Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 4.10
"Get Rid of It"

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

posted under , , by Unit for Criticism
[Faith Wilson Stein, a graduate student in Comparative Literature, is the author of the next in our multi-authored series of posts on the fourth season of Mad Men, which anticipated the March 2013 release of MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style and the 1960s by Duke University Press.]


Written by Faith Wilson Stein (Comparative Literature)

The tenth episode of Mad Men’s fourth season, “Hands and Knees,” has, as in previous years, depicted various characters’ relationships (the filial in particular) coming to a reckoning. In Season One’s “Long Weekend,” Roger’s heart attack brings him back to his wife and daughter, while it drives Don to seek comfort with Rachel, with whom he shares some of the seedier details of his background, telling her, “You know everything about me.” Meanwhile, Betty, unaware of her husband’s affair with the department store heiress, is chafing at the presence of a new girlfriend in her father’s life. Season Two’s “The Inheritance” brings Betty and Don to her father’s house, their marriage seemingly set to end, only for the pain and stress of Gene’s post-stroke condition to prompt an assignation that results in pregnancy and a temporary forestalling of divorce. In last year’s “The Color Blue,” the secretive plan to sell Sterling Cooper to another agency is revealed, while one of the show’s central points of narrative tension—the prospect of Betty’s discovering Don’s false identity—comes to a head.

This week’s episode revisited several of these markers—Roger’s heart problems; a serious threat to Sterling Cooper’s existence; an unintended and inconvenient pregnancy; and, of course, Don’s possible exposure as a fraud and deserter. In hurtling forward with various plotlines, the episode made up for the narrative pauses taken in “The Suitcase” (Season 4, Episode 7) and “The Summer Man” (Season 4, Episode 8), mood pieces that featured more overtly artistic gestures–such as the appearance of a spectral Anna and Don’s voiceover—than the show had previously indulged. At the same time, the near total absence of actual “ad talk” (as well as Peggy) would seem to stress interpersonal thematics over the more philosophical consideration of advertising’s harnessing of creativity in order to invent and stoke desire. Still, several instances of parallelism throughout the episode underscore that, as always, the viewer is being sold something: the show itself as a product, yes, but also, (as Don once told Peggy, and as last week’s post on wordplay also noticed), “You, feeling something. That’s what sells.”

The opening exchange between Roger and Joan—she practical as ever while he indulges in his own personal salesmanship (whether “the tenderloin of your distress” is a greeting she finds charming is anyone’s guess)—establishes the episode’s central theme: the power of fatherhood, from the literal to the symbolic, and the need to grapple with it. We see Don winning back Sally’s affection with tickets to the Beatles concert at Shea Stadium. (One hopes that despite her precocity, at 10 years old she has not yet developed a sense of irony, acute or otherwise). This explicit reference to the “British Invasion” is overdue for a show so richly packed with cultural history, and it is cheekily followed by an English incursion on a much smaller scale, as Lane, still holding the gifts with which he’d hoped to charm his own child, is surprised by his imperious father.

In this three-part beginning, the issue of Roger’s paternity (pun regrettably intended) is a problem to be eliminated; Don’s shoddiness as a father is at once ameliorated and confirmed with his bribery; and Lane is denied the chance to act like a doting father and is instead put in the position of humbled son. (Note as well how the revelation that Roger “inherited” the Lucky Strike account, and his rolodex of dead clients, further attests to his shortcomings as a procurer of accounts in his own right.)

The transition to the meeting with North American Aviation and the encounter it entails with the Department of Defense sets up the episode’s figurative filial tensions. Pete, abandoned by Don in California back in Season 2, has nurtured the account “from cocktail napkins to four million dollars”; and yet, when the threat is raised of Don’s leaving the agency (indeed, leaving the life of “Don Draper” entirely), Pete, like Joan, has to “get rid of it.” (The added irony, of course, is that Pete is himself an expectant father as a very pregnant Trudy can't but remind him.) While Don has previously acted as a withholding father figure to Pete, the looming threat of government sanction (not to mention Lee Garner Jr.’s sudden removal of SCDP’s Lucky Strike lifeline) is a form of paternalistic punishment far more frightening than mere interpersonal resentments.

For Don, the possibility of needing to relinquish the responsibilities of “Don Draper”—the claims of paternity in both literal and figurative senses—is perhaps his most basic fear and desire. Having abandoned “Dick Whitman” and all his ties and obligations, Don is at once the inheritor of the real Lieutenant Draper’s legacy as well as the ultimate self-made man: the “father” of his own identity.

But the professional life Don has built for himself once again threatens the persona it has bolstered and vice versa. The Department of Defense agents who question Betty are investigating possible Communist links, and yet, while Don is no socialist, their line of inquiry cuts to the very heart of her fractured relationship with her ex-husband, crystallizing his character and the central questions of the show. Is Don Draper a man of “integrity”? Is he “loyal”? Harking back to this season’s opening line (“Who is Don Draper?”), the G-men ask Betty if there is any reason to suspect that her former husband “isn’t who he says he is.” Is there any answer that Betty could have given to those questions that wouldn’t, on one level or another, be untrue?

In Season One, Roger’s cardiac distress precipitated Don’s seeking confession and comfort with a woman; this time, however, the transition requires the viewer to connect the dots as the scenes shift. For the second time this season, Don is ill in front of a woman, left vulnerable and exposed. But whereas Don’s revelations to Peggy were limited, his confession to Faye divulges more of his true history, linking physical purging to a disgorging of his sins. Nonetheless, the intimacy it would seem to create between him and Faye feels tenuous. By contrast, the other couples in the episode give the impression of greater stability, perhaps precisely because they do not share their secrets. Trudy, to whom Pete does not tell the story of Don’s identity, assures him, “Everything’s good here.” The line recalls Betty’s statement to Henry at the end of “The Summer Man”: “We have everything.” Although Betty doesn’t tell Henry the full truth regarding the Department of Defense’s questions about Don, she appears content with Henry in the promise, however false, that there are no secrets between them.

Lane’s father, in an act of horrifying violence, brings his son to the “hands and knees” evoked in the title of the episode, commanding his child—who has fallen in love with a woman of color—to “put [his] home in order.” Despite the brutality of the moment, the truth of his admonishment rings clear: “Either here or there. You will not live in between.” Here or there, New York or London, Don or Dick, abased honesty or contented secrets. While Roger’s health might attest to the disadvantages of keeping damning information to oneself, the eventual exposure of everything is apparently no less messy and leaves one prostrate on the floor--seemingly destined to return to a previous state of reserved lies.

The episode nears its conclusion with Faye standing in Don’s open office doorway, uttering innocuous professionalisms to cover over the intimacies they had been sharing moments prior (even while their office romance is another secret Pete has discovered). Faye’s faked exit parallels Joan’s behavior with Roger in the opening scene and suggests that the brutal underside of their relationships – the need to abort what one has conceived and to vomit up the fundamental lie at the center of one’s life – bubble up beneath the faked detachment necessary to maintain the professional status quo.

Finally, through the open office door, we see Megan and, then, we see Don seeing Megan. Looking up from the Beatles tickets he had anxiously checked on throughout the episode, he stares at her, wearing a wholly inscrutable look. Is he in awe of her youth and ingenuousness, unencumbered by the knowledge of who he truly is? Is that then a source of lust? Would she tell him that everything is good here? Or if he told, would she promise that (as Anna told him in the third episode of this season), she knows everything about him, and still loves him? Does a relationship founded on truth hold the same appeal to Don that it once did, or does he desire guilelessness and the patched together resolution of a clerical error that appears to have been fixed?

We close with the Beatles’ “Do You Want to Know a Secret” (a song they did not actually play at Shea Stadium), but it is an instrumental version. The episode is bookended with this legendary band, for whom young girls screamed as though instantly forgetting the mistakes of the men in their lives. Yet we do not hear the actual words entreating us to listen, asking if we want to know a secret.

The weight of knowing, the responsibility of taking ownership over those secrets, is perhaps too much to bear. Maybe we should get rid of it.


Make A Comment


Rob Rushing said...

Great post: I continue to be amazed at how tightly and richly organized the episodes by theme, and this does a great job of unpacking them. I would love to contribute a little gem of close reading to elaborate further the various pregnancies, abortions, fatherhoods, and subjugations showcased in "Hands and Knees," but I can't think of any that you've missed. I do think that final look is lust, but surely Don knows enough to recognize that Megan's pose is just that—a perfect profile, artfully rendered, designed to seduce while appearing as a voyeuristic accident.

Jez B. said...

Nice post. I think you got everything but the "chocolate bunny" line.

Stacey said...

Thanks for the great post! I have nothing to add: you've captured the episode beautifully. But I do have one nagging question: Joan didn't have that abortion, did she?

Urk said...

Ahh, I don't think she did either! "We averted a tragedy."

FWS said...

Thank you!

Jez B., I’ve been mulling over Lane and Toni. MM’s representations of race relations have certainly been sparse - though perhaps all the more authentic for that. But it’s interesting that two of the most prominent depictions have been via interracial romantic relationships (and both being white men with black women). Lane is more sympathetic than Paul ever was - at least his motives seem more sincere and less tinged with “Look how progressive I am! I have a beard AND an African-American girlfriend!” - but his earnestness makes him a bit more pathetic. Between his “Chocolate Bunny” comment and Trudy’s uncanny resemblance to a cupcake in that maternity nightie, the episode’s significant others rather gave me a toothache.

Stacey and Urk, I highly doubt that Joan didn’t have the abortion. She’s far too practical; to her, the “tragedy” would likely be unemployment, single motherhood while her husband’s away, and the threat of gossip and/or exposure.

Lauren said...

Faith--thanks for this very rich post.

I agree that Lane is much less the poser than Paul K. It would be nice though, to get more of the girlfriend's perspective; something we almost but never quite got with Sheila (Paul's African-American gf). Is that what you meant Jez B?

I have to say that I'm with Urk and Stacey in anticipating (I'd go as far as 60/40) that Joan decided not to go ahead with another "procedure" after being reminded of her childlessness by the mom in the doc office. (I suspect it's why she went alone.)

You're right Faith that Joan is super-practical. But one thing to consider, perhaps, is that Mad Men is more melodramatic this season than in any prior one. (I also half expect Peggy to have an affair with Joyce--though I give that only 25/75)!

I think it's part of the difficulty of sustaining a narrative built around the fraudulent "secret" of Don's identity even while that secret has been repeatedly outed. In S1 it was Pete's knowing and Bert's not caring; in S2 we learned of Anna's having long ago discovered it; in S3 Betty learns and does care (and presumably a lawyer or two? Henry?).

Don's "secret" identity has been so metaphorically fertile and so central to his characterization--it is by now structurally hard-wired into every aspect of the show --that the trick becomes finding new ways to keep revealing a secret while sustaining the fiction that it remains a secret. By now I think the trick can't be done without the excess of melodrama. Thus, the device of Megan's filling out the form in this episode (and Don's refusing to consult a lawyer on the matter of his desertion--despite his having the bucks to get the very best advice).

We would think by now half of Manhattan and great swathes of Westchester know that Don has a hidden past. Instead we're given the impression that Betty has never told Henry, that Pete has never told Trudy: which as Faith's post points out, creates the enjoyable frisson of people holding back secrets--not to mention G-men look-alikes popping out of corners to occasion panic attacks if not actual coronaries. This is pure melodrama: indicative of a different phase of MM after the dissolution of the Draper marriage and all the secrets it contained.

And what about SCDP? Will it all start over again in California as Rob pondered a few weeks back????

As to Don's look at the end of the episode: I'm with Rob on it being lust. And I think Rob's right that Don knows it's a seduction. But then Don loves being seduced (so long as the approach is subtle). That kiss on the hand and all those delayed trysts seem like clear signs that Faye is entering the terrain of his fair-haired domestic goddess...from whom there must always be something kept back like secrets and betrayals. And since he's more or less told Faye the secret, and has cut down on his drinking and smoking, will Don manage to be a good boy now? Or is that question as obvious as the "Who is Don Draper?" question we started with?

zina said...

The episode is about secrets - but not secrets kept, rather about secrets disclosed. Not only does for the first time Don tell a (sanitized) version of his story without being forced to do so to Faye, he has to ask Pete for help, and then revive the secret that Pete had essentially forgotten (he certainly did not think about it when he learned about the security clearance).

In the first scene, Don asks Sally "Can you keep a secret?" When he tells her about the concert, she performs the Beatlemania little girl scream - so I guess that no, she cannot keep a secret, she breaks it in the open in the most spectacular way.

She is not the only one, her father cannot keep his secret anymore. This is in keeping with the season theme of breaking down boundaries and walls. This is also the conundrum of a narrative built around a secret: it has to be disclosed to advance the narrative - but at one point has it been disclosed so often as to cease being a secret?

Maybe it has to be displaced: the real secret in Don's story is not his identity theft, but rather his self-loathing that was was at the forefront this season: psycho-dramatic rather than melodramatic.

Next week episode in titled Chinese Wall, so I guess that it will explore more directly the theme of the boundaries and their breaking down.

The real secrets are the ones that the show keeps from us, and that at this moment of the season have become precise questions: Will Joan have a baby? (My guess is no). Will SCDP survive? If so, how? Will Pete become even more powerful by the end of the season? (of course he will). Is Megan a red herring or will she be to Don what Jane is to Roger (they do have the same physical type)?

I don't think that the merry crew will move to California, if only because the production has spent good money on new sets for the office and Don's apartment. It is not rich enough to do that each season. Mad Men is not a wealthy production. As an example, the pilot for Boardwalk Empire has cost about $30M - about as much as a whole season of Mad Men (about $2.5 per episode).

Jez B. said...

Lauren, I'm not sure if what you said is exactly what I meant but it could be. It's a memorable phrase but I'm not sure if it's worth discussion.

Lauren said...

Yes, Jez B. memorable and doubtless well worth discussion.

Zina, great insights as always. Yes, psycho-drama (which can be melodramatic or not). MM has always had its comic and tragic modes, both psycho-dramatic. It still does in this season only now I think tinged with melodrama (esp. in this last episode) by which I mainly mean more excess (you have perhaps read Peter Brooks on this topic, for example?)

Faith, that was quite a nightie!

fab said...

"Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned." All that one of these ladies has to do is place an anonymous call to the FBI and there goes Don becoming Dick. actually i have done court-martial cases for desertion against soldiers who have refused to go into wars of aggression or to commit war crimes as matters of principle. See my book Protesting Power:War, Resistance and Law (Rowman and Littlefield 2008). Dick/Don clearly deserted and he would be facing 5 years at least, and there is no statute of limitation since desertion is considered to be a continuing offense. The best he could do is hire a civilian lawyer with substantial military law experience, who would approach the Pentagon and offer to bring Dick/Don in from the cold by means of a plea bargain. not sure what the Pentagon would offer in return. but it seems to me that since Dick/Don cannot keep his pants on, it's only a question of time until some jilted woman makes that call. It could be Faye? now that she knows the secret and Dick/Don is lusting after his new secretary, she could do it once she realizes she's been had. Remember how distraught she was talking in the phone booth to some other man? Dick/Don overheard that conversation, knew she was vulnerable, and decided to pounce on her--a real sexual predator if there ever was one.

Jez B. said...

FAB, How does Faye know? She doesn't see what we see (unless she watches Mad Men).

Blogger said...

Are you paying more than $5 / pack of cigarettes? I buy my cigarettes over at Duty Free Depot and this saves me over 60%.