Monday, April 27, 2015

Don Draper and the American Way


Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner quickened the pace of this final mini-season with Sunday night's "Time & Life," in which the principals of Sterling, Cooper & Partners learn that they are being absorbed by their new corporate masters, McCann Erickson, and they will finally be locked into those gilded cages they have struggled mightily to avoid. More on that in a bit.

This was the best episode so far of this final stretch, which has been plodding and exceedingly introspective even by Mad Men standards. For me, "Time & Life" spoke more clearly to the themes of the show than any recent episode, with one pivotal exchange that leaps out: Roger and Don, in a bar, drowning as much in self-pity as booze over McCann's decision to reject out of hand their plan to move the firm to the West Coast. Roger laments not only the end of the agency that bears his name but also the end of the name itself, since he has no son, brother, or even cousins to carry it on. "What's in a name?" Don says wryly, living, as he does, under an assumed one. Roger tells Don he envies his ambition, and Don tells Roger that he envies that Roger never needed any. "In another lifetime, I'd have been your chauffeur."

Unlike Roger, the audience knows the other half of Don's Horatio Alger story and understands why he's an imperfect vehicle for the message that in America, it should only matter what you do, not who you are. Whatever role Don's considerable talents played in his rise, he owes much of his success to reinvention and criminal deception. I don't think I'm being overly cynical when I say that Don Draper's story is quintessentially American, in the tradition of Jay Gatsby and Vito Corleone. Don may believe in America, but he understands the hypocrisy that lies at the heart of the myths we tell ourselves about our nation.

Some of Don's colleagues could tell him that while he's had to overcome that hypocrisy, he's also been its beneficiary. Don may lack the WASP pedigree of a Roger Sterling or a Pete Campbell, but he couldn't have pulled off all he's accomplished in the Mad Men era unless he was a white (and Protestant) male. Remember the very first episode of the series, when Roger, getting ready for a pitch to a Jewish-owned department store, asks Don whether the firm has hired any Jews. Don misunderstands the point of the question and says "Not on my watch." Whether Don is actually antisemitic is immaterial, his relationship with Rachel Menken, the heiress who runs the store, notwithstanding. Don has tricked his way into the club, and he knows full well who belongs and who doesn't.

Take Joan, for example, who despite being a partner who has brought considerable value to SCP, is convinced that McCann is a boys' club where she'll find little meaningful work. Or Dawn and Shirley, two African American employees, who wonder if they will have jobs at all. When Mad Men premiered it was a mirror of how America used to be, and we could nod and chuckle in self-satisfaction at how far we've come. Now, the show is often an ugly reflection of how little has changed, a half-century on, and it makes us squirm. Too many women like Peggy Olson are still forced to choose between a family and a career in ways that men are not, women executives don't earn as much money or respect as men, and there still are too few opportunities for minorities.

It's worth remembering that the agency went seeking a black employee to thumb its nose at a larger rival whose cruel treatment of civil rights marchers was reported in the newspapers. The agency may have grudgingly given opportunities to women like Peggy, Joan, and Dawn -- a gay employee like Sal was a bridge too far when an important, closeted client made a pass at him -- but it also fit its underdog, dare I say renegade, image. Now, though, the men and women of SCP are fated to be cogs in the corporate machine, and here Mad Men exposes another conflict between the story Americans tell about themselves and the messy reality. We extol the virtues of the mom-and-pop store, the entrepreneur and the visionary innovator, but the system seems rigged to favor the giant corporation. Apple may have started in Steve Jobs' garage, but now it rakes in billions and billions while employing cheap labor in China. Don and Roger once viewed McCann Erickson with the same resentful contempt that Jobs viewed IBM; now they are McCann Erickson in much the way that Apple became IBM, in scale if not in culture.

Not that we should feel sorry for any of them. Twice during last night's episode, someone tells the gang at SCP to give thanks for their great fortune. Peggy's career consultant tells her she won't find another agency who will pay her anywhere near what McCann will, and she can write her own ticket in a few short years. McCann's Jim Hobart, who's always been after the talent at Sterling Cooper going back to his early attempt to poach Don, tells the five partners that they've won. Goliath couldn't beat David. So he bought him out. What could be more American than that?

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