Is Anyone In Charge on Mad Men?

Our roundtable discusses the chaotic ninth episode of the sixth season.
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AMC

Every week for the sixth season of AMC's acclaimed series Mad Men, our roundtable of Eleanor Barkhorn (Sexes editor, TheAtlantic.com), Ashley Fetters (editorial fellow for TheAtlantic.com's Entertainment and Sexes channels), and Amy Sullivan (National Journal correspondent) will discuss the latest happenings at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.


Fetters: Well, leading in with coverage of the 1968 Democratic National Convention—where a non-violent protest erupted into riots and police brutality—was a pretty good indicator. This episode was all about discontent, abuses of power, and unrest between the establishment and up-and-comers with a new way of doing things.

This episode spread the office personnel across the country: Harry, Roger, and Don took a trip to California to meet with Carnation, Sunkist, and an entity that Roger refers to as "the avocado people"; Ted went to Detroit to appease the Chevy leadership; while the rest of the team, under Ted and Cutler's supervision, stayed behind in New York, getting on one another's nerves and working behind one another's backs. Ginsberg locks horns with Jim Cutler over politics, causing Cutler to add Bob Benson to Ginsberg's Manischewitz account and propose firing Ginsberg along with some other SCDP veterans while Don and Roger are out of town.

Meanwhile, Joan reels in a client by accident, then deliberately sets up the seal-the-deal meeting between herself, Peggy, and the marketing head at Avon despite Ted's directive to schedule the meeting for Peggy and Pete. Moderate chaos ensues, as the Manischewitz account puts its business with the agency under review, Peggy suspects Joan has just thrown away any chance of getting the Avon account by going rogue, and Pete gets ruffled by Joan's direct rejection of the established workplace hierarchy.

Out in California, Roger and Don get off to a bad start with the Carnation execs over a few offhand politics-related comments. Later, Roger describes their trip as "a series of busts, and not the kind I like"—so things are pretty dire on the West Coast, too. Harry, though, takes this trip as an opportunity to peacock around in his polyester finest (ascot alert!) and patiently initiate his fuddy-duddy bosses to the groovy ways of "the Hills" by taking them to a party hosted by Hollywood execs. Don proves he's still got it by getting cozy with a Hollywood type at the party—presumably an actress—under the influence of some hash smoked out of a hookah pipe. (Especially considerate of him after Megan's warning to "stay away from actresses" in that moment of maybe-not-so-facetious banter about the "biggest mistake of [Megan's] life" that happened the last time they went to California.) Roger, though, in a crystalline new-world-order moment, tries to pick up tiny, nonviolent-hippie (and ex-SCDP employee) Danny's pretty friend Lotus and promptly gets punched in the crotch.

Despite the business-centric nature of this week's show, one of the more startling storylines takes place in Don's personal life. After getting high, Don hallucinates some very weird things.

First, Don sees what I took to be his long-haired "fantasy" version of his wife, who tells him she's shown up in California to surprise him; that she doesn't mind his making out with the other lady at the party because "it's California, everyone shares"; and that she's quit her job because she's missed him so much and so that she'll have enough love for her "other surprise," a pregnancy she refers to as a second chance. Second, he sees the lieutenant whose wedding he attended in Hawaii, who says he's been killed in Vietnam. And third, he sees himself, floating lifeless in the pool, just before coming to, soaking wet and coughing up water.

I think what we can take away from that Megan hallucination is that Don has a well-defined fantasy of what he'd like Megan to be: an old-fashioned, full-time wife and mother who pines for him while he's away, but doesn't mind his cheating. Needless to say, that's pretty well at odds with what Megan's own plans for her life and her role in Don's life are.

As for that brush with death (another thing we should be keeping a series-long running tally of), I'm at a loss for how to interpret it—or maybe at a loss for whether I even should. I think what we've learned over the last 5.5 seasons is that a confrontation with mortality doesn't necessarily foreshadow anything on this show. But it did lend some credibility to that running theory that Don Draper is Jay Gatsby: Guy invents new versions of himself and the woman he loves, revels in the excess of his era, and ends up floating facedown in a swimming pool.

And at long last, the curiously unnamed mutant agency resulting from the CGC-SCDP merger finally has a name: Sterling Cooper and Partners! Which everyone seems to privately loathe. Nothing like pulling together a rapidly splintering agency by slapping a suffocatingly inclusive name on it, right?

So, Eleanor/Amy, tell me your thoughts: Is Don's almost-death in this episode something we should be paying attention to, or just another one of Mad Men's periodic death scares? Does it mean anything that Don's cough came back on the way back to New York? And I know we all perpetually root for Joan, but let's take an honest look here: Are her colleagues truly underestimating her, or did Joan get in over her head with the Avon account?


Barkhorn: I actually thought the agency's new name was more of a harbinger of doom than the Don-floating-in-the-pool scene. Notice how Cutler emphasizes that the firm's logo will be "S C ampersand P." Yes, technically the "P" stands for "partners," but who can avoid thinking about the other "P" that used to be in SCDP's name: Pryce, who killed himself at the end of last season? Even with the new name, Lane's ghost haunts the agency. Yet more striking about the visualization of the new name—SC&P—is that it looks the same as the old name, only minus Don. Like the disappearing man from his season-premiere Hawaiian resort ad, Don is fading away. (I also wonder if Ted and Cutler came up with the name so they could have a graceful exit if they want to leave the partnership. If their names are never on the door in the first place, there'll be no need to remove them if they go.)

"I'm not sure if we should try to be groovier or nostalgic."

As for Avon, I love this story line. I love how it's a reversal of the horrid Jaguar situation. Instead of conducting a business deal that's really a sexual exchange, as she did when she slept with Herb, Joan found herself on what she thought was a date but was really a business meeting. Yes, of course she's over her head. She's never handled an account as her own before, but based on the little we saw of her interactions with the client, she's a natural. (It also helps that Andy seems like one of the saner, more clear-eyed clients we've seen on the show.) And everyone has gotten where they are at SC&P by doing exactly what Joan did: being opportunistic and relentless and eventually finding themselves in a role they're unqualified for. Young Don hounded Roger into giving him a job. Pete Campbell used his father's own death to try to nab an airline account. And so on. This is Joan's moment, and she seized it. She's going to do great. (I also love that Pete in his rage at Joan and Peggy sputtered, "Are you starting your own agency?" I hope the answer turns out, eventually, to be YES.)

The only downside to the Avon business is the downside to a lot of the clients at SC&P right now: They're brands whose best days are, for the moment, behind them. As Andy from Avon himself pointed out, the company's sales are down because women aren't at home as much as they used to be, "and hippies don't wear makeup." His assessment of the problem his brand faces is a good encapsulation of the problem SC&P deals with nearly every day, "I'm not sure if we should try to be groovier or nostalgic." As for the mighty Chevy, as Slate pointed out last month, the amazing new car they're hiring SC&P to promote turns out to be a big, expensive dud. And Manischewitz—one of the least cool alcohol brands in existence, one that is by definition tied to tradition and the past—is putting the agency under review.

Maybe the saddest moment in the episode (besides the horrific news coverage of the Chicago riots, of course) is when Don lists his clients to a musician at the party in the Hills: "Chevy, Mohawk airlines," he begins. "Where are they?" his new friend interrupts. "In the Northeast," Don explains before listing the rest of his less-than-exciting clients: Samsonite luggage and Life cereal. The conversation ends with the musician saying maybe he'll try advertising if his career writing film scores doesn't work out. So much for advertising being glamorous and exclusive—it's a fallback for creative types who can't hack it in Hollywood. There have been plenty of times throughout Mad Men's run where Don has looked pathetic in his personal life—this was one of the first times when he looked pathetic professionally. No wonder his next move was to get high and enter a bizarro fantasy world.

So this episode, to me, felt like one of the sadder Mad Men episodes. As Ashley pointed out, chaos reigned within and without the agency, and there wasn't anyone who seemed to have any control over it. The incomprehensible turmoil was enough to drive uptight, rule-following Pete Campbell to smoke pot right in the middle of the office—things have got to be in bad shape.

Amy, what did you think? Were there any silver linings we missed? How do you think this trip to California compared to other trips Don has taken? And what are we to make of the seemingly happy interlude in Don and Megan's relationship?


Sullivan: Everything about this episode made me feel claustrophobic, up through that last scene of Pete picking his way through the crowded creative work room—who ARE all those people?—and toking up on the couch. Except for the fluorescent industrial lighting, Pete could have been at the party in the Hills instead of the SC&P offices.

Building a mood of what it was like to live through the chaotic late 1960s has been Mad Men's most applause-worthy accomplishment this season. We watch, of course, knowing what is going to happen—it's 1968, so MLK Jr. will be assassinated, then Bobby Kennedy, urban riots will scare many white residents out of cities across the country, violence will erupt outside the Democratic Convention, etc. But our characters are just hit with one thing after another, which makes them feel helpless, scared, and wondering if anyone is in charge.

(I was reminded recently that this anxious mood extended well into the 1970s—journalist Brendan Koerner has a forthcoming book about airplane hijackings in the 1960s and 70s. It's mind-boggling to read through the dozens of incidents and wonder how anyone managed to board a plane during that era.)

So it should be no surprise that Joan does what she's seen her male colleagues do before, especially in times of chaos—she makes her own opportunity, as Don would say. You're right, Eleanor—she's over her head. And Pete is actually really good at this kind of thing. It's interesting that he's the one she screws over, after just mentioning in the last episode that Pete is the only one in the office who has never broken a promise to her. But Joan's move is no less reckless than any of a dozen Don Draper has made, starting with how he started at the firm. He didn't just hound Roger—he flat-out lied and convinced a hungover Roger that he'd been hired at a booze-filled meeting the day before.

But as we know, ladies, men still get away with things that women can't in professional settings. (Ann Friedman had an awesome post on this after New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson was attacked by anonymous employees for the sins of being difficult and blunt.) So I'm worried about our Joanie. Already she's been excluded from the partners meeting at which they approved the new agency name. Her instincts are right—she needs to grab work for herself and force her fellow partners to see her as a force, not just someone to give clients a tour of the office.

Joan and Peggy's interactions fascinate me, because they, too, reflect some less-appealing realities for many professional women. They look out for each other—I loved seeing Peggy listen in from Joan's office after Ted kicked her out of the conference room. That insulting workspace has at least one benefit! And they do genuinely seem to care about each other. But they have a history, and neither one will forget it. That exchange outside the elevators was remarkable, for everything that was said and unsaid. These two women are more than friends. They're frivals (a term my husband likes to take credit for coining.) I'm still rooting for a breakaway Olson-Harris ad agency.

As for Don's recurring cough, Ashley, I say, enough already! You can't have a man hack away in every single episode while everyone tells him to stop smoking and call it foreshadowing. I might have yelled at the TV, "Oh, just give him a heart attack already!"

I'm worried about Ginsberg, who had my favorite line from this episode to Stan: "I love you. You know that. You're a mother hen." Somebody has to be, because I'm starting to worry that Ginsberg isn't an eccentric creative genius—"lightning in a bottle," Ted called him—but is instead dealing with a mental illness. He'd be at just about the right age for the onset of schizophrenia, and his comment about "I can't stop the transmissions of harm" and quoting from the Bhagavad Gita seemed a little off, even for our passionate Ginsberg. He needs someone looking out for him other than Bob Benson, who just mouthed jargon peptalk at him. (Of course Benson listens to self-help records, of course he does.)

Oh, Megan. You should have packed Don's swim trunks after all.

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