Mad Men – “Chinese Wall”

“Chinese Wall”

October 3rd, 2010

“I thought in the end you wouldn’t want to throw it away.”

The balance between business and personal affairs forms one of the central tensions of Mad Men, but the show’s characters all approach the issue from different perspectives. For some, it takes the form of large-scale conflicts, such as Peggy’s pregnancy back in season; for others, it takes the form of family conflict, such as Pete’s relationship with his father-in-law; for yet more, it takes the form of the simple fact that a dinner out is interrupted by a colleague who stops by with news about the business.

For Don Draper, however, it has always been an elaborate balancing act: desperate to keep his true personal affairs out of his business, he created the ideal life for a businessman: wife, two and a half kids, house in the suburbs, etc. And yet that was never Don’s personal life, not really: if anything, Don’s lack of identity meant that he had no true personal life, and what he had was lost when Ann Draper passed away earlier this season.

The tragedy of “Chinese Wall” is not the loss of Lucky Strike hitting the fan, or the departure of the client who brought Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce its greatest honour. Instead, the greatest tragedy is that Don’s search for a personal life has become indistinguishable from his business one. While I would argue that “Chinese Wall” is almost as consistently themed as last week’s “Hands and Knees,” what sets it apart is that it is a theme that has been central from the very beginning, and in the “last days of Rome” it becomes more important than ever before.

We have never met David Montgomery, but that’s sort of the point. In an episode about the intersection of the personal and the professional, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce turns a funeral into a business opportunity because they have no other option; they aren’t trying to be directly disrespectful, but it is the most overt example of a situation where the personal is outright invaded by the professional. It’s reflected in Ted Chaugh showing up at the birth of Pete’s baby to try to convince him to take a job, or the simple idea that Pete would be taken away from that birth by the ongoing crisis at SCDP. These are not situations where these people should be thinking about business, but when a crisis like Lucky Strike’s departure hits a company like this one they simply can’t help it: they have families, and futures, and will do whatever they can do to secure them.

We are saved the kind of cringe-worthy moments at the funeral which plagued a Gilmore Girls episode with a similar scenario, but the funeral sets the tone. There, at the very least, Don and company are taking on the burden themselves: the real conflict in the episode is when others ask others to take on the same burden. The tragedy of the episode is that Don allows both Megan and Faye to blur the line between personal and professional, in both cases severely compromising those relationships. With Megan it sounds perfect, almost to the point where I question that they went too far in trying to justify Don’s indiscretion. I understand that he just had a fight with Faye, and that he is attracted to Megan, but the way she threw himself on him was a bit too “Work Wife” for me to handle. Her argument was that this has nothing to do with business, that she is completely aware that there will be nothing between them and that there will be no tantrums the following day. And yet what she’s doing is precisely what people think Peggy did four or five years earlier, and Don’s inability to see through that and follow his initial instinct of resisting was more damning than simple “cheating.”

That is the basic take-away from that final scene: instead of running away from Don after he suggested she break her ethical standards and help the agency steal clients from rival agencies, she actually gets him a meeting with Heinz in order to reflect her commitment to the relationship. However, instead of feeling that Don had made a mistake by cheating on someone who was loyal to him, I couldn’t help but focus on how he had made a mistake in taking someone who could have been the new Anna, who knows the truth and still loves him and stands by him, and yet he has forever compromised her by turning her into a business asset. It is almost as if Don needs to sell his soul in order to survive professionally, cashing out his personal relationships in a way which threatens their value. And yet, simultaneously, he takes a working professional relationship and turns it into a personal one (no matter what Megan argues), threatening the series’ basic balance just as much as when the series began.

For Roger Sterling, meanwhile, the personal and the business sort of became irrelevant a while ago: with only a single account, and as much a token figure as Cooper in many ways, Roger has sort of let the two blur together in that he doesn’t particularly separate them. As Cooper notes, Roger has never taken himself particularly seriously (at least not during the period of time we have seen), and so when it came time to consolidate their business American Tobacco never looked at Roger (and the firm he represents) as someone who could handle all of their business. It’s slightly ironic that the more synonymous your name becomes with your company the less connected you are with its actual business, but that seems to have been Roger Sterling’s path. It’s a path which led him to hide the truth about Lucky Strike from his fellow partners, and to create an elaborate ruse to pretend that he hadn’t known all along (which only Joan learns about). It’s all an effort to maintain his persona, the almost imaginary person that Sterling’s Gold represents, and yet when he looks at that book cover he feels not unlike the caricature on its back: a partial sketch of a businessman.

What makes “Chinese Wall” work for me is the sense of history to this particular theme. Roger’s life in particular is filled with examples of the personal and the professional colliding, whether it is his affair with Joan or even the idea that he plucked Jane from Don’s desk to marry her. The reason this theme is so prescient is because almost every character is surrounded by it each day: every time Pete looks at Peggy, or Joan looks at Roger, there is that moment where they reconcile their two separate relationships with that individual. As the audience, we’re in the unique position of knowing both sides of each story: we see enough that we come to believe we know the real Don, or the real Peggy, outside of the different personas they may adopt in certain circumstances. However, the sheer volume of scenarios we have seen over four seasons is becoming a bit overwhelming, to the point where I am no longer convinced that we are able to make those distinctions. Instead of clearly establishing how each character relates to this particular theme, this episode seemed instead dedicated to pointing out that every character struggles each day with deciding how they relate with it.

This is clear in Peggy’s decision to purposefully give into the personal: after professional concerns led her to blow off her beau a few episodes back, here Peggy gives into happenstance and goes on the record with her affections for the young writer. I like how Peggy clearly establishes her agency in the scenario: she isn’t just “horny,” as Stan suggests, she simply desires to enjoy herself (which is why she refuses Stan’s invitation, as it was very much not her choice). And yet, at the same time, she ends up feeling as if she has been punished: when she arrives late to the new of Lucky Strike, and heads into Don’s office to talk about Playtex, she notes that for every good thing that happens, something bad follows. It’s a suggestion that by indulging in the personal, she has somehow created negative karma which influences the professional. I don’t think it’s as simple as that, of course, but we can look to that correlation as a key sign of how important this interrelationship is to the series as a whole.

As Don points out, what makes this situation particularly difficult is the idea that it is, in many ways, personal: instead of Don’s ideas being rejected, clients like Glo-Coat are abandoning the agency because they don’t trust that he and the others can stay afloat without their safety net (or, considering its size, their lifeline). Peggy talks about Don’s “big idea” to end each pitch, something that makes the idea seem bigger than it truly is (like the romanticism of the Playtex campaign focusing on what happens after, not during, the use of the gloves), but I don’t think “Chinese Wall” has one of those moments. Instead, it makes everything seem much smaller than it may otherwise have been, focusing far less on the future of the agency and much more on the people involved. In the end, Don’s plight doesn’t become the plight of the many, but instead becomes yet another chapter in a novel filled with sex, lies, and subterfuge.

It’s the show’s basic pattern, which is a smart strategy from Erin Levy: in an episode where thing are threatening to fall apart, where the series’ basic fabric is threatened, the episode returns to a key theme which has been there from the very beginning. It’s sort of the opposite approach of “Sit Down. Shut the Door,” which used an entirely different style of storytelling to reflect the unnatural nature of that episode. I think this was a good choice in this instance, as it’s sort of comforting to know that even in a period of intense change the basic structures of the series remain the same. So long as these kinds of episode remain distinct from the past, offering an evolution rather than a restatement of key principles, the familiarity only helps us understand who these characters are.

Or, in this instance, to challenge that understanding in a pointed and effective fashion.

Cultural Observations

  • The hug between Roger and Joan as they say goodbye is just beautiful: that whole scene was a really great piece of work, especially Roger’s line about how he wished he had known it was the last time – great work from Slattery and Hendricks.
  • Speaking of Joan, there was a look towards Roger as Pete’s new daughter was discussed, so the “Joan kept the baby” theory is alive and well.
  • Speaking of Pete’s daughter, meanwhile, I did sort of miss Alison Brie here, but at the same time I think that her absence helped emphasize the fact that Pete was unable to properly attend to the birth as a result of professional commitments (it’s also fitting that he would miss the birth of both of his children, but that’s really just for Peggy and the audience).
  • Erin Levy, in writing the episode solo, becomes the only writer other than Matthew Weiner to write more than one episode of the series on his/her own.
  • Was kind of excited to learn that Megan was Canadian, a brief moment of excitement in a scene that I otherwise spent urging Don not to do it.
  • Pleased to see Ray Wise in the opening scene, but it took Twitter to allow me to place Larisa Oleynik, who played Bianca in 10 Things I Hate About You and who I don’t think I’ve seen since (although I likely saw her on 3rd Rock from the Sun, just don’t remember it), as Cosgrove’s fiance.
  • Short jokes are nothing new for Danny Strong, but his failed attempt at asking a question? Made me guffaw.
  • In case you were wondering “What is a Chinese Wall,” Wikipedia has the details (and the episode has examples of a whole lot of failed attempts at one).
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6 Comments

Filed under Mad Men

6 responses to “Mad Men – “Chinese Wall”

  1. Pingback: Mad Men – “Chinese Wall” » Monsters of Television

  2. someguy

    It’s nice to read an episode review that is more than, “Don did this, then Peggy did that, and then this happened, the end.”

  3. MrsMac

    Glad to know I wasn’t alone in talking to the TV, telling Don not to do it. Hard to believe a TV show about an ad agency can be so exciting!

  4. Tom

    “I understand that he (Don) just had a fight with Faye, and that he is attracted to Megan, but the way she threw himself on him…”

    was perhaps predicted by Stan, of all people. Stan recalled his time at another agency that was going down. It was the last days of Rome; the energy was very good….

  5. Pingback: Catch Up on Mad Men Season Four | Tired and Bored With Myself

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