‘Mad Men’ – ‘Blowing Smoke’: Here’s a letter to the New York Times

Senior Television Writer
10.11.10 391 Comments


A review of last night’s “Mad Men” coming up just as soon as someone gets my shoes…

“You are a certain kind of girl, and tobacco is your ideal boyfriend.” -Geoff Atherton
“Can you get us a date?” -Don

Last week’s episode ended with Don’s professional and romantic futures both very much in doubt. “Blowing Smoke” is mainly concerned with the work situation, but views it through the prism of romance.

Geoff Atherton frames SCDP’s pursuit of a big new client in dating language, and when the partners and Harry stand in the lobby waiting for the Phillip Morris people, they all look like they’re waiting nervously for a date with someone way out of their league – then betrayed when they’re inevitably stood up. Don realizes after the fact that he tried way too hard with Mr. Beans, Vinegars and Sauces and later tells the partners that they reek of desperation – that you have a much harder time, essentially, of getting someone to date you when everyone knows how hard you’re looking. And after Don has the brainstorm to change the conversation about the agency by publicly declaring his own break-up with tobacco in a full-page New York Times ad, one of the few people to understand what he did was Megan, who says, “I know it was about ‘He didn’t dump me, I dumped him.'”

And all around Don, there are people getting dumped, some taking it better than others. Atherton chooses to break up with SCDP to maintain his own connection to tobacco, but Dr. Faye is quite sanguine about it, as she loses some of her best jobs but gets to date Don out in the open. (Peggy, who sees in Faye the female role model she desires, seems more upset about the situation than Faye herself.) When the partners and Joan have to start laying people off to keep the firm afloat, we see some leaving the office in tears, while Danny (the only firee we really know) is composed enough to simply thank Don for the opportunity. Bert Cooper angrily breaks up with his own agency over Don’s ad, and Pete seems on the verge of doing something similar until Don does some more low-key wooing and pays Pete’s mandatory share for keeping the lights on(*). 

(*) Two thoughts on this. First, Don is spending money like it’s going out of style throughout this episode. I spent a lot of time playing with an online inflation calculator, and Don is willing to give Midge the modern equivalent of two grand for her painting, and ultimately gives her what would be $800 today when she needs cash and not a check to feed her habit. A full-page New York Times ad would run many tens of thousands of dollars today (possibly more for a rush like Don apparently got), and his share combined with Pete’s would be close to a million dollars. Obviously, the future is very precarious and he’s spending a lot to ensure that he has one, but at the same time, Don is pretty damn flush in September of ’65.

The second is that I can’t believe how happy I was for Pete in that moment, and for Don for doing that for Pete. As has been discussed often, when the series began, Don was the hero and Pete the craven villain nipping at his heels. Five years later, Pete is every bit the account man he thought he was in 1960 – has, in fact, been carrying the agency this season even though Don is its public face – and he deserves respect and, in this case, a bit of financial aid, and Don recognizes this. A very nice moment, and one that all but ensures Teddy Chow-guh-guh’s own seduction attempt will fail.

Up in Ossining, Sally has done so well with therapy that she’s unfazed, even pleased, by the news that Dr. Edna wants to cut their sessions back to once a week. She’s developed enough confidence and self-possession to realize that this isn’t a break-up, but a graduation. Betty, on the other hand, views it very much as a break-up when Dr. Edna attempts to pass her off to her own therapist, and the wise doctor realizes that, child psychiatrist or not, she’s what Betty needs. (And Betty’s last shrink would absolutely feel that she belongs with someone who specializes in children.)

And when Betty discovers that Sally has been spending time with Glen – in Betty’s twisted worldview, dating a boy whom Betty herself had already rejected – she chooses to punish Sally by finally deciding to move out of Don’s house. (Glen was dumped and is going to stay dumped, darnit.) Back at Christmas, Sally couldn’t wait to get out of there, and Glen promised to help. By the time he’s finally, inadvertently accomplished his goal, Sally’s doesn’t want to go anymore. (Something tells me that Dr. Edna might want to hold off on reducing Sally’s sessions after this.)

And as for Don’s actual romantic life? Well, he’s visited by a ghost of girlfriends past when Midge turns up in the lobby, trying to exploit his old feelings into enough money to help support the heroin habit that’s destroying her and her new husband. (She’s turned to the darkest parts of the bohemian lifestyle that Don could never get comfortable with when they were together.) Don gives her some cash, and she in turn gives him “Number Four,” an abstract painting whose origins help inspire Don to write the New York Times ad(**), making the $120 money very well spent.

(**) Don’s battled several addictions this season, but note that he doesn’t just turn the page of his sobriety journal to start composing the ad, but rather tears out all the previous pages to start over. As he’s done so often before, he’s trying to discard a dark part of his past – in this case, memories of his embarrassing Freddie Rumsen period – and move forward without it.

Things with Faye are going splendidly – once he realizes the professional ramifications for her of what he did, Don can barely believe how well she accepts it, and his good fortune for being with such a person, and yet there’s always the specter of Megan hanging over things. John Slattery (directing his second episode of the season) frames Don and Faye’s conversation in the conference room so that Megan’s desk is between them in the background. Don is appreciative that Megan is the first (and, along with Peggy, only) person in the office to really understand the point of the ad, and there’s an awkward moment for him when Faye responds to his restaurant idea by telling him to “Have your girl make reservations.” Megan’s not his girl, and may never be – certainly, she doesn’t push him on that this week – but perfect as Faye seems, her position in Don’s life still feels precarious.

As for the agency itself, I still believe some kind of gentleman caller is going to save the day. Don explains to Peggy that they can’t just start over, having only started a couple of years before, so that means a big client – someone with deep pockets who’s impressed by the guts and showmanship of Don’s ad. It could be, as Ken suggests, someone on the board for the American Cancer Society, or some outside party whose own company is known for taking moral stands. But I believe, like Don, that the agency is not going anywhere, even if many of its people are, and that by the time season five begins, clients will be clumsily throwing themselves at Don, and not the other way around.

Some other thoughts:

• I’m still not entirely clear what the SAG rules are about guest credit placement, since the only guests this show ever lists in the opening credits are either important recurring players like Christopher Stanley as Henry, or former castmembers like Mark Moses as Duck. But I’m glad that I didn’t notice Rosemarie DeWitt’s name in the credits the first time through, and was therefore pleasantly surprised when Midge showed up in the lobby at Time-Life. Surprise or no, DeWitt was awfully good, particularly in that moment of sad candor when Midge says, “Don… what am I gonna do with a check?”

As he told me a few months back, Slattery was directing this important episode because one of the show’s regular directors dropped out at the last minute. I thought he did another terrific job, again giving the episode a bit of the Roger Sterling twinkle, even as Roger’s agency is spiraling the drain. The scene with Faye and Don chatting as Don and Megan have returned from getting coffee felt remarkably, but not inapprorpriately, relaxed, given the chaos around them.

• Speaking of Roger, lots of speculation last week that he might kill himself or die of a heart attack by the end of the season. But while he was certainly in a dark place there, rock bottom seems to have reinvigorated him a bit. He’s 100 percent right when he keeps arguing that they need to go after a big fish and not keep trying to bring in small accounts – the small accounts will all, like Heinz, going to fear the agency might not be there in six months, whereas a big account would guarantee that it will – and perhaps he remembers enough of his old account man skills to help land one.

• On the other hand, whatever happens in the finale, is there a place for Bert Cooper in this agency – and on this show? Or might we come back next year to learn that the initials stand for Sterling Campbell Draper Pryce? I love Robert Morse, but Cooper’s been even more of a figurehead than Roger, who at least merited an office.

• I was worried that the show had hired the world’s worst Bobby Kennedy impersonator, and then relieved that it was just Teddy Chow-guh-guh punking Don. Meanwhile, one of Don’s other phone messages was from Emerson Foote, an advertising giant who in 1965 quit his job as chairman of McCann-Erickson because he didn’t want to represent tobacco anymore. It’s unclear if the mention of his name was just writers Maria and Andre Jacquemetton tipping their hats to a kind of real-life Don Draper, or if a fictionalized version of Foote will play a role in saving the agency in the finale.

• Surprising that Lane would A)be able to and B)want to move his family back to America given that he got the terrible Lucky Strike news while he was still out on his London sabbatical. And I guess the beatdown from his father’s walking stick scared him away from his chocolate Bunny?

• Peggy’s smiling comment about how she thought Don “didn’t go in for those kinds of shenanigans” was a callback to the scolding he gave her in the season premiere about the PR stunt she and Pete arranged for Sugarberry Ham. Don, like Peggy, got people talking, even though other people he works with are mad about the potential embarrassment.

• Raymond from Heinz’s line about how “The way beans are funny, we can’t use that” made me laugh, both because I’m really 12 and because it reminded me of one of my favorite obscure “SNL” sketches: Tom Hanks as owner of The Bean Cafe.

• Presumably, the brand of women’s cigarettes Phillip Morris wanted to discuss was Virginia Slims, right? It’s almost too bad that Don has sworn off tobacco advertising, since “You’ve come a long way, baby” is so much the story of Peggy Olson that she deserves to be the one to write it in the “Mad Men” universe.

• Glen is on the football team, and yet gets winded running maybe a few hundred feet from Betty? I’m thinking he’s not a wide receiver. 

• We learn in the middle of Pete’s argument with Trudy that they named their daughter Tammy. Could be a family name, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if a teenage Trudy was a huge fan of the Debbie Reynolds “Tammy” films.

As always, you can find my reviews of the previous seasons at my old blog, and we’re going to use the commenting rules established there. This includes absolutely no spoilers (and in this case we’re going to extend that to the title of the finale), as well as showing respect for other commenters (no insults, no repeating questions that have already been asked and answered because you couldn’t be bothered to at least skim what came before, etc.).

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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