Mad Men, Season 4

Week 7: Ali-Liston, Duck-Don
Talking television.
Sept. 6 2010 1:49 AM

Mad Men, Season 4

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Week 7: Ali-Liston, Duck-Don

John, Julia:

On May 25, 1965, the day of the second Ali-Liston fight, we get yet another sign that Don aligns with an older sensibility. He's a Liston man because the boxer "just goes about his business. Works methodically." He won't be charmed by Ali's brash mouth or by Broadway Joe Namath's nose-thumbing cockiness.

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We also see how difficult it is for an ambitious young woman to work for an old-school boss. Peggy is hurt that she never received credit for the Glo-Coat spot, and she finally confronts Don. But her complaining doesn't go over well. Don ridicules Peggy viciously for being so proprietary about her work and finishes with some hooey about how Peggy should thank him and Jesus everyday for "everything."

Let's look at the evidence: Peggy gave Don the idea of a kid hiding in the closet. He took it and infused it with his own hidden biography—gave it the edge of menace that made the spot so effective. So Peggy faced the blank piece of paper, and produced the raw creative material, while Don gave it a polishing coat, as it were. Clearly Peggy's contribution deserves acknowledgment (and Don does seem guiltily aware that her role wasn't minor), but the show is justly accurate in depicting how creative "geniuses" like Don don't assign credit. That's part of the hold they have over their underlings.

A stranglehold, in this case. Even though it's her birthday, Peggy calls to tell her boyfriend Mark that she'll be late for dinner: "He needs me. I'm the only one who can do this." She chooses work over her boyfriend and family because she sees herself as essential to Don, and earning his approval and respect is the most interesting thing in her life. Peggy doesn't seem all that upset when she returns to Don's office, telling him: "You win, again."

Just when we think that Don's victory is complete, that he's drawn Peggy back into his orbit, along comes Duck Phillips. Drunk and desperate, he shows up in the SCDP offices and tries to leave a fecal "surprise" for Don. Failing that, he fights his former colleague, pinning him to the ground and stating: "I killed 17 men in Okinawa." I wonder: Why did Don let Duck win? Could he possibly have taken Duck's declaration of heroism seriously? Did he feel shamed by Duck's war record in comparison with his own?

The real result of the confrontation is that the night completely tips to Peggy's favor: For better or worse, she gets what she wants, which is to be closer to Don and to learn his limits. Even so, she apologizes to Don for having slept with Duck.

Don and Peggy also sleep together: a chaste night on the couch, which Don acknowledges with a hand clasp. It's a Lost in Translation moment: the older man signaling that the younger woman has insight into some piece of him, that she steadies him.

John: I'll leave the bloodsport in the ladies room and the incredible revelations from Sterling's Gold to you.

Can you get me a drink?

Agger

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Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.