In a new series of articles, Graham Eveleigh shines a spotlight on some of the most interesting themes, preoccupations and thoughts of TV’s most thoughtful drama
Spoilers: Season 1 – 6 plot details discussed
When reviewing Season Six finale, an instalment of The Guardian’s excellent “Notes from the Break Room” series made a very good point. In Care Of sees Peggy walk the boards of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to Don’s office – moving up from protégé to master. As Paul MacInnes points out, though:
“The problem with Peggy’s position, though, is the sense that she’s got there by default. Don’s demise means there’s a gap, but it’s Ted’s decision to move to California that means she’s the one who fills it.”
Mad Men always shies away from predictability and received narrative arcs, so it perhaps makes perfect sense for this huge moment of achievement – six seasons in the making! – is tinged with the above sense of compromise.
But the point raised by MacInnes got me thinking… in Mad Men, is this anything new? Have we seen good people getting ahead professionally due to factors unrelated to their (ignored, obvious) brilliance before?
The answer is yes – indeed it seems to be a running undercurrent of several stories of the show.
It’s there from right at the start, in Season One. Peggy moves up the ranks from typewriter to copywriter surprisingly quickly – in twelve episodes – but why does she get that promotion? Yes, it’s because she is amazing; her work from the Belle Jolie account (“here you go, here’s your basket of kisses”) is so resonant and intelligent, and everyone sees that. She followed that up by proving she isn’t a one hit wonder (Clearisil) and that she can be tough and practical (in the brutal auditions for the Relaxicisor). But actually, in Season One episode thirteen, she gets her promotion because of… Pete.
Pete makes a ham-fisted attempt to blackmail Don into giving him his own professional break – again, not earned – and Don calls his bluff by inviting him to reveal what he knows to Cooper. Cooper is underwhelmed by the truth about Don’s identity so Don, exhilarated by his near-death experience, gives Peggy a promotion in front of Pete, to spite him.
You might think that this is just Mad Men’s way of showing the 1960s beating down of Peggy aka all women – except Don suffers the same treatment! Two episodes before this, Don was made a partner. On first viewing of the show, knowing Don Draper was the Star, I was slightly surprised to find he wasn’t already invested in Sterling Cooper. So, his promotion in Season One episode 11 Indian Summer, seems timely. Except: again, he is not given a partnership solely through hard work, and because his name (as they frequently say) is the reason clients come to Sterling Cooper, but because Sterling (a crucial 50% of Sterling Cooper) has suffered two coronaries! This way, the firm keeps some integrity, showing another strong, healthy man at the helm, and distracts the gossipers. Equally, Joan is finally made a partner years after she has proven she deserves it. Incidentally, one of Don’s first acts as partner is to grant Peggy a pay rise – yet again, not directly because of her work, but because of his ill-gotten gains.
These instances are not simply flukes. There’s the Season Two episode The Mountain King, in which Peggy brings in her first account by herself (due to Don’s absence): Popsicle. She excels in the meeting, which inspires her to catch Roger halfway out the door and request she takes Freddy Rumsen’s office. Here two trivial factors are directly responsible for this being sanctioned, rather than Peggy’s professional success, unseen by Roger, earlier in the episode. Firstly, she asks – Roger compliments and appreciates her “balls” – and secondly, he is late for dinner plans. A huge leap in Peggy’s life can be traced to a minor inconvenience of Roger Sterling’s. Obviously, her “Break it. Share it. Love it” wooing of Popsicle contributed to this decision. With all of these instances, the demonstrations that said worker deserves recognition is never far away. But unlike a more ‘typical’ drama, the turning point always comes slightly later, for a slightly different reason. Peggy’s office is simply not as shiny and new as it should be… it is literally tinged with the piss of the former owner.
As Peggy plainly puts it in Season 4’s The Chinese Wall – “Every time something good happens, something bad happens.” Less like standard TV and more like real life.
The same is true for Ken Cosgrove and Pete Campbell’s simultaneous promotions to Heads of Accounts in Season 3 premiere Out of Town. Both are bright candidates in different ways, but the emphasis of their promotion is not on their talents, but on the childish cockfight that Pryce hopes it will inspire. (Pete, naturally, rises to it.)
Perhaps the most significant example of the entire series is the fact that McCann-Erickson hound Don in Season One, and eventually buy out Sterling Cooper, not necessarily for Don’s talent, although that is a bonus, but because they are a huge agency bent on domination of the market.
I’m sure there are many more examples of this throughout the show’s run – please feel free to comment and contribute any that I have missed.
But why is this significant, in the smoky, whiskey-soaked world of Mad Men? Well, this idea feeds very easily into (what I see as) Mad Men’s biggest message: that nothing in life brings long-term fulfilment, peace or happiness. This includes the characters’ work. They can be good at their jobs like Ken, they can be sometimes-bad at their jobs like Freddie Rumsen, but they’re still in more or less the same position come the end of the show. The idea that you might cling to ‘the next step’ as something that will finally bring happiness, only to get there and find it doesn’t – but what else is there? – feels very Mad Men. Letting professionalism go unrecognised tinges the traditional, aspirational narrative. The fact that circumstances then play a bigger role makes the characters look small and helpless in the machinations of events. You get the same outcome – Peggy gets the office – but the process leaves you slightly uneasy.
As with all the best things about the show, it ties identity and mentality to the turbulent context of 1960s and 1970s America, to produce an observant and bleak musing on the way we live.