“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.
- 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.