Courage is a funny thing. We laud the courageous when they succeed, but acts of courage don’t always lead to success – and when they don’t, we sometimes fail to appreciate the efforts made. In this Mad Men episode, we see multiple characters – Brooks, Mona, Roger, Margaret/Marigold, and later Freddy and Don – step up and take action or take a stand, putting themselves on the line for their beliefs. The results are mixed, and as usual, Don grows significantly through the experience.
The first major development in the story is the installation of an IBM computer in what used to be the Creative lounge at SC&P’s New York offices. Installed under the supervision of Lloyd Hawley, head of Lease Tech, the computer inspires hopes and fears in the hearts of employees and executives alike as they struggle to determine what it means for them. Harry, who had originally argued for the purchase of the computer, sees it as a good business move. Jim announces cheerily that the company has entered the future. Lou gloats that it will do more for the company than his creative team, insulting their talents in their presence. Mike tells everyone who will listen that they are going to be “erased,” a reference to his biological parents’ deaths in the holocaust. Stan the artist says it’s “the Mona Lisa.” And the ever competitive Don wonders who will win: computers or humans? For Don, this is a reference to the 1968 American-British sci-fi film masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which HAL the computer tries to take over the spaceship, gets one astronaut killed in the process, and is then dismantled by the other astronaut.
But Don’s deeper concern is with another issue: accepting his new, greatly reduced role at the company where he is placed subordinate to Peggy on a creative assignment. After throwing a fit, refusing to cooperate, being shot down for exercising executive initiative, and then getting drunk and trying to play hooky with his pal Freddy, he receives a stern alcoholic intervention from Freddy. For his part, Freddy has the courage to keep talking when Don says he doesn’t want to hear Freddy’s lecture. In doing so, he risks their friendship. But as a result, not only does Don clean up his act and decide to accept his fate at work and face the future with courage and hope, but Freddy enjoys a meaningful victory by having a positive impact and rescuing a friend, partially redeeming himself in the process.
Roger isn’t so lucky. The second major development in the episode is a crisis within Roger’s family, as he learns that daughter Margaret has moved to a commune, leaving Brooks an angry husband and Ellery a sad and lonely little boy. Pulling together and rising to the occasion, the family decides that Brooks will travel up to the commune to bring Margaret home while Mona watches Ellery. When that doesn’t work and Brooks lands in jail, Roger and ex-wife Mona travel up to do the job, also unsuccessfully. Yet to watch Mona stand up to Margaret (a/k/a Marigold), and to see Marigold stand up to her mother, is thrilling because of the courage of conviction they each exude. Next comes Roger, a bit cagier in his approach but equally courageous and committed to his mission of bringing his daughter home to take care of her son. When his patience is spent and he tries to grab his daughter and drag her off, their comical fall into the mud puddle serves him notice that he’s failed. Yet bravo to Roger, bravo to Mona, bravo to Brooks for trying. As for Marigold’s courage in standing up to her parents, unfortunately, it’s outweighed by the lack of courage she demonstrates as a mother and wife.
Which brings me to another interesting thing about courage. Its opposite, according to the conventions of our language, is supposed to be cowardice. But is it? Joan tells Peggy with a certain feeling of imagined superiority that the SC&P execs are cowards, implying that they’re using Peggy as a buffer to handle Don instead of handling him themselves. And yet, maybe what we call cowardice is a little like coldness – not a thing in itself, but simply an absence of heat. In the case of courage, it may simply be a lack of courage, an undeveloped area of the self where courage is waiting for the opportunity to pour its foundation and rise up.
While the finger-waggers at SC&P and throughout our society love to cast aspersions on those they deem cowardly – like Lou, drunken Don, and Margaret, who each try to dodge difficult responsibilities instead of facing them – let’s remember that Don didn’t develop courage on his own. Without the courage, wisdom, abiding friendship, and compassion of Freddy Rumsen, who forcefully pours a solid foundation of truth into Don’s weakened heart at just the right moment, it’s unlikely that Don would have been able to build up his own courage singlehandedly and begin to turn his career around. To me, Freddy plays the role of the Monolith (again referencing the film 2001) in this episode by appearing out of nowhere when Don needs him and stimulating Don’s personal evolution.
Be sure to watch Mad Men on AMC this Sunday at 10 p.m. ET – just 3 more episodes this year!
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