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.
- 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?