In the opening scene of last night’s episode of Mad Men, Don Draper is in the elevator at his apartment building when he hears his mistress, Sylvia, screaming at her successful doctor husband (Arnie) on the phone. Don reacts the only way Don can: He pushes the “close door” button inside the elevator, which is the perfect metaphor for how Don Draper handles most things. He shuts out situations he doesn’t want to deal with.
As expected, there is chaos at SCDP because of the merger with Ted Chaough and company. One would have thought that perhaps Ted would be Robin to Don’s Batman, but there is only room for one super ad man, so it seems. The nuts and bolts of “A Man with a Plan” are easily deconstructed. Ted is not going to put up with Don’s bullshit, and neither is Peggy. Whereas once Peggy would need Don’s approval, she has now found her footing as a career woman and wants none of Don’s dysfunction rubbing off on Ted (especially drinking in the office, which is getting tedious). When Don misses a brainstorming session because he is playing master to Sylvia’s sex servant, Ted admonishes him. As we know, Don Draper does not like being told what to do.
In the meantime, Pete is slowly but surely unraveling. His mother is senile, his brother has had it, and neither of them knows that Pete and Trudy have split up. Pete, much like Don, is unsure of his place in the world and makes a lot of noise trying to sort out what he’s supposed to do next. He doesn’t have any allies — or a seat at the partner’s meeting. If I were Pete, I would make more conversation with Peggy. But that’s just me.
As fiercely independent as Joan tries to be, it is clear that she occasionally needs a knight in shining armor to help her out. In this episode, new account manager Bob Benson, squeaky clean and slightly creepy, accompanies Joan to the hospital when she falls ill in the office. I would give him extra points for staying with her all day and then bringing her son a present when he checks on her, but the cynic in me thinks he knew she could save his job (which she did, when it came time for inevitable post-merger staff reductions at SCDP).
Enough of everyone else. Let’s talk about Don.
I may be in the minority here, but I don’t think Don Draper is an ass. I think he is man who is so empty and lost inside that he is constantly trying to fill a cup that cannot be filled. His thirst for success and women is simply a cover-up for his own insecurities. Don needs to be needed, and Megan (and Betty before her) really doesn’t require Don to make her life worth living. No one does. When Don falls into an affair, it is because he is needed and wanted in a way that he isn’t in other parts of his life. Last night, when Sylvia said, “I want you, and nothing else will do,” it was not surprising that Don took the opportunity to bed her. Then, in “you are not the boss of me” fashion, he commands Sylvia to crawl on the floor, get his shoes (she doesn’t), and climb into bed naked to await his return (she does). When he says, “You exist for my pleasure,” it is more about taking ownership of something — anything — than it is about being kinky. Don’s professional world may be in upheaval, but at least there is Sylvia, alone in a room for him and only him.
He can’t say the same about his wife Megan, with whom he’s lost a connection because of her desire to carve out a path as an actress. It’s because of this that Megan has now become disposable to Don: He has no use for the every day humdrum of a wife. He certainly doesn’t know what to do with the children he never sees. He isn’t sure what kind of man he is. All he knows is the reflection of himself through someone else’s eyes: a lover, a friend, a colleague, an enemy. When Sylvia ends their relationship, Don doesn’t quite understand why she wouldn’t want him. It is easy for Don to dispose of people in his life, but when someone tries to dispose him, it is a catastrophic blow to his ego. I’m not entirely sure this is the last we’ll see of Sylvia, but I am sure Don is going to have a very difficult time remaining in a marriage with Megan.
Some random notes:
The book Don took from Sylvia to read on the plane was The Last Picture Show, by Larry McMurtry. The plot is something like this: small town boys try to figure out their lives — one always dates the pretty girl, one doesn’t. Everyone is trying to figure out what comes next, but no one can. Life just doesn’t work that way, and as one of the characters in the book says, “Anything gets old if you do it often enough.” Lots of plot parallels here. It wasn’t an accident to insert the book into a scene.
I am a little obsessed with the use of elevators on Mad Men. They play such an essential role in each episode. Characters are worried, relieved, excited, sexually charged, and rude — all in an elevator, and without really having to look at one another. Instead, they can look at themselves reflected in the steel doors. They can go up, down, get stuck. Sounds a lot like their lives, no?
Not that I love her, but where is Betty Draper? Just asking.