Spoiler Alert Thursday: Mad Men, “Blowing Smoke”
Such a good episode this week.
While Don arguably does an extremely shitty thing by throwing a grenade (or a tantrum, as Pete put it) on a full page of the New York Times without first telling his partners, it’s notable that he’s not running away, which he has an established habit of doing in moments of crisis. Back in season one, when Don was assaulted by memories of his childhood, he asked Midge to escape with him to Paris. Then, when Pete discovered Don’s secret, Don went to Rachel and asked her to run away with him. In season two, Don went AWOL in Palm Springs after Betty confronted him about his affair with Bobbie.
This time, not only is he not running away, he’s affirmatively committing himself to stay by entrenching himself in the SCDP crisis – he financially commits himself not only by paying his $100,000 partnership obligation, but by paying Pete’s $50,000 as well; and he signs his name onto a full-page ad in the Times, publicly committing himself to SCDP’s new position on tobacco.*
Maybe it’s because running away just isn’t an option at this point. As Don tells Peggy, you don’t start over when you’ve only just started. He doesn’t really have anything to run away from right now – no home, no family, and barely any business.
Or maybe Don’s making progress on that redemptive arc everybody keeps waiting for. This episode makes a couple of explicit callbacks to “The Summer Man” – swimming in the pool, writing in the journal. As Adam noted in his analysis in Kritik, the “The Summer Man” may have marked Don’s long-awaited “turn toward introspection and self-control.”
If that’s true, and if this episode depicts Don’s continued progress on his introspective journey, it also reveals the limits of it. Before Don pens his letter to the New York Times, after all, he actually rips out everything that he’s written in his journal thus far. Don’s past, his family, his lovers, his pain – all of these things are real, and Don doesn’t forget them. But he’s learned enough about himself to know that he’s not that interested in writing and thinking about these things for their own sake. His past is useful to him primarily – or even solely – because it inspires his advertising work.
The way in which his past inspires his Times ad is particularly striking. On a surface level, Don is inspired to write an anti-tobacco ad by his encounter with Midge, who has become helplessly dependent on another very addictive drug.
But of course, the letter isn’t really an anti-smoking ad, it’s a pro-SCDP ad.** The meeting with Midge inspires Don on this level too, in a way that is both more poignant and more cynical.
This is the first time in several years that Don has seen Midge. Just like the last time they met, this meeting ends with Don handing Midge a large sum of money. The last time though, back in 1960, Midge hadn’t asked for the money. She had fallen in love with someone else, and it was upon realizing this that Don asked her to run away with him. When she turned him down, he signed his bonus check over to her and said goodbye.
This time, far from rejecting Don, it’s revealed that Midge has deliberately tracked him down. She’s addicted to dope and so desperate for money that she’s apparently hooking on the street. At this point, $120 cash and the prospect of an immediate fix is better than getting a check for twice that and waiting for the banks to open.
Dr. Atherton says during this episode that SCDP is a “certain type of girl,” and tobacco is her “ideal boyfriend.” Don realizes, after his encounter with Midge, that no one – and especially not the ideal boyfriend – wants to be with a girl who is utterly abject and obviously desperate. Offering Midge his $2500 bonus check was an attractively reckless idea when Midge didn’t ask for it, and when she clearly had other options. Giving her a handful of cash from his wallet when she’s basically begging for it, on the other hand, is pretty unpleasant.
Dr. Atherton and Peggy have already told Don that in order to survive, SCDP must change the conversation. It can’t allow itself to be seen as dying. As Megan puts it – picking up again on the girlfriend metaphor – SCDP has to spin the story and claim that “she dumped him first.” Midge will never again dump a guy first, not so long as he has enough cash for a fix. Seeing this makes Don realize that SCDP can’t afford to be Dr. Atherton’s “certain type of girl anymore,” not now that her ideal boyfriend is clearly no longer interested. Midge of 1960 – who took Don’s money after turning him down – is Don’s model for SCDP. Sadly, that model doesn’t seem possible for Midge herself anymore.
On another topic, I loved the Glenn-Sally-Betty subplot. Really, what kid hasn’t gazed deep into the Land O’ Lakes package art and contemplated eternity? (Sally, wait until you hear the one about the eagle and the mountain of granite – it will blow your mind.) Also, that scene where Betty tells Sally that she knows Glenn better than Sally does – and Sally responds by (very sensibly) observing that Betty doesn’t know Glenn at all? You know Betty is just dying to tell Sally that Glenn liked her first.
*How much cash does Don have on hand anyway? According to an inflation calculator of questionable validity that I found on the web, $150,000 in 1965 would be like a million dollars now. I understand he’s rich, but still. A liquid million on a day’s notice?
**Don’s on record as saying he doesn’t sell ads, he sells products, but I think we’ve all known for a long time that that could not be further from the truth.
(Cross posted at An ünd fur sich)
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