Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Blowing Smoke" (season 4, episode 12)

Mad Men - "Blowing Smoke" (season 4, episode 12)

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 10, 2010/written by Andre & Maria Jacquemetton; directed by John Slattery): Every faint hope SCDP glimpses, as it teeters on the edge of ruin, turns out to be false. Don's meeting with Heinz, orchestrated by Faye against her better judgement, is with the head of the baked beans division, Raymond Geiger (John Sloman), who refuses to budge when Don seeks an immediate transaction. "I'm not sure if your agency will be here in six to seven months," the Heinz man confesses. Nor are the partners themselves - each, it seems, nervously eyeing the exit (and one another) as their stench spreads throughout the whole industry. Following his father-in-law's admonitions to get serious, Pete is forbidden by his furious wife from taking out a loan the bank demands as collateral (to his surprise at episode's end, Don will pay Pete's $50,000 for him). Accountant Geoffrey Atherton, Faye's business partner, tries to raise their spirits by arranging a meeting with representatives from Phillip Morris, pointing out that cigarettes have always been their mainstay. When the meeting falls through - for the same reason every potential client is avoiding SCDP (while existing clients are dropping out) - Don decides to run in the complete opposite direction. He's found inspiration in a most unlikely corner.

Stumbling across his old bohemian mistress Midge in his building's lobby, he accompanies her to her flat where he discovers that she and her husband are junkies who tracked him down out of desperation. They are trying to sell one of Midge's paintings, or, if Don's not interested in art, something a bit more intimate: anything to feed the monkeys on their backs. Don takes the painting, in exchange for $125 cash ("What am I going to do with a check?" Midge whimpers when Don offers her $300). Back at his apartment after another rough day, Don prepares to toss the abstract canvas into the trash but something catches his eye. Staring at it with morbid fascination, he is inspired to write a declaration of principles, buying a full page in the New York Times to announce "Why I'm quitting Tobacco." In what Megan accurately (but admiringly) describes as a "She didn't leave me, I left her" defense, Don claims that Lucky Strike's departure is a moral boon: he's disgusted with the product they've been peddling, describing all of the grotesque industry practices that lead to illness and death. Everyone else at the office is horrified by this bold gesture; Bert theatrically declares his resignation after forty years in the business, prank calls flood the phone lines, and Faye and Geoffrey are forced to sever their relationships with the agency so as not to alienate their many clients still in the tobacco industry. (Faye, however, is at least pleased that she and Don can start dating openly.) The American Cancer Society expresses interest in a (pro bono) campaign, but otherwise Don's incredible pivot has not yet paid off.

The near-dissolution of SCDP - conducting mass layoffs by episode's end (only Peggy and Stan remain on the creative team, for example) - dominates "Blowing Smoke," but there's one other storyline at play. This too involves the potential end of an era, playing on relationships established back in season one. Spotting Sally chatting with young Glen Bishop, Betty chases him away, drags Sally home, and insists to Henry that it's time they finally moved out of the Draper homestead. (Sally, who has probably lived in this familiar home in the quiet, comfortable neighborhood as long as she can remember, flees to her bedroom and weeps.) Betty of course has her own history with Glen, whom she babysat, gave a lock of her hair, and allowed to stay at her home once when he ran away. Their odd interactions always reminded us of her childlike side, something the writers emphasize all the more when Betty insists on continuing her visits to Dr. Edna, a child psychologist. When the older women gently tries to refer Betty to a colleague who handles adults, Betty insists that she's only there to discuss Sally (even though it's clear that these therapeutic sessions are primarily for the mother, not the daughter). Between the Sterling Cooper team, the Draper family, and drug-addled Midge, the stable world introduced in "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" has never seemed more at risk of, pardon me, going up in smoke.

My Response: Don's letter works as a piece of conceptual art, calling to mind the text-as-striking-image aesthetic popular in the mid-sixties (see also, among many other examples, Time Magazine's infamous "Is God Dead?" cover). I can't imagine this will just peter out as yet another failed Hail Mary, nor that any big client he lands will be a conventional one. I suspect that SCDP - or whatever entity emerges from this disaster - will only further trend toward the avant-garde of advertising as the counterculture goes mainstream in the late sixties. (Only one decidedly non-counterculture candidate could suit this storyline equally well, as I'll discuss momentarily...) As for broader context, this is certainly an effective payoff for the "Don's got a drinking problem" thread I questioned in previous write-ups, nicely dovetailing with the way the series began - remember that first pitch meeting with Lucky Strike? This allows season four to feel less like a coda to the effectively bookended three-season arc and more like an effective bookend itself. Indeed, the Times ad even fulfills the season premiere, which showed Don, ostensibly for the benefit of his business, boasting about the agency's founding as his own idea. I was irritated that the character took such a flamboyant turn before retreating into a different persona for the rest of the season, but now that incident looks more like a preview.

And, of course, the return of Midge works brilliantly on many levels. Over five years have passed since the pilot, and many changes are unfolding so gradually we may find them hard to notice (although we certainly have an advantage over the characters onscreen who experience these slow transformations in real time and without the benefit of historical hindsight). One of these changes is the decline of New York from the bustling, booming metropolis we glimpsed in the early sixties into the dark, dangerous, dirty urban hellhole it was perceived as from the late sixties to the early nineties. We're not there yet, nor was heroin foreign to art scenes in the fifties; nonetheless, Midge is part of an escalating trend (as was the mugging Roger and Joan experienced a few episodes ago). Lighting and makeup collaborate in this impression even within the episode itself: wearing a jaunty beret and grinning ear to ear, the wispy Midge glows with Village energy when she "runs into" Don; only inside the apartment do we realize how haggard she's become. This glimpse of addiction in its rawest, purest form grounds what the painting abstracts. Several seasons of tobacco corruption provide the rich soil and Don's drinking waters the roots, but Midge's particular fix is the pernicious seed from which the big breakthrough blossoms.

With all of these backward glances, it's notable that the next episode is simply titled "Tomorrowland." This piques my interest; will Don's imaginative risk-taking earn the admiration of one of the most imaginative risk-takers of the period? This was right around the time Walt Disney was planning EPCOT as a utopian society rather than a theme park, a venture cut short by his death a little over a year later from - ahem - lung cancer. Or will Don, both conducting West Coast business (Harry Crane has had little to do this season) and providing Sally and himself a break from their stressful lives, visit Disneyland on a return trip to Southern California - the one place he could be Dick Whitman - and discover an exciting future rather than just retreat into a wistful past? Most likely, the reference will be more subtle and indirect than that, but regardless of the form it takes there's nowhere left to go but forward - or straight down.

Next: "Tomorrowland"Previous: "Chinese Wall"

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