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Didn't We Just Leave This Party?

By Sarah Carlson | TV | October 11, 2010 |

By Sarah Carlson | TV | October 11, 2010 |

Just 12 episodes into the “Mad Men” era of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce — a time period of about 19 months — we’re already seeing the possible collapse of the agency created by Sterling Cooper’s rogue leaders. And it’s a shame; the spark that began in Season Three’s finale “Shut the Door. Have a Seat” reignited the series for its Fourth Season, presenting a mostly new workplace with new story lines. Now, in Season Four’s “Blowing Smoke,” it simply feels that we’ve come full circle, back to an agency in trouble and back to characters scrambling to survive. SCDP lost most of its business when it lost American Tobacco, and its reps are having trouble bringing in new accounts, let alone getting potential clients to take a meeting. We’re back to where we were a season ago, but now, there’s even more to lose.

Don’s meeting with a Heinz executive, which Faye set up for him, doesn’t go as planned. The executive wants to work with a new agency, but he’d like to wait 6 to 8 months for Don to give him a pitch, just to make sure SCDP is still around then. That’s a sentiment the agency keeps hearing, and even after consultant Geoffrey Atherton sets SCDP up with a Phillip Morris meeting concerning a new line of cigarettes for women, that company bails and says they’d like to wait and see, too. With the agency losing 50 percent of its billing funds with American Tobacco leaving, the senior partners are asked to chip in to help sustain business for 6 months — $100,000 from Bert, Roger and Don, and $50,000 from Lane and Pete. Pete, who doesn’t have the funds, begins talks with a bank for a loan, which makes Trudy think they’re buying a house. In the end, though, Don covers Pete’s share.

It’s the least Don can do, as Pete probably thought for a second, considering the stunt he pulled: Don runs a full-page ad in the New York Times called “Why I Quit Smoking,” a letter stating that SCDP will no longer work with tobacco companies on campaigns. He writes that he was relieved when Lucky Strike parted ways with SCDP; when it comes to tobacco campaigns, he says, good work is irrelevant because people can’t stop themselves from buying the product. What he sees as a way to change the conversation about the agency, as Peggy had suggested he do, his partners see as suicide. “No one asked you to euthanize this company,” Lane says. Tons of calls pour in, and Faye has to leave the agency because her boss, Atherton, doesn’t want to sever ties with tobacco agencies — “Tobacco’s very touchy,” Faye tells Peggy. Don stands by his bold move, however, and the American Cancer Society approaches the agency about potential anti-smoking campaigns they could create. It’s public service work, but at least it’s work and a way to keep the agency’s name out there. Bert is tired of it all, though, and picks up his shoes and quits.

In the meantime, layoffs are necessary. Danny is out, and so are other largely nameless/plotless people in creative and around the office. The employees shuffle out with their belongings in hand, some crying, as those lucky enough to stay, such as Peggy and Stan, watch.

“Blowing Smoke’s” other stories fit in nicely with the theme of people telling others what they want to hear. Sally is becoming a pro at complying with Betty’s demands, and her psychiatrist, Dr. Edna, sees vast improvement in not only her behavior but her understanding of how it can be managed. Sally knows what to say to Betty, but her strength comes when she chooses to say what she’s really thinking. That, naturally, Betty can’t handle, and she’s surprised when Dr. Edna recommends they shorten Sally’s sessions to once a week. Betty is the one who really needs someone to talk to, Dr. Edna says, and recommends a colleague of her’s for Betty. Betty is more interested in thinking she knows what is best for Sally, which includes her crashing a playdate Sally has with the still-creepy but growing Glen, her only friend. The two had been meeting secretly to hang out and talk about anything, but learning this prompts Betty to suggest to Henry that the family finally move. Sally cries into her pillow at the news.

Another person blowing smoke is Midge Daniels (Rosemary DeWitt), an artist and former lover of Don’s from Season One. She runs into him outside his office and, learning he now lives in Greenwich Village, invites him over to her apartment to meet her husband and look at her paintings. There, the husband tells Don that Midge would “do anything” he asked if he bought a painting of hers, and then he lets it slip that Midge didn’t run into Don but rather tracked him down. They’re clearly after Don’s money, and when Don gives the husband $10 to go buy food for dinner, he learns why Midge is so desperate: Heroin. “I know it’s bad for me, but it’s heroin, Don,” she says. “I just can’t stop.” He writes her a $300 check. “What am i going to do with a check?” she asks. He gives her $120 cash and takes the painting the husband had been trying to sell him and leaves.

Desperation is why SCDP isn’t attracting clients, Don tells his partners, a lesson he learned from Midge’s lame guise of reconnecting with an old friend. She wanted a fix, and the agency wants to stay afloat. No one wants to get the desperate guy or girl’s number at the party, and Don’s ad was a way of spinning the issue so that it appears SCDP is confident and in control. His secretary, Megan, sums it up nicely: It’s the “he didn’t dump me, I dumped him” routine, and it’s already working. His colleagues admit as much — people are talking about SCDP, not Lucky Strike.

So, what’s next? Can the executives pull off another gamble as they did when they quietly left Sterling Cooper at the end of 1963? This development almost feels forced, as if something dramatic needed to happen and creator Matthew Weiner decided to screw with the agency again. The goings on first at Sterling Cooper and now at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce always mirror the changes in the main characters’ lives as well as those in society, though. Season Three saw the beginning of big changes — Kennedy’s assassination, for example, in society, and the Draper’s divorce and the selling of Sterling Cooper among the characters.

Now, everything halfway through 1965 is going to hell, from civil rights woes to Vietnam, and the biggest message of the moment continues to be, basically, that the way things are working isn’t going to work anymore. The old-fashioned ideas of the old guard quickly are being discarded, and it’s time to sink or swim. Don’s gamble goes with this notion, and his partners are obtuse for not seeing its possibilities. They were willing to go out on a limb just a year and a half ago, and the sooner they realize it’s time to start telling people not just what they want to hear, but what they need to hear, the better.

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.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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