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Dear TV: 'Mad Men' Season Six: Episode 4, Post 2

Daytime Drama, or To Discipline and To Punish

Jordin Althaus/AMC

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, Episode four—titled “To Have and To Hold,” after the soap opera on which Megan Draper stars—opens with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (SCDP) still chasing “the prestige that comes with ketchup.” Pete and Don have arranged to meet Timmy from Heinz at Pete’s sad bachelor pad, where, it seems, he’s living full-time now that Trudie has kicked him out. (“It’s… available to you,” Pete awkwardly tells Don after the client has left, a nod to the premise of Billy Wilder’s 1960 film The Apartment, in which executives share an apartment for their philandering—an allusion which may be intended to signal how behind the times poor Pete is. “I live here,” Don witheringly reminds Pete.)

At any rate, Don and Pete get the go-ahead to proceed with the mysterious “Project K” (which the paranoid Ginsburg speculates might stand for “Project Kill Machine”): a trial ad campaign for Heinz Ketchup. This sets Sterling Cooper up for a major disappointment: What they thought would be an exclusive audition turns out to be a “bake-off” with their rival, Cutler Gleason and Chaough, whose creative wing is helmed by Peggy. Don, who seems especially given to Peeping Tom-ism this season, eavesdrops on his former secretary’s pitch, which easily bests his own concept. Worst of all, she steals one of his own lines: “If you don’t like what they’re saying, change the conversation,” a phrase he coined way back in season four, when resigning the Lucky Strike account.

That reminder of a more principled Don Draper stings, because this episode was full of fuzzy moral logic and double standards. The most overt example is Don’s refusal to accept Megan’s fictional adultery, while seeming to have few scruples about his own continuing affair with Sylvia. (Early in the episode he gets a little elevator action, and the episode ends with the two of them in bed together.) “I’m going to have a series of love scenes,” Megan warns him, promising that “it’s just kissing and hugging. It’s TV. We can’t really do anything.” Don reluctantly goes along, but after sneaking on to set and surreptitiously witnessing a love scene between her and her co-star, he loses his equanimity. “You kiss people for money. You know who does that?” he asks his wife nastily. (Cf. last week’s bordello flashbacks for the unsubtle answer.)

Don’s hypocrisy is so embarrassingly total here that it’s hard to imagine he can remain unconscious of it. Plus, as TV critic Ken Tucker tweeted on Monday morning, Don, “of all people,” should be able to understand the difference between televised fantasy and reality. But, in fact, his anger is not really about Megan at all, and his wounded pride is not really sexual or marital but professional. Don’s reaction to Megan’s simulated infidelity is a displacement of his rage at the previous scene’s humiliation. It’s Peggy who he really feels betrayed by: She’s the one whose respect and loyalty he can’t have. (Megan’s devotion, by contrast, is bought so cheaply it doesn’t even seem worth holding on to.)

Yet Don can’t vent his anger and disappointment directly at Peggy. Business is business. She’s doing what he taught her to do; he can hardly blame her if she does it even better than he does. As for the question of betrayal, he hardly has a leg to stand on, ethically speaking: Taking the ketchup meeting in the first place was itself an act of betrayal (as Ken Cosgrove pops up to remind everyone, “There’s nothing better than being known for your loyalty”), and it’s not clear that Don is even aware at this point that Stan informed Peggy about the Heinz maneuver.

So Don arrives on the set of “To Have and To Hold” needing to chastise someone (preferably a woman) for faithlessness: His anger is rooted less in sexual jealousy or propriety—he’s already bored with Megan, as the season’s first few episodes have made excruciatingly clear—than it is in a need to be righteously contemptuous, to discipline and to punish. He lays into Megan for living out a soap opera fantasy, but his own job has always been a fantasy world for him, every bit as constructed and ridiculous (and, pace Jane, campy) as a daytime drama. Earlier today, Phil reminded us that “[i]t’s been a refrain throughout the series that SCDP … is Don Draper,” and another way of saying that is: Don is the leading man in the soap that is Sterling Cooper. (As Megan’s colleagues Mel and Arlene point out, he even looks like a soap opera actor.)

The fantasy of Sterling Cooper is the fantasy of a world that revolves around Don; Peggy has jeopardized that fantasy by leaving SCDP, suggesting the possibility of the existence of a world outside. (“Peggy saw last season what Dawn saw,” Phil suggests; I join him in hoping for an Olson-like arc this season for Ms. Chambers.) This is terrifying for Don, and I read the backstage scene with Megan as his attempt to escape into a different kind of moral universe, one where who he is and what he is owed are clear. (Though even here, they are ambiguities: “Your agent’s here” is how Arlene informs Megan of Don’s unexpected presence on set. Is Don the wronged husband, or is he the pimp?)

Also facing unjust double standards this week are Dawn, who has to cover for Scarlett and the other white secretaries, all of whom assume (correctly) that she won’t rock the boat for fear of losing her job; and Joan, who has rank pulled on her by Harry, despite the fact that she’s technically his superior. There are hierarchies within hierarchies, the show is telling us, and they serve to keep people down even when formal barriers to entry like race and gender have been eased. “It’s right in front of you for the taking,” Joan’s friend Kate marvels, but this episode illustrates that, in fact, it’s not: As Joan says, she’s been working at SCDP for 15 years and still gets treated like a secretary. “I’m sorry my accomplishments happened in broad daylight,” Harry sneers, referring obliquely to the unsavory circumstances that led to Joan’s partnership. But this, of course, is his privilege. His sexual life—like his affair with a Hare Krishna in season five—can stay a matter of private satisfaction and fantasy; it doesn’t have to have anything to do with anything. In order to succeed in business, all he has to do is work.

I can tolerate this, but I can’t encourage it,