Chasing Contentment by Erik Reymond, Free for CAPC Members
In Chasing Contentment, Erik Reymond identifies the lie that satisfaction and contentment come through consumption.
In his interview with the Paris Review this year, Matthew Weiner (Mad Men‘s creator) says that “every scene is comic” for him—not all that surprising. Mad Men, I suspect, has always been a comedy (more on that later). Weiner got his start in TV writing sitcoms, after all, before he moved on to The Sopranos. In Mad Men, that comedy often comes from out of left field—Peggy’s “PIZZA HOUSE” moment in the fifth season, drunk Lane Pryce, various Roger Sterling zingers, and, above all, the lawnmower scene.
The light goes back into Don’s eyes: this is where he beats them at their own game. He always has.This fifth episode, “The Runaways,” gives us another dose of high comedy in the form of Ginsberg having a (violent) meltdown, though with the season’s overall sense of time ticking down, it’s maybe a little less funny than it has been in the past. This is a workhorse of an episode, too, with a lot of plot that manages to move the Draper marriage, the Francis marriage, the SC&P/Draper union, and a whole lot of other smaller pieces along.
The episode is framed by Stan’s discovery of Lou’s comic on the copier—”Scout’s Honor: He can take anything but an order”—and the creative team’s schadenfreudian glee at discovering their dour, boring old boss has aspirations to write banal comics. Fruedian slip or not on Lou’s part, that discovery and the young folks’ chuckling winds up getting everyone in trouble, as Lou finds out rather quickly and eviscerates Stan and the others as a bunch of “flag-burning snots” with no respect for authority.
That generational split—between those who think authority and order is good, and those who believe that accepting authority is a dangerous deal with the devil—structures the episode. Firmly on the side of authority and order is Lou, who certainly will not be letting Don leave before Lou says he can leave. Even Lou’s comic strip is about authority.
There’s also Henry and Betty, who disagree on the Vietnam War but for what seem to be similar reasons: Betty says the “wild” young people would be better off if they learned to “support their country, sacrifice in hard times,” and Henry infuriates Betty by saying he supports Nixon’s view on the war and expecting her to shut up and let him do the talking when it comes to important matters like voicing political opinions.
On the other side are the snickering guys in creative, of course, but also Sally, who’s completely irritated with her mother’s anger when she breaks her nose. Sally has had it with authority figures, between her mother and her father. You can barely blame her.
There’s also the interesting case of Stephanie Horton, Anna Draper’s niece, who resurfaces in this episode very pregnant and calling Don out of desperate need, though she clearly still respects him. Stephanie is a full-on hippie who dropped out of school to be with a musician (“oh, they’re the worst,” says Megan knowingly, who later proclaims rueful regret for inviting a cadre of musicians to her party) and is now bearing his child, though he’s in prison and doesn’t know. She needs help from others, but she’s not all that interested in being part of society. She’s an echo, or perhaps the future, of Roger’s daughter Margaret from last episode.
In a way we rarely see from him, Don relishes the role he gets to play in Stephanie’s life. We see a genuine smile on his face, several times. He loves that he has a sort of niece. He wants to see her. She’s his connection to Anna, to the only time in his life when he was truly helpless and truly accepted for who he is. She reminds him of his happiest days in California, now supplanted by a marital strife that doesn’t seem to be either his fault or Megan’s.
Don also can’t stop laughing during the meeting with Lou, but he’s laughing both at Lou and at Stan, who when Lou asks “You know who had a ridiculous dream, and people laughed at him?” is dumb enough to respond with “You?”
But Don points out the episode’s driving contrast when he says to Lou, “This is an office made out of people who have problems with authority. You don’t have to have a thick skin, but don’t help them.”
Lou’s reply? “I’m not taking management advice from Don Draper.” (Reasonably.)
Peggy is happy with this shift in authority, now that she’s on top—and she’s spent so long getting there that it’s not all that surprising, at this point, that she’s willing to keep getting in her digs at Don, even in the elevator. But as anyone who’s been put in charge of former coworkers knows, it’s not much fun. People don’t really like that. Especially your former boss. And she’s got some nutcases to manage, too.
Don’s still old and out of it, especially at Megan’s party—he’d rather leave with Harry Crane, of all people, than stay, though it turns out to be a good idea—but he’s got a lot of fight left in him, and at the end of the day, Don doesn’t want to follow authority. When he finds out from (a hilariously tipsy) Harry that Cutler and Lou are hatching a plan to pursue Commander Cigarettes from Philip Morris and thereby cut him out of the business entirely, he knows exactly what to do. The light goes back into his eyes: this is where he beats them at their own game. He always has. And you have to admit: in that last scene at the Algonquin, he’s still got that Draper magic. Witness his hailing of the cab.
So that brings us to the two weirdo moments of the episode. First: Megan, who is high after her party, coaxes Don into a threesome with her friend Amy. She’s still trying to please Don—to interest him again, because she still sneakingly suspects that he has another woman back in New York. And while Don looks utterly weirded out at first, and doesn’t seem all that pleased, it’s been a while since he’s been with anyone other than Megan. The second, obviously, is What Ginsberg Does, which is gross and that’s all I really want to say about it (except to add that Ginsberg has always been more than a little crazy, and not just in a “wow, you’re a weirdo” way).
Finally, though, to return to the comedy: something I’ve learned about comedy as a genre is that while tragedy moves in a linear trajectory from point A to point B, comedy tends to come full circle—point A to A prime, perhaps—leaving us where we started, but with a different order to reality. Comedy (at least in the Shakespearean sense) is a dramatic restatement of the old maxim that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
And that bears out in this episode. Don not only seems to regain his mojo, but we’re coming back to the matter of the cigarettes, which has always framed the show (besides the whole Lucky Strike thing, the pilot episode is titled “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”). The world they’re in is a different world than the start of the show, for sure—but everything that’s come around seems to be poised to go back around.
This whole show is a story of generational conflict and change. But we all know how it ends: the kids who fought The Man wound up becoming The Man, and their kids will do the same, and their kids. There’s nothing new under the sun—the context just changes a little. (Hello, Millennial evangelicals.)
Could it be that Mad Men was a comedy all along?
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