Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 6.8
"Leaving the Whorehouse"
Guest Writer: Todd McGowan

Monday, May 20, 2013

posted under , , , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[The seventh in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 6 of AMC's Mad Men, posted in collaboration with the publication of MAD MEN, MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press, March 2013) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]

"Leaving the Whorehouse"

Written by: Todd McGowan (University of Vermont)



It is difficult to claim that someone who leaves his children unattended in a large city and cheats indiscriminately on his spouse is an ethical figure, but this is precisely the wager of Mad Men. This wager comes to the fore in this week’s episode, “The Crash,” which depicts the fragile construction of Don’s personal life and the aura that sustains his work life crashing down around him. Don Draper is an appealing character not due to his physical appearance, his sense of mystery, or his ability as an advertiser. The source of his appeal lies in the relationship that he has to trauma. The series makes clear that our ethical being emerges through an engagement with trauma, and with “The Crash,” Mad Men develops this conception of ethics even further than it hitherto has.

An advertising agency does not seem like the site where we would find ethical acts. Rather than act ethically, advertisers willingly prostitute themselves to sell whatever product their clients want them to sell, no matter how destructive that product might be. Mad Men emphasized this dimension of advertising in its first few years by highlighting the dependence of the agency Sterling Cooper on revenue from cigarette advertising. But there is another sense in which an advertising agency is the perfect site for the deployment of an ethical subjectivity. The advertiser, even more than everyone else in society, must constantly confront the emptiness of the Other’s desire and try to find a way to speak to that desire. Even if the series uses the backdrop of advertising as a metaphor for the world of unrestrained capitalism, it shows the possibility for the ethical act within this world. Of course, capitalism can make use of this act for its self-reproduction, but the act itself retains its ethical status. And despite his affairs, his mistreatment of coworkers, and his many other flaws, Don is the ethical center of the series. With “The Crash,” we see for the first time why this is so.

In earlier episodes, Don’s ethical status becomes apparent through his capacity to act against his own self-interest and abandon the assurances of his symbolic identity. He can, for instance, publicly highlight the dangers of cigarettes after establishing his name as the advertiser for Lucky Strike. This act requires an engagement with the trauma of abandoning the security of his reputation, and this public betrayal of Lucky Strike in Season 4 (“Blowing Smoke”) does have lasting repercussions for Don’s career. He acts as he does, however, because he recognizes that there is no ground for his identity, that one’s symbolic identity provides no ultimate foundation upon which one might act. But the series shows a stark contrast between Don’s life in advertising and his private life, where he uses a series of lovers to avoid the trauma that he confronts in the advertising world. He uses these lovers to avoid the ethical self-destruction that he welcomes at work.

This dynamic undergoes a radical change with the introduction of Sylvia and with the development of their relationship in “The Crash.” Unlike Don’s previous lovers, Sylvia embodies for him his fundamental exclusion: his relationship with her repeats the exclusion that defined him as a young boy. No matter how closely Don approaches Sylvia, he remains at a distance from her, and she refuses to allow him to broach that distance. The series highlights Sylvia’s importance formally at the very beginning of this episode.

The second scene of the episode shows Don eavesdropping outside Sylvia’s apartment, and it is soon clear how traumatic their relationship is for him. Though the series typically respects the rules of continuity editing, this scene begins with a direct violation of the 180 degree rule. We see Don in profile from the right side, and the show cuts directly to a profile shot from the left, so that Don seems turn around instantaneously, facing one direction and then facing the other. This disruption for the spectator suggests the traumatic disruption of Don’s subjectivity in his encounter with Sylvia. Rather than bolstering his sense of his identity in the way that Betty or Megan did, Sylvia returns Don to the trauma of his emergence as a desiring subject and forces him to exist within this trauma. This is why the episode that begins with Don traumatized outside Sylvia’s door returns him to his childhood and to his first sexual experience.

“The Crash” is the first episode of Mad Men to show Don’s introduction to sex. This introduction occurs thanks to a prostitute, Aimée, who works at the brothel where he is being raised. Aimée comes to the aid of the young Don when he is sick with a cough and cold and, as he recovers, she seduces him and provides him with his first sexual experience, in spite of his reluctance. As she lies down next to him on the bed, she asks, “Do you want to know what all the fuss is about?” Though he responds in the negative, Aimée continues and tells him that she’ll “do everything.” After she says this, the scene concludes with a close-up of the young Don’s face as he grimaces before it cuts to an image of Don in the present day in the archives of the agency where he has discovered an ad that he believes holds the key not just to the Chevy campaign but to the very problem of existence.

In this shot following his sexual initiation, Don stands holding an advertisement that he did for oatmeal that shows a mother standing over her son with the caption, “Because You Know What He Needs.” As the prior scene makes evident, Don never had a mother who understood what he needed. In contrast to life at a brothel and to Aimée who traumatically seduces Don, the advertisement promises a mother who will nurture the child and protect it from trauma while speaking perfectly to the child’s desires. Don immediately sees this ad as not just the answer to his own trauma but also the key to advertising as such.

After returning to his office, Don calls Peggy and Michael Ginsberg in order to announce his discovery to them. In the midst of describing his idea, he proclaims, “If this strategy is successful, it’s way bigger than a car. It’s everything.” Though Ginsberg plays along with Don in awe of his reputation, Peggy soon recognizes that this is a massive delusion and that, rather than producing ideas for a Chevy campaign, Don has spent the weekend in a drug-induced haze in which he created nothing but gibberish. He fails because he imagines a mystical union with a non-existent mother who would save him from the trauma that continues to mark his existence.

The absence of this mother is apparent in the seemingly unrelated interaction of Don’s daughter Sally with an intruder in Don and Megan’s apartment. The show emphasizes that this is a black woman not just visually but also when multiple characters describe her as a “Negro” and when Don’s son Bobby wonders aloud if he is himself a “Negro.” Many critics (including my colleague here at the University of Vermont, Sarah Nilsen and some of the contributors to Mad Men, Mad World) have taken the show to task for its depictions of race and racism. Despite taking place during a time of integration, the show remains relatively white, and the black characters often serve not as independent figures but as mere indices of the attitudes that the white characters take up toward the question of race. The death of Martin Luther King, for instance, inspires white characters to seek out black characters in order to display their anti-racism, but it also enables the otherwise unattractive Pete Campbell to express genuine concern in the face of this event. If prior episodes incidentally provided fodder for critics more through omission than commission, “The Crash” seems to go out of its way to employ a racist stereotype in the figure of Grandma Ida, a thief who presents herself to Don’s children as the woman who raised their father.

Viewers of the show are aware immediately that Ida is neither Don’s mother nor the woman who raised Don. And as her interaction with Sally goes on, it becomes clear even to the uninformed that she is trying to rob the apartment rather than visit Don. But she nonetheless plays an important structural role in the episode. She is a motherly figure—she immediately wants to cook for Sally—and claims to occupy the position of Don’s nurturer at the same time as Don is imagining the existence of such a figure. The fact that she is lying tells us that this nurturer doesn’t exist, that though some of us, unlike Don, may have mothers, none of us has a nurturer who knows what we need. Instead of the nurturer, we must confront and embrace the stranger who appears in this position.

Though she is lying, the woman posing as Don’s mother and robbing him is in another sense telling the truth insofar as Don shares her exclusion. She is the mother that he didn’t have. Her blackness is not merely contingent or a signifier of the show’s underlying racism. If Don didn’t have a black mother, that is only because such a narrative line would provide an easy answer for his exclusion. This sequence, which parallels Don’s own flashbacks to his upbringing, reveals that no one has the mother who offers what is needed. Both Don and Peggy share this absence.

Throughout the series, the link between Don and Peggy (discussed last week by Sean O’ Sullivan) provides one of the touchstones to which we continually return. On one level, their connection stems from their skill as advertisers, and it is clear that they have a mutual respect for this skill. But it is much more their ethical being that separates them from other characters on the show, and “The Crash” highlights this through their shared engagement with trauma.

After trying to seduce Peggy, Stan reveals to her that his cousin has just died in Vietnam. She tells him, “I’ve had loss in my life. You have to let yourself feel it. You can’t dampen it with drugs and sex. It won’t get you through.” Though Stan is unconvinced, this statement makes clear the basic point of connection between Peggy and Don, especially as we see Don in this episode. He works through a continuing confrontation with the trauma of loss and exclusion, and every ad that he creates emerges out of this confrontation.

The episode ends with Don once again acting against his self-interest by abandoning work on the Chevy advertising campaign. Just two episodes ago, abandoned the agency’s most important client, Jaguar, when he refused to allow Herb Rennet, their connection at Jaguar, to involve someone from his dealership in the development of the advertising. In “The Crash,” after an unproductive weekend of nonstop work, Don decides that the agency resembles the milieu in which he grew up. He announces to new partners Ted Chaough and Jim Cutler that he will now only oversee creative work on Chevy rather than producing any. The final word of the episode, which Don speaks as he’s walking back to his office, is “whorehouse.”

With this word, Don makes the connection that many do between advertising and prostitution, but this is especially poignant for him since he grew up in a brothel. By dismissing the agency as a whorehouse and refusing to continue to work as a prostitute, Don displays once again the possibility for the ethical act that exists within the most ethically compromising spaces. One should not judge this act on the activity that follows it. If Don goes back to writing copy for Chevy in the next episode, here he nonetheless breaks for a moment from his enslavement to the Other’s demand and confronts the absence of anyone who knows “what he needs.” This break and this confrontation are the basis for every ethical act.

24 comments

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24 comments:

Lauren said...

Another tour de force reading, Todd! Thanks so much.

I completely agree that this season is dominated by the lingering impact of Don's motherlessness. I am less certain than you are that his announced departure from creative (whether or not he sticks to it) is an "ethical act." I think that from Don's perspective "firing" Jaguar was precisely such an act (though one that Joan deeply resented in ways that show the limitations of a unilateral ethics). But I think even Don may be able to sense that his departure from creative was a defensive act: a way of contending with his dysfunctionality. Don has been in a masculinity crisis from the first moment we met him so I would not rule out his pulling out the stops creatively somewhere in this season or the next. But certainly we are seeing signs of diminished prowess (symbolized in this episode by that shot of Vitamin B in butt!). In Season 5 Don left Ginsberg's work in the back of a taxi so as to pitch his own rather than risk being the unchosen of the two. Now, as you powerfully note, Sylvia's dumping him and the pressures of competing with Ted have resulted in a massive self-delusion. This made me experience the conclusion more as a defensive posture than a classic Don Draper Nietzschean ethical play. Or perhaps Don's ethical plays are just being downsized to sub-ubermensch-size.

One question I'd like to throw out--to you or anyone else who is interested--is what you make of how the counterculture moment of 1968 figured in this episode. As in previous episodes we have allusions to Vietnam and this time we have a visit from a hippy girl. Megan's skirts are getting ever shorter. But this particular episode also had a kind of surreality. Certainly that resonates with the psychoanalytic themes you are emphasizing. But do you think it is also deliberately psychedelic? As though that shot had something more than vitamins it--at least symbolically? I half expected Jefferson Airplane to come in at some point--though "Go Ask Alice" is from 67.

SPM said...

Thanks for this interesting post, Todd. I confess that I think it's completely wrong to interpret Don's actions at the end of the episode as an example of him "acting against his self-interest by abandoning work on the Chevy advertising campaign." I find your analysis about the relationship between Don's present way of being and his past trauma compelling, for sure. But to present Don's increasing dislocation and inability to produce relevant work as an ethical act does not add up for me. Don't you think it's naive? This may not be the best episode for a focus on ethics. If anything it's the beginning of Don's realization that he can only live and act like the world is a whorehouse and that realization freaks him out but also allows him to justify his failure. But hey, that's just my interpretation of course.

Todd said...

Thanks for the comments. I agree that there is something different about Don's act at the end of this episode and his previous acts, but I wouldn't chalk it up to his increasing failures. I would think of it in the opposite direction. I read Don's increasing inability to produce successful copy as an indication of his disinvestment in advertising as such. This is why his refusal to continue to work on Chevy at the end of the episode seems almost like an afterthought and doesn't have the grandiosity of something like the dissolution of Sterling Cooper that he orchestrated.

About Lauren's fascinating question concerning the counterculture, I would say that it functions here and throughout the series as a hidden supplement of the capitalist world or even as an engine within that world. Correctly, I think that the series does not envision it as an alternative.

Jez B. said...

I liked this episode and the post too (even if the ending is maybe not quite right for it) and I do think that Lauren is right about a psychedelic feeling to it.

Rob Rushing said...

Though it sounds bizarre to link Don to an ethical stance, I do appreciate the connection that Todd is trying to make here. It's not simply that Don is persistently linked to trauma, absence and loss—it's that Don himself persistently embraces it and connects himself to it, often in ways that are intriguingly suicidal or self-destructive. (For Todd and other Lacanians, this sort of act is inherently and profoundly ethical, because it reveals that we are not a stable, personality-filled whole person, but rather an arbitrary assemblage, founded on a void, ready to collapse from one moment to the next.) In previous seasons, Don has been able to "sell" these suicidal acts as somehow beneficial to himself and the capitalist system—as when he advertises SCDP's disavowal of cigarette advertising in the NY Times. This season, however, his suicidal advertising campaigns appear increasingly empty, unassimilable: an empty beach, an abandoned suit of clothes, footprints leading into the water. But the executives are not buying this narrative from Don anymore, and even Din is starting to realize that his compulsion to destroy and refashion himself, to crash to the ground and then reappear, perfectly dressed and coiffed as he does at the start of each episode (and beautifully in this episode, as he plummets into the carpet, and then reappears in the elevator with a pocket handkerchief that is even more starched and perfectly aligned than ever)—well, even Don is starting to realize that this is a compulsion, the traumatic emptiness that defines who he is. Every time Don embraces that, Todd is suggesting, a kind of ethical crack appears in the system (of capitalism, of Don Draper) that shows the possibility of something else, a "miracle" in Hannah Arendt's language. It never turns into that in Mad Men, of course, which is why Todd says we shouldn't judge by what comes next; most utopian political moments don't turn out that well, either, but that doesn't diminish the utopian potential, however brief, of that ethical rupture.

Lauren said...

That is very eloquently put Rob and does help us to process what might otherwise come off as odd (as in SMP's reaction) in Todd's choice of this episode for an "ethical" Don. (I enjoyed your doubtless unintentional "Din" as well!)

I don't have to tell you or Todd that I am not a Lacanian and am somewhat resistant to the a- or even anti-historicism of Lacanian analysis. But I do think that there is something quintessentially Lacanian (I prefer to call it Nietzschean) about Don's characterization throughout the show and I think you both are right that increasingly it manifests in terms of the core trauma rather than the resultant feats of self-invention.

We can argue some other time about whether Hannah Arendt should ever be harnessed to Lacanian ethics ;)

I am interested, if you are still reading Todd, in your take on Sylvia--of her being different than the previous lovers/mistresses in Don's life. I resisted the idea of singling her out at first because she is not a very well-developed character (like, say, Bobbie Barrett who added so many crucial dimensions to Season 2). But then I remembered my own interest at the start in Sylvia--in her being married (and ultimately loyal) to Dr. Arnold Rosen. As Bruce Robbins indicated in his post on the premiere, Arnold seems to represent something quite significant (as Bruce put it it, he embodies the thing that Don is betraying when he and Sylvia become lovers). And I wonder Todd if you share my sense that Sylvia's distinction, such as it is, is tied to Arnold who is a very different male character than any we have seen on Mad Men.

"The Crash" with which the episode opens is to do with the high jinks of the GM execs who are such sadistic risktakers (they are more like Enron execs than any GM execs I can think of) that they nearly kill Ken with their "joy ride." That is the kind of masculine world that Don understandably keeps at bay--that is, the kind of world that has alienated him from male companionship which he never seeks for its own sake. Instead he seeks completion in various iterations of a strong fantasy woman to replace the original trauma of the mothering he never had.

Though we really don't know Arnold--he is just a figure or placeholder in this capacity--he is the antithesis of this kind of masculine high jinks. Their risky adventures create human destruction; Arnold brings people back to life. That we even can even entertain this cliche of the good doctor as the alternative to Madison Avenue and Detroit is, I think, evidence of how much we are expected to notice it. Just as Roger has become a more stable kind of male subject IN the advertising world, so Arnold seems to stand for some alternative TO it.

Todd said...

I really find Rob's explanation of Don's ethical stance and its relation to capitalism very, very helpful. And I think that the connection to Arendt and the miracle makes perfect sense. Capitalism is able to make use of Don's acts, but they nonetheless retain a disruptive potential that shines through this appropriation. The fact that the focus is more on the self-destruction now and less on the productive reinvention is important to note, and this is precisely, as Rob notes, where we should locate the utopian moment.

I love the issue that Lauren raises about Arnold and Sylvia. I do think that Sylvia is different than Don's other lovers because he absolutely cannot capture her desire and she even drives him into these bizarrely out of character sadistic games in an attempt to do so. She gives him an opportunity to encounter someone who doesn't just give him what he wants, and paradoxically, that's what he wants.

Don's interest in Arnold, on the other hand, seems more pathological in the sense that Arnold functions as a kind of ideal ego for Don. He embodies what Don thinks is valuable and what stands in apparent contrast to the world of advertising. But in the end, Arnold is just as invested in his symbolic status as Herb from Jaguar. He wants to be seen as the first to transplant a heart rather than being the first to transplant a heart. To my mind, Arnold represents something like an ethical trap for Don, who is himself the far more ethical figure.

Lauren said...

Hey Todd, thanks! I think you are right about Arnold from a purely Don perspective (that it is an ego ideal and a trap). But I also think that from a broader standpoint there has always been that other kind of man lingering in the shadows and who is rarely figured except as a shadow (because most of the men on Mad Men are demonstrably worse than Don in doing much the same things he gets up to only with style and grace).

It was an interesting moment in the elevator--Don's giving Arnold advice which then can be tied to Rosen's decision to move almost as though Don were complicit in the breakup (back in the premiere he says he wants it to end and we are then surprised to find out how deep in it he actually is).

Lauren said...

err with LESS style and grace.

Jessica said...

I'm a newcomer to the blog - I learned about it after meeting Lauren in Seattle recently. So I've just read all the Season 6 entries and comments - insightful, thought-provoking material all around. One thing I'd like to add to the discussion of this episode: you said that in your estimation, Todd, viewers would figure out "immediately" that the woman was lying about her relationship to Don. But I remained uncertain about her for a while, entertaining the possibilities that (a) she had some connection to the original bearer of the name Don Draper, or that (b) she would emerge later in the flashback portion of the episode as someone in the brothel who came to take care of Don (as Aimee does). For me it wasn't until the question about Don's gold watches that the uncertainty was entirely cleared up. This uncertainty fit into an episode full of weird perceptual experiences, from the drug use to the disorienting opener with Ken in a potentially fatal situation whose origin we couldn't pinpoint at first.

Todd said...

I think Arnold is a trap for the viewer as well as for Don. We want to believe in the good guy and thus tend to fall for him, but in the end, he's no different than the bad guys at the agency. He seems to both Don and us to be in pursuit of the social good, but then the show reveals that this good is just a stand-in for recognition--or that the good doesn't exist.

I like Jessica's point about our uncertainty concerning Ida. Actually, I myself thought that she might be telling the truth in some way for quite a while, but I am always such a naive spectator that I assumed this was idiosyncratic, especially since we do have information about Don's upbringing. I like the idea that it might be true, and I actually think that the show is playing with a stereotype here in order to undermine the idea of the good mother rather than relying on the stereotype. But perhaps this is wrong.

Jessica said...

Absolutely! I also think the show is playing with stereotypes. As to one of them, it's true that this African American character does turn out to be a thief, and I can understand that some viewers aren't thrilled about that. But what's more interesting, for me, is the fact that there are so many strange layers (and gaps) in what we (and the Draper children) know about Don/Dick that his relationship to this African American woman could plausibly have turned out to be many different things. As for the "good mother" stereotype, I'm really looking forward to see what the show does with the "mother"/"first girlfriend" relationship they've opened up in this episode. It can't be a coincidence that it comes right after the end (ostensibly) of the affair with Sylvia, who, as Todd points out, doesn't give him what he wants...which is what he wants. This reminds me of Don's Season 4, post-divorce call girl, whom he apparently habitually asked to hit him.

freudenthal said...

One relevant way Sylvia's different: she's a mother. Don's other mistresses were not. And Megan's not. This Lacanian reading is provocative, but I think it gives the show, which seems to hammer us with elementary Freudian understandings of character, too much credit.

This episode disappointed me in its simplistic connections between Don's childhood trauma (mom figures nurture, molest, and then beat him) and his adult difficulties with women. Sylvia's being a mother may have been the trigger for his B&D play (as the prostitute a few seasons back similarly triggered him). And her Catholic faith aggravates the "shame" cues from childhood as well.

This disappoints me because it seems too reductive.

I certainly like the idea of finding some ethical stance in Don's attempt to disavow the Chevy account, but I can't help seeing it as simple self-interest, a way to hide his drugged-out incompetency and reclaim a sham ethical stance within the bravado of his company culture.

Lauren said...

Welcome Jessica and welcome back freudenthal.

Just wanted to mention that Bobbie Barrett was a mom and talked quite a lot about her children (as Sylvia does).

freudenthal said...

Great point! I'd forgotten that part of her! But I have not forgotten Don's violation of her in the restaurant lobby--another sexual dominance episode, nonconsensual.

I don't know that it cleanly matches up, but I do think it's significant.

Lauren said...

Yes, I agree, Don definitely very kinky and into being "top" with BB (tying up her and leaving her in "Maidenform" in ways comparable to "The Crash")--as opposed to his "bottom" with the Season 4 call girl. In this respect he swings both ways. I don't think it is or needs to be a clean match-up but simply a dimension of his characterization. He enjoys sexual dominance as he does other kinds of dominance--though he can also enjoy or at any rate crave submission of a kind. Thanks!

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brb said...

Just want to say how much i love reading the mad world blog posts! They're a fun companion to watching S6 on dvd as I am now! I understand how late I am to the game, but what the hell..

I liked this well written, provocative post (Don an ethical actor!), but like the others i'm a little reticent to accept that.

It seems more like a self-justification, rather than a truly resistant, confounding Bartleby-like "i'd prefer not to." If he could sustain it (even unto the absurd, like the scrivener) maybe I could be convinced. So I guess I think what happens in subsequent episodes has some bearing on this question after all. Although Don's characterization of the office as a whorehouse, echoing his refusal to prostituting Joan does show the (admittedly very limited) integrity that always makes him mysteriously hard to give up on.

The maternal/sexual thing seems complicated by the fact that the soup ad mother is a DEAD ringer for Peggy. and she is the face that seems to trigger all this. What are they getting at?

What exactly is the revelation Don has? It seems like one of the key parts of the character Don that he has a fully formed understanding of desire--both sexual and consumerist. So it seems hard to swallow that Don could suddenly make a new earth shattering connection. If this is all empty and drug-induced the show still seems to grant it some internal significance. I just can't put the pieces of this episode together, even though it was one of the most fascinating hours of television i've ever seen.

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