I’ve wanted to get away from the political articles that have dominated this site for a while now – our brain-dead politics have finally become unbearable. Also, I’ve been wanting to get back to writing about media and culture, the original motivations for my blog. So, when last Sunday’s terrific episode of Mad Men triggered some interesting thoughts, I decided to take the opportunity and make the shift. In particular, as I was showering Monday morning, I found myself still thinking about the episode, and an interesting thought came to me.
Pete Campbell is Iago.
[SPOILER ALERT. This article does mention specific events from last Sunday’s episode, so if you are waiting to watch the May 27 episode on your Tevo, be warned].
Pete has long been a source of conflict in the series, but in season 5 his motivations have shifted from personal ambition to something much darker. Like Iago, the villain of Shakespeare’s “Othello, the Moor of Venice,” Pete’s actions seem to come less from a ruthless striving for personal goals, than from a deep, almost cosmic hatred of himself and the people who have believed in him. In spite of being successful (he became a partner at a very young age), he resents his beautiful wife, his family, his home, his colleagues, and the people who taught him his trade – all the elements of his success. His relationship to Don Draper has long been a mixture of envy and respect, with Pete both seeking Don’s approval and bitterly resenting Don’s leadership. Over time, this conflict has poisoned Pete’s character, and the poison is spreading to everyone he touches. Like Iago, Pete has an almost supernatural ability to sense what will corrupt any individual, and does not hesitate to use it.
In the course of the show, Pete/Iago has not only tried to destroy Don by threatening to reveal the secret of his past, but also has managed to manipulate his way into Harry Crane’s more desirable office, neutralized Roger Sterling’s authority as head of accounts, attacked Lane Pryce at every opportunity, and now has manipulated Joan Harris into a decision that will haunt her for the rest of her life.
The other striking parallel to Shakespeare’s tragedy is in Don himself. Like Othello, Don Draper is the indispensable leader, the person to whom all others look for guidance. Like Othello, Don is an outsider. It is not his color or culture that keeps him apart, but the secret underlying his identity. Like Othello, Don’s love for his young wife often distorts his judgment. But, perhaps the most striking parallel to Othello came in a nightmare, where Don dreamed of brutally strangling an ex-lover who had threatened his marriage to Megan. The image of the normally composed, in-control Don Draper, sweating and snorting like a wild animal as he strangled this woman in his bed is unforgettable, and echoes Desdemona’s death scene with eerie intensity. Like Othello and other Shakespearean heroes, Don’s flaws – his philandering, his temper, and his inability to compromise – are deeply tied to his strengths. Don is a vital, creative force who is also capable of violent, destructive acts.
There are other parallels in the plot line. One of Iago’s tactics was to isolate Othello from others in his circle of trust. When Peggy Olsen, a long time focus of Pete’s manipulations, left the firm, Don lost his most loyal associate. As Megan becomes successful as an actress, she faces the possibility of long separations from Don. Will Don’s deepening isolation from the people who provide his moral foundation leave him, like Othello, even more vulnerable to Pete’s schemes?
Mad Men has always had outstanding writing (as well as acting, production, and everything else), so I don’t think all this is accidental, or simply the fabrications of my aging lit major mentality. The parallels to Othello come out of the enduring archetypes Shakespeare created, archetypes that have shaped our thinking about character, loyalty, and the uncontrollable forces that shape our lives. We do not borrow from Shakespeare to describe human nature; in a very real sense, Shakespeare and other great writers have defined the architecture of our emotional lives. The Mad Men writers have used these indelible patterns of human experience to deepen the resonance of their plot and characters. In striking these chords, they have brought an atmosphere of tangible evil and impending tragedy into the immaculate, rational architecture of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, & Pryce.
So what does this say for the last two episodes of the season?
It is tempting to look for further parallels with Othello and try to predict the course of the show, but the Mad Men writers are too good simply to track Shakespeare’s plot. In particular, there is no clear parallel to Desdemona, the third key persona in Othello’s tragedy.
Megan is Don’s wife and a source of his deepest vulnerabilities. On the other hand, she is smarter and more assertive than Desdemona. It is possible that Pete could try to exploit the stress her acting career has brought to her marriage to arouse jealousy in Don, but Megan has not, to this point, been the focus of his manipulations.
Joan Harris has sadly become Pete’s focus, and she is the most obvious point of conflict between Don and Pete. Although they have never been lovers, it is clear that Don and Joan have deep feelings for each other. In a classic Shakespearean use of misunderstanding to bring about a tragic choice, Joan prostituted herself to secure a lecherous client partly because she believed that Don had joined the rest of the partners in approving this exploitation of her beauty. The look on her face when she learned, too late, that Don had opposed the idea was heartbreaking. Does this suggest Joan’s decision was a tragic choice, a turning point that could lead to her destruction? Will her choice lead to the inevitable confrontation between Don and Pete?
Lane Pryce is another element of the looming tragedy. The animosity between Lane and Pete runs deep, having once led to a fist fight in a partners meeting, and Lane has left himself vulnerable through his own unethical, foolish choices. Also, we cannot forget Roger Sterling who finds himself reassessing his own life even has Pete has pushed him to the fringes of his own company. In Elizabethan thought, both order and chaos flow downward, from the nobility through the entire society. The fall of the noble individual spreads chaos, war, and even natural disaster through the world. More than any other characters, Don and Joan have sustained the agency through their intelligence and strength of character. Are they the nobility whose fall will spread tragedy through their community? Or will they find a way to survive Pete’s plots and continue to lead the agency?
Wherever happens, I am sure of one thing. The writers, actors, producers, and other creative minds behind Mad Men will surprise us. That is, after all, what our finest artists have always done.