Mad Men is wrapping up its fourth season tonight, and what have I been doing to prepare?
Re-watching episodes from Season One with the blonde and Uncle Merlin who are trying to catch up.
The other night we watched Episode 8, The Hobo Code, which includes a scene between Don Draper and Bert Cooper having a short discussion of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
Bert has called Don into this office to surprise him with an extremely generous bonus check, and while Don sits there sockless in his eccentric nipponophile of boss’s Japanese shrine of an office, baffled at what he’s done to deserve all that money all at once, Bert suddenly starts a book club.
Bert, played by the elfin Robert Morse and looking like a leprechaun about to reveal the secret of how to catch him and get at his pot of gold, points to a book on his shelf and says, “Have you read her?”
Don, still reeling from the surprise of the check, can hardly fathom that Bert is talking to him, let alone changing the subject or seeming to change it. Bert illuminates him. “Rand. Atlas Shrugged! That’s the one!”
It turns out that Bert sees himself as a Randian hero and sees himself as a Randian hero recapitulated in Don.
“When you hit forty,” Bert explains, “You realize you’ve met or seen every kind of person there is, and I know what kind of person you are because I believe we are alike….By that I mean you are a productive and reasonable man and in the end completely self-interested. It’s strength. We are different, completely unsentimental about all the people who depend on our hard work.”
It’s an odd thing to say, considering that he’s just made a very sentimental gesture towards Don based on an unreasonable self-romanticizing self-appraisal. But Don just promises to read the book and Bert goes back to pruning his miniature bonsai tree, as if not only has Don already gone but as if he was never there.
As in most workplace comedies and dramas that aren’t set in police stations, firehouses, hospitals, or court rooms, the actual work done by the characters in Mad Men is accomplished mainly offscreen and is generally irrelevant to the particular doings of this week’s plot or that season’s narrative arc. The office is a stage where the characters have their exits and entrances and in their time play their parts and the work they do, or supposedly do, is the explanation for why they are there and gives them each a stake in each other’s troubles and worries, but the proximate cause of those troubles and worries, a project, an assignment, a deadline, an obstreperous client or an uncooperative coworker, although work-related, work-created even, is merely the stressor that forces the characters to reveal themselves. The story is about the people not the work.
At Sterling Cooper (and its Season Four reincarnation as Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce) work happens in order for us to see Pete tormented by his insecurities, Paul tripped up by his own vanity and sense of superiority to his job and his coworkers, Harry flummoxed and paralyzed by his dithering and incompetence, Sal terrified by the latest threat to open the closet door, and Peggy constantly driven two steps forward, one step back, three steps sideways by her ambition and her ambivalence about that ambition. The actual work they do while they deal with these recurrent plot threads doesn’t matter, which is why we rarely see the finished product of that work. The Mad Men and Mad Woman of Sterling Cooper are often seen beginning a project or presenting one in progress, usually in a scene ending with them being sent back to the drawing board, but I can’t recall any time in the first three seasons our being presented with a successfully completed ad. The closest have been the few times when we’ve seen a client successfully sold on the idea that will eventually turn into a finished ad.
That’s because the dramatic point has usually already finished well before the campaign has gotten beyond the sketch and storyboard phase or, considering that Sterling Cooper has been on a steady downward slide since the first episode, the dramatic point has reached its conclusion with the failure of an idea.
But The Hobo Code is one of the few episodes in which work matters. Not the work, so much. The work as work, and the episode is concerned with what work is worth. This is the episode in which Peggy takes her big step up from secretary to copywriter. She is beginning the move from worker to producer, and in her transition, we see the sad fact of life in a Randian world like the offices of Sterling Cooper, work in and of itself has no worth and bestows no dignity.
As a mere office functionary, Peggy the secretary is useful to the Mad Men but that means she is there to be used. If and when she becomes one of them, she will be not their equal but their competition. The men’s jealousy of her success, which relative to their own so far is minor, reveals their fear that their continued success is in doubt. They are not sure how much their work is worth. They aren’t sure that it has worth, which makes them doubt that they have worth. They are reacting to the inertia of Peggy’s rise. A body in motion tends to stay in motion. At the moment, it looks to them as though Peggy is going to keep going up and up. Looking at her that way, they can’t help but see themselves as standing still. They aren’t on the rise. They are bodies at rest and bodies at rest tend to stay at rest. Peggy’s sudden launch forces them to consider the possibility that they are stuck on the ground as a probability.
Work, as far as they’re concerned, is not its own reward. They don’t take pride in a job well done because they can never be sure that they will continue to hold that job no matter how well they do it. Someone who can do it better will always come along to impress the bosses and where will that leave them? People who just work don’t have worth no matter how well or hard they work. People who just work are just useful to the people who produce.
Now, The Hobo Code is not an endorsement of their Randian world view. In fact the episode and the entire series is a refutation of the idea that the world of work and business is a world of solitary and independent heroes carrying the parasites along on their broad shoulders.
It’s silly for Bert Cooper to think of himself as a Randian hero considering that his success derives from having spent his career serving the interests of actual John Galts. Sterling Cooper only exists because these people have already produced the wealth Bert and his partners and employees are about to skim. Ad men, in the Randian scheme of things, are parasites not producers.
But if it’s silly, and self-delusive, for Bert Cooper to think of himself as a John Galt, it’s ridiculous to even consider the clients who pass through the offices of Sterling Cooper as heroes, for all the wealth they produce. Most of them are vain and stupid without any qualities that explain how it was they were able to build their companies and amass their fortunes. There’s nothing Galt-like about them. They are mediocrities who have struck lucky.
The most Galt-like of them all, Conrad Hilton, who is Galt-like in that he is intelligent and resourceful and innovative, is also eccentric to the point of being annoying, cranky, capricious, often unreasonable, terribly sentimental, vainer than the vainest of the rest of Sterling Cooper’s clients, and frequently childish. We can see how he’s been able to build his little empire of hotels across the world’s Monopoly board. We can see qualities in him to like and admire. We can’t see much reason, though, to emulate him. He spends most of his time in Season Three coming close to being as big a drag on Don Draper’s time and emotions as Betty’s father is on hers. In fact, he is to Don what Gene is to Betty, a constant source of guilt and self-doubt leading to self-loathing.
He’s not a hero, at least not anymore. He’s a too easily disappointed and disappointing father figure.
The Randian view of the world as divided into heroic producers and the merely useful and the worthless is also refuted in Mad Men by the very nature of work itself.
As I said, we don’t see much work being done onstage, but we see enough of it to know that, even when it has its germ in the lonely head of Don Draper, work is collaborative and it is social and it is socializing.
Peggy may be a budding genius like her idol Don, but no genius, not even Don, gets an ad campaign going all on her or his own. The work is shared.
As an aside, even if Don had read Ayn Rand he’d still have been baffled by Bert’s flattering him by comparing them both to the hero of Atlas Shrugged. The Randian hero Don resembles isn’t John Galt. It’s The Fountainhead’s Howard Roark.
Like Roark, Don is an artist. He doesn’t produce wealth. He produces ideas that others---the mediocrities---make money off of. With his consent, of course. But I suspect that like Roark Don believes he still owns his ideas even after they’ve been bought and deep down he reserves the right to take his ideas back if he sees them being misused or degraded. The difference is that, unlike Roark, he is reasonable and unsentimental, at least about himself, and being reasonable and un-self-sentimental, he can see the worth of other people’s work. It never occurs to Roark that “his” building might be equally “owned” by the developer who put up the money to get it built and by the engineers who made sure that it got built right so that it stayed built, and by the steelworkers, carpenters, electricians, and plumbers that actually built it or that without them his idea would have been just that an idea. Don knows what he owes to others. It’s not his management style to gush or even to praise. But he acknowledges his team’s contributions.
However, as he sees it, or tries to see it, work is its own reward. A job well done is a source of pride. Which is why he is constantly rebuking Peggy when she looks to him for approval. “Why do you need me to tell you you’ve done a good job?” he’s asked her in various ways in various episodes. He’s also, unfairly, scolded her for wanting extra praise for simply doing what she’s supposed to do. If she wants more praise, she needs to do more. She has to do better. The unfairness in this is in that we know that he will constantly keep raising the bar.
Meanwhile, it’s not to be lost on us that the praising of the productive Randian hero is being delivered by the least productive person at Sterling Cooper.
Does anybody know what Bert Cooper does all day?
Don is unsentimental about himself, but he doesn’t undervalue what he does. He knows how much he is worth to the firm. He’s taken aback by the size of the bonus Bert’s giving him, but he doesn’t for a moment wonder if he deserves a bonus. In fact, in the first season Don is at the point of deserving more than a bonus. Mad Men began with the end of Don’s time as a junior executive. If he had read Atlas Shrugged, he might have reacted to Bert’s Randian fantasy with a sharp, though probably unspoken, “And what have you done lately, old man? I’m the one doing all the producing around here.”
But he’d have let the thought pass because he’d know that while Bert wasn’t doing much now he had done something once.
Mad Men’s creator, Matt Weiner, and his writers haven’t gone very deep into the history of Sterling Cooper. We know that Bert and Roger’s father founded the firm in the 1920s but we don’t know under what circumstances or what each partner brought to the partnership. In the one picture we’ve been shown from those days Bert and the elder Sterling are in a group of other men and we don’t know what their jobs were or what roles they played in the founding of the firm. Based on what we’ve seen of Bert we can surmise that he was the people person, the one who handled the clients and the staff, and possibly also the business head, which would make Roger’s father the creative force. But unless Weiner decides to give us a lot more of Roger’s memoirs or devote an episode or two to those days (like St Elsewhere’s brilliant two-parter about the founding of St Elegius) we’re left to wonder just how productive Bert Cooper was in 1920.
We also don’t know much of what happened in between then and the show’s now.
At some point, Roger took charge. We can guess that it was shortly after he returned from World War II. We can also guess that he took over under circumstances that put him in command quickly, since he is way too comfortable as the boss for his having recently ascended to the throne. His father dying, probably, but possibly his establishing himself as the better ad man, and better businessman, than either his father or Bert Cooper. It would make sense, given what we’ve seen of him, that he spent very little time having to prove to people that he wasn’t just the boss’s son. It’s a point of interest that there’s nobody around the offices of Sterling Cooper, besides Bert, as old as or older than Roger. Did he run all the old men out of the place when he took over or did time and the nature of the business, not to mention booze and cigarettes, clean house for him?
(I’m talking about the first three seasons. This season we were introduced to another character who knew Roger when. Miss Blankenship.)
However it came about, at the beginning of Season One Sterling Cooper is Roger’s firm. Bert is still a king, but he’s ceded the running of the kingdom to the more vital and competent Prince. Roger consults Bert and often defers to his judgment, but that’s a matter of respect. Well, and money. But another, meaner prince, would have eased Bert out of there by now. Bert is still around because Roger remembers and cares. He’s not there because he’s necessary and productive.
This is life. People grow old. They get tired. There comes a point when they can’t do at all what they used to do with ease. However much of a Randian hero Bert might have been in his prime, he is not a hero now. He is an old man, a bit of a silly old man, and his place in the firm is that of a dependent.
Talking to Don, Bert refers to all the people “who depend on our hard work.” At the moment, at least, he is forgetting how dependent he is on Roger and not just for Roger’s hard work.
He is dependent on Roger to remember and care that at one time he was something other than he is now.
He needs Roger to be different than a Randian hero by being sentimental about at least one person who is dependent on his hard work.
I’m still talking about Season One.
At the beginning of Season One, Bert’s time has passed, but Roger’s time is passing.
Through Seasons Two and Three Roger’s place in the firm continued to slip. And in Season Four he’s gotten to the point where he can been left behind completely and he has to worry if anybody is going to remember and care about him the way he remembered and cared about Bert.
Since he has not been as good to Don as Bert was to him, he’s got cause to worry.
The power is passing to Don. The only reason is that it hasn’t already passed is that Don has been even more self-destructive than Roger. We’ll see tonight whether or not that has changed or is going to change in Season Five. But we can already see that Don won’t hold it long.
Peggy is waiting.
The day will come when Don will be dependent on Peggy to remember and care.
I should say, the day will come again, since Don’s survival this season has been dependent on Peggy remembering and caring already.
The difference between the present and the future is that for the present Peggy is still dependent on Don. She needs him to return to form.
This cycle of dependence and interdependence is entirely lacking from the Randian world view. Once a hero, always a hero. John Galt needs nobody, ever.
One last thing.
We see Peggy and Pete and Sal and the new girl working the switchboard at their most vulnerable. We see them and others, including Joan and Paul and Freddie, at their most likable, and their likability has nothing to do with their productivity because, although we see them at work, we don’t see them working. We also see them after work. We see them being not useful to each other. And we see that their worth to each other is not merely a matter of their usefulness to each other.
Work has brought them together. But it isn’t what holds them together.
What holds them together is a web of emotions the chief of which is sympathy.
This leads to a scene that’s a flashback to Don’s boyhood or, I should say, Dick Whitman’s boyhood during the Depression.
A hobo comes to the family farm asking to trade work for a meal.
What we see is young Dick learning two lessons about work that are going to twist up his life as Don Draper.
From the hobo Dick learns that while you have to work to live the things most people work for, a home, a family, stability, status, are traps.
From his father he learns that the productive man, the man who works for a home, a family, stability, and status, is the worthier man.
But he learns one more thing. The Randian view is cruel. Dick’s father is unsentimental about the people who depend on his hard work to the point of giving himself permission to lie and cheat.
The Randian man, the productive man, the worthier man, owes nothing to nobody.
I haven’t been able to follow Season Four in the normal fashion. It’s been catch as catch can. Fortunately, that Randian hero of culture criticism, Jim Wolcott, has been doing a Roarkian job of recapping the season episode by episode.
From the Paley Center for Media: Robert Morse describes how he auditioned for the part of Bert Cooper. Charming as all get-out.
Related Mannion Re-run: For the love of Ayn Rand.