Every now and then, when you find yourself admiring and envying Don Draper for how cool he is, how well-endowed he is, how successful he is, how (like me) he thinks ketchup sucks, and how he gets away with nearly everything, it’s helpful to have an episode like “To Have and to Hold” to pierce through the Draper veneer and reveal the prices Don pays to enjoy the life he’s got and the confidence of his that bleeds into indifference that threatens to unravel a lot of it. Don, like other men in positions of power on Mad Men, takes much of his life for granted; he’s worked hard to control and focus his many impulses, both creative and promiscuous, but every so often he’ll have to suffer for his controlling ways, which demand that he always be in the right and everyone else taken for granted. There are a lot of people taken for granted on Mad Men, and not just by Don, for several reasons, including their gender, their age, their race, their work, and much of that was on display last night.
The most obvious taken-for-granted candidate is Joan, mostly because she’s a woman, and much of last night’s episode belonged to her, in a typically classy and reserved performance by Christina Hendricks. Joan feels taken for granted at work (though, ironically, the one male SCDP who definitely appreciates her value is Don), as she explicitly tells to her friend, a visiting Mary Kay saleswoman. Yes, she’s a partner and an executive, but that’s just a title to Joan, because her attainment of that title came at a price; Joan’s ex-husband raped her but her night with Herb was also abusive, as she was just a tool of the non-Draper partners. Cruelly, though, the way she obtained her partnership means that her skills are further obscured. If that’s an open secret among her male colleagues—and Harry knows about it, too, so it extends beyond the partnership circle—then certainly no one is going to think that Joan reached her position because of merit. Joan was smart to demand a stake in the agency for her participation but when Harry looks through the glass at Joan speaking in the partners’ meeting he can only assume she’s not worthy and is consumed by Harry’s trivialities rather than real business. That Joan is worthy of her role is over his head; the abuse Joan has to put up with is doubly lamentable because she’s a kindred spirit with the men sitting in the conference room. Like them, she knows how to keep her secrets and operate quietly, but internalizes too much of her pain for anyone to take notice or even ask, including her mother and her visiting friend.
Harry is perhaps a more interesting case study. We’re not on his side the way we are on Joan’s: He’s the annoying co-worker who makes shitty jokes and who nobody likes, and there’s reason for why that is. Harry is cloying and his inattention—whether it’s not realizing Megan is standing behind him, not knowing to when ask for a partnership, or not comprehending why Joan is talking shop with the other higher-ups—is a source of frustration and dislike for us, not sympathy. Harry is more the hanger-on than someone assertive, and while he was properly estimated by his co-workers (SCDP wasn’t going to break off independently without the media guy) he didn’t know how to act on that. Harry probably should be a partner because of TV’s importance to any ad agency in 1968, but it’s too late for him to impress anyone, hence why Bert and Roger shrug off his demands. By this point, Harry’s requests, as perceived by the partners, are desperate antics rather than something to actually consider, because he’s as easily pushed over for a partnership as Pete threw him out of his window office. What’s unfortunate for Harry is that TV, and Harry’s value along with it, is only growing in importance, while conversely Harry is increasingly taken for granted (obviously not in a gender-driven manner like Joan) because of his preference for laughing at jokes at the times he should have been bothering to understand the landscape around him.
It’s no surprise that a black person working in SCDP would be taken for granted—after all Dawn was hired as Don’s* secretary only after Roger’s “joke” was misconstrued as a serious solicitation for applicants (misconstrued by the white non-Draper partners, that is)—and so I was glad to learn a little more about Dawn’s life. To date the only other time a storyline has dwelled on Dawn, we saw less of Dawn herself than Dawn as a mirror for Peggy’s shame. Part of the conversation that Dawn and Peggy shared that night predictably included discussions of their troubles assimilating to a man’s world, though Dawn was more meekly listening to Peggy ask openly if she behaved like one of the guys. Of course the deck is stacked against Dawn because she’s a woman, but her race compounds the ingrained problems she already inherited because of her gender. I join the roundtable over at The Atlantic in asking whether Mad Men will discuss race as prominently as it explores society’s attitudes towards gender. To date the show has relegated race to the sidelines, though I would argue that it has addressed racism sincerely if only subtly—the series of events that led to Dawn’s hiring (the rival agency’s mocking of civil rights protestors), Roger’s uncomfortably shocking blackface appearance, and hell, the very first scene of the pilot featured Don asking a timid black waiter about his cigarette of choice. Dawn’s comment to her friend—all her white bosses hear is “Yessuh”—is a wonderful play on that series-opening scene, where that’s all that Don (and the audience—Mad Men isn’t shy about indicting viewers for their complicity in Don’s social transgressions) heard. 1968 is full of racial tension, and I’ll take this as a sign that Mad Men is eager to engage this part of our history; if fully-developed black characters are late to Mad Men, they were also late to SCDP, and as the show has been oblique but hasn’t been shy about race I’m encouraged by its foray into Dawn’s story.
*Whether the fact that Don and Dawn sound exactly the same to a blind guy is anything more than sly wordplay I can’t say, but it’s interesting to think of retrograde Don and his black secretary as extensions of one another.
Then, we have Don taking himself (and his work, and his wife, and his mistress) for granted. Don was well aware of the risk of losing the baked beans account, but his desire to meet in secret with Big Ketchup renders the policy of loyalty to the people who have been there for you that he uttered last week insincere disingenuous; Don understands that he took a risk when he ordered the tin-foiling of the storage closet and showed up at Pete’s bachelor pad, but didn’t once expect that he wouldn’t end up on the reward side of his bet. His learning that there were not one but two other agencies competing for the ketchup account is shocking to him, and as Don comes to terms with taking Peggy for granted when she worked to him while eavesdropping on her quintessentially Draper-esque pitch, he’s learning that he’s likewise over-estimating his knack for both idea-generating and secrecy. Don’s assuredness came crumbling down last night: in targeting ketchup he lost another, if less impressive, account; his jealousy of his wife’s incredibly risqué love scene (ONLY HUGGING AND KISSING) translated his bemusement towards the crazy swingers she’s working with into bitterness and hypocrisy; what he assumes Sylvia thinks of him—they both know they shouldn’t be doing this, but that’s never stopped Don before—is cut by the fact that to a certain extent she pities him, and nothing can threaten Don’s aura more than someone legitimately praying for him.
After their failed if well-presented (and certainly labored-over) pitches, Don, Ted, and their acolytes are left to wallow in drink and rue their mistaken assumptions about others rather than pop the champagne. The trouble is that the most they muster to rectify their taking for granted and being taken for granted of and by their supposed friends and colleagues is flip the bird. My guess is that probably won’t be enough to stop their impending slide into backstabbing irrelevancy.