Mad Men is allowed to do whatever it wants

New York, 1968

New York, 1968

If you aren’t up to date on Mad Men and don’t want anything spoiled, please don’t read on.

While watching this week’s episode of Mad Men, “To Have and To Hold”, I came to the conclusion that Mad Men is the only show on TV that is allowed to do whatever it wants. The storylines can include anything and it can be shot in any style. As for content: Sex? Yup. Lots of it. Nudity? No, but not because it can’t. The show is so sexy that nudity would be redundant. Gore? How about Pete’s girlfriend’s pulpy face? Or that time a foot was run over by a lawnmower?

But it’s not just controversial stuff that Mad Men is allowed to do. How about Joan’s storyline this week: a female executive in her mid-thirties wants to have a mid-week sleepover with an old girlfriend? Makes total sense! They’ll bath Joan’s child when they wake up! My point is: because anything can happen on Mad Men, when the show takes a turn for the wacky, we, the audience, accept this wackiness. That’s Mad Men.

This was one of those wacky weeks. In “To Have and To Hold”, we saw new characters, new settings and old characters out of their normal environments. The energy was frenetic and jarring. The colours were loud and dull at the same time. The whole effect often left me with my hand over my mouth, slightly shocked and slightly confused. But I loved it.

The first sequence of the episode sets the tone for the rest of episode to come. In the first scene, Don and Pete are meeting with the man from Heinz Ketchup in Pete’s sad little apartment in the city. The first shot dollies through the doors of the bedroom, bright blue and green stained glass, to the meeting of men in the living room. It is a secret meeting, so it makes perfect sense to have the meeting in Pete’s secret lair. Their clothes are blues and greens and browns, just like the decor. But nothing stands out. Everything looks drab. These men look like they belong in this apartment, as strange is it seems logically for Don to be in this apartment.

In the next scene, Dawn, Don’s secretary, meets her friend at a diner. This is the first time Dawn has had a scene and storyline all her own. The colours of the diner are vivid red, and the clientele is noticeably black.  While the cinematography suggests that Dawn is comfortable in this setting, the dialogue between the two friends is about how Dawn is out of place on Madison Avenue. The scene is about how everyday, Dawn works in an environment that has an undercurrent of sadness and instability. As she puts it, everyone is sad. Women are crying in the bathroom and men are crying in the elevator. Everything is off.

The next scene starts with a close-up of Joan’s mother having bright pink make-up applied to her face, by an unknown woman. We can tell that we are in Joan’s apartment. Moments later, Joan enters and it is revealed this woman is an old friend.

Again and again, a new scene starts and we, the audience, are jarred by bright colours, music and unfamiliar territory. By the end of the first 3 scenes, we still haven’t spent any time in the SCDP office. “To Have and To Hold” is an episode all about how the characters behave outside the office, when they are out and about in the city. Its an episode about how all the characters are somehow out of place.

Manhattan, 1968

Manhattan, 1968

“… don’t judge me. I’m in New York.” – Joan’s friend.

New York. The City. To the characters in Mad Men, the City is a place where you don’t have to act like yourself. While in the City, out on the town, one is allowed to do whatever one wants. Out for a night on the town, Joan allows herself to kiss strangers. Joan’s married friend sleeps with a man she met that night. Hey, she’s in the City. She’s treating herself! Pete has his own apartment where he sleeps with whomever will join him. Not until Pete strays from the city, and brings his affair home, does he get burned. Trudy tells Pete he should have kept it in the city. It was the least he could do. Speaking of Pete’s seedy little apartment:

Don: “Nice place.”
Pete: “Well, it’s available to you. You know, if you ever have to spend a night in the city.”
Don: “I live here, Pete.”

That’s Don. He doesn’t need to be anywhere to be someone else. He is always someone else. “To Have and To Hold” really showed how changeable the man, “Don Draper” can be. Take three small moments from this episode as an example. In each moment, Don is fully present and acting truthfully. But how can one man be so incredibly different?

Don and Stan are in a secret room at work. Stan offers Don his joint. Don accepts. They look at Stan’s art for Heinz.
Don: “A hot dog cries out for mustard.”
Stan: “No. I think a hot dog cries out for ketchup. The squiggly line. Hmm. I think we should order lunch.”
Both laugh.

When was the last time Don laughed? His smile is wide, ear-to-ear, and distorts his otherwise beautiful face. But he is really happy. In the privacy of the secret room for Project K, Don allows himself to laugh with his whole body.

Don shows up on the set of the soap opera, To Have and To Hold, where Megan is performing her first love scene with another actor. Don proceeds to ream Megan out, making her feel guilty and suggesting her profession is equal to that of a prostitute.

The rage on Don’s face is scary. Again, his face is contorted into something grotesque. How can he muster such rage against Megan for kissing another man, when he is cheating on her in private? Did Don plan to yell at Megan? Or does he come to the set not knowing how he’ll react? That’s what’s scary about Don, too. He is unpredictable.

The city used to be a place where Don would cheat on Betty, away from the suburbs and home. Now, Don lives there. He has no safe place to escape to, so he keeps the routine and cheats on Megan in the city.

After yelling at Megan, Don goes to the apartment of his mistress, Sylvia, who lives in the same building as the Drapers. Don tells Sylvia to take off her cross, to which she responds, “I pray for you… I pray for you to find peace.”

Don’s reaction is devastating. “I pray for you to find peace” is just what Don wants for himself. Sylvia knows that she won’t help Don find peace, but she also knows that is what he wants. Don allows himself to be affected by this statement. He shrinks into himself and holds back tears.

Don is a man who always exists in the moment. It is a strength and a weakness. It allows him to laugh and to scream and to do things that make him feel terrible. He is always changing and never the man he was the day before. Accordingly, Mad Men is always changing. An unconventional episode like this one highlights the fact that anything can happen on this show. That’s why we keep watching. Although, I must say, my dad is so pissed off at Don Draper that he stopped watching after “The Doorway Pt. 2.” I’m pretty pissed off as well, but I can’t stop watching now.

Images of New York by John VanderHaagen (Flickr: New York, April 1968) via Wikimedia Commons.

2 thoughts on “Mad Men is allowed to do whatever it wants

  1. Great post!

    In the beginning, I had some compassion for Don. However, over the Mad Men years, he has become increasingly obnoxious. He definitely has double standards!

    The only reason he married Megan is because he was lonely. Don is a cheater, and a deserter from the military. He could not stand the fact that Betty cheated on him, and called her a whore. Excuse me!

    I was done with him for the way he treated Peggy, and Lane. When he threw money in Peggy’s face – that was it for me! I really liked Lane, and enjoyed his medieval beating of Pete. Lane should have beat the crap out of Don, as well!

    I don’t know what’s happening with Joan, except she’s becoming a miserable witch! The show really started going downhill two seasons ago. When it married Joan to a man, who was in love with his military career, and then impregnating her with Rogers’ child, whom he could care less. Although, Joan agreed to further her interest, she allowed the company to pimp her to a client to gain the account. YUK!

    Lastly, I don’t blame your father for giving up. However, I have to keep watching because my curiosity about what the characters will do next will probably led to what I’ve read, so far, that Season 7 is the finale.

    I can’t say that I’m sorry to see the show end before it becomes unbearable to watch.

    • While I don’t agree with you about Joan, I have definitely lost any patience I had with Don. But, often the characters start a season in a totally different place then where they end, so there is still hope for Don. (Whether he deserves a happy ending or not is another question.)

      And thanks for reading!

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