Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 4.8
"The Hail Mary Pass"

Monday, September 13, 2010

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism
[The next in our multi-authored series of posts on the fourth season of Mad Men, posted prior to the publication of MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style and the 1960s by Duke University Press, is by Adam Kotsko, visiting professor of Religion at Kalamazoo College and author of a forthcoming book, Awkwardness. Kotsko is also a blogger at An und fur sich]


Written by Adam Kotsko (Kalamazoo College)

I was jealous that I wasn’t the one to write on the last episode, which was arguably one of the best of the series. Even more, though, I was worried about writing on the episode immediately after one of Don’s epiphanies, because the writers have a habit of making Don backslide as quickly as possible. Thankfully, they avoided that signature gesture this time, with a result that was low-key but satisfying.

Coming off an episode that focused on the relationship between Don and Peggy, the writers maintain that focus, organizing the narrative around parallel plots involving each of them. The two only come back together when Peggy decides to take care of the raucous boys—a group so obnoxious that it strained credulity to think that anyone would act like that at work—and Don advises her that she’ll be better off if she resolves the problem herself.

Alan Sepinwall claims that Joan’s response to Peggy shows that Don’s advice was wrong, but I would argue instead that it shows the intrinsically impossible position Peggy is in, the dynamic where asserting greater authority in the male context only alienates her further from women. She could perhaps choose a more “feminine” mode of authority, but when her primary examples are that are Bobbie Barrett and the tragically diminished Joan, one can hardly blame her for taking Don’s advice.

In the rest of this post, however, I would like to focus on Don’s storyline, which is the episode’s real emotional center of gravity. Throughout this season, which to me has often felt scattered and disappointing, I have been thinking back on season two. Watching it one episode at a time, I was just as dissatisfied, but when I rewatched it in a couple days in preparation for Season 3, everything seemed to fall together. I wrote an article in the wake of that experience, arguing that the writers cycle through a variety of ways for Don to approach his identity. Having saved his identity as Don Draper from the threats posed by his brother and Pete, Don does everything he can to ensure that no similar crisis can happen again. Yet as Don tries and fails to control his personal brand, his life slowly falls apart, leading him to return to the zero-point of his current identity: the home of Anna Draper, who knows him as Dick Whitman and graciously gives him permission to use the identity he stole. In a symbolic baptism scene, he accepts the gift of Don Draper’s identity and returns home to find a variety of other gifts: a half million dollars, a legal loophole that allows him to maintain his creative integrity and humiliate his rival Duck, and an unexpected pregnancy that brings Betty back to his arms.

If Season 2 portrays the breakdown of Don’s strategy of trying to unilaterally control his identity, Season 3 undercuts the newfound strategy of receiving everything as a gift. His serendipitous relationship with Conrad Hilton blows up in his face, as does his devastating self-revelation to Betty. The season concludes with one of those inspired Hail Mary passes that define Don’s sociopathic genius—just as he seized control of his destiny by stealing Don Draper’s dog tags and accepting symbolic death, here he steals the Sterling Cooper identity from the British firm that is about to sell them, and condemn him to creative stagnation.

That season finale was one of the most invigorating episodes of the series, and in the wake of that, the first half of this season has felt like a gratuitous evacuation of everything appealing about Don. Instead of a suave seducer, Don became a pathetic drunk living in a dark apartment, hiring a prostitute to punish him for his transgressions. In fact, he became embarrassing to watch, with his inept attempts to pick up women, his violation of seemingly his only moral principle (don’t sleep with the secretary!), and his needy attempt to come up with a slogan for Life Cereal off the top of his head. When it’s revealed that Anna, his sole emotional anchor, has cancer, it seems clear that he is somehow going to find a way to go even further downhill—yet exactly the opposite happens. Why?

I think that the key is found in the swimming pool. Many have pointed out the apparent parallel to John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer”; I believe that the real reference for the swimming pool is actually the aforementioned baptism scene from Season 2 ("The Mountain King"). The contrast is between letting the waves wash over him and fighting his own way through the water. The waves, we could say, are Anna’s love—as she says in Episode 3 ("Good News"), “I know everything about you, and I still love you.” Taking the two halves of that sentence, we could say that, based on last week's episode, "The Suitcase," Peggy represents the person who doesn’t know everything about him and still loves him—and the person who knows everything about him and doesn’t love him is Don himself. Anna doesn’t just love Don, she loves Don for Don (or, rather, Dick for Dick), taking the place of Don’s own self-love. In exchange, Don takes care of her, just as he doesn’t take care of himself.

The reason Don’s bold gesture at the end of Season 3 doesn’t finally work, might be best summed up by paraphrasing a famous quote from former Iraqi Information Minister Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf: “Don doesn’t control his destiny, he doesn’t even control himself.” Don can’t control his public image unless he can gain some kind of control over his internal life. Viewers might see Don’s moments of weakness as a humanizing gesture, but it’s important to attend to the content of those self-revelations. His moments of letting the mask down consistently reveal little other than self-pity, defensiveness, and panic—and his loss of control over his life and subsequent loss of control of his drinking have allowed all that to bubble up to the surface. The loss of his last life-preserver, Anna, could easily have resulted in him drowning, but instead he decided to learn to swim. In what might a bit of a stretch, we could say that just as he takes over the real Don Draper’s life when the latter dies, so he takes over Anna’s role of loving him when she dies.

This reversal is less striking than his two dramatic acts of identity theft and the end of Seasons 2 and 3 respectively, but it is arguably more extreme: for a man who has built an entire life out of a string of lucky breaks, and two or three moments of genuine inspiration, a turn toward introspection and self-control may be the greatest Hail Mary pass of them all.


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fab said...

i admit that with my foreign travels i have not been able to keep up with all the episodes--and my kids handle the vcr, not me. but i would like to call attention to the fact that this episode started with "I can't get no satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones. This song was emblematic of my generation. By using it i think the producers intend to say that the series is now definitely entering into the Sixties, as we call it today. In addition, comes the TV program in the background reporting the first publicly acknowledged combat by US Forces in Vietnam. so these are two not so subtle signals of the future direction of the series.i still remember those 2 events myself, having lived through them as a young man and being subject to the draft.

bianca steele said...

I can't entirely agree that Joan is right, and I wonder if the scene between Joan and Peggy suggests that the gender-based division of labor Joan is comfortable with requires, well, a gender-based division of labor. She can hardly expect to manage women doing "men's" jobs in the same way she managed secretaries, just because they are women and she is the senior woman. (The next female copywriter will not look to Joan for a role model, and for that matter Peggy is not a threat as far as the secretaries are concerned.)

I can more or less imagine Joan going off on that Vietnam rant in a bar, but I don't see the Joan of the earlier seasons talking to any of her coworkers like that. (I'm a little dubious about this week's episode generally.)

Jez B. said...

@bianca steele I didn't take the episode to be saying that Joan was "right". And I think Adam Kotsko must agree with you. I'm not dubious about the episode though. They are mixing it up with the writing this season. Different experiments. But Joan is maybe going through a hard time with the Vietnam thing and even if she never went off on a rant in the office she was never provoked like that either, right?

bianca steele said...

I think Joan is going through a hard time generally, and it's difficult to say exactly why. It's too easy to say she's getting older and out of sync with the era (as Don is, also). She got a great promotion and has almost everything she wants at work, but ... she really only had a very narrow view of what goes on there. We've seen that her expectations for marriage were unrealistic (as well as unlucky. We haven't ever seen her wrong at work (except, possibly, for now), and I wonder whether that's as unrealistic as Don's continual lucky breaks.

If one of "Joan's girls" had been half as aggressive toward the men in the office as she was here, I think, Joan would have read her the riot act. She went against her own principles (unless she doesn't think those men count).

Maybe this gives us notice that Joan has changed, but I don't know. (On the other hand, this is the third time in as many weeks that Don has told Peggy to solve a problem with her "underlings" herself.)

Sandy said...

I don't have the total recall for detail of previous seasons that many of the posters here do, but isn't this episode the first one with a voiceover that gives us access to Don's thoughts? Perhaps the loss of Anna will allow him more intimacy with us, anyway, even if he seems unwilling to be intimate with the women in his life.

Also, about Joan, I think she is jealous of Peggy.

Jez B. said...

Your memory is correct Sandy. There has never been anything like a voiceover. I doubt it will continue though. I thought he was pretty intimate with Miller, actually. Not to mention Peggy last week.

Jez B. said...

@bianca steele Aren't you assuming that Joan's goal was ever to be a career woman? When has that ever been true. We may think she's good at her job and she likes to feel that but in her mind success has always been a successful marriage and a kid (like when Francine tells betty she has it all). That's why Joan is so different from Peggy. she is jealous too (I agree with Sandy.) But jealous even though she actually wants something else (or maybe just thinks she does)

Adam Kotsko said...

Re: Joan's ambitions -- there was the time when she was recruited to read all the TV scripts and was really disappointed when they hired a man to take her place. Maybe not as ambitious as Peggy, but once she got a taste of a more substantive contribution to the business, she enjoyed it.

jms said...

Peggy represents the person who doesn’t know everything about him and still loves him—and the person who knows everything about him and doesn’t love him is Don himself. Anna doesn’t just love Don, she loves Don for Don . . . taking the place of Don’s own self-love. In exchange, Don takes care of her, just as he doesn’t take care of himself.

This is a great insight, and beautifully put.

spyder said...

Swimming to selfhood? For me, the entire episode came down to the pool, and just how poorly that scene was scripted and produced. It was as poorly produced as the scene where Betty is laying in bed apologizing for her behavior the night before, beginning with an affect that made no sense, until, somehow, after some cut, it completely changed and worked with the scene. The swimming scene was supposed to be significant, and revealing of the effort of rehabilitation for Don. So why make it so contrived?

Jon Hamm was a swimmer in high school, a fact that is easily showed in his efficient freestyle stroke. The indoor pool was 25 years, and he was already half way down the pool when the other swimmer, in the next lane, came up on him at a faster pace, swimming just as efficiently. If you witnessed Phelps losing against Lochte, you know that the slower paced swimmer, no matter how good he is, cannot recover that quickly to up-rate a pace, to beat the other swimmer to the wall in 10 yards. Further, the other swimmer would have not performed a hand turn if he intended to keep going (he could have easily seen who was next to him underwater), but done a flip turn, if he was ostensibly as good as that swimmer was supposed to have been.

Yes, i was a swimmer, a pretty good one, who had my best university years in the mid-60s. I don't like seeing swimming used to make points like this because it is never done right. Cheever's The Swimmer is mentioned in several reviews, evoking the book as yet another metaphor of process and growth. The movie was terrible; it was really a laughing stock of swimmers in the 60s. Mostly because we all could have made similar journeys in our neighborhoods, jumping from pool to pool to pool (we often did). {self-promotional tragedy, several of us long-distance swimmers, at UCLA, worked with Burt Landcaster so he could swim in the movie}

My point is that if swimming is so damned important to the plot line, try to at least do it with realism and authority.

e said...

I am pleased with this rundown about Don's identity. It is very insightful. However, the gender story of this episode was so much more striking to me and my husband. I prefer an interpretation that is sympathetic to both Joan and Peggy. That is, they are both right.

The extreme sexism of the "boys" matches what we may hear now in bars, on blogs, over a smoky barbecue. We are shocked because we are accustomed to enforcing laws against that behavior at work. Therefore, A) please see Sady Doyle's Atlantic piece about how the sexism on Mad Men is about now, not then. And B) the general social chaos of the 60s is evident in the breakdown of the previous strictures ("behaving gentlemanly") that held public sexism (tenuously) in check. Peggy and Joan are both dealing with public behavior that makes apparent what they both already knew about the status of women. Joan has dealt with this by competing with women and seducing men, at least symbolically. Peggy has dealt with this by competing with men, and now she is managing men. They have to change their methods to adjust to the new (lack of) social order, but Joan doesn't have the emotional wherewithal to do so. Her methods of dealing with the status of women have left her with only one friend, her husband, who had raped her at work before they were married. And now he is headed to Vietnam, and she is anxious to begin the one path to legitimacy she has left: motherhood. Peggy has a budding friendship with Don, as well as with the bohemians from a few episodes ago. She has already been a mother (she gave her baby away, Joan had two abortions.) Both postponed having children, and now Joan is losing her chance at both professional and feminine/personal legitimacy.

My heart breaks for Joan, and I think simplifying this situation as Joan being jealous of Peggy is reductive to the characters and reinforces the subordinated state of women, who have had to compete with each other for scarce social resources, instead of competing with men on an even field.

Jez B. said...

what "e" said (though Joan's jealousy is the product of it)

Lauren said...

(Post 1 of 2) This is such an interesting analysis, Adam; thanks so much for taking part in the series. I like the idea of the "Hail Mary pass" as a metaphor for the lucky breaks Don has enjoyed at many points. (One quibble: do you think that Anna gave him the "gift" of Draper's identity at the end of S2; that is, didn't she give him that gift long before?)

spyder: I understand your annoyance at the lack of realism in the depiction of swimming. Knowing nothing about swimming I'm far from the best person to judge. But I do offer some thoughts about narrative realism which is a topic I think about all the time.

One of the things that most interested me about this episode was the novel use of voiceover; something like a first-person narration in a novel. First-person narration can be used in novels that are realist in some degree (an example is Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre which is mainly realist but migrates into gothic at various points). But because they are so subjective, first-person narrators often create opportunities to push the boundaries of realism--or even to jump outside of it altogether. Realist fiction tends to be narrated by omniscient narrators that enhance the appearance of objectivity by minimizing the visibility of their own activities in a way that can be likened to the camera or the direction in a televised narrative. If you think about the kind of TV dramas that Mad Men most resembles (say, the Sopranos or Breaking Bad), they do not use first-person voiceover. Interestingly, Dexter does : doubtless because Dexter’s narration makes it possible for us to overcome the inclination to distance ourselves from a serial killer.

Lauren said...

(Post 2 of 2)
Mad Men has been brilliant in its characterization of a main protagonist who is in many ways unsympathetic and remarkably non-introspective. One of the main things Don has conveyed about himself, verbally and non-verbally, is that he does not want to talk or think about himself. So the conceit of his writing a kind of diary (almost as though he were in an AA program and had been counseled to reflect more on his thoughts) changed not only the narrative form of Mad Men, but also Don’s characterization: making him seem more thoughtful. I think this may be why some viewers have found the episode dubious or at least strange.

I read this change (which like Jez B. I imagine will be temporary) as the way the writers have found to halt the alcoholic tailspin they’ve created for Don so far in this season. Who knows? maybe like many real-life alcoholics he will have a relapse. But it seems as though metaphorically we are meant to understand that Don’s swimming has provided the opportunity for another rebirth which (as Adam points out) is parallel to the Pacific baptism at the end of S2, but signifies Don’s reckoning with his post-divorce life.

So, spyder, I guess what I’m offering here is the possibility that the swimming—like the diary writing and other aspects of this condensed renewal—are not realist in any conventional sense. We haven’t seen Don go through anything like a 12-step program or any other psychologically accurate rendering of what an actual person might go through as they pull back from chronic alcoholism. What we get instead is the remarkable contrast between two laps of swimming.

And what this paves the way for at the emotional level is something we’ve been led to expect for a long time: Don’s finally having some success with Faye. The interlude in the taxi between them, following on the several we’ve seen with Bethany, was awesome. We are asked to believe that Don now occupies a subject position somewhat analogous to Bethany’s: i.e., he wants to make the relationship with Faye work and so he’s not ready actually to sleep with her (even though she hints that she might be). And the reason isn’t instrumental (as it arguably is with Bethany who subscribes to the “nice girl” practice of courtship—and has found a way to try to game that system a little in the last episode). The reason ostensibly is that really wants to be close to Faye.

All along the show has proffered the prospect of Don as a better man. Will this have any traction? If so, spyder, then swimming with have been the metaphor that enabled it.

I have some other thoughts on the mechanism through which Faye finally become willing to give Don a try (which I found disappointing). But as “e”’s post already makes clear, Mad Men’s interesting stuff about women is working out in Peggy/Joan office terrain. I’m not sure that we’ll ever get a romantic partner for Don as interesting as Rachel was in S1 and (in a very different way) Bobbie Barrett in Season 2.

Lauren said...

Sorry for the typos above: that was supposed to be. "Will this have any traction? If so, spyder, then swimming WILL have been the metaphor that enabled it."

Adam Kotsko said...

Lauren, To answer your question -- yes, Anna gave the gift long ago, but Don wasn't always able to treat it as a gift. His first impulse when she confronts him at the car dealership is to offer to pay her off, and that basic stance seems to be the overarching trait of their relationship for Don (even if it becomes mostly unconscious as they develop a genuinely close relationship).

Talking about Faye, my co-blogger jms has posted a great analysis of her character in relation to Peggy and Joan.

Lauren said...

Adam, I'm not sure how you can say that (about Don's stance toward Anna) when S2 begins with his sending her Frank O'Hara's "Meditations in an Emergency." It is one of the wonderful embedded narrative details of that season: that we think he has sent it to Rachel and we learn eventually that it is to Anna (because she mentions having read it in "The Mountain King").

I will look forward to jms's analysis of Faye; thanks for posting it.

Rob Rushing said...

Perhaps it's not entirely fair, but voice-over has long been considered in cinema studies as "cheating," a sign of poor writing or insufficient acting—the idea is that you ought to be able to portray the thoughts, ideas and emotions in more properly "cinematic" ways (dialogue, facial expressions, mise-en-scene, and so on. This may be that it is essentially a narrative technique, one that relies on the movements and tempo of storytelling; so that, as Lauren points out, we learn all we need to know about Don's "recovery" (temporary, I hope) in the difference between a lap in the pool at the beginning, and a different lap at the end.

These are clearly, as Adam notes, symbolic baptisms, perhaps somewhat obvious ones, in which Don immerses himself in a non-alcoholic liquid for a change. I'm not sure I want Don to be a better man, however, just as I feel a certain ambivalence about our forward movement in history, since the a pleasure of the show is watching their absurd boozing at work. In Zizekian terms,it is the (my) enjoyment of their symptoms, a stubborn refusal to give up their bad habits and a rejection of any form of therapy or healing.

Finally, Joan is made to suffer—literally made to, since it is the function of her character: Hendricks has been tremendously effective at conveying a woman of tremendous public style, authority and physical appeal who suffers terribly and constantly in private. She's so good at it that I don't think the show wastes many opportunities to showcase it, including her venomous comments to Peggy in the elevator—which are only explicable as an expression of the impossible position she finds herself in all the time.

Lauren said...

Nice take on Joan's suffering Rob. I entirely agree--but it's also true (as I'm guessing you'll agree) that for all her private suffering she enjoys her public persona quite a lot of the time.

I want to clarify a distinction I didn't successfully make in my last comment between Don's becoming a better man (a possibility that has been dangled in front of us before and which I doubt), and his ceasing to be an almost entirely dysfunctional alcoholic. While I do suspect that the symbolic work of this episode suggests that he is pretty much done with the latter phase of his post-divorce decline, I am as doubtful as ever that he will ever truly be "better"--esp. if what's meant by that is a truthful and faithful husband or partner.

I think that's probably why I was a little disappointed with the device of Faye's break-up overheard on the phone. The show built our interest in the character by presenting her as that rare woman ready to describe DD as a type--and a type to avoid at that--and now it has sort of suggested that behind all of those seemingly savvy misgivings there was an existing relationship holding her back.

In terms of my enjoyment I'll be very content to see Don return to something closer to his old self (so that "recovery" wouldn't have to mean anything like the abstinence that it typically means to actual alcoholics). But I think that my Zizekian zeal might take a dive if "The Summer Man" became a model boyfriend--which is too much to ask from a swim, no matter how symbolically resonant.

zina said...

It is the first time that I found the Don parts far less compelling than the other parts of the show, especially the Joan-Peggy showdown, but also the Betty-Henry (and Francine!) dealings. Something did not work for me. Maybe the voice-over technique (is it the "cheating", lazy aspect that Rob mentioned?), or the content of Don's ruminations - the Deep Thoughts (we think this, we want that) that also felt lazy to me. In all his scenes with Bethany, Don's persona becomes distinctly unpleasant, and this episode was no exception. All this makes me very skeptical that a better Don is going to materialize anytime soon - which is, I suppose, good for the show. In relation to Don, Faye looks closer to Bobbie Barrett than to Rachel Mencken, which is good too.

Lauren said...

I am curious Zina (not because what you say is implausible in the least but only because I always love to know what people find works and not) what aspect of those scenes with Bethany you found "distinctly unpleasant."

I often find that scenes involving Joan or Peggy or Pete and Trudy (etc.) will "steal the show." But in a way that's predictable since those characters' narratives don't develop as completely as Don's. Don's story is the most diachronically sustained (Betty's used to be as well when it was entwined with his but no longer); whereas (for better or worse) we tend the get our exposure to the other characters through these intense glimpses that are often quite powerful.

zina said...

Lauren, I find the character of Don when he is with Bethany to be a sort of caricature of the Don of yore. His confidence and charm have become condescension and smugness. I bet that it is entirely deliberate: Jon Hamm plays Don differently when he is with Bethany than with any other character. I am not sure what it means, in the same way that I am not sure why he keeps dating her. He asks her out after being soit-disant reborn in the swimming-pool, so she might be significant. It would all make sense if it turns out in the season finale that he marries her, and we discover that rather than becoming a new and improved Don, he has become a new Roger Sterling.

Lauren said...

That is v. interesting, Zina. Thanks for the reply. I think how I see it is that he knows that a) she is too young for him to take seriously and b) he is not really interested in being serious about someone like her even though _she_ is only interested in dating someone who willing to think ahead to marriage. But,yes, you're right: the end result is a kind of smugness (and the condescension is perhaps partly ours as well as his since, as with Jane, I think we're supposed to think of B. as slightly risible and shallow). I think you're also right that he would be become a new Roger if he were to marry her--and it's funny you should mention that since the idea of writing some kind of memoir is also Roger's (which I had thought while watching but had forgotten it till you brought Roger up).

Swimming-wise, I guess you might say that he asks her out after the first lap (IIRC) whereas he dines with Faye after the second, so that his asking B out doesn't perhaps represent the full-blown "re-birth", such as it is.

Thanks again.

Sandy said...

On voiceover: Rob is right that voiceover is considered a lazy narrational technique (see the ironic reference to that when Charlie Kaufman attends Robert McKee's seminar in ADAPTATION), but it is also considered a technique that can be effective in attaching us to characters whom we otherwise might reject or at least be uncomfortable with. That's why I find it so interesting that we get this voiceover technique now when the previous episodes might have alienated us from Don.