Sunday, August 29, 2010


Mad Men, Season Four, Episode Six, "Waldorf Stories"

I suppose it's a bit clever to air the episode about Don and SCDP winning a top award at the Clios on the evening the Emmys bestowed two major awards on Mad Men. Let's hope the similarities end there, so we don't see the show barreling toward the Abyss as rapidly as Don is. Sheesh! A forty-eight hour blackout during which he's seen stealing ideas he hated from a young man he scorned, hitting on Dr. Faye (yeay to her for saying 'no,' recognizing what a messed-up state he's in), bedding two different women--one of whom he falls asleep on while she's going down on him, the other of whom he apparently told his name is Dick--and blowing off his date with his children. I haven't sympathized with Betty in awhile, but here, she was completely justified in her tirade against him. How much farther does he have to go--do we have to see him go--before he hits bottom? Is that going to be Episode 13 of the season, with Season Five opening on him in an AA meeting? Nice eight month long cliff-hanger?

The Life cereal rep thought Don's ad might be too sophisticated for readers to get: "I think it's kind of smart for regular folks. The irony part." Mad Men writers don't underestimate their audience's ability to get irony. This show featured several good examples: the self-referential bit about winning awards while on the way down; ending an episode in which we watched both a success for Don and his tumble into darkness with the upbeat singing of "up the ladder of success"; and highlighting the flashbacks of Roger's initial encounters with Don in which we discover that he thought Don not worth hiring, but did so in a drunken blackout, similar to the one that led to Don having to hire Danny. Is Don being compared to Danny, whose idea he stole to make the Life men happy? Might Danny prove to be extremely creative like Don can be? Or is part of the point that Don isn't as good as he and some others think he is? (BTW, I see from the previews that Tom Lenk [Danny] will be back next week. He's still just that creepy Andrew from "Buffy" to me. I don't know how long I'll be able to watch him if that doesn't wear off.)

And, finally, shifting focus a bit: We know what Don did to receive Joan's punishment of that secretary. What did poor Peggy do to deserve that asshole Stanley? She sort of showed him up, taking his bluff about working in the nude to "liberate" the mind, but I expect he's the type who will never accept that he might be wrong--especially from a woman--and double especially from a smart woman like Peggy. She seems to have pegged him: "You're lazy and have no ideas," but where's that going to get her? She also had to deal with Don's lack of acknowledgment of her role in the floor polish ad to the point of not even inviting her to the awards. Even Joan seems to be tiring of these men as she left Roger in a pool of drunken self-pity at the bar, clearly disgusted with him.

Oh, yeah, and I almost forgot the final irony of the quick ending ad for the iPhone ap that challenges you to mix your cocktails as well as they do on Mad Men! You too can head for that alcoholic abyss....and have fun and glamor while doing it, Mad Men-style!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Shame and Guilt: Ain't It Fun Being a Girl?

Mad Men, Season Four, Episode Five, "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword"

Another excellent ironic use of music for the closing song: "When I have a brand new hair-do . . . I enjoy being a girl." Enjoy, indeed. Poor Sally. The episode could be subtitled "It sucks being a 1960s little girl with a rigidly 1950s mother." Tonight's show was so interestingly balanced. On one side, we have the office scenes of increased competition between advertising firms and the generationally-divided response to the Japanese (with Bert Cooper on the side of the younger crowd here, but he would have been too old to fight in the war as Roger did); on the other side, we have the drama of the home front with Sally facing increased competition for her parents' attention and the varying responses to childhood masturbation in this decade of the "sexual revolution." (For an interesting article about the growing sexual openness urged on post-WWII parents by child-rearing books through the 1960s, check out this link; it's by an MIT media studies prof and isn't overly long. I found it when I did a quick search to ascertain that a more permissive attitude was already present in 1965:

The inter-ad agency competition is becoming so fierce that Don is fielding phone calls from a newspaper advertising columnist who wants his reaction to comments by someone at the firm that got the Clearasil account after SCDP cut it loose. Don sets out to prove himself once againg the risk-taking ad man in his bid to win the account with Honda. For this, he recruits the younger, more forward-thinking members of the firm--Pete, Peggy, and Joan--who do a masterful, and funny, job of staging their non-attempt to shoot a motorcycle commercial. It pays off; while no one gets the motorcycle account, Don and Co. are awarded an account for Honda's new small car. Lane's funny description of this car shows the generational gap between theirs and mine on the subject of small cars, when he describes the Honda as "a motorcycle with doors. The nice thing is it has windows" so you can see your brains splatter when it crashes.

It was interesting to me to hear Roger's reaction to doing business with the Japanese. I expect there were many veterans of the Pacific war who felt as he did. While he made some nasty racist comments and was being an ass--an alcohol-enhanced ass as usual--he also gave us a window into how hard it is to move on from traumatic experiences. To Pete's reasonable assertions that it's been twenty years and these businessmen from Honda are "not the same people" who fought WWII, Roger rather poignantly retorts, "I'm the same people." He tries to tell Joan a story about one of the men on his ship, but she--wife of a soon-to-be-shipped-to-war doctor--doesn't want to hear it. She tries to soothe him with, "You fought to make the world a safer place and it is." Roger's not sure he's buying that though. He asks, "Since when is forgiveness a better quality than loyalty?" Pete and the others, though, aren't just moving on, they're after money. Pete baldly points out that he needs this account as he's going to be a father. But, in the midst of the anti-Japanese sentiment and the desire for money were the office's attempts at cross-cultural understanding (even if they were self-serving). They all had copies of The Crysanthemum and the Sword, though Don might be the only one who read it. According to Wikipedia (don't tell my students I'm referencing Wikipedia; this isn't a research paper, though), this book was published in 1946 by Ruth Benedict, an American anthropologist, commissioned by the Office of War Information to do a cultural study of Japan. She did so by studying Japanese newspapers, novels, and other cultural artifacts as well as by interviewing Japanese-Americans. The book made famous the contrast between "shame cultures" and "guilt cultures" (those of Japan and of the West respectively). It's a quote about shame that Don reads to his partners in madcap crime as he outlines his plan to beat out the competition.

While the "shame culture" v. "guilt culture" distinction was being used to classify Japan, it also sheds light on the travails of young Sally Draper. There's enough guilt and attempts at inducing guilt to more than go around the Draper and Francis households/famililes/whatever they now are. The family scenes also start out with a focus on increased competition. Bobby and Sally are at Don's when a babysitter arrives so Don can go out on a date with Bethany (why???). She tells her dad, "I don't like that." Not only does she perceive Bethany as a threat, but she wonders about the babysitter--who is young and attractive so not unthinkable as a Don target--and is so bold as to ask the sitter if she and Don are "doing it," then informing the woman, "I know what 'it' is. The man pees inside the woman." I remember being Sally's age, sitting in my first sex ed class (this would have been six or seven years later than the setting of this episode), and someone asking the teacher if male peeing is indeed what happens during sex. My teacher was a source of accurate information. Unfortunately, Sally's source was just another kid at school. The babysitter wouldn't clarify, just recommending that Sally talk to her mother, which, not surprisingly, Sally did not want to do. Sally then goes into the bathroom to chop half of her hair off, presumably in an attempt to compete for her father's attention.

Don's good at inducing guilt in the sitter, who was--apparently--supposed to follow Sally into the bathroom, leaving Bobby unattended on the couch to do who knows what. When Don gets the kids back to their mother and step-father, Betty--ever the attentive mother, accuses Don of being a lousy, inattentive father, slaps Sally, and reveals that the reason this is an issue is because she always wanted to have long hair as a girl, but her mother wouldn't let her. Hmmm. The woman is nothing if not self-absorbed. Henry, surprisingly, turns out to be an advocate for Sally as he also reveals that he's learned how to handle his childish wife, by affirming her self-centeredness. Here and in the later scene after Sally is brought home from the slumber party, Henry gets Betty to soften by essentially telling her he knows how hard this all is on her. And, of course, with Betty it always has to be about her. She tells the child psychologist, "I feel like Sally did this (masturbating at the friend's house) to punish me for all this" [the divorce, etc.] If Betty had read Dr. Spock, she would have been advised to be accepting of her children's explorations of sexuality. People were clearly conflicted about this more open approach to sex and children, though. The characters do tacitly acknowledge that this advice is out there. The slumber party mom tells Betty, "I don't know what's permitted here, but at our house, that's inappropriate" (or something to that effect). Betty lets the shrink know, "I know that children do this," but she's upset about it being in public. Is the public nature (sort of--she was the only girl awake at the time, with no one else around, but was just sitting on the couch so the mom could find her) of this another cry for attention? What will the psychologist's approach be? (Meeting with her four days a week?! Yikes!) It's interesting that Don is not only opening up to learn something about the Japanese, but to learning something more about the whole concept of therapy. He confides in Faye that Betty thinks Sally needs a therapist and actually shares his conflicted feelings about his children and their situation (I see them and don't know what to do; drop them off and feel relieved, but then miss them). A new Don Draper? While Betty meanly tells the psychologist, "I doubt you'll ever meet him [Don]. That's his level of interest," Don is showing that he might be willing to take a step away from guilt and shame to figure out a way to be a better father.

Monday, August 16, 2010

"Got Pears?" So Much to Reject

Mad Men, Season Four, Episode Four, "The Rejected"

To begin, I just have to say that this is the first episode of this season that I've really liked--not just found interesting--or touching. It felt more like the "Mad Men" of old; it brought out serious themes; Don was both sympathetic in places and a complete jerk in places; and it had a lot of humor. There were several very funny, quick bits of visual humor (Peggy peeking over the top of the wall into Don's office after Allison chucked something at him breaking the glass over a print; Bert Cooper hanging out on the reception area couch in his stocking feet, fanning through magazines and eating an apple. Does that man do anything for this new firm?) John Slattery is clearly a very talented director as well as actor.

The title of this episode is very evocative. So much rejection--of people and ideas--is depicted here, some of it quite necessary to do; some of it is just plain sad. We've got the women in the Ponds focus group, who are manipulated by the psychologist Faye until they're dwelling in pools of tears shed over men who've rejected them; Pete's father-in-law's company is rejected in favor of Ponds (conflict with Clearasil) until Pete gets rather nastily assertive, demanding the account for all of the Vicks products as well; Peggy's early-on rejection by Pete and her rejection of motherhood and Pete's baby is coaxed out again by the news that Trudy is pregnant; and traditional ideas about marriage and women's need for men at the center of their lives are tried on (Peggy playing with Faye's engagement ring during the focus group), argued over, and rejected by some. It's 1965 and we're finally getting some explicit feminist philosophy articulated when Peggy's new friend informs her that her boyfriend "doesn't own your vagina." Peggy's quip, "No, but he's renting it," is humorous, but it's all too clear that for the women on this show, if the men don't own their vaginas, they do have way too strong a hold on their hearts and minds. And it's this angle that is most intriguing to me.

Peggy is a strong woman who's forged a new path for herself as a career woman. And she struggles with a desire for marriage (and children too?). How much of this is social pressure and how much of it is something she really wants for herself? At this point, she seems not to know. She's told the traditional Freddy that she does want to get married, something he assumes of all women; Don smiles a bit wonderingly when he sees her twisting Faye's engagement ring on her finger; and Peggy is clearly affected by the news that Pete will be a father. Pete has the grace to appear uncomfortable at her congratulations and glances. And what's behind the looks they give each other at the end? The whole ending strikes me as very symbolic: the good-old-boys in their suits are standing inside the office preparing to close a deal. Peggy's new hip friends stand outside. She's dressed in a coat that looks like it could be Pat Nixon's "sensible" coat from the Checkers speech, but she leaves the world of the office to join the new generation, glancing back at Pete, however, as he looks at her too. Trying to determine which world she belongs in, which attitude she should take to gender issues seems to be her big quandary of late. Like her response to the film at the party, she's Catholic; she knows she's not supposed to like it (the film and evolving, more liberated roles for women), but she's willing to experiment--with pot, with the counter-culture, and with a new group of friends who, unfortunately, are not the best representations of the counter-culture. These folks in the real world did have many among them who were narcissistic and shallow, but there were also elements of this culture providing a much needed critique of the society. Weiner mostly reveals the counter-culture at its worst so far. It will be interesting to see how that develops. (But then, one could argue that he shows most of '60s culture at its worst.)

The other angle that I find intriguing is Don's strong understanding of advertising's power to get into people's heads and influence them, planting new ideas. To Faye's suggestion that they change the Ponds campaign to link the cold cream to matrimony--"a veiled promise"--Don replies, "Hello 1925. I'm not going to do that." Yeay, Don! He argues that if women in focus groups spent a year watching his ads, they'd be talking about different ideas when the psychologist brought them together. It can be disturbing to watch the deliberate machinations of these folks, but there is also so much truth in what he says. People have a hard time thinking outside the box of the ideology they were born and raised into. Culture plays a strong role in introducing us to new ideas--and as television expanded, advertising became an even greater force in our culture. It's interesting that he doesn't want to be responsible for reinforcing the idea that all women should desire to get married. His lousy experience with marriage has likely helped him to get to this place. Betty is certainly someone who was too strongly influenced by that ideology despite clearly not relishing the traditional woman's role. I liked the ending picture of the old married couple to which Don comes home: "Did you get pears?" "Did you get pears?!" What buying the culture's dominant ideology can lead you to. Perhaps after that, Don didn't feel so bad opening the door to a wife-less apartment.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Being Dick

Mad Men, Season Four, Episode Three, "The Good News"

This episode moved me and its title is intriguing. I'm interested to know of other interpretations you might have of it. It is an ironic title. There really isn't any good news in this segment. The only reference to "good news" is in Stephanie's story of her college roommate who started reading the bible one night and Stephanie woke up the next morning to the woman asking, "Have you heard the good news?" Don and Anna laugh over that and dismiss the religiosity. Indeed, the entire episode deals with serious questions and issues without any consideration that religious answers might be meaningful. The idea that answers simply found in a book could fully address the heavy themes explored here doesn't make sense in the context of this world. And, I'm glad for that. The theme of being onesself v. being who others expect one to be was directly addressed in last week's episode. The question of how much control one really ever has over life's circumstances was explored rather powerfully in the season opener. Tonight they both came together.

Anna Draper came up in the comments on my last week's blog. I've been hoping to see her again. Sadly, this might be the last time. And, this is wrenchingly sad for Don/Dick, since it's only with Anna that he can truly be himself. As she said to him, she knows everything about him and she loves him just the same. He was back to looking good tonight as he was cruising down the California highway in the convertible. He's relaxed when he's with her. He talks openly with her about his feelings. They give each other genuine hugs that seem to express much caring. It's too bad they can't be a conventional couple. She's good for him. And, she's dying.

In the too-typical 1950s/1960s way of avoiding discussion of anything unpleasant and unhappy, her sister and niece acquiesce to the medical establishment's arrogance in presuming to know what's best for everyone, concurring with the doctor that Anna shouldn't be told she has bone cancer. As her niece tells Don, she doesn't have long, so why tell her? Don is justifiably outraged at this and insists she be told. I'm fascinated by his relationship with this woman. He is so different with Anna than he is with anyone else. While he does have a progressive side to him where some women are concerned--e.g. furthering Peggy's and Joan's careers--and he chooses mistresses who are intelligent and interesting, his idea of what a wife should be is completely conventional and many women are just sex objects to him. And he can get very controlling where all of these women are concerned. Some of last week's comments speculated on the origin of Don's exploiting women side. But, we don't see any of that with Anna. To him, Anna really is a person who has rights. They have a mutually nurturing relationship. He allows her to take care of him emotionally and he seeks to do the same for her. They have discussions in which important questions are discussed casually: She tells him she's seen UFOs (which he suggests might be down to her pot smoking) and seriously says that wondering if there might be another planet with intelligent life has gotten her "thinking of everything I know to be true and how flimsy it all might be." Don retorts, "You don't have to see a UFO to figure that out." These epistemological questions began to be asked anew with a vengeance by post-modern philosophers and theorists in the 1960s and beyond. Don and Anna discuss them comfortably while he's painting her wall in his shorts and she sits on the couch smoking a joint. While two episodes ago, Don seemed too old for the newly modern office, a relic of the 1950s about to be lost in the new decade, he seems to fit right in to the '60s mileu here. Is the dynamic of his and Anna's relationship possible because there's no sex involved? Or is it because he can just be Dick with her (as opposed to being a dick with his secretary and some other women)?

Yet, she's dying and Don has no control over that. He's even powerless to control the circumstances surrounding her illness and impending death. When he complains to her sister that she should be told, the woman tells him, "You have no say in the affairs of this family. You're just a man in a room with a checkbook." Ouch. To Anna, though, he's so much more. I have to suspect that she already knows something bad is wrong with her. Did she smoke pot before or is she doing this to manage the pain? Don does decide not to tell her, though. He accepts his limited role in her life. But, he leaves her after he's signed the wall he's painted with "Dick + Anna '64." When he returns to New York on New Year's Eve, having foregone his planned trip to Acapulco, he's back to being Don, but his evening with Lane--whose wife has also threatened to leave him and stay in London--shows a different side of him. He's sought out Lane's company (the old thing about what misery loves?) and the scene of the two of them watching "Godzilla" in the theater was hysterical. Lane is a very funny drunk. The comedian at the club they're attending mistakes them for a homosexual couple and makes a few jokes about/at them. But, Don is serious too, bringing up one of the key questions of the season. When Lane tells Don of his wife's announcement that she plans to stay in London, he says to Don, "You're supposed to tell me to get on a plane." Don replies with a question: "Is that what you want or is that what people expect of you?" The evening ends with two prostitutes Don has procured (back to being Don again), but he's got a new relationship with his newest partner. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Finally, the theme of lack of control over one's circumstances is illustrated through the poignant Joan and Greg sub-story. Dr. Greg is so tender with Joan in the scene in which he's stitching up Joan's hand that I almost forgot what a nasty jerk he was to her last season. Joan would so like to plan for their future, but the Army is taking it's sweet time in calling him to basic training and deployment. While I don't understand why anyone would think it's a good idea to plan to have a child in such uncertain times, I think it's Joan's way to create an orderly timeline. Once pregnant, she knows what the next nine months of her life are going to be. Unless something goes wrong, babies come on a fairly predictable schedule--give or take a week or two. She might end up being a single mother for the time Greg is in Vietnam--or a single mother forever if he's killed there--but she'll have made sure that the part of her life plan that calls for her to have a child will have been fulfilled. But, she's smart enough to know that things really are uncontrollable. Greg tells her, "Everything's gonna be alright." Her response, "When?"

But, at work, she can assert control. At the office meeting to set out the finances and timeline for the new year, she has the opening line of the meeting and the closing line of the episode, "Shall we begin 1965?" They can begin; they can plan; but they can't know or control what's really in store.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Reflections on Power and Self-Medication

Mad Men, Season Four, Episode Two, "Christmas Comes But Once a Year"

If Christmas is going to be like it was in this episode, it's a blessed thing that it only comes once a year. Sheesh-- We see the return of Freddy (not a character I've missed, but, as I'll explain later, I think there's a good thematic reason for his re-appearance tonight), the creepy Glenn (still not sure what all to make of him), and the super creepy Lee Garner, Jr. (extra boos and hisses at him for having driven Sal away). The ending song was, appropriately enough, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," typically a humorous look at Christmas Eve night through the eyes of a child who still believes in Santa and so assumes her mother is committing the faux pas of kissing someone other than her husband. But, since the audience knows that Santa is actually "Daddy," it can be sung in a light-hearted, fun way. We know there's no problem. Not so in the world of "Mad Men." The bouncy, happy singing of the song at the end was in jarring contrast to what we'd been watching during the hour before.

The little girl here--Sally--is sophisticated enough to know that there is no Santa, that her daddy typically played that role. So, she sends her and her brothers' Christmas requests addressed to "Santa Claus c/o Don Draper." But she also, sadly, knows that this year her mother won't be kissing Santa Claus. "Santa" won't even be allowed in the house on Christmas. The closing line of her letter is poignant. She's asked for a locket with her initials engraved on it, but what she really wishes is that "you could be here Christmas morning to give it to me." Don's secretary is reading this letter to him, so he tries to mask the feeling this line evokes in him; he's only partially successful. The second saddest line of the night was Don telling his neighbor Phoebe, who's accused him of hating Christmas: "I don't hate Christmas. I hate this Christmas." But, that's pretty much the last of Don as sympathetic character this episode.

Then there's Roger, who's made to dress up as Santa to kiss Lee Garner, Jr.'s butt. The riff on "Mommy Kissing Santa" goes from sad to perverse here. Garner's upset that they don't have a Santa at the SCDP Christmas party and at first tries drunkenly to cajole Sterling into putting the suit on. When Roger declines, however, Mr. Lucky Strikes (69% of the new firm's business once they've acquired the Ponds account) orders him: "Put it on, Roger," sounding like a man ordering a woman to put on some sort of risque costume she's uncomfortable with for sex. The firm gives him a gift of a Polaroid camera that he later uses to photo each employee sitting on Santa's lap, barking at them to do so against their will in a strange, rather perverted parody of department store Santa rituals with children. First creepy abuse of power we see.

Next abuse of power is Don with Allison, his secretary. She reads him his mail, shops for gifts for his children, and--when on the night of the office Christmas party, Don leaves his keys at work, not realizing this until he's home at his door, drunk--brings his keys all the way to his apartment for him. She tells her friends that she'll have to meet them wherever they're going after the party since she needs to deliver his keys and will probably "have to get some food in him." A man (her boyfriend or date?) says, "He's pathetic." Indeed. When she shows up to let him in, he's almost passed out on the floor by the door. Declining her offer to make him something to eat, he lands on the couch. She walks over to say 'good-bye' and he makes a move on her. At first unresponsive to his kiss, she tells him, "Don't." I was hoping for another response like that of the blind date last week. Don needs more women to tell him 'no,' but Allison acquiesces. They have a quick go at it on the couch without even undressing and she leaves to "meet someone." The next morning at work, she is clearly anticipating something from him as he tells her to come into his office. She wants this to go somewhere. He makes no mention of their sexual encounter, though, merely thanking her for bringing him his keys and giving her her Christmas bonus. As she opens the envelope back at her desk, she sees two $50 bills and Don's note: "Thanks for all your hard work. Don." She puts a piece of paper in the typewriter and gets back to her work as "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" begins to play. Don's been her Santa with the bonus; he's more than kissed her; and now he'll pretend that nothing happened.

It may look like Don the Asshole is back in full force after half a season or so of him being much more sympathetic. And he is certainly a jerk here. But, put this in the context of the extra excessive amount of drinking he's apparently been doing (and I'm saying this about someone who's always drank a lot without appearing to be intoxicated). Phoebe, his down the hall neighbor, mentioned that he's drunk every night when he puts his keys in the door. This attempt to self-medicate seems to me to have to be connected to the sadness and guilt he feels over being separated from his kids, especially during the holiday season. Last week saw him paying a prostitute to "punish" him. So, what is he doing with Allison? Using her as he uses booze to try to blot out the awareness that he's alone in this apartment with no family? This, of course, is a poor way to deal with his problems, but as we see with his refusal to take the psychologist's test, he's not willing to probe his past to "sort out [his] deepest conflicts" as she names the task psychologists try to fulfill in their work. He'd rather just numb the pain. (I'll leave aside for now her odd assertion that psychologists and advertising creators are in "the same line of work." That seems like just her way of trying to justify using her skills in the service of selling consumer products more effectively.) So, has Freddy, the recovering alcoholic, been brought back to highlight the contrast between facing one's issues and the path of self-medication and the abyss Don has sunk himself into? They certainly represent antithetical ways to use one's power over one's own behavior.

There are other reflections on power presented in this episode as well: Peggy attempts to figure out how to use the power of her sexuality in the relationship with her new boyfriend. While I love Peggy, I've never gotten her taste in men, from Pete to Duck. This new one seems so young in comparison to her. What does she see in him? He's so naive, thinking he'll be her "first." But, why does she hold off on going to bed with him? Might she really think she'd like to marry him? Or is she just feeling a desire to be married period? When she confesses to Freddy her uncertainty, he advises her not to have sex with him if she wants to marry him. When she says, however, that she's not sure if she wants to marry him, Freddy tells her not to lead him on. The next thing we see they are in bed together. Why? Has she decided she doesn't want marriage and figures Freddy's right that he won't want to marry her if she's slept with him? Does she decide she should just be herself and not lead him on? What is it about marriage that she wants? Is she the evening's representative of what the psychologist refers to as the conflict between who we really are/want to be v. who we're expected to be? Is she feeling the social or familial pressure to marry?

It was an interesting episode, but all around, one of those Christmases I'd just be relieved to see over.