Ken Cosgrove and Mad Men have always gone together. In the very first episode of the series, Ken (played by Aaron Staton) makes his mark, exemplifying the sexism and sexual harassment rampant at the 1960 version of Sterling Cooper. After crudely hitting on Peggy Olsen (not for the last time), Ken confidently justifies his behavior to the guys:
“You need to let them know what kind of guy you are, so they know what kind of girl to be.”
The Sterling Cooper Years
Despite his flagrant chauvinism, Ken appeals to viewers of the early seasons of Mad Men because he has a sensitive, artistic streak. He publishes short stories and, in Season 2, when he joins Jane Siegel, Harry Crane, and Sal Romano in sneaking a peek at Bert Cooper’s new painting by Mark Rothko, Ken is the one who sees it with modern eyes. “Maybe,” he suggests,
It doesn’t mean anything. Maybe you’re just supposed to experience it. Because when you look at it, you feel something. It’s like looking into something very deep. You could fall in.
As Michael Bérubé summarizes the portrait of Ken that emerges from some of the essays in Mad Men, Mad World, the best scholarly book on the show:
The savy Rothko-appreciating, confident-yet-modest writer is also the firm’s most emphatic homophobe, frustrating every enlightened, right-minded contemporary viewer’s desire that an appreciation of modern art go hand in hand with an appreciation of modern sexuality. . . .
Bérubé is referring to two incidents other contributors to the volume analyze: Ken’s response to the gay European copywriter Kurt, and his inadvertent breaking of poor Sal’s heart. In Season 2, when Kurt reveals his homosexuality in a conversation with several male and female colleagues, a stunned Cosgrove remarks, “I knew queers existed, I just don’t want to work with them.”
In that same season, Sal, Sterling Cooper’s closeted gay Art Director, develops a crush on Ken inspired by the insightful Rothko remark, Ken’s writing, and Ken’s boyish good looks and charm. Hosting Ken for dinner did nothing to elicit any latent desire from him, but it did cause a row with Sal’s wife, a harbinger of her later recognition, in Season 3, of Sal’s true sexuality.
Though a skirt-chaser and heart breaker, as an Account Executive Cosgrove excels, and he elicits envy among his male peers (particularly the risible Pete Campbell) when The Atlantic publishes his short story “Tapping a Maple on a Cold Vermont Morning.” Don Draper had lamented the brooding presence at Sterling Cooper of “more failed artists and intellectuals than the Third Reich.” Yet the demanding Creative Director admires Ken’s achievement.
The publication, however, rips an emotional seam in the mid-level male psyche at Sterling Cooper. A desperate Pete pimps out his adoring wife Trudy in a desperate bid to match Ken’s publishing coup. Without any of copywriter Paul Kinsey’s literary pretensions, Cosgrove nevertheless hauls in a whale, The Atlantic.
Ken’s future literary endeavors proved a mixed success. Using the lovely nom de plumes Ben Hargrove and Dave Algonquin, Ken in Seasons Four and Five plows away in obscurity. Mostly penning pulpish sci-fi, he does score a direct hit, psychologically, with his Season Five short story “The Man with the Miniature Orchestra,” which poetically captured something of the bottomless pit of Campbell’s suburban despair.
By the end of Season 3, Cosgrove has racked up so many new accounts for Sterling Cooper that he wins a two-man race with Pete for the position of Head of Accounts. When Lane Pryce breaks the news to Pete, he explains that although Pete makes clients feel their needs are always met, Ken makes clients feel they have no needs at all.
Uncomplicated by the inner turmoil always churning within Pete, Cosgrove’s conventional yet sincere enthusiasm and charm win the day. Or so it seems. When Don, Bert, Lane, and Roger Sterling decide to break away and form Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (SCDP), they recruit Pete, not Ken. Why? As Roger explains to Pete, “You’ll do what it takes.” Pete’s killer instinct surpasses that of the perennially sunny Ken. Don suggests that unlike the efficient yet conventional Cosgrove, Pete had “been ahead on a lot of things,” such as the importance of tapping “the Negro market.”
As a result, Ken is left behind as a cog in the vast, clunky machine of McCann, a doom from which he flees in Season 4. In retrospect, one reason Draper preferred Pete must have been Ken’s tendency to insert a polished shoe in his mouth. Despite his literary gifts, Ken’s occasional forays into the Creative process at the office have always been inept. In Season One, as his colleagues work on the Belle Jolie account, Cosgrove’s contribution is unhelpful:
“Did you know that lipstick was invented to simulate the flush of a woman’s face when a man treated her right?”
The SCDP/SC&P Years
Cosgrove quietly morphs from an arch-womanizer in the first three seasons to a seemingly happy, considerate, faithful husband to Cynthia Baxter. That marriage, of course, is a happy coincidence of loyalty and self-interest, as Cynthia’s father runs Dow Chemical (and thus, part of the war effort in Vietnam). Like so many changes in Mad Men, this transformation is handled in an understated way, with no single moment of epiphany. Then too, Ken is, after all, a relatively minor star in the show’s firmament.
Lane brings Ken back into the fold in Season 4, though this time it is as Pete’s junior rather than his equal. Although Ken flourishes — by the end of the season, as SCDP struggles to overcome the loss of Lucky Strike, he boasts that “30 percent” of the firm’s clients are his — he never joins Campbell in the ranks of the partners. In Season 5, as SCDP prepares to pitch his father-in-law, Ken tells Roger that he doesn’t aspire to a partnership, only to thwart Pete’s involvement in that lucrative account.
Not only does Ken get to handle the Dow account after Don wins it, by season 6 he is shuttling back and forth between New York and Detroit as the point man for the Chevy account. The merger arranged by Don and Ted Chaough gives Ken a great account, but it proves a poisoned chalice. Tortured by the antics of Chevy’s drunken buffoons, Ken soon reaches a breaking point. Hence his ferocious drug-infused Season 6 “It’s my job!” tap routine. (Go ahead, watch it again).
Accidentally yet inevitably, the Chevy boys shoot Ken’s eye out.
His eye patch is a purple heart and, as a survivor of Chevy’s buckshot and a beneficiary of Pete’s self-destruction in Detroit, Ken becomes SC&P’s Head of Accounts. Bittersweet is the triumph, however, as we learn immediately in the first episode of Season 7 in his tirade to Joan Holloway.
To Exit Vietnam?
Always less driven, in some ways, than the show’s alpha males, Ken had none of Kinsey’s bohemian delusions of grandeur, none of Sal’s mystery or tragedy, none of Pete’s convoluted self-loathing and, perhaps not coincidentally, none of Pete’s instinct for the jugular. Ken never felt – as Pete, Don, and Roger have – that Madison Avenue was an arena for unbridled blood sport, where the ends always justify the means.
In the newest episode of Season 7, Ken suddenly loses his job. SC&P is now an independently operating subsidiary of McCann and the folks there have not forgotten Ken’s quick bailout a few years earlier with clients in his briefcase. Roger delivers the news in characteristically brusque, unsentimental fashion.
Cynthia urges Ken to seize the opportunity to become a full-time writer and liberate himself from the sordid unhappiness of Madison Avenue. Instead, he switches sides, becoming the head of Dow Chemical’s advertising. “I’m going to be your client,” Ken gleefully tells Roger and Pete. “And I hate to tell you, but I’m very hard to please.”
What to make of this? Writing for the Guardian blog Mad Men: Notes from the Break Room, Will Dean conveys the widespread reaction of viewers to this moment:
Ken’s exit was prefaced by his wife Cynthia telling him to quit. Watching this, I began to to write something about Ken as a cipher of The Perils of Selling Consumerism and of his chance to stop the world and get off. Here was a talented, creative, man who had not used his talents in an intellectually unfulfilling job, shilling for a weapons manufacturer (among others). Since 1960, he’s developed a paunch, lost an eye and come to hate what he’s doing. Here he was given a chance to take the severance, run to the country and write the novel he’s had in his drawer since he was published in The Atlantic a decade ago.
One of the most astute Mad Men reviewers has been Molly Lambert on Grantland. She finds Ken’s fate of central importance to the show:
Ken Cosgrove’s firing is just one of the plot’s motivators, but it feels indicative of a central theme. As good as all the characters are at their jobs, working in advertising is not meaningful or satisfying for basically anyone on the show. It’s a cynical business, built around selling lies rather than the truth, appearances rather than realities. Everyone at the firm looks successful, but who among them is even mildly happy?
Ken can’t take the leap, even with his wife saying that she can support them financially while he writes a book for people “who don’t have the guts to live their dream.” Cosgrove signs up to work as a cog for Dow Chemical, making a deal with the devils who make Agent Orange and napalm B — to work in plastics, like a Benjamin Braddock who stayed the course. It feels like a tragedy. No sooner than Ken opens the window, he closes it again.
Indeed, Matt Weiner, the series creator and showrunner, has clarified the meaning of Ken’s decision:
I was worried that the audience would miss the fact that he had completely given up on his dream. And it wasn’t as though he was forced into it, either: His wife supported his dream, and he chose revenge. But maybe he wasn’t meant to be a writer. If you can be talked out of it so easily, why are you doing it?
Cosgrove’s melancholy is borne of his inability, despite his humane instincts and eloquence, to develop a real critique of the business or to break from its spell. Though less than tragic, his decline is profound. The bright Ken of 1960 or 1963 could scarcely imagine the jittery, flailing, now-cynical, vengeful Ken of 1970. Maybe Ben Hargrove and Dave Algonquin were not vehicles for creativity but mere escapism akin to Don’s drinking and philandering (or Pete’s, or Roger’s, or Harry’s). At least Ken’s vices are much less obnoxious and socially disruptive than theirs.
We might not see you again, Ken Cosgrove, but you will be missed.