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“Mad Men” Recap: 411, “Chinese Wall”

George Lang Published: October 11, 2010

By early September 1965, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is being forced into a wartime mindset, and while Don Draper is a supreme commander when he’s not hitting the Jamesons too hard, he makes two crucial mistakes late in this episode and it’s hard to imagine any of this working out on the bright side. Sure, SCDP will be fine — well, most of it anyway — and everything will work out on the business end of things, but Don makes a bad play, and then a worse one. And given the magnitude of this screwup, Draper could possibly be facing his most brutal confrontation with his true past before the season ends.

It’s a Beatnik Beach Party with Joyce and Abe! Peggy and Joyce pile into the car after crazy times at Jones Beach, where Peggy has to shake the sand out of her hair and Joyce wonders aloud whether that is actually sand. It is Jones Beach after all — it could be medical waste, it could be Malt-O-Meal, it could be any number of things. So then Abe piles into the back seat with Peggy, and apparently all that “Nurenburg on Madison Avenue” claptrap is all in the past. Peggy and Abe are cozy and mega-sexual: they go back to Peggy’s place, and Abe is all over our Peggy, telling her that her shoulders make her look like an Olympian. That’s a nice compliment — much better than, “Your job makes you look like a fascist!” We’re not privy to the whys or hows of this new state of affairs: on “Mad Men,” we’re simply asked to accept that things happen because, well, they do.

Ken is at dinner with his fiance, her mother and Laura Palmer’s dad (Ray Wise) when he runs into an old colleague from BBDO, who offers condolences about the loss of Lucky Strike. Ken, of course, goes into total apoplexy and rushes off to track down Petey, who is at the hospital while Trudy gives birth to Campbellspawn. Pete similarly craps his pants and when he is unable to get Roger on the phone, he calls Don. Don tells Pete to wake Bert Cooper and go directly to the office.

So everyone is gathered at Roger Sterling’s Korova Milk Bar: Bert’s in his jammies and everyone is somewhere on the scale between morose and screaming. Sterling is trying to act surprised that all this is happening and then is prodded to — oh, I don’t know — call Lee Garner Jr. and ask why the hell he’s doing this.  So Roger gets on the phone and slyly puts his finger on the receiver to fake the call. He blows out a lot of faux outrage — “Thirty years, I have to hear it on the street?” What a guy. He then offers to fly down to Raleigh to try to change Garner’s mind. It strikes me that Sterling might have considered flying down to Raleigh about 30 seconds after their disastrous dinner wrapped up, but one of the underlying messages this season is that Roger is somewhere below Danny Siegel in the roster of essential SCDP personnel.

Don returns to his apartment and tells Faye about the bloodbath. Faye tries to be comforting, saying “Look at that face,” like she’s kissing a puppy. “”You’re the most hirable man on Madison Avenue.” Don doesn’t think it’s come to that, but one has to wonder just how quickly Draper would be snapped up. It’s not like his equals at BBDO or, more to the point, Ted Chaough would get out of the way for Draper, and I wonder if their bosses would ax them in order to bring in Don if SCDP hits the skids. I don’t think we’re going to find out what would happen — the destruction of SCDP is unlikely at this point.

Pete goes back to the hospital waiting room and tells his father-in-law about Lucky Strike, and Trudy’s dad treats this whole SCDP thing like Petey’s been hitchhiking through Europe or playing bass on tour with the Four Seasons for the past year and a half and now it’s time to get serious about his career. He also throws Ted Chaough’s name around, which is a lot like throwing poop around. Meanwhile, Peggy and Abe are getting pants-happy in Peggy’s apartment, which means Peggy will have a nice post-coital smile when she arrives at SCDP and discovers that 68 to 72 percent of the agency’s business is out the door.

Now, about that: Roger calls Bert to let him know that Garner said he can’t go for that, no can do, but he’s calling from a nice suite in Manhattan, not North Carolina. God, Roger’s been such a mongoose this episode, you’d think Rudyard Kipling wrote a story about him. Again, this is one of those plot points that would be impossible in 2010 — the hotel’s main number would show up on SCDP’s caller id. Of course, Roger could probably use his iPhone and maintain the charade.

Immediately afterward, Bert calls a full staff meeting to announce that Lucky Strike is up in smoke, then turns it over to Don Draper Superstar, who rallies the troops by telling them “”We’re going to push ourselves and it will be exhilarating.” By the looks of it, the boiler-room atmosphere that awaits our heroes looks about as exhilarating as full immersion in fish guts, but maybe I’m not the type-A personality who gets jazzed about 80-hour work weeks. The whip will be cracked. When the head of accounting gives a very tired spiel about financial policy and asks for questions, Danny’s hand shoots up, but nobody sees him because he’s about the size of a fully-grown Manhattan bedbug.

Don then ushers the creative team to his office, where Danny assumes he’s going to be the first to get a swift kick out of the Time-Life Building, but Don assures the homunculus that if he’s in the room, he’s still alive. He tells them that the SCDP brass will be in charge of shaking the trees for new business while creative does everything to retain the current clients. Peggy, who showed up late and a little flushed, is told that she will take the lead on getting Playtex on board, because having Don do it might make the situation look desperate.

Still at his Manhattan hotel room and now looking for company, Roger calls Joan to apologize for all the subterfuge and to let her know that he’s got a bed under him that could use some testing. She is equal parts disgust and sympathy, telling him that if he had said something sooner, they might have been able to do something about Lucky Strike. Sterling just wants her to get down to his room and “comfort him,” but Joan isn’t buying, mainly because flopsweat isn’t sexy.

Back where people are actually trying to keep the company afloat instead of hiding from their problems, Peggy starts talking about Playtex Living Gloves in a way that could make anyone want to do a sink full of dishes, describing them as the things that will save a woman’s hands for the things she really like to touch, which is making Stan and Danny get a tad squirmy. Then Abe shows up pretending to be a delivery boy, which brings to mind at least a few dirty blues songs, and Stan and Danny go off to snicker: “”Am I wrong, or is she giving it off?” Squiggy asks Lenny.

Ken and Pete (who spends much of his time in various states of semi-consciousness when padding around SCDP in this episode) make calls to current clients to assure them of SCDP’s solidity and then gather to discuss the state of things, but in the middle of this confab, Don is pulled away by Megan the Sex Robot for a call from Glo-Coat, who basically tell Don, “Thanks for the fine work on Glo-Coat, but would you please hold this anvil while we throw you in the Hudson?” Completely infuriated, Don breaks his Clio and storms back to the meeting to castigate Petey for spending so much time on the birth of his child that he let Glo-Coat skip out. Campbell leaves to return to not worrying about Glo-Coat, and he is greeted by Ted Chaough, who gives him a baby gift and starts talking up a big-time position with CGC, where he undoubtedly will oversee some great accounts like, say, Union Carbide, lawn darts and Super Elastic Bubble Plastic.

Roger goes to Joan’s apartment and, smooth operator that he is, immediately insults her choice of pajamas — jammies are big in this episode. Somehow, he manages to kiss her without getting a frying pan to the back of his silver skull, but Joan pushes him away, telling him “I can’t do this anymore.” I suppose I could understand this relationship at one point, but Roger has never been more pathetic — he was dealing from a stronger position when he was vomiting oysters a few seasons back.

In his office with Faye, Don tells her the clients are “dropping like flies,” and then insists that Ms. Miller should tear down this Chinese wall and start funneling her clients to SCDP. And this infuriates Faye, who tells Don that the only thing that keeps her alive in the business is her integrity, but Don acts like she just said all of that in Mandarin. He tells her, “I’d do it for you,” but Faye tells him she would never ask in the first place. It’s worth noting that Don and Roger aren’t really that far apart here in terms of spiral, it’s just that Sterling doesn’t keep his cool as well, and while Don has mostly earned everything that is now being taken from him, Roger inherited Lucky Strike and is now acting like a bratty child who just found out that the silver spoon is silverplate.

We haven’t had any frat-boy hijinks from Stan in at least an episode, so now it’s time for him to get inappropriately randy with Peggy: as she gets ready to pitch Playtex, Stan pretends that he’s some kind of enlightened spiritual leader who can peer into her soul and teaches her deep-breathing exercises. And of course, he puts his fat tongue in her mouth and she has to push him off of her. Peggy could be reading a P&L statement and Stan would think she was hot for him.

Roger finally announces that his fake entreaties to Garner and Lucky Strike have resulted in just as little success. Don goes off on Roger for letting his only account go by the wayside, but this friendly family gathering is interrupted by Megan the Sex Robot, who lets them know that Trudy just gave birth to a baby girl. Pete seems as pleased as Pete seems capable of seeming pleased, and then the gang excuses themselves to attend the funeral of a fellow adman in hopes of siphoning some business — SCDP is reduced to scooping roadkill in hopes of turning it into a feast. (By the way, if you think MSR has been unusually visible this episode, you’re probably sensing a big move. Well, keep your pants on, so to speak.) But when Roger complains to Bert about Don being out of line, Bert gives him the high hat: “Lee Garner Jr. never took you seriously because you never took yourself seriously,” Bert tells him.

As Peggy prepares for her Playtex pitch, Stan decides to let her go into the pitch with lipstick on her teeth, since the only appropriate move after being spurned for trying to force your beefy self on a co-worker is to let them potentially scuttle increasingly precious business. Everything goes fine, although the Playtex guy spends most of the meeting trying to tell Peggy about the unfortunate confluence of cosmetics and dentistry in her mouth and it comes off like just another schmo trying to make time with her. Ultimately, Playtex is impressed, but after the meeting, Harry the Deflating Device informs her of the smear.

The funeral is clearly a cautionary tale. While Freddy Rumson points out potential business that might be stolen while the deceased is eulogized as a great creative man who was “given to” his company by his family, who sit through all these niceties as if each fine sentiment were a hot knife. He was just another guy who sacrificed his family for office success and died in his early 50s of Lucky Strikes and Jamesons.

When Megan stays late to help Don, she really stays late to help Don — out of his pants. But seriously, folks: Megan is one worshipful receptionist of French extraction with an eye toward winning the Draper Matrimonial Sweepstakes. “You’re in my head all day and you don’t know anything about me.” Well, in a few moments he will know her in the Biblical sense, but MSR promises Don that she will not wail and rend her garments like Allison did. Plus, she’ll prop up “Mr. Draper” (she says, salaciously) whenever he needs it and probably not pitch much of a fuss when Faye Miller shows up. Megan is a remarkable convenience.

Roger goes home to find Jane (making what I think is her first appearance this season, since Peyton List was so busy wasting her time earlier this year with “FlashForward”) wearing the kind of gaudy housewife clothing one would expect Lucille Ball to wear on “The Lucy Show.” She presents him with a box full of copies of his terrible memoir and she tell him, “I’m so proud of you” and nuzzles him. Hollow praise and hollow affection for a hollow autobiography by a hollow man.

Don goes home to the man cave and discovers Faye, who has apparently had a change of heart about giving up information about her clients, and presents Heinz on a silver platter. While she also seems ready for a roll on the Sealy, Don is exhausted (well, of course he is), and just asks her to cuddle. Aww.

Now, clearly Don has set himself up for something terrible, especially if Faye ever gets wind of him making time with the MSR, but as we’ve noted before, Matthew Weiner learned the game of red herrings from the best practitioner in television history, David Chase. (Still wondering what happened to the Russian in “Pine Barrens,” are you? The world will never know.) There might never be a real payoff, but it just lies there in the background, creating tension. Then again, 68 to 72 percent of SCDP business has fallen away. Tension is not exactly a rare commodity.

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