Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 4.1
"The Missing Piece"

Thursday, July 29, 2010

posted under , , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[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.]


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.


Make A Comment


Bruce Rosenstock said...

Really nice reading of the episode, Lilya. Your associations sparked in me the following free associations: Don attempts to cover over dirt (or the dirty bits) with a Glo, itself a word missing a letter that itself is not pronounced, a sort of transparent sound (sound of silence), the sound of glass or glas in French, the title of Derrida's book about Hegel and cirucumcision, about the missing piece that constitutes identity, his own so-called identity as a Jew, his hidden name (Elie, Elijah), as he tells us in an interview called "A Certain Madness must watch over thinking", which leads me to this mad thought: Don Draper is Jacques Derrida redivivus, the deconstructionist par excellence, the ever-dapper brilliant wordsmith, and I will leave it to Lauren to draw the connections between Draper and the figure of the hidden Jew.

Bruce Rosenstock said...

From "A Certain Madness" interview:

Question: Do you mean that you do not want to have an identity?

Derrida: Indeed I do, like everyone else. But by beating around an impossible thing against which I too probably stand fast, the "I" constitutes the very form of resistance. Every time this identity proclaims itself, every time I am bound by a context, if I may say so: someone or something cries out [recall Lilya's final line -br]: watch out, there's a trap, you are caught. Get free [degage], get yourself free [degage-toi]. Your commitment [engagement] is elsewhere. Not very original, is it?

Note the last question Derrida asks. He rejects originality, his very origin, which is how he opens the interview, with a riff on the impossibility of saying anything true about his birth: "if there is one thing for which I cannot be held responsible, it precisely that, be it what you call the "biological birth," transferred to the objectivity of the birth certificate, or the "true birth." "

Is episode 4.1 a "not very original" rerun of this interview of Derrida, "A Certain Madness"?

Unit for Criticism said...

Well, Bruce, DD as Jacques Derrida redivivus is an intriguing notion so I'm glad that Lilya inspired you to think of it. I will save my musings on the crypto-Jew (note that I make a distinction between the latter and the hidden Jew) for another time. But your comments on Lilya's post prompted me to do something I almost always end up doing sooner or later which is to search the lyrics of the song played at the end of each episode. In this instance it is "Tobacco Road" (1964, of course), from which I excerpt these: "i was born in a trunk/mama died and my daddy got drunk/...grew up in a rusty shack/
all i owned was hanging on my back/
only lord knows how i loved tobacco road/but it's hard, hard the only life i've ever known/...bring dynamite and a crane/blow it up and start all over again"

So maybe Derrida's interview is a "not very original" reprise of "Tobacco Road"? ;)

This one is for Lilya:

"i despise you cause you're filthy/
but i love you cause you're home"


Unit for Criticism said...

N.B. On second thought, crypto-Jew isn't quite right either. I'll work this out at some point...

FWS said...

Cross-polution has been a source of anxiety on the show in past seasons - a Jew has never been hired on Don's watch, Adam Whitman has no place in Don Draper's life, Pete Campbell refuses to consider adoption - and yet the line-blurring of performance seemed to resonate throughout this episode.

Peggy, whose "John! Marrrshaaa!" bit with Joey seems to be a form of real flirtation, stages a fight over a ham - the ultimate in faking consumer desire in order to fabricate consumer desire - one that becomes a bit too real; while Don objects to the ploy as tacky, his playacting back in that dingy Village apartment also involves contrived violence for the stoking of desire. (Not to mention the miniature meta-drama in his successful and innovative Glo-Coat commercial.) By the end of the episode, he embraces his performance of Don Draper as being just that, self-mythologizing to a reporter in order to stoke client desire.

I'm curious if you think we'll see television playing a larger part in the show this season. It's been a central part of Betty's parenting skill, or lack thereof, brought the shock of Lee Harvey Oswald's murder directly into the home, and is ostensibly why Harry Crane was kept on at SCDP. Given the allusions to cinema in prior seasons, do you think tv will become a more prominent element?

Speaking of Harry Crane, where are Kinsey and Cosgrove??

Michael Bérubé said...

Great reading, Lilya -- you've made me want to see the episode again. One more piece of dirt: Roger telling Don that his lousy interview took the Glo-Coat triumph and turned it into a wet fart. Ew ew ew.

Unit for Criticism said...

FWS: V. interesting comments on cross-pollution. Adding to the theme Bruce already introduced, Don may say that no Jews were hired on his watch, but on our watch (figuratively speaking), he's privately hanging out with Jewish bohemians in the Village, and having affairs with the very Jewish Rachel and the probably Jewish Bobbie Barrett. If at one level there's simply no avoiding this form of "pollution," at another, Don seems to go out of his way to find it.

Re Cosgrove and Kinsey: I think that for now at least they add to the Missing Pieces. Neither is ever explicitly asked to join SCDP at the end of Season 3. (In fact the scene that shows them showing up at work to find the office ransacked is very poignant when you realize that the actors may have experienced themselves as performing in a fictional version of their own real-life unemployment. That is, I don't imagine that either of these two, if they appear at all, will be around very much in S4--though I might be wrong about that.) (LG)

Anonymous said...

My understanding is that Cosgrove, or rather the actor playing him, is still a part of the cast.

As for the excursion into French post-structuralism. I believe Derrida's point, that the I is merely the form of resistance to the impossible thing, suggests that the ruse of desire insists not this or that object might fill our abyssal lack, but rather that we are subjects of Lack in the first place, that Lack is the essence of desire. Advertising that plays to the first illusion might be called advertising in the mode of the other; advertising in the big Other sets about fomenting a generalized sense of lack as a spur to a commodified self-invention without limits. Don's peculiar and profound deracination has typically allowed him to understand that he is not stimuating appetites to fill a pregiven (symbolic) Lack, but feeding an illusory sense of Lack, upon which is propped the (Real) drive to self-creation/destruction as such. In 4.2, the former mode of advertising is espoused by Pete, who wishes to market cold cream to women on the basis of what they ostensibly lack (a man, a husband, the phallus), while Peggy, Don's best and only protege, rejects that approach as old-fashioned, in the name of a faar more self-reflexive operation of desire, one which an old-fashioned Freudianism would doubtless judge to be narcissistic, but which may be seen to anticipate, as Don himself has previously done (accent on previously), a more Derridean/Deleuzian construction of desire.

Unit for Criticism said...

Anonymous, welcome to Kritik. I think you mean Freddy not Pete but I think you are quite right about what he's offering.

About Peggy: this doesn't contradict your analysis but for what it's worth: I think what she was describing (the pleasure in putting on cold cream as a kind of self-care ritual) is self-pleasure--the most reliable kind. (Don could certainly use some kind of night-time ritual since he is relying rather much on the kindness of strangers.)

What a refuge the care of the self can be given the instability even in what you describe as (ostensibly) lacking: "a man, a husband, the phallus." In 4.2 as elsewhere there is arguably something aspiring to the phallus going around, but hardly a man or a husband in sight. (Unless perhaps Glenn, in his new form as vandal.)

After seeing Freddy return, I'd not be surprised to see Cosgrove or, for that matter, the return of the mailroom guy from the pilot. In fact, there seems to be a peculiar economy going on as the Draper home returns as the Francis home with, so far as I can tell, the mere substitute of one headboard and one, um... (not sure what to call Henry in the chain of signifiers... he is not exactly "The Missing Piece" but there is something definitely missing)

Anonymous, I hope you'll come back (4.2 goes up tonight or early tomorrow morning) but we'd appreciate it if you initialed your posts so that other readers can address you more easily. You can use any initials you like (you can even emulate the tweet world and post in the guise of the Francis headboard if you like!) (LG)

Rob Rushing said...

I love these comments, and would just offer two meta-observations. 1) This is a very well-written show, so much so that the more one looks, the more depth and complexity one finds; it becomes evident that the content is structured at least as much by theme as it is by the melodramatic need to move plot forward; 2) the reading that Lilya offers here is one of those that, for days afterwards, makes you think: "Oh, and that's why…" For me, it was the Janzen exec putting his feet on the table—it is obviously meaningful, and yet it does nothing to advance the plot, does nothing to advance the characters; it is only there to advance the episode's exploration of dirt.