Last night, Mad Men Season 4 finally hit its stride. It’s not that the writing has been bad, it just hasn’t been this good in quite some time. At its best, this show is a history of the present. It documents in impeccable detail, how we got where we are today via a cozy reconstruction of the past. Any historical fiction is first and foremost a fiction, and in the case of Mad Men, this fiction tells us more about the present than the past it attempts to put to life. What is so striking about Mad Men is that its history lesson is never about enormous cultural moments; the assassinations and social movements that define the 1960s in history books are always mere background on the show. This feels right. Last night Peggy was shocked to hear that Malcolm X had been shot. This kind of detail is what makes Mad Men so compelling. The moments that have made the history books barely brush the surface of the characters everyday lives, and yet they have important effects. The shooting of Malcolm X may not have been significant to Don or Roger or Peggy, but to the viewer, this signals something about the culture at large. Things are getting intense. But enough about my big-picture theories, let’s get down to specifics. Last night’s episode was an episode about Peggy and Don in a couple of important ways. The writing pointed out the parallel lives Don and Peggy seem to leading, especially in their relationships to other people, their understanding of advertising, of art, and of the culture in which they live.
The episode begins as we watch Don and Roger handle a conference call with Lee Garner Jr., who, as the agency’s most important and most lucrative client, needs to be coddled and nurtured like a small child. Faye appears with Peggy and attempts to work out the details for a focus group she’ll be leading about Pond’s cold cream. The idea she will be testing out is Peggy’s bit on ritual and looking in the mirror. The focus group that follows seemed to me to be the crux of this episode. Faye assembles a group of 18-25 year old women in the conference room for a focus group to discuss beauty. Before meeting her subjects, Faye transforms herself into a secretary; she changes her clothes and deposits her engagement ring with Peggy for safe keeping. I love this detail, and it speaks to Faye’s ability to earn the trust of her test-subjects.
On the other side of the mirror, Peggy, Don and Freddy watch the show unfold as Faye has a candid discussion about beauty with her test subjects. After loosening up, the women inevitably express their many insecurities about dating and marriage. Beauty, it seems, is always in the eye of the beholder. One girl explains that makeup can only do so much, the true test is not how she feels when she looks in the mirror, but how men respond to her. In yet another lovely detail, Don catches Peggy trying on Faye’s engagement ring; she sees him see her, and quickly removes the ring. We know Peggy wants to get married, but the gesture of trying on the ring points out the way this desire is also a desire to be the sort of person who wears an engagement ring. That ring is powerful currency. Being a working-woman is all well and good, but Peggy has no diamond, and in the eyes of many of her peers, this makes her professional success irrelevant.Freddy watches the girls express their fears through crocodile tears and decides that he was right all along. They all just want to get married, and will buy anything that might win them a husband.
This episode, both Don and Peggy have to face the consequences of their inter-office hook ups. After she breaks down during the focus group, Allison quits, telling Don that he is ‘not a good person.’ She hopes to find a job where she might work for a woman (instead of a no-good drunk who takes advantage of his secretaries). Peggy finds out that Trudy is pregnant. She does not contribute any money to the Campbell gift fund, nor does she sign the card, but she does walk over to Pete’s office to offer her sincere congratulations. After Allison leaves, Don pours himself a drink; after her interaction with Pete, Peggy bangs her head against her desk. Their situations are certainly not the same. While Don was merely drunk and stupid, it did seem that Peggy (God knows why) had some feelings for Pete at some point. In spite of the differences, neither Peggy nor Don is interested in having a real conversation about the situations they find themselves in. They both prefer to keep their affairs private, and balk at the thought that anyone might know them on that level in the office.
Finally, this was an episode about art and advertising, and the progressive vision Peggy and Don share about their work. Peggy offers the beatnik photographer she meets work at her agency and he scoffs at her: “Art in advertising? Why would anyone do that after Warhol?”. The answer is pretty obvious to Peggy: you would do it to make money. But she’s just had her first contact with the counter-culture, and the value system she is encountering is not her own. [Side note: It was exciting to watch her at that party surrounded by creative people with a political conscience. I would love to see her become such a person, but Peggy Olson is too naive, and too much of a workaholic to really get behind any social movement.] Regardless, the exchange between avant garde photographer and copywriter pointed out the supposed dichotomy between the art world and the advertising world. Later on in the episode, Don makes the argument that Peggy couldn’t: Advertising may not be capital ‘A’ Art, but it is a powerful medium that has social consequences, and if done right, can produce a different world than the one in which we current live. I’m speaking of course of Don’s exchange with Faye about the results of her focus group. She says that Peggy’s idea was wrong. In the end, women are not motivated to buy beauty products because they enjoy the experience of self-indulgence; they buy beauty products in order to attract men. Don rejects Faye’s conclusions, insisting that it is no longer 1925. He claims that “a new idea is something they don’t know yet” and thus would never be discovered via focus group. His harsh reaction seemed to be a direct response not only to Allison’s behavior, but to Peggy trying on Faye’s engagement ring. It seemed to me that the new idea he wanted to plant in young women’s brains (that beauty is a self-indulgence) was an almost paternal gesture toward these young women who have so whole heartedly swallowed societies expectations about love and marriage.
Perhaps I am over-analyzing because this discussion of love of marriage is so pertinent to my own research, but I loved Don’s insistence that he would not produce more advertisements that feed into a desire for marriage that transforms otherwise bright and talented young women into weepy little girls. This was a cry for the artistic power of advertising within a television show that is forcefully suggesting that television too, is an art form. Don’t get me wrong, I am certainly not about to sell my soul for a job as a copy-writer (I’m too much of an art snob for all that) but I might consider making a deal with the devil if I could somehow find a job working for Don Draper.