Sunday, September 12, 2010

Let the Fun Begin

Mad Men, Season Four, Episode Eight, "The Summer Man"

A self-reflective Don Draper--the writer. The show had a completely different feel using the device of the voice-over. "Mad Men" has always been quite literary, but with this chapter, Matthew Weiner said in the short interviews AMC puts on its website after an episode has been aired, they got as close to a short story as they've ever been able to get. As Don strives to become the narrator of his life, to reassert some control, to gain--as he writes--"a modicum of control over how I feel," he takes some important steps forward to pull himself out of the quicksand in which he's been sinking over the past year. Even though he sees this writing as making him like a "little girl" jotting things in her diary, the process gives him insight. He recognizes that his excessive drinking is making it impossible for him to think. Instead of trying to divorce himself from his past, he now knows that "when a man walks into a room, he brings his whole life with him." He's both Don and Dick and he needs to keep the two together. We've seen him do that more lately. Perhaps Anna's death will play a positive role, rather than forcing him to hit bottom. Or maybe hitting bottom is still to come. But, it was nice to see him trying tonight: limiting his drinking (the slow motion/silent sequence in which he watched the others and then himself drink in the meeting was fascinating, while sending the 'blind' Mrs. Blankenship back to the store with the four bottles of booze was funny); controlling himself sexually with Faye; taking charge and asserting himself as Gene's father. It was so sweet to see him with the baby at the end. I thought of that late last season episode in which he sat rocking the newborn Gene in his bedroom in the middle of the night. Perhaps Don is growing up.

And--surprise, surprise--perhaps Betty is starting to grow up as well. We had another scene in which Henry was shown to be the mature adult in that relationship. While I'm not sure what brings Don to Bethany, I'm also not sure why Betty cared. Is she jealous of him because she really believes, as she told Francince, that he's living "the life?" Is it, as she told Henry, because he was the only man she'd been with (except for the anonymous guy in the bar that one night)? Does she resent the "imposter" she now knows him to be getting access to another country club girl? She's used the line, "I hate him!" before, sounding like a petulant school girl. I like how Henry called her on it tonight. "Hate is a strong word. I hate Nazis." When he tells her that he gets bothered by his ex-wife sometimes too, but doesn't hate her, Betty says, "You're a saint." "I'm an adult," he retorts. Go, Henry!

But, it seems to be Francine who turns Betty around, if only for a bit. "You've got everything to lose. Don has nothing." Or, rather, Don already has lost everything: his kids, Anna, his self, even Betty? "We're flawed because we want so much more," he writes in his journal. "We're ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had." Perhaps a bit melodramatic, but insightful. He seems to be trying to figure out what he does want in women. Is his periodic going back to Bethany an attempt to figure out if a wife like Betty really is what he wants? He seems to recognize that it's not: "She's a sweet girl. She wants me to know her, but I already do." He next asks out Faye. This time when he's sober. And he seeks her psychological advice, letting her know he's feeling out of sorts because of Gene. While he's been feeling the victim here: I can't go to the party; I'm not welcomed there; he thinks that man's his father, she wisely counsels him that "all he learns of the world is what you show him." She then passes on the Aesop's Fable about the wind and the sun trying to get a man to take off his coat: kindness, gentleness, and persuasion win. We'll see...

On the office front, though, kindness, gentleness, and persuasion don't work with the cadre of male chauvanist pigs Peggy and Joan are stuck with. Tonight Joey showed himself to be as bad as Stanley did a few weeks ago, but while I cheered Joan on during her "I can't wait until next year when you're all in Vietnam" speech, I was with Peggy more when she fired the idiot; I can't agree with Joan's snarky speech to Peggy on the elevator. It's interesting that both Christina Hendricks and Elizabeth Moss--in the AMC mini interviews I mentioned above--saw Joan as right in rebuking Peggy. And I suppose it could just be my position from 40+ years later that can't allow me to accept that, but I think that even back in 1965, Peggy was right to do what she did. (And Don was right to urge her to do it herself or they'd just think she was a tattle tale.) Those men already saw Joan as just "a meaningless secretary" and Peggy as "a humorless bitch." Peggy firing Joey didn't cause that. Joan looking forward to seeing them die in Vietnam--as cool and collected as she was in delivering that speech--was still a reflection of powerlessness. Joan has always seen her power to lie in her sexuality. Now she's stuck with a bunch of young men who aren't moved by that; not only are they not moved by it, they scorn her for it. Joey compares her to his mother (ouch!) So, let them think of Peggy as a bitch--sometimes that's what women have to be in self-defense. Sexist men have used the "you've got no sense of humor" line for more than 40 years; some still use it. Racists use it when listeners don't like their anti-black jokes; homophobes use it when people don't laugh at their anti-gay jokes. They still need to be stood up to--not agreed with. And Peggy did that admirably. While Don left the Y early in the episode to Mick Jagger singing, "I can't get no satisfaction," recognizing something about his life, I say Peggy should take a lot of satisfaction in asserting some control with Joey. "The fun is over," Joey says to the other guys. Maybe for him, but I hope that for Peggy, it's just beginning.


  1. The voice-over narration was cool, as you pointed out, Cathy, and I like how you mention Don as narrator of his life. As all us lit nerds know - can you trust a first person narrator? Don's actions during last night's show do point to his being a reliable narrator, but the title of the show "The Summer Man" makes me wonder whether Don has a new identity for each season. However, Jon Hamm, in shades, standing on a street while "Satisfaction" is playing is alright by me any time of year.
    I'll be curious to read your insights on the Peggy/Joan/woman in the workplace story that is developing. I admire how this show truly explores the complicated dynamics of any sort of liberation. Peggy is caught between Don's direct advice - fire the guy - and Joan's anger at being robbed of her own office power through her indirect methods. Peggy thinks she's done a good thing and Joan resents her intrusion. I think the show will really explore the tensions/confusion of women who want to "live the life" - and find that relationships are difficult to navigate. Maybe Faye's advice will be the moral to more than one story.
    The only heavy-handed note, in my opinion, in the episode was Joey's hatred of Joan because she reminds him of mommy, down to the pen necklace. I think Joey can just go ahead and be a jerk on his own.
    And - why no song over the closing credits last night?

  2. I enjoyed your commentary, Cathy. My daughter (30 something)hates voiceovers. Is it a generational thing or an English major thing? But when voiceovers are so beautifully written, I enjoy them. Those were so lovely, that I played some of them more than once to catch every nuance.
    I agree re Peg/Joan. It was the first time this season I wasn't on J's side. It felt to me like she doesn't want to lose the power she's always had, and having Peg find her own power (direct, earned and with no sexual undertones)threatens her. Even the comment about Peg needing exercise, when clearly she's thinner than Joan seemed unnecessarily childish.

    I loved the episode. But I hate having to wait a week for more.

  3. Interesting to bring in the 'reliable narrator' question. While Don does seem to be a reliable narrator for now, even reliable narrators pick and choose what to include in their stories; they're constructing their worlds in the way that best suits whatever their purposes are. I like seeing how Don desires to structure his narrative/life. One thing about starting out on this writing life is that one has to think about one's purposes in doing so--at least if it's going to be done well. It's this self-reflectiveness about his life that's so new for Don--and for us watching him. "The Summer Man" might suggest that Don is a different man for each season, rather than a "man for all seasons," but it could also be a metaphor for his renewal. New things come to life in summer; new opportunities for action come into play. Perhaps that's what his story's title is referring to.

    I, too, am looking forward to further development of the women in the workplace story as it's getting more political. You're right that the emerging women's liberation brought out many tensions for women with regard to relationships and work life. Peggy's been dealing with that lately in the context of her relationships with men. This episode hinted at how women's relationships with each other were starting to change in certain sectors. It's sad for Joan that she's becoming more outdated: a Marilyn-body in a more Twiggy and Cybill Shepard-type decade; sexual and manipulative means of exerting control at a time when direct action was emerging as the preferred strategy; and a competitive approach to other women on the cusp of the 'sisterhood' of the women's movement. I so felt for her when Greg suggested she talk to her "friends at work" while he's gone; she cried, knowing that she has no friends at work. She has Roger--who chose to leave his first wife to marry a younger woman even than Joan--and that's it. She can't have girlfriends when she's always set herself up above the other women in the office. While Peggy sensed some solidarity between them in the Joey situation, Joan disdains that. Tom and Lorenzo wrote about how Joan has always shielded herself from others, so now is alone, while Don is now trying to open up to the idea of being close with others.

    I like thinking about Faye's fable as providing a broader moral for different story arcs. I'll have to keep that in mind as the season proceeds.

    And, yes, the absence of a song at the end was deafening. I wondered if they decided to move the song to the middle instead, if "Satisfaction" was Don's choice of a sound-track for his story, part of his construction of the narrative of his life, so he was messing with the standard order. I really liked the song as he was coming out of the Y, but it was jarring--so loud, so '60s; the typical end song is either from an earlier era or if it's a '60s song, a quieter folk song or a song from a musical (like when they used "Where Is Love?" from "Oliver"). This one just screamed--"We're in a new era! Don's doing new things with his life! He's not any longer going to be the throw-back to an earlier decade!" So, they shake it up. Lack of an ending song also just left that image of the smiling Don with Gene in our minds. Again, he, as narrator of this story, is controlling our ending image?

  4. The second comment came in while I was posting my response to the first one. I do think our different response to the voice-overs might be connected to us being English majors. From what I saw doing a quick perusal of comments on Tom and Lorenzo's blog, a lot of people didn't like it. I loved it too. Not only for some nice writing, but Jon Hamm's got a great voice for that sort of thing.

  5. I was thinking a little more about the no song at the end issue. Generally, these songs give us a little bit of insight into Don's persona/tensions - as you mention, "Where is Love?" or "Tobacco Road". So, maybe since we were getting those insights from the man himself, via first person narration, we didn't need the musical track at the end to sum it up? This idea might fit in with your suggestion that "Satisfaction" was Don's own choice for his soundtrack...

  6. That makes sense. All of this reflection on lack of end song really suggests how radical--in terms of shift in story-telling--the decision to go with Don as narrator was.