Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Waldorf Stories" (season 4, episode 6)

Mad Men - "Waldorf Stories" (season 4, episode 6)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of seasons four, five, and six. The last season will be covered in the summer of 2022 (now updated to winter 2021-22). I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on August 29, 2010/written by Brett Johnson and Matthew Weiner; directed by Scott Hornbacher): Don has been nominated for a Clio award for his "Billy the Kid" campaign (in which a little boy in a cowboy costume closes himself into a homemade prison), and when he attends the ceremony he's buttressed by reminders of how close his success lies to buffoonish catastrophe. In particular, good old Duck makes an ass of himself by drunkenly heckling the MC, while the petty Ted hires an actor to impersonate an impressive military personality to flank him in public appearances. Don wins the award but his moment of glory is rather compromised by a lost weekend in which he goes to bed with another award-winner and wakes up two days later with a waitress whom he doesn't even remember meeting (and whom he told his real name). Don is further embarrassed when Peggy turns up at his apartment on a Sunday to inform him that his successful pitch to Life Cereal was based on the goofy interview with Roger's wife's cousin Danny Siegel (Danny Strong), whose absurd "cure for the common _____" fixation Don randomly adopted to save an account. As a result, he is forced to hire the comically short young hack (not that young, though - Peggy scoffs, "There's no way he's twenty-four; I'm twenty-five."). Pete, meanwhile, is humiliated to discover that Lane has coaxed Ken over to SCDP; he saves face by requesting a meeting with the new hire in which he flexes his muscle and reminds his former co-equal that he's the big boss now. Peggy finds her own way to assert herself with the obnoxious if charismatic Stan Rizzo (Jay Ferguson), an arrogant, hedonistic art director. When she's forced to share a hotel room with him for the weekend in order to brainstorm, she calls his bluff and makes him strip down - mocking his erection, she eventually achieves a kind of dominance in the relationship. Interspersed with this material is a 1950s flashback (ostensibly 1953, although Roger looks quite a bit older than thirty-seven) in which Don is a fur salesman pressing hard to get his material into Roger's hands. After being rebuffed numerous times he gets the big man to spend the morning in a bar with him and then insists he's been hired at the firm although Roger can't remember. A dozen years later, Roger tells Don he left his award at the bar and hands it over in return for acknowledgement that "you couldn't have done it without me." Perhaps, but not in a way that's particularly flattering to anyone involved.

My Response: On a meta-note, this award-centered episode of Mad Men aired on the night that the series won an Emmy for Best Drama. Not as if this event was remarkable, of course: 2010 marked the third year in a row in which the show took the top prize. For a work so celebrated, this narrative has a particularly jaundiced view of what it takes to succeed: despite Roger's bittersweet reminiscences about how he contributed to Don's emergence as prodigy, the flashbacks reveal that Don simply took advantage of Roger's drunkenness to convince him he'd hired a new up-and-comer. And just to drive the knife into our romanticized conception of bootstraps achievement, if we're inclined to accept this as proof of Don's canny maneuvering, it's worth pointing out that Danny gets his job in almost exactly the same way. The boss gets wasted, speaks out of turn, can't quite remember where he went wrong, and is forced to take the new guy on board. If anything, Danny is even more deserving of the hire since Don actually gets an account based on Danny's idea. And if (unlike Don) Danny himself doesn't deserve credit for hustling his way in - although he kind of does, given the forcefulness with which he argues he needs a job not a freelance position - it's actually Peggy's dedication to principle, not any particular graciousness on Don's part, that maneuvers Danny into place. Don's descent into abject debauchery continues when the Friday-to-Sunday transition unfolds. This is the second time a timelapse has been suggested purely through single-shot lighting; see also the Californian sojourn in which Don realizes Anna may be dying. I initially thought we were transitioning to another fifties flashback but Betty's call, mentioning Henry, threw me for a loop. No, Don's immense personal disorientation is very much present-tense. He's never been better at his job and more vulnerable outside of that. Whether or not this costs him remains to be seen.

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