Pete Campbell: I’m going to be a father.
His father-in-law: Can you believe it?
Mad Men viewers: uh, yeah!
Irony is one of Mad Men's most indispensible storytelling strategies. Irony is at home in many kinds of storytelling, but Quality TV benefits from one of the most essential effects of ironic narration: it requires that we "get it." It exploits the audience's special knowledge and competence, which the text flatters us for having.
Mad Men's irony comes in several varieties. This historical setting provides frequent “we know better now” bits, as in season one’s scene at Sally Draper’s birthday party when a man slaps a boy in the face--not his own child--for running in the house. Pregnant women smoke and drink, babies ride in cars unrestrained, middle-class picnickers litter conspicuously and without hesitation. Sexist and anti-semitic attitudes are simply there, unremarkable, and though Don seems to find Roger Sterling's blackface number in "My Old Kentucky Home" to be rather unpleasant, no one calls Roger out as racist or even seems to find such a display to want in taste. Our superior knowledge gives these bits much of their dramatic weight, allowing us to see the past as a more innocent but also less advanced era and anticipating the changes that made our world. Even our foreknowledge of historical events, like Kennedy's triumph over Nixon in the 1960 election, functions to give us the kind of insider knowledge that is the essence of ironic discourse.
Another form of ironic storytelling similarly depends on the superior knowledge of the audience, but depends on the familiarity of viewers with characters and storylines stretching back through the previous seasons. This is what high school English teachers tell us is "dramatic irony" of the sort we often find in Shakespeare, in which the hierarchies of knowledge set up by the narration invite the audience to view situations from multiple perspectives. It arises frequently in this week's episode in situations in which characters' speech unwittingly comments on their situation, but only to the extent that the audience knows more than the characters.
Ken Cosgrove, to Pete: Look how lucky we are. Another Campbell, that’s just what the world needs.
In this episode, focused especially on Pete Campbell and Peggy Olson, the most devastating ironies are those referencing the ongoing storyline in which Pete impregnates Peggy and she gives the baby up for adoption. Pete remains unaware of this development until late in season 2, when he confesses his feelings for Peggy and she tells him what really happened.
In "The Rejected" (my favorite episode of this season so far) we learn that Trudy Campbell, who we had thought might be infertile, is expecting a baby. This gives the writers all kinds of opportunities to subtly refer back to the Pete and Peggy storyline.
Pete: It feels much different from what I expected.
Trudy: How would you know what this feels like?
Eventually they get around to setting up the interaction we are most eager to see: Peggy addressing Pete having heard this news. But first a series of other scenes in which we observe characters who do not know of Pete's earlier paternity respond to the news. Invariably the developments have meaning that resonate with the central thematic preoccupations of the show, those with the power imbalances of gender and class distinctions. Peggy could not have borne Pete's baby openly and also pursued her career. It would have ended her working life, at least for many years. The product of Pete's legitimate parental expectancy, however, is a new $6 million account. He who has so much advantage gains more.
This disparity is made clear in the late scene of Pete and Peggy each going off on their own lunch outing, Pete with his male colleagues and his father-in-law and his business associate from Vick's, the new account, and Peggy with her new hipster friends from Life magazine. This distinction between corporate and creative power is a fine illustration of Bourdieu's distinction between economic and cultural capital, and of the ultimate inevitable subsurvience of the latter to the former.
The storyline around the research for Pond's reinforces the themes of the Pete/Peggy situation. Allison's public breakdown over Don's inattention following their post-Christmas-party tryst gives Peggy the opportunity to deny that her sexuality ever might have gotten in the way of her job prospects, and she berates Allison for assuming that Peggy would sleep with her boss and then find herself unable to get over him. Of course the situation with Pete was quite similar in the first season, and the ultimate repercussions much worse than what we suspect will be the case here. If season 1 Peggy had only had the courage Allison shows in telling Don that he's not a good person!
Peggy, to Allison: Your problem is not my problem. And honestly? You should get over it.
This plot also reintroduces Faye, the married professional market researcher, another model of femininity against which to judge Peggy. Faye's performance in the focus group scene, changing attire to blend in with the secretaries and removing her ring (which Don catches Peggy trying on, delicious moment), shows her adapting her feminine appearance to her situation with great confidence and effectiveness. By contrast, Peggy seems to struggle with the negotiation of gender norms in the workplace.
In relation to the two-way mirror scene of season one, much is now different. In the test group using Belle Jolie lipsticks, Peggy stands out as the one who doesn't want to be one of a hundred lipsticks in a box, and she impresses Freddie Rumsen with her observation that the trash bin containing the spent blotted lipstick tissues is a "basket of kisses." (He likens this turn of events, in which a secretary says something worth using in a sales pitch, to seeing a dog play the piano.) Now Peggy and Joan are on the other side of the glass and in positions of more power and authority, and Freddie complains that he has no office in which they can meet. Of course Peggy, Freddie's protege in earlier days, does have her own office (from which to peek at Don's in the best visual humor of the season so far).
The introduction of Joyce, the hipster lesbian photo editor at Life, offers Peggy an entree into a world antithetical to the corporate milieu of SCDP and Pete's in-laws. The line about Peggy's boyfriend renting her vagina recalls the prostitution trope of "Christmas Comes But Once a Year" and raises the idea of male control over female sexuality and reproduction. Had Peggy shamed Pete into leaving Trudy for her and raising their baby together, this experience would have been totally unavailable to her.
Peggy: Trudy’s pregnant?
Joey: I can’t believe that guy’s married to her. I would get her so pregnant.
Peggy and Pete are fated to be paired up for as long as Mad Men tells its story. In "The Rejected," many are rejected -- Joyce's photog friend, Allison, Clearasil, Joyce, Faye (I'm sure there are more). We can't forget as well that Peggy rejected Pete for her career and independence. The parallelism of these characters is reinforced by the two scenes of beating the head, first Pete's against the wall after learning of the Clearasil account, then Peggy's against the desk after learning of Trudy's pregnancy.
Peggy, to Pete: I just wanted to let you know how happy I am for you both.
And in the end they exchange these meaningful glances, which those of us who have been watching all along fill in with all of our accumulated Mad Men knowledge. We see these characters acknowledge one another, wordlessly recognizing all that has gone on between them, showing that they are in on the ironies we have been catching throughout. It's like the show is congratulating us for getting it, but with such subtlety that the forceful emotional impact of this resolution to the episode narrative is totally undiminished.
Mad Men tells its story very slowly and carefully. There are so many more ironic situations pregnant with potential for emotionally charged storytelling. Pete among others still knows about Don's identity, and Don and Pete know about Peggy's pregnancy. In a good serial narrative, the past is never dead or even past.
Update 8/17: cryptoxin appreciates MM's ironic mode too in a response to Jason Mittell's negative take on the show.
Sometimes this season I try to imagine myself watching Mad Men as some people I know are doing it, without having seen seasons 1-3. This week’s episode, “The Good News,” might be among the less comprehensible in the whole series, but there would certainly be funny and poignant moments. Don’s man-date with Lane has its outrageous bit of comedy. Joan’s firing of Lane’s secretary for failing to take responsibility for the flowers fuckup is deliciously dramatic. I would gladly watch Don Draper drive a red convertible along the Pacific coast for an hour or two each week. The scene in which Greg stitches up Joan’s finger while telling his hillbilly joke is one of the most arresting in the episode whether or not you know the backstory of these two, though it packs much more of an emotional wallop if you know [SPOILER ALERT!] that (1) he raped her, and (2) he has no brains in his fingers, which has led to (3): he joins the army and is soon shipping off to Vietnam, where he will die.
I said as the scene ended, “I really don’t want to like that guy” and well, that scene made me LOVE him, which is just wrong. Of course I don’t know that he’s going to die. The M.D.s are less likely to die in a war than the G.I.s, but given that these scenes were paired with the ones of Dick finding out about Anna’s terminal illness, death is a theme.
This show makes me want to fish for thematic parallels and obscure allusions, and bear with me. One of the movies Don and Lane consider seeing on New Year’s Eve is The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (IMO, the greatest film ever made) and in that movie, the protagonist played by Catherine Deneuve becomes pregnant with a child just before her lover departs for the war. When he returns he finds her having set up a family in his absence with another man. In “The Good News” Joan is looking to get pregnant at the same time that her husband is shipping off to Vietnam. Uh huh. Another thing this episode makes me think about is harm to people’s legs and feet. First in Season 3 Guy McKendrick is run over by the John Deere driven by Lois, his career ending in that awful bloody moment; then the Ad Age reporter sent to interview Don in “Public Relations” is missing a leg (lost in the war, of course, the same one in which Dick became Don), and now Anna Draper, who already limped from polio, has her leg in a walking cast. I’ll get back to you about the ultimate significance of the deep symbolic meanings involved here but they sure suggest mortality and pain.
We learn a lot in this episode, which I found to be among the most amusing, surreal, and inconsequential of the series so far. Joan has had two abortions, one of them performed under questionable and undoubtedly dangerous circumstances. This threatens her ability to have a child with Greg, though the gyno (he calls her Jojo and she calls him Walter -- interesting!) seems confident enough.
I would predict that Joan can’t have kids, though perhaps an even better storyline for her would follow the Umbrellas situation -- pregnant with an absent husband, or maybe Greg returns from the war with a bum foot? Let’s keep going: Anna Draper is dying and everyone is keeping it a secret from her. This is one of the show's "period" ironies -- in those days, that's how things were done. Can you believe that? As well, Lane, like Don, is divorced. (Remember the scene in “Love Among the Ruins” when the Pryces an Drapers go out for dinner together?) The students at Berkeley are staging sit-ins. A whore cost $25 in mid-1960s NYC. Don Draper will indeed put the moves on every young, attractive woman he comes across. And so on.
If you haven’t watched every episode leading up to this one, you don’t know that scenes in an OBGYN office are always important.
Peggy goes to Joan’s doctor -- the same one we see in this episode -- for birth control in “Smoke Get in Your Eyes” only to meet with his paternalism and disapproval. (“Even in our modern times, easy women don’t find husbands,” he admonishes.) Betty sees hers in season 2 to find out about her surprise pregnancy with baby Gene. Now here we are back with Jojo’s Walter. This is so obviously a “setting things up” episode that Joan’s fertility is undoubtedly in play as S4 progresses, as is Anna Draper’s mortality. I can’t help but anticipate a connection between them.
But what seems most in play is the underlying identity of Don Draper as Dick Whitman. If Anna Draper dies, so does the experience Don/Dick has of being a true, authentic self, a pre-Don Draper innocent. We know that the season’s theme is supposed to be “Who is Don Draper?” This episode pushes us to consider the possibility that Don is no longer the assumed identity of Dick, that enough time and experience has passed that the identity of Don supersedes that of Dick. When Don signs her wall "Dick + Anna '64" it makes it seem as if Don is performing an earlier, more youthful identity rather than, as earlier in the series, as if Don is Dick's performance.
The larger significance of these observations for my ongoing MM blogging project is to see the dense interconnection of themes and motifs, along with the backstory and our memories of characters’ journeys, as essentially legitimating of shows like this one. A network serial would most often belabor the backstory with expository recapping dialogue. Characters would remind one another of their situations. For instance, Joan and Greg’s exquisite home surgery scene would find more obvious ways of reminding us that Greg’s career as a surgeon had seemed so promising, only to fall apart when he was denied the chief residency. Anna and Dick’s moments together would find more obvious ways of reminding us of that earlier episode, “The Mountain King,” when Don first pays her a visit and remembers the earlier time when they were together. The subtlety of this episode’s allusions and cues to memory works in a different register of audience address than the typical mass television fare, rewarding and flattering the completist audience for Quality TV (and especially the people like me who have seen every episode at least twice) and basically showing a lack of interest in pleasing the casual viewer who, presumably, is necessary for guaranteeing the networks their larger audiences. But who knows, maybe those casual viewers -- you know who you are -- get their own kinds of pleasure from watching casually, which I only wish I knew about. I find the show to be a kind of reverse guilty pleasure at this point, pushing me to invest in its symbols and references, its dense thematic interconnection of episodes. I almost wish I could watch it in a state of innocence, just to find out what will happen next.
PS I never thought Don was really going to make it to Acapulco in this episode, and I'm still not sure why they decided to call this one "The Good News."
(updated to add a title to the post)
Prostitution is a recurring presence in Mad Men, both as representation and metaphor. In the very first episode, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” Peggy offers herself to Don by placing her hand on his only to be brusquely cast aside with the line, “I’m not your boyfriend.”
Is part of her paying job to be sexually available? Maybe, but Don’s not interested. It could be because she dresses too modestly for Manhattan in 1959 and seems unsure of herself -- the opposite of the office sexpot, Joan. Now in “Christmas Comes But Once A Year” with Don several secretaries past Peggy at Christmastime 1964, Allison returns Don’s lost keys and must be sexually available to him. Her recompense is a $100 Christmas bonus. He might have given her as much otherwise, we’ll never know. But the unavoidable suggestion is that she is being paid for a service more intimate than typing letters and buying birthday gifts for Sally, Bobby, and baby Gene. We know by her facial expressions when called into his office on the morning after that she is falling for Don (or has fallen for him already) and feels like his lover rather than his whore, which debases them both when it becomes clear that he intends to treat their encounter like his pre-Korea identity and Peggy’s baby -- as something that didn’t happen. (We have prostitution in mind already this season from the previous episode, in which Don sleeps with a whore who knows what he likes -- being slapped around in bed.)
Quality TV like Mad Men rewards the attention of the most serious, committed viewer who watches from the beginning and in order, who never misses an episode, who remembers and appreciates details. This is TV in its aestheticized mode encouraging attention to form and to thematic meaning, soliciting explication and interpretation (I am the victim of this appeal as much as anyone). “Christmas Comes...” works ok as a standalone episode but this kind of show has no standalone episodes. We are especially gratified by the prostitution theme considering our previous encounters with Lee Garner, Jr., the Lucky Strike heir who in the previous season ruined the career of the closeted gay illustrator, Sal, by demanding that Sal be fired after refusing a sexual advance.
In this new episode Garner again demands quid pro quo. Not only must the ad firm throw a Christmas party at which he is given the only significant gift, but Roger Sterling must don the Santa suit and pose for ridiculous photos with the SCDP men posing on his red velvet lap.
There is one more moment of quid pro quo involving sex and power in this episode, but by contrast to these more despicable representations, the story of Peggy’s relationship with Mark is more gentle and affectionate, though I foresee bad times ahead for these two. Peggy says in season one that she tries always to be honest, but she has let her boyfriend think she is a virgin and of course she is hardly that. The previously before this episode reminds us that she slept with Duck Phillips in season 3, and we committed viewers know of other lovers including Pete Campbell. Every sexual situation involving Peggy reminds us that she got pregnant at the beginning of the series and gave away her baby. Now Mark is trying to pressure her to giver herself to him, and in a humorous bit of dialogue he says, “I brought you cookies!” He doesn’t really mean that she should have sex in exchange for cookies, but as ever there are resonances from elsewhere that amplify the meaning of what might have been a throwaway line.
Earlier in the episode the market research people Bert Cooper brings in offer the SCDP folks cookies in exchange for taking a test they administer to collect data about consumers, which Don refuses to take (because it reminds him of his awful childhood and diasterous domestic situation). Later Faye, the self-assured blonde who runs the testing, explains her methods to Don and seems to have him totally figured out, which troubles him. She even infers that his cinematic Glo-Coat ad of the previous episode was a product of his childhood! Along with his neighbor Phoebe, a nurse at St. Vincent’s, Faye seems like a potential new romantic partner for Don (maybe she still is), so it surprises us at the end of the episode when he winds up with his secretary. But of course of all of these women, she is the one over whom Don holds power.
The thematic parallelism of Don’s fling with Allison and SCDP’s submissive deference to Lucky Strike, as well as the bits with the cookies, brings home a meaning familiar from earlier seasons and episodes: that business and personal affairs alike are structured around unequal relations of power. Capitalism and Patriarchy both demand supplication to authority and money. They thrive on inequality. The story of the 60s which Mad Men is so methodically telling is a story of progress toward equality in some spheres. But it’s also a story of our own times, in which consumer capitalism has grown only more rampant, and in which “post-feminism” has obscured many of the persistent and insidious inequalities between and among genders. Prostitution is a metaphor for unequal power relations, for the degradation of the weak by the powerful.
It is also a potent metaphor for the creative process, and in a commercial medium like television as in advertising, the authentic talent of artistic workers is often represented being under threat from the power of capital to pervert and exploit. The creative person whores their talent. Art like love ought to be a gift, but a both are often given with expectations of something else in return. In feminist analyses, heterosexual relations and in particular marriage are sometimes seen as variations on prostitution. Betty is often portrayed as a victim of such unequal relations between married persons before she and Don split up, and in season 2 she flirts with selling her body to the auto mechanic who stops to help her (this is a way of getting back at Don for his affair with Bobbie Barrett). Joan is likewise represented as selling herself to her husband, Greg, who asserts his ownership of her body in the season 2 scene in which he rapes her on the floor of Don’s office. The overarching metaphor of advertising as a big lie, an illusion of authentic reality, also feeds into the recurring prostitution theme. The work Don and Peggy and Sal and the others do, work that has real meaning and comes from a place of real personal inspiration, is sold to the corporations who exploit it for their profit. As I argued last week, this functions not just as a critique of advertising or capitalism, but as a metatextual commentary on the status of the television creator. Being beholden to a powerful master cuts across all the levels of meaning.
Peggy does sleep with Mark, but the truth about her virginity is still her secret. Don is an asshole to Allison but we'll see where things go with her. Faye and Phoebe still seem like potential romantic partners, and I doubt we have seen the last of Bethany. And the prostitution theme will undoubtedly persist. At this point, a fourth season of a show that promises to go on several more (I will be disappointed if it ends before 1969), much of the pleasure of Mad Men comes from the repetition with variation, the situations and ideas that come up again and again but tweaked each time to reveal a different shade of meaning or a new twist on a familiar character. I watched some of "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" earlier to make the framegrab above and was astounded by how much the characters have changed, especially Pete and Peggy, despite the fact that the show continues to tell much the same story.