In the very first scene of Mad Men’s pilot, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” Don Draper (Jon Hamm) introduced us to Lucky Strike Cigarettes. Since before we knew about Dick Whitman, or even about Betty (January Jones) and the kids, we’ve known about Lucky Strike, and how important the account is to Sterling Cooper. Now, over the course of just two episodes, “Chinese Wall” (written by Erin Levy and directed by Phil Abraham) and “Blowing Smoke” (written by Andre Jacquemetton and Maria Jacquemetton, and directed by John Slattery), Don, along with the rest of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, has had to deal with the reality of losing the account.
Addiction has played an important role through most of this season, most explicitly through Don’s struggles with alcoholism. But SCDP’s dependence on Lee Garner Jr. and his Lucky Strike Cigarettes has run as an important parallel in the background, and now, in the last third of the season, proven itself to be the year’s primary story arc. Earlier in the season we watched Roger (John Slattery) debase and humiliate himself in an ultimately futile attempt to kowtow to Lee. Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) has always been around to remind the other partners, with impressively quick-witted math, just how much of SCDP’s business depends on Lucky Strike. SCDP has existed only by virtue of an addiction, and now it’s finally time to deal with the withdrawals of being cut off.
In “Chinese Wall” the partners desperately try to salvage the situation, shoring up existing clients and trying to find some access to new ones. Don even goes so far as to exploit his relationship with Faye (Cara Buono) to acquire inside information about her other clients. It’s all in vain, of course, as no new clients want anything to do with a firm in such a precarious situation, and the existing clients are growing uneasy, fearful that they’re investing their money into an agency that is on its way under.
Adding insult to injury, Don loses the Glo-Coat account, despite winning a Clio for his work for the company earlier in the season. It’s a blow against everything Don cares about in advertising; the quality of his work is irrelevant, no matter the kind of product he delivers, a monotone, robotic voice can call him up and end it all for reasons entirely beyond his control. At one point Don tells Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) that the creative team is the “least important most important” thing there is, and this a point that Don has had to deal with over and over again over the past few episodes. “Blowing Smoke” opens with the interview Faye arranged for Don, and a Heinz executive who is clearly excited about the work he could do with SCDP, but nonetheless speaks down to Don on a business level, explaining that any relationship between the two companies would form only over the long term.
Don is terrible at the business aspect of advertising because he refuses to apply the same logic to himself that he does to his clients. He believes that his work should speak for itself, and that there is no reason for him to sell himself. In the pilot, Don helps Lucky Strike sell a terrible product by coining an entirely meaningless catch phrase: “It’s toasted!” But when it comes to his own product, the one thing he cares about above all else, Don wishes to be judged only by the substance.
Peggy suggests a re-branding, or a name change, much like Don once suggested to a failing dog food company. This is a strategy that Don has obviously adopted before: he did, after all, once change his name and begin anew. But this is his work, and Don’s resistance, that he displayed earlier in the season, to selling that work with PR stunts remains. Don rejects Peggy’s suggestion, but clearly a seed has been planted that only comes to fruition after Don’s encounter with season one’s love interest, Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt). Midge, once a vibrant artist, has become addicted to heroin, and by all indications is probably something of a lost cause. Don purchases one of her paintings, and later stares at it as if staring into an abyss, letting the full ramifications of addiction wash over him and hatching his new strategy: taking out a full page in the New York Times declaring that he will never again work with a tobacco company.
A lot of people, me included, referred to last season’s finale as a game changer. Don and Betty broke up, and Don led a grand defection from Sterling Cooper. This season we were introduced to a drastically different firm: the name and the partners had changed, most of the staff were new, and the office was a modernly designed set piece that significantly altered the aesthetic of the series.
And yet we’re constantly reminded of what hasn’t changed: SCDP is largely the same business that Sterling Cooper was. It’s a business model inherited from Roger Sterling Sr., and it has become so essential to the fabric of SCDP that it has become a way of life. And it’s all based on Lucky Strike. No one questions this, they just assume it. The only person at the firm who was actually around when this account first came to Sterling Cooper is Bert Cooper (Robert Morse), and he doesn’t even have an office anymore. For everyone else, Lucky Strike is a religion, and it represents SCDP’s ontological makeup. The loss of Lucky Strike may well be a far more substantive game changer than even the season three finale.
Don’s genius is in understanding that something fundamental has changed. His actions, as explicitly pointed out by Don himself, do not represent some new moral philosophy he’s genuinely adopted. He defends his letter to the Times while smoking a cigarette. It’s a joke when Danny (Danny Strong) asks if Don is going to quit smoking, and Stan (Jay R. Ferguson) calls him an idiot. It’s clear that, had he landed another tobacco company as he wished to, Don would have happily moved forward working for them.
In the same way heroin has permanently altered Midge’s essential makeup, Don knows that Lucky Strike has changed his business. There is no logic to Midge’s actions; her addiction and the effects it has on her exist outside the realm of reason or narrative. The addiction has become her reality, and no matter how much she may deserve a way out, or how much Don may want to give it to her, she’s trapped. Much of this season has been about Don coming to terms with his own helplessness.
He was faced with how much he depended on Anna, and in the wake of her death he became dependent on Peggy. His career became dependent on Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), to whom he now owes a debt of which $50,000 acts merely as an acknowledgment (which works out well, considering Pete thrives on acknowledgment). We learned that his career at Sterling Cooper was not the result of his glorious conquests as a self-made man, but rather it was the result of dumb luck and a drunken Roger Sterling. And then his Glo-Coat campaign, the one thing from this season that he’s proud of based on his own accomplishments, is yanked out from underneath him, completely undeserved.
Season four of Mad Men has highlighted the vast chasm that separates reason from event. Western ideas of the self-made man are based on notions of self-definition and hard work, on creating ourselves based on the fortitude of our own will: we set a plan into motion, and we achieve it and we earn it. We view the 1960s as an era of social progress that our country earned, and that came about due to a preordained plan or narrative. But we can see through Don Draper that this idea is a myth: the self-made man came to be due to circumstance and the people he depended upon. Don’s letter to the Times represents a fundamental change not because Don actually cares about the things he says about cigarettes. It represents a fundamental change because Don has embraced the disconnect between reason and event.
The quality of Don’s work couldn’t stop Lucky Strike or Glo-Coat from leaving SCDP, and that robotic voice on the other end of the telephone was unmoved by the Clio statuette sitting on Don’s desk. But if that’s true, then it is also true that Don’s addiction to cigarettes, and SCDP’s withdrawals from being cut off from the cigarette business, can’t stop him from redefining his split from Lucky Strike on his own terms. It was a circumstance that came about in no way due to his own choosing. Don escaped the consequences he may have deserved (the government uncovering his lies), only to be struck with consequences he doesn’t deserve. Had Don been caught by the government, he would have no recourse. But with the way things worked out, it is clear that Don and his lies are not battling against the truth.
We were introduced to Don’s genius years ago because he recognized that Lucky Strike was in the exact same situation as all of its competitors. Everyone was faced with a circumstance they could do nothing about. But Don observed that, with everyone facing the exact same circumstances, Lucky Strike could “say anything it wants.” From that moment to this one, Don has finally come full circle in that observation. Lucky Strike, Glo-Coat and the situation in which SCDP finds itself cannot be held to answer for the reasonableness of these events. Don cannot present his Clio and turn things back to how they were due to the strength of his argument.
But in one way or another this is the situation we all find ourselves in. We try to force ourselves into reasonable narratives while dealing with unreasonable calamities. In reality, we’re all just the victims (or benefactors) of random circumstance. But that doesn’t mean we’re left simply waiting for cold determinism to have its way with us. What Don recognizes is that this is a fact of life that puts us all in the same situation. His illusions of allowing his work to speak for itself have been shattered, but with that comes the realization that he can define his work in any way he wants—if others are free to ignore its substance, then so is he.
Don’s pitch to Lucky Strike in “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is based on the idea that, in a relative world, being constrained in the same way simply means you’re free in the same way. In “Blowing Smoke,” Don’s constraint is also his freedom; like Lucky Strike, he is in the exact same situation as everyone else, and so he is free to say anything he wants. There is no outside force or law or reason that dictates Glo-Coat must change their minds because Don won them a Clio, and there is likewise no such force to stop Don from writing his letter, despite the fact that he has no intention of quitting smoking. The letter is his own personal “It’s toasted!”
Don Draper is not a self-made man. He is the man circumstance has made him. But the genius of Don Draper is that he knows he can decide what that circumstance means. With a little luck, he can sell that meaning to everyone else, because no truth, reason, or Lane-Pryce cost/benefit analysis exists to stop him. It’s a fabricated reality, and, as Peggy points out, it’s a PR stunt, the content of which ultimately means nothing to Don. But it’s nonetheless a fundamental shift, because it’s a sign that Don has laid down the myths he has held about himself and finally taken seriously the lesson he taught Lucky Strike four seasons ago.
• Ken Cosgrove gets to marry into a rich family featuring both Larisa Oleynik and Ray Wise? That seems hardly fair. Confession: Oleynik is one of the two age-appropriate crushes I’ve had for pretty much as long as I can remember. (The other being Claire Danes.)
• Everyone else in the office—including Peggy—is worried about his or her job. But not Harry Crane: “They’re going to fire everybody. Or worse, make me fire everybody.”
• Pete is informed that Trudy has given birth to a healthy baby, a birth he was unable to be present for. He’s happy, and gives the news a moment to sink in, and then he regains his composure and sets off for the funeral of an ad mogul to poach his former clients. We see the funeral and hear the eulogy, yet Trudy is absent throughout the entire episode, and the birth is unseen, as if happening in a different world. If one thing is clear in “Chinese Wall,” it’s that the partners are far too focused on keeping a dead business model alive, and perhaps overlooking the new possibilities coming into the world.
• As 1966 approaches, we’re closing in on two years since the end of last season, in the show’s time, but just under a year since the episode actually aired. One of the most difficult aspects Mad Men faces in portraying this passage of time is the maturation process of Sally Draper. A lot depends on Kiernan Shipka’s ability to play a character who’s maturing faster than she is, and she’s proven herself to be more than up to the task this season, as highlighted this week in her scenes with Glen (Marten Holden Weiner). Some of her diction may have been a little too elevated, even for the most precocious of children, but, she is a Draper, after all.
• Speaking of those scenes, I feel it necessary to repeat a question I asked earlier this season: How much does Matthew Weiner hate his kid?
• “Well, I’ve gotta go learn a bunch of people’s names before I fire them.”
• Stan and Peggy versus the world!
• Is this the end of Bertram Cooper? I sure hope not, but if this is the last we see of SCDP’s patriarch, I’m glad his final act was to ask for his shoes and say goodbye.
• As I’m sure some of you noticed, there was no recap last week, and I tried to talk about “Chinese Wall” a little bit this week. I apologize about that, and it was entirely unintentional: I moved into a new apartment, only to be without Internet for much longer than intended due to faulty wiring, and then without a computer due to a malfunctioning hard drive (I write this from a cyber café—remember those!?) When it rains it pours! But at least I’m back on track for next week’s finale.
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.