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"Mad Men": The Inadequacy of Deeds

By Rich Heldenfels Published: June 11, 2012

Back in the heyday of "Hill Street Blues" and "St. Elsewhere," I used to think of them as Old Testament and New Testament. "Hill Street," it seemed, believed you could be redeemed by your deeds while "St. Elsewhere" said that deeds were not enough -- that it would take some kind of divine grace to bring you peace. Argue about that if you will, the idea of deeds vs. grace now seems to have been where we have headed all season on "Mad Men," at least where the men are concerned. You have the countering images of Don Draper trying desperately, again and again, to do the right thing -- and of Pete trying again and again to do the wrong thing -- and the result for both men is the same. Their deeds don't alleiviate their basic unhappiness. Lane did not kill himself because of his embezzlement and disgrace; he killed himself because he carried unhappiness (embodied by that little photo) which no change in his life circumstances could relieve. Roger believed his LSD-taking had listed his pain, but it hadn't; the effects wear off.

In contrast, the women on the show seem to find their way to satisfaction through what they do: Peggy is now the professional equal of Don (as he acknowledges in their movie chat), Joan has gotten her partnership, Megan got a commercial. Does this mean they are already in a state of grace? And is part of that state simply a matter of knowing what they want and then being able to get it? (The general absence of Betty from this season also hints at her separation from this equation -- since Betty never knew what she wanted, only that she was unhappy with what she had; she was Don's mirror in that respect.)

Or is the Old Testament/New Testament breakdown along gender lines -- the women Old, the men New? There was that momet when Joan wondered if she could have done something for Lane (giving him what he wanted), attaching the idea of deeds to a character, Lane, who was far past being redeemed by a single sex act; his despair was far too deep for that. And, even if Joan wonders, it does not take away from her having succeeded, and on terms that she can live with. Don and Pete still cannot live with what they have done.

So where does this leave us going into the new season? Will Don, as the closing scene suggests, decide that all his good efforts don't matter -- so he might as well be the old Don? Has bruised and bloody Pete realized that his bad deeds don't matter -- because he's going to get that New York apartment and an office with a Don-level view? (If you're hearing Bill Murray in "Meatballs" in this narrative, so was I.)

But the problem with the old Don and the newer Pete is one that has dogged them and the agency throughout this season. They are out of step with the culture. Whille the agency is making money for now, how long before it becomes clear that the perfectly starched Don is as out of place in his business as he was at a rock concert? How far will the show leap in time for its next season, and how stark will be the world that the characters face? What happens when they're not only unable to make themselves happy, they can't make their clients, either?

I don't know if this is making sense. I had a good roll writing it earlier, only to lose it when a draft wasn't saved in my system. But there are always so many ideas spinning on "Mad Men," though not always good ones. (Once again I wondered why a show that is so well cast turned to Alexis Bledel for a pivotal role -- unless her unworthiness as an actress was meant to underline Pete's poor choices, since the woman he pursued was so not worth pursuing.)


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