Mad Men! … or, Bad Men.
Sigh. Don and Pete have fallen back into old sexual routines. And this time it’s closer to home.
We are now two episodes into this season of Mad Men, and no one is more excited than me. I was a bit late to the Mad Men bandwagon and didn’t start watching from the beginning until the series was well into its second season. Any show about the 60s was worth watching, in my book, and since I didn’t have cable at the time I was relegated to wait for each season on my Netflix. It was well worth the wait. My first encounter with the series premiere reached near religious experience proportions: the first episode was quite possibly the most brilliant of any series I’ve ever watched.
While the show maintains its brilliance and nuance to this very day despite a long and tedious year and a half hiatus as the creators and producers hashed out deals with AMC (and the series kept its momentum, mind you, and not a small feat), lately there is a small disturbance in the Mad Men force. I will admit that this season’s premiere – its sixth and final (gasp!)- bordered on major doom and gloom. Don Draper is going through what is quite possibly the world’s worst case of a mid-life crisis.
And I’m troubled because up until this point, no matter what marital mess Don has fallen into I’ve always stood up for the guy, or at the very least, understood his point of view. I have to say, though, that with Don’s latest fling with apartment neighbor Sylvia, I’m unable to comprehend Don’s sadness and desperation less and less. Or, rather, my tolerance level has appeared to have piqued.
There is a recent and great interview in Paste Magazine with Vincent Kartheiser talking about the evolution of Pete Campbell and the sometimes tragic double lives he and Don lead:
“I think if people don’t want [Don] to win or don’t want him to succeed, then we’re doing something wrong,” he says. “Not us, but the show in general is doing something wrong. So it’s a good thing that people are sympathetic with him; although he may commit the same types of crimes or immoral acts as other characters on the show, we need to give him a pass. We needed to because that’s the way the story’s written. If you don’t want him to win, then we’re doing something wrong.” (to read entire article: www.paste.com/issues/week-88/articles).
Here is where I take issue: I think the show may indeed be starting to do something wrong because I find myself now unable to give Don a pass. Just what is wrong, however, is still a little unclear but I think it may have to do with this latest episode’s treatment of women.
My main issue is with Megan, Don’s wife. There is simply not enough wrong with her that I can tell which would ultimately cause Don to stray. And I am not saying that Betty, wife #1, deserved to be cheated on but I will get to her in a minute. Let me put my argument another way: if Megan’s pursuit of acting and brief lapse into alcoholism (that we are aware of, sure, but seriously the problem only showed up in one, maybe two episodes last season!) due to her failure to land acting jobs, which resulted in needing Don’s help and connections to book one commercial, and Don somehow couldn’t cope with playing second fiddle to his wife’s blossoming career (a career he knew she wanted before he married her, by the way) and now feels he needs an escape hatch, then in some way this exposes more of Don’s selfishness than any failing on Megan’s part.
As for Betty, it was easier to see the trappings and events that led Don to seek a mistress outside his marriage. We as the audience got more insight into Betty’s character than we have so far with Megan. We were shown her hopes and dreams lost, her troubled childhood, her brush with therapy, her apparent disinterest with motherhood, and while there was true affection between her and Don at times, the pair just didn’t work. Both of them got what they thought they wanted- house in the suburbs, Don’s career success, a beautiful family- only to discover later on that what made them happiest was almost the opposite. Compared to Megan, Betty Draper was complicated and even though Megan has had her fair share of backstory, she is still the anti-Betty.
Which begs the question: what is Don looking for?
Megan’s main fault (as far as I can tell) is that somewhere along the way she stopped being Don’s dream woman. When they first married and Don was in his euphoric love phase, he had the perfect woman that complemented the Don Draper enigma: beautiful, sexy, whip smart, hip, young, confident, and with just a touch of that naiveté and freshness that men like Don fall for. Most importantly, she was surprising talented at advertising. If you ever had a sneaking suspicion that Don has been secretly looking for a Peggy type as life partner, you wouldn’t be wrong. Not only did Megan have a knack for advertising, she worked at the same agency and therefore spoke Don’s language. He could communicate with her on a level that he could never do with Betty or several of his other flings. Also, given that they commuted to and from the office together, any après-work activities would have been fairly difficult for Don (though knowing Don, I’m sure he could have figured it out. He is diddling the lady down the hall now you know, and is none too discreet about it either).
Her fall from Don’s grace seems to coincide with her decision to leave the advertising office for an acting career, although you could argue that it happened a bit earlier when Don realized the woman he married is not always going to like the same things he does. Remember when he didn’t want a surprise birthday party and Megan threw one anyway? Remember when he REALLY wanted her to love Orange Sherbet at the Howard Johnson’s and when she didn’t, he peeled out of the parking lot after a fight and just left her there? Both events resulted in some heavy duty screaming and carpet sex. But besides these two incidents, there hasn’t been much in the story lines to justify Don’s apparent explanation to Sylvia in last week’s episode as to why he got into the affair that he and Megan were “drifting apart”. I think Don is drifting; I’m not so sure about where Megan exactly stands.
Perhaps her new career as a woman who plays pretend subconsciously rubs Don the wrong way: he has built his whole existence on pretend and maybe it hits too close to home. Megan is only playing at a facade; Don is living it. Another point to consider is that Don doesn’t necessary like to stand in the shadows. As Megan’s career continues to grow little by little, so has her star quality. One look at Don’s face as a fan of Megan’s soap approached her for her autograph in Hawaii spoke volumes. Someone, somewhere, will eclipse Don (god knows Pete’s tried. Peggy could do it. Bob Benson is certainly an eager beaver), and who will he be then? Megan and Syliva are currently polar opposites: Sylvia the older slightly more refined dutiful housewife and Megan the younger cosmopolitan actress. With Sylvia, Don stands out. He’s the bright spot on a lonely day. Is Don drifting from Megan simply because her star power is currently burning brighter than his?
On the other end of the Bad Men spectrum is Pete. Hard to root for Pete. Even though Pete Campbell has at times expressed moments of charm and compassion (he was very competent dealing with the Miss Blankenship body disposal and was quite a comfort to Joan when Lane died), the guy remains a smarmy scuzzball for most of the time. Throughout the series he has wanted desperately to become Don Draper without ever understanding what it truly means to be Don Draper. Hell, we aren’t sure DON even knows what it means to be Don Draper, as the latest episode “The Collaborators” contends. I actually thought it would be Pete who commits suicide last season, not Lane, as he was so completely miserable in career and marriage.
Pete’s affairs, as he even admitted last season, are always a “temporary bandage on a permanent wound”. It is probably the only moment I have truly felt compassion for the man. Pete seems to be stuck in a marriage that Don left behind. He’s in the suburbs- he hates it. His wife is rich and well connected- he’s used those connections and hates himself for it. From the very beginning when they got engaged, the audience was well aware that Pete’s marriage to Trudie was doomed. She wanted the perfect picture; Pete wanted whatever resembled Don’s perfect picture. Neither matched.
So when Pete’s latest female distraction- again, like Don, a neighbor no less- shows up on the Campbell’s doorstep, bruised and battered, Trudie showed perfect grace. She KNEW what was going on but gave the woman as much care as possible, something Pete couldn’t be bothered to show. And wasn’t it fantastic when Trudie finally called Pete out? Pete blames her for forcing him to move out of the city, and therefore he is miserable. Trudie claims she never forced him, and anyway, if he was going to have an affair, she at least expected him to be discreet. We love Trudie.
Again, here is a case of a woman who did nothing wrong other than have an expectation for her marriage. A loving husband, a nice house, a kid- she’s been honest about wanting this all along. While no marriage is perfect, and even nice people are not always a good match, it is hard to root for two men who seemingly have it all and are choosing to literally throw it all away. And for WHAT? I think if I knew I may be more forgiving, but I’m just not finding it easy to sympathize.
That there is an overall theme of prostitution (and its repercussions) revolving around all of the female characters and the men in this episode is no accident. To the subtle and seemingly innocent exchange of cash for shopping between Don and Sylvia after a recent tussle in the sheets, to Don’s recurring flashbacks of moving into a brothel with his sometime prostitute mother (or step mother- I’m not sure) to the end credit song of “Just a Gigolo”, the theme hangs in the air over its cast like a bad cloud of cigarette smoke in this latest episode: dirty and clingy and impossible to brush away. Even Pete’s blunt quip, “Can you move things along?”, to the neighbor after an afternoon tryst, had a tinge of a prostitution feel to it.
But the issue of prostitution was hit dead on in the case of Joan. The man, and Jaguar client, whom Joan had to sleep with in order to land the agency the account and her promotion shows up unexpectantly at Joan’s office door. He even goes so far to refer back to their one night together and make assumptions. Joan has always, and will always, know somewhere deep in her soul that she paid a heavy price for her success. And as most of the men in this season are learning, what appears to be a simple and innocent affair on paper- no strings attached- has an actual cost, even when there is no physical money being exchanged. As Don is coming to realize, there is no simple affair. Sylvia asks him what he wants. He answers, “I want you”. It is implied that what is not said after that statement is “nothing more”, but Sylvia isn’t so sure. She warns him to not make her fall in love him.
We are left to assume, though, that Don learned his habit of lying and treating women like common whores from his childhood experience of living in a brothel and witnessing his mother (or stepmother. If anyone knows, please comment!) “help out” with the owner/uncle through a peep-hole. But what does this really mean? Don actually shows Joan- a woman who did really prostitute herself out for the sake of the agency- more reverence than he does his own wife.
There is a sense of discontent and something akin to sheer exhaustion among the men. They aren’t sure what will make them happy, but they sure know what ISN’T . Not even another woman seems to be doing the trick. Usually Don always looks at his new mistress as a possible escape route, but I’m not sure that is what is happening with Sylvia. Is she merely a detour? A throwback to a familiar habit? When Don gets scared, Don runs. We’ve seen it before. Come to think about it, all the men of last season who seemed to be finding their stride- Don happily married, Roger Sterling finding some enlightenment through LSD, and even though Pete was doomed in his last affair with Beth at least he was with a woman he genuinely cared about- have slid back into old patterns.
As Don slumped down to the floor in front of his apartment door after returning from another rendezvous with Sylvia, he knows he’s at a crossroads. He can’t turn back, but he can’t move forward. The man simply doesn’t know what he wants. Is it the woman one floor down with no real apparent strings attached, or is it the woman beyond the doorway with every single string attached you could ever possibly imagine? Can Don ever stop lying and “stop doing this” as he said to Sylvia in the premiere as they lay in bed? It’s a recurring theme and one I’m more than a little impatient to have rectified. And my hope is, especially since this is the last season, the bad men of Mad Men will soon find out what is they really want.