Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Just Another Brick

At this point in the series of “Mad Men,” it seems somewhat redundant to say that a specific episode touches on the main themes of the show.  Nearly all of the episodes at least touch on a variety of the many themes that run throughout the entire series. I go back and forth debating over which of  the topics that the show covers interests me the most.  There is a part of me that is tremendously interested in the element of reinventing one’s self, in creating an identity from scratch and riding that identity for all it is worth no matter what kind of lies rise up, no matter how much fiction you have to create in order to shield your true self from the world when it seems like the stakes have gotten too high. However, last night’s episode, “Chinese Wall,” focused on the other theme that has always kept me interested in the show; that being the dynamics of the work world and how those dynamics and rules run over into one’s personal world.  This subject matter has of course been covered extensively over the history of the show and as recently and expertly as in Episode 7 of this season, “The Suitcase.”

Where “The Suitcase” focused only on Don and Peggy’s relationship with each other in the office and how that could potentially extend in some respects outside the office in a realm of unique (non-sexual) intimacy, “Chinese Wall” spread its scope to the varying members of SCDP and how the lines between work and personal/pleasure have been blurred over time and how they have continued to remain blurred.

At work we always struggle to give that personal side of ourselves to those we work with.  We want to appear amiable and make jokes like we would with out friends in our personal or “real” lives. Sometimes these people that we work with will become our friends and perhaps lifelong friends at that.  We work with them in the office and we spend time with them outside of the office.  The key is that both parties can remember what is involved with business and what is personal.  This understanding is what allows each side to reveal increasingly personal details, which is what friendships, at least good ones, are usually formed on.  However, we also want to achieve, we want to do better in our jobs to move forward with out careers; or, at the very least, we want to remain employed in order to avoid hardship.  This sort of movement will often require that we keep ourselves obscured from those that we work with so that they are left to wonder about who we really are and what we are really like, because we can’t care that much about this job, we can’t be that focused on it.  We don’t want anyone to know the secrets of our lives, or even the personal details because there is no guarantee that these people that we work with could use it in some way to gain leverage.  This is a place of work and at some fundamental level, your co-workers must be kept at bay.

Further, there are those instances when we work with someone that we are attracted to.  How is it possible to deny that attraction, whether it is physical or otherwise?  Would it be possible to pursue that kind of intimacy while working in a close environment, where one relies on the other in order to get work done?; where both sides have to continue on with their jobs, while knowing the secrets of the other, the motions and sounds each make in the heat of the dark.  Again, this hinges on an ability to keep business and personal separate, otherwise the passion that lies between two people can very easily become confused and perverted into an emotion that was not initially born out of the attraction.

In any event, work is a complicated place where we often create a second identity for ourselves that either keeps us removed, ties us to our co-workers in a semblance of unity or attempts to navigate the worlds of the personal and business, sometimes in a chaotic manner.

“Chinese Wall” exhibited how all members of SCDP have interacted with the world of business and the world of the personal.  The entire episode is framed around the birth of Pete Cambell’s daughter as well as the panic around the entire SCDP staff learning that Lucky Strike/American Tobacco has taken their account elsewhere.  There are countless episodes of business running over into the lives of those at the agency, including the start of the episode where Cosgrove’s dinner with his wife and his in-laws is interrupted by a friend from another agency informing him that Lucky Strike/American Tobacco has moved to said rival agency, which leads Cosgrove to plunge into the business world, alerting Pete at the hospital, who immediately alerts Don who is on a date with Faye Miller, a character and relationship that perfectly personifies the volatile mixture that business and pleasure can be.

The episode presents a variety of stances on the issue of the value of the business live versus that of the personal life and how those two virtues can be balanced.  Pete’s father-in-law explains that a job is just a job and that it is the people at home who matter: your wife and children.  Faye tells Don that she knows the difference between their relationship and the work that is done at the office.  Pete, Don, Cosgrove and Bert Cooper attend the funeral of a fellow ad man who his colleagues explain was devoted to his job but also to his wife and kids.  However, as the work stories are relayed it appears that the man was more devoted to his job than he ever was to his wife or children.  Don and Pete look on taking in what should be a cautionary tale. However, what they each take from the scene is left ambiguous.  Pete is also approached by Ted Chaough earlier in the episode with an offer to come to his firm.  With SCDP perhaps facing collapse without Lucky Strike, Pete has to weigh the options of providing for his wife and new child against pursuing the passion for work that led to the initial formation of SCDP.

The pivotal scenes of the episode (if you can even narrow them down) are the scenes involving Roger and Joan, Roger and Jane, Don and Megan, and Don and Faye.  Roger goes to Joan’s apartment because of the guilt he feels at not telling his colleagues at SCDP sooner about Lucky Strike dropping them.  He looks to Joan for solace as she has always been there.  She wants to talk business, the state of the company and why Roger didn’t tell anyone sooner, while all Roger wants to do his sleep with her to escape his troubles. Joan identifies that their romantic relationship would only be another problem and not a solution.  It is their business relationship that matters, that is two people who can professionally share things with each other. Joan puts a stop to the romance, which was originally born out of their office interactions and hidden passion.  Later,  Roger feeling defeated is at home with Jane, whom he married out of an affair created in the office and she shows him copies of his memoir that have arrived at their home.  Roger signs a copy for Jane, writing, “To my loving wife, Jane.”  This statement lacks any intimacy and is something that any author would write in a book as a matter of business.  Roger has never truly taken his work seriously. He has only used the office as a means of meeting women and continuing on a lavish lifestyle and he is left lonely and wanting.  The woman he thinks he loves he can’t commit to or maturely articulate his feelings for and the woman he is married to he feels nothing for.

Don on the other hand knows full well the terrible effects of mixing his personal life with business.  Don has always kept himself distant from everyone at work, even Roger (“you’re so damn mysterious”) but let his guard down earlier this season when he slept with Alison.  Yet, in this episode he makes two mistakes.  The first is asking Faye to help him get clients based on the information she receives from her clients as a consultant. Faye is rightly insulted that Don sees her as another part of his business, but as he tells her, SCDP is “all he has.”  Don later makes another mistake in sleeping with Megan when she comes to help him late at night. Megan shows an interest in the work at the company and even states that she wants to do what Don or Peggy does someday. Don is impressed by this as well as Megan’s aggressive moves to take care of him. There is a certain confidence that Megan takes on in this episode that seems to be inherent in all of Don’s lovers – it is a mixture of tenderness and firmness that is certainly a matronly trait.  It is hard to know what to make of the ultimate scene with Don and Megan.  Megan tells him she won’t be running crying from his office and tells him that their sleeping together has nothing to do with work, even though they are at the office and she has explained her interest in advertising.  How does one separate the two as Megan seems to suggest she can?  After this, Don returns home to find Faye at his apartment. Faye tells him that she got him a meeting with Heinz. Don feels ashamed that she used her connections to get him a meeting, but Faye explains that she wanted to do it. Faye is now accepting that their relationship can merge so closely that what is most important is what matters to the health of their relationship and that is keeping SCDP afloat, because that is what Don’s life is and that is what makes him happy.  This gesture certainly raises questions this about this new level of intimacy and posturing between Don and Faye going forward and how Don is going to either embrace or shun it. They are sharing more than one secret now, while Don is now keeping another from her.

Peggy is the only one who seems to be able to balance her work and pleasure.  She decides to sleep with Abe and appears to be falling for him or at least giving into the initial excitement of a romance.  At the same time, she is able to show Stan what is business and what is personal when she turns down his advances and then nails the Playtex meeting by using details from her personal life in her pitch – much like Don used to effortlessly do.

There is not right or wrong answer as to the balance of business and personal.  It is all about your situation, the people you are involved with, the weight that you can carry.  However, there will always be a line between those two worlds and the way you conduct yourself and view that line will say a lot about what kind of person you are and what you are capable of in a variety of ways – another prime example of how me must decide when to share and when to conceal.

Two more episodes left.

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