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.)

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