The Blog Formerly Known as Rebel Prince

Cult TV, Gen Y rants, and endless opera.

Mad Men: “Blowing Smoke”

Posted by therebelprince on March 3, 2012

Robert Morse as Bertram Cooper

With mere weeks until Mad Men returns to our screens, I’m continuing my season 4 rewatch with the penultimate episode, Blowing Smoke.

“When I think about forever I get upset. Like the Land of Lakes butter has that Indian girl, sitting holding a box, and it has a picture of her on it, holding a box, with a picture of her on it, holding a box. Have you ever noticed that?”

— Sally Draper

Well, this is depressing. Mad Men is a series about change – social change, personal change, the vanishing of the mindset of an entire era – but it’s also a series about resistance to that change. Perhaps no-one is more indicative of this than our dear Betty Draper, so scared of being anything other than what she was raised to be, and so certain that there is only one way for respectable people to act (lest you have to think about other options!), that she visits all of these fears on her poor, blossoming daughter, Sally. Has there been a greater addition to the main cast than young Kiernan Shipka? I think not. This week, Betty continues to destroy her daughter’s life, by removing her only confidantes – Glen and Dr. Edna. Things work out differently in each case: Glen runs (although, not far, because he’s not a lean kid), whereas Dr. Edna is convinced to stay on, even if she’s implicitly providing therapy to Betty, not Sally. It’s easier this way for Betty to deny that she needs help, and it seems fitting that his childish woman ends up seeing a child psychologist.

But, of course, we get Betty’s brand of depression every week. This week’s special guest: Depressed Midge! I was never a huge fan of Rosemarie DeWitt‘s character in season one (I’m more of a Rachel Mencken kinda guy), but this is a perfect ending to that narrative arc. Don has a warm reunion with her, seemingly by accident, and goes to visit Midge and her partner, Perry. As it turns out, Midge deliberately tracked him down, in desperate need of money to fund her drug habit and her failing lifestyle. There’s a crushing sense of tragedy in those quiet scenes in Midge’s run-down apartment. Like any of the characters, she presents the facade of a survivor to the world, but there’s no hiding the truth of her situation.

The reality of Midge’s life continues to propel Don’s season four soul-searching, which is heightened further when he’s effectively reduced to begging for clients. Worse, the clients know he’s begging. As a Heinz rep tells him, they’d love to use SCDP but “we don’t even know if your company will still be here in six months”. The founding of SCDP was such an iconic moment at the end of last season, but things have come undone in spectacular fashion. Don’s reaction to the crumbling of SCDP – and the collapse of their relationship with Lucky Strike – leads Don to send out a brilliant, fascinating, risky ad, in which he announces a new moral stand for the company, and their lack of interest in working with tobacco. (Best of all, Don is smoking as he defends this to his fellow partners!) It’s a bold move, and one which flies in the face of all business logic, but it’s the product of a season’s worth of Don questioning himself, and ultimately doing what he wants, rather than what is expected. It’s also a marketing strategy which throws SCDP back into the spotlight. Whether this works is a question for next season, but there’s no doubt that Don is looking to find a new way of doing things.

The other four partners react in starkly different ways, each in fitting with the people they’ve become over the last few years. For Pete, it’s a straight-up collapse. He’s become an adult (or, like Betty, at least mimics the actions of real adults), but it’s all a performance. He hasn’t compartmentalised like others have – he’s by far the most open husband of the lot – but his relationship is far from perfect. Now, Pete’s tossing up between staying with a company he can barely afford to be a part of, or starting from ground level with somewhere else.

For Roger Sterling, unsurprisingly, it’s all wisecracks and smarminess, even though he’s totally the guy responsible for some of the damage. Things just tend to work out for Roger so, on those rare occasions when they don’t, it’s truly perplexing.

Aaron Staton, John Slattery, Jared Harris, and Cara Buono

Lane Pryce is the most pragmatic of them all, already looking into back-up plans before they even needed them. If there’s been one storyline this season that hasn’t satisfied, it’s been that of Lane. This year, he’s been almost divorced, developed a relationship with an African-American playboy bunny, become best buds with Joan, suffered at the hands of his cruel father, and now, we learn he moved his family back again. What happened offscreen? Did he give in to his father? We know, thematically, that he can never escape his past, but this seems an unusual method of storytelling, even for this show. (Incidentally, Jared Harris is much more famous now that Sherlock Holmes came out between seasons; I wonder if that will affect his character in future years.)

Lastly, there’s Bertram Cooper, who simply gives up, departing the building with the classic line, “I’m no longer part of this agency. You there: get my shoes.” Ha! I utterly adore Robert Morse and his character, but truth be told, he’s been a bit of dead weight this season. I hope he comes back to visit at least once a season, but the show would almost be better off without having to pay Morse’s salary (given the ongoing budgetary issues). Plus, on a thematic level, it seems that the older ad men are going to have to be phased out as the show further stresses how the 50s are done. (If Roger Sterling isn’t destroyed by the time we reach the final season, I’ll eat my hat

As Don creeps closer to self-realisation, it’s at the expense of Faye. She has to leave SCDP, since their anti-tobacco stance can’t be associated with Faye’s marketing business. On top of this, she’s aware that part of Don is pulling away. The lure of the simpler, less challenging partner in Megan; Faye’s lack of interest in setting up a traditional marriage with pre-set kids… it’s all too much. I never believed Faye would be a lifelong partner for Don but, now that we’re past the centre of the series’ run, I hope we’ll get more of an idea of where he’ll end up as a man. Those two sides of him – the calm, relaxed guy who spent time with Anna in California, and the slightly strained father and ad man he becomes in New York – may yet meld.

At the end of the day, no-one’s actions have saved the day. They may have prestige, but you can’t eat prestige…

Other thoughts:

Elisabeth Moss continues to rock as Peggy. She’s really keen on drinks with Faye, as the latter leaves the office with her cardboard box of belongings. Faye doesn’t really seem enthusiastic, but it makes sense that Peggy would hope for it. Self-assured, beautiful, independent, well-qualified Faye is exactly who Peggy wants to be. (And probably sometimes who she thinks she is already.) Will Peggy ever attain that place in the world? Possibly not, but here’s hoping.

Also, after several different Bobby Drapers, I really like this current one. I hope he hangs around for season 5, although a part of me likes the Arrested Development style in-joke that Bobby keeps on changing.

Next time: we’ll revisit the season finale, Tomorrowland.

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