Three episodes back now on Mad Men, in an episode titled Six Month Leave, Freddy Rumsen lost his job. His drinking had gotten out of control and he'd become an embarrassment to himself and to Sterling Cooper. Considering how anxious Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper had been to bring Duck Philips on board and that Duck had come close to drinking himself out of a career and how that suggests that Sterling Cooper has a very forgiving attitude towards drunks on the payroll, Freddy's boozing must have been a worse problem than we'd been shown and what we were seeing was Freddy using up his absolutely last chance in a string of last chances.
I was surprised by the whole episode because I'd long taken Freddy for granted and never thought of him as a main character or even as an important enough secondary character to rate the attention of a major storyline. I saw him literally as a peripheral figure---he was there at the edges of scenes and if I noticed him it was usually out of the corner of my eye. His role in the show seemed to be to imply the existence of the rest of the agency. He was the face and voice of the many other Mad Men at Sterling Cooper who weren't Don Draper and his team and his function was to remind us that more work was being done than just the campaigns we saw Draper handling. Freddy was a nod to realism. Sterling Cooper couldn't be as big and important as we're told it is if all its talent resided in a single individual.
He was important thematically, too, at least at the beginning of the first season. Don Draper needed other people around him as part of his disguise. His secret was protected by nobody getting close enough to him or paying close enough attention to him to notice the holes in the character he had created for himself to play. Since he was talented and ambitious, though, not getting noticed would have been tricky unless he was surrounded by other talented and ambitious men who were too busy with their own work to pay close attention to him and who, by virtue of their talent and ambition, made their bosses take their eyes off of Draper from time to time to focus on them. Draper had learned to survive by both standing out in a crowd and hiding it. Freddy Rumsen was that crowd.
Basically Freddy went about appreciating Draper's talent but not giving him too much thought because he had his own work to distract him, and we were meant to understand that how Freddy saw Don was how the rest of the agency saw him, as one talented Mad Man among many.
The reason for Don's existential angst at the beginning of the first season was that he had recently been lifted just that far above the rest of the pack that he was suddenly a whole lot more visible and interesting to the other Mad Men.
It figured, though, that the first one to start paying closer attention was Pete Campbell, the guy with the least talent and least work of his own to keep him busy.
Freddy kept busy.
Plus, we now know, he was pie-eyed half the time. He couldn't see Don Draper or anybody clearly.
As Peggy's career progressed, Freddy's job as representative of the rest of Sterling Cooper was to express the collective ambivalence about having to deal with a Mad Woman in their ranks. Freddy treated Peggy with a mix of admiration, condescension, amusement, and forgetfulness---he liked her, liked her work, but could never get his head around the fact that she was now one of the guys.
Freddy was the one who made it clear she wasn't invited to tag along on the boys night out at the strip club but he was also the one who got the biggest kick out of it when she showed up anyway.
So Freddy was far from superfluous, and I was sad to see him go, but that's because Six Month Leave showed him going and made his going sad. If the writers hadn't given him such a melancholy sendoff and had just started leaving him out of things, it might have taken me three or four episodes to notice his absence.
I really love Freddie as a character--until Duck came along, he was the only guy at SC who really seemed like an “old advertising hand.” Roger has never looked at the industry from anything but an ivy-tower perspective, and most of his gnomic insights into the field sound like they were cribbed from a book, and while Bert Cooper’s knowledge of the field is deep and nuanced, he plays the game at an Olympian level nobody else at SC can access. Freddie is the only one who seemed like an industry lifer -- a trench veteran who entered the field with natural instincts that sharpened over the years; a man inclined to party with junior execs half his age not because everyone his cohort has cleaned up or died, but because he has a true zeal for the business that other old-timers lost long ago.
It's been one of the stranger aspects of the show from the beginning that the actual work the characters do rarely features in the action of any episodes. Advertising is a very creative, high-energy business, yet the ad men and ad woman go about their jobs in a gloomy, desultory way. No one enters or leaves a meeting charged up about an idea. We hardly ever see anybody suddenly snatch up a pen and a pad and start drawing or scribbling down notes. None of them rush to a typewriter fueled with a sudden injection of inspiration...or desperation. Brain-storming sessions are usually short, dull, and held with all the urgency of a meeting to decide whether or not to switch brands on the office supplies. Someone will say something vague about a possible theme for an ad campaign, someone else will counter with something a little less vague about the right medium for the campaign, and then Don will deliver a short but not particularly punchy summation of how the campaign needs to make the client or potential customers feel. He doesn't talk about how they should look or sound. He doesn't talk about how the ads will get made. When campaigns in progress get discussed, more often than not the topic is the basic engineering---ad buys and air dates, dollars spent and focus group reactions . I can't think of a time when we've heard a character happily reporting how a slogan has caught on or a character in a commercial's become popular or a funny drawing's made people laugh or a jingle has everybody singing along.
But then nobody working at Sterling Cooper seems to have their heart in their work. Peggy's pride is on the line, but that's a different matter, and I'll get to her in a bit. Meanwhile, none of the men she works with are really proud of what they do or even particularly committed to it. As far as we can tell, none of them are in the business because they like the work and are a good at it.
Ken and Paul are would-be famous authors marking time. They're in advertising because it pays them good money to do work that's more or less creative. It allows them to feel like artists without having to starve like artists. Both would be out the door in a heartbeat if they thought they could make as good a living off their writing.
Sal is in the art department more than he is in advertising. He does seem to be having a good time around the office, usually, but it's not the work itself that makes him cheerful. It's that he's found a job in which he can both hide his gay-ness and express it. At Sterling Cooper he can be "artistic" but at the same time appear to be a regular guy working a respectable nine to five office job.
Harry...well...I don't know what Harry's doing there and neither does Harry. Harry Crane's the kind of well-meaning schlmeil who does what he does because it's the "right" thing to do by which he really means the expected thing to do. His job, his marriage, his impending fatherhood are things a guy his age is supposed to have. They don't make him happy. Just the opposite. He seems lost at work, embarrassed by the fact of his wife, and overwhelmed by the idea of having a baby to take care of and worry about. What he actually does at Sterling Cooper seems to be the last thing on his mind. The little gumption and drive he's managed to show are just other expressions of his doing the right thing. Guys his age in his position are supposed to be ambitious.
Pete Campbell wants to be a real ad man, although it's one particular ad man he wants to be, Don Draper, and it's not clear if he wants to be Don because he admires Don's talent and wants to be admired in the same way or if he simply covets the status and reputation Don's talent has earned him. Whichever, Pete does try. Unfortunately, it's usually the case that when he tries he's actually being setup for failure by the show's writers. His idea is bound to be shot down by one of his bosses or trumped by one of Peggy's.
It's hard to enjoy your job when every one of your work days includes a moment when you're left standing there with egg on your face.
Duck is desperately invested in his job, but that's because it's his only road to redemption, professionally and personally. He needs to succeed in order to save himself and whether he likes or can take pride in his work is irrelevant at the moment. Doesn't help that Roger Sterling's main interest in him is in how much money he's bringing in. If Duck wants to be a partner, Roger told him in last week's episode, The Jet Set, Duck had better "make it rain," and, boy howdy, did Duck come up with a plan for some heavy precipitation. But that plot line only underscores how much more wheeling and dealing figures in Mad Men's depiction of the advertising business than does the actual advertising.
Roger loves Sterling Cooper. It not what it does. He loves the business as a thing, a thing that was once his father's and is now his. He loves it because his father bequeathed it to him and as a bequest it might as well have a house, a race horse, a stamp collection, or some other sort of business. He cherishes it for it means and for its history. He takes care of it, because he accepted that responsibility when he accepted the inheritance. It's his living too. But he'd have taken up horse breeding, stamp collecting, home repair, farming, the law, or banking in the same spirit and with the same mixture of dutiful diligence and detachment.
And as Andrew says above, Burt Cooper has ascended beyond mortal reach or understanding. He "plays the game at an Olympian level nobody else at [Sterling Cooper] can access." Nobody knows what he's doing up there, but whatever it is he's become so removed from the daily business of Sterling Cooper he seems barely able to remember that that business needs to get done. None of it worries him or concerns him or holds his interest long. When he bothers to get involved it's almost as if he's doing it in a very Greek god-like way, to cause mischief in order to amuse himself.
Which brings me to Peggy.
Work does define Peggy. That's her role in the series. The Worker Bee. She's the Little Engine Who Could, the Little Red Hen, the ant among the grasshoppers. She has come along to get the job done when the rusty old tired engines and the big important engines refuse, when the other animals on the farm say "I won't, I won't, I won't," when the grasshoppers want to play instead of getting ready for winter. And in that role whatever amount of enjoyment she gets from doing her job isn't coming from how much fun she's having. It's coming from her succeeding where others have failed or haven't even tried. It's coming from her sense of accomplishment and from her being right. Peggy is often pleased with herself, afterwards. She goes about her work in a certain kind of A-student way. Her goal is to please the teacher. Her work makes her happy when it's made Draper or Father Gill or Freddy happy with her. She is proud of what she does, proud of her talents, proud of herself, in a modest, professional way---she's not vain, she just knows she's good, and that's why she can stand up for herself and why she got so angry at Father Gill for siding with the ignorant amateurs at the church who criticized the work she did for them for free.
Peggy is the one character we routinely see working on her own. But Peggy's strongest talents are her ability to learn and adapt, and if she'd landed a job at a law firm or an insurance agency or an investment bank she'd have turned herself into a lawyer, a top selling life insurance saleswoman, or a killer investment broker.
She likes being a good worker. What she is working on is neither here nor there.
But considering the thematic role advertising plays in Mad Men, a character who actually enjoyed the work for its own sake would be like a character in a war movie who enjoyed war.
The main theme of Mad Men is that we are all Don Draper. We are all frauds living invented lives and the only important difference between one fraud and another is whether or not they have consciously created their fake selves, whether or not they are in charge of the lies they are living out. Betty Draper is a sad and doomed character because she is living lies other people have foisted upon her. Peggy is a heroine because she is making up her own lies for herself and with purpose. This season that theme has often been pushed to a back burner as Mad Men has been far more concerned with the Drapers' and the Campbells' domestic troubles and Peggy's and Joan's less than happy personal lives. But it's still cooking along. And advertising has always been a symbolic element of that theme. On Mad Men, advertising doesn't sell things. It sells lies.
Lies and illusions.
Advertising, at least Sterling Cooper, is practically a malevolent force, a poison in the air infecting people's minds and souls, tricking them into rejecting truth and reality, seducing them into wanting what they can't have and into being unhappy and dissatisfied with what they do have, offering them secrets and lies as substitutes for real lives and actual happiness.
The very first campaign we see Don Draper working on is one for cigarettes. Don, his bosses, and his team all know that cigarettes are deadly, and they consciously set out to help their clients lie about that. At one point, they even consider selling smoking as a romantic and heroic adventure, a way for the brave and the bold to court and defy Death.
Draper's campaign for American Airlines is based on the day-dreaming notion of travel as escape. The point isn't to go somewhere in particular. The point is to get away from where you are. Out there lies love and romance, excitement, a new you. The implication of that is of course that back here, at home, with your family, you are a you you don't want to be.
And Peggy's first campaign on her own is to sell an fat reducing device that doesn't work and her solution is to sell it as a lie women can tell their husbands and lovers. The Rejuvenator is a sex toy women can hide in plain sight. "Oh, this is just helping me lose weight, honey. I'm trying to look good for you," they can say, while using it to have a secret and self-contained sex life of their own.
[Editor's note: The author assures us he is not condemning sex toys or masturbation. His intent is to summarize the intent of the ad campaign on the show, which is to encourage women who are dissatisfied with their real lives to console themselves with a secret, fantasy life.]
And then there was the whole shadow campaign for the greatest fraud of all, Richard Nixon.
Oh, sure, Sterling Cooper has helped sell lipstick, beer, donuts, chocolate, and potato chips in a fairly straight-forward fashion, but those campaigns have all been background to the plotlines that really don't have anything to do with advertising. For the most part, whenever a campaign takes center stage, that campaign is destructive. Even when they were working on the Menken Department Store account, Sterling Cooper was helping to destroy a tradition of offering customers good bargains on things they really needed and replace it with an illusion---Customers were to be lured into the store on the hope that by shopping there they would become more sophisticated and glamorous, but once inside they would be paying high prices for things they didn't need or even really want.
Under those conditions, then, any characters who actually enjoyed the work would have to be either vicious or foolish because that would mean they either enjoyed lying and deceit or they were blind to what they were actually doing.
Frankly, I think it's a weakness of the show that none of the characters are vicious or foolish in this way. Mad Men could use some villains and clowns. Villains and clowns at least go about their business with some zest. It would make for a refreshing contrast with the gloomy, purgatorial spirit that affects the regular characters as they go about their work.
I think it's another weakness of the show that it doesn't treat the lying and selling of illusions as an occupational hazard or a temptation or only one way of going about the business. Ok, selling cigarettes is evil, but there's nothing inherently evil about selling lipstick, beer, donuts, chocolate, potato chips, or even sex toys. People want those things, like those things, need those things, and you don't have to lie to them or trick them to get them to buy them. You do have to catch their attention though. You have to make them notice your ads and watch your commercials. But you can do that in a fun and pretty much benign way. Rice Krispees do in fact snap, crackle, and pop and a little dab of Bryl Cream really does do ya. By not allowing there to be a fun and (almost) innocent side of the business, Mad Men has precluded the inclusion of any heroes and heroines among the characters at Sterling Cooper.
Peggy is the closest the series has to a heroine but she's more of a sympathetic protagonist who is heroic in a very limited sense. She is saving herself, but not doing anybody else much good. As I said, she isn't as much interested in or excited by the creative side of her job as she is in and by what doing a good job will get her.
At any rate, almost alone among these lost, unhappy, and uninspired souls in torment, Freddy Rumsen seemed to be having a good time being an ad man. It turns out that it might just have been because he was half in the bag all the time, but there were other signs that he actually enjoyed his job, and not because he was either a villain or a fool.
For one thing, Freddy was the only character who ever really praised Peggy's ideas and work. Sometimes he even seemed to get a bigger kick out of her work than she did, even if he couldn't always reconcile his admiration for her with the sexist way he treated her.
Freddy was the only one you could imagine writing a jingle or coming up with a catchy slogan or drawing a funny cartoon. He wouldn't have been the only one to laugh at the jokes---like Speedy the Alka-Selzter spokescharacter's suicide note, "Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is."---but he was the only one you'd believe truly appreciated the tribute the jokes paid to the work. Speedy's suicide note is funny because Speedy and his slogan are great creations. Freddy was the one for whom coming up with something like Speedy is the whole point.
With Freddy out of the picture, Mad Men is now in a very odd place. It's a workplace drama in which almost none of the characters wants to be at work.
It's no wonder the writers have flown Don Draper to California and seem to be on the verge of leaving him there.
We have seen one other character, besides Peggy and Freddy, having a good time on the job. Joan Holloway. In A Night to Remember Joan is given the job of saving Harry from his own incompetence. She has to read the scripts of television shows Sterling Cooper's clients have bought commercial time for to make sure that the shows' storylines don't reflect badly on the products. Joan turns out to be very good at the work. She does more than foresee potential conflicts. She sees potential opportunities. And the clients love her and love what she's doing. She's having a great time. And naturally she isn't allowed to continue. Harry being the dope Harry is doesn't recognize her talent or respect her intelligence. He can't see her as anything but what he's always seen her as, the office bombshell. In short, Harry is no Freddy Rumsen. He replaces her with a guy who's an obvious goofball, breaking her heart and almost her spirit. In one of the saddest scenes yet on Mad Men, Joan goes home, alone, to face the fact that as far as the men at Sterling Cooper are concerned her only talents and usefulness lie in her sex appeal and who knows how much longer that will last. We see her, then, baring her own gorgeous shoulders to inspect them for signs that her beauty is fading.
If Mad Men was on HBO or Showtime where actual nudity was allowed, the director of that episode might have been tempted to have Christina Hendricks, who plays Joan, inspecting Joan's main assests. Instead of her bare breasts, though, the shot is of Hendrick's upper back and shoulder and the picture is more artistic than erotic. What we see then is Joan looking at herself as a work of art, which is of course what she is. The "Joan" Joan sends to work everyday is a created self, a work of art as carefully, passionately, and intelligently made as a painting or a sculpture. And so we see Joan seeing that she is still beautiful but she is seeing herself objectively, and that cuts two ways. She is allowed to admire her nude body as if she is looking at a statue, without vanity or narcissism, but with an artist's pride. But she is also seeing herself objectified, as an object. The shot is heartbreaking because it's a picture of Joan turning into stone in her own eyes.
It's a picture of Joan dying a little bit to herself.
Programming note: Two more episodes of Mad Men left before the series finishes up its second season, which means there are only two more chances to join in Tom Watson and Mrs Peel's live-blogging of the show over at newcritics. Check in with them tonight at 10 PM Eastern.