We’re desperate. They can smell it on us.
Mad Men‘s “Blowing Smoke” is a study in desperation and dependence, loss of power and a need to take it back. We see it played out by the partners, by Betty and Sally, by someone from Don’s past.
Don knows all about blowing smoke. He’s done it expertly for much of his life. He’s learning about taking back power on a personal level.
Now he has to lead the agency to do so, if it’s going to survive.
The hard sell: Mark of weakness?
Don puts the hard sell on a potential new client, and is nicely told to back off. One of his former lovers, artist Midge, hits him up for money under the guise of running into him accidentally. Don bristles finding himself guilted into buying a painting, on the receiving end of the hard sell.
And where is Peggy in this?
She has her power. We’ve seen it. And she’s offering Don lessons from his own book.
“You always told me if you don’t like what they’re saying about you, then change the conversation,” she says.
There are contrasts and comparisons a-plenty in this episode. Dependence is taken to an extreme, and also, managed. Midge is hooked on heroin; Don seems to be – for now – in control of his drinking. The nicotine addiction isn’t lost on our 21st century viewing sensibilities, nor the agency’s dependence on the cigarette business, one way or another. If not on promoting smoking, perhaps on denouncing it.
Then there’s Betty, whose cruelty to her daughter may be the only way she exercises any power whatsoever.
Sally has found a means to give Betty what she wants, at least temporarily, and her life is calmer. Likewise, Megan seems to have learned from watching Allison. And Don, seeing Midge, is learning, too. Taking his shot at changing the game.
Don’s brilliant PR move to address their problems comes after his encounter with Midge, and while staring at her painting in his dingy apartment. He sits down where he writes in his journal, and crafts what becomes a full page ad in the New York Times. “Why I’m quitting tobacco.”
Recently my advertising agency ended a long relationship with Lucky Strike cigarettes. For over 25 years we devoted ourselves to peddling the product…
Don goes on to cite cigarettes as the cause of illness. He takes on the voice of integrity saying he will sleep better at night by not accepting tobacco industry clients. He’s, well… blowing smoke. And doing what he does best. Walking a fine line, with his usual moral ambiguity, and a mix of motives.
Cut to Don back in charge, swimming laps. Back in the office, confident. And lighting up. No longer in the weak position. He’s succeeded at changing the conversation. The American Cancer Society calls. We know the agency will battle its way back.
Other goodies in this episode
There are tempting teasers in this episode. We’re being neatly set up (too neatly?) for whatever comes next.
We get a glimpse at what lies beneath Trudy’s saccharine and supportive demeanor. She “forbids” Pete to put more money into the agency.
Lane has just moved his family back to New York. He caved to his father.
Betty and Henry slide into marital routine. Betty is bored. Henry is dismissive.
Don shows a generous side, first to Midge, then later putting up $50k on Pete’s behalf. Is supporting Pete in his own self-interest? Sure. But it’s also a mark of respect, and repayment for Pete’s taking the fall on North American Aviation.
Megan and Faye are lined up to compete for Don’s affections. In one scene, Faye is speaking with Don in a conference room. Her blonde hair is swept upward, properly and professionally. Megan sits in the background, firmly planted between the two, her dark hair in a similar style.
In a later scene, both women are standing in Don’s office, Faye wearing power red, and Megan in youthful apple green, each with their hair down. Faye may be the one to say “Have your girl make the reservations” when it comes to evening dinner plans, but she’s on her way out.
Megan is sticking around.
Sally and Betty
Sally gets my vote for most effective smoke blower. So effective, that she convinces the shrink that she’s better – and for awhile – she is. She manages her mother by appearing to comply with Betty’s wishes, and even goes so far as to suggest she would like to eat with Betty and Henry, rather than with her brothers.
The shrink reminds Sally that her mother has stresses, but Sally sees it and tells it like it is:
She doesn’t care what the truth is, as long as I do what she says.
As for Betty, she unravels at the idea of Sally no longer needing the psychiatrist – her own (unrecognized) dependence on speaking with the doctor is at stake. It’s clear that she is the child, and needs therapy far more than Sally.
Bad Glen? More like Bad Betty.
And Betty’s mercurial temperament is no more evident than when she drags Sally off, finding her innocently meeting with Glen. She threatens to move the family, and Sally is devastated. Now we’re worried. We’re privy to the way the child’s mind works, including her thoughts on death which she has recently shared with Glen. Her dream in which she floats to heaven, like Mary Poppins. She also speaks of the forever quality of death as what frightens her.
What will it take for her to get her power back, with Betty on the warpath?
A child is dependent. And this child, momentarily managing, is desperate again.
Shadows and foreshadowing
We’ve had more than a few goodbyes in recent episodes: Blankenship dies on duty, David Montgomery is the dead old school ad exec, Joan’s husband heads to Vietnam. Roger’s health is precarious, and of course Anna’s death earlier in the season rocked Don’s world.
This week? Bert picks up his shoes and says goodbye. Faye kisses Don and says farewell to their professional relationship. Employees are let go. Sally is forced to say goodbye to Glen.
Don’s ad may save the day for the business. But what happens to those who can’t change the conversation?
Images courtesy AMCTV.com.