Dear Television is Jane Hu, Evan Kindley, Lili Loofbourow, and Phillip Maciak. This season, they'll be posting weekly letters about AMC's "Mad Men." While this is not a full recap, there are still plenty of spoilers. Read the last installment here.
Dear Television, It’s been five seasons and change, but I think I’m still coming to grips with the fact that Mad Men is a show about Don Draper. We watch this show, and we are bewitched by the raging, awkward adolescence of Sally Draper or the brand-new, punk rock Betty Francis, but while they may disappear for episodes at a time, we will never lose sight of Don. And this becomes a bigger problem every season. If Don has been the sun around which this series orbits, I think he’s starting to evolve into a black hole, mercilessly sucking the oxygen out of everything that comes near him.
And the same is true of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (SCDP). It’s been a refrain throughout the series that SCDP, and Sterling Cooper before it, is Don Draper, that the personality or soul of the agency is Don’s and vice versa. And we are really starting to see what a company with Don’s soul, libido, and tolerance for brown liquors can do to its employees. Last season, we saw Joan prostitute herself, Lane hang himself, and Peggy quit in disgust. This season, it seems we’re preparing for another harvest of fruit from the poison tree: Ginsburg’s creative lounge is gripped with paranoia; infidelities both marital and corporate abound; and silver-tongued vultures like Bob Benson are circling the scene. As Harry—who began this series as a lovable doofus—has found out, if you stick around SCDP long enough you won’t rise up the corporate ladder, you’ll just sink down to Don’s level.
But this season isn’t built around the same kind of dramatic collapse we saw from Don in season four, when his newly unregulated bachelorhood and careening alcoholism nearly destroyed him. That downward spiral generated an immense amount of energy, and it registered in the agency as a whole. Now, the collapse feels sad, tired, even boring. And Don’s sexual irresistibility feels tawdry and over-the-top now. The fact that both Megan’s castmate and her husband wanted to get in Don’s pants was as unappetizing to us as it was to him. Even the show seems to be sick of Don Draper. If Don sets the temper for the series, he’s now, like that hot tooth from last season’s finale, filling it with rot.
This episode, we not only got a new perspective on that rot, we also got a new set of eyes. Outside Don’s point-of-view, things look different. And that’s where Dawn comes in. She entered the series more than a full season ago as a practical joke; in season five, she was sometimes an occasion for a snappy Dawn/Don joke or some period racism; and then she had one set-piece with a drunk Peggy that demonstrated the limits of Peggy’s progressivism. Dawn Chambers, in other words, was a prop. But, after this episode—with all we get to hear about what Dawn sees at SCDP—it’s not hard to imagine that Dawn was so silent last season because she was busy listening.
This episode, we spent our first real time with Dawn out of the office and out of its sphere of influence, and the clarity was amazing. Here she is describing her work environment:
Everybody’s scared there. Women crying in the ladies room, men crying in the elevator. It sounds like New Years Eve when they empty the garbage there’s so many bottles … And I told you about that poor man hanging himself in his office.
This is essentially Dawn’s recap of season five of Mad Men, and it’s startling. Everything Dawn sees here, we’ve seen, but it sounds so much starker, so much less romantic, so much more desperate. And she’s right—this is what the world looks like if Don Draper is not its protagonist. Dawn sits at the beating, sputtering heart of SCDP, but her race and the circumstances of her hiring keep her perpetually at a remove. When Mad Men talks about historical events, it can be maddeningly on the nose. So I’m glad, for now at least, to see that the show’s first extended engagement with race might be through the creation of Dawn’s specifically female, specifically African-American subjectivity. Let’s see the experience of being this kind of outsider at SCDP.
Dawn is not the only way out of the Draperian myopia, but she’s the newest addition to a venerable crew, and I hope her rise in this episode indicates a growing interest in stripping off the Don goggles. In previous episodes, particularly the great “At the Codfish Ball” last season, Sally has provided a kind of critical commentary on Don’s Madison Avenue. And Joan, perhaps because of her brief exile and supernatural savvy, has often provided an outsider perspective, but she’s now stuck checking herself for cuts and scrapes after breaking through the glass ceiling. She’s completed her task—she’s “there,” as Kate tells her—but as Harry berates her and the partners condescend to her, she realizes she’s back at the bottom again, just a secretary.
Peggy, however, remains Dawn’s clearest analogue. They shared the same desk, and they both share insight into Don’s psyche—Peggy through her special intimacy with Don and Dawn through studied detachment from him. But Peggy saw last season what Dawn sees now. She saw the fear and the desperation that drove SCDP, and so she left. And we see the strained separation literalized in this episode. Standing on the outside of a locked door, Don listens to Peggy as she pitches his own A material to Heinz—the “if you don’t like what they’re saying, change the conversation” logic underlying his legendary “Why I’m Quitting Tobacco” ad. Roger said two weeks ago that life is a series of doors, “they all open the same way, and they all close behind you.” For Roger, this signifies the hopelessness of death, but for Peggy it’s about liberation. She found the door out of Don’s office, and it’s been thrilling to hear it lock behind her.
I’d love to keep following Joan and her friend on their journey to the French New Wave, and I’d be happy to do a bottle episode with Dawn in Harlem, but, inevitably, the episode lands back with Don and his tiresome deadly sins. I have a theory that a disproportionate number of the best episodes of this show end on a shot of someone other than Don Draper. “What am I gonna do,” Dawn asks rhetorically, “throw a brick through their window?” Here’s hoping.
It makes you angry, doesn’t it,