The ‘Little Murders’ of ‘Mad Men’

A price above emeralds. ()
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Starlee Kine

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There’s no turning back now.

From this episode on, whenever we hear a joke from Roger that we like, we’ll also feel a sad tug as we remember how he acted last night. Bert Cooper’s ineffectiveness has taken on a much more threatening pallor. Lane maybe acted the worst because he pretended he was acting the best. The only one we might still look at the same way is Pete, since this is exactly what he’s always assured us we should expect from him. As for Joan, well, it was almost too much to take.

I have so many pages of notes about this one. I felt like I had some sort of obligation, maybe to Joanie, to get it all down. I watched it twice in a row and all the lines that were already so drunk with meaning took on even more criss-crossing layers. They were both times just as sad.

We start off by comparing a Jaguar to a mistress, the girl who “will do stuff that your wife won’t.” None of the writers are objecting to the idea of having one; the problem lies with whether it’s an original enough angle. Don doesn’t like the word itself. Peggy, always the other woman in Don’s life, is boxed out of the meeting, staring in through the glass, as Roger uses his wad of cash to buy lobster for the boys.

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After a lifetime of getting stuffed on whatever he wanted, the client has a specific request. He wants to buy Joan’s beauty for a night. “I’m shy,” he tells Pete and Ken, like a coquettish schoolgirl dangling her ripe bounty before their eyes. They tell him it’s impossible because she’s married, which, like the arguments over the mistress concept, skirts right past the point again.

Pete takes it upon himself to bring the proposition up with Joan. He shows such initiative when it comes to the slimy underbelly of his job. He’s invigorated by the parts of it that turn the stomachs of everyone else, because these are the moments in which he excels. He would’ve made a stellar mortician. Later he complains to Trudy that he was in a “great mood” when he left work, after a day spent convincing a woman that her most valuable asset was her bod. It’s so comforting for him to be able to see things like that for once, a nice little reprieve from all the hundreds of afternoons he’s spent walking around in Peggy’s smart shadow. It’s only when he has to come home to his wife that his spirits sink.

I’ve mentioned Revolutionary Road in reference to Pete before but those headphones he was wearing seemed like a clear nod to the book, which ends like this: "But from there on Howard Givings only heard a welcome, thunderous sea of silence. He had turned off his hearing aid.”

Pete Campbell turned off his own internal hearing aid long ago, the one that reminded him of the son he failed to be and also the son he didn’t fight for. “We’ve all had nights where we make mistakes for free,” Pete tells Joan, before coming home to block out the noise of the world.

Mad Men has always been about the pitch, but in this episode there wasn’t a scene that went by where someone wasn’t attempting to buy or sell someone else. There were the overt examples: Ginsburg nervously asking permission to pitch his genius slogan to Don; Don’s ultimately irrelevant home-run with the clients; Megan’s twirl at her audition; her best friend’s slink across the conference table; the sound of those bills slapping Peggy’s face and the weight of that emerald falling against Joan’s throat.

But there were also so many smaller incidents, beginning at the moment Pete sat down in front of Joanie’s desk. He tries to do some backing in at first, by asking her advice on how to break the news to the office that they lost the Jaguar account. But almost immediately he’s switched to car-salesman tactics: “What would it take to make you a queen?”

She’s offended, sure, but also used to it all and dismissive because it’s just Pete, which is why he’s later able to say with a straight face to the other partners that she was mostly amused. It was really the pitch of his lifetime, that meeting. He’s become so much less afraid of the men than he is of the women. The idea of her being on board silences their limp protestations almost immediately, with the exception of Don, who leaves the room, which is itself a kind of silence. “Abstained in absentia” is one way of putting his vote. Out of sight, out of mind is another.

Or maybe Don has so little perspective on his own waning power that he really thought that was enough to end the conversation. It worked with Betty and used to work with Pete. He used to be the one man who could close the deal, who was reliably clutch; now he’s just the minority vote. All the things that were once regarded as his strengths are morphing, as the calendar pages tear away, into weaknesses.

Once Pete convinces the partners of Joanie’s complicity, it’s only a matter of figuring out a fee, putting a number on her value. Lane takes it from there, telling her that he’s looking out for her over and beyond the interests of the company, when really he’s looking out for himself. With that accent and his fine manners, he’s the perfect double agent. She asks whether Roger was involved in the conversation, and he says yes without elaborating, and leaves out the part about Don altogether.

That’s what did it. You can see the steely resolve come over her face. My heart broke at the notion of an alternative world where Lane comes in and tells Joanie she could do anything: be a copywriter, run the company. For months we’ve watched the employees of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce file into her office, one by one, their hearts on their sleeves, trusting her above all others. Never once did any of them tell her that. Not Peggy, who just wants dating advice. Not Don, who, though he respects her, also likes being her wingman. Certainly not Roger, the father of her child, who's so used to offering her money that he’s not at all surprised when another man gets the same idea. Even Joanie’s own mom pimps her out.

Joanie wants to be made a partner, and not the silent kind. The suggestion comes from Lane, pinning the scarlet "A" to Joanie’s chest like a brooch. Red on red: it doesn’t become her complexion at all. All the men get up when Megan enters the room, while Peggy gets a standing ovation from Ken that goes unheard. What’s the sound of two hands clapping while the client’s on speakerphone? Don also is deaf to her frustration. She calls up her old friend Freddy, whom she sold down the river, and he offers to help for the price of a piece of the pie and unlimited coffee refills.

This episode was all about how impossible it is to quantify your own value. Peggy has a meeting at a cheap diner and writes down a number. Should be pretty straightforward; that number is her worth. But the man who counters is Don’s greatest rival. While it might seem otherwise, it’s an act of desperation, this meeting. She so badly needs to believe she’s her own woman. If she didn’t, she would’ve questioned more whether Ted really wants her or just to wants to use her to get back at Don.

Megan wants to be taken seriously as an actress, but in Boston, the front row of men just wants to see how she looks walking out of the room. The play she’s auditioning for is Little Murders, which embodies every last theme of this show. From Roger Ebert’s 1971 review of the movie adaptation: “Alfred gets by in New York, sort of, by deadening himself to the terrible cries, smells, sights and pains the city keeps lobbing at him. You can’t feel pain if you can’t feel anything …. Sharp, intense experiences can still penetrate the shell: sex, pain, getting fired. But the gentler emotions have atrophied.” Peggy tells Ken, who takes solace in fiction, that it’s too late for the people in this office to start pretending to care about each other now. She started this season not sure whether she had it in her to act like a man; now she’s realizing that, more than that, she doesn’t want to be under the thumb of one. (Ken may be the show's only innocent. He tells Peggy he knows for a fact that SCDP will be losing the Jaguar account, since he can’t fathom that the lunchtime conversation with Herb would ever have gotten past the threshold of the restaurant.)

I’m skipping ahead a little bit and I’ll go back, but that last scene between Don and Peggy changed for me a lot the second time I watched. The first time, I was actually leaning forward toward the screen, so shaken and weepy over what was going on. To drag a dusty reference out from the garage, Peggy was the Elliot to my E.T. Everything she was feeling, I felt too. When Don kissed her hand, I too thought I might faint. But then, watching it for the second time, that kiss felt a lot more sinister. Considering that it came on the heels of Don’s lashing out, “Lets pretend I’m not responsible for every single good thing that’s ever happened to you,” it could be interpreted as one last attempt at a pitch. After all, when has a kiss from Don ever failed before? What woman has ever truly resisted? I’m not saying that interpretation is definitive, just that there’s room for it to live in the guest house of the one that says that kiss was an act of pure, unfiltered sweetness.

Two episodes back, Don left Ginsburg’s superior Sno-ball pitch in the back of a cab. The Don of earlier seasons would never have done that, and while the mental fallout of that move on his psyche hasn’t been explicitly addressed and that whole plot-line felt a little forced, you have to figure it’s been knocking around in Don's head ever since. Don did a lot of growing in this episode, ripping apart the fibers of his old habits like the Hulk tears through a pair of trousers. He recognizes that Ginsburg’s pitch is a winner and lets him know. He listens to what Megan has to say, after she walks out in a very Draper-family move (and I believed him when he said he doesn’t want her to fail). Don was never turned on more by her than when she was by his side, doing her job really, really well. Megan, ever having a handle on what she needs, seduces him before her big audition. “I want to walk in with confidence,” she says. “This isn’t for me,” says Don, which can mean both that he’s picking up on her ulterior motive and also that a dinosaur like himself still isn’t quite used to doing it on the Herman Miller office furniture. From behind a pane of glass, the alien Ginsburg observes how his former colleague Megan is able to come and go, unconsumed with the biggest account the company has ever seen, unfettered by the desire to be the best man in the room. No matter how many campaigns he wins, he will never own Don like she does.

Don is congratulated all around by his pitch, but in that way that you allow your kid just home from freshman year of college to explain to you who Heidegger was. Everyone’s in on the game but him. He thinks he must look so gallant leaving Joanie’s place, with his hat all cocked, a real life Superman in his suit: “I need to go home and prepare.” He got to her too late and even though she knows the truth, she doesn’t say a word. For reasons that were probably a mix of kindness, shame and pride she allows him to look like a fool the next day. He’ll never know whether it was he that won Jaguar over or she, and even if it was a combination of both, they didn’t do it as a team, a concept he has never approved of. “It’s very hard to get things done with you in another room,” says Ginsburg. “I obviously disagree,” answers Don. Now he’s lost the faith of his staff and has no way of gauging his value anymore. His greatest fear of being abandoned happened, at the hands of the three woman, humans, who make him feel the most whole.

I feel myself working around the edges of Joan’s story, backing myself into it like Pete, because it was really so upsetting to watch. Again, I found groddy Pete the most oddly compassionate of the four partners, because it’s so much in his nature to deal with these things. The way he delivered the line, “he’s not so bad,” felt like his way of saying sorry.

I didn’t want her to go through with it, and it was so smart how the show yanked away the relief we all felt over Don having gotten to her in time. J.J. Abrams take note: this is how you screw with chronology.

After four seasons of being treated like the kind of beauty that no one seems to want to own, she decides to write down her own number. “No negotiating,” she tells Pete, and after the barest crumb of a sigh, he simply says, “OK.” But even then, she doesn’t know her worth, because she’ll never be able to play out what would’ve happened if she’d said no. That’s not how tough decisions work. You don’t get to see the other player’s cards after you fold. And already she’s lost something seemingly valuable: the way that Don looked at her in the bar last week. That look, though, it’s so hard to tell if it’s on the side of good or evil. Is it worth its weight in emeralds or dust? It’s the same look Don gives Peggy in his office, and, based on her expression while she’s waiting for the elevator, she’d rather step out into the void than have to endure it any longer. The sight of Joanie by Pete’s side at the final partner’s meeting certainly makes Don’s "prepare to take a leap forward" line from last week sting.

Upon second viewing, Joan’s mother seemed even worse and her situation felt more dire. “Just stop,” Joanie tells her mom, before accepting a drink. You can’t feel the pain, you can’t feel anything. Her apartment felt smaller, even the gender of her child felt like an act of aggression against her, but all this might have been a few ways for me to reconcile her choice with the unlimited affection I have felt for her up 'til now. It’s not a judgment thing, but a fatigue thing. How are we going to get over this one? It’s true that Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore were able to work it out in Indecent Proposal after she slept with Robert Redford, but only after they gave the money back. I kid because that toxic air, it’s getting to me. In a great way, this show is making it a little hard to breathe.

Starlee Kine is a a frequent contributor to PRI's "This American Life." She writes The Girl, a weekly look at "Mad Men," every Monday this season. Previously: The spaghetti's on the wall as Ali Khan drowns 'Mad Men' in champagne.