Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 4.2
"Potemkinville"

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

posted under , , , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[ The second in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 4 of AMC's Mad Men was published in anticipation of MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press.]

"POTEMKINVILLE"

Written by Robert A. Rushing (Associate Director, Unit for Criticism/Italian/Comparative Literature/Cinema Studies)

Like virtually every episode of Mad Men, “Christmas Comes But Once a Year,” which aired this Sunday, is an episode about appearances, usually deceptive ones. The title refers back to a 1936 cartoon of the same name from Fleischer Studios (Superman, Betty Boop, Popeye, etc.) in which Professor Grampy, singing the title song, pretends to be Santa Claus for the children in an orphanage.

This Mad Men episode is anything but a consoling fable for orphans: the increasingly creepy Glen Bishop (played by Matt Weiner’s son Marten) warns Sally Draper that, despite the apparent stability of her new family, changes are coming: “After a while, they'll have another baby.” And later he notes about their equally apparently stable house: “you’ll be moving soon.” Meanwhile Peggy becomes a virgin for the second time with her new boyfriend—yet another example of “something that never happened,” a virtual mantra for Mad Men; Don suggests as much to his secretary, Allison, after having sex with her on his couch (although “next time on Mad Men” suggests that perhaps this storyline isn’t over).

Referring to the chic but sterile decor of the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce advertising agency, Roger Sterling says that his visitor shouldn't be fooled—“it's really Potemkinville.” Roger is referring to the so-called “Potemkin villages,” towns originally created to impress the Czar, but most memorably used by the Soviets for pure show, propaganda to show off the happy wonders of socialism. In the last post on Mad Men, Lilya Kaganovsky referred to the “missing piece” of SCDP, the absent second story, but this is just as easily represented as a question of surface and depth. SCDP, in this episode, is just a façade.

SCDP’s Potemkin village status returns later in the episode, when the financially strapped agency has to put on a cinematic Madison Avenue Christmas Party for Lee Garner, Jr., the son of the owner of their main client, Lucky Strike cigarettes. “I've seen the movies,” Lee Jr. says, no doubt referring to the infamous Christmas office party in The Apartment (1960). “We need to change [the party's] rating from ‘convalescent home’ to ‘Roman orgy,’” quips Roger. In other words, both economic systems are revealed as essentially hollow: if the Soviets preferred to show unexpected visitors villages filled with happy peasants overflowing with grain, SCDP will offer up instead the glamour of advertising magic fused with cinema, something that they now specialize in after Don's High Noon Glo-Coat commercial (itself a flat prison surface revealed to be an open three-dimensional space). But instead of selling Glo-Coat by way of High Noon, they will sell SCDP by way of Caligula.

Mad Men itself has always done just this: sold itself by way of cinema. Its cinematic references are too numerous to enumerate exhaustively, but as I argue in my chapter in the Mad World volume, it shows a number of debts to Antonioni, the modernist Italian director responsible for L'avventura and Blow-Up. Those debts are thematic, but they are also stylistic, even purely formal: long takes, slow action, an absence of dialogue in key scenes, elaborate framing and positioning of characters for purely visual or geometric effect, and so on.

Mad Men here faces a kind of stylistic dilemma: on the one hand, it has dedicated-- famously--vast resources and energy to an exact and faithful mimesis. That is so much the case that the few trivial mistakes (Bryn Mawr didn't have sororities, so Betty can't have belonged to one) are well-known, the exceptions that prove the rule. Mad Men is invested in realism (perhaps more of the 19th-century variety than of the postwar Italian film sort), and the attendant socio-economic depth that realism wants to reveal behind the façade of customs and trappings. And yet the show's realist impulses constantly run up against its love of style and form. Let us take three shots from this past Sunday’s episode.

This is a typical shot from the show: a meticulous mise-en-scéne, with period wallpaper, precisely the right clothes, the clutter of half-done homework and half-finished food preparation (carrots, potatoes and, are those turnips?)—no doubt the spices in the spice rack are all in period bottles with the tint labels for 1964. But on a second or third glance, one notices the strange color harmony of the shot, the way that Sally Draper's dress picks up the patterns of the wallpaper, that Carla's apron and dress match the tonal palette of the Draper kitchen. It is their space, but in a way that Mad Men's formalism renders almost uncanny.

Sally's dress does not just pick the geometric squares of the wallpaper; it is also black and red, the colors of Glen Bishop's lanyard, which we see in the episode's opening sequence. “Those are good colors,” Sally announces when she sees it, and now the colors appear on her dress, just as she receives a phone call from Glen. The cosmic formalism of the show is one in which a perfect realism, chaotic and contingent, shows the constant distorting traces of a god—one fond of symbolic color matching.

All of the same observations apply here: perfect period costumes, a meticulous recreation of appropriate Christmas foods for 1964, lovingly warmed in chafing dishes atop period cans of Sterno, and a typical conga line dance. And yet Joan appears to have selected the party decorations to match the exact shade of her dress, or vice-versa. Still shots of Mad Men begin to resemble a Gursky photograph: socio-economic realism transformed into a beguiling limited color palette, played out across repeating geometric patterns. This apparent contradiction is surely one of the things about the show that puts off those who don't like it: in this view, Mad Men transforms important depth into attractive but superficial surface. At times, the show reaches for a degree of stylization that goes beyond Antonioni’s cinematic arrangement and Gurksy's formalist photography, and reaches for the painterly: Don Draper in an Edward Hopper painting.

But appearances also tell the truth: In a sequence both comic and disturbing, Lee Jr. forces Roger into an impersonation of Santa Claus, and then photographs him with the men of the agency sitting on his lap. Those images are simply a double exposure of the truth about both men: Roger is indeed a dirty old man (one can easily imagine him saying just so to his beloved “Joanie” in a different context), and Lee is perfectly happy to have his same-sex desires made visible, but sadistically projected onto another—particularly in a way that perverts the traditional figure of authority, the father he loathes and whose shadow he stands in.

Lee Jr. briefly becomes a character from a David Lynch film (we already knew he was a monster from his previous interactions with Sal Romano), arranging his helpless victim into a perverse mise-en-scéne and taking picture after picture, ripping the cover off of each Polaroid with a kind of sexual glee. The truth of the sequence is all on the surface: Lee Garner Jr.'s sadism and psycho-sexual conflicts, his Oedipal issues, Roger as dirty old man—even Christmas itself as an already perverse scenario of sexual dependence.

Everything about the episode insists on this last point, the fundamentally “adult” character of Christmas in capitalist America, from the Roman office orgy to Don's drunken grappling with his secretary. All of them are based on the figure of the “sugar daddy,” the one who provides “gifts” (two fifty dollar bills, the continuing business of Lucky Strike cigarettes) in exchange for sexual acts (quickie on Don's sofa, humiliating Polaroids of yourself in costume). (It doesn’t always work: the SCDP artist Joey attempts to win over Allison with a cartoon of her as Aphrodite, goddess of love, but it doesn’t take.)

The horror of Glen Bishop is that he has always been ahead of the curve, too sexual too early, and he both sadistically defaces Betty's home in revenge for her “infidelity,” while offering Sally Draper in her unspoiled room a “Christmas gift,” whose sexual promise—or menace—is clear (it is the black-and-red lanyard that was attached to his knife, left on her bed). All of these “concealed truths” are completely open, on the surface, self-developing Polaroids. The shallow and formulaic Christmas card that Don leaves for his secretary really is thanking her for all her hard work (in the office, and on the couch), just as the truth of Christmas is on display every year and in the closing credits in the form of a grotesque hit song: “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” (If you like, this is the “work” of the episode, the transformation of the sweet and child-appropriate 1936 song “Christmas Comes But Once a Year” into the sexual and ambiguous 1952 Jimmy Boyd hit.)

Dr. Faye Miller, a specialist in consumer evaluation (an early form of focus groups) who seems both professionally and personally fascinated by Don, offers a differing view: advertising exists, she suggests, in order to resolve the conflict between depth and surface. There is, on the one hand, what people secretly want, their most venal and banal of desires, and there is how they are supposed to behave (civilization and its discontents): depth and appearance. Advertising, according to Dr. Miller, is what mediates between the two, offering a lie that also tells the truth, the deepest desire in the guise of something socially acceptable.

The trick in viewing Mad Men is not to look for the ways in which it fails to address “serious” topics of weighty political importance (the show is trivial, superficial, glamorizes mere consumption, etc.), but instead to seek out the many ways in which the show's superficiality, and the superficiality of its characters, speak to precisely the realist truths its gloss sometimes seems to slide over. This is not direct, didactic and political speech, however—and as a result, it can maintain the fascination and glamorous power of images.

Surfaces that conceal, surfaces that reveal. This double play of the surface appears quite forcefully, and very early on in the episode. When Freddy Rumsen arrives with a new account, he is momentarily distracted from his double dealings (the essence of depth—depth and deception are the same) by a modernist image on the wall, an optical illusion (i.e., cinema, television) that combines depth, a flat screen and the illusion of movement.

“I feel like I'm getting sucked into that thing,” Freddy says, but the feeling he's describing is both an irresistible attraction as well as the falling sensation of vertigo. This is, of course, another Mad Men reference to Hitchcock, but it is also once again nothing but the opening credit sequence. (I have been able to discern two absolute constants in the Mad Men universe: Pete Campbell is always right, and everything about the show can be derived from the opening credits.) The interminable play of three-dimensional spaces that turn out to be flat vector graphics, the creation of depth (falling, falling), ultimately revealed as a blank, flat, unreadable service that nonetheless exerts a magnetic attraction.

I, too, feel like I'm getting sucked into this thing.


19 comments

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19 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting analysis. You surely remember that Don loves La Notte. The matching palette motif is also visible in many earlier scenes, such as Joan setting the table, and wearing an apron the same blue as the soup tureen; the blonde model Pete sleeps with, whose dress is the same faded yellow as her TV set.

You perceptively show that these instances disturb the manifest realist æsthetics of the show. They may indeed point to something else altogether. The over-determination of the color palette demonstrates the paramount importance of surface in the life of the characters. People and society are made of surfaces. This superficiality allows for their functioning. The perfect suburban family was but a surface for Don, but without it he is lost, and he even loses his other surface, that of the smooth operator. This kind of development points to the fact that the endless psychological analysis that this show provokes is essentially useless to understand it. Who would have thought that losing Betty would destroy Don so thoroughly? But it does, and Betty is the stronger one because she has been able to recreate another picture-perfect family.

I think that it might be useful to see M. Weiner's realist concerns as mere tools of his esthetics, but not their core. The play of appearances and surfaces, in which the interior, the "real", is unattainable, except as an abyss in which one falls, is the paramount esthetics here.

Konstantine said...

Potemkinville or surfacing desire: two comments on the historical subtexts of the Potemkin village.

Historians of Russia believe that the original story of Potemkin villages is itself a surface, a myth created to besmirch, not glo-coat, Potemkin’s significant achievements as part of Russia’s vigorous growth during the rule of Catherine the Great. Today, Potemkin’s neo-classical palace in St. Petersburg, both elegant and substantial, evokes its own as well as its owner’s major historical roles. Still, the tainting surface of the “Potemkin village” has been more productive than the man’s actual accomplishments in powering what might count most in modern life: the carousel of storytelling.

Closer to Mad Men and Robert’s remarks, the end of 1964 in the USSR turned on the succession of Khrushchev by Brezhnev. For all of Khrushchev’s very real achievements (such as the large-scale construction of housing or advances in space exploration), his removal from power reflected the system’s failure to uphold the appearance of vibrant national life: Khrushchev’s image of Utopia could not convince the relevant publics that it, as Rachel Menken might have put it, “has to be.” The same failure haunted the succeeding images projected by the Soviet culture industry.

Where the Soviet Potemkinville failed, American Potemkinville succeeded. It did so––to paint with a broad brush over Robert’s intricate pattern––by projecting ex nihilo onto the surface of American life the images of deep desire that animated the carousel of late capitalism.

Unit for Criticism said...

Anonymous, welcome to Kritik. I look forward to responding to your very interesting comment at some point. I have one request as moderator which is that you please "sign" your anonymous posts with any marker your wish--a set of initials, a number, a name--so long as you use it consistently. Thanks for joining us. (LG)

Rob Rushing said...

@Anonymous: you're quite right about color palette—the difficult part was selecting which examples to use. In the interests of focus and brevity, I left a lot out, both formalist analysis (of the conga line moving through the work room with the kissing couple, which was all about the play of static surfaces and cinematic movement) and psychoanalytic (Žižek's notion of the "anal father" in particular, which really helps one understand the relationship of Lee Garner Jr., the perverse anal figure, to Sr., the traditional patriarch of prohibition). (I also did everything on an iPad at 35,000 feet, which surely means something...) There's a lot going on, and that's why I think this is such a good forum for collaboratively working it out.

@Konstantine: I decided to leave the whole Czarist history of the Potemkin village (including the fact that it might be a complete myth) to Wikipedia, since I was mostly interested in its Cold War persona (where it might also be a myth, but one Americans certainly believed). I love your second point even more, however, which is what I was so pleased to find in the episode—the success of the American Potemkin villages of Madison Ave.

zina said...

Will do. Thanks for responding to my message.

Ex-Anonymous, now Zina

FWS said...

The Christmas party certainly reminds one of "The Apartment," but this episode also calls to mind "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" (starring Robert Morse!), which speaks to the success of Madison Avenue's Potemkinian machinations, particularly vis-à-vis the advertising industry. Don has, however, failed to heed its cheeky admonition that "A Secretary Is Not a Toy."

Speaking of secretaries and color palettes, it's almost disappointing to note how unvarying Don's sexual predilections are: He dates, marries, and finds himself faltering with and/or rebuffed by icy blondes (Betty, Bethany Van Nuys, and now Dr. Faye Miller); and he philanders with brunettes (Midge, Rachel, Bobbi, the jet set Joy, Suzanne Farrell, his Thanksgiving hooker, and now his secretary and, one anticipates, the nurse next door). For a man so dismissive of psychological profiling, his Madonna/Whore (or is it an inverted Jackie/Marilyn?) complex is rather formulaic.

Lauren said...

Zina: I like your way of construing the relation between realism and surface/depth play. I also love Rob's analysis and feel he does justice to the complexity of realism when he writes, for example, that realism is "chaotic and contingent" albeit, in this show, disrupted by the God of Color-Matching who shows up in many memorable scenes. (My favorite ex. of such a thing isn't so much the Color God as the Geometry God: the perfect triangle in S3 (I think “The Grown Ups") between Betty's implied gaze—looking across the room--at the two different men whom she imagines going home with, Don and Henry. The only color I remember is B’s powder blue suit which isn’t actually in the shot.)
(cont'd)

Lauren said...

As Rob knows from previous conversations I am often surprised, as one who works primarily on 19th c. realist lit, at the critiques of realism which treat it as though formally it were nothing but the most transparent mimesis; as though the business of realism is to delude unsuspecting readers with its insidious naturalization of the status quo, or to bore more cunning readers with its naïveté.

Although I like other kinds of lit, realist forms are what I know best and I always find it bizarre to hear them characterized in these terms: as though there is no artistic self-consciousness or willful irony in a narrator’s declaring, for example, that “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” or in a narrator’s stepping forward to assure you (as Trollope’s sometimes do) that he is keeping no secrets from you because that’s just not his style.

I know, Rob, that you are not at all impugning realism as either naïveté or ideology. But there are a few places where you seem to be saying that the aim of realist form is representing a socio-economic underside (and not also a psychological underside as I think Zina’s comment suggests?) in the quest of which realism must conceal the manipulation of surfaces on which it, (as much as any other fictional form), depends. I take the thrust of your analysis as this: the play of color in Mad Men is sometimes so masterfully articulated, the scenes so visually arresting, that other kinds of meaning (the kinds that pass for mimesis) are temporarily trumped if not permanently subverted.

Where I possibly part from you is the point at which we might infer that these instances of “realist impulses” running up against a “love of style and form” must mean that realism does not persistently generate its own styles and forms, albeit the ones we tend to spot as realist.

Of course, MM’s “realism” can never be entirely like that of a 19th-century novel by, say, Flaubert. As realist television it can’t have anything like free indirect style or an intrusive narrator (some hokey voiceover saying, “It is a truth universally acknowledged…though a self-styled oracle like Faye Miller may take us a step in the latter direction!). To wit, other conventions have to be found to replace these devices from realist literature.

Here is my favorite from 4.2 (from memory, so please forgive inaccuracies). Don pulls Allison down on the couch and she consents and as they proceed the scene changes to…a thoughtful Sally getting into bed (perhaps thinking about how Santa Claus will not be home for Christmas which she knows and feels the pain of, but which we viewers know even better because, unlike her, we have just seen the man on the couch). When the scene returns to D & A they have finished without even removing their clothes (almost as though it actually DID happen in the workplace) making the viewer even more conscious that Don—who for all his many, many transgressions never once fouled his office nest by preying upon female employees--has sunk to a new low. This groan-out-loud pathetic act would be even more unmeaningful than it is but for the juxtaposition with Sally’s yearning and loss, which tells us something about the whole situation, emotionally and otherwise, which, in a novel, would be the task of the omniscient narrator.

Now I suspect that Sally’s bedroom may have been a beautiful tableau: it almost always is. Perhaps Allison’s bright green Christmas dress part of one as as well. But here’s my point: if there is evidence of the God of Color in this sequence, let me ask this. Is it possible that the Color God is not necessarily any more inconsistent with “realist impulses” than is the God of Scene Change, the God of Omniscience, the God of Seriality, the God of Ironic Narrative Pronouncements, and all the other wondrously illuminating formal deities we meet in the best 19th century novels and the best tv dramas?

Rob Rushing said...

That's a lot to think about, LG: I'm not saying that the aim of realism is presenting socio-economic base at the apparent expense of formal style, etc.—just that many think in these terms, finding economic realism and aesthetic formalism incompatible. You're quite right that realism is always doing both, and I think that's one of the appeals of MM for you (and me). My point was that not only do both happen, but they happen within each other; the show's very superficiality is both a lie and a form of the truth, while its mimetic fidelity to historical accuracy somehow seems to lead it toward a frenzy of visual pleasure. When I suggest that the god of color matching disrupts the illusion of perfect mimesis, I mean that it disrupts that illusion for the viewer, who must say: "I thought I was seeing a 'contingent and chaotic' recreation, but there is a hand of irony" (which may be realism's master trope, by the way) "the hand of self-conscious artistry, the hand of…" and so on. My own take on realism is that its effects often depend precisely on creating the illusion of a mimetic world independent of the artist, chaotic and contingent, and then disrupting that illusion. In short, the two "modes" may interfere with each other, but that interference itself is realism. Maybe one should call it "real realism," as opposed to mimetic re-creation without narrative pronouncement, irony and color matching.

@FWS: For those interesting in the "Secretary is not a Toy" video, check it out.

Lauren said...

FWS, you wrote:"He dates, marries, and finds himself faltering with and/or rebuffed by icy blondes (Betty, Bethany Van Nuys, and now Dr. Faye Miller); and he philanders with brunettes..."

Ah, but there was the blonde flight attendant--or was that one on Dick Whitman's or Bill Hofstadt's watch? ;)

Perhaps the nurse will be a friend?

Rob: I totally agree and like the way you put it very much: realism as a kind of dialectic between sustaining and breaking the illusion. I guess the interesting question is when the break becomes so prolonged or so powerful that we are no longer dealing with realism. Sometimes it's easy enough to spot: e.g., magic realism, gothic, fantasy. Sometimes not so easy. In literature we easily spot the formal differences between realist fiction and modernist experiments. But TV is different. Given that all of these forms are already "postmodern," it takes some thinking to consider the kind of formal differences that would make a television drama "modernist" (I think some episodes of Sopranos do it). We have talked about Mad Men's odd flashbacks which are important to establishing backstories but are sometimes weird (as when Don "remembers" his infancy)but also kinda clunky. Doesn't feel like a modernist experiment; one almost wishes Nelly Dean would show up and tell the tale.

FWS said...

In terms of this novelistic realism, I'm tempted to posit that Mad Men is to visuals as The Wire is to language. That is to say, the at once mimetic and self-consciously stylized color cues on MM are reminiscent of the ways in which verbal cues were deployed on The Wire - from the street jargon which the audience was left to decipher from the first episode, thus insisting upon the show's verisimilitude, to the repetition of specific phrases *across* the show's/city's social institutions (e.g. "soft eyes" in season four, the misuse of "evacuating bodies" in season five), which gesture at the formalized construction of the series' universe. Its stunt casting of various real life Baltimore figures underscores this tension, lending both "authenticity" to the show's post-industrial urban portraiture while making the hand of irony all the more visible. The Wire has repeatedly been called Dickensian; is there a comparable literary analogue we could ascribe to Mad Men?

p.s. I did indeed take the stewardess as being to Hofstadt's tastes, rather than Don's. (Betty's people are Nordic, after all!)

Lauren said...

FWS: Flaubert, no doubt about it.

BRB said...

One subtler theme of MM has been religion.

Christian theme permeates the subtext of MM and 4.2 particularly. It is, after all, a Christmas episode. Peggy, suggestively, makes herself a Virgin. And I can’t think of a more advent-appropriate lines than Glen’s promise of a future child; “After a while, they'll have another baby.”

Appropriate to Christmas, conception and barrenness are themes throughout the episode and the series at large. We might remember Peter and Trudy’s inability to conceiv, Peggy’s attempt to procure birth control, her unwanted pregnancy, and her refusal of her boyfriend in 4.2, partially, we might surmise, due to fear of the same. We might also recall in the beginning of season 3, Don’s frightening flashback to two difficult pregnancies (one complicated but successful, and the other stillborn with both women weak and crying). The post’s author points out the lack (or perceived lack) behind the sleek surface of advertising and the mad men. These surfaces strike me as a diversion from the despair in nullity; like Rachel, the barren archetype, weeping for her slaughtered children in the infancy narrative in the gospel of Matthew.

The Christian God, while less explicit, is ubiquitous as the “father” figure. Here Zizek’s reading of Christianity comes in handy. To simplify his “Christian Atheism,” he sees God as the ultimate big Other who dies once and for all on the cross. Our freedom (or our cure in psychoanalysis) comes from the realization that there is no big Other (that God has died); All that exists in excess of materiality is the awareness that there is nothing else, i.e. there is a certain reappearance of the original Hegelian Nothing through negative dialectics.

So, Lee and Roger’s Father Christmas are turned into a disturbing Oedipal thing, and Don is still haunted at the mention of his father in the focus group survey, not to mention his strange nightmares about being tied to a chair as a child). All the women have significant big Others. Peggy lives to please Don and senses him everywhere like a phantom (her scolding of the secretary to always act as if Don were present in S1). Betty, unable to imagine any other alternative, quickly replaces her big Other, Don, with another. Sally…well, let’s just not go there. Also, let’s not forget that Don the Father tellingly won’t be present for Christmas.

This creates lots of questions. If freedom really is based on Nothing, and we robbed of any transcendence, doesn’t this Hegelian Nihilism mean that the surfaces ARE the reality (as in our wildest fetishistic capitalist fantasies)? What is the point in distinguishing them? What is the way out of this despair? Is it at all possible to live a good life in such a world? Those seem to me to be the exact concerns of Don Draper.

Lauren said...

BRB, welcome to Kritik and thanks for a very interesting comment. I wish I had more time to respond to it. For now, just a question: you mentioned Don's "strange nightmares about being tied to a chair as a child." Can you please say more about that reference? Thanks.

brb said...

Thanks, Lauren.

I'm working from memory so sorry if this is incorrect. I was referring to the floor wax commercial Don produced with the little cowboy tied up, which we presume has something to do with Don's childhood.

Lauren said...

Oh, I see. Of course, I just misunderstood you and was searching my memory banks for a nightmare. No need to apologize!

Rob Rushing said...

@Everybody—it's really very rewarding to blog when you get amazing comments like these in response. @FWS, as far as the "color matching" that happens in language in The Wire, you mention that certain verbal motifs cross socio-economic lines: I'd submit that "fuck" is one of the key phrases like that, especially in the super-famous, all-fuck dialogue. @Lauren, Flaubert is just right (but I think we've had that conversation before). @BRB, my understanding of the Big Other is that one doesn't gain enlightenment from realizing he's dead—in fact, everyone knows the Big Other is dead. But no one will admit it to anyone else—otherwise, he might find out. In other words, the only kind of belief is fetishistic belief. But I don't know what route Zizek takes in The Puppet and the Dwarf.

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