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TV Review: Mad Men – “A Tale of Two Cities” (And More)

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A “Tale of Two Cities” focuses much of the action around agency business with the turmoil of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago as a backdrop. The episode unfolds as a fast-paced mix of disruption, conflict and compromise.

Jim Cutler challenges the partners to seriously discuss a name TedJimPete175change.  Don, Roger and Harry travel to Los Angeles to drum up new business and, once again, it turns into a traumatic trip for Don and things go awry at the agency. Ted goes off to Detroit to “kiss the ring” of a key Chevy executive, soothe his bruised ego and sell a strategy. While the partners are away Jim Cutler gets to “play” and disrupts the staff and plots a palace coup. Joan stumbles into an opportunity to make her mark in new business and gets tripped up when her impulsive actions create major issues with Peggy and Pete. Bob the Boyscout Benson continues to find ways to score points with the partners while Pete slips deeper into his insecurities.  Last but not least, Don drifts even farther away from his leadership role at the agency and his hash induced hallucinations reveal his latest innermost thoughts on life and death.

One Agency, Two Initials
The merged agency finally has a new name. Sterling Cooper & Partners. By reverting back to its origins, SC&P drops the names of the partners that control most of the business and keeps the initials AllPartnersof the old school elder statesmen. It’s wonderful how Roger manages to stay relevant despite the turmoil. As I mentioned in a previous article, agency mergers invariably result in ego battles and culture clashes with one culture eventually dominating. The name change is an interesting manifestation of the mismanagement of these dynamics at SCDPCGC. While Don, Roger and Harry are in California. Cutler suggests to Ted that they fire all remaining SCDP employees. A levelheaded Ted encourages Jim to “start holding hands” and figure out ways to work together.

Jim responds by entrusting Bob Benson to fill his role leading a Manischewitz meeting at which they learn the account has been put in review. As a reward for being a good soldier, Jim puts Bob on the Chevy business alongside Ken Cosgrove. Ken has been absent from the last two episodes and it’s likely that he will not be happy with this. In the end, even though Cutler and Chaough are missing from the name, the CGC culture emerges as the driving force.

Smart maneuvering by Ted and Jim, an expedient “spirit of compromise” and the lack of any passion or resistance from Don make it possible.  This clever maneuver enable Ted and Jim to gloss over the Manischewitz issue, sidestep staff unrest, and preempt any demands of existing or aspiring partners to have their name on the door.  Jim sells the name by declaring, “It’s the only thing that’s equally offensive to all.”  Back to the future. After the decision is made and the partners leave Don’s office, Pete tells Don, “That name is a consolation prize. It’s a gravestone to our resistance.” Hopefully, it will be seen as a savvy move and serve as a catalyst for Pete, Harry and others to relax, get on board and work together. Perhaps Pete’s grabbing the joint from Stan is a step in that direction.

Two New Business Trips
The last time Don and Roger visited LA on a new business trip they unsuccessfully tried to woo defense contractors. This trip is a repeat performance, plus. On the plane, Don is preparing for their LAHotel175upcoming meetings with Sunkist, Carnation, and “the Avocado people” as Roger tries to distract him with drinks and plans for carousing. Roger declares, “Our biggest challenge is to not get syphilis. ” He advises Don, “ Be slick. Be Glib. Be You.” This is actually lousy advice since it feeds into the NY agency stereotype that West Coast clients resent.  In the conference room at Carnation, the CEO wades into a conversation about the Democratic National Convention and says, “long-haired fools shame this country.” leaving everyone a bit stunned.

The business discussions that ensue go downhill from there. Neither Don nor Roger’s glibness could dismiss an obvious conflict between the agency’s Life cereal client and Carnation Instant Breakfast. Duh! This introductory commercial for Carnation Instant Breakfast directs viewers to look for it in the breakfast cereal aisle. Carnation also expresses very real concerns about time zone differences, working styles and productivity. This was before faxes, the Internet, Blackberries, iPhones and e-mail. Servicing a Los Angeles based client from New York would be a challenge for the agency and even Don and Roger couldn’t get past that. In describing the meetings to the partners Roger aptly reports, “It was a series of busts. And not the kind I like.”

The episode reflects the notion of the time that advertising people in California had a lax work ethic and that they were in awe of the big time guys in NYC. The two cities are definitely a continent apart in lifestyle, fashion and partying. These differences are vividly visualized at the Beverly Hills party. Don stands out as the quintessential NY ad guy and could you see Harry or Roger wearing their ascots to the Time Life building?

On a personal note, the references to Carnation and Sunkist hit home with me. In the mid ’90s I ran McCann-Erickson’s West Coast agencies, and one of our best clients was Nestlé’s Carnation Instant Breakfast. We unsuccessfully pitched for the Sunkist account. (Nestle purchased Carnation in 1985.)

Back on the East Coast another new business meeting takes place that shakes things up.

Two Determined Women
Once again, the women of Mad Men shine in their quest to be relevant, respected and valued. Joan’s friend Kate arranges a lunch between Joan and the new head of marketing at Avon Cosmetics.  When it becomes clear that this is a  real business meeting and not a date, Joan seizes the opportunity. She
AvonunchGood175“sells” the agency and picks up the check. Joan’s first action is to tell Peggy about her lead. They discuss her desire to jump into the pool and be the “account man” but Joan expresses fear of being “knocked off the diving board.” Joan and Peggy approach Ted about Avon and his “do whatever it takes to get the business” instincts kick in. Ted rightly calls on Pete to get involved and flies off to Detroit thinking everything is under control. Things start to unravel when Pete tells Joan to set up a lunch for him and Peggy. Joan makes a convincing case that she should be included but Pete’s insecurities cause him to reject the idea. Pete lectures Joan on how things work. The senior partners, like me, bring in the clients and the juniors, like Joan, maintain the relationship. Pete assures Joan, “You’ll get all the credit.” This is definitely how things worked in the Mad Men days but Joan is determined to change that with Avon.

At the restaurant, Joan tells Peggy that she didn’t invite Pete and Peggy is upset. Undeterred Joan does a good job of setting up Peggy and the client reveals that “flat sales” are causing Avon to rethink its positioning. “Hippies don’t wear makeup. I don’t know if we should try to be groovier, or nostalgic,” he laments. Joan realizes she is a bit over her head and she and Peggy awkwardly interrupt each other as they try to address his issues.

Back at the agency Peggy and Joan’s old rivalry rises to the surfacepegjoan150 and Peggy says Joan threw Avon away by not inviting Pete and that there will be hell to pay with Pete and Ted.  “I have to do it myself,” Joan says. A basket of Avon goodies arrive at the agency precipitating the expected showdown with Pete and Ted. As Joan is grilled she stoically stares down her two partners as Peggy comes to the rescue with a contrived message that the Avon client is on the phone for Joan. In the end Peggy and Joan work together leaving Pete exasperated and out maneuvered. Ted tells the partners, “Joan has Avon on the five yard line.”, and the stage is set for either a big win or a big let down for Joan. I’m betting on a win. It was also another kick ass week for Peggy as she continues to rise above the fray.

Don’s Second Chance
Don’s preoccupation with death continues and his increasing irrelevance in all aspects of his life marches on. Don continues to be less and less engaged in the business. He’s abdicated the creative duties to Ted, dismisses partner meetings, and, astonishingly, is just fine with having his name removed the door. Draper is left off the masthead, not with a bang but a whimper.

On the phone with Don, Megan tells him, “Go for a swim. It always makes you feel better.”, foreshadowing Don’s dead man’s float in a Beverly Hills pool. At the party Don smokes hash, makes Party3175out with the hostess and hallucinates the latest version of how he would like things to be.  Megan joins him in full hippie garb and tells Don she’s just fine with “sharing”, OK with his infidelities and that she’s quit her job. Then Megan touches her stomach, indicating she’s pregnant. Don asks. “What do you think it is?” Megan answers, “ A second chance.” Perfect. After all, this is what Don has been constantly looking for…. his second chance. This hallucination is also fuel for the latest Sharon Tate theories that have cropped up among Mad Men pundits. Sharon Tate was the Hollywood starlet brutally slain by the Manson family in August of 1969. There is speculation that Megan is the Mad Men version of Sharon Tate and that she will suffer a very similar fate. Sharon Tate was pregnant at the time of her murder and in “The Game Plan Episode”; Megan wore the same t-shirt that Ms. Tate wore in an iconic photograph of her. An intriguing “conspiracy” that is laid out in an interesting uproxx.com article by Dustin Rowles. See what you think.

Don also conjures up a deceased Pvt. Dinkins who provides Don with a not so glamorous view of what his death could look like. Don eventually winds up face down in the pool. Whether it is a death wish or hash induced clumsy fall, it’s  another close call for Don. Fortunately good ole Roger once again comes to the rescue. On the plane back to New York, Roger shares some wisdom and tells Don, “My shrink says the job of your life is to know yourself. Sooner or later you’ll start to love who you are.”  Will this be a wake-up call for Don or just another conveniently ignored look in the mirror?

Three episodes left and the possibilities and permutations are endless. Mad Men at its best.

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About Hank Wasiak

Hank Wasiak is a communications industry leader and partner at the creative hot shop, The Concept Farm. Hank began his advertising career in 1965 as a real Mad Man at Benton & Bowles. He is a best selling author, teacher, motivational speaker and three time Emmy award winning television host. Hank and Dr. Kathy Cramer created a best selling business - self help book series based on Asset-Based Thinking published by Running Press. Hank also is an Adjunct Professor at USC's Marshall School Of Business.
  • Victor Lana

    Fabulous take on the episode, Hank. My feeling is that we are getting into more and more surreal territory, and that party is a perfect example. The opening credits have an image of Don falling, but the drop into the pool was brilliant. He has been sinking all season long, but Roger stops him from completing that task. What is real or not again becomes questionable, and I love that. I do like that when that girl calls him “Don” that he tells her it’s not his name (because it really is not).

    Could it be that Don Draper will die and he will assume his true identity at the end of the shows run? It could be a death foretold and yet also an escape path. We shall see.

    • http://thewisdomguy.com/ Hank Wasiak

      Het Victor. Thanks for the comments. Agree, the surreal plays out more and more on the episodes. There seems to be some semblance of reality in the office but Don is pulling away from that more and more. Agree on the pool scene. Well done and Roger to the rescue. Should be a good one tonight.

  • Betsy Avila

    Thank God Peggy saved Joan at the end! I love Peggy, but was admittedly upset at her almost-silent role during lunch and how she confronted Joan about the situation back outside the office. Yes, Joan took a major risk, but Peggy’s scolding was another window into her naivete (“I worked my way up” – unaware of how much luck has played in her favor). Thankfully, she redeemed herself by saving Joan from the wrath of a scorned Pete. Finally, the entire situation gave further confirmation of Ted’s level-headed and fair leadership.

    And thank you for linking to that Megan/Sharon Tate photo – my party’s first instincts were that she must shop at Macy’s. Unfortunately you’ve begun a link hunt that has led me to consider much darker theories: http://www.uproxx.com/tv/2013/06/reading-too-much-into-mad-men-evidence-that-megan-draper-is-already-dead/

    • http://thewisdomguy.com/ Hank Wasiak

      Thanks for the comments Betsy. Yep, some ups and downs with Peggy & Joan. There sure seems to be some ominous clouds overhead for Megan. The theories abound. Looking forward to tonight.