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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Mad Men season four, episode 12: Blowing Smoke

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read any further if you have not seen tonight's episode of Mad Men.

Just one thought to share about tonight's episode of Mad Men. With his full-page ad in the New York Times—'Why I'm Quitting Tobacco'—Don used his pain much the way he did in the classic season one finale, 'The Wheel': he gave its raw material creative form by making it into a sales pitch.

At the end of season one, he projected his own family photos—at exactly the moment when he feared he had lost his family—to explain why Kodak's Wheel should be renamed the Carousel. Tonight's episode, set in September 1965, featured the return of Don's season one boho mistress Midge, played by Rosemarie DeWitt. She's married now but not to Roy, the beatnik whom Don saw she truly loved back in episode 8. Now she's a heroin junkie living badly with the guy who got her hooked and who is clearly willing to pimp her out for a fix. Don discovers this on the night before a pitch meeting meant to win the account to market a new cigarette intended for women.

Don, who has only recently come to loose grips with his own alcoholism, tries to keep his feelings tightly held under his steely exterior, but he cannot bring himself to throw out Midge's painting. When he turned to his recently begun journal, I know I was not the only audience member who expected more earnest self-reflection of the kind we have seen since his post-Clio crash. That he began by tearing out his earlier pages should have told us how he would turn this new pain into work. He begins a new composition: the open letter that, when we first hear it, sounds like a conscience-driven rejection of addictive tobacco. 'Here was my chance to be someone who could sleep at night,' he writes, instead of someone addicted to the money from luring people towards death by cigarette. Surely, he means what he is writing, no?

Don's voiceover proceeds through shots of him swimming—his meditation—and into the next morning when his stunned colleagues at SCDP continue the recitation as the letter's contents transition into statements about the firm's intentions: the private journal has become the full-page ad. Confronted by puzzled ad men, Don leaves no uncertainty about the letter's purpose: 'It's an ad for this agency.' He corrects star-struck secretary Megan's awe at his courage: 'That's really not what it was about.'

But does that necessarily make the content any less sincere, and is that even a question we should be asking? Did Don mean these words any less than when he spoke of being taken back 'to a place where we know we are loved', words that made Harry Crane flee the room in tears back in 1960? Do we doubt that Don hates what addiction has done to his old flame and that, sitting with his pen and pad, he recognizes his own culpability in related enterprises?

Why then should he not use this moment to drum up new business for the firm? Hasn't his creativity always been the self-therapy by which he sublimates his suffering, turning it into something more? Here then is an instance, albeit fictional, to corroborate T.S. Eliot's Tradition and the Individual Talent: 'Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.'

Was Don sincere or insincere in what he wrote about tobacco? Whether the letter expresses Don's true feelings is no longer the question once it becomes a public act. We cannot draw clear lines through the work between the sincere and the insincere. The impossibility of certainty—the endless multiple readings that the show engenders—is one of the things that makes Mad Men great. Although tonight's episode did not feel like the Carousel speech, it came from the same place: not the place where we know we are loved, but the place where the pain from an old wound becomes art, advertising included.



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