Even Peyton Manning has bad days. Those of us who’ve been fortunate enough to watch him play football for the last decade have to remind ourselves of this fact. He’s so consistently good that, when on rare occasion he slips, it seems as if the world is spinning backwards. It doesn’t make sense.
So it is with Mad Men–and so especially has it been so far this season. Each episode has been special, and all have been so dense that unpacking them has been both a pleasure and a challenge. Since I’ve been writing about Mad Men, I’ve thought it best to not read any other commentary. But I can imagine you could tug on completely different threads than the ones I’ve chosen to unravel, and they’d all be valid and interesting.
So we were probably due for a stinker.
Perhaps that’s a little harsh. “Waldorf Stories” is interesting, certainly watchable. But it also presents us with something we’ve never had to deal with before: a Don Draper we just don’t buy.
Near the start of the episode, we learn that Don’s Glo-Coat commercial is up for a Clio Award; in fact, the ceremony is being held this very afternoon. Don’s so nervous that he’s drinking and smoking to calm himself–not just because it’s breakfast time. When he wins, he’d giddy: a grinning buffoon who looks as if he’s going to wet his pants. And when he and his posse are called away in the middle of the party to make a big presentation to Life Cereal, he widens the grin and ratchets up the buffoonery. Don Draper is not only not cool, he’s positively manic.
This is not the Don Draper we know. It’s tough to buy a Don Draper so thrilled by the adulation of his peers that he turns into Barney Fife. The Don Draper we know would see the award for the cheap, shallow, self-congratulatory sham it is. Which is not to say he shouldn’t want to win it; hell, we all want to win awards, and the Clio has always been advertising’s Oscar. I just don’t think he’d be such an amateur. In football terms, we expect him to act as if he’s been in the end zone before.
By way of comparison, we also flash back to the time Roger “discovered” Don working as a fur salesman. Don’s an eager rube. He still has a lot of Dick Whitman in him–and, in fact, we understand he’s referred to himself as “Dick” during a blackout-drunken weekend after winning his Clio. The flashback is as complicated and layered as we’ve come to expect from Mad Men; they’re related not only to a current situation at the agency, but also to Don’s mentorship of Peggy, and to Roger’s yielding the limelight to Don. But a toothy, pushy, naive Don Draper? Don’t know that guy.
Compounding the embarrassment is the wholly manufactured subplot involving Peggy, a boorish new art director named Stan Rizzo, and a hotel room. Rizzo is a cartoon chauvinist, and Peggy calls him out by taking off her clothes. It’s funny–but it’s also weird and implausible, and we’re left wondering what the point is supposed to be.
“Waldorf Stories” has its moments. It’s great to see a drunken Duck Phillips making an ass of himself at the Clios. Pete Campbell throws a little fit over the agency’s wooing of our old pal Ken Cosgrove; remember, Lane Pryce stiff-armed Pete in favor of Kenny as head of accounts back at the old Sterling Cooper. And Pryce continues to develop as a decent chap. Every time this year he’s acted like an asshole, he’s backed off and redeemed himself. (He also had a classic New York Mets pennant hanging on the wall in his office, which endeared him to me forever.)
In the end, the great thing about having Peyton Manning on your team is that he’s probably not going to have two bad games in a row. (He’s probably not going to have two bad quarters in a row.) Up until now, Mad Men’s been pretty Manning-like. Maybe they picked this night to have an off show because they knew their audience would be watching them sweep the Emmys, anyway. Now if everyone can stop doing their end zone dance and get back to work…