The last time "Mad Men" ended with a literary voiceover it was Frank O'Hara's "Mayakovsky" as read by Don Draper at the end of the season-two debut. Mentions of the "catastrophe of my personality" and a bleak natural landscape were a prelude to a grim season during which the Drapers' ill-fated marriage would almost come apart, saved momentarily by an accidental pregnancy and the specter of Soviet-Cuban nuclear annihilation.
Last night, the device returned, this time in the form of character-created fiction from account man Ken Cosgrove. It sets up nothing so epic as a threat to civilization, but rather a slower, grinding dehumanization.
A third of the way through, the fifth season of "Mad Men" is shaping up as something of a slog. That's meant in the most charitable of ways. Little has happened and most of the characters have settled into a period of glum stasis. With few exceptions, chief among them the boardroom mano a mano, the plotting has become as muted as the sport coats have gotten loud.
The show's more character-driven than ever, as historical referents, in the form of racial tensions and the crime boom especially, rise to the forefront of and then recede. A discordant hum of violence and disorder has played throughout -- whether spectacular (the University of Texas sniper attack, the Chicago student-nurses massacre, the Vietnam War) or quotidian (drunk driving, thieving lawnmower boys) -- but it affects the characters only indirectly. This use of history is rarely heavy-handed, but neither is it terribly dramatic. What we are left with is people, whom we have now known for some time and through time, living through daily humiliations, frustrations, anxieties and, less frequently, joys in the summer of 1966, in a world that feels sped up and troublingly new.
Also in the background are the limitations of Sterling Draper Cooper Pryce. Instead of liberation through entrepreneurialism, it merely plods along. New clients aren't exactly beating down the agency's doors and, by now, it appears that the shop isn't going to ride a rapid wave to the top of the advertising world. The realpolitik of the agency world means that Pete Campbell especially is having trouble getting his due, but the problems aren't limited to him. Roger Sterling by his own admission is now "professor emeritus of accounts," left to teach Pryce how to trick the client into surrendering RFP information. Pryce's go at bringing in a client is thwarted, however, after a prostitute forgets a piece of chewing gum in the Jaguar PR guy's "pubis" during a night out with Roger, Pete and Don.
This is how suffering is dramatized in white, postwar America -- psychologically, existentially, a thousand paper cuts to the ego and the cojones. Cosgrove's "The Man With the Miniature Orchestra," a bit of fiction within the fiction, is immediately recognizable as part of the American genre of suburban ennui -- see also, Richard Yates and the Johns Cheever and Updike. Sample line: "It might be living in the country that is making him cry." As Cosgrove narrates, we see Pete Campbell in his driver's ed class, the culmination of his rejection of city life for "the country," with a bruised face that draws into a wince while he watches the winsome object of his affection get fondled by a track star who's more her age. This sad scene gives way to an ironic rendition of "Ode to Joy" over the closing credits.
Cosgrove's tale could easily describe Campbell, this season a portrait of suburban angst as he suffers through a parade of indignities and goes figuratively impotent. Last night alone, we saw him unable to fix the sink in his Cos Cob home, unable to play his Beethoven at the volume he wants because of his sleeping baby, unable to hold his own in fisticuffs with Lane Pryce, and unable to get the girl he wants. The girl he does get has to be paid for and not just in dollars. After a visit to a brothel with the prospective Jaguar client, he endures a lesson in morality from none other than Don Draper ("the man," Campbell cracks, "who just pulled his pants up to the world.")
Don's judgmental eyebrow-arching isn't as laughable as Pete, or anyone, might expect, because the counsel is coming from an older and wiser man who seems to have understood past mistakes. Last week we watched Don more or less literally choke his libido to death. This week he attempts to make Pete appreciate what he does have. But reassurances about Trudy, the baby and the Connecticut home fall on alienated ears. He sneers sarcastically, "I have everything." But in his mind he doesn't.
This idea of having everything or having it all, of having taken a couple armloads out of the boundless cornucopia that is post-World War II America, with its rising middle class and corporation-betrothed security, comes up frequently throughout "Mad Men," always as a way of illustrating just how faulty and fraught with disillusion that way of thinking is . The show is firm that the gulf between possessions and happiness is yawning and seems to have a lot to do with a not-particularly-subtle notion of psychogeography.
So suburban angst has always been present in "Mad Men" -- but never more so than with Pete Campbell's portrayal this season. Moving to Connecticut and having a baby hasn't done him any favors. At the risk of reducing this to dichotomy, the characters who are doing the best are those who either haven't left the city or have returned. It's suggested that some of Don's newfound happiness comes from the change of scenery. In whinging about a dinner party with the Campbells and Cosgroves, he tells Megan, "Saturday night in the suburbs -- you'll really want to blow your brains out."
Cosgrove, despite a forgettable wife and an unswanky address in working-class Queens, appears happy. His sci-fi stories are doing well enough to warrant interest from Farrar Straus and he refuses to stop writing even after an order from Sterling. "When this job is good," Sterling announces, "it satisfies every need." Coming from the uber-arch Sterling, this is just about uninterpretable, but that doesn't matter. Instead of heeding the boss, Cosgrove chucks one nom de plume -- and genre -- for another and continues on as Don Algonquin, writer of literary fiction.
Cosgrove and Campbell, rough peers in age and skillset, are shaping up as two versions of the company man. Cosgrove is able to sublimate the frustrations that come from the limitations of his everyday life, translating the alienation and helplessness he sees around him into science-fiction that sounds pretty much allegorical. One particularly terrible-sounding story concerns a robot driven to mass murder by the lack of control he feels.
Campbell, in contrast, pervs out, attempting to seduce the innocent high-school senior who frets about missing church and the Texas campus sniper. He fails. And he lashes out, verbally pushing Pryce into a hilarious conference-room fistfight. He fails, again. That he is bested by the tweedy bean-counting Brit is just a pile-on in the not-so-slow disintegration of the account man, into, as Pryce put it, "a grimy little pimp."