Mad Men, “Blowing Smoke”

Penultimate episodes often make things really, really bad for characters, creating a world where there looks to be no hope. Even in a series like Mad Men where characters are not necessarily in mortal danger and when things have already been unraveling at a consistent rate, “Blowing Smoke” has no problems making things just a little worse.

Here, a number of characters try to be proactive in hopes of moving past their problems, but unfortunately, life doesn’t really work that way. The awkwardly executed return of Don’s old flame Midge helps create the obvious framework for the episode in the “afterlife.” Don can take out a full-page ad in the New York Times destroying the tobacco industry as a way to move on from Lucky Strike, but that doesn’t make everything okay. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce can begin to let people go as a way to save money, but that’s not going to bring back Lucky Strike or bring in any new business. And Betty can finally decide to move out of the Draper household so that she can keep Sally away from Glenn, but that doesn’t get rid of her own demons brought on by relationships with that house and that weird kid.

When things get tough, it’s hard not to want to make rash or risky decisions, and that is what is happening in each of these circumstances. But often times, trying to swim your way to the top only makes it easier to drown.

Don sees it as a progressive — and perhaps last-ditch — effort to finally step out from under the arm of big tobacco, but it’s difficult for any other of the partners to see it the same way. Bert Cooper is so fed up that he actually quits, Roger, though happy that he’s not the downfall of the company anymore, can’t believe Don would be so self-involved, Lane’s troubled and Pete is of course, left thinking about when the hell he’s finally going to be respected.

Meanwhile, there’s an interesting development with Don’s anti-tobacco ad: It’s much more well-received by the younger staff. Ken notes that his accounts are steady and at least not talking about the loss of Lucky Strike. Peggy seems to like the gusto, as does Megan. I’ll be interested to see if this comes to mean anything in next week’s finale, as if there is some sort of age-based divide. Lane and Roger are obviously are more forgiving when they find that the American Cancer Society wants to work with SCDP, but Pete’s still left stewing, at least to that point.

Speaking of Pete, he finds himself got in the middle of the agency’s crumbling, even when he’s had absolutely nothing to do with it. Everyone knows that Don is the face of the agency, but Pete’s been the workhorse. For so long, Pete was a well-to-do brat who thought he deserved more than he was given, but in 1965, that’s finally true. He has been working his tail off for this new agency, bringing in all sorts of accounts, covering for Don and now it’s all falling apart and he has to cough up $50,000 to the bank for collateral? Trudy’s more concerned about moving and forbids him to give the money, and so it makes sense that he’s less happy to do public service work.

But no matter what kind of work the agency does, things are getting very, very bad. Lane’s returned and figured out that even with all the partners putting in a lot of money, they’ll have to let go of many employees, including Danny, everyone who works in tobacco and various other creatives that work under Peggy. SCDP’s always known that Lucky Strike is their lifeline, and without it, life rafts are short in supply.

In Ossling, Sally has figured out how to maneuver her visits to the shrink, thanks in part to the assistance of her new and obviously close friend, Glenn. The psychiatrist finds that Sally has taken care of her issues, and whether  or not that’s actually true. And for the most part, she’s convinced Betty too by acting out less and being more responsive to Henry’s place within the family.

Of course, while Betty is certainly happy of Sally’s latter change, I’m not too certain she’s as chipper about Sally’s improvement in counseling. Obviously, she doesn’t want her daughter to need counseling, but once the psychiatrist mentions that it’s perhaps she who needs the most help, Betty’s weird competition with her daughter kicks back in. While Sally has moved on or succeeded in a way, Betty’s lost.

Thus, when Betty finds that Sally has been hanging out with Glenn, she can’t handle it. In her mind, Glenn has already been rejected by a Draper woman, and there’s no reason for another one of them to get involved with him, particularly a sex explorer like Sally. So to keep Sally from doing anything she sees as stupid, Betty does exactly what Sally actually wanted her to do in the first place: move. Of course now Sally doesn’t want to move.

In short: Betty is finally ready for the clean slate she should have really tried to obtain after the divorce. But instead, she let things slowly get out of her grasp and now she’s flailing. And just because she’s trying to re-define her life, doesn’t mean it will work.

Don is in the same boat. After his run-in with Midge and the drama at work, he realizes that it’s time for something new, and thus, the NY Times letter. And notice that he rips out all the previous journal entries because he’s clearly trying to forget all those dark months, even though he was on the road to recovery. He’d been taking it slow with this whole recovery, but life has perhaps forced his hand — or at least he thinks so.

But like Betty, Don is finding that he can write an influential letter, piss some people off, inspire others and even pay for Pete’s share of the collateral as some sort of backhanded thank you, and well, Lucky Strike is still gone and he’s still a giant mess personally. Even his biggest, most inspired move of recent memory doesn’t work in the way he thinks, as Faye has to step down because her firm still wants to be the tobacco business. Try as he might, Don is still a selfish man trying to right himself just as a whole company of peers are looking to him to do the right them by all of them.

Maybe he and by extension, SCDP, will be able to re-define themselves with a new account that comes in the finale. Or maybe not. No matter what, it’s going to be a hard swim back topside.

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