‘Mad Men’ – ‘Chinese Wall’: All work and no play?

10.04.10 7 years ago 357 Comments


A review of last night’s “Mad Men” coming up just as soon as I have dog food experience…

“I know the difference between what we have and the stupid office.” -Faye

There’s an old saying that no one on their death bed wishes they had worked more. No one at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is facing imminent death, but the agency might be now that news has gotten out about Lucky Strike. And throughout “Chinese Wall,” we get reminders of how the people who work there have been putting their personal lives well behind the jobs they may be on the verge of losing.

We start relatively early with Ken having to cut short a dinner with his fiancee and her parents in order to respond to the Lucky Strike situation, which will eventually pull Pete away from the birth of his daughter(*) and suck all the joy out of the moment when he learns that Trudy had the baby. Don interrupts a date with Faye, and later puts their relationship in jeopardy when he tries to breach the Chinese wall she’s set up between her professional and personal lives. 

(*) I don’t know if this was one of those weeks where Alison Brie wasn’t available, but it worked out nicely from a thematic standpoint that we never once see Trudy in the episode, despite all the talk about the birth.

Pete’s father-in-law Tom tells him that work is something you do for your family – that he wouldn’t have stayed at Vick this long without having a wife and daughter to provide for – and later Teddy Chow-guh-guh, while trying to exploit SCDP’s vulnerability to steal Pete, promises that once the baby’s born, Pete will have everything. But we’ve seen with Pete, and Don, and most of these characters that work isn’t something they use to support their loved ones, but to find a kind of fulfillment those loved ones can’t provide.

That point is driven home when an SCDP delegation attends the memorial for rival ad executive David Montgomery, whose grieving wife and daughter have to sit near the dais and listen to one colleague after another tell old war stories about some client they tried to land. Each story comes with a punchline about how Montgomery really cared about his family more than the clients, but you can tell that the speakers are always more excited to talk about the work stuff, and that the Montgomery women know that David felt the same way. Don and Pete each look guilty as they witness this spectacle, thinking about all the hours and years they’ve put into the agency at the expense of what was happening back home. It’s not hard for either to imagine a similar scene for themselves a few decades into the future, but it’s not a practical kind of guilt. SCDP is in too much trouble for its two key partners to wallow, and instead they’re planning to exploit the gathering to try to poach clients.

Still, at least they’re still working to build something, or in this case to save it. What’s Roger been doing? And what does he have?

Whatever plan he had in his head when he decided to keep the Lucky Strike news to himself vanished in the usual wave of booze, self-pity and laziness that defines Roger Sterling. He maintains the charade to protect his own image within the firm, even re-enacting his weeks-old conversation with Lee Garner Jr. while talking into a disconnected phone, and later claims to fly to American Tobacco’s North Carolina headquarters when he’s really hiding in a Manhattan hotel room. He thinks this catastrophe will bring Joan back into his life for good, but all his candor does is remind her of why she’s run away from him so often in the past, and why this time needs to be the last time.(**) He goes home to Jane, but even his adoring trophy wife and a box full of his newly-printed memoirs can’t cheer him up – not when he’s blown things so terribly with both his job and the woman he keeps insisting is his soulmate.

(**) And as much of a selfish little baby as Roger is throughout this episode, damn it if John Slattery didn’t make me feel for the guy as Roger puts on his hat and talks about how he wished he knew the time in the alley was their last time.

The major outlier in all this is Peggy. Back in “The Suitcase,” she threw away a boyfriend because he didn’t matter to her nearly as much as the work she does with Don. Here, she hooks back up with Abe Drexler, who has learned a few lessons (if not all of them) from their last encounter and proves to be a more interesting lover than she’s had in a while. She gets so wrapped up in him, in fact, that she lets herself be late for work on this fateful day for SCDP, and even as the agency seems on the verge of crumbling, she can content herself with having Abe. And she, like Don did back in the glory days of the old agency, is able to incorporate her personal life into a campaign, spicing up the Playtex gloves pitch with details from her new relationship. She complains to Don that “Everytime something good happens, something bad happens,” but for once, Peggy seems to have it all. She can even mostly laugh off Stan’s attempt to embarrass her by not telling her about the lipstick on her teeth because she nails the pitch – and because she knows that however much Stan protests, he’s hung up on her and that power is useful. (And because the gag didn’t harm the pitch, she can let it go and try to escape the “humorless bitch” tag for a while.)

And Don? Don has women in his work life and his home life in Megan and Faye, and the two worlds are starting to blur. And given how important it was for him to see the world clearly only an episode or two ago, blurriness probably isn’t good. 

Faye tries to monitor his drinking at the apartment, which inspires Don to ask Megan to do the same at the office. Faye tries to differentiate between work and their relationship when Don asks her to give up the names of unhappy clients at other agencies, then decides she cares about her man more than her ethics and sets him up with a meeting about some of Heinz’s non-ketchup properties.

But Faye happens to do this at the same time that Don is, for the second time this season, sleeping with his secretary. Megan, who has already done her good deed for the day by fixing the Clio that Don smashed after Glo-Coat fired the agency, offers to stay late to learn about the creative side of the business(***), and their conversation quickly leads to sex. Megan tries to draw lines as well, saying that what they’re doing has nothing to do with work – and earlier defending Don’s rejection of sentiment in his professional relationships – but note that when they’re getting dressed post-coitus, she still calls him “Mr. Draper.”

(***) So what percentage of her spiel about her professional ambition was sincere, and how much was just pretext for seducing her boss? It could actually be both, given that everyone in the office believes that Peggy slept with Don to get her own copywriting gig. Whatever the ratio, her maneuver – and the line about how she won’t run out of there crying, which comes across as a cold reference to Allison (assuming Megan, like Joan, was smart enough to put that puzzle together) – revealed a calculating side of Megan that I wouldn’t have guessed from her earlier appearances. (Remember how worried she was for Allison after the focus group meeting?)

Stan Rizzo insists that it’s “the last days of Rome” at SCDP, and it might be that as well for Don and Faye. Don rightfully looks consumed with guilt when he comes home from his tryst with Megan to find Faye waiting with the Heinz news. This woman is much too good for him – not in the superficial Betty way, but in terms of generosity of spirit – and he knows he’s almost blown it, and that he’s so emotionally weak and self-destructive that he might still blow it. And he may not have Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to hide out at whenever he does make a mess of things.

Don’s internal process is so complicated that I’m not sure which way he’ll ultimately lean. In Faye’s favor, she’s a professional equal who knows about and has accepted the Dick Whitman thing (in broad strokes, anyway). But we don’t know if his self-loathing will allow him to stay with someone who understands and accepts him, and we’ve also seen that Faye is bad with kids, of which Don has three. Megan, meanwhile, was there to hug Sally on that awful afternoon, and she seems less complicated overall. But would Don – who hates being talked about, particularly at the office – be willing to endure the gossip that came from a full-on relationship with his secretary? Or will he try to have both – to let Faye by the Betty-type he comes home to at night and Megan be the stand-in for all the women he met through work and had affairs with?

And of a larger concern in the season’s last two episodes: what happens to the agency? Roger wasn’t able to accomplish anything in terms of other clients before the news got out. Things look bad now, and Pete could easily jump over to CGC to be free of Don’s tantrums and troublesome past once and for all. But I can’t see Matthew Weiner blowing up the agency to start over two seasons. There has to be some kind of professional miracle on the horizon – even if it means that Don, Pete and the rest wind up sacrificing even more of their personal lives to pull it off.

Some other thoughts:

• Lots of debate last week over whether Joan actually had the abortion. My take after reading all the comments was that it was ambiguously-presented enough that it’s not an unreasonable interpretation of events (one commenter suggested Joan had a Roger Murtaugh “I’m getting too old for this” moment in the waiting room), but that I had a hard time getting around why she would then bother lying to Roger. After all, he already said he has no problem with her pretending it’s Greg’s, and he’s going to be able to do the math – and perhaps be annoyed – if Joan turns out to be pregnant down the road. She could still be pregnant (maybe she lied to Roger to put off having to discuss it with him for a while), but there weren’t any clues one way or the other here. A woman of Joan’s build isn’t likely to be showing at 9 or 10 weeks, and though she mentions being exhausted to Roger, it’s also been an exhausting day for everyone.

• I imagine this isn’t the last we’re going to see of Ken’s future in-laws, since his fiancee’s father is played by Ray Wise, a busy character actor (most prominently of late, he was a damned charming Satan on the CW’s “Reaper”) whom the show wouldn’t waste on a 90-second bit part.

• Given that the last we heard about “Sterling’s Gold,” Roger couldn’t find anyone to publish his tales of chocolate ice cream and unnecessary orchiectomies, should we assume Jane had a small batch of books printed herself as a vanity present for her husband? And Roger’s generic “To my loving wife” inscription speaks to Roger’s level of feeling for Jane and/or to the lack of writing talent that scared publishers away.

• Faye confuses Don with her use of the Yiddish word “punnum,” a few weeks after we heard her tell her then-boyfriend to “go shit in the ocean,” which is a translation of an old Yiddish expression. Between those two moments and actress Cara Buono telling the LA Times that Faye is Jewish, I have to agree with The Forward that Don has himself another Semitic girlfriend. (And was Bobbie Barrett supposed to be Jewish, or just married to a Jewish man? Once we get to three, it’s a trend, and perhaps has to be factored into discussions of Don’s type.)

• The scene where Bert and Don address the troops shows us a whole lot of employees we’ve never seen before, including Joe, the suddenly-prominent head of accounting. I have no problem with the idea that SCDP has lots of employees we don’t see, particularly in the non-creative areas required to keep the business going, but given how much we’ve seen of the new office itself – and our knowledge that there is no second floor – I’m not sure where it is all these random extras work.

• The bad connection during Glo-Coat’s break-up call with Don was a reminder that once upon a time, landlines could sound as bad as your typical iPhone call does today.

• I continue to enjoy these little post-“Suitcase” mentor-protege moments between Don and Peggy, here with him briefly freaking her out by ordering her to be successful with the Playtex people, then with him being far more candid about the state of the business than he was to the rest of the staff.

Let me remind you, as always, about the commenting rules for around here, established back on my old blog (where you can find my reviews of the first three seasons), which include being respectful to other commenters (if you can’t disagree with someone without insulting them, don’t bother commenting) and absolutely, in no uncertain terms, no spoilers. We’re close enough to the season finale that I’m trying to be extra dilligent about this, but this shouldn’t be hard. Any piece of information that doesn’t come from this episode and the ones before it should not be mentioned at any point. Are we clear?

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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