Mad Men cliff notes

So there’s this guy, Don Draper, and although he’s a successful married ad exec by day, at night he is a serial killer who prowls about murdering prostitutes.  But they cut out all the scenes of him serial killing, so instead he’s a successful married ad exec with a pervasive sense of dark mystique surrounding him.  Who is this guy?  What are his values?  What makes him tick?

He works at this place called Sterling Cooper on Madison Ave.  Get it?  MAD Men?  Also because they’re (m)ad men and because they’re CRAZY!  Sterling was named after the color of his hair and is one of Don’s two friends.  Cooper is an ancient Asian mystic and you have to take off your shoes when you’re in his office.  Peggy Olsen’s the new secretary and gets shown around by Joan, the Secretary Queen.  Joan tells us that the world is quite shockingly sexist.  She points to the typewriter and says “I know all of this technology seems overwhelming, but the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use.”  Later on you realize that it was a weird thing for her to say because she’s way smarter than most of the men around her and knows it.  But Peggy gets put through the ringer with this sexism shit, for example this dude Peter Campbell tells her she should dress sluttier like its part of her job description.  His dad owns Campbell’s Soup.

Don tells Pete his shit is whack, earning Peggy’s respect and our own as well for a brief spell.  Pete can’t get laid at his own bachelor party so he goes and fucks Peggy since he knows she can’t really turn down Peter Fucking Campbell’s Soup when she’s the new secretary at his firm (or at least is naive enough to think she can’t).  And THEN it seems that Don just was defending Peggy because he thinks you should be sexist in more self-important ways than Pete was, since he gets all uppity with this Jewish-American Princess who runs a company and has ideas about how she wants it advertised.  Don gets sanctioned by his bosses for his retarded sense of business strategy and has to make nice with this woman, so he decides he wants to bone her.  But he’s also boning this edgy graphic artist, and oh wait he’s also married and has children, so he’s possibly a dick as well as a between-the-lines serial killer.  But he’s sort of this mastermind as well because he always is able to say the perfect thing at the critical moment and emerge triumphant.

Don’s wife is this repressed waif named Betty who is too meek to stand up to him when he totally humiliates her in front of her cutthroat rich woman society by ditching her at their kid’s birthday party.  She has some sort of Tony Soprano problem where her hands get panic attacks so she starts seeing this therapist who fits right in with all the sexist men on the show.  Women are essentially thought of as children in 1960 so this doctor has no problem telling Don all sorts of confidentiality-agreement-breaking shit about Betty, such as stating in no uncertain terms that he thinks she is a child.  But it’s more enfuriating because this guy’s opinion is supposed to carry the weight of medical diagnosis.  Fuck these guys.

The 60’s-ness is so immersive that it’s fairly shocking when you see picture-perfect wife Betty drop her drawers to take a piss, and just when you are thinking about that the kid she’s babysitting busts in on her and — no shit — refuses to close the door when she starts yelling at him.  He finally lets her pee, but then when she comes out to scold him this 9 year old kid totally puts down the mack and asks her for a lock of her hair.  And she gives it to him!  And it’s sad because she has to cherish the interest this little twerp is showing in her, so bereft is she of affection from her husband.  Betty’s friend checks her husband’s phone bill and realizes that he’s been cheating on her, which makes Betty realize that OF COURSE DON IS CHEATING ON YOU.  She checks Don’s phone bill and comes within inches of catching him, but only confirms that he’s been talking with the shrink instead.  Which is still fucked up, as previously mentioned.

It turns out Don used to be named Dick Whitman, but he possibly killed Don Draper and stole his identity.  Dick’s long lost brother shows up but Don would rather give him $3000 (which is like $100,000,000,000 today) than have anything to do with his former life.  Pete finds out and tells Cooper but Cooper doesn’t care, but now Cooper knows and can potentially fuck Don over at some point in the future.  Which all adds up to that we know even less about what motivates Don, and suspect him even more of serial killing.  As mentioned before he has exactly two (2) friends.  Roger Sterling gradually reveals that he IS Don Draper but later in life and from a parallel universe where he was born rich instead of poor and various other trivial logistical differences.  So it’s easy to see why the two are buds, but they never have too much to say to each other (it’s unecessary given that they are the same guy), so even having a second Draper doesn’t really give more insight besides the fact that the writers chose to construct two characters like this instead of just one.

His other friend is the artist he is banging.  He basically shelves his whole mastermind persona when he’s with her.  In fact, the first time we see them together he kicks it off by asking her for creative advice about his ad work.  She has no problem telling him what’s up, and it’s a pretty chill relationship.  I would go so far as to say they are on equal footing with one another in their little microcosm.  But she gets her beat friends to come over and Don smokes weed with them and some central thesis shit becomes apparent about how the world is about to go in one direction while Don is stuck in another, so they sort of fizzle out.  I guess maybe this is some dirt on the Drapes.  What motivates this mysterious man?  He is old fashioned!  No, that’s not it, because his techniques at work are hella modern and envelope-pushing.

Don is mad good at advertising and invents many of the techniques we are familiar with from our own experience with advertising.  He invents that you can use the fact that people like/are addicted to cigarettes to sell them, and at the end of the first season he invents the Kodak Moment and makes people cry because his presentation is so moving.  Meanwhile, as he’s giving this eloquent ode to family memories, Betty resignedly tells her therapist that she knows Don is unfaithful to her.  It’s a poignant moment because she’s still too passive to confront him but she imagines he’ll find out because the therapist is a turd/informant.  Also it’s sad that he conjures all these lovely sentiments but it’s just because he’s good at his job, but maybe it’s the closest he can get to really loving his family.

It turns out that he didn’t kill the original Don Draper.  They were in the Korean war together, and Don 1 said “I get to go home in a few months” and then was killed by enemy explosions, so Don 2 switched their dog tags.  So he gets a purple heart that’s probably more due to actions performed by Don 1 than himself.  He opts to not reconnect with his real family.  There are details about his family, such as that hobos wrote a rune on his front gate that means “A Dishonest Man Lives Here,” because his dad would make them work and then not pay them the agreed upon amount.  The hobo claims it’s so they can disperse knowledge about a given residence and its viability for room and board, sort of a front gate wikipedia for hobos.  But young Dick Whitman isn’t keen enough to say, how do I know it’s not a hex that you are placing on my household that causes all the males to be dishonest men?  The chicken or the egg?  The show leaves it open to interpretation.

Meanwhile you are spending the whole time rooting for Peggy, who turns out to be hella smart and wiley and starts to climb the corporate ladder.  One of two things are going to happen to her.  She’s either going to think she can make it and then get utterly destroyed because she’s a woman, or she’s going to turn into a cutthroat dick like the men who currently run the scene (join them to beat them).  Fortunately it’s option B.  She calls a trashcan full of lipstick rags a basket of kisses and one of the [entrenched male] copywriters says “It was like watching a dog play the piano!” but point being, her potential is spotted.   Soon she’s destroying young women who haven’t made it to the position of power she has.

But why is she getting so fat?  Doesn’t she realize she’s pregnant?  She finally realized it!  I wonder if it’s too late for her to get an abortion?  Wait…what the FUCK?!  Does this really happen?  Let’s see….yep, Google regurgitates a post by one who claims that they knew a chick who went into labor without realizing she had ever gotten pregnant.  Nice job, season 1.

Season 2 gets way better.  It skips ahead 2 years, so you don’t get soap-opera-ish resolutions of stuff like Peggy’s baby etc.  So, nothing ever came of Betty’s memo to Don via her shrink or that Peggy had Pete’s baby.  Sterling Cooper hired this comedian to advertise potato chips for their potato chip client, and he’s  a grade-A asshole, but really awesomely portrayed.  But seriously, his dickishness is so ubiquitous that when the owner of the potato chip company shows up, he brutally ridicules her for being fat.  And, in a really malicious way, like he takes her obesity personally or something.  But no, it’s just how he rolls and nothing personal.

So you immediately get the idea that this guy will fuck shit up just because it amuses him and upholds his rep, and lo and behold he throws a huge wrench in the system and finally clues Betty into the fact that Don is cheating on her, with the comedian’s wife no less.  Don still won’t admit it but Betty is now finally able to hear the lie in his voice, and she vomits and kicks him to the curb.

Don then has to go on some sort of vision quest.  He goes to California with Campbell, ostensibly on business, but then ditches him and fucks some proto-hippie chick whose dad sits at the foot of their bed while they are naked and comments on how Don is beautiful.  That is, the dad comments. Don also pays a visit to another Significant Female from the Past: he didn’t just inherit Don Draper 1’s purple heart, he inherited this guy’s wife too!  She’s another wacko who finds it within her character to be complicit with this treachery.  He took care of her financially and they became friends and protective of one another.  Oh, and they’re still legally married.

While Don is AWOL in California, Sterling decides he wants the company sold to some British firm because he’s leaving his wife for Don’s secretary and needs cash to pay off his ex-wife.  Okay, we need more backstory on this.

The backstory is the story of Don’s Secretaries, all of whom were important.  First was Peggy herself.  Peggy is this wild character because she’s automatically the one you identify with, being the “new girl”, but there’s also something about her that you can’t put your finger on that might be annoying or amusing or something, you don’t know what.  True to his nature, Don knows exactly how to sum it up, saying that he’s being “blinded by her earnestness”.  But he also knows she’s got chops so he promotes her to Junior Copywriter, leaving him secretary-less.  So this other lady fills the spot and she is literally the dumbest fucking broad alive.  Pardon my english.  All of Don’s subordinates take advantage of her stupidity to get her to do things like give them information and stuff, and Don catches on and gets rid of her.

So this young hottie Jane succeeds the dumb lady, and she’s bad fucking news in sort of the same way but opposite.  She’s really crafty, and manipulates Don’s subordinates this time instead of the other way around, and she gets them to break into Cooper’s office and look at his controversial new wall decoration.  Queen Joan finds out and fires Jane and is about to summarily execute her, but Jane goes and whines to Sterling about it so Sterling gives her her job back.  Which is double trouble because Joan and Sterling used to get it on before Joan became engaged to a doctor/rapist.  And also Sterling is married and shouldn’t be banging Jane, so of course one thing leads to another.

(Don then gets Joan to be his secretary, which makes sense since she is the only one badass enough to swing it, but of course her new husband doesn’t want her to continue working once he’s married.  Just to show how much he doesn’t respect her place in the working world, he comes to visit her at work when Don isn’t around and rapes her on the floor of Don’s office.  After that I sort of lost track of who got the job description)

No matter how dickish all the men (and Peggy) on his show are, everything keeps getting better for all of them in the material sense.  They keep getting promotions, raises, sexual liaisons, etc even though they do all sorts of immoral, unethical shit for which fiction usually punishes you.  Same thing for Peter Campbell.  He’s got this incredibly resilient, smart, sexy wife, a guaranteed position at S/C because of his pedigree, and yet he still does everything he can to fuck it up.  He’s ridiculously self-destructive in an embarrassing way both personally and professionally.  But it makes him one of the show’s most sympathetic characters because he’s genuinely inept at navigating this world, as opposed to say the infallible Don and Peggy.  So he finally confesses to Peggy that he loves her, and she throws all subtlety to the wind and says “I had your baby, and I gave it away!”  She even says it twice in a row, just reveling in the melodrama and shit.

Then, Don writes Betty a cute note so she lets him move back in.  Which basically means that going into season 3, you are interested in what will happen to Sterling Cooper now that it’s been purchased and not as interested in Peggy and Don’s soap operas.  The show is equally bored of Don because it pairs him with this utterly vapid, pretentious, self-righteous lady who teaches his daughter.  It starts with the camera lingering on her for no apparent reason whatsoever, so you realize that eventually Don will have an affair with her.  Then they start talking and everything she says is so witlessly obvious and condescending that of course Don decides he must insert penis.

Meanwhile Sterling Cooper is now owned by British economic warlords who send the Eastern European immigrant from Happiness to hold court over the Mads.  Everybody has to hate the guy by default but eventually he helps them orchestrate a hostile coup that returns control of Sterling Cooper to the hands of himself, the origial owners, and Don, making it SterlingCooperDraperPryce.  They wanted to do this all along, I suspect, but maybe would not have had the testiicular fortitude to put the plan into execution if not for their hands being forced when Idiot Secretary literally attacks one of the British imperialists with a lawnmower.  There are some power plays in which all the second-tier characters are either inducted into the new firm or devastatingly passed over.  Peggy uses the upset to bargain for even greater clout and equal-footing with Don.  Everybody forgets about Sal (who isn’t allowed to have sexual preferences) and would prefer instead to hire an ineffective drunk who urinates inappropriately.  Interestingly, Don’s feelings towards Sal’s homosexuality have a nearly 1:1 corrospondence with Tony Soprano’s towards Spatafore’s, although it’s much more implicit in this show.

Don is idiotic or arrogant enough to keep a comprehensive account of every lie he has ever told Betty in his home office.  Literally indexed and cross-referenced and shit so that it can be readily parsed by an intruder.  Relief is palpable when Betty discovers this cache and, hopefully for real this time, puts an end to the mummer’s farce of their rekindling.  Even Don clearly feels relieved, so I suppose the only logical explanation is that he kept all the evidence around hoping that she would eventually find it.

At this point it’s sort of clear that Don is this fairly mundane, intelligent person with just enough eccentricity to be worth making a television show about.  His eccentricity leads him to do things that don’t make sense (like sleep with women who he couldn’t possibly find interesting, or fuck up his professional career because he’s just itching to have an aire of mystery about him) and this creates situations that can fill an episode or two’s worth of content.  It is worthwhile to watch because of the trickle-down economics that are applied to Peggy and Don’s decisions: they do something ridiculous and artificial to create television drama, and the peons like Salvatore and Campbell have to irrigate their prospects with P&D’s urinary leftovers, leading to a good running commentary of how much it sucked back then (and, by extension, probably still sucks today) to be some sort of social minority like a woman or man who doesn’t want to have sex with women.  But yet there’s still this gaping black hole of Don’s characterization which used to be mysterious and now just seems pretty petulant, artificial, and manipulative.  Maybe someday I’ll get over all that and watch Season 4.

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~ by renfield on September 4, 2011.

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