Mad Men returns… along with Ayn Rand

26 Jul

I couldn’t believe it when the Season 4 premiere of Mad Men opened with the line “Who is Don Draper?”  Too perfect—considering that this time last year I wrote an article on the parallels between Mad Men and Ayn Rand’s famous fictional characters for the Season 3 opener.  “Public Relations” brought back familiar waves of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead déjà vu as well as some fascinating character evolution.

In sum, the tv and literary characters I matched up last August aren’t the same this summer.  And now, at least, we know who John Galt may be.

Read at The Best Shows You’re Not Watching.  And watch out: Spoilers for both Mad Men and Ayn Rand’s novels below.

Don Draper: Hank Rearden

Don doesn’t know how to answer that famous first line in an interview the new advertising firm Sterling Cooper Draper Price (that’s a tongue-twister for Joan, isn’t it?) hopes will turn out to be a great PR opportunity for them.  They’re so strapped for cash in this season four debut that they can’t even afford a proper conference table, and Don Draper—brilliant creative director—is the goose that lays the golden egg.  But in this interview, Don’s standard taciturnity doesn’t come off as modest or mysterious.  As Roger Sterling says after reading the article, it’s terrible publicity—and “plus, you sound like a prick.”

That’s an interesting comment considering that Ayn Rand detractor’s often criticize her heroes as being cold, hard, and selfish.  Hank Rearden refuses to support his mother and (admittedly a loser) younger brother, and Howard Roark bombs a housing community for the poor, for goodness’ sake.  Pricks?  Maybe for readers who don’t appreciate the philosophy behind Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.

It’s the same with Draper.  When Roger Sterling, Bertram Cooper, Lane Price, and Harry Crane of all people ambush him with criticism about the negative PR the article’s bringing—Don’s laconic reserve actually lost the ad man a major television account Harry had just cinched in Los Angeles—Draper can’t understand why he’s being required to be personable or charming on newsprint.  “Who gives a crap what I say anyway?” he asks, more bewildered than I’ve ever seen him;  “My work speaks for me.”

This is classic Hank Rearden.  In Atlas Shrugged, Rearden makes an astonishing metal alloy.  To use his own words, “I want Rearden Metal to be to steel what steel was to iron.”  And it is—or at least, it should be: it works.  But Hank Rearden has the same problem Don does—bad press.  He’d rather be lovingly watching his mills pour out the first heat of Rearden Metal than at one of his wife’s high-society parties; he’s known for his bluntness and chilly demeanor; he gets little pleasure at home where he must conform to society’s expectations, and ends up finding fleeting happiness elsewhere—in the arms of other women as unlike his perfect wife as possible.  Sound familiar?  (quoth Roger Sterling from the season 3 finale: you can’t maintain relationships “because you don’t value them”)

Don Draper: Howard Roark

But in “Public Relations,” Don Draper transitions from Atlas Shrugged’s Hank Rearden to the hero of The Fountainhead: Howard Roark.  In one particularly disturbing scene of this episode, Don spends his Thanksgiving with a woman we can presume is not just a prostitute, but a regular—and what he likes, it seems, is her to slap his face as hard as she can (all right, all right: cue jokes about Ayn Rand’s violent sex scenes).  This seem to indicate a self-loathing similar to Rearden’s when he first sleeps with Dagny Taggart: the morning after, Rearden goes on a long tirade about what terrible people they both are, and all the more terrible for not caring about the fact that he’s married and by all social conventions they’re acting immorally.  Who is Don Draper?  He doesn’t answer, because for all his success in work—he’s not proud of himself, because he’s unable to live up to society’s expectations of a husband.

By the end of the episode, however, Draper has his Howard Roark moment.  When a prudish bathing suit company balks at his ad campaign (But it’s not a bikini, Don!), he won’t have it anymore and storms out of the “conference room”—sans table, of course.  And while Peter Campbell tries to sweet talk the clients into giving the volatile artist a little time to come around, Don storms right back in and comes pretty close to physically throwing the two “choir boys” out of the building.  This is a lot like Howard Roark the architect—a creative director of sorts, himself, who refuses to take commissions from clients who compromise his vision.

The turnaround may come in part, I think, from his divorce.  Although it was Betty leaving him and not the other way around, Don no longer has to play the social game he did before—at least at home—and he’s finally ready to be just as uncompromising in his work.  Hence the final scene, the complete opposite of the first: when a new reporter (this one from the WSJ) asks which name in Sterling Cooper Draper Price defines the firm, Don takes ownership of his identity.  And that’s totally new, considering that, for the last three seasons, he’s been wrestling with the fact that it isn’t his.  It may be symbolic that we didn’t have a single Dick Whitman flashback this entire episode.  His final interview shows that new confidence—and willingness to talk about himself and his genius.

Peggy Olson, Dagny Taggart, and the new Eddie Willers

Last year I was inclined to compare Peggy to Eddie Willers, the faithful sidekick of Atlas Shrugged’s unflappable female executive, Dagny Taggart.  But Peggy’s moved up in the world—in the season 3 finale, she called Don on his expectation that she just up and follow him “like a sick poodle.”  Don replied thus: “I think of you as an extension of myself… but you’re not.”

It’s true.  Eddie Willers was, in a sense, an extension of Dagny—naïve, hard-working, omnicompetent, and unfailingly supportive.  But Peggy Olson in her new capacity as the head copywriter of SCDP is her own woman: independent, self-confident, and far better dressed (not to mention, the bangs are longer too).  The first time we see her in season four, after all, she’s sitting atop her desk, relaxed and self-assured, bantering with Peter her own sidekick Joey.

Who is this guy anyway?  And is he the same man who accompanies Peggy to Don’sapartment on turkey day?  In that introductory scene, I thought for a moment he was Smitty.  But this is a new season, taking a place a year after the season 3 finale, and there have been some new hirings as well.  Joey’s a pleasant guy and literally runs to work when Peggy says “chop chop”; of course there’s that other man (or is he the same?  either way, it’s kind of disconcerting that he’s Alex Linus’s boyfriend Karl from LOST) who defends her when Don gets upset about a PR stunt gone awry and takes it out on Peggy.  Don doesn’t know who he is either—and gets the answer “I’m her fiancé… Mark.”  Neither may true, but Peggy seems content with his explanation that “it just slipped out.”  Ayn Rand fans might find that logical too, thinking back to Eddie’s not-so-secret love for Dagny.

Oh, and the new Peggy smokes like Dagny too.

Betty Draper (should I say Francis?) and Lillian Rearden

First of all, I don’t think Betty’s the evil scheme Don Draper’s wife is in Atlas Shrugged.  But there are some similarities, and don’t forget—Henry Francis’s mother, Betty’s new mother-in-law, notes that children are terrified of that “silly woman.”

Betty has, throughout the series, been everything the postwar culture expected of a woman: a perfect wife and mother, a perfect homemaker, prim and proper and perfectly coiffed.  Compare with Lillian, the impeccably-groomed wife resentful of her husband for pretty much the same reasons Betty left Don.  And because of this, the two women could get a lot of sympathy.  But Betty isn’t being completely reasonable herself: she wants that picture-perfect life but, because of this focus on the exterior, just ends up looking hollow herself.

Pete Campbell and Co: Not Peter Keating, anyway

Peter the rich kid with a sense of entitlement and a knack for climbing the social ladder didn’t make an appearance in this first episode of season 4.  Oh he’s still the charming, consummate account man, but he’s sloughed off the envy for Don Draper that most made him like The Fountainhead’s slimy Peter Keating.

After the formation of SCDP, everyone in the firm became a self-made man—earning them some major Ayn Rand points.  And no one’s flourishing more than Peter Campbell, who at one point in the episode actually sold the new firm to Don: “We’re the scrappy upstart!” he says, actually delighting in their independence and slightly disreputable image (apparently, having no conference table is a big deal in the 1960s ad agency world).  It’s the American ideal, pioneering and making something new, and now it’s not just Don embodying that sentiment.  Not even Harry Crane crumbles under Don’s loss of his hard-earned Los Angeles account—“Fix it!” he demands, the most assertive two words he’s ever said.

So it’s looking up for Sterling Cooper Draper Price, and so far it’s Ayn Rand protagonists all around.  But even Howard Roark falls on hard times, and we’ll see who spirals downward this season.  As Don said, after all, “They raise you up, and they knock you down.”

But until then, let the Ayn Rand fanfiction continue.

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7 Responses to “Mad Men returns… along with Ayn Rand”

  1. Sparks123 July 27, 2010 at 11:58 am #

    Opening the season with “Who is Don Draper?” was too much not to be a coincinence considering the previous references the show has made to Rand. It’s a shame Matt Weiner is such an Obama fanboy.

    • thescattering July 27, 2010 at 3:49 pm #

      Of course not a coincidence (otherwise, there would be no point to this article)–but fantastic nonetheless. And while I expected references, the first line of the new season is a pretty big deal. 🙂

  2. Dennis Phillips July 27, 2010 at 5:21 pm #

    I’ve never watched the show before. I need to check it out.

  3. Sparks123 August 2, 2010 at 8:22 pm #

    After last night, we can say that hopes for a liberated Don Draper aren’t quite the case. He’s just a sloppy drunk now.

    • thescattering August 2, 2010 at 8:33 pm #

      Oy vey. He’s still struggling. But that blonde psychoanalyst did say something that bears with my interpretation, I think. His “deepest conflict”: “In a nutshell, it all comes down to what I want versus what’s expected of me.”

      • Dharma October 22, 2010 at 5:42 am #

        True. There’s two episodes for the Identity Crisis. He switches between thinking what he is actually to what he is right now, and the world around him expecting so much from him. Though its not outright a congruent comparison but I believe the Identity Crisis had to do with the conflict of ‘what I want versus what’s expected of me’.

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