Mad Men, Season 3

Week 13: Don's Most Ambitious Pitch Ever
Talking television.
Nov. 9 2009 10:04 AM

Mad Men, Season 3

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Week 13: Don's Most Ambitious Pitch Ever

Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), Roger Sterling (John Slattery), and Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in the Season 3 finale. Click image to expand.
Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), Roger Sterling (John Slattery), and Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in the Season 3 finale

Somewhere, a set designer is crying. It's painful to think that the gorgeous suite of offices occupied for three seasons by the venerable Sterling Cooper has been consigned, along with the Seinfeld apartment and Cheers, to some back-lot scrap heap. I'd like to propose that AMC put the whole elaborately detailed edifice on mothballs, preserving it for posterity, like Tim Russert's office at the Newseum. But when Bert Cooper's Rothko has left the building—along with Bert, Roger, Don, Pete, Peggy, Lane, and Harry—what are we left with but a beautiful set? When Don kneels down to lock the glass doors behind them, Roger tells him not to bother. Save one or two misgivings, I agree.

What a thrillingly dense episode! Almost every scene was an additional turn of the screw. Weiner employed a veritable smorgasbord of meat metaphors to make one thing abundantly clear: The sausage factory is no place for a prize pig like Don Draper, no matter what golden pork chops they dangle in front of him. And you thought this episode had red meat, Julia.

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As a structural device, the recruitment of a crack team for an impossible mission isn't exactly an innovation, but whether it's the Seven Samurai or Ocean's Eleven, I tend to enjoy these types of sequences. And in this instance, the fact that the team members were being poached from inside Sterling Coop made it all the more fun. Part of the thrill was watching these masters of sales patter actually try to sell one another on so audacious an idea. (When Cooper bellows, "You sold your birthright so you could marry that trollop!" Roger replies, "This is your pitch?!") And from the moment Bert mentioned hiring "a skeleton staff," I knew that could mean only one thing: Joan's lovely and long overdue return. ("Joan," Don says simply when he walks in to find her taking control of the files. "What a good idea.")

I'm not worried about Sal—as you say, Julia, it's only a matter of time. But I confess I'm going to miss poor Kinsey. As for Kenny, my hunch is he'll land on his feet and find some way to continue his rivalry with Pete Campbell. Sure, Pete was excited about making partner, but what really sold him on the new job was hearing that Don had come to him before approaching Cosgrove.

I see what you're saying about this whole season leading to an artful rebranding of the same old product, Julia, and it's a great observation. But I'm not sure I entirely agree. We may have the same old cast of characters at SCDP, but most of them will be well outside their comfort zones. It's not just that Peggy won't be fetching coffee for Roger. How will Bert Cooper adjust to a work environment in which everyone wears their shoes? And where he will be expected to, uh, work? Remember, this is a man who starts the day with a glass of milk and a nap.

And how will the ferociously ambitious Campbell leverage his new position in pursuit of some new goal? I loved everything about Pete's story line in this episode, from the feigned sickness to Trudy eavesdropping from the bedroom and calling, "Peter, may I speak to you for a moment?" before her bitter husband could burn his bridges. Best of all was Pete's outrageous ask: that in addition to being partner, his name be "in the lobby." Don could only chuckle, saying, "There's not going to be a lobby." (Of course there is a name in the lobby—and as it happens, it's Pierre.)

Most interesting to watch will be how Don functions in this new environment. Sure, we see him typing at the end—a harbinger, perhaps, of a more egalitarian workplace to come. But there's also the fact that in his first approach to Peggy, Don says, "I'm starting a new agency." The hasty creation of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, and Pryce is a team effort, to be sure. But the instigation is all Don's. "I've acted like I started a business my whole life," Roger says. "But I inherited it." In some future face-off, I can see Don suggesting, in effect, that Roger is just inheriting this one, too.

To me, Don's little speech about "people who buy things" was just an elaboration of the Draper philosophy of advertising: The American consumer is afflicted by a gap between life as he or she imagines it should be and life as it actually is. As such, buying things can amount to an aspirational gesture, a quixotic prayer that the right dress or car or cufflinks will transform you from the person you are into the person you want to be. Advertising is a kind of priesthood, ministering to the fallen and holding out the false promise, whatever the widget in question, that you are only ever one cash transaction from a return to grace. Peggy grasps this spiritual undercurrent in her métier, which allows her to harness the potent forces of yearning and nostalgia to move even the most trivial of products. That's the deep skill Don and Peggy share. And that's why Draper needs her.

Next to the dazzling office maneuverings, I confess I found the Don and Betty story line a bit rote. I took the bar exam in New York several years ago, and one thing you learn is that the Empire State is no place to get married unless you're sure it'll stick. Betty's hypocrisy when the divorce lawyer suggests that there was infidelity on both sides ("No, we haven't …we aren't …" as if she couldn't find the words for so unseemly a concept) was galling, as was Don's drunken and physically menacing cruelty. The sequence with the kids was wrenching, but again, more obligatory than surprising. The only note in the whole subplot that had any real energy or surprise was the moment when Betty snaps, "Don't threaten me. I know all about you." Now that raises some interesting possibilities for next season.

On the dimly lit dustbowl sequences, I don't even know what to say. It's a testament to the continued weakness of these convoluted flashbacks that you made a slight mistake, Julia: Archibald is actually Don's biological father. Or was, before he got kicked to death by a mare. Connie's lesson about independence and entrepreneurialism was so elegantly delivered and so deftly assimilated by Don that I'm not sure what added incentive ole Archibald and the break with the Midwestern wheat cooperative could have had in driving Don to buy back Sterling Cooper. My only hope is that Draper's adoption of Hilton's ruthlessly forward-looking mantra means an end to these flashbacks once and for all.

Have another. It's 9:30, for God's sake.
Patrick