“Love Among the Ruins”
August 24th, 2009
New York is in decay.
Don Draper’s trip to California was highly transformative on an individual level, but as an ad man it appears to have affirmed what he knew before. In California, he tells the people from Madison Square Garden, everything is shiny and new: it is a land of progress, one where people are seeing things as brightly as ever before. And yet for New York, as Don quite rightly pointed out, it is quite the opposite. It is buildings being torn down, and the “priceless” artifacts being torn down in favour of trying to capture that sense of the new while a vocal minority fights for the ruins of the past. When Kinsey spoke earlier of the Roman ruins having been torn down, he was arguing for why Penn Station needed to remain; when Don evokes the same sense of decay, he sees it as a catalyst upon which change can be sold. When the artwork for Madison Square Garden arrives, it evokes Metropolis, and the entire concept is sold as a city on a hill.
“Love Among the Ruins” is, like so many Mad Men episodes, about the act of selling a lifestyle, but in this episode we see very clearly people attempting (and somewhat failing) to live inside of it. For Don, it becomes an attempt to life within decay, to embrace his father-in-law’s growing dementia in an effort to appease his wife and allow for a continued sense of control within a volatile situation. For Peggy, meanwhile, her life as a copywriter becomes separated from her life at home, where her cynical distaste for an ad campaign brings to the surface personal insecurities stemming from her rather eventful relationship history. The rest of the episode kind of falls into place around them, spending less time establishing the season’s various plotlines and more demonstrating how these two central characters (and to a lesser extent, Betty) are handling the decay of their surroundings.
The decision from the London office to refuse the Madison Square Garden account is a fascinating one, because it really speaks to a few key points of the season. The first is that Don is right: Madison Square Garden opens doors for them in terms of potential future business, whether it be concert promotion or hotels, and would actually be one of the safest accounts they could acquire considering that such things are not likely to fade away as a fad or as a trend. But there’s something at the Head Office which sees this as a conflict, as if the London office are themselves the protectors of the past and the Garden is a symbol of garish change of the future. Don asks the logical question of why they bothered buying the company if they were going to refuse to allow it to do business in the logical fashion, and Lane Pryce stops and sighs: he doesn’t know, and I don’t think anyone does. We know that the move was largely a power play by Duck, meaning little to the company itself beyond a chance to establish an American office, but that idea is ultimately outweighed by the London interests. You can marry two companies, but there’s going to be some considerable compromise.
For Peggy Olsen, she’s attempting to marry professional success and personal happiness, something that she’s beginning to see as nearly impossible. When at work, she takes on her cynical reaction to Ann Margaret’s rendition of Bye Bye Birdie: the singing is shrill, and it’s clearly appealing to male fantasies of women and thus making it a strange choice for a diet drink from the makers of Pepsi. However, at home she’s singing in the mirror (quite well, I might add), playing the same role as Ann Margaret but in her own skin, with her own hair brush as a microphone. Elisabeth Moss is great in this scene, because despite her earlier hope that they could make sun of the number there’s very little sarcasm or dishonesty in her voice. Her mimickry of Margaret’s inflection is certainly mocking, but her voice seems more an effort to inject honesty into the actions, discovering that as much as she despises the use of such images some part of her would rather be living them than fabricating them to sell a diet drink that sounds like a floor.
As such, Peggy goes on a journey to discover if she can sell herself in the way that can make her feel like she wants to dance and sing in front of a blue screen, although on her own terms. Her time in the office is part of the inspiration, certainly. She rides the subway every day, but she isn’t like Joan who can turn riding the Subway into a flirtatious eccentricity for an attractive woman. Expressing some frustration over the diet drink campaign, Harry tells her not to worry, as she isn’t fat anymore (which is a continuation of the “Harry’s a chauvanist pig” runner that Rich Sommer does so well). And when she expresses her concern over the artwork with Don, he tells it to her straight: he’s sorry if it makes her feel uncomfortable, but women want to be her and there really isn’t anything wrong with the Patio campaign idea beyond, you know, the name. This leaves Peggy with a sense that she has something to prove, and as such she sits down in a bar next to a young man and begins her flirtations.
In a lot of ways, this is where Peggy began at Sterling Cooper, sleeping with Pete largely in order to live up to the expectations of the secretarial pool. However, this time around, she’s only playing the role of the naive secretary, lying about being a copywriter so as not to scare away her potential beau as he scarfs down on his food and talks of switching from pre-Law to Engineering. Peggy plays coy, flirting with him and taking a bite of his hamburger, although this isn’t some sort of submissive performance nor is he some sort of predator. He’s a regular guy, a bit neurotic but certainly nothing to be overly worried about. Peggy is really in a position of control here, playing him like a fiddle and eventually being the one who dictates the terms of their post-bar engagement at his apartment, and at the end of the night she’s the one who has to take the walk of shame, yes, but does so very much against his wishes.
In the process, one wonders if Peggy worked out any of her demons, and potentially staved off her own sense of decay. She proved to herself a few things in the span of the evening, including that she is capable of withholding sex when there isn’t a “Trojan” (wonder if that was one of the product placements I’ve read about) and that “she’s still got it” if she goes out of her way to sell herself. She was afraid that she was still stuck in that downward spiral, but we’ve now seen her reclaim and take control of her own destiny. Sure, it involved lying in various fashions, but I would tend to consider it a fairly empowering experience in if not the act itself then in the lessons she might be able to learn from it all. It was a little bit of personal market researching, in a way, which is something that’s quite dangerous, but also something that seems very Don Draper-esque: you can’t sell it unless you’ve lived it, which was the heart of many of Don’s best pitches (and, let’s remember, Peggy’s trick of the trade when it came to the Relaxicizer, amongst other products).
Peggy was largely left out of the season premiere, which explains the episode’s considerable focus on her research of sorts, but she wasn’t the only one. Betty Draper was similarly marginalized, although she emerges here as her father arrives for a visit. And yet, really, it turns into Don’s story, which is pretty well part for the course. As Betty argues with her brother William about her father, whose dementia has worsened following the departure of his girlfriend Gloria, she insists that Don doesn’t have a say in the matter, and yet there he is at episode’s end forcing William to back down from his efforts to place him into his home and allow Gene to live with Don and Betty.
For Betty, her father’s dementia is a sign of decay that she has seen coming for quite some time, and certainly something she’s not prepared to deal with. Betty, unlike Peggy or Don, is not quite as able to live within the fantasy she might want to create for herself. The only time she’s ever done so was in last season’s finale, as she took her fate into her own hands and made love in a bar office with a complete stranger. Here, she reverts entirely back to a child-like mode, fitting considering she is dealing with her own father: she may not be comfortable with believing that her father is entirely fine, sure, but she also can’t let him go into a nursing home when she and her brother are alive. As such, she lets Don make her decision for her, largely: she passes the buck to him, allowing him to metaphorically pick up a bucket of chicken and throw himself into the fray so as to save her from making a decision (note how he has William present it as his own idea so as to assuage Betty’s guilt) and keep her from losing sleep over it.
Betty has to know that Don was responsible for all of this happening, but she wants to live inside of the lie. In many ways, Betty is Don’s client: he’s selling her what she wants to hear in a way that allows them to maintain their relationship so as to keep everyone happy. Don is brokering the selling of decay in that moment, convincing these two siblings to accept a reality where their father is not so damaged as to need a home, accepting in the process that he will be the one waking up in the middle of the night to Gene dumping wine bottles down the sink in order to avoid being arrested for violating prohibition. The look Don has that night, as Gene stands there in front of him, is a realization that the decay they’re trying to undersell (by telling Gene that this is just for a short time, or that he needs a vacation, or that he looks Betty’s cooking better) is not going to simply go away with a shiny ad campaign.
Don does a fine job selling Madison Square Garden in the episode, but the scene in the park as they watch the Maypole dance is particularly telling. On the one hand, you can read the scene as Don lusting after the Age of Aquarius-esque teacher, frolicking with the children in a playful fashion. However, when the camera pans down to her feet, and we see Don touching the grass with his finger tips, what we realize is that he wants to be out there for himself. He wants to be out running around on the grass in his bare feet without a care in the world, to stop living in the city on a hill that he’s constructing one ad campaign at a time and to simply let loose into the world around him. It’s a very simple scene, and it’s over as quickly as it began: we get a quick family snapshot with Gene included, Don in his suit and his shoes firmly intact.
Really, that scene is at the heart of the episode, because the maypole dance is celebrating the growth of Spring when the episode is all about decay. Watching the kids twirl around without a care in the world is supposed to in some way bring to life this season of progress, and yet here’s Don dealing with how to sell the destruction of history and the loss of sanity as if they were new flowers blooming in the gardens. For Don, there’s no relishing the simple pleasures: outside of his trip to California, he never gets the chance that Peggy has to live outside of his wife, and even last week in the premiere we saw one of his attempts at fantasy fall by the wayside when reality interrupted. I don’t doubt Don’s commitment to Betty, but I do doubt his own ability to remain sane when reality is frustrating, and when his efforts to escape it are foiled and left to remain a simple touching of the grass, imagining himself more care-free than he actually is.
This isn’t, ultimately, as strong an episode as the premiere in terms of its overall arc. However, unlike that episode, it’s also a lot more focused: I found Peggy’s storyline here the most satisfying and complex of the season thus far, as despite the complicated nature of Don’s back story it didn’t necessarily feel as current or as relevant to the individual episode. Plus, I’m always a sucker for stories which bring Don and Peggy together, both in terms of their on-screen relationship and their thematic connection, so I can’t really complain too much.
- We got to see a bit more of Lane Pryce in this one, including meeting his wife and discovering that he too is in the dark about why precisely he’s even there. As the liaison with the London office he’s stuck with the job of dealing with these people, but right now he seems simply a man stuck in the middle trying to prove himself with both sides, and finding himself caught in between a rock and a hard place. I’m still waiting to see how Sterling Cooper as a whole is adapting to a new era, but Pryce seems like a nicely subtle character to this point.
- We knew Kinsey was left-leaning in his politics, but it’s interesting to see that explode without any clear ramifications on the campaign even after Don finds out about it. Is it because they to some extent agree with him, or see his passion as a good thing at the end of the day? I’m not quite sure on that one.
- Roger gets a little storyline here, as his daughter is planning her wedding and expresses her desire for Jane to not be present so as to not embarrass her further: Mona is as insufferable as she should be considering Roger’s behaviour, and it’s interesting to see him deal with lying in the bed he’s made. Also interesting was Don’s “no comment” on the subject of bed-lying, as he certainly has no interesting in doing it any time soon if he can help it. The two men have very different ways of handling their affairs, and Don’s not likely to head down Roger’s path.
- Roger and Joan shared a brief look at one point, now both married and in similarly problematic relationships (or so we assume considering what we guess about Joan’s situation), which seems like just a small subtle thing but a good one to see them addressing continuity.
- Interesting parallel that I didn’t get to above: Peggy got pregnant as a result of her naive indiscretion, while Betty was pregnant when she chose to act similarly in her affair with the stranger. I don’t really have anything to say on the subject, but just something I picked up on.
- Betty interacting with Don’s new secretary was entertaining, if only because she was literally a showpiece being played with – she’s convinced her baby is a girl, yet she lets Don’s new girl and Joan perform the strange prediction thing anyways, like she was trained to do so.
- I’m curious to what degree a few things in the episode were product placement (Trojan seems like a safe bet, otherwise why wouldn’t Peggy say condom when broaching the subject with her companion) and which weren’t, but I can tell you right now that the most effective advertising was probably inadvertent: I’ve now got Bye Bye Birdie stuck in my head, making me more likely to seek out the musical’s revival (starring STAMOS! [/Clone High]) when I’m in New York this fall.
- In case it was bugging you too: Peggy’s pickup from the bar also played Grey’s Anatomy’s concrete-encased Han Solo in that show’s fourth season finale, “Freedom.”
- My favourite line in the episode was Peggy’s surprised “You see everything!” when Don admits to ignorance regarding the Ann Margaret scene in Bye Bye Birdie. You can see her face light up in the moment when she realizes that she’ll be the first to show it to him, and that she can hopefully control his response to get her way – Don wasn’t having any of it, but it was a great little moment.
- Some links to some other breakdowns of the episode: