I would get her so pregnant

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.

1 comment:

Mad Men Girl said...

I bawled my eyes out during that scene where Peggy and Pete look at each other through the doors.

And speaking of Mad Men...

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If you wouldn't mind taking a couple of seconds to vote for me, go to my blog, or copy and paste the following link which goes right to my picture:


Thanks a bunch!