Mad Men, Season 4

Week 12: Has Don Lost His Touch?
Talking television.
Oct. 11 2010 6:24 PM

Mad Men, Season 4

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Week 12: Has Don Lost His Touch?

Still from Mad Men. Click image to expand.
Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Peter Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), and Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse) 

Oh, good, I'm not the only one who fell for the Bobby bit. I agree, Michael, that the joke was a clever one, and not just on Chaough's part. It played on Don's expectations, but on the audience's, too—I believed it was the real Bobby because I've come to expect each season of Mad Men to have its Kennedy-ex-machina moment: Season 1 had the episode structured around JFK's surprising defeat of Nixon in the 1960 election; Season 2 ended with the Cuban missile crisis; last season, there was the terrific episode dramatizing the assassination. No wonder we thought Bobby would swoop in to save the day for SCDP, even if he did sound like Mayor Quimby.

John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.

While it was clever to upend our expectations—something the Mad Men writers excel at—like you, Michael, I found the move highlighted how tightly focused this season has been on the life of the firm. History has rarely intruded on the proceedings. The Beatles come to town, but it's a minor plot point (and we hear nothing about the actual concert. Did Sally faint?). Peggy narrowly escapes a raid at a beatnik party. Dr. Greg, a character whose fate no Mad Men fan loses sleep over, gets shipped off to Vietnam. What else? This season, the series seems to have shied away from building episodes around major historical events and instead allows history to seep into the story. Perhaps this is a sign of the series maturing; perhaps it's a statement about the difference between 1965 and 1963—without Paul Kinsey in the mix, how are you going to write an episode around the assassination of Malcolm X?

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I think I'm generally in favor of this more subtle approach to period detail—this season's ongoing examination of the emerging opportunities and persistent limitations faced by women in 1965 has been great and hasn't required staging an episode around Griswold v. Connecticut. Still, the series has as a result become more of a conventional workplace drama this year, and I'd be lying if I said some part of me isn't longing for the season finale to, I don't know, dramatize the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council.

Julia, what do you think? Do you miss the big historical set pieces? Or is there a time for beans and a time for ketchup? Are you content with a less substantial but still delicious layer of history?

Michael, I was just as puzzled as you were by Don's ad buy in the Times. We've noted recently that it's been quite some time since we've seen Don work his magic—really the only time we've seen his creative genius this season is in the Glo-Coat ad, way back in Episode 1. (The Honda caper, while brilliant, wasn't a campaign—it was a ruse.) Has he lost his touch? The tobacco renunciation, while certainly bold, made the Sugarberry shenanigan seem positively inspired by comparison. Don's full-pager not only alienates tobacco—as one of the partners notes, it also makes other clients and potential clients concerned that SCDP might betray their industry next. Besides, won't it read to anyone who knows anything about the ad business as a big old bunch of sour grapes? Lucky didn't want us—well, we were having trouble sleeping at night anyway, so good riddance. Bring your work to SCDP, because our creatives are resting better now that we're no longer telling lies for Big Tobacco (which we did for 25 years, but we feel bad about it, so our hands are clean). This felt desperate and poorly thought out, which makes the fact that Don pursued the strategy unilaterally all the more outrageous—I'd have taken my shoes and gone home, too. Plus, how much do you suppose a full-page ad in the Times cost in 1965? SCDP supposedly doesn't have enough cash to make payroll (or lose its tape dispensers and hole punchers).   

Maybe Don paid for the ad out of his own pocket. Though that raises another question, perhaps one for the TV Club readers who have been crunching the SCDP numbers so well all season. What do we suppose Don is worth? The Campbells, we learn in this episode, have $22,000 in the bank. Don's been in the game longer, been a partner longer, and is the creative superstar, presumably with a salary to match. But he's also a guy who came from nothing, just got divorced, has three children, and is still carrying a house in Ossining, even if Henry's rent checks are covering the mortgage. What's he got in the bank? Is it not surprising that he can write a check for $150,000 on short notice? (To say nothing of the $300 check he dashes off for No. 4.) I guess he has been saving on rent living in that Village walk-up …

I wish I could mount a defense of Sally and Glen's heart-to-hearts, but I preferred it when Glen was making trouble, and lanyards, from afar. As for his football career, I don't see it going very far if he turns tail and bolts at the sight of fearsome defensive end Betty Draper. The Sally-Glen scenes were almost rescued for me, though, by Sally's great riff on the Land O' Lakes butter logo. That is freaky.

Save me your Fritos,
John

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