"Paul Levinson's It's Real Life is a page-turning exploration into that multiverse known as rock and roll. But it is much more than a marvelous adventure narrated by a master storyteller...it is also an exquisite meditation on the very nature of alternate history." -- Jack Dann, The Fiction Writer's Guide to Alternate History

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Mad Men 2.2: The Advertising Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Mad Men's second episode of its second season was taut and tough, and stripped bare the wicked root of advertising that makes the entire series jump.

The action centers around an American Airlines plane that goes into the sea not far from Idlewild Airport (in 1962, not yet renamed Kennedy). The office is gathered around a radio, reporting news of the crash. It's a tragedy, and, unsurprisingly, there's a lot of black humor in the quips. That's about as good as it gets.

Mohawk Airlines is a client of Sterling Cooper. Don's thinking about what he can do to protect their image in the weeks ahead, with the public skittish about air travel. Duck, in contrast, sees a way to get the much bigger American Airlines as a Sterling Cooper client - the airline is desperate for the best advertising and publicity help it can get.

But there's a problem. Sterling Cooper can't represent two competing airlines. American is obviously a much better fish, but Don, providing whatever morality an advertising firm can muster, urges staying with Mohawk. Duck (of course) and Sterling oppose him. We're not sure about Cooper...

Meanwhile, Pete has learned that his father was on the plane. Vincent Kartheiser gives a prime performance, going through the various stages of denial and grief, complicated by the problematic relationship he had with his father. At the office, Don's reaction is the most humane (go home to your family) and Duck's the most vacuous (are you going to be working on the American acquisition? you're still upset? ok, sorry for your loss), but Pete's "finest" moment in all of this has yet to come.

Duck prevails with Cooper, Don gets the the news from Sterling that Mohawk must be dropped, and Don has to give Mohawk the bad news. But there's still no guarantee that American will go with Sterling Cooper, even though the way has now been cleared.

Pete lends a hand: He and Duck pitch to American, and Pete reveals that he is uniquely qualified to understand Anerican's situation, because he lost his father in the American Airlines crash.

This searing scene, more than any on the series so far, explains why Don never liked Pete. Don is no angel, but he struggles to do the right thing, has loyalty and other good qualities mixed in with the go-for-the-jugular and succeed at any price. Pete, who did try to see Don before the American meeting - perhaps to express doubts about what Pete was going to do (Don brushed him off - "not a good time") - sells another piece of his soul to the devil, offering the death of his own father as lure to get the client... Nothing succeeds like success in the ends justifying the means...

Who is more typical of the firm? Not Don, who is also starting to realize that Betty is not happy...

PS - The song that was played in the Japanese restaurant - "Sukiyaki" by Kyu Sakamoto- is one of my all-time favorites. First released in Japan in 1961, it became a #1 hit in the U.S. in June 1963 (so it works that a Japanese restaurant would be playing it in 1962). Its title in Japanese, by the way, translates to "I Look Up When I Walk" (so my tears won't fall) - very poetic - not "Sukiyaki". I talk about its cosmic significance in Realspace, my 2004 book.

See also: Mad Men Returns with a Xerox and a Call Girl ... 2.3: Double-Barreled Power ... 2.4: Betty and Don's Son ... 2.5: Best Montage Since Hitchcock ... 2.6 Jackie, Marilyn, and Liberty Valance ... 2.7: Double Dons ... 2.8: Did Don Get What He Deserved? ... 2.9: Don and Roger ... 2.10: Between Ray Bradbury and Telstar ... 2.11: Welcome to the Hotel California ... 2.12: The Day the Earth Stood Still on Mad Men

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Anonymous said...

I see Don's response to Pete's surprise reaching out to him as less than human. "Go home to your family" is biz code for "get out of here, we don't any messy life stuff here in the office". Of course, the coup de grace is , in his total self-absorpation, he rejects him out of hand the next time, with "it's a bad time Campbell."

The surprise appearance of Pete at the American Airlines meeting is less than searing. It simply confirms Pete's lack of character, and a less than original irony, as we can easily blame Don for this...

As I have said today on the AMC.TV Mad Men blog, I am starting to care less and less about the characters: there is no-one worth caring about. The protagonists are either, self-absorbed, arrogant, unfeeling, selfish, remote, pretentious, weird, or stupid.

Paul Levinson said...

It looks like you're getting burned out on the show, filmnoir, which of course is your privilege...

But as to your analysis - where does Don's loyalty to Mohawk fit in your assessment that the "protagonists are either, self-absorbed, arrogant, unfeeling, selfish, remote, pretentious, weird, or stupid".

And you missed Pete struggling with his decision - which is why I found that last scene searing.

And about "go home to your family" being "biz code" for "get out of here" - I guessed I missed that course in biz code in college ... :)

Anonymous said...

Don Draper is more concerned by the "impression" such disloyalty displays. If he had any guts, he would have quit.

I didn't miss anything. Pete only goes to see Draper the second time after finding no-one else he can approach - he can't even to talk to his air-head wife: he leaves the office, asks his secretary to phone his wife, changes his mind, surveys the office floor and sees no-one he can confide in - his eyes lock on Peggy, but of course she justifiably hates him, and his last resort is Draper, the guy he tried to destroy by blackmailing him about his brother's suicide, for which of course Draper is culpable.

Yeah, what wonderful people.

You don't learn about biz code in college, you learn it in the real world.

Paul Levinson said...

I'll acknowledge that Pete's state of mind on this is half empty/half full, and I'm seeing (optimist than I am) the half full...

Otherwise, I guess we've gone to different real worlds...