Mad Men Recap 6.4: The Many Roles that Mad Men Play

Mad Men Recap 6.4: The Many Roles that Mad Men Play April 23, 2013

Last week, I noted the irony in Don Draper’s compliant devotion to Raymond, the Heinz Beans Guy who didn’t want the younger, more suave and successful Heinz Ketchup Guy “screwing” his proverbial girlfriend. Heinz Ketchup would mean big business for Don and company; yet, there was Don: beckoning Pete Campbell to ensure fidelity to Heinz Beans, even as the two of them are cheating on their wives. From here on out, I suppose, just consider apparent ironies as kinds of prophecies embedded in the show, because this week’s episode–“To Have and To Hold”–opens with Don and Pete having a secret meeting with Young, Suave Heinz Ketchup Guy.

The setup for the scene is clever. The camera looms from out of Pete’s apartment bedroom, as if one of Pete’s mistresses is peeking in on the meeting; it’s maybe a bit obvious, but still perfect, to have Don’s and Pete’s business infidelity at Pete’s apartment-away-from-home. Heinz Ketchup offers his assurances of privacy as it relates to Raymond. Pete, enjoying his moment as conductor of this secret meeting, comments, “Well, Don has some anxiety . . . obviously about Raymond.” Here, it’s clear that anxiety is not some uncaused motivating factor for Don’s infidelity; rather, anxiety stems from the very act of infidelity, and it’s an essential quality of our tendency to madness that we return to that act to alleviate the anxiety.

“Raymond is a friend,” Don says, seemingly still under the delusion that none of this is happening. Heinz Ketchup shakes hands, and leaves for an appointment with a woman–he loosens his wedding ring in order to remove it; either he or his mistress don’t want to see the symbol of fidelity.

“Nice place,” Don says as he and Pete leave the apartment.

Pete, still trying to give the appearance of being even a bit more than Don’s equal, replies, “Well, it’s available to you–ya know, if you ever have to spend the night in the city.”

“I live here, Pete.”

It’s the kind of grin-inducing one-liner that Mad Men has come to be known for–especially humorous here because it’s at Pete’s expense. But the brief exchange sets a kind of backdrop for the unfolding, interweaving plots for the rest of the episode. In his quest to equal and then surpass Don, Pete customarily exhibits an ambition–one that in itself gives shape to the gender and race inequalities and politics which both characteristically stem from the show’s focus on power structures and are drawn according to the accents of the ’60’s. In this episode, three women–two white and one black–form a kind of power hierarchy that stems from Don’s hegemonic white maleness.

A young black woman–notably named Dawn Chambers–is Don’s new secretary, inhabiting a position once held by Peggy Olson. Don and Pete leaving the apartment transitions to a conversation between Dawn and her black friend. Twenty minutes late to dinner at an essentially segregated restaurant, Dawn’s conversations with her friend take the shape of continually apologizing for, but also defending, her commitment to work, while also attempting to negotiate her commitments to her friend in her “other job” as Maid of Honor. The shape of this conflict is similar to Peggy’s choice between friendship with Stan and loyalty to her new job, though the conditions of Dawn’s loyalty choices are complicated even more by race related devotion. Dawn’s friend doesn’t share in the particular experience of Dawn’s struggle against the power hierarchy at work because she is getting married–and Dawn herself notes this in defense of herself. As a black woman, Dawn feels an added pressure at work to please everyone, even if it means having to compromise herself ethically.

It makes sense, then, for Matthew Weiner to intersect Dawn’s story with Joan’s. Overlooked a bit in the first two episodes, Joan is shown struggling to inhabit her newly acquired role as Partner. On the one hand, Joan’s still-perseverent sense of inequality stems, in part, from how she acquired her position as Partner, and the fact that her male coworkers know it–or, more than that, resent it. Of course, there’s resentment of Joan in how she acquired the position, but also underlying resentment at Joan’s inhabiting the position–and being a woman. The men at her workplace are undoubtedly culpable for putting Joan in the position in which she felt upward mobility was not only worth sleeping with Herb, but the only feasible scenario in which a position as Partner might occur.

Yet, there’s still a sense in which Joan’s upward mobility is to some degree shamed by Peggy’s, though the latter’s had its own necessary compromises. Of course, this isn’t to say that the white men above them earned their positions honestly; rather, it’s to say that Joan and Peggy are playing the game they’re being coerced to play. Roughly: Peggy wants to be Don, Joan wants to be Peggy, and Dawn wants to be Joan. Put differently, in this hierarchy of inequality, the white woman wants to be the white man and the black woman wants to be the white woman. It’s not to say that this is what they truly want. Rather, in striving for the same freedoms and agency that those higher on the ladder have, the inferiors must negotiate striving for those opportunities without reinforcing the unfair power structure. Or, as I’ve noted with Peggy’s struggle, those who want what the mad men have must negotiate the risk of becoming mad themselves.

So when Joan discovers that Dawn has dishonestly punched out a time card for a white coworker who wanted to leave work early undetected, it’s interesting how the fallout unfolds. First, Joan seizes the opportunity to flex muscle as a Partner with power. She fires the white secretary, only to then be undermined by Harry Crane, who, notably, seems to have a vested interest in keeping his secretary around–a motive that might be generously deemed “extracurricular” (note that the woman’s job is saved presumably because she’s compliant in “servicing” her immediate superior male). Harry calls out Joan’s hasty assertion of power as overcompensation for her felt insecurity from how she acquired the position–and then he makes his own power play in demanding that not only his secretary not be fired, but that he be made a Partner. The other Partners–the white males who are above Joan’s specific struggles–ultimately allow Joan to be partly undermined, but without giving in to Harry’s demand to partnership (that would look bad not only on Joan…but on them). Meanwhile, they’re under pressure because as Pete notes, “The commission on human rights is continuing to investigate our employment of Negros.” Therefore, Joan’s hand is forced a bit when it comes to how Dawn will be punished for her involvement.

Joan’s decision to “punish” Dawn by putting her in charge of the supply closet and time cards is a layered moment. She’s putting Dawn in a small position of authority in which she’s bound to be disliked if she upholds it with integrity. But there’s a sense in which Joan not only grants Dawn a position of authority in order to ennoble her around the office, but also (and maybe I’m being too generous here in my reading of Joan) in the hope that Dawn will avoid the sort of unethical maneuvers to climb the ladder–the ones that Joan knows too well.

“I don’t care if everybody hates me here, as long as you don’t,” Dawn says with a sense of reinvigorated determination.

“We’ll see,” Joan says.

Finally, there’s Peggy. Last week, I said that Peggy would have to choose between loyalty to her former colleagues and friends and loyalty to her new employer and her personal success. It’s a fantastic moment in the episode when Don, Pete, and Stan exit their presentation for Heinz Ketchup, only to see that their competitor is Peggy and her colleagues. It’s a bittersweet moment, then, when Don sticks around to listen to Peggy’s pitch; there’s even a brief satisfaction he feels when he hears that she’s killing it–even if it means that, in the process, she may be killing his chance at Heinz Ketchup. A kind of domino effect ensues. Don’s infidelity to Raymond comes to light; but so too does Peggy’s infidelity to Stan come to light (met with a middle finger at the bar). Ultimately, and appropriately I think, there’s a bit of a light hearted tone to the sequence because Don’s appreciation of the moment is a (dim) light in the show that in itself works to subvert the dark power structures.

Looming over the sequence too, though, is Peggy’s previous brief realization that acquiring Heinz Beans wasn’t the height of personal triumph, or the key to a life of contentment. Is that recognition present in her ultimately losing out on Heinz Ketchup?

Don’s arrogant and ignorant statement that his infidelity “isn’t happening”–that it isn’t real–is undermined brilliantly in this episode when Megan is given a television role that involves a kissing romance with her boss and fellow actor. Don’s angry, demanding reaction to her fake role as an actress is vehemently hypocritical. His cutting remark that Megan hang out with her more “open minded” friends is underlined by Don’s apparent ability to have his affair only in his head. Apparently only his imagination is allowed to run wild.

“I’m sure he’s a man who plays many roles,” says one of Megan’s coworkers, referring to Don. But Don wants to play those roles in such a way that demands unmitigated freedom only for himself–everyone else’s roles must be subservient to his wishes.

The focus of the show, of course, is Don as the Mad Man. In the show’s world, how things go for Don at the top of the ladder often seems indicative of what’s possible for those below him who are, in some sense, often striving for his hegemonic vantage point. Each episode has been capped with Don pursuing infidelity. In the end of the two hour premiere episode, he confessed the desire for freedom from his anxious infidelity; in the end of last week’s episode, Don collapsed outside his home–the consequent discontentment seemingly catching up with him.

In quite a moment, this latest episode ends with Don in bed with Sylvia. But this time, he notices a cross necklace she’s wearing and, in a moment that recalls Heinz Ketchup Guy removing his wedding ring, asks her to take it off before they have sex.

“Why?” she asks. “It doesn’t mean anything to you.”

“It means something to you,” Don replies.

She agrees, and then Don quips that after he leaves she’s going to get on her knees and ask for absolution. “I pray for you,” she says, “for you to find peace.” For a moment, Don looks bludgeoned by the remark, then adjusts the pendant to the back of her neck and out of sight, and then engages in sex with her for a somber end to the episode.

On the one hand, it’s a religious resistance couched in hypocrisy, the show’s seeming cardinal sin as of late; it recalls an earlier comment from Dawn, who can’t even find a friend or romantic companion at church because she can’t stand out when it’s filled with “harlots.” But this is nonetheless a moment that seems to bear significance–at least insofar as it is clearly a confrontational moment for Don.

The show may trivialize religion as part of the inescapable abyss of hypocrisy. But perhaps the cross which the necklace symbolizes might have a meaning which confronts Don’s madness head-on, and as such, alludes to a potential peace that he and the other mad ones might find. Perhaps there is a Truth which gives governance to the roles we play, which alleviates our anxieties, which makes our corrupt power structures new, and which grants peace to our individual souls. Perhaps it’s even a Truth embodied in a Person who makes sense of the imperative to fidelity. In the context of this show, whether intended as such or not, a cross pendant on Don’s mistress feels like a positively Flannery O’Connor moment.

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