Good spirits

Drinking with Draper

Episode 5: Johnny Walker Red and the cycle of life.

September 14, 2009

Man of many riches: Draper is reminded of what he has.

In true meta fashion, Mad Men has never been a show that shies away from advertising tie-ins. (Those vintage fun facts that air between commercial are a little cringey, if you ask me.) Last night, Johnny Walker Red got the spotlight in the hospital waiting room scenes where Don awaits news about Betty, who is left to deliver the couple’s third child/experience creepy drug-induced deliria involving her dead parents.

The Johnny Walker belongs to a prison guard named Dennis who is also waiting for his wife to give birth. The men bond, of course, drinking whiskey and enlisting a candy-stripper to help them procure a pack of cigarettes from a malfunctioning machine. Cigarette machines in hospitals: gotta love the olden days.

So once again, as with the country club scene two episodes back, we have whiskey taking on the weighty symbolism of social class. Johnny Walker Red isn’t a cheap spirit, but it would only be considered the stuff of special occasion by the working class. The prison guard—who clearly has very little—shares his special-occasion whiskey with Don, who, we are reminded throughout the episode, has so very much.

When Don returns to the office, his secretary gestures to a pile of gifts for the baby, saying she doesn’t know what to do with it all. Next Peggy comes in, appealing to Don for a raise. When he refuses, she eyes the gifts piled on his coffee table, saying she wishes she had what he has, what he seems to have so much of. Time and again we have people reminding Don of how considerable his riches are.

Right before he leaves the waiting room, the prison guard—asking Don to be his witness—swears to be a better man now that he has a child. It’s plain that Don doesn’t believe him. There’s a languid, depressing quality about this episode (titled “The Fog”), a doomsy sense that nothing ever really changes, it just goes around in circles. When Betty awakes from the fog of drugs, she tells Don they should name the baby Gene, after her father. Don hesitates, suggests they decide at another time. But later it is Betty who signs the baby’s birth certificate—she is alone, as usual—at the hospital. The baby will be named Gene. History, sigh, repeating itself.

Could someone please pass that whiskey?

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