There are a lot of questions after Sunday’s episode of “Mad Men”: Will Don’s gambit work? What’s going to happen to SCDP, especially with Bert gone? What’s going to happen with Faye and Don? What about Megan and Don? Is it a little “Forrest Gump” to show Midge again, but this time as a drug addict? Is Pete going to regret sticking by SCDP? Will the ACS account amount to much? What’s Sally going to do now? What about Betty?
But the main question I have is, what does Don’s choice to “quit” tobacco mean? And even if we can answer that question, does it matter?
It’s not that these other questions aren’t as important, but they are mostly unanswerable, especially on a show known for its unpredictability. But the real question for me is the question of why Don chose to write that letter to the NY Times. The assumption shared by the other characters is that Don is purely cynical, that his choice was only a PR move. He definitely didn’t nothing to dissuade them from seeing it that way, choosing instead to chain smoke while denouncing cigarettes as a deadly addiction. (Both of course, he’s also an addict and he can’t just put them down.) Even Megan assumed that it was a cynical move, even as she suggested—which I’ll get back to—that it doesn’t matter if it was.
But was it?
The very thing that rescued the Midge interlude from being a “Forrest Gump” moment was that it not only genuinely rattled both Don and the audience, but it ended up having meaning. As Heather at Salon noted, Don saw something in Midge’s situation that he also saw in himself, or at least in SCDP. Midge didn’t care how much money that Don gave her, as long as it got her to the next fix and perhaps kept her from having to sell her body to strangers for a few days or so. And so SCDP was willing to be with this new cigarette brand, which I’m assuming is Virginia Slims. He saw desperation, and how deeply ugly it is. And so he started to hand off those attachments that kept him desperate.
The number one thing is money. I don’t think it was subtly drawn, but in case it was: Did you notice that Don is giving away the farm? It’s not just the $150 grand that he put in the company, but he was giving away smaller amounts of cash to Midge and her husband, too, which was mostly symbolic. With Betty and Henry moving out, he’s probably going to sell the house, too, which is his last attachment to his long stint of building the American dream that was stifling him so much. Don has severed connections and remade himself before, so this isn’t something he’s unfamiliar with. It’s his main go-to strategy. And in case we didn’t get the picture, you also see Faye happy that losing her job that was beginning to weigh on her conscience makes her free to date Don openly.
The other argument for why Don did the right thing because it was the right thing to do is that we’ve already seen Peggy bring up to him the idea that ethics should be a part of business. He shot her down when she suggested they shouldn’t work with racists, but that he has been wrong in a quarrel with her before was mentioned in this episode, when she joked about how she thought he didn’t go for shenanigans. If Don is becoming more Peggy-like when it comes to shenanigans, then perhaps he’s becoming more Peggy-like when it comes to having a conscience.
But what Megan’s little speech brought up is the even more interesting question: Does it matter? Does it matter why Don did the right thing, so long as he did the right thing? Do the ends justify the means? What’s more important, what’s in your heart or what you accomplish in the world? Megan seems to think the latter. So does the American Cancer Society. The only people who seem invested in Don’s motivations are those who are angry with him, and believe he’s being cynical and want to punish him for it. By the end of the very bad work day, Don seems half-convinced himself that he’s just a pure cynic, and Megan’s little bit of faith in him seems to rattle him. What’s lost if he did it for the moral reasons instead of the cynical reasons?
Matching the heart to outward appearances has been a theme of this season, and it was particularly important in this episode. Faye is rattled when Peggy wants to be her friend, because of the gap between what Peggy sees in Faye and how Faye feels about herself. Peggy sees a woman who doesn’t cater to men, who succeeds without compromising herself. Peggy is really naive sometimes, because if nothing else, she should see that Faye’s very job is a compromise with her training in a profession that was founded to help people, not to decode them in order to better manipulate their consumer desires. (Of course, Peggy doesn’t see anything morally wrong with her own job, so she’s not going to see why it would trouble someone else.) Glen is coaching Sally in giving her mother and her psychiatrist the appearance of obedience, which of course is exactly the sort of thing that will, if she’s not careful, turn her into her mother. Betty needs a therapist, but maintaining the appearance that she doesn’t need one has put her in this situation of seeing a child psychiatrist. The implication is fascinating, which is that keeping this distance between who you are and who you project to the world is a sign of immaturity. After all, who suffers it worse than Betty, the ultimate child-adult of the show? The people who give the appearance of being Bobby Kennedy but turn out to be a bunch of asshole ad dudes are also being childish.
And so this question about Don—does it matter why he wrote that letter?—does seem to matter. Perhaps he will only save himself if he stops letting people believe that he’s simply a cynical PR man to the core, never doing anything for any other reason than to get a leg up.
What does it all mean? Tough to say. This is “Mad Men”, where doing right is not always rewarded and doing wrong is so often punished, just like the real world. This could fail spectacularly. The Sugaberry ham shenanigans are a hint at what happens when you engage shenanigans, i.e. a mixed bag. Peggy saved the account, but paid a steep price. Perhaps that’s foreshadowing—Don is going to pay a steep price (losing Bert, giving up a lot of his own money), but perhaps he will save the company. What keeps me coming back, besides just the generally excellent overall quality of the show, is this aspect. I have no fucking clue what’s going to happen next, but I suspect whatever it is, it will make total sense.