Mad Men – “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”

“The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”

August 22nd, 2010

Ted, the Don Draper-equivalent over at rival agency CGC, is not in Don Draper’s league: he is neither visionary nor genius, and yet by virtue of his insistence that he is a competitor he has been elevated to Don’s level. It’s the ultimate example of self-definition, of putting something out there (in this case, to the New York Times) and then turning it into reality. It doesn’t matter that Jai Alai went with another agency because its owner is delusional, or that Clearasil was a conflict rather than business lost: as it would appear to the outside world, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce lost two accounts and CGC (under Ted’s leadership) gained both of them.

“The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” is filled with various examples of situations where appearance becomes reality, to the point where it even becomes a meta-narrative when the series’ positioning of Betty as a child-like figure becomes rendered in three-dimensions. It’s not the most pleasant or subtle of episodes, but it ends up making some fairly interesting observations regarding Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as an agency, as well as the series’ general approach to simulating the past.

Betty, sitting in the child psychiatrist’s office, smiles brightly when she sees a dollhouse, complete with a small little family. The scene itself is more than a bit on the nose, the image of Betty sitting in the brightly-coloured space, coupled with Betty proving herself to be the real patient in her effort to get Sally to talk to a professional regarding her recent behavioural issues, a bit too plainly laying out the idea that Betty herself remains like a child. We’ve been to that well before, and with Henry having to constantly watch over her like a child it’s not something that’s even new this season. However, her nostalgic glimpse at the dollhouse reminds you that she remains guided by an ideal, an ideal which was ingrained by her mother and which was shattered when she put all of her eggs into Don Draper’s basket. Looking for reality, she instead found a simulation, and once the appearance began to break down so too did her tenuous sense of happiness, and whatever parenting skills she had developed. Betty reverts to child-like postures because her real life was never more real, at least to her, than that dollhouse. For the children who sit in the office, it’s a simulacrum of the perfect life that they’re supposed to aspire towards, a tangible glimpse of what might come in their future; for Betty, it’s something that she will never be able to have, as there will come a point in time where Henry will tire of having to smooth over her indiscretions.

Now, the relevance of Baudrillard’s theory of the simulacra to Mad Men is not particularly new: what is advertising, after all, other than the attempt to replace tangible reality with symbols and other forms of meaning? However, it’s never been quite as broadly important as it is now: while it has been an inherent part of the advertising elements of the series, and was in many ways at the heart of Don and Betty’s marital issues, the world of Mad Men has become far more uncertain than it was before. While the characters have always stood in a state of flux, defined by secrets (whether Peggy’s baby or Joan’s age), now the agency has become part of the equation, and so Don’s attempts to project a certain image are no longer solely limited to his personal life. His job is not just to bring interesting creative to the table, but also to take that creative and create a brand identity which lives up to the modern agency that they’re hoping to will into existence through some interior design, an imaginary second floor and a few successful campaigns.

And it seems like Don is finally catching on: his plan to create a fake commercial, thus forcing Ted and CGC to create a real commercial and waste their pitch budget for the rest of the year, uses perception and reality to his advantage. The episode has a lot of unpleasantness (I’ll get to that in time), but those scenes (in particular Peggy driving in circles) brought back the adventure of “Shut the Door. Have a Seat,” which is the kind of image which Don started constructing for the agency back in the premiere (in the interview with the Wall Street Journal). It makes you wonder why he can’t do something similar in his personal life: he’s dedicated to keeping the firm alive, working to eliminate one of their competitors, and yet he doesn’t seem to show the same dedication towards his children (who he pawns off to his neighbour Phoebe so he can go out with Bethanny, which is itself only an excuse to do some research on Japanese culture at Benihana’s) or Bethanny (who he’s only seen three times in five months, or five times in three – I can’t remember which). He has no trouble separating appearance from reality in his job, where it seems natural and logical, but in his personal life he seems unwilling to turn his life into a series of symbols – the only person he seems to open up to is Faye Miller, and only then after learning that her ring is itself an attempt at simulation, a “stop sign” designed to keep people from getting close enough to learn more about her. Don understands that impulse, and part of him latches onto her as someone who might understand – Don may not need a psychiatrist, but he does need someone who he can talk to, and until he finds that person his professional life will be his only area of improvement.

I think the episode’s biggest failure is with Roger Sterling: while his complaint that forgiveness has become more valuable than loyalty is certainly quite interesting, and creates a nice parallel wherein Don’s decision to move beyond Betty’s remarriage and Betty’s inability to get past their divorce are placed under the microscope, the insensitivity of his commentary seemed to come out of nowhere, and out of a particularly spiteful place. We know that Roger is not the most politically correct person in the world (“My Old Kentucky Home” showed that very plainly), but we haven’t seen enough to understand his level of animosity in this particular situation. The series is at the point where addressing the rise of Japanese business within the U.S. is an interesting story avenue, but Roger’s response was so overt that it made the story seem blatant rather than meaningful. I think, as noted, there are some really interesting ideas in terms of forgiving past sins and reconciling personal bias with business ethics within the story, and I thought the scene where Pete psychoanalyzed Roger’s behaviour in the context of his position as partner was really well done (more on that in a second). However, in the end, the fact that Roger’s remarks had not even a tinge of humour to them seemed out of character, and I just couldn’t get past that.

When it did connect with the agency, though, I really liked what it said about the partners at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Pete, for example, is anxious about this account because both of the losses where his own (Jai Alai and Clearasil), and his partnership has no appearance: his name isn’t on the door, or on the wall, and so he fears that he will at some point be expendable. Roger, meanwhile, has the opposite problem: his partnership is very much a reality, and yet he fears that without Lucky Strike (and his relationship to it) he would be just a symbol (as Cooper already is), which is what the episode eventually chalks his anti-Japanese stance up to. These concerns don’t really come to the surface of the episode, but I like that they’re sort of boiling under the surface: after last week dealt with a lot of intensely personal material for Don and Peggy and the ways in which it bled into the workplace, here things stayed largely on the professional plane, and I think it was a good time to look a bit further into the agency side of things.

Of course, it helped that the other side of the episode was all personal, as Betty returns after a two-episode hiatus to reclaim her title of mother of the year. At this point, it’s not even a big deal that Betty fiercely slaps Sally upon learning that she cut her hair: we’ve come to accept that she has absolutely no idea how to parent her children, and so we’re not surprised to learn that Sally has no interest in asking her mother about the birds and the bees, or that Sally’s natural curiosity about (and experimentation with, in terms of her impromptu haircut and her sleepover exploration) her body would be particularly pronounced. It isn’t that Sally is living in a damaged home, it’s that Sally is living in a home which never had a foundation to begin with: Betty is smart enough to know that it was Gene’s death that sent Sally over the edge, but her problem was less in losing Gene and more in the sense that her family could move on as if nothing happened. Betty claims that kids have no perception of time, which is why she thought her remarriage wouldn’t affect them, but it was the speed with which Gene was replaced that made Sally all too aware of his fast the adult world moves, and made her own personal development speed up prematurely. That Kiernan Shipka seems to be maturing at an alarming rate before our eyes helps facilitate the sense that Sally appears far older than she actually is: when Don said she was 10 tonight, it shocked me in a way it shouldn’t have. I had decided, based on the symbols provided, that Sally was at least 12 or 13, and yet that is the nature of adolescence – appearance and reality become disconnected until adulthood is reached, their true identities becoming elusive and incomprehensible. For the audience, this helps justify the decision to make Shipka a series regular, but for Betty it simply compounds her pre-existing parenting failures.

There is no way that Henry will stick around in the long run, but he’s actually really good with Betty: it’s not clear how much longer he’ll put up with it, but he talks her down from punishing Sally too harshly for cutting her hair, and manages to even convince her that she owes her daughter an apology. He has a patience that Don never had, but yet it’s also a patience that will wear thin extremely quickly. Don was always acting with Betty, to some degree, which is why he struggles with how to act around his kids: he loves them, but he has trouble delving into his emotions and discovering what real love feels like, and how he reconciles that with what he felt for Betty. However, because Don was always acting, it meant he could stay for a longer time even when Betty’s own psychological issues were present: they were in many ways meant for each other, in that their separate desires to adhere to social ideals allowed their simulation of a marriage to last longer than it ever should have. While Henry might be better for Betty, and his concern over the appearance of being a two-time divorcee could keep him in this marriage longer than he might desire, their marriage can never last the way Don and Betty’s did.

This wasn’t a pleasant episode to watch: witnessing a ten-year old’s sexual awakening feels like an invasion of privacy, Betty’s behaviour remains as deplorable as ever, and Roger’s comments were blunt to the point of making me a bit uncomfortable (especially when the Japanese were in the room). I think the point that “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” tries to make, albeit one which I think the series makes overall, is that appearance is not reality: we may have found these scenes uncomfortable, but we are only seeing a certain perspective, and this outwardly unpleasant or provocative behaviour is a sign of something deeper beneath the surface. Baudrillard would probably consider Mad Men a simulacrum, considering its reconstruction of the 1960s through iconic imagery and symbolic events, and he would warn of the potential for an entire generation whose view of the 60s could be shaped by this historical fiction. However, built within the series are reminders that what we see is not reality, that there are some parts of this story that we need to wait and understand better – what we don’t know isn’t there to be filled in, but rather there to prompt the viewer to investigate the series’ representation of the decade and these characters more carefully.

Weiner isn’t creating history, he’s using history in order to create a story about characters, which is why I was somewhat disappointed that Erin Levy’s script seemed to turn Roger into a mouthpiece for a particular generation’s response to Japanese business – the show needs to walk a fine line when dealing with issues like that one, and I think this one crossed it. However, overall, I think that it merged enough with the SCDP side of things that it was acceptable, and what unpleasantness the episode offered was purposeful and seems to be driving towards something. And while the show is always a bit close to the vest when it comes to its direction, that has rarely been so clear as the choice to end on Sally Draper heading into her first therapy session and the viewer not being invited – it’s unclear of whether we’ll be invited in during upcoming episodes, but it would almost be more fitting if we weren’t, and we (like Betty) are forced to sit on the outside wondering what separates appearance from reality.

Because sometimes, we wish there was an equivalent to The Chrysanthemum and the Sword for our own culture.

Cultural Observations

  • Rare episode where Matthew Weiner chose not to credit himself as a co-writer: is this because he didn’t need to do as much work as he usually would, or that he didn’t want his name associated with it? Only Weiner knows for certain.
  • I had honestly forgotten that Baby Gene even existed, so I proposed a drinking game on Twitter that one should drink every time their forget he exists – what’s really funny, though, is that I forgot about him between the time when he appeared early in the episode (playing on the floor as the kids returned from Don’s) and when Don told Faye he has three children (which actually made me say “Huh? He has two children!”).
  • As one would expect, they had quite a bit of fun with the Asian translations during their visit to the office: there’s some analysis to be done about appearance and reality, and how the translator holds a great deal of power in the dealmaking process, but I think everyone is probably focusing on the Japanese businessman’s curiosity as to how Joan remains vertical. I’ll agree there was some real comic potential there, but it was interesting that they kept the subtitles even during Don’s meeting with the businessmen – they could have just as easily left it up to our imaginations what was being translated, which meant there was specific meaning to be found in how the words were translated, so that’s something more to look into.
  • Anyone else think that Ted was talking about Allison before he brought out Smitty?
  • Sally’s new haircut really makes her look like her mother, which I’m guessing is intentional: I love the idea that Betty fails to see why her daughter would ever want shorter hair because she only ever wanted longer hair, still so caught up in her own childhood that she fails to see why her daughter would want to emulate her in some capacity.
  • No answer in California, which means that Anna Draper may not be long for this world.
  • Mrs. Blankenship is truly fantastic – the failed attempts at transferring the phone call were particularly fantastic, but I preferred the announcement of Sterling/Cooper after they had already entered the room and began talking. Genius.
  • I understood, from the conclusion, that Don wrote them a cheque for $3000 because that was the maximum amount which they were allowed to spend as part of their pitch as per the rules set by the Japanese? Don’s obviously not including the rental of studio space in that money, so I’d be curious to see how it broke down financially.
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25 Comments

Filed under Mad Men

25 responses to “Mad Men – “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”

  1. Andrew

    “However, in the end, the fact that Roger’s remarks had not even a tinge of humour to them seemed out of character, and I just couldn’t get past that.”

    That I don’t quite agree with. His first couple of remarks to the Japanese folks (“Then again I know how some people love surprises.” “I have to warn you, they won’t know it’s over until you drop the big one.”) were Don Rickles-style put-downs, only with the underlying good-naturedness removed and overt contempt added. They weren’t funny to anyone in the room or anyone watching, but I bet they were funny to Roger in an “I’ll show these fuckers!” kind of way.

  2. S. Tarzan

    a) I think Matt Weiner likes to give a pivotal script to the previous season’s writer’s assistant as a solo credit. Robin Veith had the sole credit to season two’s “The New Girl,” iirc, and Kater Gordon had the sole credit to season three’s “The Fog.” It’s similar to his tradition of giving the writer’s assistant a co-writer’s credit on the season finale, and presumably gives a boost to their careers later on.

    b) I was under the impression that Honda gave them (and CGC, and JWT) $3000 for the pitch, hence Don saying that exceeding that amount would involve “going out of pocket.”

  3. magneto

    GOD i love this episode! Erin levy shoud be nommed for an emmy next year for writing this. im also loving the presence of betty. i seriously disagree with people saying that betty the character and january jones the actress is weighing the show down.

    • Eldritch

      At the end of last season, I wondered how Betty could still be integrated into the story. Her story with her new husband didn’t seem to relate to her divorced husband or his work place. But they seem to have connected her arc to Don’s through their children. Seems both obvious (now) and clever.

      I guess this means that Sally’s part will enlarge considerably.

  4. Jeff Carroll

    I felt that Roger’s overt behavior had less to do with the theme of this episode than the theme of the season which seems to be the abandonment of the old life for the new–Don’s divorce writ large. Joan’s calming speech to Roger reflected this (as well as mirroring Henry’s calm, modern parenting advice to Betty who is also struggling to hold on to old dreams).

    The times are changing, and sides are being chosen. Don resides between these viewpoints, but with the last two episodes he appears to be making a choice to move forward. It’s the middle of Mad Men’s season, and a time for transition.

    I’m also curious if the increasing pace and action of the last few Mad Men episodes are a conscious move on Weiner’s part to avoid the expected, slow build to a season climax. In the last episode, Don warned us that we should not expect people (or the show) to behave in one way just because they have always behaved that way.

  5. Eldritch

    “…Don wrote them a cheque for $3000 …… Don’s obviously not including the rental of studio space in that money, so I’d be curious to see how it broke down financially.”

    That money didn’t go toward the Honda presentation, as there was none. It went towards the destruction of their competition, a different project entirely. It would have been inappropriate to charge the Japanese for that.

  6. Eldritch

    “I think the episode’s biggest failure is with Roger Sterling: …, the insensitivity of his commentary seemed to come out of nowhere, and out of a particularly spiteful place.”

    He watched his fellow soldiers be mutilated and killed by Japanese soldiers in World War II. His anger and spite come from a well known place. It’s an enduring source of anger for many, probably, even today.

    • Susan

      I agree. My grandfather went to his grave with a deeply entrenched bitterness and hatred for the Japanese. He had no ability–or, truly, inclination–to compartmentalize WWII or to recognize or acknowledge that his enemy during the war and people of Japanese heritage afterward were not the same thing. He died in 2008, and he never softened.

      It was a cause of consternation among his grandchildren especially, especially during late holiday evenings, after a few celebratory libations, when his memories of the war would flood.

      So, I found Roger’s behavior awful and cringe-worthy, but very familiar. And in character.

    • I’m not easily impressed. . . but that’s ipremssnig me! 🙂

  7. skittledog

    I also didn’t feel Roger’s behaviour was too far. He was way over the line of acceptable behaviour, but we’ve seen Roger way over several other lines of acceptable behaviour in the past, and this one actually has some societal reasoning behind it. We have always known that Roger has a military past which he treats as a holy baptism of fire, using it to bond with other ex-soldiers (Don) and as a reason to reject those who never experienced it (Pete). If the truth about Dick Whitman were to fully come out at SCDP, I think the part that would matter most to Roger would be that Don a) barely served a day on the front line and b) effectively deserted.

    As to the sheer unadulterated hatred – it doesn’t seem at all wrong to me for someone who saw friends killed by an enemy they were taught was pure evil. My grandfather lost most of his school friends to the Germans, and clearly found it very strange to talk to me about my German penpal despite the half a century that had passed. I can’t imagine he’d have been civil to German businessmen in 1965.

    On top of that, Roger fears being left behind. And he fears that he doesn’t fit into this new world. And you could just see all of that playing over his face, wondering if appeasing the enemy is what the world is coming to and how people he likes can be a part of that.

  8. DriveByCommenter

    The Japanese gave everyone $3000 to spend towards the pitch. Don was simply returning the money because SCDP “withdrew”.

    And yeah, I agree with those who say you’re wrong about Roger 🙂

  9. Parker

    It’s been established previously, albeit in passing, that Roger is protective of his military service. It was in the first season, I believe, when he even dismisses Don with the ‘Oh, YOUR war’ comment, referring to the fact that he didn’t think Don’s service in Korea warranted as much respect as Roger’s in Vietnam. Of course the viewer knows that’s absolutely true, more than Roger will ever know, but he of course has no idea about the truth of Don’s military record.

    I have to absolutely agree with Eldridch here. By all historical accounts, fighting in the Pacific was particularly brutal, even for WWII. Unlike on the European front, where surrender occurred in ’44 and ’45, the Japanese generally fought to the last soldier, and that’s referenced here with Roger’s reference to Kamikaze pilots. I found his reaction completely believable. I wouldn’t be surprised if his usual jocular personality is a coping mechanism to some degree.

  10. Parker

    Scuse me, of course Roger served in WWII…not Vietnam.

  11. Eldritch

    I think it’s probably a mistake to underestimate the strength of hatred and loyalty which comes out of fighting alongside others.

  12. Candigirl617

    Let’s step back – Roger called the reporter with one leg “half a reporter.” Roger performed in blackface at a club I bet dollars to donuts had mostly (if not all) black staff. And, he made it plain that SCP absolutely would not be taking Honda’s business. Then, he comes from a booze fueled lunch to find the meeting he all but forbade. Is it really a surprise then that he had a “this is my sandbox and I say who will be playing in it” meltdown? Or was it just so uncomfortable to watch that we dismiss it as being purportedly out of the blue?

  13. Fantomex

    I wonder how Roger would feel hearing how Americans aren’t liked by the people they subjugate in the various wars America’s been engaged in…..

    • Eldritch

      Aren’t these people Americans have subjugated are in a comparable position, more or less, to Roger? Do you suppose they feel empathy for Roger and other Americans like him? If they don’t, shouldn’t they?

      Are people only entitled to bitter feelings if they first prove they’re empathetic to others?

  14. Scott Ellington

    Roger’s antiNipponism rhymes with his permanent position in the series as the primary representative of the evils of rampant nepotism. So I was especially appreciative of the ironic gift of Roger’s asking why forgiveness is a greater virtue than loyalty, the character who’s never featured without showcasing his mysterious ability to wound (not unlike Cordelia Chase in another series).
    That Roger’s personal integrity is severely tested by the opportunity to collaborate with his national enemy opens him to scrutiny as never before, and that his spine should stiffen in the presence of businessmen whose perception of national loyalty dwarfs Roger’s is a fascinating twist on 21st Century propaganda methodologies I pray will be central to episodes still unaired. But then, I’ve been wondering for years about how/why the Japanese people forgave the Allies and cooperated with the forces of occupation and nation-rebuilding that came to Japan with MacArthur.

    • Eldritch

      Why do you believe they’ve forgiven us?

      • Scott Ellington

        I don’t even believe we’ve forgiven us, which makes Roger’s paradoxical stance on the Civil Rights Act, entitlements, loyalty to Burt, The American Way and the future (of entertainment) profoundly interesting to me.

  15. MadMeme

    ‘The Chrysanthemum and the Sword’ book is about the the distinction between guilt cultures (e.g. USA) and shame cultures (e.g. Japan) – and that is the whole crux of this episode – shame and guilt. Words such as: embarrassment, mortified, contrition, and other synonyms are used throughout the episode.

    Alabama shames much of the rest of the country, which leads L.B.J. to call upon Congress to enact a strong voting rights act. Roger shames SCDP – and then, suffering guilt induced by Pete, Don, and Joan – is remorseful and apologizes. Don puts up with Blankenship, although he could fire her at anytime, because he’s guilty over his actions with Allison. Betty slaps Sally, and then feels guilty via Henry and Don’s reactions – and apologizes. But Sally shames Betty again with her unacceptable (by Betty’s standards) behavior. Don admits to Faye the shameful fact that he doesn’t know what to do with his kids and is relieved when he drops them off with Betty. Don shames the Japanese into choosing SCDP as the firm to handle their car business (without so much as a presentation) because of Don’s astute interpretation of what their shame-based (as opposed to guilt-based) response will be. There are other examples as well.

  16. Brother Mouzone

    Yeah I agree with the others that say that Roger’s outburst isn’t exactly “out of no where”.

    -As you said, he has never shown a propensity to be Politically Correct.
    -He has always held his Service in high regard.

    Add both of those + making demands (no Honda) that were effectively shat on behind his back (made sure Roger was away from the office/had a long lunch… personally, this would have been the part that made me blow up) + probably not being sober = A blow up that could have been seen right when he walked in the door.

    And one other thing that has somewhat troubled me, I think too many people equate “I hate Betty Draper the character” into “I hate January Jones’ acting ability”. (not saying I have seen this from this website/comment section, but it seems to come up every now and again when I read an episode recap). Admittedly I am not the most avid watcher of Mad Men, but isn’t Betty Draper suppose to be the “Stepford Wife” type that hides her emotions in public, but is a cruel heartless bitch in private (ie: With family?). If I am wrong, than maybe January Jones is a bad actress, but I think she has played the part well.

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