Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Chinese Wall" (season 4, episode 11)

Mad Men - "Chinese Wall" (season 4, episode 11)

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 October 3, 2010/written by Erin Levy; directed by Phil Abraham): Cue the Crisis of '65: Lee Garner couldn't keep a secret and the news of Lucky Strike's big move has hit the street, potentially dooming the agency for whom the famed cigarette was the predominant client. Ken Cosgrove of all people hears about it first, from a competitor while out to dinner with his soon-to-be in-laws. (His fiancee's parents are played, incidentally, by Dale Waddington and Ray Wise, following up last week's Mr. Reindeer with the one-two Lynchian guest punch of Leland Palmer; I didn't recognize her while watching, but the fiancee herself is played by Larisa Oleynik - whom older millennials will remember as Nickelodeon's own Alex Mack...speaking of secrets.) After just a moment's deliberation, Ken abandons the shocked family to make an emergency phone call to summon the whole SCDP crew. This is the first of many such occasions in an episode that pointedly privileges the demands of work - specifically of ensuring a stable income in the volatile world of advertising - over the warmth of family and personal relationships. The trade-off is exhibited at its most bluntly satirical during the funeral of industry stalwart David Montgomery, which the hungry gang prowls looking for potentially homeless clients, while tiresome co-workers amuse themselves with pointless anecdotes at the podium, pausing every now and then to assure the dead man's unconvinced wife and daughter that they were, of course, the most important things in his life. The most brutal exhibition, however, is saved for the episode's ending when Faye brings Don, expecting a breakup, a meeting with a client from one of her other jobs instead. This blatantly violates the "Chinese wall" of the title, an information barrier/ethical code intended to avoid conflicts of interest. But Faye has deep feelings for Don which she tries to express in transactional terms, the only terms he appreciates (or so she fears, even if she accepts it). How unfortunate for both of them that he has just returned from an impromptu hook-up with the adoring, apparently innocent - but perhaps more sly - Megan in his office. Despite Megan's assurances that she won't take the incident too seriously, we sense this can't end well...at least not for Faye.

Roger, meanwhile, does his...well, not really his best, something more lukewarm than that, to avoid responsibility for losing Lee. He also tries to fall into Joan's arms before she gently rejects him, returning home to the wife who no longer interests him and a box full of his just-published memoirs, whose slim form makes them look as insubstantial as he feels. Pete is distracted by and from the birth of his daughter, hemmed in even at the hospital by the potential end of what Tom condescendingly dubs his "folly" (the obnoxious Ted, a thorn in Don's side several episodes ago, even shows up trying to recruit the father-to-be). And the creative team soldiers on amidst the tumult; these kids have really emerged as solid comic relief in season four (Danny in particular fills a clownish role throughout the otherwise more sophisticated episode, based on his diminutive height and square affectations). Stan - who tries to make the moves on Peggy only to be asked "Why do you keep making me reject you?" - decides not to tell her she has lipstick on her teeth before an important pitch meeting and, fortunately for him, she's as bemused as she is embarrassed. Peggy too has mostly been relegated to a light side character this season (with "The Suitcase" a very noteworthy exception); in "Chinese Wall" she is largely preoccupied by her finally blooming romance with Abe. As the men of the office race around to save the business, she's meant to hold down the fort, writing hot and heavy copy to channel her newfound amour. The season has found plenty of compelling material for female characters both classic (Joan) and brand new (Faye), as well as once minor characters slowly elevated to central status (Sally is even promoted to the opening title sequence). Nonetheless, both of its two longtime standard bearers, Peggy and Betty (who isn't present here), feel like they've been ever so slightly demoted.

My Response: When it comes to season climaxes, we are reaching the dead center of Mad Men: three in the past, three in the future. Each has involved a mixture of personal and professional crisis/transition for Don. In season one, his identity under assault from Pete during a promotion, he tried to run off with a mistress and client whose relationship to him was rooted in the pilot. In season two, after going on the lam in California he tried to reconcile with his unexpectedly pregnant wife while Sterling Cooper entered a new phase under British ownership. In season three, he ended his marriage (or had it ended for him) and started a new company. Those last few episodes, boosted even further by the Kennedy assassination, pulled the trigger (pardon the pun) on three seasons of build-up, lending season four an "after" quality that makes it both interesting and frustrating. The foundations on which the show rested have been dramatically torn apart, and it can be difficult to grasp what replaces them. Don's twin personal crutches - his alcoholism and his womanizing - have been a mixed bag, the first leaning toward a strained seriousness that never quite coalesces into a compelling portrait of addiction, while the second more successfully provides effective dramatic beats (particularly the fallout from his encounter with Allison, which now looks like not just a standalone but a precursor). The emotional core, however, has been Don's genuine romance with Faye - perhaps the first time he's carried on with a peer since Rachel. I have some thoughts about what is going on here, particularly now that Megan has interceded, but with two episodes to go I'll save them for later.

For many of the characters, not just Don, this has been a rough season: Lane isolated and brought low, Joan emotionally manipulated and risking scandal, and especially Roger, who has never seemed more pathetic than he does now - and that's frankly saying something. Bert's cutting line to this sad sack (a dismissive description that perhaps still lends him too much gravity) is perfect: "Lee never took you seriously because you never took yourself seriously." Even so, Slattery's performance always lends this self-indulgent middle-aged child an amusing breeziness, carrying just the slightest trace of poignancy - particularly in this episode. Overall, I was reminded of the Billy Wilder-esque energy of "Shut the Door. Have a Seat" although this is nowhere near as overtly jolly an episode; quite often I chuckled without really being able to explain why...something about the cosmic jams these characters keep finding themselves in. This is also one of the best episodes since that season finale as far as shrewdly depicting the complicated relationships of the advertising industry, indeed of the business world in general. I particularly love the subtle shifts of tone in Pete's conversations with his father-in-law, when they move casually from familial cliches to much more deeply-felt wisdom about navigating American capitalism. One gets the sense that, for these people at least, the latter is much more of a tangible reality than the former. Yet despite its artistic ambition, the show doesn't simply view this attitude with lofty aesthetic dismissal (although the contrast of the maternity ward and funeral home, life's bookends with Madison Avenue stretching between them, reinforces how hollow this existence can ultimately become - the funeral even linked, via witty staging, to a pitch meeting). At the same time, embedded in Mad Men's wry observation of the businessman's obsession lies a canny, weary appreciation for his unromantic but refreshingly solid wisdom.

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