Mad Men has always been excellent at surprises. One minute everyone is just humming along having a great time and the next minute some British guy is getting his foot run over by a John Deere in the middle of the office. Those are the best moments of the show, when something totally shocking and life changing happens out of the blue and, for a moment, you get a wrenching in your gut and a lightness in your head when you realize that the action we inevitable. It’s a one-two punch of shock and recognition all at the same time.
However, in last night’s episode, as soon as Ted Chaough (ugh, the spelling!) ran into Don in that bar (their second such meeting this season) I knew that the firms would be merging. It just all made sense, considering what we’ve seen from both firms all season – and especially this episode – as SCDP hemorrhaged clients and Cutler, Gleason, Chaough was suffering because one of the partner’s pancreatic cancer. It all very clearly made sense. But there was no sense of surprise, no bit of wonder about the events, it just all kind of clicked into place. I don’t know if the foregone decision is a feat of the deft story telling that this show so often exhibits or if the lack of surprise is due to some sort of spark that this season has been missing, but, either way, this was the best of a so far lackluster Season 6.
The entire episode was really about chance encounters and what effect they have on your life. Roger “runs into” a Chevy exec at the airport, Pete bumps into his father-in-law, Peggy stumbles upon Ted drunk in his office, and, of course, Ted walks into that hotel airport bar to find Don Draper nursing an Old Fashioned. Maybe this wasn’t so much about chance as it was about opportunity and what you do when it presents itself.
Don, as usual, was operating alone. At the awful dinner with the Jaguar executive and his puppy-obsessed wife, he decides to fire him on the spot when Herb says that he thinks someone else should look over Don’s work. Don has always been the most American of archetypes: a pioneer. He’s striking out on his own and wants to be stoic and self-reliant. When he loses Jaguar and Pete loses Vicks, he tells everyone, explosively, in the middle of the office that he’ll save the firm, once again.
Thank god for Joan, who hollers at him for being such selfish asshole. Like she says, she’s sick of cheering for him from the sidelines, and so is everyone else. Don’s problem is that he makes unilateral decisions that effect everyone and doesn’t think of the consequences for anyone other than himself. While Pete, Bert, and Joan (looking lovely with her hair down, for a change) hammered out all the details for a public acquisition, which would have made them all millionaires, Don goes and makes a backroom deal with Ted Chaugh over cocktails which might saddle them all with a sagging agency. And how does that affect everyone’s shares? I hope Joan isn’t poor now! Don has never been a collaborator (even stealing credit for Peggy and Ginsberg’s good ideas) so I can’t imagine how he’s going to do now that he’s sharing the workload with Ted Chaough, who he openly hates.
As for Joan, she was only on screen for about four minutes the entire episode (I kept track) but she got in one humdinger of a scene. What this makes her so upset is not only that she had to sleep with Herb to get where she is and then Don kicks Herb to the curb because he couldn’t deal with him (as Joan pointed out, he never had to see the guy naked). No what upset her is that Joan prostituted herself so that another man would never call the shots in her life again. But now here she is with Don Draper making all the decisions for her and she has as little control over her fate as always. Just wait until she gets ahold of Peggy’s press release (and just wait until she meets the CGC office manager!).
The scene with Herb at dinner not only gave us insight into Don, but also about Megan. She’s feeling very separate from Don and she and her mother both think it’s because she’s getting more famous. Marie says he must feel like everyone owns a piece of her now and he’s not interested because he doesn’t have her all to himself. That certainly seemed true when he came to watch her love scene, but the distance Megan is feeling is from Don’s normal existential drift, not because of anything she’s done. In classic Cosmo parlance, it’s not her, it’s him. Anyway, she dresses seductively to try to get Don connected to her again, and she thinks it works, because he comes home from the dinner and ravages her. It has nothing to do with her (amazing!) dress, and more to do with the intoxication of vanquishing a foe. Don is drunk on the power of firing Herb and celebrates by conquering his wife. Once again, this isn’t a group decision, but one Don makes. He puts her up on the bar and fucks her with her mother in the next room, despite Megan’s meager protests.
Marie’s entanglements with Arnold Rosen, the neighbor Don wants to become, and Roger Sterling were very interesting. First of all Arnold is clearly flirting with her and says that he mistook her for Megan, which is sort of like him saying he wants to sleep with Don’s wife. That makes Don happy because this man that he wants to be desires his wife, which sort of excuses whatever meager guilt Don might feel about sleeping with Arnie’s wife Sylvia. When Roger doesn’t show up to dinner with Herb, Marie hangs up the phone on him repeatedly and hilariously. She seems more upset that she had to deal with that awful woman than the fact that Roger really left her behind. I swear, these two were made for each other.
Speaking of Arnold, we see him again in the apartment elevator and he tells Don he quit his job because his hospital wouldn’t let him perform a heart transplant. He was unsatisfied that they were keeping him from greatness so he made a personal decision so he could pursue it somewhere else. Who does that sound like? Don, full of the pioneer spirit once again, says, “I don’t believe in fate. You make your own opportunities,” which was clearly in his mind during his meeting with Ted. His choice to propose a merger could be influenced by Arnold’s, as in Don’s role model is showing him how to live and search for greatness. It could also be meant to best Arnold’s, but instead of listening to the voices in authority (as Arnold had to when they said he couldn’t operate), Don made the merger on his own. If Don can best Arnold and is sleeping with his wife, then perhaps Don can convince himself that he is, somehow the greater man.
Pete Campbell, however, is not a great man. In fact, he is quite the louse. He tries to make things work with Trudy, but he seems motivated because she doesn’t want him anymore. Maybe what happened with Martin Luther King really did change something about him and he realized how much his family matters. But it doesn’t seem like it. But he really tried and Trudy once again shot him down.
That’s why I sort of felt bad for Pete when his father-in-law caught him in the whore house (with Slimy Bob, who tries to buy his hooker). Now his shot with Trudy is over. His interactions with both of them showed that Trudy’s bond with her father was always stronger that Pete’s was with Trudy. The irony, of course, is that Trudy was looking for someone like her father and ended up with him, but since she doesn’t know what her father is really like, she can’t handle the reality of her husband. Both Trudy and her father are so busy mythologizing each other that they don’t know the truth. This is, of course, evident when Pete tells her that he saw her father with a “200-pound Negro hooker,” which Trudy thinks Pete made up to hurt her. He didn’t make it up, but he did say it to hurt her. He had to say that to press her into asking for a divorce. Even though his father-in-law told him to “do the right thing” and set her free, he is still too passive to do it. Trudy continues to make all the decisions.
Of course Pete’s personal life is falling apart, but he seemed to have it together at work. He worked out the IPO (he would fit right in with a tech company) and thought that he was going to find a way to make the firm even larger. That is until Don ruined it all. Maybe the culprit here isn’t only Don’s inability to work with others, but with everyone else’s inability to trust him. Or maybe it’s because “everyone hates him,” as Ted points out, that no one told him about the IPO which would have given him the bigger firm he wanted without having to make the compromises to CGC. If only he could let Pete do it his way.
Still, Pete managed to lose the firm a client not by his professional antics, but his personal ones. Just like Don he is adept in the office but not at life. However, it was Roger who was busy hitting the street, working his girl Daisy to happen into some contacts and schmooze their way into a car client. (I love the way music has been working lately. In this episode we got all the cues with the retro spy music while Roger was hatching his plot, but it turned to rock ‘n’ roll as they were walking into Chevy. It’s a new form of music, full of confidence and swagger, for a new way of doing business.) We see Roger, who left behind his book and his dead friend’s shoe shining kit, to get some of that old sparkle back. He’s trying to beat death and his steady decline by proving, once again, what he is worth.
What this all comes down to is that Roger and Don prefer an old way of doing business, of shady dealings and one-man mergers. They only know how play the advertising game one way, which seems like a relic from the past. Pete has a different way of dealing with clients and turned the agency around while Roger was feeling bad about himself. He tries an IPO, which is something foreign to the rest of them, but he is rebuffed when Don and Roger’s whims put the entire firm in jeopardy. This whole season is about the old way versus the new way and, right now, the old way seems to be winning out.
Speaking of the “old way,” Peggy is the only one who flat out says that she doesn’t like change and wants things to stay just the same. We know that, Peggy. We’ve seen your hairstyle. Peggy bought an apartment on the UWS with her boyfriend Abe but does not like stepping in the human poo piles that her awful neighbors are leaving behind. Oddly enough, Peggy is not a pioneer, at least not an urban one. She thought it would be a good idea to buy this place because Abe told her he thought about them having children. That’s what convinced her to break away from her idea of the perfect life on the Upper East Side, the promise of a family, the most traditional unit in the world. Instead of her two-point-five kids and a white picket fence, Peggy got noisy neighbors, police sirens, and a neighborhood where she doesn’t want to leave the house.
Peggy’s need for things to stay the same was what was behind her kiss with Ted in his office. Naturally he is a Don Draper stand-in for her. On Peggy’s first day in the office, she came on to Don sexually and he rebuked her advances. He respected her for what she did, not because of who she was physically. The same is true of Ted (who never would have hired her if she’s not good) but now he also admires her sexually, which makes Peggy want him. Now she can indulge in having sex with Don Draper through a surrogate. She is powerful not in the way that she has always been, through her work, but also in the way that Joan is, by making men want to sleep with her.
But really this is about Peggy wanting things to be the way they have always been. Abe is offering her a life in the new world, with his crazy facial hair, life on the Upper West Side, and radical political views. Ted is offering her the stability of the old ways, well-worn ideals of success, and a patriarchal government that will take good care of her. She doesn’t want the world to change and she wants her professional life to be stable as well. That is why she is rocked when she walks into Ted’s office and Don is sitting there. Not only is the man that she is attracted to in there (she put on some extra foundation just for him) but there is the man she really desires, the man she is constantly trying to become.
Notice that Peggy never actually accepts the job as copy chief at the new SCDP/CGG, she just says, “I just bought an apartment.” She really has no other choice, and they expect her to be happy about it. Then the men dispatch her and she goes back to her desk to type out a memo, just like it was her first day back at the old Sterling Cooper. We see Peggy again, with much more responsibility, but still nothing more than Don Draper’s secretary. She’s chasing after the way things used to be rather than trying to forge her own future.
But I think this merger, while probably detrimental to some of our favorite characters, is going to be the thing that this season really needs to get going. Finally we’ll have some forward motion into dynamics that are new, exciting, and interesting. And it’s a great way to bring Peggy back into the fold without jumping through all sorts of awful narrative hoops. Hurray for them, even if it hasn’t been all that surprising.