You may very well find that every character is given a single, defining secret. A whisper that we, as an audience, are not privy to… and may never be.
With every episode of the latest season of Mad Men, I’ve been trying to foresee where the story is going.
It’s difficult. Mad Men is not a coherent thriller like Breaking Bad or True Detective, where the goals are more definitive and there’s someone to root for. Rather, therein lies murky life lessons in the flaws and failures of the people on the screen. And we’re always teetering on the edge of the show becoming a tragedy.
Even the opening credits hint as much.
For the uninitiated (what very few there are), Mad Men is a time period drama set in the 60s, revolving around the lives of advertising agents and the people connected to their lives. The show is kind of like Glengarry Glen Ross at a slow, carefully nurtured pace.
Recently, our protagonist Don Draper (Jon Hamm) had a melt down during the previous season. The moment came at an inopportune time, destroying his firm’s chance of landing an account with Hershey’s Chocolate. This, coupled with other erratic behavior throughout the sixth season, resulted in Don’s indefinite leave of absence.
The central theme of the current season has primarily been about redemption. During the episode before last Sunday’s, Don finally returned to the firm despite being given extremely stringent terms (the cost of crossing these rules would be his share of the company.) These terms fly in the face of the character we know and hold dear, such as no drinking at the office, and no real involvement with business decisions.
Fans have been scratching their heads, trying desperately to figure out who is glad to have Don back and those who wish him gone for good. Those feelings seem to be the most interesting aspect to discuss. Ladies first.
Joan Harris has been vehemently against Draper’s return. This seems to surprise fans who remember six seasons of Joan and Don ranging from their being no less than cordial to outright, real friends. Their chemistry is natural. It seems we have forgotten how Joan became a partner in the first place: By being willing to sleep with a client and get then Sterling, Cooper, Draper & Pryce their first car company, Jaguar. This task earned Ms. Harris 5% of the company, but the prize of this act came to an end after Don decided to be a white knight and show Jaguar the door.
It’s easy to suspect that with her partnership, Joan believed she finally had control of her own destiny, something she sought since her reliance on men brings nothing but hardship. Although she was disgusted at having to work with the same Jaguar agent, it was Joan’s contribution to the firm. Her legacy, regardless of how questionably it was earned. And Don proved with a single sentence how easy that legacy was destroyed. It’s fair to suspect that this was what brought Joan’s ire.
Peggy Olson is still angry at Don but there seems some odd reluctance to confront him. I’m not entirely convinced that she wants him gone yet, but there’s no denying that having him around makes her incredibly nervous. I feel that Peggy’s antipathy towards Don may come from her slow acceptance that he did not really have a hand in sending Ted Chaough away. Don made a convenient scape goat for the entire affair, allowing her to pin her unreciprocated desires towards Ted on someone else.
Little by little, I feel that Peggy is learning to project that anger upon the appropriate parties (which would include herself, as she knew that Ted was married), but that’s going to take some time. Don’s presence risks forcing her to take responsibility, ironic considering that’s something that he taught her to avoid after she gave birth to Pete’s child.
Ted Chaough himself has been… strange. Disinterested, passive and aloof. Curiously enough, we actually don’t know how he feels about Don’s return, if he feels anything at all. His presence in California has prevented any kind of face to face that may give way to his emotions on the matter, and the decisions have been left to his partner Jim Cutler. He is an enigma that begs exploration.
Jim Cutler, to the contrary, seems to have taken the strongest charge of the office. The last few episodes have seen titanic decisions made for the firm and Cutler has always been at the heart of them. The installation of a mainframe (computer) in the office, putting down Pete Campbell’s push for new business, and even making light threats towards Roger. He wasn’t able to stop Draper’s return, but he was likely the architect of Draper’s powerful new rules. Again and again, Cutler seems to be pushing his way into a role of an antagonist, however likeable. Part of me wonders if Cutler, like Peggy, blames Don for Ted’s departure to the west coast. And being Ted’s oldest friend in the firm, he maybe more wrathful than Miss Olson.
Pete Cambell is for Don’s return. As far as I can tell, it’s because Pete could use an ally given how isolated he is in California. The urge to break from the firm seems to be growing for him, as he keeps catching fish that the rest of the firm aren’t excited about. Part of me wonders if Pete wants Don back in order to make that break, as Pete needs someone from creative to fill in the blanks of any business split. Either Pete’s current girlfriend is just flirting with us or she is foreshadowing something bigger.
But the man who is fighting the hardest for Don’s return is good ol’ Roger Sterling. When you compare Roger and Don, you suddenly realize they’re two sides of the same coin. Roger has had his fair share of failures. Whopping failures. Getting drunk and insulting a Japanese firm who were interested in doing business. A divorce and messy family life (further accented by last Sunday’s episode). And losing Lucky Strike, their biggest and only major account at the time, which made possible their split from an ugly merger so long ago. When Lucky Strike left, it threatened the end of SCDP.
In fact, the difference between Don and Roger is simply time. Roger’s failures occurred gradually, a wave of highs and lows that made his partners sour to him, but never so much as to want to shut him out. Don’s collapse was more climatic, a crescendo of success with wider gaps between failures, followed by a more meteoric fall. When it finally happened, it was so dramatic that it threatened the firm. Beyond his loyalty to a friend (one of Don’s few, true friends), I feel that Roger wants Don to have a second chance, because he himself has earned so many.
Which leaves the last of the partners to consider. Bert Cooper.
When the partners discussed Don’s return, Bert was perhaps the only one who played both sides of the discussion. A strong part of Bert wanted Don removed entirely, considering the man a risk and not an asset. And if the financial pain of removing Don were less, I suspect Bert would have gladly paid for the surgery. It would seem to me that his acceptance of Draper’s return was solely to trip him into surrendering his share of the firm for good.
Since the moment we met Bert, he has never denied what he is. A fan of Ayn Rand, Mr. Cooper has always been the avatar of business, delivering l’esprit de l’entreprise. Whenever not the butt of jokes against the elderly, he always delivers so much meaning with so few words. His rarity hallmarked by his efficiency. Uninhibited by family or alcohol, his decisions are made with the cold logic of the best and worst aspects of the pursuit of money.
So… to hear Bert says those things to Don is equivalent to an echo of the most sound business advice.
The slow pace and sheer length of Mad Men makes it easy to forget the past. Over the course of seven seasons, we have accumulated three handfuls of characters with sordid histories, depth and complexities. But more and more… I am beginning to wonder about the blanks. Anyone who has been paying attention may notice that at least three characters have unexplained elements to them.
Bert Cooper supposedly quit the company after Don’s letter to the tobacco industry, so why is he back? What did Betty Francis hear over the phone when the doctor told her the results of her test? In the episode “Field Trip,” Don received an offer letter. We assume it was a job, but what was it really? An offer to buy his share of the company?
I have a feeling that if you look back, you may very well find that every critical character is given a single, defining secret. A whisper that we, as an audience, are not privy to… and may never be. Some we may not even know about until the end. Others we may ponder but may endure long after the show has ended. A treasure chest about these people that shall remain unopened.
But regardless, the question is already on the table. Whatever happens to Don, for good or ill, does he deserve it? For all the sleaze and disgust, the hard work and effort and even the occasional charity (like putting up Pete’s share of what he owed the partners, or giving Ted the office in California) does Don Draper deserve whatever he will get? Or are we wrong to assume there is any sense of karma or justice at all, and that the future only belongs to the strong?
Now there’s a question that shall echo for all time.