After the jump, a spoiler-laden discussion of tonight's "Mad Men."
When I was watching Don Draper going through his rocky 1964 life in the season premiere, I saw a lot of Jonathan, Jack Nicholson's character in the stirring, bleak "Carnal Knowledge." Don has not quite reached the point where Jonathan is at the end of that film, but there are currents of it -- for instance, in the way he deals with the prostitute. Jonathan has control of part of his life, too, at least when it comes to making money, but he has lost part of himself -- is incapable of real relationships with women, and is for the most part impotent even with hookers.
Don's situation may well be worse, because he is losing control in both parts of his life. The marriage to Betty is dead, and all they have left -- besides the biological connection of children neither of them wants all that much -- is anger: Betty keeps Don from "the baby" just to spite him, Don pushes back by demanding she get out of the house or pay rent (and even that's a shot in return for Betty's coming home late with her new man). It's been a truism of some fiction that the married philanderer fares better with women than the same man once he is no longer married: that either he loses some of his confidence, or he is simply not as attractive when he isn't unavailable. Don seems to have the old confidence, but it's not working. His attempts at charm are now more blatantly false.
And, as all that is happening, Don is losing his touch at work. He has overseen one brilliant commercial -- and one that again offers a rationale for all those days he would spend at the movies -- but the bathing-suit ad shows that he cannot make magic the way he used to. It's not just that he mishandles the client, it's that he can no longer figure out what this, and other, clients dream about. His own dreams having fallen apart, he has lost empathy with other people. And, instead of finding inspiration from the dreamland of movies, he hides in his office, drinking, napping, or both. He is in danger of becoming Freddy Rumsen, if he hasn't already.
Of course, he now has to hide in his office because he has no other sanctuaries. Just as the collapse of his marriage has exposed his personal vulnerabilities, the new company has taken away his ability to hide behind layers of bosses. He is now one of the bosses, one of the people held publicly accountable for the company. He has to be interviewed. He has to sell the client as well as the ad. He has to know when to take credit, and when not. And this all reveals a certain tone-deafness, especially in the interviews bracketing the episode. In the first he is too reticent; in the last, he is too outspoken, bragging. (Hard to imagine his partners liking that Don has taken credit for their new lives.)
In sum, with Don alone we are looking at someone who, after three seasons of an awkward balancing act, appears ready to fall into the abyss. Or the quagmire. Don's missteps come as America is falling into Vietnam, as the culture is breaking into the long-hair/short-hair divide. There are signs of all that is changing within the firm as well: Peggy, like women elsewhere, has become more confident and assertive; she comes to Don not for guidance but for money -- and makes no real apology. Indeed, when Don chews her out she notes how poorly he has just served the company.
Then there's Betty. I don't quite know what to make of her. She is rather mean in this episode, but I suspect some of that has to do with her realizing she has not changed her life as much as she thought. Oh, she has a man who desires her -- an improvement on Don. But she is still back standing by a man. And in terms of social status, she may have made things worse. She's no longer with a social poseur, to whom she seemed a prize; she's among people are not impressed a bit by either her beauty or sophistication.
And where does that leave the Draper children? Lost, it seems. (Literally, when it comes to the invisible third child.) Betty can't wait to get away from them. Don drops them in front of the television. Don's lone protective urge, to stay with them until Betty comes home, seems far more about his anger at Betty than his watching out for the children.
So nothing looks very happy right now, does it? But that made the opener marvelous. The slick moves of previous seasons don't work. The illusions are shopworn, and cheap -- like the claim that there is a second floor of offices, which Don clings to in his second interview even though Bert Cooper refuses to be part of that charade. As the episode asks who is Don Draper, we at least know he's not what he was. But what is left? The empty vessel of the first interview, or the show-off of the second?
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