Stuart Moore:
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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Big Spoilery MAD MEN Post


Back from San Diego. Yes, Comicon huge, aisles crowded, Hollywood Comics SciFi Marvel Virgin Jamie Bamber. Will blog more later on that, maybe.

But right now I have to write about the season premiere of AMC’s original series MAD MEN. My wife Liz and I blew through the first-season DVDs a couple of weeks ago, and loved it. She watched the second-season opener while I was at Comicon, and was disappointed. It seemed slow and plotless. A lot of critics agreed.

When I got home, Liz and I watched the episode again together. Several minutes into a discussion afterward, we Figured It Out.

I’ve checked the usual spots like The House Next Door and, and nobody seems to have gotten this. Once you realize what’s going on, every scene in the episode reads in a different context, with at least one more level of meaning -- sometimes several.

Warnings: This is rather long. If you don’t want to know, go no further. If you’re in the middle of watching season one, DON’T read this; it will spoil many things. And if you haven’t watched the show at all, none of this will make any sense to you. The various relationships that have been built up among the characters are too tangled and complex to explain here.

Disclaimers: This was a team effort. The reasoning here is as much Liz’s as mine, though any awkward phrasing is all mine. We are both professional writers, but we have no contacts or inside information on the show -- this was all written from viewing the aired material itself.

If you do decide to read this, please tell us what you think, especially if there are details we’ve missed. But I can tell you this: We combed through the entire episode after figuring this out, and there’s no way we’re wrong.

Proceed at your own risk…



Don Draper is having an affair with Peggy. Not a frivolous, Sterling-Cooper-style romp; but a true love affair rooted in mutual respect and interests.


• When Don is late to the creative meeting, the guys gossip nastily about the possibility that he had a baby with Peggy, and that he’s sleeping with her -- hence her rapid rise in the company. This is clever on two fronts. First, it brings up the Don/Peggy connection, only to dismiss it quickly from the viewer’s mind. Second, it’s in line with the way Don is always viewed at Sterling Cooper: Everyone thinks he’s up to something -- usually an affair -- but they rarely get the details right. He’s as likely to be meeting his estranged brother, or having a physical, as he is to be rendezvousing with a woman. (See Lois, below.)

• Peggy asks Lois where Don is, and Lois responds with the barest innuendo about Don’s absence. Peggy starts to walk away, stops, and then turns on Lois harshly, telling her never to make such remarks about Don. On the surface, this seems to be the loyalty of an employee (Peggy) who owes her boss a lot because of her promotion. It also looks like Peggy lording it over the secretaries, whose ranks she’s escaped.

But it’s actually something very different. Peggy knows how the secretaries gossip about their bosses; she’s been there. She realizes that, given time, Lois will find out about her and Don, just as she herself learned about Don’s affair with Midge last season. So Peggy takes this opportunity to scare the hell out of Lois, hoping to intimidate her enough that Lois won’t spill any information casually, as (again) Peggy did to Joan last year.

• When Joan subsequently reprimands Lois, there’s also something else going on. The key to Joan is: She acts like an queen bee, but her true motive is almost always concern for other people. (Remember last season, when Peggy -- beginning to show her own true colors -- said to Joan, rather clinically: “I just realized -- you’re trying to be kind.”)

It’s not clear how much Joan knows about the Peggy/Don affair, but she clearly knows something. What she’s doing in this scene is warning Lois, very strongly, away from any confrontation with Peggy. The surface justifications are that Peggy is now “Miss Olsen” -- a higher-level employee than the secretaries -- and that Lois’s crying in the break room was inappropriate (a weak excuse for so harsh a scolding). But really, Joan knows that Peggy is linked very closely with Lois’s boss, and that no good can come to Lois from a conflict with Peggy.

• Why does Don have a lock installed on his office door? It seems like a funny throwaway, but it’s not. For the first time ever, Don is having an affair within Sterling Cooper.

• The creative staff is understandably obsessed with age. Roger and Duck are on a crusade to bring in younger blood; Paul in particular has a target painted on him. Don is also worried about this, as evidenced by his physical. Yet he seems unconcerned about the prospect of young people coming to work at Sterling Cooper, dismissing them as unimportant.

That’s because Don’s concern is not professional, but personal. Both Don and Peggy pointedly speak their ages (36 and 22) aloud in the course of the episode. Don’s midlife crisis is not about work, it’s about love.

Incidentally, keep an eye on Paul, who has a bad meeting with Don during the episode. Paul doesn’t seem to know about Don and Peggy yet; but as Joan told him last season, “You have a big mouth.”

• Further to the above: The guy reading poetry in the bar says that his book wouldn’t be to Don’s taste. The guy is significantly younger than Don; Don subsequently buys the book as a way of trying to communicate with a younger generation -- again, not for professional but for personal reasons. More on this below…

• After Betsy encounters her former roommate, Don tells Betsy the woman is clearly a “party girl.” Betsy asks him how he would know, clearly referring to Don’s extramarital activities. When Don replies, “Do you think I’m stupid?” he’s really saying: “Do you think I’d see a call girl? My affairs are much deeper than that.”

(That scene plays oddly on the surface, though. “Do you think I’m stupid?” is a clear insult to Betsy, but she doesn’t really react to it.)

• Don’s impotence with Betsy -- very well played, incidentally -- is not a result of stress and age, though it is linked to his midlife crisis. Nor is it because he’s tiring himself out with another lover; we’ve seen him juggle multiple sexual partners before. It’s because, for the first time, he’s in love with someone else.

• In the elevator, Don reacts strongly to the crude talk about a random secretary. This is unusual behavior for him -- he’s clearly accustomed to this kind of chatter in the halls of Sterling Cooper. The reason: He’s picturing people talking about Peggy that way and, again, feeling self-conscious about her age. “Get three stingers in her, she’s like a little girl.”

• The key to all this is the scene where Peggy and Sal pitch the airline ad to Don in his office. This scene would be a dead giveaway in any other show; the interaction between Don and Peggy is clearly flirty in nature. But the environment of Sterling Cooper is thick with inappropriate sexual innuendo, so -- after a full season of trysts gone wrong and boundaries constantly broken -- we don’t initially register the importance of the conversation.

When Don reacts poorly to the initial ad mockup, Peggy starts to argue with him, and Sal starts to warn her away -- but Don cuts him off. At this point, Sal seems to physically retreat from the scene. The reason: He of all people recognizes coded sexual behavior coming into play, and knows he should not be in the room. But he has no reason to leave, so he simply shrinks back.

Don and Peggy then engage in a weird, flirty exchange of ideas and slogans -- an exciting and disturbing process that displays both the romantic and creative bond between them. She challenges Don, telling him the ad is “exactly what we talked about.” “It’s obvious,” he replies. “I’m uninvolved.”

Peggy describes the ad as “Businessmen who like short skirts. Sex sells.” Don rebukes her and, in the guise of a lesson in ad creation, tells her that their relationship is much more than that. “That’s what they tell you,” he says, anticipating the staff’s reaction to their affair. “You are the product. You -- feeling something. You. Not sex.”

Then Don pulls the ad slogan out of her, prodding her to assert herself (“Is that a question?”). Ultimately, she provides a response that’s both aggressive and submissive at the same time, and also points directly to the age difference between them: “What did you bring me, daddy?”

• After which, he mails her the book.


Obviously there are a lot of questions here. Did Don help Peggy with the baby situation? Does he know who the father is? Is the baby even still alive? And, of course, what is Roger Sterling’s status?

In addition: Both Don and Peggy are deeply damaged characters. Their affair may be pure of heart, but that doesn’t mean it’ll ultimately work out, or work out to their mutual benefit.

But we think all the pieces above fit, and provide a suggestion of where this exciting and provocative show is headed.

What do you think?


Joe Tank said...

Interesting idea, but I don't think that's what's going on. I think there are simpler explanations for all the things you cite in your post.

For example, Peggy's treatment of Lois is her taking out her work-related frustrations on those below her in the hierarchy. Those frustrations being that she's still expected to run errands for her male counterparts, like fetching glasses and finding out where Don is, not to mention the upbraiding she got from Joan when she was too forthcoming about Don's affairs in the past.

And Joan's treatment of Lois, and subsequent placement of the copy machine in Peggy's office, are more examples of Joan maintaining the SC pecking order, just like we saw her doing last season. She doesn't need a deeper reason.

As for Don's “How stupid do you think I am?” reply to Betty, that looked like a husband taking the shortest route possible out of an uncomfortable and potentially incriminating line of questioning, while giving his wife as little information as he could. It was pure politics on a small scale.

I wouldn't rule out Don and Peggy having an affair down the road, but I don't think that's what's happening now.

Stuart Moore said...

Thanks for playing! Oh, I agree there are simpler explanations...otherwise the show wouldn't work at all. But the two keys to me are (1) the lock on the door and (2) the book Don mails at the end. It just doesn't make sense to me that he'd be sending it to one of his old girlfriends -- they're history at this point. And any other explanation just isn't satisfying.

Dolores said...

The lock on the door is because Pete stole the package that was on Don's desk that had been sent to Don by his brother.

Stuart Moore said...

That hadn't occurred to me, but it makes sense, too...

Stuart Moore said...

...although, Liz just reminded me: Pete stole the package about fourteen months ago as the show opens. Before the lock sequence, we see Joan putting on her Valentine's dress, so it's reasonable to assume the lock is put in on that same day. Why would Don wait more than a year to have a lock put on his office, if the reason was Pete's thievery?

(This is fun.)

Anonymous said...

I think this is a brilliant analysis. It explains a lot that bothered me in the first episode. I did at first sense there was something going on between Draper and Peggy but then dismissed it. Time will tell. But I'll be disappointed if the plot development is less intriguing than your projections.

Joe Tank said...

Stuart: I guess simpler explanations are by definition more satisfying to me, as long as they're not inconsistent with each other.

So how does your theory stand in light of episode 2?

Stuart Moore said...

Episode 2 didn't support or deflate our theory very much, I thought. The episode dealt much more with the Sterling Cooper over-story, Pete's family, and Joan-vs.-Paul (which was fun), while revealing the status of Peggy's baby.

Don's decision not to pick up the girl in the restaurant fits with the idea that he's got something more serious going on. And his strong reaction to Carlton's infidelities seemed oversensitive, to me. Just as in the elevator last episode, he's imagining what people will say about him. But really, not much evidence one way or the other. If it is true -- and I'm still convinced -- I hope they don't string it out too long.

What did you think?

LimeyG said...

Hmm ... I'm going to watch the rest of the season with this theory in mind, but I'm not sure this is what's going on. I read Peggy's loyalty to Don as gratitude for giving her a shot at a copywriting job; Don's behavior toward her suggests more that he recognizes her creative talents and wants to encourage them (and he understands the value of a woman's perspective on female-centric products).

As for the impotence on Valentine's Day: that was the same episode in which Don gets a medical exam and is prescribed drugs to lower blood pressure and help his stress. Could that be the cause?

On the other hand, the whole arc about Peggy's weight gain was so subtly and cleverly handled that I'm ready for them to surprise me in all kinds of ways :-)

Anonymous said...

Peggy's actions in episode 2 support the theory: her uncomplicated friendliness with Trudy Campbell, the new sophistication and detachment in her dealings with other men (easily brushing off the guy who's necking with her at the party). But Draper's sadness and resignation the night of the card game ... It might be a stretch to attribute his state of mind, the hopelessness and resignation, to a man deeply in love

Anonymous said...

AND: The exchange between Peggy and Joan in Peggy's office is provocative and somewhat conspiratorial. "People should not bring their personal problems into the office." "Is it so hard to leave everything at the door and just do your job?" That's potent and pretty much out of left field unless Joan is referring to the suspected affair.

Joe Tank said...

I remain a disbeliever. There has been no hint of any romantic or sexual chemistry between Don and Peggy, as opposed to between Don and Rachel last season, or even between Don and the Waitress in the last episode.

Characters on this show keep secrets, from each other and from the audience, but in the past these secrets were hinted at and built up before they were revealed. I still see no evidence for, and decent amount against, the Don/Peggy theory.

Anonymous said...

I do not think Peggy & Don are together... They are more Kindred spirits. I don't think Don initially thought of Peggy as a superstar at 1st, I think he knew it would make Pete angry to put Peggy on his father in law's account (which clearly upset Pete). She probably worked her way, becoming eyes & ears for Don, loyalty! I think Don is associated with the affair b/c it is closer than the truth.. Only the janitor saw them together.. I think once Don gets a sniff that Peggy had a baby and that pete is the father, the show will be upside down.. Joan will have a field day since Peggy didn't go to her for help (as all the girls do).. B/c of that, Joan will become a chip on Peggy's Shoulder... Pete and his wife probably won't be ablt to have children and his wife will want to adopt the baby... another story line.. aI think Don may turn on Peggy when the truth comes out because he thinks she better than that!!!

Anonymous said...

This blog is great.I enjoy kicking around the story elements.Could someone explain about how girls in Peggy's situation handled this problem. Would an employee be able to take a leave and be given her job back? Would Don, the boss, had to have been told about Peggy's hospitalized? The remark by Peggy's sister made that the State of New York did not think she was competent suggests they may have investigated her for the welfare of the baby's sake. Did they talk to employers in those days? What happened in those days? Did most girls in trouble get to keep their jobs? I love this blog. Thanks for keeping the discussion going.

Anonymous said...

I also found the analysis interesting, but I don't agree with your theory. I had an excellent platonic relationship with a former boss and I think the way Peggy and Don act toward one another is based on mutual respect. I think there are good explanations for what occurs in the episode, but I don't think an affair is among them. I think he sent the book to Rachel, because I am pretty sure we haven't seen the last of her yet.

Chris Johnson said...

re: "There has been no hint of any romantic or sexual chemistry between Don and Peggy" [Joe Tank]

In season one, Peggy touched Don's hand suggestively and Don said something like "Don't get confused - I'm your boss, not your boyfriend." The writers brought up the subject and then pointedly shut down a sexual story between Peggy and Don.

@ Stuart Moore

Considering the statement above and that Peggy is the female character the writers are using to represent the changing role of women in society at that time, making her the sexual partner of Don seems incongruous to me. In the office, she has a right to be respected based on merit, not because she might be sexually aligned with the boss.

I can't recall any of the other Sterling Cooper employees being praised for the creativity of their work product other than Don and Peggy. Peggy, like Don, has demonstrated more than once that she has the ability to create what is ineffable to everyone else at the firm. It makes sense that she gets special treatment from Don because she is the only other person who, like him, can evoke powerful ideas from the ether. He recognizes her talent and develops it because it is a worthwhile endeavor, not necessarily because he's sleeping with her.

Considering everything Peggy has done to earn her place in the office, it's unfair to paint Peggy as powerful because she's sleeping with Don. That effectively negates everything else she's accomplished and if stretched out to it's maximum, that logic suggests that the writers are saying that the women's movement never really happened; women haven't earned the rights, power and privleges they've gained over the last 40 years, they've just slept their way into their current roles in society. Women have power now because, like Peggy, they've earned it by using their heads, not by laying on their backs and I don't see any evidence that the writers believe otherwise.

You say Don gets angry at the jerks in the elevator because their conversation obliquely references Peggy, when the more obvious reason is that the jerks' behaviour is totally unacceptable considering that there is a woman in the car with all of them. If you want a psychological explanation, Don objects to the jerks talking about the woman so crudely because he imagines that is how men spoke about his mother, who we know from season one was "a whore". In this example, Don doesn't have Peggy issues, he has mommy issues.

@ Everyone

Remember - When you get caught goofing off and someone wants to know where you've been you're standard response is "I was at the printers". It about as close to a catch phrase as we're going to get out of this show and other fans who hear you saying it will think you are clever as hell.

Stuart Moore said...

I would have replied to this sooner, but I was at the printer's.

I don't in any way mean to suggest that Peggy has her job because of any relationship with the men in the office -- and I'm quite sure the writers don't, either. But that doesn't mean something isn't going on, and the early dismissal of the possibility is a classic writer's tool of misdirection. They're playing pretty cagey with the whole thing if it's true; but Matthew Weiner has said there are surprises coming.

Also noted this week:

We had our first real indication that Cooper (Robert Morse) might be losing it. If so, that might explain why Roger Sterling is so firmly entrenched, when he seemed on the way out last season.

Is Duck headed for a trip off the wagon?

I suspect Cosgrove's salary is so much higher than the other writers' because he "knows a lot of girls."

Anonymous said...

Well, last night's episode "New Girl" explains what I wondered about in my previous posting. Don did know about Peggy's hospitalization. And she in turn is the "one phone call" he makes when in trouble with Bobby (thateveilhorndog)Mark my word,Bobby brings everyone down. I fear she will feed poor Peggy bad advice and dismantle the few things Peggy has going for herself, namely her little apartment and a budding career. Ever wonder why Don is letting this dame have her way with him? I think it is because he is being chased and probably doesn't think he is cheating on Betty if he isn't the one going after the sex. A guy can't refuse a game of hide the salami, now can he? On another matter, the sister who is raising Peggy and Pete's kid. She looked preggers in the hospital scene with her mother and the dr. What happened to her baby? Did I miss seeing a second todler? Can anyone fill in this detail?

Stuart Moore said...

Or, an idea that's been brought up on other sites: Maybe it's Peggy's baby that didn't make it?

I'm now ready to revise my thinking: I don't think there's an active, current affair going on between Don and Peggy. But something more happened between them after the flashbacks we saw this week. I think they're both really, really stuck on each other in a way that doesn't make either of them happy.

Anonymous said...

I think Don and Peggy have become "office spouses". Don and Peggy have experienced things together that has caused them to respect and appreciate each other's intellect, talents, and flaws. He perhaps assisted her with her pregnancy, and we know that she covered for him on many occasions. I don't believe this is a sexual relationship. I believe it is a true friendship. Peggy has caused him to see her as a real person, not just "one of the girls". He now is taken aback at rude remarks to women in the office because one of them has a face, feelings, and intelligence. That person is Peggy. She has created a paradign shift in him as the one she experienced when she discovered his relationship with Midge. Just my take...this is a great site. Thanks for letting me be a part of it.