Mad Men - Blowing Smoke

Mad Men Commentary: Episode 412 Blowing Smoke

In this week’s episode of Mad Men, Don and Peggy have yet another of their family squabbles.  Peggy offers some unsolicited (and sound) advice to stressed out Don, who is having none of it, as usual.  Finally, she throws a Don-ism back at the master – “If you don’t like what people are saying, change the conversation.”

Once again, Peggy originates the “kernel” of a great idea that Don runs with and adds his own brilliant spin.  Except this time there’ll be no Clio award.

Changing the conversation can simply be that, or it can mean blowing smoke, as the title of the penultimate episode of this season suggests.  The gang at SCDP are stressed to the breaking point, especially the partners.  Secretaries and copy writers can get jobs elsewhere, but the partners have invested more than their egos in this enterprise, and with the flight of paying customers, it’s coming down to the partners taking out lines of credit just to keep the lights on.  No one likes the conversations that are taking place at SCDP.

The episode, well directed by John Slattery, opens with Don having lunch with an executive from the Vinegar, Sauces & Beans division of Heinz.  This is the same account that Dr. Faye compromised herself for to make Don happy.

But it ain’t going well.  Despite an obvious rapport and an understanding that the executive appreciates, it’s no dice on getting the business – at least for now.  Don pushes and uncovers the barely hidden objection.  Heinz wants to wait six months to give SCDP a shot.  Why?  To see if they’re still around.  Don loses his cool a little, and pushes once more for “yes.”  Nothing.  When Don resorts to a discounted price, the client rises to leave, assures Don that the business will come his way IF he lasts, then suggests that Don sticks to ideas and leaves the deal-making to the account guys.  Ouch!

Back at the office, the top brass meets with a consultant to discuss the future of SCDP.  The consultant, a fat, balding, old man with a smug demeanor paints a picture that everyone gathered knows all to well.  Roger fires off a trademark Roger line – “we know there’s a spot on the lung.  You don’t have to keep poking your finger in it.”

The consultant outlines a plan of action that sounds good.  Based on SCDP’s past success with Lucky Strike – 25 years of expertise, to be exact – they should pursue other tobacco brands.  The cherry on the tobacco sundae is a meeting with Philip Morris – about to launch a new woman’s cigarette to replace the re-branded for men Marlboro –  orchestrated by the consultant.  Backs are slapped.  Assurances are proclaimed.  And Slattery shoots a nice little montage of the SCDP crew responding to the current situation – a bit of confidence in the agency/Don mixed with navel gazing self-interest.

Meanwhile, out in the burbs, Sally and Betty Draper are having a kind of Freaky Friday thing, with Sally looking more like the mature half of the duo than Mom.

Sally visits with Dr. Edna, who tells Sally how proud she is of controlling her anger.  Sally is doing so well, that Dr. Edna suggests they cut their meetings back to only once per week.  All this is done over crazy-eights, as if these were two friends playing cards on a weekday while the kids were at school.

But is it genuine?  Sally is meeting with Glen, the creepy neighbor kid who broke into the house and vandalized it to get back at Betty for Sally.  Glen asks Sally if Dr. Edna has told her kiss her Mom’s ass (or blow smoke), as his doctor did.  Sally assures Glen that Dr. Edna isn’t like that, and again, she seems so self-possessed.  Is this a pose, or has Sally achieved some new level of maturity?

At another of their secret-but-innocent meetings, Sally goes deep on Glen by asking him if he ever noticed the Indian lady on the box of Land O Lakes butter?  She holds a box with a picture of her holding another box with yet another picture of her holding a box….  Glen says he wishes she hadn’t mentioned that, and you can already see them in the not-to-distant future, sharing similar discoveries over a joint.  Or maybe not.

And what’s up with Sally paying such close attention to packaged food?  Is this some sort of nod to her old man, with whom she is more partial?

On the flip side of all this deepness and maturity is Betty, who also pays a visit to Dr. Edna, whom she has come to depend on for some sense of security.  And in stark contrast to Sally, who’s been praised for controlling her anger, Betty launches into a bitch session against Henry, recounting an argument where she slammed doors to punctuate a point, only to find that Henry hadn’t heard her.  She compares him to Don, but Dr. Edna sees through all of this.

When notified of the recommendation to cut Sally’s sessions down to only once a week, Betty makes it about her and panics.  She needs Dr. Edna way more than Sally does.  When Dr. Edna suggests that Betty see a colleague, Betty says it all when she asks, “Why can’t I talk to you?”  If you didn’t get that, then let Dr. Edna help – “I’m a child psychiatrist.”  To be fair, who wouldn’t want to talk to Dr. Edna once or twice a week?

Another woman who used to sleep with Don figures prominently in this episode.  As Don leaves work, who does he bump into in the lobby of the Time-Life building but Midge Daniels, the greeting card artist/hippie he was sleeping with back in season one, when we first met him.

Pleasantries are exchanged.  She learns that he’s divorced.  He learns that she’s married, but it’s a marriage of convenience, not passion.  He compliments her looks, but she squirms and says she’s skinny – a starving artist.

Don tries to evade a “drink,” but Midge persists, eventually playing on his square sense of chivalry by confessing that she’s lost her purse and has no train fare home.  Don relents, and a weird scene is played out in the shabby apartment of Midge and her husband, a struggling playwright.

Midge excuses herself, and the husband launches into a desperate sales pitch, seeing Don as a mark.  Don admires the painting, but is non-commital.  This leads the husband to up the ante by offering Midge as part of the deal, saying there’s nothing she won’t do to close a deal.  Don recoils at the vulgarity of the offer, and in that moment we see a mirroring of what Don has been through earlier with the executive from Heinz.

The husband also lets it slip that Midge didn’t just bump into Don, but tracked him down, seemingly for the purpose of getting into his wallet…via the fly of his pants, if necessary.  If this wasn’t bad enough, Don learns that Midge and her husband have a heroin addiction that neither of them can or will kick.

Don buys Midge’s painting, and gets out of her apartment as quickly as possible, but not before she tells him, “I’m glad you haven’t changed.”  We’re left to wonder whether this is a blessing or a curse.

This is significant.  Midge is/was an artist, someone Don respected.  It’s safe to say that Don considers himself, if not an artist, then something approaching one.  Regardless, he uses words and images to tell a story and evoke an emotion, arguably not too unlike what the artist does.  Midge becomes a mirror, reflecting back the ugliness in Don’s life.  This point is made stronger a day later, when Don sits in front of Midge’s painting for a long time, absorbing the “after image” until he is moved to do something about what he sees.

The next day, we find Don in his office, nervously pacing and reciting verbal warm-ups.  It’s not the Don we’re used to seeing.  This is more like Korea-era Don/Dick Whitman.  But the preparation and warm-ups are for naught.  As Don gets word that the partners are in the lobby waiting for Philip Morris to arrive, he joins them as the consultant steps out of the elevator alone.  There will be no meeting.  SCDP was used as leverage against another agency.

Bert herds the partners into an office, where panic ensues.  Harry and Ken sit in the next office wit their ears to the wall as the bosses resort to name calling and chicken-littlery.  Finally, Don calls the spade a spade by saying that the reason non one  will really do business with them now is that they reek of desperation.  This quiets them all down enough for Lane to announce a plan that is the lesser of evils – the senior partners must contribute $100K each and the two junior partners, him and Pete, will contribute $50K each.  That, along with a series of brutal firings, will be enough to keep them afloat for six months – that magic number that keeps being flown around as the gestation period for resuming business with SCDP.

All but Pete takes this news in stride.  Being new to this level of accountability, along with a brand new baby and a job offer from a dreaded rival, Pete waffles.  $50K is a big, bitter pill for him to swallow, and after a heated exchange with Don and a fight with his wife, Pete seems at the end of his rope.  He’s actually sympathetic in this case.  He’s been busting his hump bringing in accounts, one of whom had to be jettisoned for Don’s safety, while Roger can’t manager the one client in his book – their cash cow.

When Pete goes to Don for some sort of explanation or assurance (and hasn’t he learned better by now?), Don has nothing for him but a barked exhortation to get Don in front of a paying client.  Not willing to accept that answer, Pete asks Don why he’s being punished for the sins of others.  At this, all Don can say is that they are all being punished equally.  And with that, Pete is whisked out of his presence.

Enter Peggy, who steps forward on behalf of the staff, wanting to know what Don would have them do.  This is a testament to the respect that Don still wields that when everything else is in flames and ruin is quick approaching, his team is ready for action.  But Don has no orders or answers.  He seems content to sit and let the burning building collapse on him.

But not Peggy, who’s been thinking about their conundrum.  She throws out ideas that Don craps all over (including changing their name, which seemed like a very good idea – and one that looks increasingly likely), until she lobs his own mantra back in his face, a la changing the conversation.  That said, she turns and leaves Don to his anger – no smoke blower she.

At the end of the day, Don returns home to find #4, Midge’s painting, waiting for him like a guilty conscience.  He starts to throw it away, but stops and sets the painting on the couch and grabs a chair and sits and stares at this thing, soaking up the afterimage of Midge and what her life has come to – and where Don’s life is surely leading.

Later, when it’s dark, Don goes to his writing table and rips a bunch of scribbled over pages from the journal he keeps and tosses them in the trash.  It’s as if he’s making a fresh start, and when the narration kicks in, we know that it is indeed a fresh start.

“Why I’m Quitting Tobacco” is Don’s Jerry Maguire moment, and although many see this as a cynical ploy, I think there is sincerity in Don’s words.  Pete will characterize it as throwing a temper tantrum on the pages of the New York Times, which is a fair assessment.  Even Don would characterize it as such (or maybe even as blowing smoke, if not blowing Lucky Strike), but as we’ve seen with his other writings, there’s depth to the man, despite the deep flaws.

The next morning is weird.  Don gets up early and swims laps and seems to have the peace of just.  And there’s this weird dichotomy.  The rank and file ad people look at him anew, as though he’s just slain Goliath.  Even that smartass Stan gives him an oh-so-faint tip of the cap as they run into each other in the hallway.  The old Don is back.

Megan, too, can hardly contain herself, but first let’s deal with the partners.

The partners storm into Don’s office like angry villagers hunting for witches, only needing torches and pitchforks to complete to picture.  Don is greeting by jeers and accusations, especially from Bert who totally loses his cool – ultimately and hilariously resigning his partnership by calling to a random employee, “You!  Bring me my shoes!”

Each has their say, but it’s Roger who seems somewhat sympathetic to what Don has done, if only for the sense of theatre.  I think Don believed that he would be greeted as a hero, and as his bile rises, he tells Pete, but it could’ve been directed at them all, “If you don’t understand it, you shouldn’t be in the business.”  It’s the difference between the visionary and the drone, the leader and the led.  It’s what Don brings to the table. And they don’t get it at all – he’s completely changed the conversation.

But they think he’s just blowing smoke.

When Don arrived, Megan mentioned that an Emerson Foote had called.  This is interesting, and could be the next “real” person, a la Conrad Hilton, to show up in the series.  Foote is one of the iconic figures of advertising, famous, among other things, for resigning the American Tobacco account, which constituted 20% of his agency’s billings – and counted Lucky Strike among its brands.  Foote became a vocal opponent of tobacco advertising, and served in the Johnson administration and the American Cancer Society at about the time that Don pens his manifesto.  We’ll see what happens.

Throughout the day, the fallout of Don’s actions impact SCDP in unexpected ways.  Where calls weren’t being returned in the wake of Lucky Srike, now everyone wants to talk to/about SCDP.  Don has created buzz.  He’s hijacked reality by spinning the Lucky Strike decision as one of conscience, not business as usual.

Another unintended consequence is the resigning of the SCDP account by Geoffrey Atherton – Dr. Faye’s employer.  Don expects anger from Faye, but instead, she seems to hold him in even higher esteem, wanting to take their relationship out in the open, now that professionalism isn’t an issue.

Earlier in the episode, when Don and Faye meet, we see Megan through the glass of the board room – a perfect triangle.  When Faye shows up to tell Don of her company’s decision, there’s this icy vibe coming from Faye, as if she knows what has happened (and how could she not, unless her olfactory senses weren’t functioning the night Don found her on his doorstep after his tryst with Megan?).  The final touch is when they finalize dinner plans and Faye tells Don to “have your girl make the reservations.”  Don seems clueless, but we know that she knows.

The one person whom Don seeks out for feedback is Peggy, of course.  We hope he’s learned his lesson and gives her credit for sparking the idea….  Yeah, right.  When he asks what she thinks, she withholds her praise by throwing another of his philosophies back in his face – “I thought you didn’t go in for those shenanigans?”

As a way out of the SCDP mess is just beginning to come hazily into view, Betty sees a way out of her Dr. Edna problem.  She catches Sally with Glen and completely overreacts, accusing Sally in thought, if not actual words, of doing inappropriate things with Glen.  And with Glen’s track record, you almost sympathize with her, except that she overplays her hand.

When Henry shows up unexpectedly early for dinner, Betty plays her card, telling Henry – in Sally’s presence – that it was a bad day, that the neighborhood is going downhill, and that they should move.  This news brightens Henry, but sends Sally running off to her room, where she clutches the keepsake left by Glen on the night of his vandalism.

Betty’s victory is that she has proof that Sally isn’t “cured,” that she still needs her twice a week visit, and thus Betty’s, to the doctor to get fixed.  Sally knows her Mom is blowing smoke, but will Dr. Edna?

Finally, we have the partners, reassembled with Joan for a regular board meeting.  They’ve agreed who will be fired, and the list has been divided among them for notifications and severance.

In the midst of this glum news comes word of a call from the aforementioned American Cancer Society, who wants to talk about a possible campaign.  Pete is unimpressed, as it means free work.  But the others see it as prestige and access to the Society’s influential board.  It’s a ray of hope.  A toe-hold.  Something.

As the meeting breaks-up, Pete calls Lane to him.  As Roger leaves, he gets the last laugh – “Well, I’ve got to go and learn a bunch of peoples’ names before I fire them.”  When he’s gone, Pete confesses to Lane that he cannot come up with the $50K.  Lane is confused.  “Don paid your share,” he tells Pete.

Stunned, Pete steps into the hallway, to see Don leading Danny Siegel into his office.  They share a glance.  Don nods.  Pete raises his glass in solidarity, then moves on.

A moment later, Don emerges with a composed and professional Danny.  They shake and Danny leaves.  Don pauses before calling the next victim.  He looks around at the carnage.  Women sobbing and consoling one another.  Men sagging under the weight of their boxed possessions and stalled-out hopes.  It’s a very bad day at SCDP.

But they’re alive – still drawing breath, still blowing smoke.

2 thoughts on “Mad Men Commentary: Episode 412 Blowing Smoke”

  1. Wonderful. I saw the article as Don finally separating himself from the other partners…especially after they flat out don’t get it. You almost begin to think that perhaps they have been the ones holding Don back rather than his awful personal choices.

    Love the insight on the “maturing?” Sally. I watched a interview with the tiny actress the other day where she admitted she is not allowed to actually watch the show.

    How can the finale be next week?

    Keep these coming. This is the best companion to post episode contemplation.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Jamie.

    What’s so confounding about Don is that he’ll have these deep insights, but go right back into the same old self-destructive patterns – just like the rest of us, I guess.

    I’ve got some ideas about the finale, but I’m keeping my mouth shut. I’ve had a bad track record of guessing plot points this season. Emerson Foote is as far as I’m willing to go out on a limb.

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