mad men feature

‘Mad Men’ recap: Above the clouds

May 13, 2013
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Don Draper isn’t going to make any new fans this week. His descent into Hell continues and, instead of seeking any redemption, he continues to sink further into an abyss. Shadows of earlier episodes, like the specters of Don’s troubled past, appear everywhere. How many times have we seen Don leave work for a hotel room dalliance? How many times have we seen Pete Campbell get shit on in a conference room? “There wasn’t a chair for me!” he tells his brother. As Don and Ted Chaough’s agencies merge, everyone just wants a seat at the table. In 1968 America, those seats are harder and harder to come by.

Don has lost control of almost everything in his life. His wife continues to pursue a career, a path Don resents. I don’t mean to defend obviously sexist behavior, but Don’s whole past has largely consisted of abandonment; he was an orphan by age 10. It doesn’t excuse it, but it makes sense that Don wants Megan all his own. He wants, as we see in his requests to his mistress later, to be the only source of pleasure in her life. “I need you and nothing else will do,” Sylvia Rosen says. Don doesn’t just relish that exclusivity, he needs it. He wants to hold on to it, to hold it tight against his chest and not let it go. Not content with being the wanted, he must be the only. His agency, too, even though the merger was his idea, drifts further out of his hands. Ted is an interesting foil in that he seems smart and suave, just not nearly to the level Don is. And yet Ted seems far more well-adjusted, a man on the rise; he’s content, but not determined, to let Don fall. Don, even while offering his “olive branch” to Ted after missing a meeting, feels the need to dominate–excusing Ted if he doesn’t want to drink, but clearly implying he should. Ted relents and downs to another glass (and another and another). Don wins again, but each victory feels more hollow. At the same time, Ted says that “Don seems more interested in me than the work.” As we’ve seen with his relationship with Dr. Rosen, Don simply wants a friend. In some ways, that’s even sadder.

A Freudian vibe echoes as Don’s storyline about sexual dominance over Sylvia runs parallel with Pete’s struggles with his mother (“Mad Men” manages to say “Happy Mother’s Day!” in the most fucked up way). Don’s penchant for dominance in the bedroom are well documented. Ordering Sylvia to get on all fours and crawl to his shoes strongly resembles his orders to Megan, also on all fours, in episode 1 of Season 5. Megan complied and aggressive sex followed. Sylvia doesn’t at first, but then extends the sex games even further, complying with Don’s request to stay in bed, naked, until he returns. Don tells her not to answer the phone and even tests her on it. She submits and Don seems . . . satisfied? In fact, has Don looked genuinely happy, and not just satisfied, at all this season? His breakdown in Season 4 was more obvious: the drinking, the lost days, the missed work, but this season’s destruction is more profound. He’s done damage to himself externally before, but this season we are watching the degradation of Don’s soul. I don’t think these scars will heal so easily.

Meanwhile, Pete’s mother is bonkers, which would be sad if Pete wasn’t such a dick about it. In fairness, Pete, too, is practically an orphan. His father died a few years ago in a plane crash (did you see Pete’s face when Ted said he could fly them to Albany?) and his mother has severe dementia. Even her periods of lucidity are punctuated with delusions. And still, Pete, at times, just fucks with her. Why can’t he admit to his mother, whose grasp on reality is tenuous at best, that he and Trudy have split? He lies about that and then tries to convince his mother it’s St. Patrick’s Day. Pete, browbeaten in every aspect of his life, 1 finally can dominate someone else. We get the sense that Pete’s mother was a controlling one, and now it’s Pete’s turn to make the rules. The worm has turned. 2

Even when Don escapes the storm and breaks into the light above the clouds (in this case, in a plane, but the metaphor is stark), he is uninterested. He elects to read Sylvia’s book instead; 3 even in the heavens, he’d rather be somewhere else. Later, he returns to his pleasure den of a hotel room where he finds Sylvia getting ready to leave. He tries to keep up their game a little longer, but it’s over. It’s all over, she insists, everything. Don first tries his typical bravado, “It’s easy to leave something when you’re satisfied.” Rebuked, though, he begs, and the look in his eyes, despite his awful behavior, despite the degradation of his wife, despite the degradation of his mistress, is heartbreaking. “Please,” he utters. We see Don admit his vulnerability for the very first time this season. It’s brief, but profound. He loves her but is unable to express it in a healthy way. For the first time, I think, he sees something real in a woman. So scared of her leaving him, he exerts more and more control, his only defense against his fears. But it doesn’t work. The worm has turned.

This episode, I feel, is the nadir of the season. We learn that now Bobby Kennedy too is dead, a fact so unbelievable that Pete’s mother, even when speaking the truth, still sounds crazy. 1968 was insane in that way, too violent and difficult and horrible to make any sense of. This is the backdrop for Don’s descent. How far will he fall? And even if he somehow makes it above the clouds, will he stop hating himself enough to look around? Is there any hope left for Don at all? 4

Notes:

  1. Recall from Season 5 that Pete’s fantasy with the prostitute was to be king.
  2. The expression comes from Shakespeare, “The smallest worm will turn, being trodden on.” It felt particularly foreboding amid Pete’s anger.
  3. They were reading “The Last Picture Show”– a particularly salacious tale set amid the financial and cultural decay of a small Texas town.
  4. Something to chew on until next Sunday: Planes have a nasty habit of falling out of the sky in “Mad Men” . . . and next week’s episode is called “The Crash.”

Austin, Texas. Good with words.