Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is the proverbial self-made man. He transformed himself from penniless farm kid Dick Whitman into successful Manhattan adman Don Draper. He ostensibly rose to the top by means of his pure creative genius. Well, that, and a whole lot of lying. And also Roger Sterling’s (John Slattery) drinking problem.
In this week’s Mad Men episode, “Waldorf Stories” (written by Brett Johnson and Matthew Weiner, and directed by Scott Hornbacher), the story of Don’s arrival in the advertising world is revealed through flashback, and, as it turns out, it’s not at all the sort of grand event worthy of Don Draper’s name. Rather, after shamelessly trying to get Roger to look at his portfolio, Don gets Roger embarrassingly drunk (before noon), and somehow manages to weasel a job offer out of the situation (which Roger doesn’t remember the next day; who knows, maybe Don made it up).
Outside of the flashbacks, Mad Men gets a little meta on Emmy weekend by making Don’s winning an advertising award (a “Clio”) a major plot point. Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) even throws in a direct Emmy reference in one of his increasingly numerous Los Angeles stories. There are moments in which Matthew Weiner seems to be using Don as a mouthpiece to express his own personal philosophy on awards, as Don explains that he’s happy for anything that helps the firm, but that the award itself doesn’t affect the quality of the work.
Yet Don obviously does care about the award. He gets drunk first thing in the morning (continuing his downward spiral into alcoholism) in preparation for the ceremony, and refuses to even so much as talk to Pete while he nervously awaits the announcement of his category. A very telling under-the-table shot of both Don and Roger clutching Joan’s (Christina Hendricks) hands exposes their personal investment in having someone validate Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s work (it also says a lot about Joan’s integral position in the firm.)
Upon winning, Don launches into a full-blown, two-day bender, strikes out with Faye (Cara Buono) yet again, sleeps with two women he’s bound not to remember (he tells one of them his name is Dick), and inadvertently plagiarizes Danny Siegel (Danny Strong), a terrible would-be copywriter he interviewed earlier. The client loves the plagiarized line, and Don is forced to hire Danny due to his own drunken behavior, essentially repeating Roger’s actions in the flashback.
Repetition plays a central role in the episode. Don is repeating Roger’s cycle of movement from relevance to alcoholism and, like Roger, winds up hiring someone due to a drunken mistake. Don also drunkenly repeats Danny’s terrible ad slogan (“the cure for the common…”). Early in the episode Don says, “That’s not how it goes,” after Danny claims that “aspiration’s as good as perspiration,” while a slightly less confident Don tells Roger, in flashback, “I don’t think that’s how that goes,” after Roger warns him, “be careful what you wish for, because you might get it, and then people get jealous and try to take it away from you.” When flashback Don approaches Roger in the lobby of Sterling Cooper’s building and claims to be there for a business meeting, Roger dresses him down by asking him to name one other business in the building. Years later Roger repeats the same trick by demanding that Ted Chaough’s (Kevin Rahm) hired actor-disguised-as-an-Airforce-General name a few aircrafts. In pitching a campaign to the Life Cereal executives, Don even falls back on repeating an inebriated version of his famous nostalgia speech from season one finale “The Wheel.”
The use of repetition draws attention to the ways in which various iterations of the same thing can differ, and poses the question of what makes them distinct. Why is Don repeating Danny’s line different than when Danny originally pitched it? The episode draws on the way ideas often work: we can hear or say something insignificant, and for some reason it sticks in our minds only to be repeated, seemingly at random, later. It’s often meaningless and uninformative to look at the origins of ideas because so often they’re simply banal thoughts that for whatever reason took on meaning in a new context. Likewise, the origin of Don’s job at Sterling Cooper tells us nothing about his future role in the firm. It wasn’t a natural arc or a logical progression; it was simply a matter of chance (and a dumb mistake) that put Don into a new situation.
Don Draper the fur coat salesman likely could never have pitched an idea that would have earned Roger’s attention, yet Don Draper the advertising lion can drunkenly repeat a talentless kid’s idea and be praised for it. He’s the same person, yet his actions take on a new significance. And as Don dissolves into a vacuum of success and alcoholism, his actions take on another significance. Mad Men seems to suggest that characters and ideas don’t so much fundamentally change, rather it’s that iterations of the same things take on new signification in different contexts .
Even SCDP itself is an iteration of Sterling Cooper, something that the writers outright acknowledge with the return of Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton). Personnel wise, this new firm now looks just a little more like the old one than it already did. Wary of having his old rival back in the fold, Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) is eager to assert his dominance by telling Ken that “things have changed.” Ken smiles smugly and replies, “I say nothing’s changed.” For the most part they’re both right—SCDP is merely a repetition of the same thing in a different circumstance.
This reading suggests a view of personal and historical development quite at odds with the view of the 1960s as a paradigm-shifting era of transformation that commentators often read into Mad Men. People largely remain the same, yet even subtle or seemingly superficial changes in circumstance can radically alter the significance of their actions. This view is consistent with the relativism with which Mad Men often approaches truth and morality. It’s an idea well expressed in a show this meticulously situated historically: circumstance is everything.
The contrast “Waldorf Stories” makes between Don and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) is interesting considering that Mad Men has drawn such similarity between the characters in the past. While Don makes a drunken ass of himself, Peggy soberly asserts herself in the face of new art director Stan Rizzo’s (Jay R. Ferguson) disgusting sexism. Stan brags about how the Lyndon Johnson campaign refused to air his Ku Klux Klan ad, and practical Peggy responds that that makes it “less impressive.” Stan professes nudism, but wears clothing around Peggy because he considers her a repressed, insecure, and ugly prude; Peggy, perhaps taking Don’s “find a way to work with Stan” order too much to heart, strips naked and confidently continues on with her work. Stan follows suit, but soon becomes insecure of his naked body (far quicker than Peggy does) and the arousal Peggy causes, bitterly calling her a “smug bitch” as he puts his clothes back on. Later, Peggy, confident in her victory, allows Stan to take credit for most of their work, but adds that she “only changed one little thing,” while holding her thumb and forefinger close together, slyly mocking the size of Stan’s penis.
Earlier Stan accuses Peggy of being part of the “temperance movement” (which played a large role in the passing of prohibition), and we see Peggy refuse to drink three times during the episode, while pretty much everyone else gets sloshed. Back in season one her first success as a copywriter was celebrated with a glass of whiskey in Don’s office, symbolizing her entrance into a professional and social world that had previously been unattainable. Now she seemingly refuses to touch the stuff. It’s possible that she’s become disgusted by the way Don and Roger are conducting themselves, though perhaps she’s simply reached a point where she has established and asserted herself enough to not have to rely on the preexisting social and professional codes that permeate the office; that she can now decide her relationship with alcohol suggests that she can make her own way in a much broader sense, as well. Peggy’s former lover, Duck Phillips (Mark Moses), meanwhile, falls to another extreme, making a rather ignoble appearance, having clearly fallen off the wagon, drunkenly ranting at the Clio emcee. While Peggy continues to establish and assert herself, Duck comes across as an utterly lost man.
Alcohol has played many roles over the course of Mad Men, but in “Waldorf Stories” alcoholism seems like a stand-in for the idea of losing yourself. When Don offers to buy the “cure for the common…” idea from Danny, Danny demands a job, and it’s clear he’s not searching simply for the financial security a job can provide. He needs a job to provide him a life, and an identity. The Don Draper we see in flashback appears largely like a blank slate, and at times he seems to have more in common with Jon Hamm’s goofy character on 30 Rock than with Don Draper. But as we see the fur coat ad featuring Betty, and watch as Don manipulates his way into a job with Sterling Cooper, we’re seeing a Don who is on the verge of discovering himself—or at least of discovering one iteration of himself. In the present, Don’s alcoholism is indicative of his growing detachment from both his work and his family. We see a Don who is finding himself, and a Don who is losing himself.
If we apply this same idea to Roger, Roger’s own drinking calls for a poignant reflection on who Roger Sterling was before he met young Don Draper. At one point Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) refers to Roger as a “child,” and stresses to Pete the importance of becoming a leader in Roger’s place. But has Roger always been like this? Or was he once a brilliant businessman who lost himself in much the same way Don is currently doing? The repetition of dialogue and various other elements we see in both Don and Roger in the flashbacks signals that we are indeed seeing something cyclical.
Continuing on with the theme of repetition, there is also an echo of the much-talked about scene near the end of “The Rejected,” in which Peggy and her bohemian friends are separated from the rest of the office by a transparent wall. This time, in the second-to-last scene (as it was in “The Rejected”), Roger watches as Don walks away from his office, and there is a two-second shot of Don making his way down the hall, to the right of the glass conference room wall. On the left, most of the major SCDP players are celebrating the triumphant return of Ken Cosgrove, while on the right Don is framed by Danny and Mrs. Blankenship (Randee Heller). One side features a hiring strategically orchestrated by Lane Pryce, the other features three characters hired because of drunken stupidity.
As we transition from Don walking away from Roger in the present to Don walking toward Roger in flashback, we’re clearly watching a strange changing of the guard. Earlier in the episode Roger suggests to Joan that he deserves an award for discovering Don, and as he watches Don walk away from his office, it’s clear that, from his perspective, he’s admiring one of his greatest accomplishments. He may not be very relevant himself, anymore, but at least he made way for the next generation. Don, meanwhile, is walking toward the mess he’s created for himself, and as we transition to the flashback he transforms from being Roger’s great accomplishment to being Roger’s own mess. However, though being Roger’s mess, the younger Don is clearly of a hungrier and more earnest sort than the alcoholic buffoon who Roger later admires. And while Don-the-mess is contrasted against Don-the-accomplishment, his entire arc is contrasted against the sober celebration of Ken Cosgrove. But before anyone reads that as a simple normative judgment, it’s worth asking whether anyone believes that Ken Cosgrove will ever be as important to the firm as Don Draper. The irony is layered upon irony.
Much of this points back to what I wrote earlier in the season: constructed and even outright fabricated identities can have productive value. Don’s identity as an adman was created on grounds as baseless as Danny’s, and yet it has resulted in great amounts of success and in the creation of SCDP. As we watch Peggy assert her identity, we have no reason to believe that this no-nonsense persona is any less a product of its environment (or something she chose in response to her environment) than Don’s family-man façade. But it’s nonetheless working for her. Finding an identity for yourself is simply starting a new iteration of yourself, and in a way what Peggy is doing now isn’t much different from what Don did in the past. It’s likely that there’s very little difference between the present Don and the Don who wormed his way into a job with Sterling Cooper; it’s just context that’s changed.
Personas and identities can provide the context for our words and actions to take on the significance we want them to (or the opposite). The identity Don Draper built for himself has dissolved. This doesn’t necessarily mean Don Draper himself has changed; we’re simply watching the same character play himself out in a new situation. Unfortunately, this current iteration of Don Draper isn’t a pretty sight.
• Did Weiner anticipate the trouble bloggers would have with the name “Chaough”? I’m amazed Roger was able to remember how to spell it.
• National anthem blowjobs? For a moment there I thought John Cameron Mitchell directed this.
• For some reason it has taken me until now to realize that Don Draper’s whiskey of choice is Canadian Club. I wonder if they’ll play off of CC’s ’60s “Hide a Case” campaign.
• I reacted excitedly when I saw John Aniston playing the Clios emcee. I recognized him as Victor from Days of Our Lives (he’s also Jennifer Aniston’s dad). How much credibility does this cost me?
Luke De Smet is a freelance writer based out of San Diego, who spent way too much time obsessing about movies and television while growing up in rural northern Alberta, Canada. He’s currently attempting to avoid movies and television long enough to take up surfing, but is failing, miserably. You can follow him on Twitter.