When we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble.
That quote is from Joan Didion’s essay on morality for The American Spectator, anthologized in her 1968 collection Slouching towards Bethlehem. It’s a popular quote; I wouldn’t be surprised if Matthew Weiner made everyone in the writers’ room read it to prep for this season. But in spite of its retroactively gobsmacking use of the show’s title, it’s not the most applicable portion of the essay. My favorite part is when Didion is describing a Death Valley news item about a car crash and a nurse who had driven a survivor to the nearest doctor 185 miles away. This nurse, she extrapolates, was holding herself to a standard that Didion understands as “wagon-trail morality”: “one of the promises we make to one another is that we will try to retrieve our casualties, try not to abandon our dead to the coyotes.” It’s a gross image, but it’s one that, for better or for worse, fits all too easily into the Mad Men template. On this show, loyalty is never certain, only tested. The coyotes are almost always descending.
This week, who is deceiving themselves into thinking they deserve what they lack? Well, who isn’t, but as usual it’s the white dudes who really buy into the hype of bad trouble. Harry Crane, the picture of white male entitlement, thinks he has earned both more than he makes in a year and a full partnership, particularly due to his serendipitous idea of putting on a variety show sponsored by Ken Cosgrove’s father-in-law’s company, to help ease their burden of profiting from the war. (Side note: Ray Wise is perfectly cast in the role of warmongering businessman. I would watch him be blind to his destructive path in any situation, as long as he wears a suit and smiles that Snidely Whiplash smile of his.) When Bert and Roger give Harry the full commission off his idea, he doesn’t even register that it’s more than enough. That attitude, followed by the gall to assume that the partners must be talking about his secretary being fired the minute they close the doors (as if they didn’t have more pressing business), exemplifies the age-old Mad Men idea that you can always get too much and still think it’s not enough.
Don, of course, is deceiving himself, but I could write that sentence about any episode. He thinks it’s his moral imperative to make Megan feel bad about performing a love scene with another actor on her soap, but the hypocrisy of such a situation is too obvious for me to spell out further. (Another side note: ugh, Rod. Is there a better name for a smarmy soap actor from this time period? The names the writers give the incidental characters on this show are pretty wonderful sometimes, right down to naming the first audaciously swinging couple to grace the show with their presence Mel and Arlene. I bet Mel and Arlene have a Jacuzzi.) Anyway, Don is a jerk to Megan about kissing a guy, and then he goes home to have sex with Sylvia in a mirror image of the soapy scene. How clever.
The women in this episode do not yet buy into the idea that they are owed anything, but that fits with the period drama of it all. Joan, Megan, and, in the most on-the-nose moments, Dawn are struggling to move beyond the catastrophe of their personalities into something they think is better. Dawn sticks to her job even though she can’t meet any nice guys there and is constantly brought down by the company’s hard-drinking, miserable ways. Joan is an executive, but she’ll always find herself trapped in the idea of being a secretary. And Megan, the naïf: oh dear. She yearns to be the sort of wife that can set a trap her husband can walk right into, and she wants a career that Don pays attention to, but she can’t accomplish the former (Don knows too much of the game, given his past with Betty) and she’ll probably never have the latter. Don doesn’t care about her work because he can see it in terms of money. Megan doesn’t see it that way. When she thinks that she was given more lines because she might be sexually attractive to the head writer and his wife, she’s sick. She sees a promotion as a judgment of her character, her person, her life. Which is kind of insane when you remember that she’s on a bad soap playing a French maid, but not all dreams are golden.
The Dawn parts of the episode are troubling. What a fresh surprise. The dialogue is terrible—did a black person on this show actually say she’s going to “keep her head down” and not “throw a brick” through a window? Maybe this could be saved by good acting, but Teyonah Parris is a little too Pollyanna-ish for my taste. Anyway, thematically the plot line’s of a piece. Dawn lets herself believe she’s helping a friend in Scarlet, Harry’s doe-eyed secretary, by assisting in stealing company time, but she’s really getting herself further into trouble. She has to choose between losing her job and everyone hating her in the office (which is a binary I don’t buy; no one in that office really cares about anyone else, since they’re all too busy crying and drinking and bottling up their rage). The episode is called “To Have and To Hold.” Does Dawn have or hold anything with certainty? Nope. No one does! As Peggy says in a season 2 episode, it’s not easy for anyone, Pete.
Because we see so little of her, any episode with Joan in a major storyline suddenly becomes significant to me. Part of this is because I could watch Christina Hendricks give dirty looks to anyone for hours. But part of it is because Joan has always been the most hinted-at character, even on a show based on hints. Even Roger, who is all about flighty allusion, gets scenes in hospital beds and on acid. Joan’s big moments always feel unresolved, like there might be more on the cutting room floor. In any case, Joan’s friend Kate, in town to talk to Avon about a possible job, feels the same awe and bewilderment. “Look what you did,” she says enviously. “You came out here, you staked this out on your own. I always had Dennis to fall back on. Even when I went to Mary Kay. You didn’t.” Joan responds that she never will have someone to fall back on. “How did that happen?” she asks rhetorically. It’s a testament to Christina Hendricks’ ability that this moment feels organic and not too piteous. But does anyone ever feel Joan’s tragedy completely? The viewers love her too much, I think, to ever feel totally sorry for her. I mean, I love her too much.
So what were the light moments? I love the copywriters’ room. Ginsburg in small doses is the right amount of Ginsburg; James Wolk’s sweet, sweet face could be in my life every week and I would not complain; and whoever that lady is, she’s fun, she has glasses. “Bonnie and Clyde” at the Electric Circus seemed very apropos. The pitch for the variety show (“Yankee Doodle Dandy and the Notre Dame fight song at the same time” is a terrifying concept, as is Joe Namath singing in a straw hat) was an example what the show does best: artificial emotions on parade for a stuffy client who couldn’t care less about straying from his script. And, if you’re watching this show primarily for Stan and Peggy, there was a nice moment at the end, once Stan had realized that Peggy had betrayed his trust about the Heinz account. She’s dying to make loving eye contact, and he walks away and gives her the finger. Oh, Stan. Let’s smoke weed in a private room and listen to your horrible hippy music. It’s all I ever wanted.
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Joan Didion’s essay was originally published in the Autumn 1965 issue of the American Scholar, the quarterly magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. (I’m writing something myself in which I will be using this same quote, and I Googled it to see what others have made of it.) Somehow I cannot imagine Didion writing for the American Spectator.