Don Draper's reckoning nears

In last night's "Mad Men," SCDP staff acted like teenagers -- but they won't get away with it for much longer

Published May 21, 2012 12:45PM (EDT)

 Jon Hamm in "Mad Men"
Jon Hamm in "Mad Men"

Nelle Engoron recaps "Mad Men" every week on Salon. She is the author of "Mad Men Unmasked: Decoding Season 4."

"Hold fast to dreams/For if dreams die/Life is a broken-winged bird/That cannot fly.” African-American poet Langston Hughes published these poignant words in 1930, but they didn’t appear in countless yearbook inscriptions and on dorm room posters until the '60s and '70s, when pursuing one’s dreams became the cultural imperative. Following your personal dream meant different things to different people, but it commonly involved rebuking the unified “American dream” everyone had previously agreed upon: marriage, family, a home (one you owned, in post WWII America) and a car. And as Americans became more focused on their personal states, the ones they lived in became distinctly less united.

In “Christmas Waltz,” the latest episode of “Mad Men,” we find out that cars are part of the dream for ad agencies, too – a sign that they’ve arrived, just as owning a car was once a sign of achieving adulthood, something that the staff at SCDP also hasn’t done yet. Instead, like teenagers, they’re stealing money from their corporate parents’ wallets, driving other people’s cars too fast, napping when they should be working, drinking too much, throwing tantrums (and other things) and having sex with near-strangers. And just as it did in America as a whole, this behavior is taking its toll on their personal unions – or will do so before long.

We start off with a Union Jack who’s been unfaithful to a lady by giving “her portion” to a younger and sexier country – one that refused to pay taxes to her forebears long ago. Soaked by the ruinous tax rates of 1960s Britain -- and unlike the similarly transplanted Jaguar XKE -- Lane has failed in his dream of escape to a new life in the new world, and is instead still yoked to the same two queens, only one of which is willing to forgive and forget his failings. If he’d only followed the advice offered later by Lakshmi, “Tell the truth; that always works,” he might have found a way out. Surely Don, at the least, and probably Roger too, would have understood the marmalade Lane finds himself in and helped him get the money he needed for the Taxman. But Lane’s both British and old-fashioned, a fatal combination in this situation. Like others of his generation, he can’t admit he has a problem and ask for help – a self-reliance that will seem increasingly quaint as the self-help generation begins expecting everyone to aid their self-actualization.

As he’s always done in this group, former beatnik, civil rights activist, and Sterling-Cooper casualty Paul Kinsey leads the way as an early convert to one of the “alternative” religions beginning to capture the imaginations, wallets and entire lives of people feeling emptied out rather than filled up by mid-century American life. Ostensibly seeking to turn Harry Crane into a Hare Krishna, he invites his former co-worker to a spiritual gathering at which a Charlie Manson look-alike strums the sitar and young women try to lure men in, just as they did in other cults during the '60s.

“Don’t pretend this isn’t strange. That’s why I wanted you to see it,” Paul advises Harry – a quote that sums up a decade of passing strangeness that can’t be explained to those who didn’t see it firsthand. While drugs, orgies and religious cults may seem familiar terrain now, along with their attendant risks, those who tried them when they were new and unusual were more often fascinated by the sense of liberation they imparted – a feeling bolstered by the disapproval of “squares,” such as peers like Harry who lived much as their parents did.

Yet Paul’s too smart or too square himself to be fully taken in – he may have shaved his head, given away all his possessions and changed his name, but he’s hit upon a truth that will later be known as “no matter where you go, there you are.” He’s depressed to find that not even his required-to-love-everyone guru likes him, that his monkey mind won’t calm down and that he’s still burning with worldly ambition despite having worked his way (down) through the entire alphabet soup of ad agencies. And his instincts are good, even if his timing and talents are bad – he spots the cult potential in “Star Trek,” even if he can’t see that that juggernaut “Bewitched” (a show about an ad exec with a troublemaking wife) is about to take it down. In the short run, the hacks will win out over the imaginative innovators, but time will be on Roddenberry’s side, if not Paul's. (Whether the housewives win out over the admen is of course another story, and another series.)

Having told the truth about his feelings, Paul is rewarded with lies from Harry, who nevertheless proves himself a true friend by not only financing but directing Paul’s dream, urging him to flee the sticky web of Lakshmi for that bright California sunshine that’s always helped Don. Channeling nearly identical words to those that Don used to rouse Peggy from her torpor while in a mental hospital, Harry tells Paul that, “This failure, this life, it will all seem like it happened to someone else” – a belief in reinvention that was increasingly embraced by Americans shedding marriages, family and careers in ways unimaginable even a decade before.

Peggy herself has both the best and worst advice for Paul: suggesting that Harry tell him, “he has to write a better script,” she mysteriously switches to “then he shouldn’t be doing it” when Harry says that even the terrible script they read was hard for Paul to produce. Writing a better script for their lives is precisely what people like Paul were trying to do in that era. It was also harder than they thought it would be -- the reason many gave up sooner than they should have. As someone who worked herself into a new life story, and who works hard at her career rather than relying on innate talent, Peggy should know better than to advise giving up so easily.

Like his former employee, Don faces reinvention, needing to move from faking work while napping to making work that wakes clients up. He’s excited not by a car (which he says does nothing for him) but the prospect of the success that landing it as an account would confer. While Roger pickles himself into incoherence in honor of Pearl Harbor, and Lane can’t give a speech that the staff understands, Don gives a rousing one that marshals the troops like Patton – accomplishing a Christmas miracle by making them smile at the prospect of working through the holidays. (But then maybe they hate spending them with their families and are glad for the excuse.)

Having taken Megan’s rejection of advertising as a personal rebuke, Don’s been sulking like a child who claims he’s bored and has nothing to do, and, oh yes, his favorite playmate has moved away (as Megan did by resigning). Challenged first by Pete, who denigrates his laziness, and then by Megan, who scolds him for his sullen defensiveness, he makes good on his promise that “I’d live here if I thought that (pursuing Jaguar) was more than a pipe dream.” The rediscovery of his dreams is spurred in part by a nightmare of a play in which advertising is portrayed as so poisonous that people have to puke it out in order to survive, and in which an actor defiantly proclaims his separation from cultural influence by stating that, “The TV was one thing but I was a person.”  Once again, it seems that Don finds this kind of opposition motivating, just as he at first excitedly takes Megan’s anger as being one of their power games leading to great sex -- before she bluntly informs him that “that’s not what this is.”

What this is -- and what the “this” is – is exactly what people like Paul are trying to figure out, even if they’re stumbling in doing so. By contrast, that old slickster Don feels he can sum up and justify his profession in a single sentence, “People buy things because it makes them feel better,” without realizing that Americans are discovering that consumerism does no such thing, even if they’re not about to entirely renounce the material world as the gurus advise.

Instead, like Joan, they may simply resist the old ways while groping for a new one that remains scary and undefined. Joan won’t let her baby-daddy become a sugar-daddy, and she at first follows Lane’s tactic of refusing to admit she needs help from anyone when Don reaches out to her. As he’s known to do with the ladies, Don quickly breaks down her resistance and whisks her off for a morale-boosting trip to showroom and barroom. In both, Joan’s as much on display as that “most beautiful car in the world,” with men itching to take her for a test drive. But she only has eyes for her designated driver, Don, as he lends an ear to her fears that no one will want a divorced woman with a baby.

Joan’s mother may have produced a daughter who never depends on the kindness of strangers, but she did teach Joan how to be admired. And that’s exactly what Don does for an afternoon, while safely hiding behind Joan’s belief that he’s madly in love with his sexy, young wife (which he is but in a more weary and complicated way than Joan knows). Quoting Bobbi Barrett’s observation that he likes to be bad and then go home and be good, Don nevertheless does the opposite: He does good with Joan and then goes home to Megan where he’s chastised for being bad.

Even as he and Joan flirt deliciously, letting out the latent attraction that fans of the show have been tantalized by for years, he follows Joan’s lead in drawing the line at physical contact. “God, you’re irresistible,” Joan laughs while resisting him with seeming ease, turning down his offer to dance because of “that look” on his face. Even though she claims to miss the kind of trouble that Don alludes getting into with the opposite sex, she coolly evaluates the man at the bar that Don points her toward, defining him by his occupation just as women of her generation tended to do, “Who do you think he is? Advertising? Insurance? Lawyer?” before noting that he probably has an attractive wife at home whose only sin is being too familiar to be desirable any more.

“So you think it’s all him?” Don asks with some surprise, to which Joan responds, yes, because his wife can’t give him what he wants. “He doesn’t know what he wants,” Don argues back, but Joan is having none of it. “He knows. It’s just the way he is. And maybe just the way she is.” Don and Joan share a lack of belief in the power of people to change, other than by shifting partners – as Don advises her to do, glibly touting divorce as a chance to move on to someone better. The idea of moving on to being someone better seems to elude Don, despite his obvious attempts to do just that with Megan. And if he’s unable to see his own agency in that and take credit for it, he’ll be equally unable to take responsibility when things go wrong, including if those roses for Joan were more than just an affectionate gesture (and a joke about her movie star allure). Both Don and Joan are teetering on the edge of adapting to the social changes around them, but both are just old-fashioned enough that writing an even slightly better script is hard for them.

“I want to fly, but I think we’re going to drive,” the banker Walt says to Lane about his upcoming vacation, a statement both about the grounding of aspirations as well as the reality of family life. Complaining that his wife “calls me during the day and she’s peachy, but when I come home, she’s blue,” he fails to connect the dots the way Joan did in realizing that absence makes some hearts grow fonder, while presence can be maddening. When you like your spouse better in theory than in practice, your marriage is in serious trouble. Although she avoids the proverbial rolling pin, Megan looked chillingly like Betty drinking her wine and watching a drunken Don eat his dinner, raising the likelihood that this “perfect” match is headed to a reckoning. And since this episode has Don declare that he didn’t want to deal with an unhappy female employee as well as respond, “Not my morale,” when Lane declared, “Nothing like a surprise for morale,” I think we can expect Don’s comeuppance to be a sudden and painful shock.

“They’re projections,” Harry says to Lane about the predicted first quarter earnings. “They’re derived from reality, but they’re hopes and dreams.” In that, as in his actions with Paul, he shows a clarity that the other characters lack in this episode. Projections are what we see when we look at other people, and far from being real, they’re merely reflections of our hopes and dreams – including our hope that the dreamy new person in our life will change everything, and painlessly. Don’s had that hope about Megan, but in her truthful way, she keeps disabusing him of the notion that it will be that easy. As with Lane’s forged check, problems can be papered over temporarily, but the accounting occurs eventually, and often at the most inconvenient time.

And when you’re dealing with someone’s dreams – as Don is with Megan -- the cost of standing in their way can be devastating. As Langston Hughes said in another memorable poem that had a renaissance in the 1960s, “What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun ... Or does it explode?” The decade was defined by explosions of various kinds -- both the literal bombings both at war and at home, and the figurative blowing up of family life and social norms. With just three episodes to go, the lives of these characters seem far more likely to be blown apart rather than brought neatly together by season's end.

By Nelle Engoron

Nelle Engoron is a freelance writer, an Open Salon blogger and the author of "Mad Men Unmasked: Decoding Season 4."

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