Our latest two episodes of Mad Men each feature a major character leaving Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. One leaves in a considerably more permanent fashion than the other, but I’d still be hard pressed to say which departure is sadder.
And each, in his and her own way, falls victim to the season’s overall theme: the darker side of the American dream. In my last review, I discussed my realization that no one on Mad Men would ever really be happy, because—in common with most of their countrymen—these characters are programmed to always want something else, or something more. Move to the dream house in the suburbs, and you start to miss the city. Find the perfect woman, and you start to get bored and your eye starts to wander. Climb to a higher position in the firm, and you still want a bigger salary, a better title, or some intangible sign of respect that you feel is lacking. Achieve a partnership, and you still want a bigger slice of the pie. Climb to the highest position in the firm, and you find you miss the upward struggle to succeed. You can hope that landing that small car company will make you happy, but you should know that, as soon as you get it, you’re just going to want to go after the huge chemical empire.
And Don (Jon Hamm) acknowledges this same truth in his meeting with Dow Chemicals, the latest white whale he’s decided to pursue. The Dow executives say they are happy with their current agency, because they have 50 percent of the market, but Don reminds them that that’s not enough:
“Because even though success is a reality, its effects are temporary. You get hungry, even though you’ve just eaten…You’re happy with 50 percent? You’re on top, and you don’t have enough. You’re happy because you’re successful, for now. But what is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness. I won’t settle for 50 percent of anything. I want 100 percent. You’re happy with your agency? You’re not happy with anything. You don’t want most of it, you want all of it, and I won’t stop until you get it.”
Because that’s what it’s all about: everyone wants what they don’t have, and happiness is just the moment before you need more happiness. That’s the basis, for example, of all the sales pitches Don and his team come up with for Jaguar: it’s the “mistress” of cars, the one you want when you already have a perfectly good Ford in the garage. Everyone wants what is just out of reach, and Jaguar is the object of desire that a man can possess: “At last, a beautiful thing you can truly own.”
Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) has always wanted what was just out of reach: she’s always wanted something more. Like a good Catholic girl, however, she’s always approached this longing as a longing for more responsibility, not more reward: she’s always wanted to do more, to be more, and not, necessarily, to have more. But now that’s become a point of resentment. “I told you you were in charge of all ongoing work until Jaguar is done,” Don tells her: she is, effectively, the Creative Director of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. But she hears this news as she watches the men—who are working on Jaguar—being served lobster. It’s no longer enough to just have the work: she quite rightly wants the perks, too. She saves another account—one of Ginsberg’s—and is understandably upset when Don decides to send Ginsberg to Paris to shoot the commercial based on her idea.
It’s a modest perk—Don wouldn’t even think of it as one—but it’s a symbol of the lifestyle she wants and deserves. (Last season she told Don she’d never even been on an airplane, and Don didn’t believe her.) Don doesn’t understand, and contemptuously throws money in her face. “You want to go to Paris? Here, go to Paris.” Don, of course, already has the lifestyle she wants, and doesn’t particularly appreciate it. “I look at you, and I think, I want what he has,” Peggy said in Season Three, the last time she was thinking about leaving. “You have everything—and so much of it.”
Don admires Peggy, but in practice he has always taken her for granted, always treated her—as Freddy Rumson (Joel Murray) reminds her now—as “some secretary from Brooklyn who’s dying to help out.” Freddy convinces her to do what any man would do in her situation: to find an agency willing to pay her what she’s worth, and go there. That agency turns out to be the one run by Teddy Chaugh (Kevin Rahm), Don’s nemesis from Season Four. (It is notable that, during their negotiation, Chaugh never even mentions Peggy’s gender: he treats her like he would treat a man, more or less exactly the way he treated Pete when he tried to steal him last year.)
Now, when she goes to Don to resign, Don says all the wrong things. “I can’t put a girl on Jaguar,” he says—reminding her that she will always be a “girl,” and always have to fight to break down doors that are wide open for less talented men. (He also lets it slip that Joan [Christina Hendricks] will be made a partner: more on that in a bit.) When she announces she’s leaving, he is, at first, incredulous. “Frankly, I’m impressed,” he says. “You finally picked the right moment to ask for a raise,” he says. When he realizes she’s serious, he’s angry—”Let’s pretend I’m not responsible for every single good thing that has ever happened to you”—but still asks her how much it’s going to take to keep her, to maintain—if you will—his ownership of her. “There’s no number,” she says—because it’s not about the money, except symbolically. It’s about respect, and growth, and her ability to become something besides the plucky secretary from Brooklyn.
It is not until the moment that Don knows he has lost her, of course, that he realizes how much he wants her. It’s a realization he’s come to before, at the end of Season Three, when he thought she might leave. “I will spend the rest of my life trying to hire you,” he said then—but that’s the point. When she’s there, she’s just the wife, taken for granted. When she threatens to leave, she becomes the mistress, the object of desire, the thing just beyond his reach that he can’t live without.
I don’t mean to be too cynical about their relationship, which has been—for five seasons—the very heart of the show, and this final scene between them is touching, as Don kisses her hand and refuses, for the longest moment, to let it go. Peggy stands proud and firm: a single tear is running down her cheek, but she does not give in, and when she finally leaves SCDP it is with a smile on her face.
The only one who sees her go is Joan, who is now a partner, having made the kind of compromise Peggy would never make. Joan has sold a piece of herself: “There’s no number,” Peggy said, but the men of SCDP (and Jaguar) named a number to Joan, and Joan took it, prostituting herself to the odious head of the dealer’s association. Peggy left, in part, because she refused to be defined by her gender, and because she knew her value. Joan, on the other hand—who has always seemed so much stronger than Peggy—has allowed herself to be objectified, and allowed herself to be valued not for her business talents—which are considerable—but for her sexuality. “When deep beauty is encountered, it arouses deep emotions, because it creates a desire, because it is, by its nature, unattainable,” Don says in his pitch to Jaguar, which plays over the scene of Joan’s liaison. “We’re taught to think that function is what matters, but we have a natural longing for this other thing.” Joan’s function is essential—she deserves a partnership, based solely on what she has done for the company—but her value is this other thing, her status as an unattainable object of desire.
Joan’s story is something of a tragedy: she has always been as capable of every man around her, but from the beginning it was her sexuality that she saw as her ticket to success. “My mother raised me to be admired,” she told Don recently, and so she set out to snare herself a professional man to take care of her. She got the gold ring—a doctor—only to find out that the fairy tale wasn’t true. As her marriage fell apart, her role within the company—and her professional pride—grew, but now it is still her sex appeal that secures her success. In the early days of their friendship, Joan used to advise Peggy to trade on her looks—to wear a shorter skirt, to change her hair, to use her feminine wiles—but Peggy has stayed true to herself; she may never be a partner, anywhere, but whatever success she achieves will be earned.
And then there’s Lane (Jared Harris). “For those of us at the 4As, everything about you is American,” a man from the American Association of Advertising Agencies tells him at the beginning of “Commissions and Fees,” but Lane is not American: I doubt Matthew Weiner had this end in sight when he made Lane Pryce a partner in SCDP, but it has worked out well, thematically, for this foreign-born man to crash against the rocks of the American dream. Lane came to this country as a glorified errand boy for his British supervisors. (“One of your greatest qualities is that you always do as you’re told,” his boss told him, in Season Three.) He had one reckless moment of rebellion—when he joined a mini American Revolution and threw his lot in with Roger, Don, and Bert at the end of that season—but he has struggled to keep up ever since. Like Peggy, Lane has never demanded the compensation he deserves—it was simply not in his nature—and, like Peggy, that oversight has come back to haunt him, making it impossible to maintain the Manhattan lifestyle his position demands. “Do you have any idea how the rest of us live?” he asks Don, echoing the theme that Don simply does not appreciate the relatively lavish lifestyle he and the other partners enjoy.
It may be true what he says, that he was never adequately compensated for his role in the company, but who’s fault is that? “Every time someone’s asked me what I wanted, I’ve never told them the truth,” he tells Joan—because that American quality of always wanting more—demanding more—than you are offered does not come naturally to him. He has tried to live the lifestyle without making kinds of hard decisions about what he wants that, for example, Peggy makes. Now he finds himself trapped, with no way out: he has embezzled funds from the agency, and been caught, and he can’t face the inevitable loss of his status. He can’t go back to England, to once again become a minor cog in someone else’s wheel: he has tasted something better, and convinced himself he deserves better.
But neither does he have that peculiarly American quality—personified in Don Draper—of being able to completely reinvent himself, and go off chasing a different dream. “I’ve started over a lot,” Don says. “This is the worst part.” But there is no “starting over” for Lane: he is too cautious, too proper, too quintessentially British to turn his life upside down. (Look at his previous flirtations with being like Don—his affair with the Playboy Bunny, his obsession with the woman in the wallet, his one night of drinking and whoring at the Don Draper Bachelor Pad last season: all of them came to nothing, and Lane reverted, as he must, to his staid, fully-formed identity.)
Sometimes a man has to change or die, and Lane cannot change: there may be a bit of American superiority in Weiner’s final cruel joke with the British-made Jaguar—which doesn’t even work well enough to serve as a method of suicide—but Lane gets the job done in the end, hanging himself in his office. He leaves what the partners think is a suicide note, but it turns out to be a simple resignation. “It’s boilerplate,” Roger says, and of course it is: Lane’s entire life was boilerplate, a proper man doing the proper thing at the proper time. It was his few fumbling attempts at a different, better life—the never-satisfied, typically American constant pursuit of happiness—that doomed him in the end.
“Why does everything turn out crappy?” Glenn (Martin Holden-Weiner) asks Don, at the episode’s end. “Everything you want to do, everything you think’s going to make you happy, just turns to crap.” Don tells the boy he’s too young to think that way, but Don knows the answer: it’s because nothing is ever enough, and happiness is just a moment before you need more happiness.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits:
- I’m rushing a bit to get this double-post done before the season finale airs, so I’ve skipped over a few things, most importantly Sally’s “flowering” (to borrow a phrase from Game of Thrones). It was nice to see Betty (January Jones) act like a good mother, for once. And I’ve said for a while that Sally is the inheritor of this world—she is, in a way, us, the future, the ones looking back at this earlier time and trying to make sense of it. So her transition into adulthood feels like a significant moment in the series, and a marker of how very close this generation is to the end of its era.
- Don seems like he could easily be nearing another breaking point. His brother, remember, also hanged himself, after Don failed to help him, and so this latest tragedy—combined with Peggy’s leaving—may be enough to push him near the edge. If Megan leaves him as well—which she may well do, if she gets a role—it will be interesting to see what’s left of him going into next season.
- Given the Joan storyline, Lane’s assessment of Pete in “Signal 30” seems more appropriate than ever: “You’re a greasy little pimp.” Count that among the finest moments for the late Lane Pryce, along with his night out with Don in Season Three. (The Godzilla moment is easily my nominee for his funniest.)
- Some great lines, as always, for Roger. I particularly like this exchange between him and Don, prior to the Dow meeting:
Roger: “If he baits you, I want you to punch him in the balls.”
Don: “What happened to your enlightenment?”
Roger: “I don’t know. Wore off.”
- Joan proves once again that she’s smarter than the men who pursue her, as the Jaguar exec says he feels like a Sultan of Araby looking at Helen of Troy. “Those are two different stories,” she says.
- Kenny (Aaron Staton) remains the sole member of the firm who is too smart to lash himself to this lifestyle. “I don’t want to be a partner,” he tells Roger. “I’ve seen what’s involved.” I may have to adjust my earlier generalization: Kenny may have a chance at happiness, after all.