The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Mad Men S4:5 (Commentary)
So much conflicting information. ~ Pete
What are we to others but what we appear to be?
And yet our own appearance eludes us – we can see ourselves only in a mirror and always in reverse. “ ” the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote in the 18th century, and in 200+ years, we’ve made little progress. Like most humans, the characters on Mad Men resist seeing themselves accurately, even as they’re intensely concerned about how they are seen by others.
All advertising is based on manipulating people into believing that a product will make them appear to be whatever it is they want -- sexy, beautiful, happy, affluent, powerful – if they simply buy and use it. The appearance of efficacy is used to sell an efficacy of appearance. But the irony is that appearances are in fact every bit as powerful as advertising suggests they are: They determine the course of our lives as individuals and affect the fates of entire nations. Perception is all, both to ourselves and to others: what we see is what is real to us, and we act according to what we perceive. And we are no more and no less to others than what they can see about us.
On Mad Men, no one knows the power of appearance better than Don Draper, and his “genius” (as ex-employee Smitty calls it) in the realm of manipulative illusion is on full display in "The Chrysanthemum and The Sword," an episode named after an influential but controversial post-World War II study of the seemingly contradictory Japanese culture and character that (despite being developed at a distance and from questionable sources) not only largely formed the Western view of the nation but even affected the Japanese themselves. We become what people tell us we are. Never more so than as children (as this episode heartbreakingly hints) but also long into adulthood, perhaps until death (at which point, as Pete will tell you, chrysanthemums are appropriate in Japan).
The sword also dangles over many in this episode, but especially over SCDP. Nipping at their heels is another small agency, Cutler Gleason and Chaough (CGC), whose smarmy partner, Ted Chaough, insists on competing head-to-head with Don Draper, who he claims is fearfully watching CGC in his rear view mirror (which would make them the reverse of SCDP). Having ceded Clearasil to CGC as well as having lost jai alai, Don is asked by a New York Times advertising columnist how he’s reacting, and Don gives the appearance of nonchalance by claiming to not even know who Chaough is, only to be greatly irritated when the man himself (who Don obviously recognizes) shows up at the Benihana restaurant he’s taken Bethany to, disguising research (on potential client Honda motorcycle) as an expensive date. She too is more concerned about appearances (as well as the fried food smell getting into her hair), and frustrated at the lack of intimacy in the setting, which she implies is due to the fact that she’s been refusing to have sex with Don.
“I thought I was clever, but it looks like you had the same idea,” Chaough smirks, blowing the lid off Don’s fact-finding mission, before making the kind of boast that every TV viewer knows precedes a downfall, no matter what show it appears in: “The bad news is the best man’s going to win.” Actually Ted is doubly right – the best ad man is going to win this competition, and he only thinks he’s clever, proving himself one more person with faulty self-perception. Fixated on that view of himself in Don’s rear view mirror, Ted doesn’t realize that he’s so stuck behind, he needs a Secor’s laxative.
Irritated at Don’s irritation at Chaough, Bethany is treated to the explanation that CGC has only done half of what SCDP has done, but by declaring themselves the competition, they have become equals -- a theme that will be revisited when those old (and future) competitors the Japanese appear to challenge American business. Becoming something by simply claiming to be it is a move that Don takes as being akin to copyright infringement when someone else tries it, and we can all but hear him mentally vowing to whip Chaough’s ass.
While chopper and chopstick wars play out, babysitting back at Don’s Edward Hopperesque apartment is nurse Phoebe, who brings her doctor kit to intrigue the kids, but fails to win over Sally, who makes it clear she hates her father’s dating, and in frustration re-makes her own appearance by playing doctor on her hair with some scissors in the bathroom. Phoebe’s aghast, worried about how angry Don will be at her (sensing correctly where Don’s anger will land) even as she's sympathetic to Sally’s explanation that she just wanted to look pretty like Phoebe, whose short hair she thinks her daddy likes, in order to draw his attention and favor. Phoebe herself performs a little cosmetic surgery on this motivation, telling Don that Sally probably just wanted to look like juvenile movie star Hayley Mills (of the original Parent Trap, who did captivate many young girls' fantasies at that time), thus making the motivation more child-like as well as protecting Don’s feelings. But unaware of this, Don blames Phoebe, firing her from sitter duty and harshly claiming that putting her in charge of his kids was the same as leaving them alone -- a stinging charge that Betty throws at him in turn when he returns the kids and she discovers Sally’s new ‘do. “It’s like leaving them with nobody,” she fumes, a charge that we guess is intended to cut Mr. Nobody (not Dick, not Don, not part of a family) to the core.
Continuing her descent into terrible motherhood, Betty takes out her smoldering anger at Don by slapping Sally even after she apologizes. Don is appropriately horrified and asks if that act was “really necessary,” but Betty is unrepentant, complaining that it doesn’t do any good anyway (since in her view Sally continues to be bad), adding the fascinating tidbit that her own mother actually threatened to cut her hair when she was bad (one in a series of comments Betty’s made that suggest the old adage about “the apple not falling far from the tree” applies to her in terms of mothering style). In his low-key FM disc jockey fashion, Henry tries to both enlighten and soothe Betty, telling her not to take out her anger at Don on Sally and that after all little girls do these kinds of things even in the best of homes.
“Henry, I don’t want to hear it. I just want him dead,” Betty seethes in a naked display of her intense fury at Don and the engine behind her nasty behavior towards her children. Henry reassures her that Don’s behavior angers and baffles him, too, since his post-divorce weekends with his own daughter, Ellie, were “sacrosanct” and he couldn’t do enough for her. But punishment will only make things worse, he advises. While Betty agrees to apologize, Henry presses her to restore the slumber party privilege she’d taken away and promise to take Sally to the beauty parlor to fix her hair. “Reward her?” Betty goggles, before melting and agreeing. “You’re soft, you know that?” she smiles, a moment that recalls how her father Gene coddled her as his princess, making clearer than ever that Betty has traded an immature husband for a paternal one, deceiving herself into thinking it’s her children who need “a real father” rather than recognizing her own emotional desire.
Avoid criticizing them or giving advice. ~ Pete
Sally, meanwhile, is starting to have desires of her own, spurred by that mid-60’s object of many a girl’s fantasy, Ilya Kuryakin (as played by the boyishly cute David McCallum), a lead character in the TV spy drama, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Caught doing, well, decency forbids that we actually see it, but apparently touching herself, Sally is busted by her friend’s mother, who is so horrified that she hauls Sally back home that same night, interrupting Henry and Betty’s coitus. Betty declares herself “mortified,” not because she thinks what Sally is doing is morally wrong, but because she’s embarrassed Betty socially. Tellingly, she informs Sally that, “You don’t do those things. You don’t do them in private and you especially don’t do them in public” -- a hedging that makes it clear that the real rule is that you just don’t let other people know you do them. This admission is echoed in her reply to the other mother that “I’m very sorry for this behavior and so is Sally. I would have done the same thing.” (As she more or less was doing, when the doorbell rang.) But this doesn’t stop Betty from threatening Sally with the terrifying “I’ll cut your fingers off,” ostensibly for lying -- but wouldn’t the just punishment for that be cutting her tongue out?
Upon hearing about Sally’s self-exploration, Henry seems unfazed but suggests a child psychiatrist to alleviate Betty’s distress, a suggestion that Betty resists, arguing that she saw a psychiatrist herself once and knows it doesn’t help (news Henry greets with surprise and a curiosity that Betty dismisses with the lie that she went because “she was bored”). Giving in later, she calls Don to tell him the news, leading to yet another argument in which Betty blames what she sees as Sally’s incipient promiscuity on the revolving door of single women she imagines Sally witnesses at Don’s bachelor pad. Don retorts that Betty’s the one who’s been seen with a new man in her bed, but Betty as always reverts to the sanctity of tradition and institution – that’s fine, because she’s married. We know that the actual sex that Sally is aware of and disturbed by (aided by Glen’s helpful, “You know they’re doing it”) is between Henry and Betty, while Don isn’t even letting his kids meet his dates. But in Betty’s mind, nothing could possibly be disturbing to her kids about a new man shtupping their mommy, nor could Don possibly be showing the good judgment of keeping his social life discreet.
In an intake session supposedly all about Sally, the child psychiatrist, Dr. Keener, sees what Betty cannot about herself, and deftly elicits the information that there’s been a lot of upheaval in the Draper home (Betty becoming tearful in recalling her father’s death and its effect on Sally) as well as the fact that Betty thinks Sally is acting out to punish her. (It's all about her, of course.) After Betty allows that she knows kids touch themselves, the psychiatrist smoothly asks, “What about you?” which draws the embarrassed response, “I was private and mostly outgrew it.” All of Betty’s feelings and desires are indeed private, except when they come boiling out in rage and frustration that someone hasn’t met them, but it’s another act of self-deception to claim she’s outgrown childish things. Her smiling at the dollhouse in the therapist's office is enigmatic but suggestive of her desire for a storybook existence that real adult relationships can't supply.
The child herself dutifully shows up for her therapy, escorted by Carla, and made to read that same "Highlights for Children" magazine that tormented me as a child in doctors’ offices. “Why don’t you come inside?” Dr. Edna invites Sally, thereby immediately raising both the question and imperative of keeping it all inside, including those budding sexual feelings. But keeping it all inside is just what Sally’s generation is not going to do, no matter how much all the Bettys of the world try to make them.
From what I can tell, they have their own way of doing business. ~ Pete
Don’s newfound interest in Japanese cuisine has its origins in a piece of prospective business that Pete has dangled in front of the partners: Honda, which has 50% of the motorcycle market, is supposedly shopping for a new ad agency, as well as thinking about going into the car business. Everyone’s eager to jump on this but Roger, who’s incensed that they’d even think about doing business with those wonderful folks who brought you Pearl Harbor (to quote the title of Jerry Della Femina's famous book on advertising that drew its title from a slogan he jokingly suggested for Panasonic in the 60's). Spewing racist invective, as well as insulting Pete as a “boy” who can’t understand (an insulting term that is at the heart of a subtext of the episode, the civil rights movement and the recent Selma marches, glimpsed in news stories), Roger insists that SCDP will not pursue the account, adding that Lucky Strike is good enough (because apparently killing people indiscriminately is OK as long as you do it with cigarettes and not guns or bombs). Pete argues that Bernbach does business with Volkswagen (the company the Nazis started) and Bert intones, “The war is over, Roger,” but he won’t be moved. Determined not to go down with the Blankenship (that symbol of out-of-touch obsolesence posing as Don’s hilariously inept and foghorn secretary), the other partners overrule him behind his back, with Bert promising to brief Pete on Japanese culture (only failing to teach him the “open the gift later” rule).
Not very subtle, are they? ~ Joan
But despite Pete’s gift of a cantaloupe, their efforts to woo the Japanese don’t have a chance of bearing fruit after Roger (having learned of the meeting) bursts in and insults them in every way possible, reeling off a series of bad puns about the Japanese loving surprises and not knowing something’s over until you “drop the big one – twice.” The horrified partners try to cover for him (Pete risking further insult with a “his voice very sick” explanation and Bert ordering him to stop since they are guests) but Roger will not be deterred.
“I know exactly who these men are. You think you can come in here and we’ll fawn all over you. We beat you and we’ll beat you again and we don’t want any of your Jap crap. So, sayonara.” Oh, if only the threat of the Japanese to American business could have been held off so easily. Roger sees the contest as one of honor, without realizing that it’s ultimately to be one of survival. I grew up in the era when “Made in Japan” meant something shoddily constructed, but the post-war manufacturing of cheap toys and other items for export soon gave way to the culture of quality design that Don enthusiastically picks up on. He lectures Roger after the meeting not just for losing business they desperately need, but even more for not seeing that quality and wanting to be part of it. Roger argues that Don acted the same way with Jantzen, but to Don, the two situations couldn’t be more different – Jantzen was old school and boring, while Honda with their sleek and sexy design excites him.
But before Don can make any headway, Pete bursts in and lectures Roger in a way that shows precisely how far he’s come from the nervous junior exec we met in Season 1. “Christ on a cracker, where do you get off?” he yells, before launching into the generational argument lurking at the core of the series, and about to split the country: “It’s been almost 20 years. And whether you like it or not the world has moved on. These aren’t the same people.”
Roger rejects that argument with the apparently logical, “How can that be? I’m the same people.”-- which of course is true, since he's staunchly refused to change thus far. He then accuses Pete of being a nowhere man like Don, “You weren’t there. You weren’t anywhere.” But as the Beatles will be singing later this same year, a “nowhere man” is one who “just sees what he wants to see” and doesn’t know what he’s missing. A description that was applied to the entire older generation in the 60's, but which is also suitable for many Mad Men characters, if not for most humans anywhere, any time.
Joan uses this very argument to make Roger see the light, encouraging him to buy into the illusion that all is well:
Joan: Roger, I know it was awful and it will never seem that long ago but you fought to make the world a safer place and you won and now it is.
Roger: You think so? Really?
Joan: I have to.
In the end, it’s left to that master of illusion and deception to beat the Japanese at their own game while also besting CGC. Just as World War II began for the U.S. with a deception – the Japanese seeming to negotiate with the U.S. government even as the attack on Pearl Harbor moved forward to execution – Don plans a sneak attack on the competition. Having been stymied by Lane’s refusal to add more money to the pot than the $3,000 budget the Honda executives have given every agency in the competition, Don has to let go of his initial plan to break the rules and film a spec commercial that will wow the client. Reasoning once again that appearances are everything, he realizes that all they need to do is get CGC to think that they’re making an ad in order to goad the rival agency into spending money they’ll desperately need later to woo other clients (just as Lane points out SCDP will). Effectively bankrupting the budget of the competition, Don bets that losing Honda may win him the war (of the small scrappy new agencies at least).
A man is shamed by being openly ridiculed and rejected. It requires an audience. ~ Don
Like the toy bird that the office workers marvel at, which keeps mysteriously dipping into a glass of water placed before it, compelled by some unseen mechanism, so too do humans seem compelled to do things that are often inexplicable, and taking advantage of this trait is Don’s forte. On the premise that a big lie is better than a small one, Don deploys Joan’s impeccable presentation skills to convince a director they know CGC is using that SCDP will be filming an outrageously complicated commercial requiring use of the Staten Island ferry as well as closing down all of Fifth Avenue. Having gotten the “confidential” information as expected, Chaough calls in Smitty to find out whether Don ever breaks the rules during “a bake-off” between firms. Smitty confirms that “he definitely doesn’t think the rules apply to him” before unintentionally adding the gasoline that will cause Chaough’s competitive fire to flare to a 5-alarm level: “He’s always thinking on the edges of where you are. I don’t know. He’s a genius.”
Chaough’s own idea, to film a daring motorcycle rider in the NYC subway system who at the end reveals himself to be a her, a “California blonde” at that, further plays on the idea of identity and deception, and also reminds the viewer of that California blonde, Anna Draper, who is Don’s closest ally, and someone he’s trying to reach by phone in this episode. Having been warned by Anna not to jump off the cliffs in Acapulco, Don as usual disobeys orders, telling his team that he’s “going to make a left turn, right off a cliff” -- a bit of an overstatement for a strategy that is actually about doing very little while appearing to do a lot.
This is what we call the creative lounge.
We can’t tell you how it happens, but it happens here. ~ Pete
The final bit of deception involves Don himself, who arrives for his pitch only to be mocked by Chaough, who says he’ll never be able to match the film they’ve just unveiled. Chaough’s in such deep denial that even when Don reveals the bluff, saying they didn’t make a film because it was too expensive, he doesn’t realize the trap he’s been caught in but instead boasts that Don’s lost before stalking off in triumph. Once in the meeting, Don acts as his own Trojan horse, impersonating an honorable man who is shocked, shocked to find that his competitors have broken the rules and saying he must as a result resign SCDP from the process rather than soiling the firm by being part of such a dishonorable competition. Falling for it hook, line and Honda, the Japanese send word later that they haven’t chosen a new firm at all, but want to give SCDP first crack at their upcoming automobile line. It’s not much, Lane and Pete admit when bringing Don the good news, “a motorcycle with doors," but we all know what can come from such humble beginnings. Having built himself up into far more than he began as, Don knows that there’s no limit on how you can sell either a person or a product.
Earlier, he has shared a sake and a moment of truth with Dr. Faye in the coffee room, finding out that she too is living a deception, masquerading as a married woman to avoid “distracting conversations” in the many offices she visits in her work. Wanting to be seen as a professional rather than as a beautiful woman, she’s hidden behind a rock to avoid a hard place. But after a long day of interviewing people about luggage, she leaves her own baggage behind and confesses the truth to Don, who seems surprised but pleased by her trust in him, which he answers with some truth of his own about the difficulty of being a divorced father: “I don’t see them enough and when I do, I don’t know what to do. And when I drop them off, I feel relieved, and then I miss them.” Faye reassures him with a theory I’ve heard before, that a woman will be emotionally healthy if (and only if) she felt her father loved her: “Well, I can’t say there’s any evidence to support this, but I’m pretty sure that if you love her and she knows that, she’ll be fine.” (That doesn’t explain how Betty turned out, though!)
Fittingly, an episode that started with the image of a crossword puzzle in progress ends with that of a closed door. The puzzle of who we are and why we do the things we do is never completely revealed, being hidden behind doors that we construct to protect our secret truths, even from ourselves.
I don’t know how else to do this. ~ Blankenship