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William Bradley

William Bradley

Posted: October 12, 2010 11:58 PM

The plot points keep slamming home in "Blowing Smoke," the penultimate episode of Mad Men's Season 4 as we head to next week's season end in "Tomorrowland." As always, there be spoilers ahead.

Well, Roger Sterling isn't nearly so downcast as he seemed in the last episode, after having his loss of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce's anchor tenant client finally, and oh so pathetically, revealed. Why not? We don't know. Instead it's another old friend who's circling the drain, albeit one we haven't seen since she figured prominently in Season 1, free-spirited boho illustrator Midge Daniels, the first Don Draper galpal we came to know. And it's another core character, original Sterling Coo co-founder Bert Cooper, saying arrivederci.

If there's one thing we've learned in nearly four seasons of Mad Men, it's that Don Draper is a survivor. He's good at making lemonade from a bitter helping of lemons. But not everyone is going to make it through as the past rapidly gives way to the future.


John Slattery, best known in the Mad Men world as Roger Sterling, is seen in this summer's smash Iron Man 2 playing Howard Stark, Tony Stark's dad. Here he introduces his vision of Tomorrow in the Stark World Expo, set on the site of the real New York World Fair.

Incidentally, you can see all my Mad Men pieces, from this year and last year, here in The Mad Men File.

In this episode, we see the casualties and castaways starting to mount up.

Roger Sterling may figure, hey, he's got the big money, the style, the status, the beautiful and smart young wife, so he's fine. And he is fine, as long he thinks he is. But the loss of Lucky Strike means that everybody can't be fine, not without new business. And that business is slow in coming for an agency with a lot of doubt now attached to it.

And yet. And yet we again have to suspend a fair amount of disbelief as the designated plot points are slammed into place.

Not quite as much as in the episode before last, "Do You Want To Know A Secret?" But more than enough.

Remember earlier this season, when Don Draper was hailed in the press as the rising star of Madison Avenue? Remember when he won his Clio Award as an arrived star of Madison Avenue, his agency one of the key players in the business, able to raid major clients from other more established firms?

Good. Because if you'd forgotten about all that, you would never know it from this episode.

Which begins with Don Draper having his Dr. Faye-arranged meeting with a top Heinz executive, who is remarkably condescending for a guy who represents the non-ketchup, old-line side of the company. He wants to talk again, if the agency is still around, in six months or so.

To be clear, SCDP lost one big client, Lucky Strike, from an increasingly controversial industry whose best days are clearly in the rearview mirror. And suddenly, they're radioactive. Well, maybe. But we move on as the show unfolds as laid out for us.

Though that Dr. Faye idea, which violated her "Chinese wall" confidentiality arrangements, did not pan out, her boss, Geoffrey Atherton, pitches in by lining up a pitch meeting with Philip Morris for its new women's cigarette, perhaps the real life Virginia Slim's, which many credit, as it were, with a sharp rise in smoking among teenage girls.

While that happens, Lane Pryce, back from London, dutifully, with family in tow -- Hasta la bye bye, chocolate bunny Toni! -- tells the other partners that the agency needs to look at downsizing to keep cash flow under control.

Downstairs after hearing this bracing notion, Don runs into his old flame Midge, the smart, bright-eyed, up-for-anything illustrator we first met in the show pilot episode, "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes."

By the time of "Blowing Smoke," however, as Don learns after accompanying her home to meet her scummy playwright husband and look at her paintings, she has fallen on very bad times. Sadly for this very charming and intriguing character, not to mention those of us in the audience who thought she was pretty cool, she's a junkie, an addict in far worse shape than Don looked like as he plunged into the bottle earlier this season, far worse even than Freddy Rumsen when he was dispatched by the agency after his notorious pants pissing/passing out episode.

Midge is addicted to heroin, and she didn't just happen to run into Don, she sought out her old sugar daddy for a big taste so she can keep scoring smack. She wants to sell him one of her paintings, and maybe herself. Settling for the painting, Don gives her a $300 check, which today would be worth roughly eight times that.

Which Midge turns down, because she needs cash on the barrelhead. Escaping her sad hovel with an empty wallet and a brand new painting, Don heads back to his Village man cave, chastened by what his old lover has become. Midge is in a deep hole, one she's not getting out of.

He becomes even more chastened when Philip Morris no-shows the big pitch meeting. They were just using SCDP to leverage a better deal from a rival agency, prompting a notably more spirited Roger to tell Dr. Faye's boss that he's just an asshole.

Now it's desperation time, and Lane lays out what he's arranged with a bank to keep the agency going another six months while it gets more business. Contingent on collateral from the partners, a great deal of collateral, the bank will extend a line of credit for SCDP operations. Sterling, Cooper, and Draper are on the hook for $100,000 each -- which is more like three quarters of a million each today -- Lane and Pete Campbell have to cough up $50K a piece.

And like any IMF workout of a developing nation, big staff cuts will also have to take place.

Pete, old-line New York scion whose inheritance was lost that he is, doesn't have the cash, as he tells Don. And even if he did, Trudy is not going to let him sink nearly $400,000 in today's money into a sinking ad agency. Which she makes very clear that night after learning that the bank did not call about his loan application for a house, a revelation which turns her mood from delight to very determined and focused rage. Hmm, she always seems so darling. Perhaps it is best not to get on her bad side.

Meanwhile, Peggy, who is in this episode, talks with Don about how to save the agency. She doesn't really have a specific idea, but wisely reminds Don Draper what being Don Draper is supposed to be all about. "If you don't like what they're saying about you, change the conversation."


Don Draper is not Jerry Maguire.

With Peggy's clever prod, Don sits that night in his man cave -- with the money the guy has at his ready command (in this episode, we see him spend over a million dollars in present day money), it's obvious that it's his personal preference to live in this distinctly less-than-elegant locale -- and thinks about how to alter the equation.

There's been some commentary that here in the episode Don is about to have his "Jerry Maguire moment." You remember the terrific '90s hit romantic comedy, that made Renee Zellweger a star and starred Tom Cruise as a hustling sports agent who grows a conscience. After a dark night of the soul, Cruise's Jerry writes up a proposed mission statement for his agency entitled "The Things We Think and Do Not Say: The Future of Our Business." Naturally, he is fired for his idealistic pains.

No. Don Draper is not Jerry Maguire. He's not having a nervous breakdown. He's thinking about how to go about making a needed big move, a business game changer.

And Peggy isn't Zellweger's Dorothy Boyd, either. She, actually, is another character in a different Tom Cruise hit. Her analogue in that movie is called Goose. Cruise's character is called Maverick.

Yes, it's Top Gun. Peggy isn't the doting secretary-turned-lover of a down-on-his-luck sports agent. She's the supportive professional goading her hotshot colleague/boss to do what his reputation says he can do.

She's akin to Goose, the backseat radar intercept officer in Maverick's Navy F-14 Tomcat fighter jet, telling the hotshot naval aviator it's time to do his thing.

"Come on, Mav, do some of that pilot shit," Goose implores Maverick as they are in the process of losing an aerial dogfight. At first flummoxed, he finally does.

If you don't think that Don Draper has much of the aspect of a hotshot fighter pilot, consider the aviator shades and James Bond Rolex he sports. Poor clever Midge still had him pegged when she "ran into him" earlier in the episode. Told that he has his own agency now, she gibes that it must be named "Draper Draper Draper."

While it's Peggy who provides the needed prod, it's Midge who provides the raw material for his big move to reposition the agency and, naturally, himself.

Staring at Midge's painting, he begins writing a journal entry entitled "Why I'm Quitting Tobacco." Smoking all the while, of course. Pondering the nature of addiction, which he's flirted with and which now has Midge firmly in its icy grip, seeing its rather unaesthetic manifestation before him, he writes about tobacco, a product that "never improves, causes illness, and makes people unhappy."

He admits he and SCDP made a ton of money from the drug, but renounces it, saying that he can sleep at night with the break achieved. His agency, his announces, will no longer do tobacco work. He rather cheekily lists the agencies that do, setting SCDP very much apart from the competition.


"Come on, Mav, do some of that pilot shit."

His partners learn of the agency's break with tobacco when they read Don's missive in the form of a full-page ad in the New York Times. One reader who looks notably impressed, sitting in Don's house in Westchester County, is Henry Francis, the top political adviser who's now close to two very important politicians, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and soon-to-be New York Mayor John Lindsay.

Don's partners are not nearly so appreciative as his ex-wife's hubster.

To call them irate would be to put the matter mildly.

They appear briefly mollified when Megan announces that Senator Robert F. Kennedy -- elected in 1964 after stepping down as U.S. attorney general -- is calling to speak with Don.

But as soon as "RFK" begins to speak it's clear that it's a joke. I do a better RFK impression than this wanker, who turns out to be Don's smarmy rival Ted Chaough, whose agency was listed in the ad as part of the Big Tobacco enabling crew. "Thanks for including me with the big boys," he tells Don, mockingly.

Quirky Bert Cooper has had it. Telling Megan, amusingly, to fetch his shoes, baffling Bertram quits, though as is frequently the case, his thinking is a little unclear. He sounds miffed that the ad was signed only by Don. But as a staunch conservative, he can't like this shot across the bow at one of America's biggest businesses, no matter how feigned it is.

In the office, it seems that only Megan and Peggy -- who amusingly tweaks Don for pulling the sort of stunt he chastised her for at the beginning of the season -- get what Don is doing. Though Roger seems more than a little admiring. He says he likes it because now he can't be blamed for ruining the agency, but you know that he admires brio.


The essential milieu of Mad Men is not especially admirable.

There's more fall-out. Dr. Faye's firm has to drop SCDP as a client. Her boss still wants to be in the tobacco business, and Don Draper is now suddenly one of the biggest enemies of the biz.

Not that that bothers Dr. Faye all that much. Now they can see each other openly, she tells Don. We'll see how alluring he finds her with the illicit nature of the relationship removed.

Even though Bobby Kennedy didn't call, the American Cancer Society did, to talk about doing an anti-smoking advertising campaign. Is there much money in that? Maybe not directly, but there are some very big players involved, as Ken Cosgrove astutely points out.

Regretfully, Pete tells Lane that he doesn't have the $50,000 he's required to kick in to the agency rescue plan. Fortunately, his good buddy Don paid Pete's share, too.

Who would have guessed that back in Season 1 when these two were at each other's throats?

Of course, it makes pragmatic sense for Don to do this. He owes Pete, who covered for Don over the loss of North American Aviation as a client. And Pete is the most productive member of the agency on the accounts side. He's now every bit the executive he fancied himself to be five years earlier when he tried to blackmail Don into making him head of accounts.

Still, I think there is a real respect between the two, which we see silently acknowledged before Don cans his next victim of the agency downsizing, the extremely diminutive Danny Siegel, he of Jane Siegel Sterling and "cure for the common whatever" lineage. Poor guy. I kinda liked him.


Tragically, it turns out that this is the programming most frequently seen in the home of someone once very close to Don Draper.

The episode also has a big storyline for young Sally Draper, who is now one of the show's key co-stars. With the help of her rather dark soulmate, Glenn Bishop -- amusingly depicted as a football player who evidently spends a lot of time working out with pie plates -- Sally learns how to game Betty and her appealing shrink.

She's acting like she's doing so well, well, so well, that Dr. Edna tells Betty that she can cut back on therapy. Which Betty, who is getting her own surreptitious therapy from her own talks with the shrink, doesn't like at all.

Another thing Betty doesn't like is her one-time mini-suitor Glenn, especially when she catches her daughter with him. Betty chases the not especially spry young fellow -- his uniform number indicates that he's a defensive lineman -- away from her tweener daughter.

That night at dinner, Betty delights Henry by saying she thinks it's time to move from the neighborhood, amusingly citing a "bad element" purportedly moving in. Seeing that her mom's move is aimed at her happiness and independence, Sally sadly runs upstairs crying, ending in her room, clutching the lanyard Glen gave her some months back.

A few additional thoughts occur ...

One of the folks who called Don after his NYT ad was Emerson Foote. He's not a Matthew Weiner red herring. He's a real-life advertising legend who once ran -- wait for it -- the Lucky Strike account but noisily gave up the tobacco business and served on the President's Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke and as a member of the board of -- wait for it -- the American Cancer Society.

Wonder what that's about.

In general, I'm blowing hot and cold on this season. Too many developments seem more arbitrary than organic. In addition to points I've made in the past, that's especially true with respect to Dr. Faye. She's awfully easy on the eyes, and obviously smart and an important professional forerunner. How many female doctorates were working all over Madison Avenue in 1965? That's extremely impressive, and especially impressive that she's not a buzzkill sort of female character. But I feel that the women in previous seasons were more organic to the story. Her character has always felt like a plot element.

Unlike some of my friends, I totally buy that Don would just pull his big move without telling his partners. He's arrogant, sociopathic, brilliant, and practical enough to do it just that way. After all, they could be done in a matter of weeks otherwise, so what the frak?

Bye bye Bertie? Really? Just like that?

He certainly was offended by this newfangled anti-tobacco thinking as much as the breech of decorum. I felt in contrast that Roger was intrigued by its ballsiness and sees that it's the smart move. Probably Jane digs it, too.

So how on the nose Disney/Tent of Tomorrow does the season finale, entitled "Tomorrowland," get?

It's interesting to note that John Slattery, our very own Roger Sterling, who ably directed this episode, had a key role in Iron Man 2 as Howard Stark, father to Robert Downey, Jr's Tony Stark (aka Iron Man).

Something of a cross between Walt Disney and Howard Hughes, we see him in flashback film footage at the Stark World Expo 1974, set on the site of the real world New York World's Fair.

He's selling the bright futurism of the 1960s that was a staple of the real world Tomorrowland.

Is that a big part of where we end this season?

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.