Welcome to the Convo, where ACG Blog contributors get together for discussion and analysis. Today’s topic is last night’s episode of “Mad Men,” “Blowing Smoke.”
Editor’s Note: Today’s Convo is down one as contributor Amber Lester is enjoying her honeymoon. The ACG Blog wishes her the best, and she swears she’ll be back next week to offer her thoughts on the season finale.
Talk about a blast from the beatnik past. I was surprised how excited I was at Midge’s unexpected return, surprised because I had always been cool on her in the first place. But those were the early days of “Mad Men,” when the line between tradition and modernity was clearly defined. Now Don and Co. are more agile, more cutting edge, more with it, and Midge fits more into his world now. Besides, her yellow dress and blue sweater provided some much-needed color in SCDP’s lobby. Still, for a brief moment I was comforted by the thought that maybe Midge was an artist, even a starving one, and that she had ended up with her bourgeois lover from season one.
Alas, Don’s visit to her home and husband unraveled those warm thoughts quickly. It was clearly a shakedown; the husband (not the lovably anti-love beatnik) drops that Midge tracked Don down, that their encounter was not random. They also just so happen to have no cash to buy groceries, so Don “loans” him a tenner. Don also buys one of Midge’s paintings, a pity buy, giving her some cash to further what has obviously become a destructive heroin addiction. The whole encounter is disgusting and dirty, and the shakedown serves as a patent parable for Don and SCDP’s situation. He, too, began the episode by begging Heinz for a shot at the beans and sauces division’s money, only to be shot down. SCDP, like Midge, is going down in flames, but unfortunately SCDP doesn’t have an old sugar daddy it can go crawling back to.
So Don, after studying Midge’s mediocre abstract painting for a while, connects the dots and places a full-page ad in the New York Times denouncing tobacco as an easy advertising gig; the sin sticks sold themselves, he wrote, and its users were helpless but to buy more. Don tacitly consents that Lucky Strike was SCDP’s heroin, and he rips the figurative needle from his arm. The partners (“Get out, Crane!”) aren’t happy — except for Roger, who notes at least someone else can be blamed for the ship sinking — and the ad draws a crank call from Ted Shaw Chaugh. The higher-ups are whipped up in a furious rage, but as Ken and the lower-downs note, nobody’s talking about Lucky Strike anymore.
“You haven’t commented on the ad,” Don tells Peggy. Many SCDPers were upset — Bert even flow the coop — and some, like Megan, thought Don was brave for taking a generic stand. But Peggy neither chides nor praises. “I thought you didn’t go in for those kind of shenanigans,” she says, calling back to the Sugarberry Ham fight from the first episode. They share a little smile, and move on.
Nevertheless, the firm is taking on water, fast, and some desperate measures need to be taken. Peggy is palpably relieved to discover she’s not on the chopping block (yet), but she loses most of the creative team. Interestingly, she points out to Don that, for an agency successful at marketing hams, laxatives, gloves and auto parts, SCDP stinks at selling itself. “Change the name,” she suggests, to Don’s derision. “That’s what we would do if this were dog food.” She may be talking silly, but at least Peggy’s thinking about how to save the company, despite quite literally having to listen through the walls. Don admonishes her that creative is the “least important and most important” aspect of their business, landing on a remarkable parallel to the current climate, where all the emphasis is on the economy and creating jobs and no one worries about things like innovation or talent anymore.
To keep the few people remaining employed, Lane decides that the partners must put up $50,000 to $100,000 apiece — a sum Pete does not have. He spends much of the episode fretting and fighting with Trudy (“Keep your voice down!” she screams) but in the end Don “Moneybags” Draper covers his share — a nice payback on the massive debt he owes Pete. Continuing on, business-wise, SCDP’s future is unclear. What is clear is that it’s not good news when your firm’s greatest financial hope is a pickup in holiday advertising for Sugarberry Ham. They picked up the American Cancer Society, unpaid public announcement work, but it’s something, I guess, and show’s they’re principled.
We were also treated to some weird Sally-Glenn-Betty drama. School is back in session, and Dr. Ginger wants to cut down on Sally’s visits. Betty looks alarmed, and Dr. Ginger recommends seeing a grown-up psychiatrist for her own problems. “You know, I’m a child psychiatrist,” she says. Betty responds with something about feeling comfortable talking with her, but all I could hear was Betty throwing a hissy fit and screaming, “I AM A CHILD!”
Sally and creepy Glenn are secret Coke-drinking friends (gasp!) and Betty is not happy when she finds out (double gasp!). Glenn’s fight-or-flight sprint away was one of the funniest moments of the episode. Betty, of course, finally decides it’s time to move. Henry is unaware of the drama, but Sally knows it’s to get her away from the one friend she seems to have. Is this the last we’ll see of the Draper home? Will Carla have an even longer commute? Does the fainting couch get to go? Will Sally finally become a lesbian in retaliation? We’ll have to wait and see.
Some final notes: As usual Harry Crane was magnificent in the two lines he had (“I didn’t think they’d start with him,” he notes dryly as Coop walks out the door.). Where did Coop even get all that stuff in his little box? He didn’t have an office. Did Don throw out his diary? Why exactly was Dr. Faye canned? And where did Ted Shaw Chaugh get such a good RFK impression?
And that was the sound of “Mad Men” winning yet another Emmy. Can John Slattery direct my life?
Desperation always trumps dignity; it knows no class boundaries. From tertiary season one free spirit Midge to Don himself, there’s no room for ideology in a world of overwhelming need.
SCDP is about to lose everything. They need to drum up business if they’re going to survive, and harried frenzy is driving the operation. No one really knows what to do. When Don meets with the Heinz exec, his sense of urgency comes off as cheap. It’s not helping his cause. Heinz is interested, but not for six months. Gotta make sure the agency still exists, after all.
Soon after, Don “runs into” Midge, his artsy, bohemian buddy from a few years ago. She’s married now, and convinces him to come home and meet her husband. But, as it turns out, all is not well at home. Midge and hubby are both heroin addicts. They’d do anything to get a fix, just as Don would to save his company. Perhaps recognizing the similarities, Don throws some cash her way.
Tortured by feelings of impotency (metaphorically, of course; this is Don Draper we’re talking about), Don goes home and does what he does best — he writes an ad. A full-page open letter in The New York Times about the evils of tobacco. An “I dumped him” tribute to Lucky Strike and the Marlboro campaign that wasn’t. It was impulsive and a little frantic, but maybe just crazy enough to work. They’ve got a shot at an American Cancer Society campaign. It’s pro bono, but good advertising for the advertisers.
The marked lack of tension between principle and need in this episode was masterful. Everything becomes justifiable when you’re desperate. Midge never liked that Don was an ad man, but now that something’s at stake, she’s fine taking the money he made doing it. Don’s got no beef with tobacco — it put a roof over his head and fed his children. But he’ll sure as hell throw it to the wolves if it can save the company.
The spirit of both these actions is fairly underhanded and, as Burt put it, craven. Yet, as an audience, we’re willing to accept one much more readily than the other. Is Don really nobler than Midge? When even our butter packages make us question our reality and we can’t tell if the image or “after image” is real, isn’t it all just blowing smoke?
Vanessa Van Landingham