The haze of liquor and cigarette smoke that hangs langorously over Mad Men doesn’t obscure the piercing truths about our business that still have the capacity to hurt.
Last week’s episode, when the Lucky Strike client Lee Garner, a good ol’ boy and closeted homosexual (he had Sal fired in Season 3 when his advances were rebuffed) forced Roger to put on the Santa suit at the office Christmas party, it tore at my heart.
In a beauifully nuanced escalation, the client went from jovial “suggestion” to more insistent request to a chilling command. And it was made all the worse by playing out in front of the entire staff.
And by the fact that it was Roger.
Choosing Pete would have meant nothing. Steeped in self-loathing, Pete would have seen donning the Santa suit as an escape from himself, not to mention a career-enhancer.
Don? Wasn’t gonna happen. And Lee knew it.
Burt Cooper? He already plays the jovial fool.
No…to exert maximum authority and to inflict maximum pain, the client chose Roger…elegant, patrician, unflappable Roger. Roger, whose ties to American Tobacco go back a generation on either side. Roger, whose inherited relationship occasionally lulls him into believing he is something other than a vendor.
Put on the suit, Roger. Put it on so I can remind you of exactly where you stand in the order of things. Put it on for your wife, your partners and all the employees with their stricken expressions to see.
As I sat there and watched in sick fascination, my wife turned to me and asked if anything like that ever happened to me and my partners.
A highlight reel of slights and humiliations, verbal cuffings and inappropriate demands unspooled through my head.
Not that overtly, I said. But do some clients look for and exploit opportunities to make us choose between our dignity and our paycheck? Yes.
We may just have to put on the beard, or carry the sack, or bellow “Ho, ho, ho,” but it’s putting on the Santa suit, it’s still uncomfortable, and the alternative, the unspoken “or else” is still terrifying in its unknowability.