Mad Men – “The Jet Set”

“The Jet Set”

October 12th, 2008

When most people arrive at their travel destination without their suitcase, they’re angry; when Don Draper arrives without his luggage, it provides a freedom that allows him to break free into (long) uncharted territory.

“The Jet Set” follows Don on a journey of sorts, as he flees the rigidity and direness of Cold War aerospace technology and the schmoozing of pie in the sky engineers searching to create the superhuman astronaut, instead jumping in a car with a young woman named Joy who, more than his meetings, offers hope for her her eponymous emotion. As he encounters those filthy rich and adventurous individuals known as the Jet Set, he also encounters a life that is so unlike his own it nearly scares him back to safety, but then surprisingly scares him back to something difference altogether.

There’s a lot of people who are reverting back to older perspectives here, some in desperate search of former glory or others who are simply collateral damage in the wake of the office’s bigotry. For the most part, it’s a stark reminder that the lives of our characters are the polar opposite of the show’s airborne guests: while they fly from exotic location to exotic location, our characters are stuck in place, struggling to expand their horizons at anything close to jet speed.

Don went to California to get away: to get away from Betty (Who is unseen in the episode, spare a close lookalike at the bar of the hotel), and to get away from what he could tell was one of those moments where it seemed like he was moving faster than everything else. Having spent so long of his life living a lie, and therefore being quick to accept change in order to keep from falling behind the curve and being discovered, he couldn’t understand why Betty wouldn’t take him back after their reconciliation, or why she was even being so stubborn in the first place. Yes, this can’t all be explained away by Don’s past, some of it owing to a controlling nature that can’t be blamed entirely on his father, but it does contextualize his reasons for running off to California and bolting away with Joy as soon as he realized that the meetings organized were going to be just as constrictive in their own ways.

That Don stumbled into the world of the Jet Set is one of those great parts of a period piece like this, especially from an episodic context. By introducing this character that we now understand (if not, of course fully) into worlds that a quick Wikipedia search will give us heaploads of information on, allows Matthew Weiner (who wrote the episode) the chance to play off of existing knowledge in building this already strong character. It’s a world that he both relates to and yet finds exotic: he understands Joy’s father’s attempts to appear younger, to make his daughter into a friend in order to feel less ancient, and yet he finds the entire thing so out there, so different from his normal life, that it doesn’t feel like work.

The way Don is introduced to it all is just perfect: after suffering from heat stroke, overwhelmed by the very nature of L.A., he wakes up in a world where everyone sits around the dinner table listing off exotic locations. At first, Don is almost taken aback by the game, but then it becomes clear that he knows exactly what he’s doing, even rattling off more “O” cities than they imagined. The point is that this is an extremely literate group, and this is not the type of crowd that Don is used to being around while wearing a polo shirt: he’s always been on business in these settings, forced to curtail his views for the sake of the job, the “Don Draper” persona if you will. Here, he’s just Dick Whitman, a man who has played Don Draper for a very long time and who has accumulated a great deal of knowledge about the world, about himself.

To them, Don is simple: “You’re beautiful, and you don’t talk too much” are Joy’s two reasons why her father loves having Don around. Don wishes his world was this simple, so simple that only those two qualities gain him entry into sex-filled evenings and exotic locales. However, that entire image is shattered, or so we presume, moments later when he discovers that Christian has two kids, a boy and a girl who look at least moderately similar to Sally and Bobby. He’s in the midst of a custody dispute, or so it seems, and there is a definitely reality check: one can’t, when they have this family and this background, just up and abandon them in favour of this life of luxury. Joy couldn’t hold down a college education due to the lifestyle, and it seems that the people are arguing all the time as opposed to living in an idyllic setting. It may be the centerpiece for intellectual thought and position, hopping around on airplanes all the time, but it does not solve the rest of the world’s problems.

It is what Don does with this reality, though, that’s so fascinating: he calls someone on the phone, telling them that Dick Whitman is calling, and that he’d like to see them. This is more than a bit of a shock: while one can presume that it is the woman we saw way back in “The Gold Violin” as Don flashed back to his days as a Used Car Salesman, and that perhaps she is on the West Coast and precipitated this trip in the first place, what was it about that image of Christian and his kids that would compel him to make that phone call? One would have suspected that he would think back to Betty in that moment, but this isn’t what happened at all: instead, we end the episode with Don’s luggage finding its way back to his house and the delivery man finding no one to answer the door. It’s quite literally as if his identity as Don Draper returned home without him, leaving a different man free from the constrains of at least one of his dehabilitating identity crises. He’s still the same Don Draper: we get the signature rear profile pose with his arm above the coach, but with no shirt and the modern stylings of the apartment it is a Don Draper free from all that makes him Don Draper, a fascinating and game-changing event that should make for an interesting episode next time out.

Elsewhere, we unfortunately miss out on Betty’s storyline in this week in favour of spending time with the increasingly treacherous Duck Phillips, the hilariously incapable Pete Campbell, the continued recklessness of Roger Sterling, and the stark bigotry of the creative folks at Sterling Cooper. Pete ultimately gets the least time: left alone by Don, and unable to drive anywhere, he brings the meetings to him and acts like a big shot, despite not being able to even get two girls to look at him twice after picking up some papers he let blow away from his pool chair. It’s one of those fun little portraits of a man who just can’t transition from one setting to another. He is good at what he does: making clients happy when they need to be and getting things done in a meet and greet. But he’s a salesman who can’t craft his own product, and thus why he can’t score with people who aren’t actually interested in what he’s selling in terms of Sterling Cooper (See: the ladies).

But there are those who are, including Peggy Olsen, who this week confesses to Kurt (one of the “young guns” hired by Don to appease Duck) that she always picks the wrong men: those who are getting married, those who are priests, and now those who are homosexual. There was a frankness in this reveal that was blunt to the point of being provocative: Kurt breaks the news as soon as he realizes that the office thinks he and Peggy are dating, and the ripple effect is immediate. I think it was through reading other reviews, but the presumption was that Kurt and Smitty were in a relationship, so this wasn’t a surprise in itself: it just came out in such a quick fashion that we saw a lot of immediate reactions. This would be normal except that we know Salvatore (and likely Smitty) are standing in the room not nearly as comfortable with admitting that they’d rather have sex with men than women, and having to listen to Ken and Harry is not going to help that fact.

After they played it coy with the issue of race relations or homsexuality in the past, with very little active discussion of Kinsey’s girlfriend and Sal planted firmly in the college, this kind of frank statement is just so outside of Mad Men’s characters: they’re all about secrets, crises of identity, about not letting it free at all. But, as they say, Europe is different: like the Jet Setters, Kurt comes from a different society and his different value set is alarming not for its content but for its honesty. What we get is, moreso than the show tends to do with racism or other tense social issues, is an immediate picture of the period bigotry. But, in the end, it is an empowering statement: for all of their insults (which never spiral into hatred but certainly represent themselves as close-minded and worrisome), Kurt is perfectly fine cutting Peggy’s hair into a charming new style and talking with her about her boy problems. I do think, though, that Salvatore is at a crossroads now: either he comes out to reclaim his honour and to do what Kurt did, to reveal it right up front and be able to be himself, or to retreat so far into the closet that there’s no coming out. Regardless, while we knew from “The Gold Violin” that Sal was not wholly sold on his domestic lie, he seems now in as much crisis as he was last season.

Meanwhile, on the side of the executive folk at Sterling Cooper, we get two trends: Roger Sterling losing sight of the big picture in favour of his newfound love, and Duck Phillips regaining his bite in his attempts to take advantage of this for his own gain. As Roger considers divorce, something that has potentially huge financial ramifications for the company if Duck has any kind of experience in the area, there is that sense that he is again losing sight of reality: with Jane he has someone who thinks he will change her, who wants to grow old with him and who writes him poetry. I love Roger’s observation that he doesn’t want her aging, or in reality changing in any way: his plan of marriage is in some way an attempt to bottle their current affair. It’s about capturing the moments and ignoring the fact that they could end, making a union bound to uphold those moments as the standard as opposed to a loose plan where she could let go, where she could be set free from him.

Roger and Duck are at similar stages in their lives, but Roger is at the point where he thinks there’s nothing to lose and Duck is at the point where there actually isn’t. Having failed to bring forward results or make anyone at Sterling Cooper happy, Duck does what he can to move forward: convince his old bosses to buy Sterling Cooper out from under Roger, and then place him at the head of Creative. There is little as slimey as Duck sitting in front of Roger and Cooper and convincing them that what he’s offering is a chance for the Sterling Cooper name to be in charge of an enormous number of International divisions, which isn’t quite what I think would end up happening under such a shakeup. I am presuming that there might be some precedence for this, companies which were bought out during this era, but for now I’m going to remain ignorance in favour of letting the show take me on its journey. Either way, we have at this point Duck Phillips going a little bit of drinking, and it’s a different kind of Duck when this happens.

Regardless though, there’s quite a lot of questions leaving this episode, especially since we’re so close to the finale (which is now two weeks away). Since I’m presuming the show, in a likely but not yet confirmed third season, would again find a gap in time to help advance further into the 60s, it likely won’t worry with conclusions so much as continued escalations – considering that Don is on the other side of the country and big things are about to go down both between individuals and in a broader sense of Sterling Cooper, consider my anticipation levels quite high.

Cultural Observations

  • Duck offers the bottle to Joan as a finder’s fee, which is a curious thing to do: did he do it to keep one more bottle away from his temptation (although he did drink with his former boss, and seemed to need some liquid courage before heading into his meeting with Sterling/Cooper), or just because he’s in such a good mood since he knows what the gift means for his future? Regardless, I’ve got my eye on Duck, and Mark Moses continues to do some great work in the role.
  • Interesting to see what aerospace amounts to within these times – cold war fear mongering about the importance of missile technologies to the Soviets. As Maureen Ryan notes (as cited by Alan Sepinwall), it’s a nice mirror scene to the Kodak Carousel pitch from “The Wheel.”
  • Harry is maybe the show’s most self-centered character, which is either a shift from last season based on his new promotion or just something that we didn’t see as much of last year. Regardless, his perspective that Kurt is pervert, or that people should stop stirring up race relations so that people will still watch television were the most shocking in the episode, even if the latter one was equal parts funny to concerning.
  • Also, with full props to Sepinwall for pointing it out for me since my consistency meter is out of whack with so much work on my plate, funny how Betty was dreaming about suitcases and then has one show up at her door.


Filed under Mad Men

6 responses to “Mad Men – “The Jet Set”

  1. abh1wordpress

    It’s amazing how Don can just walk right out of his business meetings and into the car of this strange woman. Yes, it is good story, but does it feel, just slightly deranged and false?

    There were situations last night that seemed as if they could not happen in 1962. Would the young man at the ad agency just publicly admit his homosexuality and risk his job? Even if he is a European?

    The tolerance that Peggy has for her gay friend is very 2008, not something that one would think might work for a Catholic woman in the early 60s.

    Draper is both repulsive and seductive because of his good looks. We want him to get away with what he does, because it feels good for us to see him enjoy himself. But some of his choices are almost going off the deep end and will eventually land him on skid row, I think.

  2. Jeff K

    An observation :

    Notice Don’s posture at the very end of the show where Don was sitting at the right side of the sofa.

    We have seen this pose before . It’s a mirrored image of the opening scene in which he is sitting on the left side of a sofa with a full suit. Also notice the black/white contrast between the opening and ending scene.

    • jake maloney

      The color contrast of the two shots suggest that don is actually filled with a sense of enjoyment rather than meaningless.

  3. The tolerance that Peggy has for her gay friend is very 2008, not something that one would think might work for a Catholic woman in the early 60s.

    I suspect she’s a ‘cultural’ Catholic, in the sense that she’s happy to go to Mass to appease her mother, but doesn’t feel much attachment to the religion/dogma per se.

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