Mad Men, Season 5

Megan's Departure Is No Mere Fly in the Cool Whip
Talking television.
May 7 2012 1:55 PM

Mad Men, Season 5

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Megan's departure is no mere fly in the Cool Whip.

Mad Men (Season 5)
Don, Peggy, and Ken in the test kitchen.

Still by Michael Yarish/AMC.

Hey John and Julia,

With no fisticuffs, oral sex, or controlled substances (save Peggy’s brief toke in the closing montage), last night’s episode did seem lacking in incident. It was also conspicuously short on the screwball banter that usually propels the show to a canter. You’re right, John, that Megan’s decision to return to acting was anticlimactic and predictable. But don’t be fooled. We’re just past the midpoint in the season, and while in the short run, Megan’s departure may seem like a mere fly in the Cool Whip, I’m betting that in the long run, it’ll have dramatic consequences for Don and his colleagues.

All workplace dramas are necessarily myopic: It doesn’t matter if you work at Cheers or in The West Wing, if you’re a character on a weekly TV show set in a place of business, your existence will be more or less devoted to work. Of course these shows occasionally follow people home, and Mad Men does so more often than most. But whenever the writers stray from the office for long, we in the commentariat start to whinge. Each week, one of us deplores the latest soap opera detour, demanding that the show return to where the real magic lies: the insular world of pitches and accounts. 

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The central characters in Mad Men seem to share this devotion to the business. They sacrifice their hours, energies, and identities to what they do. When people leave the office, they tend to leave the show, as well. Sal, Duck, Freddy, Kinsey: The moment you stop taking that elevator each day, the banishment is complete. You’re relegated not just across town, but to oblivion. In the dramatic ecosystem of Mad Men, having a job at the firm is not just a way to make a living—it’s the very reason you exist. 

Which is why it was shocking for Don and Pete to learn, several weeks ago, that Ken Cosgrove might answer to a different muse. It’s not that they enjoy their work so much that they can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s that they are their work, and they always assumed Ken was, too. When they discover that he aspires to be something else, they can no longer grasp him as a human being. He might as well be an alien from the mind of Dave Algonquin.

Megan’s defection is even more unsettling, because she appears to have more natural talent than Ken. Peggy has shown extraordinary magnanimity in the face of Megan’s ascent. She can make peace with the idea that Megan is “one of those girls” for whom it all comes easily—that she’s been handed a winning lottery ticket. What Peggy can’t abide is the idea that she would just give that ticket up. Even Don, who the show keeps insisting is a once-in-a-generation advertising natural, tells Megan that it took him years to be able to think in the way that she did so effortlessly on the Heinz account. For Joan, the professional fortunes of SCDP employees are a binary matter.  “I’m not going to lie,” she says. “I thought she would fail here.” Fail and leave or succeed and stay—Joan hadn’t contemplated a third possibility.

So what will become of Megan? Ever since the pilot, when Don brainstormed and tomcatted his way through Manhattan before returning to Ossining and—surprise!—his perfect family, the lives of Don Draper, and the tensions between them, have formed the structural and thematic backbone of the show. We’ve all remarked that Don seems happy, happier than he ever has before, and it can’t be a coincidence that during the first half of this season, his kaleidoscopic identities were finally aligned into a coherent whole. His Dick Whitman past was no longer something to hide—everyone who mattered knew the secret, and Megan, at least, didn’t seem to care. By moving his home from the suburbs to the city and marrying a woman he met at work, he drew together the poles of his prior existence. As Pete’s pal the insurance salesman would surely attest, there’s less temptation—and opportunity—to stray when your wife joins you on the commute.  And because Megan was inducted into the mysteries of the ad game, she understood Don’s professional sine wave of euphoria and stress in a way that Betty could not.

I agree that on the surface, Don is remarkably obliging about Megan’s plan to act. “I don’t want to keep you from your dreams,” he says, and what could be more reasonable than that? But Megan’s not the only actor in the family, and before we take Don at his word, there is that elevator shaft to consider. Less portentous, and more telling, was the volcanic spontaneity with which the Don and Peggy repartee in the Cool Whip test kitchen boiled suddenly into a shouting match. “You know what,” Peggy says, “you are not mad at me.” And she’s right.

To me, the most revealing beat in the episode came when Don told Roger that Megan should be able to do what she wants. “I don’t want her to end up like Betty,” he says. Now, one way to read that line is that after failing as a model, Betty turned into a brittle shrew, who effectively drove Don to cheat on her—a perniciously self-serving bit of revisionism that Don has been trying out of late. But there’s another way to read it, too: While Don was at work, Betty was stuck at home, getting cheated on.

“You’ve got to go home,” Roger says. “Let her know that there’s a routine. Keep you both out of trouble.” Then he adds, rather devastatingly, “Mona’s dad told me that.”

About Pete’s latest transgressions, I will say only this: Ladies, when you tell a man, “Leave it alone. I mean, fantasize about it. I will too. But don’t call me again,” you can be certain that he will call again.

Remember, he’s not just the boss. He’s the Head of Desserts.

Patrick

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