Monday, April 22, 2013

Puddles of My Mad Men Season Six: "To Have and to Hold"

On achievement, success and honoring your vows.


I went to Germany on vacation the other week to visit my friend and his wife. I’ve never been to Germany before and the last time I went to Europe was six years ago. Like most people, I tend to be a bit neurotic when it comes to taking stock of my accomplishments and to feeling validated in what I have achieved in life. While I was in Germany, I made a conscious effort to take a break from that: no updating traffic stats on this blog, no worrying over Twitter followers, no fretting over what editors had written back to me, no checking how many likes and Tweets my articles had gotten. Instead, I enjoyed my time with my friend and his wife (and had a lot of German food, drank a lot of German beer and ate too much German cake) because I value their company and their relationship as a married couple.

One day while I was staying with my friend and his wife, I went jogging alone. The town they were staying in sat right against the Rhine, and in the middle of the river there was a small island with a smaller town. Running through the center of the island were small, abutting plots of farmland. I jogged around the perimeter of the island on tight paved roads and along the plots of land looking at the river. Eventually, the road ended at the north end of the island, where it turned to a small path carrying on to the woods—more a glorified thicket than actual woods. I jogged through the woods until I came out onto a small point. The point was mixed with sand and shells and solid rock. The tide was rising and the river ran along the sharp end of the island at a rapid pace. The speed of the current frightened me and I thought about jumping into it. Instead, I sat down and watched the water flow and listened to the waves splash against the side of the island. I sat and thought about being in Germany. I was sitting in the middle of the Rhine and history receded behind me—terrifying and unreal—and proceeded ahead of me, terrifying and unreal. I decided then that when I returned to my regular life that I would try to worry a little less constantly about my achievements.


“To Have and To Hold” is the third episode of the Sixth Season of Mad Men. Obviously, that phrase is loaded in general due to the fact that it comes from the traditional marriage vows, but is especially so when it is used in relation to this particular show.

“…to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”

Don is a divorcee, so, going strictly by the book, he has broken his vows once already in his life. However, as we all know, he has “broken” the vows of marriage many times over the course of his many affairs. Megan’s role on her soap opera is expanding and her character is going to have a love scene. When Megan gives Don the news, naturally he bristles. But he also somewhat concedes and tells Megan that he can “tolerate” the fact that she is going to “kiss and hug” on camera, but that he “can’t encourage it.” When he and Megan go out to dinner with Arlene and Mel, the older couple makes an overt attempt to invite Don and Megan to come back to their apartment and “smoke grass and see what happens.” Arlene and Mel want to swing, but both Don and Megan scoff at the idea and then joke about the scenario on their way home. However, when Don decides out of pride (or his running undercurrent of voyeurism) to watch Megan tape the sex scene, he antagonizes her for going through with it and being proud of it. He hastily infers that what she does is just like what a whore does. And then he goes back to their apartment building, to the floor below their apartment, and continues his affair with Sylvia Rosen.

Peggy, meanwhile, has already broken the “vows” of her professional marriage to SCDP when she left to join Ted Chaough. However, last week, when she tipped Ted off to the availability of the Heinz Ketchup account, she began the sundering of her professional/creative relationship with Don and her late-night-call friendship with Stan. After Peggy’s pitch (again, Don’s voyeurism rose its head as he listened to the pitch outside the door) wins the ketchup account, both Don and Stan don’t want to be near her. Marriage is different than friendship or a protégé-mentor relationship, but each of those connections contains a certain power and emotional resonance and tarnishing the loyalty—breaking the “vows”—can be painful and alienating.

Joan’s girlfriend* also breaks her vows when she decides that she wants to have a harmless make out session with the host/waiter at the restaurant. Joan goes along for the ride and does some downtown making out of her own. The two wake up in bed together and Joan’s friend regrets it, but tells Joan that she “just wanted to know what it felt like.”

(*Editor’s Note: The woman who played Joan’s friend, Marley Shelton, was one of my all-time favorite babes back when I was a teenager. Mostly because of her memorable performance as Wendy Peffercorn in The Sandlot. Though, I suppose she is still a current all-time babe [what?], because she looked great last night. )

However, if Mad Men focused solely on a single theme or idea, it wouldn’t be as great of a show as it is. “The Collaborators” was a weaker episode (though one with some masterful dialogue) because it seemed to just hover around only the theme of fidelity. “To Have and to Hold” was a better episode because it was also about power and achievement.

For once, we actually see Harry Crane do something very competent. Normally we just see Harry make a fool of himself by either bumbling in a meeting, saying something inappropriate or just having bad sideburns. However, his idea for the absurdly campy “Broadway Joe on Broadway” show suggested that he actually knows what he’s doing. And Harry knows that he can and should be able to use it for some kind of leverage.

That leverage comes when he clashes with Joan. Joan has been on unsteady ground no matter how much respect she has gained in the firm, since she can’t escape her role or identity as a sexual object—and instead of using a kind of masculine attempt at power as Peggy does in her new job, Joan continues to fall into shows of power that would be described as “bitchy” or “catty,” but which really come off more as being petty. Joan received her partnership by sleeping with a man, a disgusting man at that. Yet she is invaluable to the firm in many ways and wants to be seen and appreciated as such, especially by other women and especially by secretaries. However, she can’t escape the limits of the initial identity she set for herself.

Harry, likewise, knows that he brings a value to the firm and that he is not appreciated. When Joan fires his secretary without bringing the problem to his attention, Harry decides to use his Joe Namath leverage and demand a partnership. He’s “actually done work” to earn the title, while Joan merely had sex with someone—even though she was pressured to do so because it would be the best for the company.

In the end, Harry gets a bonus equal to his year’s worth of salary, but he still wants to be a partner. Joan receives the admiration of her old friend because she was a pioneer who came to New York without the safety net of a husband or anything else and is now a partner at an advertising firm. Joan brushes it off as “just a title,” but her friend insists that from where she sits its, “damn impressive.” Joan also receives Dawn’s respect after the time card incident. But Joan, hearing in Dawn’s request to have her own pay docked because it’s good for the company the echoes of her own decision to sleep with the Jaguar dealer, decides to finally relinquish some of her old identity as counter of staplers and keeper of time cards, even though it may be too late.

As an episode, the parts of “To Have and To Hold” that stuck with me were the ones that focused on achievement. The characters on Mad Men, just like those of us in real life, are always trying to achieve and gain more. Megan wants her role expanded; she wants more scenes, better acting opportunities. Peggy wants to be as good as or better than Don at advertising. Pete wants more accounts. Harry wants more money and a partnership. Joan wants respect. However, sometimes you get lost in wanting to achieve something. What does the title of partner mean? Harry’s children and wife most likely have more use for the extra $23,000 than his title as partner. Joan’s title means nothing to her without respect, but to her friend just the fact that Joan is a partner is “damn impressive.”

Achievement is all about perspective. I may think my achievements are nothing, but an old friend, a family member looking at my life from the perspective of the job changes, the links promoting my blog posts or unpaid articles and photos on my Facebook page would think differently.

And that’s what I learned sitting on the Rhine. Because I don’t want to think about anyone wearing a silver cross and praying that I find peace after I leave them at night.

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