Mad Men Recap 6.8: What Holds People Together
This season of Mad Men’s eighth episode, titled “The Crash,” begins with Ken Cosgrove crashing a joy ride full of gallivanting middle-aged executives, but, emphasized by a jump-cut to a tall silhouetted figure smoking a cigarette outside of his former mistress’s apartment, it’s clearly Don Draper who is crashing. What Ken’s speeding car crash and Don’s post-mistress anxiety transition into is an office on “medicinal” speed. Trying to get a pick-me-up for their long work weekend servicing Chevy, the mad men need to hold it together while working the long hours. The amphetamine induced episode turns positively trippy in a hurry, featuring, as you might guess, a steady dose of teenage Dick Whitman flashbacks. And this–the connection between what prevents us from falling apart and Don’s long-aborted, but still haunting personal history–is what holds the episode together.
“I’m gonna call my doctor . . . I’m gonna get everybody fixed up,” says Harry Hamlin.
In a closed, dark office space together, Peggy and Stan are on the verge of rekindling an old office fling–at least if Stan has his way. When Peggy rejects the urge, she is met with Stan’s story of personal pain, an anecdote that walks the line between genuine and manipulative. But Stan’s twenty year old cousin who “died in action” isn’t going to spring Peggy into “action,” either, despite her sympathies. Instead, Peggy–no doubt recalling her baby that almost no one knows about–says, “I’ve had loss in my life. You have to let yourself feel it. You can’t dampen it with drugs and sex. It won’t get you through.”
Moments later, a sudden flash of imaginative brilliance–maybe just the drugs–strikes Don in his office, though he seems to be thinking less of Chevy and more of Sylvia. He calls in Peggy and Ginsberg, “I’ve got this great message, and it has to do with what holds people together. What is that thing that draws them? It’s a history.” Ginsberg chimes in, “Promise them everything! You’re going to change their life–you’re going to take away their pain! What’s the answer to all of life’s problems? It’s a Chevy.”
It’s not just a shared history that holds a group of people together, though; it’s a personal history that, in part, holds a person together. While not always well done, the Dick Whitman flashbacks that have cropped up since season one work to show us that Don–try as he might to totally erase his personal history as if it doesn’t exist–is powerless to keep his history of an abusive father, a family torn asunder, and life inside a brothel from haunting his fragmented, created self qua “Don Draper.” Considered from this angle of personal and familial histories of tragedy, the most telling moment from the faux Gramma Ida holding the kids hostage comes in the aftermath, when Sally says to her father (after he’s “crashed” to the ground in a collapsing heap) that she was able to be tricked mainly because she barely knows anything about her father.
Midway through the episode, a young, hippy fortune-telling woman who is roaming the premises stops by Don’s office to try to seduce him. “Does someone love me?” she says speaking for Don, “that’s your question . . . that’s everyone’s question.” She proceeds to apply a stethoscope to his chest in order to hear his heart: “I think it’s broken.” As it turns out, the young woman, who is later seen having sex with Stan Rizzo while Harry gets a voyeuristic kick out of it, has just had her heart broken by a history forming event. Frank Gleason, who has just died of cancer, is her father.
It’s not so much a question, then, of whether or not Don can suppress his history unscathed. We know Don Draper will always feel the effects of Dick Whitman–that the office will inevitably turn into a whore house. The more important question is tied to Gleason’s daughter’s question, “Does someone love me?” You might phrase it like this: “is there a Doctor who can heal these wounds?”
Mad Men Recap 6.9: A Wellspring of Confidence
If the previous episode was a literal and proverbial car crash, then the latest episode of Mad Men, “The Better Half,” is filled with the sound of ambulance sirens. And Pete Campbell’s is the central crisis that binds the episode’s narrative threads. Feeling constant insecurity about his status at the advertising agency, Pete follows Harry Crane’s advice to seek reassurance by meeting with a potential employer who, presumably, would make Pete feel good about himself by making him feel wanted at another business. But what Pete didn’t expect to find in the meeting at his little apartment, I suspect, is the kind of personal advice that says if you want security, you’d better get your home in order.
“I’ve been you, and I went to interviews, and realized that I filled the room with desperation,” the middle aged man says to Pete. “Five cents worth of advice. You’ve gotta spend less time at this [apartment] and more at home. . . . Pete, one day I looked in the mirror, and I realized I had regrets because I didn’t understand the wellspring of my confidence–my family.”
“My family’s a constant distraction,” Pete glumly complains.
“You’d better manage that or you’re not going to manage anything.”
The scene cuts to “father of the year” (as Roger’s daughter later quips) Don Draper, pulling into an out-in-the-woods gas station. The serviceman is distracted, though, by a beautiful blond woman. She pops her head out of the car window, and Don sees that it’s Betty. Of course, from the very beginning Don has had a disordered home, but in this scene–and this episode–something different happens from the usual arguing, blaming, and general resentment. Instead–and notable in lieu the advice given to Pete above–something of a confidence comes over Don as he stands next to the smitten serviceman. It’s a knowing confidence. He knows this woman in a way that the serviceman couldn’t possibly understand. He knows what kind of gas she needs, and he knows how to lead her to the campground. And so it’s something more than a typical Draper-like Conquering Male Confidence. There’s a sense of pride in his having been married to Betty–an intimacy that’s more layered than mere sexual knowing.
As it turns out, Don and Betty are going to a children’s camp to be with their son Bobby for a night, and what unfolds, if only briefly, is a sequence that is at first heartening and then quite disheartening–one that begins and ends in the camp’s diner. When Don walks into the diner, he surprises Bobby with his presence. Beaming with pride, Bobby exclaims to a friend at another table that this man and woman, together with him at the table, are his dad and mom. Bobby proceeds to teach his dad a song he learned at camp–“Father Abraham”–and Don, if somewhat awkwardly at first, eventually joins in, hand motions and all.
Over the course of the series, a common response to Mad Men has become almost meme-worthy: “Don’s back!” is the celebratory remark when Don regains some sense of confidence tied to domineering maleness. But, in these moments at camp, I was reminded of the more important and compelling response that, for me at least, haunts Don’s life, and therefore, the entire series. Referring to Don’s marriage and family with Betty, I thought to myself: what if Don had never left? Don and Betty share a bed together that night and have a conversation that I’ll return to below, but the next morning, when Don sees Henry with Betty and Bobby seated together for breakfast at the diner, he seems, for a moment, haunted by his own familial absence.
The episode’s other plot lines all tie in with the connective tissue of confidence being tied to an ordered home. In the beginning of the episode, Henry responds to another man hitting on Betty by making love to her in the back of their car. Meanwhile, Megan complains that she feels alone in her marriage to Don–that he also seems absent to her. Or take, for instance, Peggy’s growing insecurity at home with Abe. Their crumbling relationship mirrors the lack of confidence Peggy feels about her safety in that area of town. Or, consider Joan’s reaction to Pete’s crisis: his home problems are essentially her problems. She lacks the stability of having an available father for her son–or, at least, a father she would want to be available to her son. Or consider Roger, who–already divorced from his wife–quickly grows estranged from his daughter when he doesn’t handle time with his grandson with appropriate care. His felt lack of a home life leads him to reach out to Joan and their son, but she rejects his presence. Neither of these “homes” are available to him. All of these examples serve to show that perhaps the brief air of confidence that mad men display in the boardroom and office spaces is ultimately fraudulent–unable to mask the growing air of despairing insecurity that only an anchor of fidelity can provide and sustain.
In my recap of the third hour of this season, I said that one of the trade secrets for these mad men was “sexual collaboration,” but in this episode, the advice given to Pete is that one of the secrets to personal business success is a secure, ordered, happy home life. Sitting together outside on the hotel steps, Don and Betty have the kind of qualitatively intimate conversation that married people might have (not that intimacy is limited to the marital paradigm). At one point, Betty says that Henry thinks Sally is like Don. “How would he know?” Don quickly reacts. Their shared history of first being married to one another is a wellspring of confidence that, though obviously and irreparably damaged, doesn’t quite run dry, either. When Don and Betty betray their second spouses to return to bed together, the conversation inevitably turns to Don’s Rabbit tendencies, and to how sex alone can’t sustain genuine intimacy. Sex is an act that, for many people, has lost its significance; it should be a declaration of oneness that’s brimming with the pleasure of fidelity. And, it’s no coincidence that the layers of the word “confidence” tie together a sense of personal effectiveness with a relation of trust or intimacy. As it turns out, discretion is embedded in the potential for power and the capacity for self-assurance.
Which is to say: if we were children of Abraham, we would do his works.