Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Mad Men-- On Power

People watching Sunday's episode of Mad Men on AMC, season 3, episode 7, called "Seven Twenty-Three" might have thought that they had now officially gone over to watching a soap opera. Flirting with handsome men and school teachers, rendezvous, and Peggy waking up with a man in a hotel room...were we really just headed into another show that quickly devolves into everyone sleeping with everyone?

That's not what I saw, however. Steve and I usually try to identify a theme for the episode as it unfolds, and lately we've been grasping, and not really hitting on anything very concrete. But I think Sunday's episode was a brilliant illustration of how power works, and namely, of the theory that one gains power by withholding and loses it or gives it away by divulging information.

All the major characters in the episode had a certain amount of power banked. They could use this power for money or sex or advancement of some other aim. The game, as it was, revolved around a principle Don Draper sums up early on, when Conrad Hilton wants Don signed to a contract before he'll work with the firm. "He wants what he can't/doesn't have." Getting what you want is power, no? The business relationship is also firmly identified with sex: Conrad Hilton tells Don he has "a wandering eye" and wants his needs satisfied-- meaning he's willing to ditch his current agency for Don.

So how did the characters fare?

Betty has power over the city employee, Henry Francis, sexual power that she wants to use to get him to advocate on behalf of saving the reservoir. Henry Francis wants what he can't have-- Betty, and he has a lot of power. Betty maintains her bank by giving him a little but not enough-- no walk to the car, no kiss. He also gains power by withholding, canceling the walk up to the reservoir, leaving open the possibility of a second meeting.

Betty seems to have no power over Don. She confronts him about not signing the contract, and he simply walks out, not to appear again until, when? Sunday night? It seems he doesn't come home until Monday night, after he's signed the contract, though he throws this at her almost as an accusation ("are you happy now?") even though she had seemingly nothing to do with his decision-making.

Peggy has negotiating power with Duck over a new position at his firm. He is "wooing" her with a scarf. She is loyal until Don scolds her for no apparent reason (pure sexism) when she approaches him about the Hilton deal (men can be this aggressive in business, but not women). She goes to Duck's hotel room, ostensibly to return the scarf, but then submits to his sexual advances, thus losing ALL her power and really any chance of legitimately taking the job at Duck's firm. Oh, Peggy. Oh, oh, Peggy. I love her-- she doesn't understand power. But also, Peggy wants to be wanted: "What is it that you want from me?" she asks, and he responds with a lewd proposition.

In the relationship between Don and the teacher, Miss Farrell, she also has a fair amount of power. It seems to me she made an advance toward him when she made the phone call home-- and when she told of losing a parent when she was young, she compromised her own power, which lies in part in mystery. She proves consistent here, when during small talk that she initiates, she accuses Don of coming on to her. She may be being honest, but she also is diffusing all sexual energy. He has given her nothing, and he retains all power. He has not shared with her or been "intimate" with her, although she has with him, if only in conversation. She cuts off the actual possibility of an affair, which is a good thing, as she is a teacher, but is again not good in terms of power brokering. And because Don is unscrupulous to the core of his being, and holds all the power, there is still a chance he'll eventually "get what he wants." If he decides to want it.

Finally, the most interesting exchange/brokering in this episode is over Don and the contract. Sterling and Cooper want him to sign. They insist that he sign. Eventually, when other tactics (reason, approaching Betty) don't work, Cooper goes to his office and asks: "Would you say I know something about you, Don?" "I would," says Don. "Then sign," says Cooper. What he knows is that Don has stolen his name and identity from a man who died in Korea. He has the information. He has the power. Don still negotiates, even as he's signing, in this case not to have to work with Roger Sterling. (For telling Betty? Or a final salvo in their never-ending male competition?) As he's signing, Cooper asks, "After all, when it comes down to it, who's really signing this contract anyway?" That question in its way acknowledges that Don still has manipulated the situation-- doesn't play by the rules. But maybe is also assuaging his hurt ego, saying that he still has a trump card/power if he chooses to use it. It's actually quite brilliant the way Cooper achieves this with a series of questions.

Of course, this is also complicated by the car trip to Niagara Falls, the reason I think he actually signs. Don at the point of picking up the hitchhikers really thinks he's invincible. He thinks he has ALL the power. And yet he is duped by these liars, these "innocent" kids. He's also, of course, undone by the vision of his father, the story at all costs he wants to keep secret-- seemingly the real threat to his power.

The deck is stacked in this show, as in the society it portrays. The men have the power, and the women have few tools for getting some of it for themselves. Everyone in this episode "wants what they don't have." If you don't have power, you seem to have two options: preserving mystery and living in the sexually charged atmosphere of withholding intimacy, or clubbing the guy who has what you want over the head.
I, unfortunately, have been Peggy, and I have been Miss. Farrell, too. And once, in a car after what had been a series of romantic dates and flirtations, I told a man something about myself and he said to me, "Why did you do that?" "What?" I asked. "Why did you just give up your power?" I had no idea what he meant. But he, rogue that he was, drove away from my house and into the nearby city where he slept with another woman, telling me later that I had imagined any romantic overtures on his part. I tried to figure out what he meant about giving away my power, and in some ways I did. It was a painful lesson. It didn't make me start being mysterious, or stop me from blurting out what I wanted and calling a romance a romance-- or divulging things about myself probably best left unsaid. But I did tend to my power as best I could, and watched how such things work in the lives-- and tales-- of others.

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