Friday, February 19, 2016

"MAD MEN": Wasted Partnership




"MAD MEN": WASTED PARTNERSHIP

Looking back on Season Two of AMC's "MAD MEN", it occurred to me that the rivalry between the series protagonist, Don Draper aka Dick Whitman (Jon Hamm) and a supporting character named Herman "Duck" Phillips (Mark Moses), seemed like a complete waste of time . . . story wise. Do not worry. I am not criticizing the writing of Matt Weiner and his staff. At least on this subject. Instead, I am criticizing the behavior of two male characters, who I believe had the potential to be a winning advertising team. 

Following senior partner Roger Sterling’s (John Slattery) second heart attack in the Season One episode (1.11) “Indian Summer”, one of the Sterling-Cooper’s clients had advised Bert Cooper (Robert Morse), the firm’s other senior partner, to make Creative Director Don Draper a junior partner. Which Cooper did at the end of the episode. He also told Don that as one of the partners, he should be the one to find someone to replace Roger as the Director of Account Services. In the following episode, (1.12) “Nixon vs. Kennedy”, Don hired Herman "Duck" Phillips.

In the Season One finale, (1.13) “The Wheel”, Duck seemed appreciative of how Don’s creative skills landed Kodak as a client for the firm. Yet, the early Season Two episodes clearly made it obvious that storm clouds were hovering on the horizon for the pair. In the Season Two premiere (2.01) “For Those Who Think Young”, Duck informed Roger that he believed younger copywriters with a bead on the youth of the early 1960s, should handle their new Martinson Coffee account, instead of veteran copywriter Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray). Don dismissed the idea, claiming that a bunch of twenty year-olds lacked the experience and knowledge on how to sell products. But Roger forced Don to go along with Duck’s plans and hire the latter’s protégées - Smith "Smitty" (Patrick Cavanaugh) and Kurt (Edin Gali). Pete Campbell's (Vincent Kartheiser) father perished in the famous American Airlines Flight 1 crash on March 1, 1962 in the second episode of the season, (2.01) "Flight 1". And when Duck convinced Roger that Sterling Cooper should dump the regional Mohawk Airlines as a client and use Pete’s personal plight to win the bigger American Airlines (who sought to change advertising agencies following the disaster) as a new client. Naturally, Roger and Cooper dismissed Don’s protests and went ahead with Duck’s idea.

In the end, both men lost and won their arguments. Instead of gaining American Airlines as a new client, Sterling Cooper ended up with no client altogether. In (2.04) "Three Sundays", Duck informed the Sterling Cooper staff that their efforts to present American Airlines with a new campaign had been for nothing, when the airline fired Duck’s contact. Many fans saw this as an example that not only had Don been right about not dropping Mohawk, they also seemed to view Duck as someone who was no longer competent at his job. However, three episodes later in (2.07) "The Gold Violin", Duck proved to be right about hiring the much younger Smith and Kurt as copywriters for the Martinson Coffee account. Their efforts led to a new client for the Sterling Cooper agency.

But despite the success and failures of both men, Don and Duck continued to duke it out over the heart and soul of Sterling Cooper. Only once, in (2.08) "A Night to Remember", did both men seemed capable of working seamlessly as a partnership, when their efforts led to Sterling Cooper landing the Heineken Beer account. But this ability to work as a pair failed to last very long. One, both men seemed adamant that their particular expertise in the advertising business – whether it was Creative or Accounts - only mattered. Two, Don received most of the praise from Cooper and Roger for the success of the Martinson Coffee account in "The Gold Violin". Granted, Don tried to give some of the praise to Duck (who mainly deserved it), but he really did not try hard enough. And finally, Duck became so resentful of his failure to acquire a partnership in the firm that he maneuvered a takeover of Sterling Cooper by the old British advertising firm that he used to work for. The main conflicts between Don and Duck seemed to be twofold – Don’s preference to take the nostalgia route over the future in his advertising campaigns (unless forced to) over Duck’s willingness to look into the future of advertising (television ad spots and younger employees, for example); and each man’s belief that their respective expertise in the advertising field is the only one that matters.

Most viewers seemed to view Don as the hero of the conflict between the two men and label Duck as the villain. This preference for Don even extended to his belief that Creative was the backbone of the advertising industry. Personally . . . I disagree. Not only do I disagree with Don and many of the viewers, I would probably disagree with Duck’s view that advertising needed to solely rely upon images – especially television spots. Frankly, I am surprised that no one had ever considered that both Don and Duck’s views on the future of advertising are equally important. Don and other copywriters might create the message or jingo to attract the public. But it is Duck's (and Pete's) job to not only snag the client, but provide the client with the opportunity to sell his/her wares. Even if that means using television spots – definitely the wave of the future in the early 1960s.

But many fans seemed to be blinded by their own preference for Don over Duck. And both characters seemed to believe that their ideas of what the advertising business should be were the only ways. The problem with both Don and Duck was that business wise, they needed each other. Look at how well they had worked together in mid-Season Two over the Martinson Coffee and Heineken accounts. Duck needed Don's creative talent. Don needed Duck's business acumen and ability to foresee the future in advertising. Unfortunately, both remained stupidly resentful of each other. 

In the end, Don's career managed to survive, despite the failures of two marriage and the near failure of his career, due to personal problems, heavy drinking and shirking. Duck, a former alcoholic who resumed his old habit in later years, was simply plagued with bad luck. Sterling Cooper's British owners fired him after he had indulged in a brief temper tantrum. He worked at an advertising firm called Grey for a few years, before being reduced to a corporate recruiter. Copywriter Peggy Olson and Accounts executive Pete Campbell learned to maintain a balance between Creatives and Accounts whenever they worked on an account together. Yet, every now and then, I find myself wondering what would have happened if Don and Duck had managed to achieve the same.

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