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Countdown to 'Mad Men': Are Don Draper and company on the 'Eve of Destruction'?

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Image Credit: AMCHELP! They need somebody! HELP! Not just anybody! HELP! You know they need someone… to give them a big fat new account! HELP! Last week’s episode of Mad Men dropped The Beatles explicitly and hysterically (thank you, Sally, for making your mom smile) into the show’s matrix of cultural references—and brought Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to the proverbial Eve Of Destruction. Loathsome good ol’ boy Lee Garner, Jr. of Lucky Strike—which represents nearly 70% of the agency’s business—told Roger that the tobacco company was pulling its account. The reason: Consolidation. Lucky Strike’s parent company wanted to put all of its various brands under one agency’s roof—and that agency wasn’t SCDP. The episode left Roger with 30 days to save the firm or prep for its demise. (Maybe he could help his cause if he actually told his partners about the situation! Surely someone’s Rolodex has a living potential client waiting to be called.) Given Mad Men’s every-episode-takes-place-about-one-month-after-the-last-one structure this season, we could be getting closure on this cliffhanger in Sunday’s episode. Last week’s outing took place in August 1965–the same month that The Beatles released the album Help! and specifically in the days leading up to The Beatles’ performance in Shea Stadium on Sunday, Aug. 15. FUN FACT! Speaking of “Eve Of Destruction” and pop music, the iconic protest song “Eve Of Destruction,” written by P.F. Sloan and made a hit by Barry McGuire, was released as a single in August 1965, and McGuire’s LP Eve of Destruction was released on Aug. 12—the same day, by my estimation, that Don Draper imploded into hyperventilating hysteria (ironic contrast to his daughter’s screaming Beatlemania) after learning that the Department of Defense was rummaging through his past to see if he was worthy of missile defense secrets. “Eve of Destruction” is an angry, anxious survey of the ’60s scene, from Civil Rights upheaval to nuclear holocaust terror:

Don’t you understand what I’m tryin’ to say

Can’t you feel the fears I’m feelin’ today?

If the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away

There’ll be no one to save, with the world in a grave

Take a look around ya boy, it’s bound to scare ya boy!

And you tell me

Over and over and over again, my friend

Ah, you don’t believe

We’re on the eve of destruction.

Memo to the men of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce: It’s time to start believing. The proverbial finger of fate has been on the proverbial button of doom for quite some time, be it in the form of Don Draper’s identity theft/military desertion sins coming back to bite him in the ass or be it Lucky Strike finally snuffing out its account. Now, it appears that button has been pushed. Cue: Annihilation and mushroom clouds. Right?


Wrong, because I believe HELP! is on the way for Draper and company. And I boldly predict it will come in one of two ways:


THE PITCH: Lucky Strike will ultimately stay with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce after Don comes up with an idea for a killer ad campaign.

THE REASONING: Don’s creative mojo has been on the fritz all season, so it makes storytelling sense that we’d be building up to a dramatic, climactic moment in which Mr. Clio-winning Glo-Coat would have to prove his genius when the agency needs him the most. Despite Lee Jr.’s this-isn’t-a-negotiation kiss-off, the Lucky Strike exec stands to gain greatly if Don and company can produce something brilliant for him ASAP. Lee revealed that his father–Lucky Strike’s head honcho—was ailing and that the board of directors was taking greater control of the company. Don is smart enough to see the angle here. If he can give Lee Jr. a smart new marketing strategy—something that Lee Jr. could pass off as his own idea—then Lee Jr. could prove himself worthy of filling his daddy’s shoes. With his position within American Tobacco Company bolstered and his control over Lucky Strike reaffirmed, a grateful Lee Jr. will decide to keep the business at SCDP. (Now that I think this through, do you think it’s possible that Lee Jr. might be manipulating this very outcome? Maybe the whole “The Board wants to make a change” thing is b.s. and Lee Jr. is just trying to light a fire under the agency’s ass.)

IT’S ALL ABOUT DON: SCDP’s dangerous dependency on Lucky Strike—and its struggle to lessen it by diversifying—has been mirrored by Season 4’s other major story arc: Don Draper, The Addict—hooked on booze, hooked on women, hooked on the flawed, failing identity that is “Don Draper.” The first half of the season brought Don to a dark night of the soul (see: “The Suitcase”) that left him thisclose to making an “I have a problem” declaration. The three episodes since then have tracked his bid to clean up and get healthy, but have also seen him tempted to backslide into old habits (and succumb to them; after all, he is drinking the hard stuff again). Has Don truly hit rock bottom? In the midst of his panic attack last week, Don told Faye he was tired of lying, tired of denying, tired of maintaining the exhausting project of running away from his past and “being Don Draper.” But then the next day, he scrambled to escape self-destruction, successfully ordering Pete to resign the North American Aviation account, thus squelching the Department of Defense investigation into Don’s past. Don had once again saved his own “Don Draper” hide—and found himself gazing hungrily at another young and sexy secretary-sized snack as she looked into a mirror and applied lipstick. My hope is that we will find out that Don didn’t make a move on Meghan, that he remained faithful to Faye, and that what seemed like a wolfish stare was actually the look of a man having a true “moment of clarity,” in which he realized exactly how his f’d up internal machinery works. Yet while Don can treat his alcoholism and sex addiction, and while he can understand and manage his pathology, he can’t really “give up” being “Don Draper.” For better and worse, he is that man now. But he can become a better, healthier version of that man—Don Draper, filtered of his cancerous impurities. Emphasis on filtered. Which brings us back to Lucky Strike, because as it happens…

HISTORICAL PRECEDENT: A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the season’s recurring theme of “phantom punches”—how Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has been getting by on tricks and stunts and pure luck instead of talent and sound strategy. As it happens, in the mid-’60s, you can see this theme reflected in the real Lucky Strike’s actual advertising, which transitioned from a silly, gimmicky claim to something more boldly sincere. Check out this website, a catalogue of select Lucky Strike ads from 1936-1987. Prior to the current Mad Men year of 1965, the company’s ads showcased the “It’s toasted” tagline that we saw Don invent in the very first episode of Mad Men, as well as selling the claim that smoking Lucky Strikes “separates the men from the boys… but not from the girls.” (I’m amused by the thought of Don being the macho Mad Man concocting these eye-rolling come-ons for Lucky Strike.) But in 1965, as health concerns over tobacco intensified and more aggressive government regulation loomed, Lucky Strike began pushing a new line of filtered cigarettes, as did many other tobacco companies. Clearly, Lucky Strike, famed for its full tobacco flavor, was nervous about the impact on its brand. Would consumers accept a filtered version of Lucky Strike? The ads for the product reflect this insecurity by calling it out. But the premise is just kinda forced and silly. The slogan: “Show me a filter that really delivers taste and I’ll eat my hat!” The imagery: Men wearing hats missing bite-shaped chunks from the brim. In the block of text, the key word that’s emphasized, set apart by hyphens: “Unchanged.”

But by late 1966, Lucky Strike had dropped this “I’ll eat my hat!” chicanery, and in 1967, launched a new line of filtered cigarettes called Filters 1000s with an ad that featured a pack of Lucky Strikes turned upside down—turned on its head—and this line in big, bold type: “Lucky Strike introduces the Lucky Strike that doesn’t taste like a Lucky Strike.” It represents something of a stunning about-face for a company that until that point had been wary of change. The ad, in fact, seems to be all about embracing change—about decidedly breaking with the past and bolting toward the new. (Not a bad way to connect with young adults, given this was 1967, and the counter-culture movement was in full effect.)

THE BOTTOM LINE: So many of Don’s best ad campaigns have been drawn from life experience. The fourth season of Mad Men has been about acquiring life experience that’s good for him—and, by extension, good for his biggest client. And so, Don will keep Lucky Strike in the fold by pitching an ad campaign built around the themes of change, acceptance, and openness—principles that Don now realizes he needs to be pursuing his own life. But can he?



THE PITCH: The agency’s media chief will shore up the firm by bringing in a new client and whole new strategy: Developing and producing corporate-sponsored TV shows.

THE REASONING: Harry has made only sporadic appearances this season. When he does, he’s evangelizing the power of TV, or gossiping about Peyton Place spoilers, or announcing another trip to Hollywood to schmooze TV industry types. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce does indeed produce TV commercials, but print appears to be its bread and butter, and some of its clients, like North American Aviation, have been snootily dismissive about TV. Nobody at the agency is doing much to change people’s minds—except Harry. As my colleague Adam B. Vary points out, Harry is the only one in the agency who really gets that TV is The Next Big Thing, a force that will revolutionize everything, including advertising. I think Doc Vary makes an excellent observation here, and to it, I add my theory: Harry has been spending his time in Hollywood laying the groundwork for a new division that does more than just target sponsorship opportunities for clients–it also develops shows for them, a la soap operas or game shows.

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE META-COMMENTARY: Mad Men has always been a metaphor for television and the redemption of a commercial medium via the infusion of artistic ambition and personal vision. This season has been rather on the nose about various aspects of that metaphor, particularly in regard to the relationship between creative directors (showrunners) and their subordinates (writers). Having the agency branch into the entertainment business will allow Mad Men to explore the metaphor even more and make its final thematic statements as Mad Men enters what must be its creative endgame. (That was my way of saying that I predict Mad Men only has another season or two left in it. Don’t you agree?)

BOTTOM LINE: Harry’s destiny is to become the next Bill Todman, the biz genius behind the producing duo of Mark Goodson-Bill Todman Productions, which gave us such game shows as Family Feud, The Price Is Right, and To Tell The Truth. At the same time, he’s clearly a fan of the soaps, so he’s got a little Quinn Martin and Aaron Spelling in him, too. I suspect he’s been spending his time on the Left Coast establishing relationships with creative types who can help him achieve his ambition of developing TV series that could serve as media vehicles for agency clients. I bet he has a bunch of TV ideas in the hopper—most of them tailored for women, given TV’s demographic skew. I think he’s got a dating game show up his sleeve. (Think: The Dating Game, which launched in 1965.) And being something of a pop culture visionary, I’m thinking one of Harry’s big drama ideas is a daytime serial about—what else?—vampires. Something like, say, Dark Shadows, perhaps?

In fact, when Mad Men returns for its fifth season next year, look for the fist episode to take place during the summer of 1966, which was when ABC’s Dark Shadows made its debut (June 27, to be precise), when the National Organization for Women convened in Washington, D.C., and “Eleanor Rigby” was a groundbreaking smash for The Beatles, from their revolutionary album Revolver. So will begin a season more focused on Mad Men’s female characters, and especially on Peggy, as she will be fulfilling the function of the agency’s co-creative director following the stunning events of the Season 4 finale. PREDICTION! Don will promote Peggy and ask her to shoulder some of his responsibilities as he takes the time to focus on beating his addictions, spending more time with his kids (which will involve moving back to the suburbs), and launching his most ambitious campaign of all: Winning back Betty.

You groan?! You shout: NO! THAT WON’T–THAT CAN’T–HAPPEN! But next week, I’ll explain why Don-and-Betty reconciliation is the ultimate end game for Mad Men.Until then, make sure you return to EW.com on Monday for Karen Valby’s recap of Sunday’s episode. If you have any Mad Men theories of your own, Tweet them to me at @ewdocjensen or email me at docjensenew@gmail.com–I’ll try to post some choice ones here next week.