Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 4.11
"Chinese Wall"

Monday, October 4, 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 byDuke University Press, is by Caroline Levine, professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison]


Written by Caroline Levine (English, University of Wisconsin-Madison)

“Chinese Wall” is one of those rich and pivotal episodes that prompt me to want to look back over the whole series. From the beginning, one of the things that I have loved about Mad Men is the way that it makes us long for fulfilling professional work for women. The first season sees the dawning of Peggy’s ambition for challenging, creative labor, which never fades. Later we also see Betty’s hunger for a life as a professional when she has the briefest of stints as a model, and feel Joan’s devastating sense of loss when her work as a script reader comes to an abrupt end.

In Mad Men, satisfying labor is an object of desire for women every bit as intense as erotic love. Meanwhile, of course, we also see how barren and terrifying the opposite can be: men who succeed in the workplace still find something appallingly missing. Rudderless, empty, they reach for the bottle as a substitute for something they can’t even name.

As events come to a crisis, this episode brilliantly explodes the distinction between love and work, men and women, personal and professional, and in the process it makes it clear that these distinctions were never really there in the first place. Business is love. It is a thirty-year relationship that comes abruptly to an end because it hasn’t gotten enough attention. It is the seduction of clients; it is the wooing of new talent; it involves the constant threat of infidelity and loss; it rests on attentiveness, feeling, intimate knowledge, and contact. At the funeral, one mourner honors the dead man’s wife by thanking her for relinquishing him to the office: “You were there before he made partner, and then you gave him to us.” Another relishes the memory of “going home with Buick.” Work is, as Don says to Faye, “everything to me.”

Mad Men flirts with the idea that this kind of love is best left to women. After all, as SCDP faces its own mortality, what just might save the business is “a woman’s touch.” In one quick and skillful presentation, Peggy dazzles the client by making latex gloves feel romantic. “I didn’t think it was possible,” he says. But of course we know that this skill is not reserved for women. Don has always been at his very best when love is what he is selling. His pitching of the Kodak carousel is one of the great Mad Men scenes, and Peggy deliberately borrows Don’s poetic strategies for Playtex. Advertising routinely draws on sentiment—nostalgia, tenderness, and romance—which means that a woman’s touch is what Don has had all along.

So business is love: seductions and break-ups, romance and the pain of loss. But in this episode business also competes with love, and we viewers might find ourselves inclined to side with love. As Pete Campbell moves back and forth between the office and the hospital waiting room where his wife is in labor, his father-in-law tells him in no uncertain terms that he should not confuse the two worlds. “I haven’t stayed at Vick Chemical for 28 years because I love it; it’s because I have a family.” Don uses the same logic to accuse Pete of being so distracted by his wife’s labor that he has lost the Glo-Coat account: “Go to the hospital: that’s obviously what matters to you.” Faye tells Don angrily that she knows “the difference between what we have and the stupid office.” On the phone Glo-Coat insists that what they’ve had with Don is “just business,” and nothing more. And Peggy glides into the office on a cloud of newfound happiness in love, only to be shocked out of it by the news about Lucky Strike. In all of these examples, the series distinguishes love from business as insistently as it brings the two together.

This troubling logic grows only more tangled and complex as the episode unfolds. Business can be the same as love, or business can compete with love, or love and business can shape and affect and merge into one another, getting so mixed up together that they cannot be prised apart. Pete, for example, goes to the funeral that revolves around family loss for business reasons that prevent him from visiting his own newborn daughter. Meanwhile, Bert Cooper borrows the language of the funeral to call a meeting “of our nearest and dearest” to announce the loss of Lucky Strike to the employees of SCDP. Which is love and which business?

And even Don, who has accused Pete of putting his family first, helplessly confuses work and love when he surrenders himself to Megan at the end. She seduces him with her interest in his business: she claims that she wants to learn about it; she judges people by their work, as he does; and she dismisses “everything else” as “sentimental.” She may be trying to climb the career ladder, as Peggy is accused of doing by sleeping with Don, or she may be mixing ambition with eros. Don is intrigued, but then hesitates, remembering his own rule about office affairs. But Megan insists that “this has nothing to do with work.” That is, Megan’s interest in his work arouses Don’s interest in her; but in order to sleep with her, he must believe that work has nothing to do with it.

Don’s experience with Faye follows a similarly complicated logic. He urges her to betray her own clients because his business is more important to him than anything. Horrified, she asserts that her work is equal in importance to his, and that love and business must remain separate (evoking the "Chinese Wall" of the episode's title). But she realizes by the end of the episode that his love for his work is so powerful that if she is going to keep him, her desires must be subordinate to his. While Megan attracts Don through their shared love of his work, Faye betrays her own work for Don out of love.

But perhaps it is a mistake to see Don’s affairs at the center of this episode. Roger Sterling’s spectacular failure seems more pivotal to the whole. In retrospect, Roger has been the series’ best example of the long-term relationship—Lucky Strike and Joan both predate the show’s action by many years—and both now come to a shattering end. Like a messy divorce, the loss of Lucky Strike has ripple effects: not only the bulk of SCDP’s income, but also other clients, who grow anxious and threaten to break up with the firm themselves. Roger’s partners all rush to blame him for this overwhelming loss, but they disagree about why.

Did he fail, as Don claims, because he didn’t care enough for the relationship with Lee Garner, Jr—because he didn’t romance him? Or was he too possessive, as Pete insists, muscling the junior partner out of the relationship? Then there’s Bert’s accusation that Lee Garner, Jr. never took Roger seriously because he never took himself seriously. (I wonder: does Bert mean that Roger has been glib and trivializing, too comic for the serious business of love—or that he has lacked confidence or conviction, tragically ill-equipped for the role of the self-assured lover?) After Joan learns of Roger’s deception, she lights up one of the rare cigarettes of season 4, a gesture of solidarity, it would seem, with Lee Garner, Jr.

In both cases, Roger has been a poor lover, and now he is forced to end the episode as a husband, in the arms of a wife we have never learned to love, signing over to her the story of a life without Joan. Marriage may be just what he deserves. Enduring for decades, taken for granted, Roger’s relationships with Joan and Lucky Strike have had too little of the spirit of Peggy’s poetic romances and too much of the spirit of matrimony.

And we all know that marriage is not much good for love in Mad Men. The problem with marriage is that it tries to monopolize love, casting itself as love’s proper province. But Mad Men knows that love is just as much at home in the workplace, if not more so. Both Don and Roger know all too well that marriage can exist without love. But can business?


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claus said...

These are fascinating notes, and I'd like to add that for me, this tension between love and work almost applied to the actors themselves, and the show as such: As if, after a season rich in subplots, formal experiments and non sequiturs, all of them seemed to be trying to come to terms with the work and the discipline that being in a series really entailed.

This was prefigured in the opening scene with Ken Cosgrove (whose love interest we’ve seen here for the first time at all, IIRC?). Just as he was about to set off on a storyline of his own, he was summoned back to duty, apologetically claiming that "I wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t important."

Don's hesitation with Megan could have mirorred the insecurities of an actor that is about to handle yet another tryst that seems to be expected from/necessary for his character, and his manners seemed to be more contrived and awkward than usual. It’s also interesting to note Don's military attitude in rallying his troops, lambasting or summoning his co-workers. After all, his character was born out of a soldier’s blunder (in which he literally killed off a character), far from the main action of the brutal show that was the Korean War. But here he is right in the thick of it, no longer indulging in idiosyncracies but finally accepting and asking for some of the responsibilities it takes to push the plot on.

As for Megan, her lines could have been not only about the hopes and ambitions of her character, but also about those of the actress who plays her (who must know that she is playing one of the disposable parts of the show). Consequently, she tries to assuage Don by assuring him of a better/less embarrassing performance than her predecessor (ie. not storming out of the office in tears).

And Roger, he was played with the gravitas of an actor who is sensing that the importance of his role is on the wane. The sad inquiry whether the mugging scene was indeed supposed to be the last moment of romance ("I should have known") could also come from the actor himself. (I was reminded here of a recent interview by actress Randee Heller in which she said that she learned of Ms Blankship's death only a short time before the scene was actually filmed, and that doing it was literally painful as she hit the desk quite hard and bruised herself quite badly.)

So performing in a series, establishing and running a show may be a labour of love at the best of times, but it's also work and as such bound to the necessities of the market. In autographing his memoirs, Roger seems to be signing off from his duties as a major character in the show, accepting his relegation to the sidelines. (And the cover of his book clearly shows that he is a man of the past, an old-fashioned, tacky and unsellable item that’s probably worlds away from whatever cool and modern was in the package delivered to Peggy.)

Peggy seems to be the only one who sees this crisis as a chance to extend her character further and to affirm the grip on both her position in the agency and in the show (although, as the lipstick incident reminded us, this will still lead to occasional embarassments and indignities, but perhaps also a more self-assured way of coping with them).

Jez B. said...

Nice post, Caroline. @Claus, yes I'm pretty sure you're right that we never saw Ken's rich bride-to-be. Though we heard we about her as another gal with a well connected daddy.

Lauren said...

Caroline, thanks so much for this v. stimulating analysis. It was indeed a "pivotal" episode--not only internally coherent and resonant (as several recent ones have been) but also powerful in its advancing the season's narrative as a whole.

Of the many spot-on analyses you offer, this description of the anticipated Megan/Don encounter seems especially right:

Don is intrigued [by Megan's pitch], but then hesitates, remembering his own rule about office affairs. But Megan insists that “this has nothing to do with work.” That is, Megan’s interest in his work arouses Don’s interest in her; but in order to sleep with her, he must believe that work has nothing to do with it.

I'll add one small point.

Don doesn't actually "sleep with" Megan just as he never actually "slept with" Allyson. We use that phrase as a polite way of describing sex that falls short of "making love." But it's worth noting that after having sex with Megan on the office couch Don not only does not sleep with Megan, but does sleep with Faye--with whom he will not have sex (because that seems to mark a level of betrayal that even he, so practiced in the arts of duplicity, can't stomach).

You're so right that Don needs to believe, at least in the heat of the moment, that he can construct a "Chinese wall" around this office dalliance; that it won't entail or seem to promise the entanglements that come with the intimacy and the sharing of private space that "sleeping together" entails. (Or does when you're sober enough to remember, as Don wasn't a few episodes back.)

Of course, we see that Megan is playing him and, in case we wondered what that might mean, the "omniscient" direction takes us right from the couch to Roger and Jane's empty bond.

The season has worked hard to build our interest in the future of Don's private life; and it's done so in sync with the renewal of Joan and Roger's story; and, to a lesser extent, Peggy's.

But what I love most about the emphases you've brought out is how much--private life aside--it really matters to Don that Don Draper not just be a "hirable" ad man but also autonomous in some degree--the free agent that he imagines himself to be as a partner at Sterling Cooper unlike the hired gun that Pete may become; the condition of servitude that Don attempted to avoid with the contract he was forced to sign in season 3. For this illusion of freedom he will sacrifice in ways that he almost never does for love.

Great post!

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