Thursday, September 9, 2010

Duck Duck Noose

Mad Men is to smart folk what Twilight is to teens: a chance for fans to trade thoughts about fictional love and horror (MM has the clear edge on the latter). In the last year there's been an explosion of online analysis of every Mad Men moment, pushing it into Star Trek territory. Imagine what a Mad Men convention would look like. Probably more Petes than Dons. And having to smoke outside would doubtless dent the vibe.

While I love Mad Men, I wouldn't want to write about it every week. Friend Jim Wolcott has that covered, his reviews the best of the lot. But the recent episode stirred up some thoughts I've had about Duck Phillips, the journeyman ad exec wonderfully played by Mark Moses.

Duck is a very angry man. When he first appeared at Sterling Cooper, Duck was eager to please and prove his worth, but even at his most jovial, that dark anger was evident. Duck never seemed relaxed. Sitting and smiling was demolition control. Duck's fuse was always lit. He tried to extend it, but it proved little more than a delay tactic.

It's hard to tell which is chicken and egg: Duck's anger or his alcoholism. When we first met Duck, he was on the wagon. And like many recovering alcoholics, Duck took a dim view of Sterling Cooper's open, excessive drinking (primarily Freddy Rumsen's, who lost his job after pissing his pants and passing out before a client meeting). But soon, the ad walls close in. Roger Sterling informs Duck that he's not pulling his weight. Desperate, Duck goes for broke and tells his former colleagues at London's Putnam Powell and Lowe that Sterling Cooper can be bought. PPL's acquisition not only saves Duck's job, he's made president of the new company.

And that's when the drinking resumes.

Clearly, Duck shouldn't drink. Booze fuels his anger, destroying whatever self-control he possessed. Even in casual conversation, a drunk Duck seethes with pain and resentment. His divorce feeds part of this; his failures in advertising, too. But it's Duck's second-class status to Don Draper that truly twists his pickled brain. On the surface, Don is everything Duck is not, driving Duck further into the bottle. When the acquisition is agreed upon, a meeting is held to formalize the new arrangement. Finally, Duck gets to stand above Don.

Once again, booze destroyed Duck, his brief moment in the sun burnt to cinder (as the world nearly was at that moment, with JFK threatening nuclear war over the missiles of October, to which Don refers before walking out). Now, you'd think that a colossal fuck up like this would tie Duck to the wagon for good. Not on Mad Men. Duck's descent was just beginning.

This season reveals what Duck has become -- a mean, bitter public drunk who can't hold a job in advertising. Last week's episode further twisted the knife in Duck's belly, showing him scarcely able to function, one sip away from oblivion. When he drunkenly wanders through the new Sterling Cooper offices, prevented by Peggy Olson from taking a dump on Roger Sterling's chair, Duck confronts a shit-faced Don, fresh from puking his guts out in the men's room. A pathetic sight all around. As the two grapple, we learn that Duck has some martial arts training, most likely Jiu-Jitsu. He pins Don to the floor, right hand raised for a palm strike.

"You know," says Duck, sounding like Clint Eastwood, "I killed 17 men at Okinawa."

Don surrenders, sparing himself a broken nose and teeth. More importantly, we finally get to the root of Duck's pain, assuming he's telling the truth.

Duck has taken lives. More than most serial killers. He's haunted by ghosts and violent memories. He probably suffers from PTSD, back when it was called "war stories." Whether Duck takes pride in this or is confessing guilt is unclear. But it helps explain the anger and heavy drinking. For all of Don's private hells, he can't compete with Duck's bloody past. It's the one area where Duck surpasses Don, though both share a cocktail cup of loneliness. Sad men.