This Week on Dear Television:
She's an Astronaut
By Phillip Maciak
May 26, 2014
IDA BLANKENSHIP was not actually an astronaut. In season four, after her death, Bert Cooper eulogized the batty old lady who had moved from desk to desk at Sterling Cooper apparently since both she and he were young and virile: “She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the thirty-seventh floor of a skyscraper. She's an astronaut.” But Ida Blankenship was not an astronaut. She was a secretary at a Madison Avenue ad agency. Her ascent was not to the moon, nor was it even to an enfranchised place in the workforce a la Peggy Olson. She moved from an apparently impoverished birth — like Don Draper — but instead of founding an agency or flying to the stars or doing it Her Way, she died as a punchline secretary who’d been fucked by at least two separate bosses. Roger put it more succinctly, “She died as she lived, surrounded by the people she answered phones for.”
So Ida Blankenship wasn’t an astronaut. But neither is Roger Sterling, neither is Don Draper, and, most pointedly, neither is Bert Cooper. Burgerchef isn’t a family table, a Carousel isn’t a time machine, and the little boy who watches TV in your living room isn’t your son. It’s helpful, I think, to remember the tale of Ida Blankenship, The Astronaut — and to remember its teller — in context of last night’s delirious, hilarious, joyful, ultimately harrowing “Waterloo.” As fun as this show is, it’s about some pretty grimy shit. And as romantic as yet another last-ditch-save-the-company move might be—just like a $25 billion moon-shot—it’s all about the metaphors. Every great ad is a story, they say, and every life is a story, from Don’s to Ida’s. Despite the feeling of triumph and connection that suffused this episode, we have to wonder if a story’s all it is.
This has been, nominally, a season about progress, about reconciliation, and being your best self, but “Waterloo” asks us to consider what those things actually mean, what they actually materially amount to in the world. What is progress, in other words, for this gang of ad wizards? And does that look like what progress should? We ended last week’s episode with our original threesome — Don, Peggy, Pete — sitting around a table like a little holy family. We forgot — or were asked to forget — momentarily that Pete is a vicious misogynist, voluntarily absent father, and [possible] rapist; that Don is a liar and an adulterer; and that Peggy has been repeatedly betrayed by them both in order to guarantee her role at a company that still doesn’t take her seriously. It felt great, but it looked just like any number of similar family scenes we’ve beheld since the first season that have all proven to be pleasing, delusional tableaux in the midst of a chaos of sex, disloyalty, and loss. So, progress, reconciliation, best self? Yes. But not one of these people is an astronaut. Everybody still works in advertising, and that’s a big problem.
Advertising, it’s a messy business. We’re finally getting to the big question that waits at the end of Mad Men, just like it did at the end of The Sopranos, just like it did at the end of Breaking Bad. Don can stop cheating on his wife, he can stop drinking, he can value loyalty over narcissism; Peggy can beat the odds, she can give herself an identity that isn’t dependent on men — note that she chose the dress she liked over the grey, manly suit; Tony Soprano can save his son’s life, he can take mercy on his nephew, he can reconcile with the uncle who tried to kill him, he can eat all the onion rings he wants — but can you be a good person and still do this job? Are any of Don’s or Ted’s or Peggy’s stabs at redemption meaningful in the context of the fact that they make their livings selling cigarettes that kill their consumers or selling burgers that kill their consumers? More so than ever, this critique has been roiling beneath all of the events of this season. Peggy, who, as Annie has claimed, is Mad Men’s real hero, is perhaps the worthiest of redemption inasmuch as her struggle to have a voice is a struggle to give women a voice in an industry that silences them, but isn’t Peggy’s 1965 only marginally better than Don’s 1955? And, in this industry, making pitches like the pitch she made to Burgerchef, what does her 1975 look like? Or, more to the point, isn’t advertising the problem?
In season three, when the gang started a new agency, they did so, as Don reminds us this episode, to escape McCann-Erickson, the mega-agency that had long been described to us as the soulless sausage factory of Madison Avenue. It’s the big box store to SC&P’s Mom and Pop shop. It represents the death of creativity, the death of individualism, the death of the connection Peggy and Don so desire. “Do you know why I don’t want to go to McCann?” Don asked Peggy in that episode.
Because there are people out there who buy things, people like you and me. And something happened. Something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves…is gone. And nobody understands that. But you do. And that’s very valuable.
This was a beautiful moment, one of Don’s most moving monologues, but can you tell me what it means? Literally, parse that nonsense for me. It’s gobbledygook! At its best, this is an argument for advertising — and thus consumption—as a type of self-definition. Advertising isn’t about the product, it’s about allowing consumers to become who they are by connecting with the product. It’s a family supper, it’s a time machine, IT’S TOASTED. That’s a decent description of what psychological advertising does, but is that a good thing? A less generous way of understanding this speech is that it’s an advertisement targeted at Peggy by someone who legitimately knows, and shares, her desire. There’s an emptiness there, there’s a hole, and writing this copy, projecting these desires, that’s something that fills the hole. But just because the hole gets filled doesn’t mean it’s fixed. Abe knew it, and he left. Megan knew it, and now she’s gone. Maybe advertising doesn’t do anything but take away the sting for these two lonely people. Maybe it’s just like the booze and the women — a distraction from an unbearable emptiness.
The social good that Don presents in this monologue might be a sham, but his pragmatic pitch to Ted feels like the truth. Ted is so empty that he flirts with committing suicide by airplane at the beginning of the episode, and his attempt at retirement — like Megan’s two seasons ago—brings the issue of advertising as a profession to the fore here. But Don talks him out of it: “I know you, I know the man who I walked into Chevy with. You don’t have to work for us, but you have to work. You don’t wanna see what happens when it’s really gone.” So, to recap, in four seasons, Don’s argument on behalf of advertising has gone from There’s something missing in the world that you’re uniquely able to provide to You need something to do to occupy your time until you die on your couch. The content of the ads is immaterial, it’s the structure and ritual that keeps these people alive. After a certain point, it doesn’t matter who you work for: stopping is the enemy.
So why does Don want to work for McCann now? Back in season three, Sterling, Cooper, Draper, and Price holstered up their guns and bolted to a new agency. But Lane hung himself and Don flamed out. SCDP joined forces with CGC, but it nearly destroyed Ted and Peggy, and Don flamed out again. Don and company have been successfully avoiding McCann for half a decade, and all it’s done is given them is a half a decade in which to accumulate rust all on their own. And now, McCann sees SC&P as a rival. This seems like a triumph, but it’s not. McCann looks at SC&P and sees a new McCann. And they’re willing to pay $65 million to prove they’re right. Draper talks about the agency as a radical alternative to the cogs at McCann. But just as Ida isn’t an astronaut, neither is Don a cowboy. And SC&P is McCann. This isn’t a compromise; it’s a homecoming.
And it’s not about greed necessarily, and it’s not about selling out. At the heart of this show has always been a valorization — and admiration — of a kind of artisanal production. Draper’s work was qualitatively different, better even, than everyone else’s. It’s commerce, and it’s art. And while the show recognized the irony in this, it was also something that was winkingly folded into the show’s premise and only occasionally critiqued by hippies, Marxists, beatniks, and other laughable, historical sticks in the mud. Part of the drama of this season has been the threat that the computer poses to that type of organic creativity. Now, I think Mad Men is ready to break it all down, if it’s interested. Peggy tells Don this episode, “I have to talk to people who just touched the face of God about hamburgers.” It’s a funny line, but the part that isn’t very funny is that Peggy pulls it off. She gives her triumphant pitch, and its primary spectacle lies in the way that she renders touching-the-face-of-God as not inconsistent with hamburgers. There’s something perverse about this skill, something more than a little bit sinister. Whether it means Peggy’s puncturing a mythos or creating a new one, it’s spooky. And I think this show might be ready to acknowledge the emotional significance of Peggy’s success and her reconciliation with Don while also taking the hippies and the beatniks and the Marxists seriously.
This is the first half of a single final season. As it stands, with a few exceptions, all the important relationship arcs are successfully and satisfactorily wrapped up. As a number of people have said on twitter, this would’ve been a fine series finale, and, were this Lost, it would be. But it’s not, and the rise of McCann means that the show has something else on its mind — it’s time to talk about the island. We’ve now got seven more episodes to deal with what it is these people do, what their work does in the world, what their legacy will be for us in the present. We’ve established that they have to work to live, that they find meaning in that work, but the show really has yet to sit down to an examination of that work that’s as unsparing, as cruelly observational as its examinations of these people.
Thus the tonal shift. I’m pretty firmly in the camp of those who found Bert’s musical number in keeping with the show’s broader scope. We’ve seen hallucinations, we’ve had dream sequences, there have been musical numbers, and we had an entire episode on speed last season. But I do concede that this was a shocker, and I think its placement means a great deal. This episode is supposed to feel as though it’s brought everything to a close. Roger saves the company, Don keeps his job, Peggy takes the mantle from her mentor, they hug, and Don goes “back to work.” Bert’s song and dance — and Don’s ghastly expression — sundered that entirely. I see this show going down a grim path, but its willingness to break itself like this makes it totally thrilling television. This is where the joy comes from, this embrace of performance. Its platitudes echo those of previous hallucinations — “Your tooth isn’t the only thing that’s rotten!” — but its cracking of the diegetic space of the episode is more the point. Don leans down against a desk because the ground beneath his feet, despite being more solid than it has been all season, no longer feels real. This moment might be the fall that’s depicted in the opening credits, with Don glassy-eyed looking into the white space around all of those color ads, into the gleeful maw of Bert Cooper. It’s advertising, it’s theater, it’s all for show. Don was born in a whorehouse and he’s likely going to die on the thirty-seventh floor of a skyscraper. He’s not an astronaut, so what the hell is he?
That’s a very sensitive piece of horse-flesh,