'Mad Men' Mondays: 'Blowing Smoke'

by Matt Zoller Seitz | October 8, 2010

It's been said that science fiction is never just about the future and historical fiction is never just about the past. They're also about the society that produced themright here, right now. I remembered this maxim while watching the twelfth episode of "Mad Men," "Blowing Smoke." The current season is set in the mid-'60s, and the characters often seem far removed from twenty-first-century American norms. But the panic engulfing them is of the moment. There are no abstract principles at stake. It's all about paying the bills, keeping the lights on. This week's action-packed, penultimate episode didn't remind me of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Swimmer, The Graduate, or any of the other pop-culture touchstones evoked in previous episodes of Matthew Weiner's series. It reminded me of the front page of today's newspaper, the top of tonight's newscast. Or the cover of this week's New Yorker—a mother and father huddled at a kitchen counter, holding their heads in despair while surrounded by bills. On the floor near them is a little girl playing with a toy cash register and play money. It was grim stuff, and no one pretended it wasn't. "Look, we know there's a black spot on the X-ray," Roger Sterling said during a meeting, summing up the fatalistic mood. "You don't have to keep tapping your finger on it." 

Tap, tap, tap. The episode started with the meeting that Faye helped set up between Don and the representative from Heinz, who told Don he would love to check back in six months "and see where we are." When Don pressed him, the Heinz rep said, "I'm sorry to be so blunt, but I don't know that your company will be here in six months." A subsequent scene between Don and Peggy fortified the sense that the known world was disintegrating. "We're going to keep typing while the walls fall down around us because we're creative," Don said, "the least important, most important thing there is." His imagery tied into to the show's opening credits image: the silhouette of a poised man plummeting into the abyss between skyscrapers, a manufactured landscape of commercialized bliss falling apart as he descends.

After the meeting with Heinz, it was almost all downhill. The partners were stood up by a prospective cigarette client. Anxious underlings tracked their progress through agency halls. The partners, we were told, had a clause in their contracts requiring them to cover basic operating expenses in such situations—sparking the first fight between Pete and Trudy Campbell in recent memory. "When you bet big and lose, you don't double down," she said. (Don secretly came through and paid Pete's share, a gesture that would seem extravagantly generous if Pete hadn't eaten entire football fields' worth of Don's dirt over the past few seasons. As it stood, Don probably should have gone over there offering to babysit, too.)

Faye walked around the agency with a box in her hands, informing everyone that her boss didn't take too kindly to the New York Times gambit and saying goodbye. Although she surely didn't intend her stop-off in Don's office as a farewell, that's how it came across. Don isn't invested in her long-term; you could tell by his warm but emotionally circumscribed manner that he has moved on already and has other things on his mind. Faye seemed to think their relationship could flower in the open now that she and Don were no longer working together. If only she could have looked through the cinematographer's viewfinder and seen that telling shot early in the episode, which placed Faye and Don in the foreground and Don's new secretary Megan in the background, compositionally coming between them. Faye stopped in to see Peggy, too, and when Peggy thanked her for providing such a positive female role model—though not in quite those words, thank goodness—Faye politely indicated that theirs was a work friendship and not to invest too much in it. But was it Peggy she was warning not to get too attached, or the viewer? Both, most likely. (The apparent disposal of Faye is plausible plot-wise, but it's also a classic example of writers tossing a love interest overboard when they're tired of writing for her and don't know how to fit her in next season.)  

Don managed to wrest a mostly symbolic victory from the train wreck that ensued when Lucky Strike yanked its business by unilaterally placing a full-page New York Times ad declaring that the agency would no longer do business with cigarette companies. It's worth noting that like so many of Don's good ideas this season, this wouldn't have come about without prodding from Peggy, who reminded Don of one of his own maxims: "If you don't like what they're saying about you, change the conversation." The tinder was Don's very awkward visit with a former girlfriend, Midge the painter, now a heroin addict looking for money. Less moved than spooked, Don wrote Midge a check for $300, then swapped it for $120 cash after Midge asked rhetorically, "What am I going to do with a check, Don?"

Midge's husband (who acted more like her pimp) explained that Midge's recent paintings explored the idea of the "afterimage." In this case, the afterimage was more like an after-stench. That apartment probably smelled like fear. I don't think it's a stretch to surmise that in a later scene, when Don was back at his apartment studying Midge's not-very-interesting painting he might have realized that something had to be done to make Madison Avenue look at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as something other than a scrawny junkie with its hand out.    

This was not a heart-stoppingly powerful episode—at least not by the standards of other installments that aired during this very ambitious but distracted and disjointed season. In fact it seemed almost to follow the "Deadwood" model of stretching a story out over a couple of episodes to create one self-contained, long story. The storytelling was orderly, logical and tough, though, and it mostly observed real-world logic. The only major exception was Don's New York Times gambit, which seemed very much like something Don Draper would do, even though the timeline was a bit unclear and some of the details rang false. (The cut from Don writing in his journal at night to the ad running during the day suggested that it was an overnight decision, but The New York Times doesn't take next-day full-page ads the night before a paper goes to press, and to my knowledge never has.) "I know it was about 'He didn’t dump me, I dumped him,'" Megan told Don on the morning that the ad appeared. "I just love that you did it. It feels different around here."

Meanwhile, back in Cheever country, Sally Draper once again demonstrated that she has an infinitely more nurturing bond with her therapist than she does with her emotionally stunted mother—and that unlike her mother, she's capable of having a meaningful, non-sexual relationship with a member of the opposite sex (Glen Bishop, a disturbed yet charming boy whose gift for gab and fondness for cigarettes suggests that he's a tiny Don Draper in the making). Sally had taken to meeting regularly with Glen with in a secret spot. All they did was talk—about their families, about their dreams, about "forever"—a concept that Sally says makes her "upset." Betty didn't believe platonic friendship was possible between a pubescent boy and girl (project much?) and took the opportunity to announce that the family was moving. (This felt like Betty's version of Don's full-page ad—a way of changing the conversation, whatever she imagines that to be.)

The Draper family’s domestic unrest dovetailed with the workplace intrigue more gracefully than usual, thanks to those shots of the agency staff watching the partners (the word practically an anagram for parents) sneaking around the halls and having secret meetings that resulted in a lot of people cleaning out their desks and crying in hallways. Are Mom and Dad about to split up? And what will happen to the children?

Matt Zoller Seitz is a contributor to Salon and the founder of Slant's “The House Next Door,” where he has written extensively about “The Sopranos” and other series. 

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