The Orange Couch Does Mad Men: S7E7, “Waterloo”
Last Orange Couch until next year! The seven episode half-season made it all go so quickly, almost too quickly. (Though Marc will be happy to go to bed a little earlier on Sunday nights, instead of editing clips!) Last night’s episode, as we note in the video, had a light feel to it, despite the sadness of Bert Cooper’s death and the grossness of Jim Cutler trying to capitalize on it. But, as we argue, that’s all very deceptive.
One of the things that I’ve seen critics complain about is this sense on the show that the writers and producers agree with Don and Peggy’s worldview, where advertising is a legitimate expression of one’s deepest creative impulses. I find that complaint disagreeable, for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s incredibly elitist, particularly since it requires sniffing contemptuously at people who grew up without benefit of a real college education for the plebeian avenues of creative success available to them. Don and Peggy are rich now, but they didn’t come from money and a lifetime of typing away little poems no one will read while living off a trust fund was never available to them. For people not born to money, creativity will always be pinched in and manipulated by the need to hustle.
But it’s also simply untrue that the show presents a loving, uncomplicated view of advertising. This episode is a really great example of the ambiguity inherent to the show’s approach to advertising. Peggy’s glowing speech was crafted to suck in the clients, but the night before, she is all too clear that selling fast food to busy moms is hardly on level with the space launch in terms of human achievement. In fact, if anything, I think the show is a little too judgmental towards the characters for enjoying their work at times. Don’s tearful farewell to Bert was an overt argument against spending your life at work—Don’s sole creative avenue—instead of spending time with your family. But, as Don tells Ted, convincingly, the work is the thing that saves him. Creative people need an outlet, and advertising is it for Don. The hint that he’s pissing his life away seemed unfair to me. Sometimes the show can be unduly cruel to Peggy, as well, implying that her fears that her life is passing her by are justified somehow.
Clearly, it’s not as simple as all that. Both Peggy and Don, during this season, have been shown repeatedly to have their doubts about their careers but ultimately unable to do anything else. In a sense, judging them for what they do is beside the point. They do what they do because creative people must create, and they must create in the medium that makes sense to them, whether that’s bottle cap sculpture or advertising. To try to control that with your judgments is like trying to stop fish from swimming and birds from flying. They are, at their core, who they are.
So perhaps, as we end this half-season and have to wait until next year for the rest, it’s worth wondering if the show isn’t really making moral judgments about the characters at all, so much as it’s saying, “This is what the life of a driven, creative person is. It has its highs and lows, but accept it for what it is.” The myth of creativity—the one that drives the snotty swipes at advertising as a legitimate medium—is that the creative person a humble servant who is putting their talents to use for the greater good. In reality, however, they tend more to be an obsessed person who has an urge to make things and express themselves, and the final consequence of that is of secondary importance. Many a poet toiling away in obscurity has wondered if they wouldn’t be better off, say, writing screenplays for movies that people actually want to see. Creative people do what they do because they’re good at it. Wishing they were good at something else is a fool’s errand.
Don’s problem, I think, is not that he likes advertising. It’s that his competitiveness—we like to call it Ferret Face Don, because Jon Hamm always squints his eyes when he’s trying to show that Don is getting excited at a possible display of dominance—is ruining his ability to simply do the work. Don likes to win. He can’t stop cheating because seduction feels like a display of dominance to him. When his mistress dumped him, he decided he was “in love” because he was excited by the challenge of bringing her back into his thrall. He threw Dr. Faye over for Megan because Megan seemed the better trophy. When Megan started to show signs of independence, Don poisoned the relationship by trying to bring her into control. I think this answers the question of why Don went back to Sterling Cooper when he had other, better job offers elsewhere. He wants to win.
Don told Ted to step back from the business side and concentrate just on doing the creative work. It’s advice he should be giving himself. It’s understandable that Don and Roger made that power play to wrestle control back from Cutler, but Don quickly turned it into more, the sort of game-playing he loves to do. He got so sucked up into the drama of winning that he forgot, you know, to mourn his lost marriage. I think we’re meant to believe that, above all other things, Don’s inability to stop trying to “win” and instead turn back towards his creative pursuits is what will get him in the end.