Our Mad Men had some big news and small victories as everyone decided between a traditional married life and the adventure of going it alone in a brave new world. Every decision will probably lead to disaster eventually.
Aside from the choices between old roles and new lives, last night's episode was about duplicity, backstabbing, and spying, all of it centered around a focus group that the big shots at Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce held to find out what motivates the women that Pond's cold cream wants to buy its products. The psychologist who runs the panel changes her outfit to look more like a secretary, Peggy tries on her wedding ring to see what it looks like, and everyone watches their secretaries through the two-way mirror. Peggy pokes her head through the window between her and Don's office to peek when he fights with Allison. Pete Campbell has a run in with returning hero Ken Cosgrove when Ken accuses him of talking behind his back, and Pete gets some surprise news of his own from his father-in-law. No one ever comes out and says anything on Mad Men but in this episode (directed by our very own John Slattery, who plays Roger) the way people found out vital information was more obfuscated than ever.
It took the focus group for Don to learn that his secretary, Allison, was very unhappy with her situation. When Don first had sex with her, I thought she did it out of duty, but it has become increasingly clear that he charmed her into it and she expected she would become his new lover and that she would get promoted like Peggy (more on that misunderstanding in a bit) or that he would marry her and she would have a nice traditional life playing dress up and popping out babies in the suburbs, much like Betty Draper did. When Don refuses to acknowledge their liaison, her illusions are shattered, and she begins to hate her boss.
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Like so many girls, Allison thought she'd get a job as a secretary at an advertising agency and meet a nice man who makes a lot of money to take care of her. She thought that was the dashing Don, but this season he's been nothing but a drunk asshole (well, more of a drunk asshole that usual, I should say) and he is not interested in carrying on any long-term arrangements with women that he doesn't pay. Slowly, Allison realizes that he is nothing but a drunk, and all that she wants is a little attention. When her coworker discusses a similar situation in the focus group, Allison rushes out in tears, probably in part due to what Don did to her and that he's watching this group, and because her situation is so sadly common.
Allison then chooses a different path, working for a woman at a magazine (could it be one of Peggy's new friends from Life?), and asks Don for a recommendation. Then he gives her the ultimate insult, he says to just write something up and he'll sign it (yet another of this episode's little lies). All Allison wants from Don is a bit of attention, for him to tell her that she's great and pretty and does a good job, but he can't do even that. She throws an ashtray at him, calls him a horrible person, and runs out of the office for the last time, biting on her way out just like the amazing scarab on her brooch would.
Later, Don tries to do the right thing and apologize to Allison. He starts typing a letter (writing by hand would be too personal, apparently) and says he's sorry but right now his life is too... He can't finish the sentence. It's because his miserable post-divorce existence, sitting on the sofa in his office and drinking until the cleaning crew rouses him, is just too harsh for him to describe or confront head-on. As much as he's always wanted his freedom, he doesn't want to be alone either. Since he can't articulate his sentiments, he scraps the whole endeavor and just goes to bed. This letter writing campaign is so Don Draper. He always wants to make everything better, to seem like a good person, but he always does it too late. Either that or he delays it until the situation he's trying to fix is over, and he is punished yet again. It's like he's the hooker hitting himself in the face. He feels he has failed at life and deserves these mini-masochisms.
Don is searching for the kind of charmed life that Pete Campbell seems to have. When Pete has to tell his father-in-law that the agency has to drop Clearasil as a client because of a conflict, he instead finds out that Trudy, his magnificent wife, is going to have a baby after much difficulty trying on conceive. Pete is very excited by the news, more than he thought he would be considering the last time he found out he had a child it was Peggy's crushing revelation that she gave their child up for adoption. He goes home to his wife and we see a shot of them cuddling on their mid-century modern couch in their perfect living room with the jaunty animal pictures on the wall. It is a picture out of a Better Homes and Gardens magazine (to steal a line from Little Shop of Horrors)—the exact perfect kind of life.
After a strange lunch with Ken Cosgrove (he's getting married to a rich girl, and doing well professionally), Pete still has to tell his father-in-law that their business relationship is over.
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Oh, that smarmy Pete Campbell. Instead of canning Clearasil, he blackmails his father-in-law into giving SCDP all of the company's accounts. Like everything Campbell does, this has as much to do with the quality of the agency's work as it does with some sort of backhanded deal. He basically says that if his father-in-law wants the nascent Campbell family to thrive and have more children, then he's going to need money and grow his business, something his father-in-law can assist with. And when he calls Pete a son of a bitch, Pete just shrugs. He's doing what's necessary to keep that Better Homes and Gardens picture a reality.
Peggy is going in the opposite direction. Her biggest conflict this season seems to be about whether or not to get married, or rather, what she expects out of her life. Strangely, we see this all play out mostly in her relationships with other women, and not the boyfriend she keeps stringing along.
When Allison has her fit in the focus group, Peggy finally takes on the big sister role that Joan once played for her and goes to comfort Allison. But when Allison assumes that Peggy got her job by sleeping with Don (remember, Peggy was once his secretary too), she turns on her and starts yelling, resentful of the implication that she rose through the ranks based on anything but her talent. It seems like Peggy can't be friends with the secretaries anymore, now that she's not in the focus group but on the other side of the glass, watching with the men.
Peggy still manages to make a new friend, Joyce (played by up-and-comer Zosia Mamet, daughter of playwright David), an assistant photo editor at Life magazine who we could tell was a (ahem) friend of the future Sally Draper's as soon as we saw her. Unlike Allison, this is a suitable friend for Peggy, a fellow career gal who cares more about peeping artistic nudes in the elevator than landing a rich husband. Of course Joyce has an ulterior motive when she invites Peggy to a hip, downtown, Warhol-esque party.
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Our little stoner Peggy smokes pot again, and when Joyce tries to kiss her, she backs away letting her subtly know she's not interested (that boyfriend is finally good for something). What is up with Peggy that she always attracts the homos? At least she seems much more comfortable around them now than when she went on a "date" with gay Kurt in season two. Once they're stoned, they watch a movie by an avant garde artist. It is projected on a rumpled sheet which warps the image, constantly changing the way it is perceived. That's sort of an amalgam for the whole episode, where information was shifting and changing, the truth bending in ways that are barely perceptible, but vastly important.
Anyway, Peggy wants to meet the artist and Joyce introduces her. Usually Peggy uses her title at SCDP as a way to one-up people, especially the other women in the office. She's a woman who has broken into the boys' club of advertising, and that is her social capital. Not so in the art world, where the photographer she wants to meet demonizes her for being in the insipid industry. Still, it's enough to impress an intrepid young reporter, who hustles Peggy off to the closet (no room for Joyce in the closet!) during a police raid and kisses her. I have a feeling we're going to be seeing some more of him. When he goes off to cover the possible police beatings, Peggy runs off with Joyce, trucking down the street, laughing their little heads off.
But she's not laughing when she finds out that Pete is going to have a baby (of course she learns this from a secretary, not from Pete himself). She also doesn't find it funny when her dreamy artist partner makes a joke about just how pregnant he'd get the magnificent Trudy Campbell. Peggy's gone down the Pete-Campbell's-baby road herself, and she gave it up. She gave up the expected married-with-children life to have her own office, do drugs, hang with hip friends who are daughters of famous playwrights, and be her own woman. She gave it all up, and now she's reconsidering her choices.
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Peggy runs to lunch with her pack of new hip friends—she even invites secretary Megan along with them, something Secretary Peggy would have appreciated all those years (and bad haircuts) ago. But just for a moment, she looks back at Pete and she's a little wistful. Like she told him years ago, she could have had him. She could have shamed him into marrying her, but she didn't. Just for this second, now that she's getting older and wondering when her man is going to come along, she's questioning her choice. Should she have kept her baby? Should she have that Better Homes and Gardens life with Pete? Should she give up her job and be happy as some man's baby factory? For a minute she thinks maybe she should. But then she jaunts off with her new friends to some awesome cafe to talk about the Velvet Underground and just how great it is to be young in New York in 1965.
Pete is on the other side of the glass with all the guys in their suits going to a business lunch. They are the old way. All-male, very serious, stodgy compared to Peggy and her compatriots. This is going to be the driving dynamic of the show: those who want to forge ahead unknowingly into a new culture, and those who are clutching to the old ways.
This is clear—though ambiguous—by looking at the role of the focus group. Don is doing something revolutionary by hiring this psychologist to talk to the girls, but she comes up with some very traditional findings: that women want to buy cold cream to land them a husband. But Don has a very persuasive argument.
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When the psychologist finds out the opposite of what Don and company were hoping to uncover, he asks her to change or distort the truth for the client. Don is dedicated to running a new and modern agency, so he's not going to write commercials that are more suited to "1925." But what if that is what works? Well, he doesn't care. "A new idea is something they don't know yet," he says. Well, that is just the problem that Peggy is having. She's trying to lead a life that isn't pre-scripted. She can't step into a tidy little role like Trudy Campbell and be content, so instead she has to muddle through as her own role model, finding what works and what doesn't and, yes, sometimes being a little sour that she's not a nice, normal, married girl raising her baby.
As for Don, the personal part of his speech comes when he says, "You can't tell how people are going to behave based on how they have behaved." What an irony that a man who is caught in a horrible loop of bad behavior would say such a thing. We know exactly what Don is going to do because he keeps making the same mistakes over and over again. In his mind he can break free, but we're going to have to see if his behavior matches up to the perception he has of himself.
The strange thing about Don is that he's not standing on one side of the glass in the lobby like new school Peggy or old school Pete. He's somewhere in the middle. He's the man with the cutting edge ideas who also wants the Better Homes and Gardens life. And he wants it to be private. He thinks all this mumbo jumbo about lying and secrets and talking about your life is "nobody's business."
What he wants is something akin the final scene of the program. His next door neighbor, an old woman, is returning from the market with a cart full of groceries and her husband keeps asking, "Did you get pears?" It's obvious that they've been together for a million years and that they each have someone who understands them who they can grow old with. When she gets closer to him, she tells her husband, "We'll discuss this inside." She has the discretion to keep the details of their life behind closed doors, away from the neighbors. And that's what Don wants too. Someone to understand him, someone who will accept him for his true identity and not muddle up his life with their own desires, someone who will give herself over to him completely. He wants to sit in an apartment with her, eating pears, a pair forever.