Mad Men: For the Love of the Work
Each week, Alissa Wilkonson reflects on the latest episode of AMC’s Mad Men.
On February 14, 1969, Pope Paul VI deleted Valentine’s Day from the General Roman Calendar of saints, making it no longer a religious holiday for Catholics like Peggy Olson. Officially this was because there’s a number of saints named Valentine and they’d all become conflated. Some people claim the real reason was that the holiday had become too commercialized, co-opted by Madison Avenue. Others suspect the deletion of the holiday for lovers had something to do with being at the tail end of the “free love” 60s.
In any case, that first non-Valentine’s Day is also the setting for “A Day’s Work,” a workday on which nobody does any work. Don is still effectively unemployed and pretending desperately not to be. Sally’s day of hooky takes a detour. Dawn keeps having to desk-hop and Joan has to engineer the hopping. Pete’s more or less shouting into the void. Everyone knows Roger doesn’t do anything. And Peggy is very, very distracted.
We open on February 13, with Don sprawled in bed in a pose reminiscent of the falling silhouette in the show’s credits—his alarm goes off at 7:30, he shuts it off, and (in a move familiar to us all) he wakes up again five hours later. But no matter: he’s still not working, which gives him plenty of time to binge watch The Little Rascals and eat Ritz crackers and try not to drink all the DeWar’s. He gets cleaned up and dressed just in time for the event of the day—Dawn, bringing him the news from the office. Megan didn’t call; Dawn’s sent her flowers, and he should expect a call on Valentine’s evening. Nothing else new to report. She’s brought him creamer for his coffee.
You can gauge the downward trajectory of Don’s personal relationships by their inverse relationship to his job commitment. Particular women have only occasionally replaced the agency as Don’s central object of affection, and never for long. In season 5, Don is briefly happy because he’s just married Megan, and his job suffers. He’s never around, and people get angry at him for it. But we know that will change, and in season 6, it does, except when he’s slipping out to see Sylvia. But now, on leave, Don is the desperate, forlorn suitor, finding any way he can to see his crush.
But since Don and the agency are navigating a temporary separation (or maybe more—in a partner’s meeting, Jim Cutler calls him “our collective ex-wife who still receives alimony”), Don can’t even fall back on Megan for a boost, and he doesn’t seem inclined to seek female company elsewhere, not yet. So instead, on Valentine’s Day, he goes on a date with another agency. When Jim Hobart happens by and asks him what he’s up to, Don tells him he’s “just looking for love.”
“On behalf of myself and all the millionaires at McCann Erickson, we’d love a chance to tell you how handsome you are,” Hobart replies. Wouldn’t we all. What a flirt.
The thing is that real life impedes, this time in the form of Sally, who went to a friend’s mother’s funeral she later declares was “awful” and accidentally discovers her father doesn’t work at SC&P right now. They wind up sitting across from one another at a table—Don eating, Sally sullenly refusing, fed up with her father’s shenanigans—and she asks him a worthy question: why, if he’s not working, is he not staying with Megan out in California?
“Because I wanted to be here, to fix it,” he tells her.
“How?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” says the jilted lover.
Over on the other coast, Pete’s invisible, too. First, the New York office decides to pull in Bob Benson to help shepherd one of Pete’s accounts. Then, during a conference call malfunction, New York just talks over him. Later, Roger just hangs up on him while Pete keeps talking.
For Pete, the job has been everything, too. But now there’s not even another office to work up to (“yours is only slightly better than mine,” he complains to Ted, who immediately offers him his own office). When New York is ignoring him, he’s truly lost. “I don’t exist,” he complains, and later, “Sometimes I think maybe I died, and I’m in some kind of, I don’t know if it’s heaven or hell or limbo? But I don’t seem to exist. No one feels my existence.”
“Just cash the checks,” Ted says. “You’re gonna die one day.”
The clear winner of this episode—besides Joan, who’s moving upstairs—is Dawn, who’s not only figured out how to be kind and firm with Don, but who stands up to Lou Avery, a man with a yen for blame-shifting. Given the politics of the time, Dawn realizes she’s awfully hard to fire and might have more power than she’d expected. She uses it to stand up for herself, an act that actually shames Lou into apologizing. And by the end of the episode, Dawn’s sitting in Joan’s former seat.
But if Dawn’s the winner, the clear loser is Peggy. Oh, Peggy. Peggy, Peggy, Peggy. It’s clear from the outset that she’s got the identity of her mysterious admirer all wrong—we’re meant to know this, and kudos to the writers for not hamming it up by letting us just imagine Ted’s reaction. But it’s painful to watch, especially after she was left weeping on her knees in an empty apartment last week. Peggy’s primary relationship is certainly with her job (and her relationship with Abe ended partially because of it), but it’s also partially the job’s fault that Ted is so far away, even if it was his choice.
For Peggy, the tug-of-war is still going on. She hasn’t succumbed entirely to the charms of advertising. She’s working, but actively lonely nonetheless, enough to lash out at the others. Her promotion to copy chief meant her camaraderie with the rest of creative was severely hampered, and she doesn’t even have Don to fight with anymore—instead she has dreadful Lou, who effectively told her in the last episode that she wasn’t worth noticing.
Set in the 1960s, Mad Men has always been about love—or about desire, and the desire to be desired. That desire leads characters down the strangest paths. The show is anchored on Madison Avenue, where America finds out what it’s supposed to want. And what is that? To be desired, to be loved—something Madison Avenue itself invented.
In a quotation from the series pilot that functions as the show’s thesis, Don tells Rachel, “The reason you haven’t felt [love] is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons. You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.”
For six seasons, that sense of impending doom hovers over any character who looks for or longs for love. They’ve mostly looked in the arms of other lonely people. But Don and Peggy and Pete are realizing that the agency was their great love, and now the agency’s feeling the seven-year itch. They’re all more successful than ever—even Don, who’s still being courted by other agencies—but on this non-Valentine’s Day, they’re grasping at wind. The bouquet of roses smells like death. (And Jim and Roger are in grey and blue in the elevator, cordially threatening one another: a civil war might be a’brewin.)
The show’s creator and head writer, Matthew Weiner, told the Paris Review, “I am terrified about having things taken away from me because I finally relax. When I wrote the pilot of Mad Men, I was saying, I’m already successful, why am I not happy? Now it’s become, You didn’t even know what success was. What if your dreams came true?”
What if you got what you wanted?
“What if you got what you wanted?”
One of the main themes of the show is that people don’t know what they want, and that they realize this only when they get what they thought they wanted. Or maybe it is that what they want is never enough.
Your point about “desire, and the desire to be desired” is especially spot on. These characters are almost completely empty. They so desire to be filled, but they have no clue what it means to be filled, and, thus, how to go about becoming filled.
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