It’s been said a million times since Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce merged with Cutler Gleason & Chaough, but in ‘Man With a Plan,’ Mad Men makes it painfully obvious just how much Don Draper loves the beginning of things, and just how quickly the luster of landing Chevy and becoming the new super group of the advertising world has begun to look a little duller than it did back at that hotel bar in Detroit.
Part of that stems from the uncertainty of what this merger means in terms of the power structure at the agency. Don and Ted Chaough were (and still are) rivals, prone to agitating one another to such a degree that Ted once placed a prank phone call to Don, pretending to be Bobby Kennedy with congratulatory praise on his full-page ad denouncing smoking and Lucky Strike.
That moment seems oddly suggestive of where the series is at this point. Don, fresh off making a wild maneuver that suited his best interest and ego, is dealing with the ramifications of that decision, in part by listening to those he failed to consult haul him over the coals for the presumption that, just because he’s Don Draper, everyone else would fall in line with his thinking. Back then, it was just the partners at SCDP who were cross, but back then Don was, in many ways, everything that made SCDP attractive. Despite being wildly presumptuous, at least Don felt like he was in control.
But the times have changed. Joan is now a partner, and following her outburst at Don during last week’s ‘For Immediate Release,’ this episode may as well have been the one titled ‘The Flood,’ as Don was awash in the consequence stemming from the freewheeling, Tarzan-like approach to his professional life. In short, the antics that once earned him acclaim and the respect/fear of his peers now just seems to make them say what they’ve always been thinking – which is that Don Draper is a fairly unlikable person.
And as the merger between SCDP and CGC is producing cutbacks amongst the combined staff, Don is suddenly aware that he’s asked his competition to sit at his table and enjoy a share of the power and the credit. To make matters worse, that guy is best described by the word he least enjoys: Nice. Ted Chaough isn’t just Don’s rival, he’s Don’s opposite in nearly every way but the creative aspect – though their style of inspiration and collaboration seem to differ wildly. The Chaough Effect is such a breath of fresh air in the conference room that Meredith seems as smitten with his good manners, as most women are with everything else about Don.
Ted’s presence, and the rest of CGC in fact, creates a sense that while the merger may have resulted in a company large enough to attract a huge client like Chevy, there’s not much room at the top. Roger knows that while the spirit of the merger is collaboration, he’s not interested in fighting to have his voice heard over the din of Burt Peterson’s lucrative accounts. So Roger does the only sensible thing and fires Burt – again. It’s a win for Roger (John Slattery also directed the episode, so it was a win for Roger on every account), but it’s a victory Pete and Don don’t have the option for.
Instead, Don’s stuck with drinking Ted under the table (and getting chastised by Peggy about it) and practically obsessing over the dominant role he’s undertaken in his relationship with Sylvia. It’s the quickest (and likely, most pleasurable) way for Don to assert himself in his life, but, as with everything else, it leaves him feeling even more isolated and alone.
After toying with Ted in the office, and turning Sylvia into a toy at their hotel, he’s suddenly hit with the notion that this experience is ultimately a trifling thing for everyone but him. “It’s time to go home,” Sylvia tells him, which, in many ways is a sign to him that the party really is over. Don’s going to have to learn to start letting go of a lot of things, and his dominant role-play with Sylvia and in fact, their entire affair is seemingly the first to go. And with that relationship’s end, everything else seemingly begins to slip away as well.
For all intents and purposes, Don doesn’t really have a home – not in the way Sylvia does anyway. Don sits on the edge of his bed, listening to the news reports of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination while Megan is enraptured by and sobbing at the account. In that moment it’s clear: as self-centered as Don is, it’s not just his world that feels like it’s spinning out of control, but the entire world at once.
Mad Men continues next Sunday with ‘The Crash’ @10pm on AMC. Check out a preview below:
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