Seeing Mad Men through its ads: Every week, WIRED takes a look at the latest episode of Mad Men through the lens of the latest media campaign by advertising agency Sterling Cooper & Partners.
“Yes…but is it art?” This age-old question has generally targeted the avant-garde, but its application to advertising can be equally apt. The best work by Sterling Cooper’s resident creative geniuses Don Draper and Peggy Olson—the Carousel, Burger Chef—transcends its mercenary origins to articulate hidden yet widespread fears and desires, in the stealthily symbolic way that’s normally the province of painters and poets. But for an ad to be truly effective, the reverse must also be true: Greed and guile are gussied up in artsy drag, its surface sophistication used to exploit the anxieties the product for sale is designed to salve.
Photographer Pima Ryan embodies this Madison Avenue manicheanism. Played by guest star Mimi Rogers, her talent has made her a legend among SC&P’s creative staff, for good and for ill. Peggy’s thrilled to bring Pima aboard the campaign for Cinzano vermouth, and her onscreen debut takes place in a blinding white soundstage that evokes the iconic artistry of late-season Mad Men go-to reference point Stanley Kubrick. But Peggy’s friend and sidekick Stan Rizzo is equal parts irritated and intimidated by this hired gun. At first he mocks her work, on set and to her face. But when challenged by her directly to show her his best stuff, he comes up short. “You should see what she does,” he tells his girlfriend Elaine, awestruck and petulant in equal measure. “It’s so sensual.” Instinctively, Elaine strips down and volunteers to serve as Stan’s model for an impromptu shoot, in hopes that their real, relationship-based sexual chemistry is enough to rival the simulacrum seen in Pima’s photos. Perhaps life, they hope, can imitate art.
Courtesy of AMC
But Stan and Elaine aren’t the only ones capable of conflating sexual and artistic success. After checking out and dismissing the results of their shoot, Pima comes on to Stan, who responds with his typical eagerness. He may have failed to win her approval as a photographer, but becoming her lover is seen as equally validating. If you can’t beat her, join her.
Peggy, however, sees through Pima’s advances when they’re thrust in her own direction. Whatever her problems, confidence in her work has not been one for many years, so the sex/approval trade-off holds no appeal for her. When she snipes at Stan for his infidelity to his girlfriend, and he snaps back that it’s none of her business, her answer exposes their special-guest superstar for what she is: “No, it’s Pima’s business, which turns out to be more advertising than art. She tried the same thing with me, but she didn’t get as far, and that’s why I’m not gonna give her another job.” Art points to a void, something we’re afraid or incapable of articulating. Advertising does the same, then offers something to fill it. In the end, Pima wasn’t selling anything Peggy needed to buy.
Diana, the waitress with whom Don pursues an ill-fated relationship in this episode, has no more interest than Peggy in pursuing outside means to fill the hole in her life. In this case, however, the motive wasn’t self-confidence, but self-abnegation. If she were more like Stan, dating Don—a handsome, talented, enormously wealthy person—would have provided her with some measure of happiness she couldn’t win on her own. But she doesn’t want happiness. She wants to remember her daughters, one who died, and one she left behind when the grief overwhelmed her. She lives in a representation of the void she has embraced, a sparsely furnished and undecorated studio apartment. “Can’t you see I don’t want anything?” she demands of Don. He does see it, eventually, and leaves her to the nothing she’s chosen.
Courtesy of AMC
But he returns to a nothing that someone else has chosen for him: In the hour’s funniest sight gag, Don’s apartment has been emptied out on the down low by his ex-wife Megan’s trash-talking, French-speaking mother Marie. Nominally, this is an act of vengeance against the man she feels dishonored her daughter and damaged her family. But by effectively booty-calling Roger Sterling in the middle of robbing Don blind, she reveals a Stan-like need to seek fulfillment from a happier, richer person than herself. Megan sees this for what it is the moment she returns to the apartment, lambasting her mother and Roger—not for stealing Don’s stuff but for what they did together afterwards. Yet at the same time, she recognizes the unhappiness that drove her mother to do it, and subsequently to leave her father, ostensibly for Roger. In a fight with her sister, she applauds her mother’s decision to end years of emotional misery. “It’s a sin to be a ghoul and feed on everyone’s pain,” she chides her sibling. Whatever her mother and Roger were feeding on, it wasn’t pain.
So that leaves Don alone in his barren apartment. He’s lost Diana. He’s lost the million dollars he paid Megan for their settlement, in a vain effort to persuade Diana that he was serious enough about her to end his drawn-out divorce as soon as possible. The poor sap’s even lost his easy chair. Knowing Don, there will always be someone else to sleep with and some other million to earn. But for the time being he’s learning what Stan learned from Pima: When you get what you think you want, what you’re really doing is acknowledging how badly you needed it in the first place. It may look like art, it may look like love, but you’re being bought and sold the whole time.