Thursday, July 29, 2010
[This post was published in anticipation of completing a co-edited volume that includes collected papers from February's symposium, MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press), we are very happy to present the first in our multi-authored series of posts on Season 4 of AMC's Mad Men.]
"THE MISSING PIECE"
Written by Lilya Kaganovsky (Slavic/Comparative Literature)
Donald Draper, or “Don” as he is known (perhaps in an attempt to appear humble), is a handsome cipher. One imagines somewhere in an attic, there’s a painting of him that’s rapidly aging.
Advertising Age, profile of Don Draper
The new agency of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has no conference table and no second floor. The conference table in particular produces quite a bit of concerned humor: “Atherton thought the lack of a conference table was deliberate,” Bert Cooper explains, referring to a recent visitor. “He felt that a circle of chairs demands a conversation.” “About why there is no table,” Don quips. Likewise, the missing—or rather—imaginary second floor of SCDP, part of a PR stunt meant to give clients the impression of a bigger firm, is used (un)successfully by Don to sell the Jantzen bikini: “So well built, we can’t show you the second floor.” “I wish we really had a second floor, so I could jump off it,” says Harry Crane.
In many ways, “Public Relations” (Season 4, Episode 1) is about the “missing piece”: the missing conference table, the missing second floor, the “missed opportunity,” the missing leg of the reporter for Advertising Age (“A wooden leg,” says Roger, “they’re so cheap they can’t even afford a whole reporter”), the missing top of the two-piece bikini, the missing Don Draper: “My job is to write ads, not go around talking about who I am,” says Don. “Who knows who you are?” replies Roger.
As Slavoj Zizek puts it, the missing piece “is the paradox of desire at its purest: in order to sustain itself as desire, to articulate itself, a piece must be missing.” Zizek is talking about Lacanian truth as written for children: specifically, the difference between “desire” and “drive” as it appears in two Shel Silverstein classics, The Missing Piece and The Missing Piece Meets the Big O. But this is, of course, also the idea behind advertising pure and simple: the desiring subject looking for its missing piece that would fill in the gap and change it into a complete subject. The circle of chairs around the place where the conference table should be organizes conversation; the “handsome cipher” Don Draper, whom no one really knows but everyone is trying to please (“We’re all here because of you,” Peggy reminds him, “all we want to do is please you.”)
"Everything in its Right Place"
But the episode is also built around dirt, or our notions of dirty and clean. The “choir boys” over at Jantzen are appalled by the very clients they are trying to attract: “Do you want women who want bikinis to buy your two-piece, or do you just want to make sure that women who want a two-piece don’t suddenly buy a bikini? … You’re too scared of the skin that your two-piece was designed to show off,” Don tells them. The Jantzen clients are trying to find a way to market a two-piece bathing suit “without playing in the gutter.” Their reaction to Don’s ad is one of shock: “It’s somehow dirtier, not seeing anything,” Bob says.
“I like how they sit there like a couple of choir boys,” murmurs Roger, “you know one of them is leaving New York with VD.” Don’s housekeeper Celia doesn’t think the shoeshine kit belongs in the middle of the floor. Henry Francis is upset to find the dog in the house. Sally Draper’s histrionics at the dinner table have to be cleaned up with a rag. Don’s Glo-Coat “Shield” commercial promises that, “Footprints on a wet floor—that’s no longer a hanging offense!”, while the original ads claimed that, “Glo-Coat shields against black heel marks.” During Don’s Jantzen presentation, one of the clients puts his feet up on a coffee table, filled with cups and saucers. “Can I put my feet on this?” he asks. “Pretend that it’s your living room,” Roger tells him.
But “dirt,” as Mary Douglas reminds us in her 1966 work, “is matter out of place”:
As we know it, dirt is essentially disorder. There is no such thing as absolute dirt: it exists in the eye of the beholder. If we shun dirt, it is not because of craven fear, still less dread of holy terror. Nor do our ideas about disease account for the range of our behavior in cleaning or avoiding dirt. Dirt offends against order. Eliminating it is not a negative movement, but a positive effort to organize the environment.
“In short,” writes Douglas, “our pollution behavior is the reaction which condemns any object or idea likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications.” “What separates a bathing suit from underwear?” Don asks, before answering: “the cut and the print of the cloth, and some sort of gentleman's agreement.”
One of the cherished classifications at stake for upper-middle-class whites in the 1960s is the distinction between married and single, and the notion of the “family,” which is confused by the reality of divorce. “That’s what’s become of this country: everyone’s got two Thanksgivings to go to,” says Henry’s mother. The reporter from Ad Age suggests a variety of options to answer the question “Who is Don Draper?” including, “Knock-out wife, two kids, house in Westchester”—a description that might have, of course, fit Don to a tee—until this season.
Indeed, Don is most upset not when the reporter compares him to Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray (with a portrait rapidly aging in the attic), but when he claims that Don is married. “Jesus, he never asked me that. Did he check any facts?” Don asks. “I’m breaking a lot of my rules seeing a divorced man,” says Bethany Van Nuys, Don’s date. “I know what you see in her, and you could’ve gotten that without marrying,” Henry’s mother tells him, in reference to Betty. “We are a family company” the Jantzen boys remind Don. Even the call girl has family to go to on Thanksgiving. And of course, there’s the final comment from Henry’s mother that goes right to the point: “Honestly, Henry, I don’t know how you can stand living in that man’s dirt.” When Don sends the Jantzen “prudes” packing, he is cleaning house (something he tries, but fails, to do with Betty).
"The Importance of Being Earnest"
Don’s Glo-Coat commercial opens with a shadow cast across a white floor, and then to a close up of hands clutching prison bars. Cuts away to the clock remind us of High Noon. When the camera pulls back we see a boy trapped behind a wooden chair, screaming, “Lemme out of here! Lemme out of here!” “I’d like to lift a shadow off this evening,” says Bethany Van Nuys, by way of breaking the ice.
“Public Relations” is obviously staging the difference between public and private: the well-lit offices of SCDP and the dark and dirty Village apartment (incidentally, located at Waverly Place & 6th Ave., mere blocks away from Washington Square, on one side, and the Stonewall Inn, on the other); Don’s official sexuality (divorced man, no date in a year) vs. his unofficial “dates” with the call girl. In the end, Don learns to perform for the big Other—the reporter, the public, the client—to narrate a version of himself that fits into the one they have already created in their minds. He is no longer telling the “truth” as he did with the Ad Age reporter, but a cinematic version of the events of the past year: “I knew I could either die of boredom, or holster up my guns,” he says to Bert Cooper’s “man” from the Wall Street Journal.
But we see clearly that somewhere in an attic, there’s not simply a portrait that’s rapidly aging, but a mad man, screaming to get out.