Guessing what will happen next on Mad Men is one of the great follies of the Difficult Men–era of television now seemingly drawing to a close, so I take no small amount of pride in having predicted Don’s road trip to Racine, birthplace of the malted milk ball. That I was totally joking when I made the suggestion does nothing to diminish my pride.
I gotta say, I was also pleasantly surprised by that excursion to middle America. I’ve been no fan of the Brooding Waitress plot, and generally speaking prefer Mad Men when the action unfolds on the island of Manhattan, but I found Don’s sojourn compelling. It was shocking to see him fail so badly at dissembling, formerly his stock in trade. Not once but twice does he flail in his effort to convince Di’s husband that he’s someone he’s not. The champion shape-shifter has lost his touch—even his seemingly quick-witted backup lie, that he is a collection agent (who might well insinuate his way into a debtor’s home), is quickly found out.
On one level, I think the writers wanted to suggest to us that Don is now Don, whether he likes it or not—it even says so on his social security card. Having seen a McCann box lunch brainstorming session, it’s pretty clear that he’d rather reign in hell than serve in advertising heaven. But whatever new road he strikes out on, he’ll be doing it as the man we’ve watched him become over the course of this series—there’s no going back to the dusty, Kerouacian wanderings that must have preceded his arrival in New York. Don saw in Di a vision of his former self, and someone he might be able to save. In this episode, he realized the futility of that effort, and was forced to bear witness to the wreckage left behind by a person who flees her troubles. I think he’s realized that he can’t just run away again and hope to find himself.
But the Racine excursion wasn’t just about dramatizing Don’s diminished powers as a liar. I think the trip was also about the arrogance of the advertising business. Don’s opening gambit is to pass himself off as the director of research who was leading the Miller meeting, and he falls prey to that fellow’s glib notion of the thick-waisted, thick-skulled Midwestern Man, who hates small talk and loves his suds. That’s not the man he meets in Racine—Di’s ex seems to have faith in Jesus and a healthy suspicion of his fellow man, at least ones that show up unannounced in shiny shoes. He’s no beer-swilling rube. I can’t help but think that on his long ride back to New York, by way of St. Paul, Don will be pondering his chosen profession, and the failures of the lies it tells, both to consumers and about them. (Counterpoint: The product McCann was preparing to market was Miller Lite, the first mainstream light beer and one of the most successful products of the second half of the 20th century. Don walked out on his chance to contribute to McCann Erickson’s legendary “Tastes great, less filling!” campaign, ranked eighth best campaign of the 20th century by Ad Age. It’s not like advertising doesn’t work!) We saw the stirrings of Don’s discontent with the ad game in the Gettysburg address episode, and after this one, I strongly suspect Don’s pitched his last pitch.
Julia, I’m curious what you think of Peggy’s rock-’n’-roll entrance to McCann, which reminded me of this and was indisputably awesome. I want to believe that she’s poised to pulverize the glass ceiling there, leaving those conniving plant-bringers soaking in her spent rocket fuel. But Hanna, as you noted, the villains at the top of McCann are so cartoonish in their villainy that it’s a little hard to imagine Peggy succeeding where Joan failed. This is a culture where boys can’t countenance working for girls, and where Ferg feels no more need to veil his sexual harassment than he does hone his impressions—his audiences are captive. (How backward is McCann? It’s made Roger Blackface Sterling look progressive by comparison.) The H.R. department thinks that Peggy is a secretary. Do we really think that she will be able to stomach even the brief tenure her headhunter wants her to put in so that her résumé will have the McCann imprimatur? Especially now that Joan won’t be there to protect her turf? It’s easy for me to see Peggy as collateral damage in Joan’s demise at the firm. Or just stuck on the hull of the S.S. McCann with no one to give her a push.
Speaking of which: Where did that organ come from? Has this entire series been inside Matthew Weiner’s head from the beginning? If I were to fire up an episode from Season 1 would I find the organ lurking in the supply closet where they store the free cartons of Lucky Strike? No matter—it was such a great touch to turn SCP into a haunted house, if only for a few moments, the latest reminder that one of the best things about Mad Men has been its ability to work in various modes, often in the same episode. The campy quality of Roger and Peggy’s lost weekday was just what this episode needed to cut through the weightier goings on. I can’t think of many series that can weave together three plot lines of such disparate tone—office drama, office farce, Beat-inflected road trip—so seamlessly. It’s a high wire act the series hasn’t always pulled off, but it did so in this episode, and it was beautiful to behold.
I was going to offer my Freudian reading of Peggy’s new painting, but I’m late for a meeting. Instead, I’ll see if I can string together a prediction streak. Next week, the gang gets back together for a sad occasion: Roger Sterling’s funeral. He clasped his heart when Peggy startled him in the deserted SCP offices, a reminder that he has a history of ticker problems, and can we really imagine him soldiering on when his name’s no longer on the door? Look, I don’t want this to happen—I love Roger as much as the next guy, perhaps more than ever after Sunday night—but when you’re an oracle, sometimes you have to deliver unhappy news. Caroline gives a surprisingly eloquent elegy.
I’m at your disposal,