsh words afterward—and Bert Cooper lost his poise and collected his shoes. Even if the firm survives, can the relationships amon the partners be the same?
* Most of you don’t have an office in the Time-Life building like I do, but I’m always a little thrown by scenes in the building’s lobby—for which I’m pretty sure Mad Men uses the elevator lobby of the building its production offices are in, and which looks nothing like Time-Life (or the Rockefeller Center area). This is only going to bother a few hundred Mad Men viewers, if that, but it’s one of those little drawbacks of using landmarks in a fictional setting, on a TV location and budget.
* It seemed obvious in retrospect that Peggy should see Faye as a model, but it takes Faye’s departure from the job to get her to say it: “They respect you, and you don’t have to play any games.” Faye’s response: “Is that what it looks like?” Has she really come a long way, baby?
One overall thought: this being the next-to-last Mad Men of the season, I expected this to be a setting-things-into-place episode, but I’m a little surprised that the closing crisis—will the firm survive?—is an awful lot like season three’s. Which leaves me wondering whether the finale will not find some dramatic way to unexpectedly change the conversation too.
* Finally, a discussion question: Matthew Weiner has said (and the first episode telegraphed) that the theme of season 4 would be identity, especially, “Who Is Don Draper?” With one episode left, do you feel closer to an answer?