Mad Men – “Blowing Smoke”

“Blowing Smoke”

October 10th, 2010

“Not no; not now.”

As the penultimate episode of the season, “Blowing Smoke” has to do more than, well, blow smoke; while last season demonstrated the ability for a finale to offer an exciting climax without much direct plot momentum carried from the previous episode, the fate of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has been developing for a few weeks, and the worst thing that could happen is if its impact is lost.

What’s interesting in “Blowing Smoke” is that the show mirrors its characters: still somewhat in shock from the new of Lucky Strike’s departure, they find themselves sitting around with nothing to do. They can’t bring in accounts thanks to concerns over their longevity, they can’t make dramatic changes without seeming to be in crisis mode, which leaves almost no options to feel as if they’re really making a difference.

This episode is about that circumstance, what it drives Don Draper to do, and whether trading certain doom for an uncertain chaos is the right path to take – in other words, it’s about the danger of a situation where it’s not no, but it’s not now, and how a person like Don Draper lives within that liminal space.

The answer is different depending on who you ask.

As happy as I was to see Rosemarie Dewitt return as Midge, Don’s initial mistress who we first met in the pilot, it isn’t immediately clear why she was here: in fact, while it was nice to get a glimpse into the life of a character we left behind, one couldn’t help but feel that she existed purely as a way to work the notion of “afterimage” into the episode through her paintings. It was a functional, rather than a story-driven, return, which seems a bit one-dimensional but does offer a nice framework for the episode – I’m somewhat reticent to apply it too literally, since it would be considered the “planned” reading, but it works: whether it’s Betty trying to move Sally away from Glenn to solve her problems, or Don trying to quit tobacco to be done with Lucky Strike, the afterimage will remain. Sally and Betty will still be in conflict, and while Lucky Strike may no longer be the only story the chaos will remain (and even move on to affect Faye, who Don never considered).

You could drive that metaphor into the ground for a while, and perhaps someone else will discuss it in more detail, but I’m more interested in the people involved. For example, as much as I despite some of Betty’s behaviour, is she really so crazy to want Sally to stay away from Glenn Bishop? The scenes between Sally and Glenn were honestly terrifying, like a case of sexual abuse waiting to happen: perhaps, to return to the metaphor unexpectedly, the afterimage of Glenn’s earlier behaviour hangs over each of his scenes, turning even his posture into some sort of sexual advance (there’s nothing as attractive as offering a girl your backwash, of course). And so while Betty is silly for seeing moving as a way to fix her daughter, and terrible for desiring to fix her daughter instead of allowing her to be happy or healthy, should we really blame her for not wanting someone whose behaviour has been suspect in the past?

And yet we read Betty’s behavior in the context of her general awfulness, as even when she’s doing the right thing it is done with a sense of punishment and disapproval: she’s unwilling to tell Sally the real reason she won’t let her see Glenn, which I presume include both her previous interactions with Glenn and a general concern over her sexually curious daughter hanging out with older boys. There’s nothing there which is inherently awful, in theory, but the way Betty treats her daughter defines every decision she makes. This becomes a punishment whether it is meant as one or not, simply placed in context of her previous behaviour. I think that Sally and the audience share the same predisposition, which the show has very clearly not bothered to contradict: Betty has had almost no redemptive moments over the past few seasons, which has led to numerous viewers writing her off, much as Sally has done. The psychiatrist’s advice to Sally, after all, is just not to let her anger (which she still feels) explode or take over – in other words, she has learned to ignore her mother, instead of actually trying to improve their relationship (which seems to be a project for a completely different psychiatrist were Betty willing to go to one without the pretense of checking on her daughter’s progress).

It’s the same problem that Don deals with when trying to redefine Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce: they’ve always been a tobacco company, so how do they stop being a tobacco company? Unlike Betty, Don knows how to truly change the story: by coming out so strongly against tobacco, Don does more than relocate the problem. Perhaps building on Peggy’s suggestion to treat the agency like a client, Don chooses to embrace and redefine the change (the loss of Lucky Strike) into an opportunity. However, despite the fact that I’d call Don’s decision a much more bold and effective one, it has the same effect we imagine Betty moving the family out of Ossining will: the fellow partners are infuriated, their fellow agencies consider them a laughing stock, and the only people who are calling are the American Cancer Society, and prestige doesn’t pay.

Perhaps more important, however, is Bert Cooper’s comment that the real slap in the face wasn’t the content of the advertisement but rather the fact that their names weren’t on it. I think this is far more interesting for a few reasons, the most important of which is the degree to which we consider Don Draper a monster. We’d likely use the word to describe Betty, at least generally speaking, but I think we still consider Don an enigmatic hero who makes some bad decisions instead of an uncontrollable beast. I think Bert’s commentary, and his subsequent decision to leave the agency entirely (with shoes in hand), is intriguing because it shows that Don is breaking away from the established order: while we have spent quite a few season presuming that Don was going to get lapped by the 1960s, unprepared for the decade of change, here it is Don who steps up to do something bold. Here he is, of course, ahead of the curve: although he likely has no intention of quitting smoking himself – we don’t see him smoke after he writes the letter, but I’m with Stan on this one – there is still the sense that he is making a move that is more reflective of the decade of change than his partners are willing to accept.

Of course, if money weren’t involved, it would be an opportunity. Pete was willing to sell televisions to African Americans, so he is not particularly prejudiced against more progressive notions, but here there is money involved (a considerable amount, no less). Because all of the partners need to chip in their own cash, and because of how much his young family depends on it, all Pete can see here is a nail in the coffin. It’s as if everyone has turned into Lane, always concerned about billings and desperate to pinch pennies on staplers and pens. Don’s move is too bold at a time when basic logic tells everyone that being bold is dangerous; of course, consolidating business is just as dangerous, as it shows signs of weakness. Don manages to do something truly spectacular, in that it manages to be both bold and resigning, trying to sell pulling away from one of the biggest businesses in America into an act of courage and integrity. It’s perhaps the hardest sell he’s ever had to make, and it shows in the way the office responds to it.

It also, of course, doesn’t work: they still have to fire half the staff, and whatever benefit it might have will be slow, agonizing. And yet for the character, I think it’s a huge step forward. Note that he rips the previous pages out of his journal before writing the New York Times ad, and how the series brings back the voiceover from “The Summer Man.” Before, Don was writing in that journal to try to understand who he was, to get some glimpse into his future; now, having come face-to-face with his house of cards a few weeks ago and now facing the death of his business, Don throws away those moments of vulnerability in order to focus entirely on the task at hand. The journal, and the voiceover, no longer represent what he thinks he needs to write to feel better, but instead a purposeful effort to take control of his own destiny.

There’s a fine line between impatient and impulsive, reckless and risky, and I like that Don is walking it. I was a bit surprised, at first, that “Blowing Smoke” ended up right back where it began, the agency preparing to fire a large bulk of its staff (primarily those who were conveniently on the tobacco account, most of whom we had never seen before), but then I realized that’s the point: even after Don’s dramatic move, the weight of Lucky Strike’s exit is too hard to ignore. This wasn’t going to be another moment like last season’s finale, and I don’t expect we’ll see any such moment in next week’s finale either – instead, all it seems they can do is blow some smoke and hope that someone presumes there to be fire.

And even if they’re not convinced, I’d say that “Blowing Smoke” was strong enough that there are no concerns about a lack of fire heading into the conclusion of the season.

Cultural Observations

  • I was surprised that I actually worried about Stan for a moment: after finding the character really obnoxious in the beginning, he’s grown on me, so I was pleased to see him stick around.
  • While Don claims that he simply wasn’t thinking, it is sort of convenient that Faye no longer works at the company, as it’s less of a conflict (and there’s less chance of her catching a moment of intimacy, however small, between Don and Megan).
  • I, like Sally, am always sort of creeped out by those “forever” images, although I don’t think I share her anxiety over the notion of forever – you can get away from your mother when you’re 18, I promise!
  • Anybody else think of Clone High (specifically this scene) during Tedd Chaugh’s fake Robert Kennedy phone call? Just me?
  • Loved Alison Brie getting to play Trudy’s dominating side – you do not tease a woman, even inadvertently, with the idea of a new house without paying the consequences.
  • Since Glenn asked, I’m curious: do you think Betty actually likes children?
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20 Comments

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20 responses to “Mad Men – “Blowing Smoke”

  1. Caren

    No, I don’t think Betty likes children. Maybe she likes the idea of them, and believed it was her “job” to produce them. But the reality of bringing up little beings who have independent thoughts and ideas and could possibly defy her? Oh no. That doesn’t work for Betty at all.

    I noticed Don did smoke a cigarette in his office when he was being confronted by the other partners so he hasn’t given up the smoking…yet.

    And yeah, Glenn creeps me out everytime he’s onscreen. I’m constantly worried he’s going to do something to Sally, even though I remind myself he’s Matt Weiner’s son, and why would he have his own son doing that kind of thing?, but still. I think I’ll be relieved if he’s not in Sally’s scenes anymore.

  2. greg

    I’m pretty sure Betty’s too jealous of children to like them. She seems resentful that she was ever expected to be a grown-up.

    I’d agree that Sally should stay away from Glenn, though I fully expect that she’ll cross paths with plenty more like him once she grows up herself and maybe it’s better that learn how dangerous his type is herself now rather than run into their arms later out of spite. I just don’t believe that Betty is acting out of thoughtful reasoning so much as she just desperately wants her daughter to stay a little kid forever so that SHE doesn’t need to grow up. She’s doing the right thing (kind of) for immature reasons.

    The Midge scenes worked for me, mainly because her husband trying to pimp her out for heroin money was just on the money enough to make even Don realize how similar his actions were with Heinz. It would have annoyed me as somewhat condescending were they presented for the audience to contrast and compare, but as motivation for Don it made sense. If nothing else, it made him feel that all the self-reflective writing he’d done was leading to a practical purpose, and not just like some junior-high girl writing in her diary after all. Even if his gimmick didn’t accomplish much more than Peggy’s ham disaster, at least it gave him a sense of purpose and self-esteem. A selfish and short-sighted sense, as everyone pointed out but, still…

  3. Puzzle

    Betty likes children the way Nellie Olsen liked her dolls: as ornaments dangling from her perfect life.

    Remember “I thought children have no concept of time”? Excuse me? Are her children hamsters or something?

    I think Betty’s children terrify her. It was clear that she wanted Dr.Edna to keep seeing Sally frequently because when she didn’t Betty would feel again that she has to “parent” or something, and she HATES that.

  4. Funback Joe

    Excellent write-up, and all the more impressive by the quick turnaround. I agree with everything you said about the scene/s with Midge, and wondered what their use would actually be (for a moment I thought she and her man were swingers…!). On top of your argument, I think Don saw the face of addiction, hers being heroin, and he saw the face of not only the customers he has been reaching out to via tobacco ads (those addicted to cigarettes) but also the face of his company made flesh. They had been so dependent of Lucky Strike to feed the beast that they had become weak and unable to move on without it. These scenes catalyzed him to make the bold choices he did.

    Also, I too thought it was convenient that many of the fired happened to be non-essentials, but, as you worried for Stan, I was sad to see Danny go. Despite my resistance, he had grown on me (is that a pun when dealing with a man so short?). You may have also missed a rather important departure in Mr. Cooper as well, but hopefully he will be back. His name is on the door after all.

    And finally, to answer you question, Betty does not like children. She is one.

  5. Dan E

    I guess I’m the only one who thought that Glenn seemed, dare I say it, normal this week. Of course, he’s been creepy in the past, but this week just seemed like two kids drinking Coke and talking about things. Maybe I’m too naive to see the malice in Glenn. Then again, I was swayed by our Good Dr. Harris in the last few episodes before he was shipped off to ‘Nam (not enough to forgive rape, but enough not to wish he never came back).

    This seemed the oddest of the penultimate episodes we’ve seen so far. All three before this dealt with the major issue of the period. Season 1 has the election, Season 2 has the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Season 3 had Kennedy. Season 4 is the first to be completely self-contained. I guess if there’s anything to be read into this, it’s that Mad Men attempts to subvert even its own constructs after a while.

  6. AS

    Yes, I absolutely thought of Clone High during the prank phone call. So glad I wasn’t the only one.

  7. belinda

    Huh, I didn’t read the Sally/Glenn scenes in that way at all! I thought it was actually nice to see Sally be a child and have a friend who she can talk to. Glenn might have been creepy in the past, but I think that was because of the divorce, and that’s why he gets along with Sally, who’s been going through the same thing.

  8. Jeff Carroll

    Funback Joe: “You may have also missed a rather important departure in Mr. Cooper as well, but hopefully he will be back. His name is on the door after all.”

    I’d like to believe the Bert is merely taking a small mental vacation, but I also believe Ted Shaw foreshadowed this in the last episode (when he was also reminding us how valuable Pete is). Part of his pitch to Pete was that Jim Carlton, the “C” in CSG, was leaving, so Pete Campbell could slip right in, and they wouldn’t even need to change the logo.

    Now the “C” in SCDP packs up his shoes and leaves. I don’t think that was a coincidence.

    • Jeff Carroll

      My mistake. His name is not Ted Shaw, but Ted Cheough (sp) which means this doesn’t connect in the way that I thought.

      • Jeff Carroll

        But that means that I was also wrong about Ted’s agency’s name–CCG, not CSG–so those two wrongs make my original comment right. ;) A good lesson about fact checking before posting. 

        • Funback Joe

          Jeff, that is a great observation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you were right. It would be just like the Mad Men writers to give us such a subtle hint.

  9. Candigirl617

    Glenn still seems kind of creepy, like the boy who you try to reject and then he stalks you (oh wait, he kinda did that with Betty!) or kills your dog. Loved Glenn’s insistence on wearing his uniform but getting easily winded running a couple of yards. Clearly he’s a benchwarmer, if not the water boy.

    I don’t think Betty hates children. She’s bewildered by them and has nothing in her emotional toolkit to deal with them. Her reaction to adults isn’t much different than how she deals with the kids – the difference is that they (specifically Henry and Don) can fight back.

  10. It’s true that as the series goes on Betty has less and less redemptive qualities, but I find her much more interesting for that. I’m the opposite of most viewers I guess in that I hated her from day one when she was an insipid little victim. But as she grew to be more and more of a harpy I liked watchign her more. It’s not often that writers havea character slowly discover they are a horrible person. The arcs for both Betty and Joan as I see it are great because they fill in the gaps for those of us who met women like them when they were sixty or seventy. As the next generation we instrinctively know their end point, just not how they got there. I’ve come out of this series with more sympathy as a result.

  11. morty

    Don is seen smoking after he writes that article..

  12. djones

    I thought the show hammered a bit hard on the “Betty is a child” theme this week, between having her desperate to keep seeing a child psychologist for her own problems, and then having her suggest moving away to Henry in a manner deliberately designed to provoke Sally as much as possible. I find the show drags when time is spent on her story, but I do find that by marginizing her in the overall narrative her story is stripped of some of the nuance of her attempts at self development in past seasons. She’s repeating the pattern of her life with Don in her marriage with Henry, but aside from her sewing in last week’s episode we’ve seen nothing but the worst from her this season.

    I’m still not sure whether to read Glen’s character as sexually menacing or just stiltedly acted. Every scene with him is extremely unsettling, but I can’t say either way whether I think Sally is in danger rather than their relationship being likely to provoke more things like his vandalizing their house. Matt Weiner can’t exactly clarify the role either, since one direction means casting his son as a sexual predator, and the other means clarifying that his son just comes across like a sexual predator in an role not intended to be so unsettling.

  13. brian

    I found this PDF from a health convention held in 1965 that seemed interesting fodder (potentially) for next week’s finale. Check out page 16…

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1256410/pdf/amjphnation00160-0128.pdf

  14. Great post Myles.

    Something just dawned on me. The partners are upset that Don didn’t consult them before doing something drastic affecting the image of the company.

    However all the way back in the season premiere, they seemed to have no problem putting Don front-and-centre for a piece in the very same newspaper as the face of the comapny.

    So they were fine with him telling his story (even though he really didn’t want to), and being the product their clients would buy…but somehow don’t want to back him when he tells another story, and acts like the face of the company he is supposed to be.

    All in all, I must wonder…what company will come in next week to be the rabbit SCDP pulls out of its hat?

  15. MrsMac

    I don’t think Glenn is creepy at all; I thought he was a good outlet for Sally, someone her age but “wiser”, someone who has been where she is, who can show her the ropes; someone who gives some direction for her rebellion. I suppose the creepy part comes from the fact that he is just a kid, so it’s strange to see him telling Sally like it is – but isn’t that because he’s a product of having to grow up too fast due to the break up of his family? But as he is still a child, the too-grown-up viewpoint doesn’t suit him, doesn’t fit. He’s pretending to be something he isn’t quite (like the football uniform). Makes him cynical; his misfortune to have attempted to reach out to Betty of all people when he needed an adult to help him as a much younger child trying to navigate his (then) new scarier world. Betty reacted to him like the child she is, not like an adult should have; she wanted him to help her! In a sense, if anyone can help Sally deal with her mom, it’s probably Glenn, given his experience with Betty he instinctively knows her. Watching Sally is just so sad.

    Next week the BBC will show the finale. It’s very hard to wait!

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

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