How Do You Like Me Now?
Another stellar "Mad Men" episode aired Sunday, at the same time the series was winning its third consecutive Emmy Award for TV drama. And at this rate, it already is poised to win its fourth in 2011 -- one that may be its most deserved. I won't say the show is better than other dramas such as "Breaking Bad" or "Dexter," though of course it's safer and thus more likable by Emmy voters (who are forever dead to me for overlooking "The Wire" during its run). But on its own terms, "Mad Men" is finding the perfect balance of drama and humor this season.
Sunday's "Waldorf Stories," the sixth episode, played as a nice origins story, whether we were seeing how Don first got his foot in the door at Sterling Cooper or watching the train wreck of an interview Don was conducting in present time with a wide-eyed copywriter, Danny Siegel (Danny Strong, of "Gilmore Girls"). Danny is Jane Sterling's cousin, and he keeps dropping Roger's name as he shows Don and Peggy his portfolio, which mostly contains old advertisements he admires and his own creations, all of which play on the phrase "The cure for the common cold." He likes the idiom, he says. "It's an idiom, did you know that?" Don asks Peggy smartly, as she tries to remain professional in front of the self-ascribed "24-year-old kid" who just wants a job. "I don't want to jump on his grave or anything, but there's no way he's 24. I'm 25," Peggy says after Danny leaves and Don wonders if they are on Candid Camera. Meeting someone clearly beneath her talent level is reassuring to Peggy, though, as she thinks about where she stands in the business and talks to Don about the industry's Clio Award ceremony that afternoon. She predicts Don's Glo-Coat campaign will win in its category. Don asks her how her Vicks account is going, but she says she can't work with the new art director, Stan Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson). Don's reply, essentially, is "tough." "I'm not the problem," Peggy says. "You are because Stan is talented and more experienced," Don replies. "You need to learn to work with him, not the other way around."
Don heads to Roger's office, where the boss is dictating his life story for his memoirs to his secretary and pondering why most of his tales come from his childhood. The two have a laugh about Danny -- Roger: "I told him to be himself. That was pretty mean, I guess. When does he start?" Don: "The first of never." -- but Roger isn't entirely kidding about hiring Danny; he doesn't want to deal with how Jane will react if he doesn't. Cut to the past, when Roger's hair still had gray in it and Don was selling fur coats. Roger is looking for something for "his mother," and Don is young, eager and disturbingly not jaded. Roger isn't a fan of the slogans Don has come up with for the fur store's ads, but he hands Don his card anyway. Don asks if he can give Roger a call. "First of all, you need 20 more of those," Roger says, pointing to Don's ad, "and second of all, no." Roger heads back to a hotel room where a young Joan awaits and, and he gives her the mink -- "Oh, Roger, you shouldn't have." Don has stuffed his portfolio in the fur box, as well, a move Roger thinks is out of line. Back at present, Roger yells to his secretary that he thinks he finally has a work story for his book.
The Clios continue to approach this Friday afternoon, and when the staff learn that the meeting with Life cereal executives has been postponed because of bad weather, they bust out the booze to tide them over before the ceremony. Peggy clearly wishes she could attend, but Pete says he only got four tickets -- though one is going to Joan, who will be there to charm potential customers. Peggy says she has work to do and returns to the creative office, where Stan is impressing secretaries with his video reels of Ku Klux Klan rallies in Alabama. (Did anything not depressing happen in Alabama in the 1960s?) She mocks the girls for falling for his pretension and tries to get him to work on Vicks. He needs inspiration, he says, which is her job to first deliver. Stan sees her as repressed and afraid of her body, which doesn't seem relevant considering the product is cough drops, but OK. Peggy still hates him. Later, as they are working, Peggy grumbles about not receiving recognition for her contributions to the Glo-Coat ad. "I was clapping" when the award nominations were announced for Don, she said, "and he thought I was clapping for him." "Who claps for themselves?" Stan retorts, before calling her "Toots" and telling her to take down his ideas for Vicks. "Why don't you write down my ideas?" she asks.
Meanwhile, Don, Roger, Pete and Joan are at the Waldorf-Astoria for the Clios, where they run into Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm), of Cutler Gleason and Chaough, whom they crushed in a recent competition for the Honda motorcycle campaign. Chaough tries to get a few barbs in, coming across as almost petulant in his inferiority issues, but Don and Roger, still drinking, brush him off. Pete and Joan run into Ken Cosgrove and a client of his, who remarks that he's heard "the old team's getting back together." Kenny tells him that the plans aren't final, leaving a confused Pete to wonder if SCDP is merging with Ken's company. He tries to ask Don about it at the table, but Don is in no mood to talk. The ceremony is starting, getting off to a rollicking start with a no-longer-sober Duck Phillips (Mark Moses) heckling the emcee and being escorted from the banquet hall. "God, I miss working with that guy," Roger says. "I feel like I've already won," Don adds. He does win for the Glo-Coat ad, and the look on his face as he rushes to the stage to accept the award is reminiscent of the look he had in the fur store that day meeting Roger -- full of hope. He brings the statue back to the SCDP table, where an agency secretary appears to tell them the Life executives have made it to town after all and are at the office. Pete wants to reschedule, but Don, in his booze haze of glory, insists they run back for the presentation.
Now full-on tipsy, Don presents his Life campaign, talking about nostalgia and how one can make life more fun. "Eat Life by the Bowlful" is his pitch, featuring a kid with an oversized bowl of cereal and spoon, but the Life reps worry that not every customer would appreciate the irony of the ad. Don then begins to rapidly list other slogan ideas, most of which are terrible: "Life is just a bowl of life cereal," "Life is sweet," Enjoy the rest of your Life ... cereal." And then: "Life, the cure for the common breakfast." The Life guys love it, and Don and Pete are happy, but Peggy realizes that it's a take-off of Danny's slogan he had shown them only hours before. She tries to tell this to Don as he and the awards crew heads back to the ceremony, but he quickly asks her how the Vicks progress is coming and yells to his secretary, Ms. Blankenship, to book a hotel room for Peggy and Stan for the weekend so they can focus on the campaign. Blankenship doesn't believe Peggy when she tells her Don was only joking about the room; that, and she doesn't have the energy to track him down to clarify. Peggy then tries to talk to Pete, but he quickly tells her he doesn't have time and goes to see Lane. Pete wants to know if SCDP is merging with Ken's company, but it turns out Ken has expressed interest in moving to the agency and bringing select clients with him. Pete is rightfully upset, having been beat out for the head of accounts position by Ken back at the old Sterling Cooper (and under Lane's watch), and Lane apologizes for not discussing the situation with him. "You never liked me, you picked him over me," Pete says, and Lane tells him that if his "tantrum" has subsided by Monday, he's free to have lunch with him and Ken. "Roger Sterling is a child, and frankly we can't have you pulling the cart all by yourself," Lane says, adding that personally, he's always been fond of Pete.
Now stuck in a hotel room with Stan, Peggy is trying to work on the Vicks account while he looks at dirty magazines. She tries to call Don, which amuses Stan as he refers to their "special" relationship. Peggy tells him he has the wrong idea, but he's quick to say he didn't mean their relationship was sexual. "You think he'd be caught dead with you? There's wallpaper more exciting," he says, flipping through his magazine. "Are you going to work, or are you just going to stare at pictures of women who can't stare back?" she asks, in one of her many great lines of the episode. Stan is still stuck on the notion that she's uptight and repressed, and Peggy tells him he doesn't know anything about her. "I know you're ashamed of your body, or you should be at least," he says. Then, Peggy starts undressing. "You're lazy, and you have no ideas," she says, now down to her underwear, slip and nylons. "You're a fruitcake, you know that?" he says, watching her undress. "And you're chicken shit," Peggy fires back. "I can work like this -- let's get liberated." Stan takes her bait, and strips down to unfortunately unflattering briefs. Then Peggy removes her bra and underwear, daring Stan to remove his. As they sit at the hotel room's table, naked, she says, "Let's talk cough drops," and then peers over at Stan's nether-regions. "Don't flatter yourself, it's involuntary. It was left over from the magazine." Sure, Stan.
At the reception after the Clios, a woman asks Roger and Joan if Don is "attached," and Joan tells her he's available as Roger makes catty comments. (Don has already tried to hit on Faye at the reception, but she let him know he's "confusing a lot of things at once.") "They don't seem to give awards for what I do," Roger laments. "And what is that?" Joan asks. "Find guys like him," he replies, gesturing to Don. "You've crossed the border from lubricated to morose," she says, a condition he's been nursing for decades now, apparently, as we see another flashback. Roger is waiting for an elevator when Don comes up to greet him, pretending to have a meeting in the building, a bad lie Roger calls him out on. He also tells Don that slipping his portfolio into the fur box wasn't smooth. "Maybe it was a bad idea, but didn't you try to get a break once?" Don asks before offering to buy him a drink. "It's 10 a.m.," Roger says, a reaction that won't stick long in his life. Roger ends up drunk at the restaurant and Don offers to get him a cab home. "How can I hire you?" Roger asks. "You know too much about me."
Peggy is still toying with Stan, though actually working on Vicks material. When she sees he's not paying attention, but is still aroused, she says, "This pencil's a little dull. Maybe I should dip that thing in some ink and write with it." "Stop looking," Stan protests. "Thought I might make it go away," she replies. They stare at each other for a few seconds, and Stan gives in, putting on his clothes and telling Peggy she wins. Her prize: Being the "smuggest bitch in the world." He has "to take a leak," and a smirking Peggy just sits there, putting on her bra and soon calling out to him to see if he wants anything to eat.
Don has scored with the woman who inquired about him at the reception. We see him go to bed with her, a brunette, but as the sky changes from night to day, he wakes up with a blonde. The phone is ringing, and it's a furious Betty, wondering why he is two hours late to pick up Sally and Bobby. He learns it's already Sunday and tells Betty he's under the weather. Then it's time to wake up the blonde -- Doris, a waitress who calls him Dick who he apparently met Saturday. He has to politely kick her out of his apartment as he contemplates the shambles that are his life. Don later pours himself another drink and sleeps on the couch, the sky changing from day to night. There's a knock at the door, and it's Peggy, asking him why he's been out of contact all weekend. She has to break it to him: The idea he pitched to Life was essentially stolen from Danny. He doesn't even remember the pitch, and admits the slogan "The cure for the common breakfast" is terrible. "Neither you nor the client was in the condition to notice," she says. Fixing it is up to him, she adds, and the Life reps need to be told the pitch won't work. She's just spent a weekend in a hotel room with "that pig" and is tapped out. What hotel room? Don asks, and, clearly annoyed, Peggy leaves the hungover Don alone, sitting with his head slumped to his chest.
At the office Monday, Stan is showing Joey his ideas for the Vicks ad. "That's pretty much how I pitched it," he said, looking at the storyboard. "That's true, he only changed one little thing," Peggy says, holding up her thumb and pointer finger an inch apart. For. The. Win. In the conference room, Pete meets with Ken before his lunch with Lane, marking his territory and wanting to know if Ken will do what he's told. He wipes the smile right off Ken's face, and Ken agrees to play by Pete's rules. Then, Pete leans back, puts his hands behind his head and asks Ken about his wedding plans, clearly more pleased with himself than he deserves. Danny is waiting in Don's office, and Don offers him $50 for the right to use Danny's bad "common" phrase. Danny would rather have a job, but Don then ups the price to $100 as freelance work. He doesn't have to buy it, Don tells Danny -- he could just use it. Take the money, he says. "You wouldn't even be in this room if it weren't for Roger," Don says. "But it's all I have," Danny replies. "That, and my ideas." Later, Don escorts Danny out of his office and tells Peggy to take him to Joan, saying Danny is starting next Monday. "Are you kidding?" Peggy asks. "You will not be sorry!" an enthused Danny tells Don. Don's answer: "Go away."
Don heads to Roger's office, where Roger has Don's award. He had left it at the reception Friday, and Roger says he'll give it back to Don if he says one thing: "You couldn't have done it without me." "Did I not say that?" Don asks. "I was wrong." They shake hands, and the scene flashes back. A weary Roger again is standing by the office building's elevators and again is joined by Don. Roger wants to know what Don is doing there. "You told me to come in -- you hired me," Don says. Roger has no memory of it, but into the elevator they go, Roger wondering what he got himself into and Don starting the job that will change his life.
Don's origins in the advertising business are nicely mirrored with Danny's -- they both catch a break out of sheer luck and the alcohol-induced decision making of potential bosses. Whether Danny will turn out to be the next Don doesn't seem likely, but at least he gets his chance to try. That's all any of the characters wanted -- a shot, and to be recognized. The introduction of Stan is interesting, although his character at present is almost a caricature in his treatment of Peggy and women in general. But, the setup is classic -- the sexual tension that brews between two people who claim to hate each other -- but that might make it too easy of a chance for "Mad Men" to take.
Peggy's own liberation is brilliant, and while her taunting of Stan was great for laughs, her dealings with Don were even more important. Don needs her, which is something he realizes from time to time, especially when that time coincides with her deciding to stay or leave the agency. But after his Life fiasco, hopefully he'll take more time to recognize Peggy and let her know she's appreciated. And hopefully Peggy will learn that she doesn't need constant affirmation to know that she's talented. Don already gave her her chance by making her a copywriter; the rest is up to her.
And if the rest is a lot more fun when it consists of proving you've got guts by forcing a man to strip naked and talk about cough drops.
Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama with her overly excitable Pembroke Welsh Corgi.