BOOKS AND ARTS AUGUST 30, 2010
This is the new column in TNR’s weekly series of"Mad Men" episode recaps. Caution: It contains spoilers. Click here for last week's review.
"You've crossed the border from lubricated to morose," Joan told Roger in this season's sixth episode, "Waldorf Stories." Her polite but firm kiss-off nicely summarized the hour's dramatic trajectory, which showcased a fair amount of drinking by Roger and some Under the Volcano-level boozing by Don, plus brief side-trips into alcohol-related blundering by supporting players (notably an off-the-wagon Duck's heckling of the Emcee at the Clio Awards ceremony). Although “Mad Men” has never been coy about showing the destructive effects of alcohol (the often-unremarked flip side of the show's celebration of Rat Pack-era tipsy cool), this episode went much further, into The Lost Weekend territory.
As written by Brett Johnson and Matthew Weiner and directed by Scott Hornbacher, the episode was mainly about two things: drinking, and the professional evolution from student to mentor. Are these subjects connected? Yes, loosely. They're both about control. (Interesting that the two "big breaks" shown in this hour—Roger's hiring of Don and Don's hiring of Roger's trophy wife's cousin—were both sparked by a mentor's potent stew of inebriation and guilt.)
Don started to lose control of himself at some point during the awards ceremony (luckily for him, there were no speeches). Then he made an ass of himself at a subsequent meeting with the Life cereal people, plagiarizing a rejected job applicant's tired "Cure for the common [blank]" line when his original pitch didn't fly. And you notice how Don's introductory remarks at the meeting about the nature of nostalgia cannibalized his own celebrated pitch from Season One about the carousel? That's a pickled self-styled artiste's version of working the "Cure for the common [blank]" phrase over and over again. And Don's borderline-frenzied recitation of alternate catchphrases sounded very much like an alcoholic mentally running through a list of possible excuses for letting someone down—the smooth babbling of a hustler who's willing to say whatever it takes to get him out of the jam he's in. And the next few days were (for Don as well as the viewer) a blur. Don got soused at the Clio after-party and took home a female employee from another firm ("Is he attached?" the woman asked Roger. "To that glass he is," Roger replied.) Then he woke up 18 hours later with a different woman, a waitress who called him Dick and whose name Don surely wouldn't have remembered if he hadn't spotted the tag on her uniform. (The transition from one woman and one day to another made brilliant use of time-lapse photography, turning Don's experience into one big blur.) Then he missed a scheduled trip to watch his kids, a promise he forgot that he'd broken until Betty called to ask where the hell he was.
Don, a visionary who ended last season at the peak of his powers, is now on the brink of decline. He's barely hanging on to everything he worked so hard to build. But his behavior this week was a nadir. When is this man not drinking? And he’s not the only character struggling to deal with the changes in his life. His mentor, Roger—who, as we saw in some deft flashbacks, did not so much discover Don when he was a salesman at a fur company as unintentionally give him his first advertising job—is in the twilight of his career, standing on the sidelines watching a younger generation of talent pull in clients and win Clios. And behind Don is another younger generation represented by Pete and Peggy, both of whom bluntly asserted themselves this week and demanded that their older colleagues treat them with respect—or at the very least acknowledge their contributions.
Pete was furious when he learned that his onetime rival Ken Cosgrove had been invited to rejoin their firm, and dressed down Lane Pryce (rightly so) for going behind a partner's back. Pete may be a priggish little jerk, but he's right about a lot of things, including the fact that he's entitled to more deference than Roger, Don, and Lane often give him. Peggy, meanwhile, was assigned by a drunk, curt Don to work up ideas for a new account with Stan, a sexist pig of an art director. Peggy quickly tired of being treated as a second-class citizen, and of Stan's bragging about nudism and his ogling of Playboy magazine, and pushed him to join her in a au naturel brainstorming session—a gambit that produced no usable material, but which at least put Stan in his place. Most memorably, however, Peggy showed up at Don's place near the end of the episode and raked him over the coals for having been AWOL for several days. It was the strongest scene yet showcasing Peggy's sense of self-worth, and the steel spine that it gives her.
Last night's “Mad Men” had a subtext, too—the meaning and value of awards. It explored this topic with a light, clever sensibility that contrasted sharply with the sardonic attitude of Weiner's last TV venue, “The Sopranos” (which at one point showed a down-on-his luck TV writer trying to pawn an Emmy award, only to be told that it was worthless). “Mad Men” took home its third consecutive Emmy as best dramatic series last night, along with an award for best original dramatic script. Judging from this week’s sobering tale of drunken excess, however, I doubt Weiner and company are in danger of getting full of themselves. We learned that awards are a big deal and not a big deal; that winning or not winning an award has no effect on the quality of the work, and that it can singlehandedly change a firm's fortunes; and that the recognition of governing bodies is ultimately less important than the respect that mentors give to their pupils, and the honor that the pupils bestow on their teachers by doing good, original work over a long span of time. All things in moderation.