Of what was everything?
Sunday April 20th 2014

Mad Men: “Blowing Smoke”: Change the conversation

Mad Men "Blowing Smoke"
Midge Daniels (Rosemarie DeWitt), Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Perry Demuth (John Ales) take a walk on the wild side in "Blowing Smoke"

Before there was Jerry Maguire, there was Don Draper.

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Don’s manifesto “Why I’m Quitting Tobacco” – published as an ad in the New York Times and fairly reminiscent of the self-immolating rant in that great Cameron Crowe movie – is the centerpiece of “Blowing Smoke,” throwing open a whole slew of new possible future directions as the show chugs toward next week’s season finale.

With the defection of Lucky Strike, everyone in the ad world is watching the vultures circling the rapidly expiring corpse of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.  And since this is business, other companies are racing away from the smell of death as fast as they can, lest the stench latch on to them as well.

Pete and Kenny can’t even get meetings anymore to pitch for the new accounts that could get the agency back on its feet.   Roger has pie-in-the-sky visions of landing a whale like United Airlines or General Motors, a notion Pete shoots down immediately with his zinger “I’m out there beating the bushes every day…you should try it.”

But following a disappointing sitdown with a “wait and see” exec from Heinz and the embarrassment of an aborted meeting with Phillip Morris (really just a wickedly cold negotiating tactic by the tobacco giant at SCDP’s expense), Don realizes there’s absolutely no conventional way his firm can crawl back into the game by the old-fashioned means.

“We’re going to sit at our desks and keep typing while the walls fall down around us,” an angry and resigned Don says.  But thanks to the odd combination of faithful sidekick Peggy and former-mistress-turned-heroin-addict Midge, a seed gets planted for Don’s Hail Mary attempt to save the agency.

“If you don’t like what they’re saying about you, change the conversation,” Peggy tells Don.

Of course, they’re Don’s own words being thrown back at him, but obviously, Peggy is paying attention under Don’s tutelage.  “Blowing Smoke” continues the post-“Suitcase” progression of the Don-Peggy relationship as Peggy first calms Don’s nerves before the Morris meeting, then seems to be the only one with some fight left in her after it appears the agency’s fortunes won’t rebound.

LAST WEEK: Read the Bunker review of last week’s Mad Men episode “Chinese Wall”
ARCHIVES: Read all of this season’s “Mad Men” reviews

TRANSCRIPT: Read the full “Why I’m Quitting Tobacco” letter from Don printed in the New York Times

Before their blowup, Peggy obsessed about all the credit she wasn’t getting from Don.  But now, while he doesn’t thank Peggy for the push she gives to help launch Don’s manifesto, his gratitude is clear when he asks Peggy what she thought of the ad.

“I thought you didn’t go in for those kinds of shenanigans,” Peggy replies, harkening back to the tongue-lashing Don gave her after the Sugarberry Ham fiasco back in the season premiere.

Meanwhile, arty, free-spirit Midge returns, running into Don seemingly by coincidence in the Time-Life building lobby – and the last few years have not been kind to Midge.

While she and Don were an item back in season 1, Don was always most drawn to her bohemian freedom and refusal to be caged.  At the time, Don thought she was the kind of creatively fulfilled, unchained and uncompromised person that he wanted to be himself.

But heroin doesn’t play favorites – and now, Midge is just another junkie, holed up in a rundown apartment with maybe husband Perry, hoping to score some money from Don to feed her habit.

“(Perry) said (heroin) would help me take my mind off my work,” Midge says. “Turns out, it’s a full time job.”

“Think my work’s any good?” Midge asks. “Does it matter?” Don replies.

Midge can’t shake the heroin — and that addiction sparks Don’s imagination.  So was the manifesto completely motivated by SCDP’s dire situation?  Maybe I’m being naive, but I tend to think at least part of Don really does believe that tobacco advertising was a morally gray area.  Yes, the ad was a definite move to “change the conversation”…and I think a guy like Don would argue to his last breath that it was all about business.

But people do matter to Don Draper.  Midge mattered to him once.  Right and wrong and the Golden Rule do have some value in Don’s world.  I don’t think it’s beyond possibility that a big piece of Don’s manifesto came out of good, old-fashioned righteous anger.  Of course, if you can do it with fully acceptable business reasons as cover, so much the better.

Turning from Don’s past sex buddies to his current bedmate, Faye scores again this week, once again saying and doing all the right things to keep her relationship with Don on track. She not only understands Don’s reluctance to cater to tobacco companies, she’s even reassuring and supportive after Don’s ad gets her pulled out of the SCDP office by boss Geoffrey Atherton.

Now, Faye says, she and Don can date openly. “It’s a fair trade,” Faye says.  You have to wonder if she’d feel the same way if she knew what happened in that office just a few weeks ago with Megan, but for now, she’s all about keeping things going with Don.

And boy, now don’t all you Megan-haters out there feel bad?  Don’s ridiculously hot secretary is the only one who outright praises Don for the conviction of his anti-cigarette stand.  She even nails part of his motive, noting the ad put a “he didn’t dump me, I dumped him” spin on the SCDP-Lucky Strike breakup to help shake the firm’s “dead man walking” public image.

“I just love that you did it,” she tells Don. “It feels different around here.”

While it would be easy to assume she’s just currying favor with the boss, it was a good week for Megan in the “bag Don Draper” sweepstakes.

Meanwhile in Ossining, it just gets more and more depressing for poor Sally.  Stuck in a home she hates, Sally has fully embraced the advice of budding boyfriend and resident neighborhood weird kid Glen Bishop, bending over backwards to please her mother in an effort to keep Betty off her back.

Sally’s “kill ‘em with kindness” approach works like gangbusters, even eliciting praise from Dr. Edna.  Yes, young Sally is quite gifted at putting on a public face and playing the dutiful, obedient daughter role while inside obsessing about and seething over her situation.  A youngster able to read her surroundings and play the part of somebody else to stay out of trouble?  Gee, I wonder where she got THAT from?

As for Betty…well, she’s becoming even more infuriating than ever these days, isn’t she?  First, she rips into Sally for her friendship with Glen.  Of course, her orders to stay away from Glen probably don’t have as much to do with protecting her daughter as avoiding any ramifications from her, um…odd dealings with this kid back a couple seasons ago.

Then, Betty uses the excuse of Ossining’s “lower caliber” people as justification to give Henry what he wants, promising to finally move out.  Once again, rather than confront a problem like an adult, Betty is ready to run away.  It’s not hard to see why her own daughter might hate her.

In fact, it makes me wonder what Weiner and crew’s see as the long-term arc for Betty as a character.  If most “Mad Men” fans don’t hate Betty already (and I think that safely covers the majority right about now), it’s not going to be long before the character has alienated everyone and is all but unredeemable.

It’s no coincidence that Betty won’t see the colleague Dr. Edna recommends, but does want to continue her sessions with the child psychologist.  Betty is a child…and the carnage of her broken marriage and unhappy children doesn’t seem to have changed her “me, me, me” mindset in the least.

Other thoughts…

  • Hard not to smile at Ted Chaough’s Robert Kennedy prank call.  Even with the horrendous RFK impersonation, I completely bought it at first, just like Don did (even though I thought during the scene that it was a REALLY atrocious Robert Kennedy impression and wondered why they didn’t just show us Don’s side of the call only.)

Dropped into the middle of all hell breaking loose in the wake of the ad, it actually seemed like an RFK call could point the way to saving the agency.  Having the call, bad accent and all, turn out to be gloating from super-annoying Ted was a nicely-executed, amusing little piece of narrative misdirection.  Well played, guys.

  • We haven’t seen art director Stan Rizzo engage in much at SCDP outside of his quasi-mating rituals with Peggy, but I enjoyed the moment of respect as Stan reads Don’s letter to the congregating staffers.  While Stan doesn’t often seem too impressed by much of anything, his brief acknowledgment of Don when his boss walks into the office after the ad indicates Stan endorses Don’s stand.

We’ve heard how brilliant Stan is, but we haven’t seen much to back that up.  Being one of the few who understands what the ad could mean for SCDP, Stan rises a couple notches in my book.

  • Unfortunately, the shrinking account dollars mean staff cuts, none more painful than seeing Danny get the axe.  “He’s kind of grown on me,” Peggy admits – and I gotta agree.  As with Matt Long earlier this season, the addition of Danny Strong, even for just a few episodes, speaks to the caliber of young actors a show with the pedigree of “Mad Men” can attract, even for mostly small roles.  We’ll miss ya, Danny…
  • …But that can’t really be it for Bert, right?  For a minute, I actually thought Bert might be the only one of Don’s partners crazy enough to see how the ad may not be the professional suicide that it appears.  But no, angry Bert collects his shoes, wishes the kids well and ditches SCDP, possible for good.  Could this be the latest episode of “Oh, that’s just crazy old Bert again” or might we actually be seeing Bert Cooper’s farewell this season?
  • Now that we’ve had a return from Don’s other season 1 extramarital conquest, isn’t it getting to be time for another drop-in from Rachel Menken?

We haven’t heard from Rachel since she bumped into Don in that restaurant and told him she was married back in “The New Girl” early in season 2.  That was four years ago in “Mad Men” time and it seems like she’s due for a return of some kind.

Hopefully, Maggie Siff’s regular gig on “Sons of Anarchy” wouldn’t preclude that from happening.  You’d think if Alison Brie and Rosemarie DeWitt can make guest appearances while serving as regulars on “Community” and “United States of Tara” respectively, Weiner and Co. could find a way to get Siff in should the story opportunity present itself.

  • I’m sure I probably missed it somewhere, but I was surprised when Lane confirms that he isn’t a senior partner at the firm.  Because of his role in the original Sterling Cooper mutiny, not to mention having his name on the door, I guess I thought Lane was on equal footing with Don, Roger and Bert.  However, Lane clearly says the bank wants $100,000 each from the “senior partners” and “$50,000 from Mr. Campbell and I.” Of course, considering the company is sinking under his feet, maybe it’s something of a relief.

And even though he admonishes Don for not alerting the other partners to the Times’ ad, Lane does seem to be the only one who even entertains the possibility that Don’s bold gambit could pay off.  Just another reason we love Lane…that and his big Texas belt buckle.  Yee-haw!!!

  • With the finale just days away, it’s hard not to wonder what that last episode, not to mention the inevitable time jump forward between seasons, will hold.  I won’t make any predictions here (mostly because Weiner and Co. always seem to prove me wrong anyway), but there is at least one prophecy I think we may see a hint of next week.

It was back in “Christmas Comes but Once a Year” when Faye predicts that Don will “be married again in a year.” Considering how right she seems to be about everything else, I’d be surprised if that little toss-off line wasn’t a clue about what’s to come.  Could Don and Faye be hitched by the time season 5 rolls around?  Just a thought…

  • Finally, not an overwhelming abundance of great lines tonight, but as a writer and mostly creative type myself, I thought Don had the quip of the night…

“We’re creative – the least important most important thing there is.”

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