Two episodes into the second season of Mad Men and Peggy is visiting her mom and sister in Brooklyn. After an awkward meal full of undertones, nagging, guilt and jabs (you know mother-daughter-sister stuff), Peggy asks her mom (Katherine played by Myra Turley) if she has anything to drop off or pick up at the library.
“I have to renew the Agony and the Ecstasy. It’s taking forever,” says her mom.
And there it is, another book for the list.
The book isn’t really a major part of the plot or characters of S2E02 (Flight 1), as some of the previous books were. The episode is about an American Airlines flight crashing and killing Pete Campbell’s father. It’s also an episode about race and temptation and all the things we romanticize about the 60s. There is a great anti-hero Joan moment where she’s both disgusting early full of patronizing racism and then tragic later when bullied. Ah people, so complex. Ain’t Mad Men a good show?
Back to Michelangelo.
Brief summary of Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy: A fictional biography of the artist Michelangelo Buonarotti. It is also a vivid recreation of renaissance Italy, evoking the turbulence of a time when the Medici family and the Church were all powerful.
It’s a good book Peggy’s mom. Stick with it. You’ll get through it. I did.
The book is kind of left there in the episode on an island and it’s a struggle to find a reason Matthew Weiner added it to the script. Why this book? Wait for it, it’s coming.
In the next episode, S2E03 (The Benefactor), Don is watching a French film with sculptures and poetry, and it’s a clear hint that Don sees his work as art much like Michelangelo did. If you read the book before this episode, it’s hard not to see this.
SIDE NOTE: The film he’s watching apparently is Daughters of Destiny. There’s a big discussion on Reddit I may have got sucked into. It was a big mystery.
Later in “The Benefactor,” Don says to Bobbie Barrett: “Like the Medicis of Florence, they’re patrons to his art.”
Oh double doorbell ding-dong!
Here we have two references to sculpture, art and patronage, and we can’t (well, I can’t) let this pass without a bit digging like the lit nerd I am that runs a Shakespeare club and started this crazy project in the first place.
This is fun. (Oh dear, I’m a nerd).
I’m not saying Matthew Weiner is making a clever dig at modern patrons (Utz Potato Chips) and modern art (crass comedian Jimmy Barrett) in comparison to Michelangelo and the Medicis, but there it is. Right in the show.
“Mr and Mrs. Utz,” comments Bobbie with a snicker when Don talks about them as a patron.
Silly though it is to Bobbie, this is the world to the Mad Men hucksters. Their patrons are everything. They are the ones that cause the crass firing of Salvatore Romano, the emasculation of Roger Sterling, the prostitution of Joan, and the humiliation of Don Draper in the end.
The Medicis rule Michelangelo and almost every other artist in Renaissance Italy, and the Utz Potato Chips people of the 1950s and 60s rule those on Madison Avenue.
Then there’s the process. There is the agony that a constant thread through Mad Men.
Irving Stone’s novel about Michelangelo’s trials and tribulations with creating art, meeting the demands of his patrons, and balancing his life is kind of perfect when you think about Mad Men.
Most of the show is someone hovering over a typewriter or stack of papers trying to figure out how to get wording just right or the images to work. Peggy typing, Salvatore over broadsheet with his pencil (you know… before that thing happens), Don staring at things, and everyone sweating in agony to come up with, “Burgers taste good!”
Okay, that was my ad line. I’m not in advertising…. yet? That’s a pretty good slogan right?
When they hit it, the ecstasy is very real. We spoke about the carousel ad last season and the palpable effect on the characters in the room, viewers at home, and maybe even Ayn Rand’s ghost.
They are straight up euphoric when it’s right.
When the patrons don’t respond to the genius, to the agony, characters, especially Don, rip them. He gets downright nasty and fires clients sometimes. He is disgusted at their inability to understand.
It is the reaction of the artist who knows he or she has created something perfect and real only to have some smug rich dick say, “I don’t get it,” or “I would like it better in blue.”
Now, I’m going to spoil the final scene of the show here, so, you know, spoiler alert. Ugh.
The final scene is Don sitting cross-legged in a yoga pose with the look of ecstasy on his face. Then, like a lightning bolt, “I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke” comes on the screen and the show is over.
I’m not going to break that down in completion here, but I will return to it again and again, and by the end, may have an answer.
For now, here is the answer to that scene.
The complete agony of Don Draper: the seven seasons of hell and heaven and everything in between, the women, the ads, the co-workers, the friendships, the families, the campaigns, the lessons, successes and failures all lead us here.
They lead us to the Sistine Chapel.
They lead us to Michelangelo.
They lead us to Don’s greatest creation: The Coke ad.
It is his masterpiece.
The agony of work that leads to the ecstasy of a masterpiece completed.