“Mad Men” recap: The prestige that comes with ketchup

Practically a high-spirited romp, there are enough feel-good hijinks to almost (almost) forget just what show it is

Topics: Mad Men, joan holloway, don draper, ketchup and catsup, heinz,

"Mad Men" recap: The prestige that comes with ketchup (Credit: HBO/Salon)

In “To Have and to Hold,” we enter Dante’s third circle of Hell, Gluttony. This is where we should find lots of characters overindulging in food and drink and other addictions — like smoking cigarettes, making out at hip clubs, and swinging (or at least talking about it). Now, granted, I don’t see anyone getting flayed and tortured by a three-headed monster, and I felt pretty sure there would at least be a “stinking slush” falling from the sky. But Don and Stan did smoke a joint and look at giant pictures of hamburgers and hot dogs for a few hours, didn’t they? (OK, fine. If next week isn’t all about Greed with a capital G, I’ll leave the circles of hell behind. Here’s hoping we make it all the way down to Violence, Fraud, and Treachery!)

After the premiere’s death-and-paradise fixation, and last week’s repeated guilt ‘n’ betrayal theme, I was starting to worry that every single episode of the sixth season of “Mad Men” would serve up Big, Obvious Themes and Giant, Flashing Symbols. As one of a giant herd of writers who enjoys unpacking these symbols, I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds. But there is that point when the subtext upstages the actual text to such an extent that it’s hard to focus on the emotional center of a given scene. For example, the second you see Joan’s friend, Kate, putting makeup on Joan’s mom, Gail, you know you’re about to be swept away on a tide of double meanings. “Mary Kay always says it’s really all about making yourself feel better,” Kate tells her. “And that always starts with you doing something for you.” That’s the justification of the Glutton, anyway.

But Matthew Weiner and company weren’t too gluttonous with the giant messages, rapid-fire metaphors or triple meanings in this episode, and for that, I thank them. Because sometimes, “Mad Men” should just be about Don and Stan smoking a joint and haw-hawing over photos of hot dogs. The fact that 1) Don actually laughed out loud, 2) Joan’s mother implied indirectly that she was proud of Joan’s executive position at the company and 3) Megan and Don chuckled their way home from an absurd dinner with Megan’s co-workers qualify this as a legitimately lighthearted episode. Throw in Burt’s surprisingly satisfying remark to Harry Crane that he has nothing in common with him (and Roger’s plan to fire Harry before he can cash the big check he just grumbled off with) and “To Have and To Hold” was a high-spirited romp, relatively speaking.

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We knew that Peggy and Ted Chaough would swoop in and impress Heinz, of course, and that this would expose both Peggy’s betrayal of Stan and Don’s betrayal of Ken and Raymond from Heinz (who didn’t want Don talking to that smug jerk Timmy). Don and Stan really did create the better ad, too, appealing to the consumer’s craving for ketchup, and alluding to the fact that Heinz is the only name in ketchup (without coming out and saying it). Compared to that, Peggy’s ad was really obvious and not all that artful. But this is Timmy we’re talking about. When Peggy unveils a giant phallic, dripping ketchup bottle with the word “Heinz” in giant letters, then asks Timmy to imagine it “forty feet tall” in Times Square, she appeals to his enormous, needy ego and indulges his absurd notions about “the prestige that comes with ketchup.” It’s oddly satisfying that Don is at the door, listening the whole time, even if Peggy and Ted don’t ultimately get the account.

In fact, Don just can’t stop indulging his gluttonous need to have his nose rubbed in it, can he? Maybe this is an extension of his wanting to be slapped by that prostitute way back when. He gets that old haunted, hungry look when Sylvia is coy with him in the elevator about when they’ll see each other again, he can’t stop himself from getting all high and mighty with Megan about her love scene on the soap opera, he can’t resist acting disgusted by the swinger couple’s advances, and finally, he can’t help but watch Megan make out with her costar, even though he’s never been to the set before. Maybe Don is tired of winning. When anyone tells him he’s handsome or that he could star on TV (as Mel, the soap opera writer does), he acts annoyed. You get the sense that he’d vastly prefer that they tell him he’s a lowdown piece of trash. Just look at how excited he gets when the only character who’s more of a hypocrite than he is, Sylvia (talking down to poor Megan about her plan to get an abortion, and committing adultery with her gold cross around her neck the whole time), tells him that she prays for him.

We’ll get to that later, though. Right now we need to talk about Joan and Dawn’s crazy parallel story lines, confiding in their friends about their careers. Joan is forced to be her friend’s wingman, but no longer has any interest in flirting or making out with random guys. (Although she gives in eventually – and somewhat reluctantly.) Contrast this Joan with the Joan of season 1, so professional yet so clearly titillated by flirting with Roger. Now Joan is a partner – she’s come so much further than even she expected to — but she can’t feel proud of it because slugs like Harry Crane are there to remind her that she earned it by sleeping with a client. (God, I love to hate Harry Crane. His office décor says it all, doesn’t it? Big dumb painting, enormous coat rack. It’s like the faux-fancy bourgeois cheesiness of a Manhattan men’s club, shoved into an office the size of a closet.)

We understand how bad Joan feels about the situation when she can’t really tolerate Kate feeling envious of her, after their night on the town. “I’ve been working there for 15 years and they still treat me like a secretary,” she tells Kate. “I don’t care how they make you feel,” says Kate. “It’s right in front of you for the taking.” She wants Joan to indulge herself, seize the day, take what’s in front of her. Joan is the consummate professional (to a fault, really, slipping into the world’s oldest profession to better her standing) but it’s not enough. She never gets the respect she deserves. (Harry doesn’t get respect, either, but he doesn’t actually deserve it. He deserves money, but not respect.)

Meanwhile, Dawn is forced to be her friend Nikki’s maid of honor, but she really wishes she were getting married herself, and didn’t have to deal with the impossible pressures of her job. (Remember when Joan wanted to get married more than anything else in the world? She always played the Nikki to Peggy’s career-minded Dawn.) After Scarlett makes Dawn punch her time card for her and Joan finds out, poor Dawn is fighting to keep her job. How does Joan react? By giving Dawn more responsibility – a kind of a promotion that’s also an insult, because Dawn didn’t really earn it. Sound familiar? Yes, Joan is putting Dawn in the exact same position she herself is in.

Dawn: Well, I don’t care if everybody hates me here, as long as you don’t.

Joan: We’ll see.

(See also: Luke: I won’t fail you. I’m not afraid! Master Yoda: Oh, you will be. You will be.)

Don may be reaching new lows this season. Sleeping with Sylvia, then flashing a couple of swingers incredulous looks, then dropping in on Megan’s love scene at the soap opera and trying to make her feel self-conscious about it? “Were you even going to brush your teeth before you came home?” he asks, as if he doesn’t bring home a veritable Petri dish of crazy germs from other women every other day. The best, though: “You kiss people for money.” Don’s scorn toward Megan always centers on the fact that he’s looking in the mirror. And, she’s far, far better at faking it – his raison d’etre – than he is. Not only is she a better actor, but she’s open about the fact that she likes the attention. Remember how, when Megan worked in creative at SCDP, she sometimes seemed better at the job than Don was? She had great ideas, she could charm clients – but she thought the whole circus was beneath her, the way Don thinks her desire to act is sort of pathetic. What Megan does for a living is actually a little more honest, though, because things go back to normal after someone yells, “Cut!” Even the advances of the sleazy couple from Megan’s show were somewhat respectable; at least they were honest about their intentions. Their honesty shocked and disgusted Don. (Even though the actress/wife looks a little bit like Sylvia.) Don isn’t interested in playing along unless everyone is lying to each other. Case in point: Sylvia in the elevator at the start of the show, playing coy. (“Can you be more specific?” “Nope. Goodnight!”) The elevator doors close and Don looks haunted and excited – his ideal state.

Sylvia, phew. What a self-righteous troll. Still, that last exchange was about the only way we could kick up a little concern for Don’s soul again, after his supersize hypocrisy throughout the entire episode.

Sylvia: I pray for you.

Don: For me to come back?

Sylvia: No. For you to find peace.

(That last line does sound like it’s pulled straight from Dante’s “Inferno,” though, doesn’t it?)

It’s funny how Don never really earns the higher ground no matter what he does. He could feel justifiably betrayed by Peggy, but he’s betraying someone else at the exact same time. Likewise, he doesn’t have a right to act jealous with Megan, or to act above it all with the swingers. In fact, Weiner delights in placing Don in one hypocritical spot after another. “You kiss people for money,” says the man who has to talk to people about “the prestige that comes with ketchup” while maintaining a straight face.

Don hates it when people look up to him. He loves it when people talk down to him, because that’s what he feels he deserves. He knows that his prestige isn’t prestige at all. His is the prestige that comes with ketchup. He doesn’t even have the good graces to admit it, or to admit that he’s not at peace. He wants to “stop this,” he says – stop cheating, stop faking it, stop stomping out everything good and true that he encounters — but he can’t. So he keeps doing it. And he pretends that he’s not afraid.

Oh, but he will be. He will be.

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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