Monday, June 11, 2012

Are You Alone?

Mad Men, Season Five, Episode Thirteen, "The Phantom"

So, I know that at one level, we're supposed to hear the question of the woman in the bar and Nancy Sinatra singing, "Love is a stranger who'll beckon you on/Don't think of the danger or the stranger is gone," and imagine Don--who's just ordered an Old Fashioned--as the dashing, womanizing James Bond again ("You Only Live Twice" with Sean Connery as Bond came out in 1967), tempted to take up philandering while Megan is rehearsing her commercial. Will he or won't he? But I don't find that to be an interesting question to ponder. Plus, it's manipulative. And I'm not big on being manipulated. Either we come back to Season Six in six months or nine months or twelve months, or however long they leave us hanging this time and find that Don's been sleeping around again--or not. There's a deeper level to this that I find more intriguing and worth focusing on; it fits in with the first part of the song that we hear, that we have two lives: "One life for yourself and one for your dreams." Megan is finally getting a shot at her dreams, thanks to Don. And as Don leaves the set of the shoe commercial, leaves Megan in her brightly-colored fairy tale princess outfit and scene, he walks across the dark, shadowed, empty part of the soundstage, in black and white himself, alone as more and more distance is put between Megan and him. He is alone at the bar. And as the camera shifts its focus, we can see that this song is not just about Don. Peggy is alone in her room. And Pete is alone in his room (finally the city apartment?). And Roger is alone, naked, expanding his arms toward the window as the LSD expands his mind. (I hope he's not going to jump.) And, although they don't show it during the song, Beth is likely alone in her hospital room, alone in her electroshocked, memory-less mind. Lane's wife is alone in her quiet apartment, an ocean away from home, alone with the photo she found in her dead husband's wallet, alone with her anger--which she can take out on Don, but that won't really get to the source of what she must be feeling about Lane's betrayal, about the precarious financial situation of which she must now be aware, about all the secrets he kept from her. Even Megan, who's surrounded by director, make-up people, and the bustle of the shoot, is essentially alone--isolated from her unsupportive mother who thinks she's unfortunate to have an artistic temperament, but not be an artist, and from her husband, whose dreams are different than hers. She's alone with her doubts about whether she really has any talent or not. So, I think the woman's question to Don is better read as an existential one. "Are you alone?" Many characters are wrestling with an existential aloneness as they chase after--or are chased by--phantoms.

Don, feeling guilt over Lane's suicide by hanging keeps flashing back to his brother, Adam, who also hanged himself after Don rejected him. Don's treatment of Adam was quite cruel--although it's still not his fault that Adam chose to kill himself--while he only really did what he had to do with regard to Lane, and was discreet and fairly kind, all things considered. So, as he wrestles with his partner's death, the specter of his brother keeps appearing to him in the faces of others he passes by. The phantom Adam delivers what must be Don's own assessment of himself while he is knocked out to have a tooth removed: I'll remove it, "but it's not your tooth that's rotten."

We discover that Beth--whom we've never been given enough of to come to an understanding about--suffers from debilitating depression, so that she welcomes the electro-shock therapy that she knows will wipe her mind clean for awhile. Her phantom is "so dark," she tells Pete, "I just get to this place and I suddenly feel this door open and I want to walk through it." Pete alternates between an unsympathetic, "That's for weak people, people who can't solve a problem" and the self-centered, "We're only sad because we're apart." He blames Howard for committing her, seeing it as his monstrous attempts at control. There's likely some truth to that and we can't know the origin of her depression, but she acknowledges that she wants to go to the hospital because the shock treatments work. She thinks they can drive her phantom underground.

In the face of his encounter with Beth, Pete waxes introspective while visiting her at the hospital. Since she doesn't remember him anyway, he can distance himself from his problems, attributing them to a hospitalized friend. He reflects on why he would chase after her when he has a family: to let off steam, have an adventure, feel handsome again, feel like he knows something that young people don't. But, then he seems to get to the crux of the matter. He realizes that his life with his wife and daughter is a "temporary bandage on a permanent wound." He, too, is haunted by the phantom of whatever created his wound in the first place.

Megan's mother tells her that she's chasing a phantom as she yearns for a life as an actor and condemns her for refusing to give Don a family. She is haunted by her nasty mother as well.

Roger is also haunted by Lane's suicide and seeks to be with Marie--and take acid again--to escape the phantom. "One of my partners ended it all," he tells Megan's mother. He thinks one would really have to "be sure you're going someplace better." He wonders if we can make 'here' better. And thinks another acid trip would help.

This was a rather fragmented episode and a bit anti-climactic after the high drama of the last two, but it still held the sadness and, like the closing line, raised more questions than answers. Questions for next season to tackle: does Megan have any talent and will her pursuit of this "phantom" lead anywhere after the Beauty and the Beast commercial? Will Pete have the courage to act on his self-awareness and confront Trudy with his unhappiness in their life? Or will he just go back to acting out and stuffing his feelings? What would Trudy do--how would she respond--if Pete were to leave her? Will Beth and Howard keep recurring as characters? Will Beth ever be free from her demons? How will Don continue to deal with his independent wife?

Oh--and it was great to see Peggy again! I was worried she might be gone for good or only back sporadically. She seemed--in the closing montage--to be the only one who was really happy with being alone.

(I'll post a season wrap-up later in the week.)

Sunday, June 3, 2012


Mad Men, Season Five, Episode Twelve, "Commissions and Fees"

Another terribly sad episode tonight. There have been several references to suicide during this season, including "Lady Lazarus" and Pete's mention of his life insurance policy clause in the midst of his seeming depression; while I'm not surprised about Lane, it was disturbing to watch his demise unfold. Lane Pryce was a character who almost always did what he was supposed to do. He endured life under his father's boot (literally, in one episode last season), left England for America when the old firm demanded, put up much of his own money when invited to form SCDP, gave up his American lover and rejoined his unhappy marriage at his father's demand, paid his taxes to England, and tonight wrote a resignation letter when told by Don to resign--then promptly did what he apparently saw to be the honorable action when he'd been exposed for acting dishonorably. Dutifully donning the mantle of traditional husband and father, he saw to the finances and never confided in his wife about their money problems. Their lack of parity and communication led her to be so deceived as to believe he was flush in both cash and success so that she decided to celebrate by purchasing him a Jaguar, both symbol of his firm moving up in the world and the reason why his Christmas bonus plan to cover his taxes didn't fly. In a bitter bit of ironic, black humor, this Jaguar won't start when he has rigged it with rubber tubing in the exhaust pipe. His second passive/agressive, symbolic choice of location is in his office--behind the door, where so much underhanded and unethical happenings occur in the firm.

But, this show is strewn with men who were treated cruelly by their fathers (Don and, to a lesser extent, Pete) or mistreated by others in different settings when young. After Glenn reveals to Sally that he is being bullied by older students at school, she tells him, "Henry got picked on when he was little. Now he runs the city." We don't know of any abuses that Roger endured, but both he and Don survived the hell of war. Almost all of them are scarred in one way or another. But, while Lane turns all of that into duty and onto himself, others turn it outward. Tonight we saw Don do that with relish. He decides, after his encounter with Lane, that he needs to take a new direction. Does this come from seeing Lane beg and deciding he needs to be more agressive with the businesses that looked down on him for the letter? From reminding himself--along with Lane--that he'd already "started over a lot" and needed to do so again? I don't know, but he heads into Roger's office, pours himself a drink, and announces, "I don't like what we're doing. . . I'm tired of this piddly shit." He's not happy with Jaguar; he wants Chevy. And he's no longer going to put up with any fallout from the letter. He demands that Roger get him a meeting with Ed Baxter of Dow Chemical and is even willing to fire Ken Cosgrove if Ken gets in the way of them acquiring his father-in-law's business. In a most un-Lane-like way, Don assertively argues the reasons Dow should dump its current ad firm to give its business to his, demonstrating his understanding of what advertising is all about: success and happiness ("even though success is a reality, its effects are temporary; you get hungry even thought you've just eaten"; and "What is happiness? It's a moment before you need more happiness.") He even offers a slogan to sell the Dow product that young people are protesting outside the offices--Napalm: "When our boys are fighting and they need it, when America needs it, Dow makes it"--masking a don't-give-a-shit-about-the-effects profiteering attitude as Lane Pryce-type devotion to duty. Whatever happens to him, I can't imagine Don Draper ever committing suicide. But, when his partner does, he is the one person who insists, "You can't leave him [hanging there] like that" and goes--with Pete and Roger--into his office, faces the horribly distorted face of the corpse, removes it from the door, and gently lies Lane's body on the couch.

The only positive counter to all of this is Sally's and Betty's interactions after Sally has her first period. I don't know how many times Sally has professed her hatred for her mother this season, but when she feels embarrassed about beginning to mentstruate while at the museum with Glenn, it is to her mother she runs (or takes a cab, running up a $25 fare for Henry to pay). It was touching to see her throw herself into her mother's arms, and Betty--for all of her horrible parenting skills at most times--handles this so well. Like Lane, Betty is someone who has lived her life the way others expect, but here she doesn't push that on to her daughter. Lying on the bed with Sally, she tells her, "There's a lot of responsibilities, but that's what being a woman is." But, she doesn't--as would be common in 1967--tell her that marriage and children are definitely her future. Instead, she tells Sally, "It means everything is ready for a baby when you want one." When YOU want one (not IF--but, again, it is 1967). Sally has choices in Betty's eyes. That's a big step forward. Glen too. When Don gets into the elevator with his former neighbor's son, he listens to a statement that could have come from Lane, who is weighing so heavily on Don's mind: "Why does everything turn out crappy? Everything you want to do, everything you think is going to make you happy turns to crap." "You're too young to talk that way," Don responds, but then asks him what he would do if he could do anything--he wonders what Glen would CHOOSE. Interestingly, instead of responding with some large life/career choice, Glen goes for what would make him happy in the moment: he drives Don's car. The young people are driving forward. We can hope. That's what this otherwise too sad episode has to offer to stave off despair.

Monday, May 28, 2012

It's All in the Eyes

Mad Men, Season Five, Episode Eleven, "The Other Woman"

Well, this episode certainly redeemed the show, quality-wise, after the lousy one of last week. Joan and Peggy have always been at very different points on the spectrum of means for women to get ahead in business: Joan--despite being highly-intelligent and talented--has often used her sex appeal and Peggy has--despite Joan's advice in the show's very first episode--gone for using her brains and talent. Those differences were highlighted in heartbreaking ways in this installment. Season Five has repeatedly driven home the theme of commodification in American culture and this episode developed that motif masterfully. Advertising is all about selling and buying, and for decades has used sexy women and cars to create male consumers' desire for a product. This thoughtful script constructs a scenario to demonstrate how in the world of business and advertising, sexy women=cars; they are the objects to be bought and sold. AND, it uses advertising itself to critique that idea.

Both Joan and Peggy have furthered their careers tonight: Joan is now a partner at SCDP and Peggy has a new job as a chief copywriter for another agency at quite a good salary. One could argue that Peggy, too, had to sell herself--that everyone has to sell themselves in business. When Pete first pitches the idea to Joan, she says, "You're talkng about prostitution." "I'm talking about business--at a very high level," he retorts. Business=prostitution. But, anyone who thinks that Joan's transaction is not qualitatively different from Peggy's or any other person's business transactions has only to look at her eyes when Herb, the head of the Jaguar dealers' association, begins to undress her and when he talks to her in bed after they've had sex. Her eyes glaze over and focus nowhere; she is gone. This is a woman who was raped by her own fiancee. She knows what coerced sex is. And, this is it. She's not raped, but she is coerced. Not technically, of course. Bert Cooper even tells Pete Campbell, "Let her know she can still say 'no.'" But, the feminist philosopher, Marilyn Frye, has written of coercion that it involves someone being offered two bad options, the least bad of which is the one that the offerer wants the other to accept. This is what the partners do to Joan with their offer. She can either sleep with this man or tell the office why they have lost the account--on account of her. She can sleep with this man and get something that will really benefit her family. Joan knows that, despite her skills and contributions to the company, she'll never be made partner and have the kind of financial stability she and her son need. It's 1967. Yes, she'll be just another in a long line of women who slept their way up the ladder, but she will get up that ladder. So, she's chosen. No big deal. That's what Pete Campbell thinks: "We've come too far and are too close to turning this place into what it should be," he tells the partners minus Don. "Now, we're going to walk away? Over what?" This is nothing, he basically says. Roger--Joan's former lover and father of her child--terms it "dirty business," but won't stop it. Only Don--Don Draper, the former user of women extraordinaire--knows different and refuses to participate in the agency-as-pimp-enterprise. And, he's right--just look at Joan's eyes.

Don's pitch to the Jaguar men is fascinating. He develops the tag line that Michael Ginsberg came up with: "At Last. Something Beautiful You Can Truly Own." Michael and Don seem to have developed a rapport. Perhaps it comes from them intuitively knowing that they both have a troubled and secret past/childhood. Neither is bluebooded like Roger and Pete. Neither really fits in. This gives each an edge. I love Ginsberg's introduction of his idea to Don: "I kept imagining the asshole who's going to want this car." He, like Don, knows that for some people "nothing's enough." Don and Michael feel disdain for these people. They're the cynical ad men that Megan rails against earlier in the season. But, Don also has some profound psychological understanding of people. He understands desire and how he can use people's desire to his and his clients' advantage. But,in this pitch, he masterfully speaks truth about desire and how to work with it to sell cars AND critique his audience at the same time. He opens up talking about beauty: "when deep beauty is encountered, it arouses deep emotions. Because it creates a desire--as it is, by nature, unattainable." These beautiful things are always out of reach. The camera keeps cutting from Don's pitch to the scene of Joan with Herb in his hotel room the night before. And Don is explicitly targetting his campaign to those men who lust after just women's bodies. "I thought about a man of some means, reading Playboy or Esquire and flipping past the flesh to the shiny, painted curves of this car." At one level, we're supposed to see Joan as the beautiful "thing" that is desired--like the car. Herb--listening to Don's pitch--seems pretty pleased with himself. He is likely thinking that he got the woman he wanted and can have any Jaguar he wants. He sees himself as different than the man to whom Don is aiming the campaign, the man "who can have the Jaguar," but not the beautiful woman. And this is what advertisers always have to do--flatter their audience members. But, Don is also skewering Herb--whom he hopes he has kept Joan away from. For Don isn't just talking about beautiful women here. He refers to "deep beauty." Refers to "deep beauty" in the context of an ad about Jaguars--a car that he has admitted to others that he doesn't like. He doesn't think Jaguars are beautiful. And if they do have any beauty, it is just surface beauty. Joan, on the other hand, has the "deep beauty" that Don names. And, Don knows that Joan is deeply beautiful. We saw it in his interactions with her last episode. We saw it in his defense of her and his pleas not to sleep with Herb--who only sees her surface beauty. Joan's deep beauty has aroused deep emotions in Don--and they are not emotions that lead him to try to bed her. He is set apart from the other men in the episode in this recognition and it is a sign of how much his character has evolved. His reaction to his wife, who wants not only to pursue her dream, but perhaps to do it in a different city for awhile is at first to try to quash her. But then with Megan, too, he realizes that he cannot do that. And, this emerges in his pitch as well. He moves, at the end, from talking about cars to talking about Megan: "Oh, this car, this thing...if they weren't pretty, if they weren't temperamental, if they weren't beyond our reach and a little out of our control, would we love them like we do?" He's coming to recognize that women aren't necessarily his to control. Not Megan. And not Peggy either.

The scene between Peggy and Don was moving. She decided to take the high road and decide first if she really wanted to pursue another position, not just use it to "throw in Don's face" and get more respect and a raise. She made a good choice for her career, I think, and a good move to show Don that she's serious. Despite his arrogant "Let's pretend I'm not responsible for every good thing that ever happened to you," he seems stunned and saddened to have her go. When he took her proffered hand and kissed it, he seemed to be expressing his feeling for her and, perhaps, acknwledging some of her "deep beauty" that he can never truly possess. And, he lets her go. She, like Megan, is beyond his control. Don is in the process of becoming a liberated man, even as the women in his life are still constrained by the sexism they swim in.

I feel so sad for Joan and I will miss Peggy. I hope she's not off the show completely.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Knowing What We Want

Mad Men, Season Five, Episode Ten, "Christmas Waltz"

If there is one, the commerical message brought to us tonight--in this confused, artlessly disjointed episode--seems to be: This world is all about selling, materialism, and consumerism, so we might as well figure out what we truly want--what really makes us happy--and go for it. Whether it's an advertising firm on Madison Avenue or a new spiritual movement like the Hare Krishnas (started in New York in 1966), the episode paints a picture of commodities, bodies, and ideas for sale. Overall, I didn't find it that interesting. While I don't have any affinity for the Hare Krishnas--and don't really know much about them--I found the scene between Harry and Lakshmi, designed to make the episode's negative assessment of the group, to be unbelievable and troubling. And, the whole financial crisis of Lane seemed to come out of the blue and all of a sudden show an unethical side to him that I didn't expect--and didn't really make sense to me. He is in financial trouble--owing back taxes to England that he doesn't have the funds to cover--so instead of going to the partners and asking them for an advance, he borrows $50,000 for the firm, forges Don's signature on a check to himself, then tries to sell the partners on the idea of paying themselves and the staff Christmas bonuses, stat. Pete continues his pathetic attempts to sell everyone on the idea that he deserves more respect and praise than they give him for bringing in a chance at accounts like Jaguar's ("No one has given me the reaction I desire from this blessed event.") The Hare Krishnas--while promoting a spiritual move away from the "gross materialism" represented by places like Madison Avenue--are, in this representation, very similar to advertising firms. They have their ad man in Paul Kinsey, who is their "best recruiter," who "really can close," and Lakshmi, the former prostitute, who offers her body to Harry in a play to keep him away from Kinsey ("I'm trading the only thing I have.") There's Kinsey, who still can't figure out how to be happy, so he moves from advertising to the Hare Krishnas, to bad teleplay writing. Advertising takes a hit from the experimental theater production that Megan and Don attend. It pisses Don off, to Megan's bemusement: "I've heard you say a lot worse things about advertising," she tells him. She thought the play was more a statement about the "emptiness of consumerism." "People buy things," Don retorts, "because it makes them feel better."

I've felt better about most other Mad Men episodes, but this one had one fabulous segment: Don and Joan at the Ferrari store and at the bar. I loved seeing them together, watching Don go out of his way to help her when she's going through a rough time; loved that Joan had someone there for her on the day she got served with divorce papers; loved their playful banter, the way they looked at each other--sort of flirting, but not really; loved how they just naturally and easily could speak truth with each other: When Don tells her that the Ferrari "does nothing for me," she responds--with insight into the theme of commodification of life, "You're happy; you don't need it." When Joan finally admits that she's going to be getting divorced, Don offers the unusual, "Congratulations. . . . No one knows how bad it needs to get before that happens. Now you can move on." Don looks debonair next to Joan, wearing his hat at a rakish angle, sitting in a cigarette smoke-filled bar with the buxom Joan, who is also out-of-date, but still beautiful. The scene had a nostalgic feel to it--an escape from the crass, chaotic, and confusing new world the characters inhabit. Lately, when Don is with Megan, he looks old and stuffy. Not in this scene with Joan. He was the old, charming, sexy Don Draper again. Perhaps because that's how Joan sees him: "You're irresistable," she tells him at one point. As they're discussing the lonely-looking man at the bar, with whom Don suggests Joan might dance, Don says (in reference to the fact that the man probably has a wife at home and hitting at what seems to be the theme of the night), "he doesn't know what he wants."

Don drunkenly goes home to a wife who definitely knows what she wants: a career in acting, not advertising. And a husband who will come home to have dinner--with her. The old rules from Don's former marriage, that allowed him to come home whenever he felt like it--or not at all--to a wife who had put some dinner aside for him and never asked questions--those rules don't apply anymore. "Now sit down. You're going to eat dinner with me," Megan yells after throwing a plate of spaghetti across the room, angry that Don left work at noon and never called her to tell her he'd be coming home so late. But, more importantly, she hones in on his ennui with his job. He's let all of these jabs about advertising, the new changes in the culture, his failures--for example,in the eyes of the Cancer Society board members--get to him. But, Megan knows that it's all about loving what you do: "You used to love your work," she tells him. And, he gets it together. He seems to realize that this ad work--being creative--is what he loves, whether Megan loves it or not. He returns to work and gives a great Don Draper pep talk to the staff about pulling together to get the Jaguar account: "Every agency on Madison Avenue is defined by the moment they got their car. When we land Jaguar, the world will know we've arrived." With that speech, the episode arrived--though it had to meander through a bunch of worthless, boring stuff to get there. But Joan and Don, and Don and Megan made it. It feels like Don Draper--the good parts of Don Draper--is back again.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Vampires and Happiness

Mad Men, Season Five, Episode Nine, "Dark Shadows"

While this episode only features "Dark Shadows" briefly beyond the title--in the scene in which Megan is helping her friend Joyce prepare an audition for the supernatural soap opera--the vampires are lurking in the shadows everywhere, ready to drink the blood of others to compensate for some lack in their lives. Deprivation is the central theme, from the opening image of Betty sadly weighing her cheese for her small diet meal to the closing focus on her scantily-filled plate on Thanksgiving. "Don't go around hoping that happiness will come. . . . Take some," croons the singer over the credits. Yet none of the featured characters--except perhaps Megan (and even she is feeling deprived in the face of her friend's success)--know how to approach happiness for themselves without hurting someone else in the process. They all seem to see happiness as a zero-sum game: there's only so much to go around and if I'm going to get more, then someone else has to have less.

Betty parrots the self-help talk she's being taught in Weight Watchers to Henry when he's lamenting his choice to leave Gov. Rockefeller to work for Mayor Lindsay. "It's aways easy to blame our problems on others, but we're in charge," she tells him. But when her attempts to control her food intake bare all the discontent that she had been burying under over-eating, her means of taking charge are--as usual--passive-aggressive. She takes out her unhappiness on her ex-husband. After seeing the inside of the new Draper apartment, the slim Megan getting dressed, and a sappy love note Don wrote to Megan on the back side of a picture Bobby had drawn, Betty tells Sally about her father's 'first wife,' suggesting she go to Megan for more information. But, Don--having learned a rare lesson from the failure of his actual first marriage--had already told Megan about Anna and Dick, so Sally's question doesn't create the havoc that Betty was hoping for. Not for the first time, Megan displays some wisdom beyond her years when she stops Don from calling Betty in anger: "If you call her, you're giving her exactly what she wanted--the thrill of having poisoned us from fifty miles away." She's got it. Poisoning others--or trying to suck the blood out of their relationship--rather than face up to the source of her own unhappiness, is what Betty the vampire goes for. As Don points out to Sally, "You should know your mother doesn't care about hurting you, she only wants to hurt us." Betty is about hurting others to compensate for her own hurt. I feel for her, though. Her relegation to the periphery this season is demonstrated in numerous ways: the costume designers have her dressed in boring, middle-aged woman dresses, shoes with square heels, and the frumpiest button-up-to-the-chin nightgown for bed. When she was married to Don, she always wore sleeveless, silky or chiffony sleepwear. Not only has she gained weight, but there is nothing sexy or modern about anything Betty wears--in contrast to Megan who is clothed in stylish slacks, colorful blouses, and sits cross-legged on the floor to give Sally acting lessons in how to cry on demand. Betty lives in a very traditional looking suburban house and we hardly see her anywhere in it but the kitchen. No bedroom scenes between her and Henry, we see them at night in the kitchen, when neither can sleep and Henry cooks himself a steak since he "can't eat fish five nights a week." But, while I empathize with Betty and her unhappy life, I'm frustrated by her continued inability to figure out what it is she really wants--or face up to the facts of what she probably knows: that suburban housewifery isn't cutting it for her. Her decision to exchange one dissatisfying husband for another was the wrong one. The Weight Watchers leader tells the group before Thanksgiving, "The food is just a symbol of all the other things. We should fill ourselves up with our children, our husbands, our homes." Betty looks disturbed hearing this. She knows that her children, husband, and home aren't enough to fill her, yet she lacks the courage to search for what truly would make a difference. So, on Thanksgiving, she sits with her scanty plate of food and offers the childish statement of thanks: "I'm thankful that I have everything I want and nobody has anything better." It's a lie and she knows it, but until she's willing to do the hard work of going after what's not a lie, all she will be is a vampire, sucking the blood of those around her--but not truly nourishing herself.

Pete Campbell is another childish vampire who feels deprived of the happiness he'd like to experience, but doesn't know what it would entail. So, like Betty, he goes after what his privileged culture tells him should make him happy: in his case, the next professional success and another submissive woman. When these elude him, he lashes out, rather than do the hard work of searching within for what might really lead him to contentment. He clearly enjoys getting on the elevator with three of the named partners of his firm and gloating over his new "friend" at the New York Times, who wants to write a story about the "hip" firms, including SCDP. But, he crows, they shouldn't expect to be interviewed because the reporter "just wants to talk to me." Come Sunday, however, the paper's magazine includes the story without any reference to their agency. Pete wakes Don with an angry phone call; he looks disheveled and old in his pajamas and rumpled hair, sputtering into the phone, indignant at being left out. Don snaps at him: "Don't wake me up to throw your failures in my face." Pete is only thirty-two years old, already a junior partner in an up-and-coming firm, but sees nothing but failures littered across his path. He also has the other symbol of success for the upper-class: a suburban wife and child, but he's not happy with them either, so continues to desire another man's wife. He lamely fantasizes that the Times Magazine article will bring Howard's wife back to him, imagining her sliding into his office dressed only in black leather underwear under her coat. When this doesn't materialize either and he has to listen to Howard crow about his "girl" in the city, Pete nastily suggests that his train buddy spend Thanksgiving in the city with his girlfriend and Pete will go to his house and screw his wife. "Good luck with that," the startled Howard laughs, but then muses, "I guess the grass is always greener, right?" He's right; Pete is always looking with jealousy at the other side, so he's always sucking any happiness out of the side that he's on--and the people like Trudy and Don and Roger who live there with him.

Roger is the ultimate vampire of the episode as he seeks to compensate for his greatly decreased professional prestige by going after the Manischewitz account and sucking the blood out of both Michael and Jane in the process. It was rather sad watching Bert Cooper approach Roger with the secret news of the chance at the "Jewish wine" account. "Don't you think we can do this on our own?" he asks. "Pete Campbell's good for our business, but this requires your finesse--and your Semitic wife." Roger still has finesse, but he's dumped his Jewish wife and lacks ideas, so he needs to go hunting. In a replay of his transaction with Peggy earlier in the season, he this time calls Michael into his office (Jews are clearly so "other" to Roger that he couldn't possibly do business with Jewish clients without Jewish input) and pays him $200 in cash for a couple of good ideas that he wants "by sundown on Friday." "You can wipe your ass with 200 bucks," the always direct Ginsberg tells Roger, who just muses to himself, "I gotta start carrying less cash." The $200 buys him a great ad idea to sell to the wine maker over dinner and, to Roger's credit, he doesn't directly claim the idea as his own, rather alluding to having picked the brains of the creative people to be able to show them what the agency is capable of. Michael can take pretty good care of himself, though being bled for his ideas. The price for Jane's participation in the evening is much higher. She complains to Roger that their apartment has too many memories for her and she can't really start her life over until she's living someplace new. He buys her a new apartment because, of course, if an insensitive Gentile like Roger is going to meet Jewish clients, he thinks he has to be able to show them that he thinks "Jewish women are the most beautiful women in the world." But, Jane's new apartment is going to cost her more than an appearance at Roger's business dinner. On the way back, he demands to be shown what he's just paid a lot of money for and, once inside, makes a move on her. She tries, if rather feebly, to get him to stop, but we next see them the morning after, Roger happily and obliviously walking out of the bathroom to a despondent Jane, wrapped in a blanket on the couch: "You ruined this," she tells him, since now this apartment will have memories of their failed relationship too. "You get everything you want. And you still had to do this," she justifiably throws at him. "I feel terrible," he responds, unconvincingly. He is the unmodern vampire without a conscience.

Finally, we have Don--an intended victim of Betty's vampirism, turning vampire himself on employees when it suits him. It was fun seeing Don be creative again. Going through Ginsberg's "shit I gotta do" folder sparked something in him and he stayed late at work dictating his ideas into a tape recorder and pitching them with the others at their meeting the next morning. He was smiling, clearly enjoying himself as one of the creative group, rather than just the boss listening to ideas. Michael--always the direct one--tells Don how impressed he is that he can not write for so long and then come up with the great devil idea. But, while Michael's funny snowball fight idea for the Sno Ball ad campaign is supposed to be sold along with Don's to the client, Don leaves it in the cab and just pitches his own. "I don't like going in with two ideas," he tells Michael when confronted. "It's weak." Don's ambition and desire for something to add to his own portfolio take over as he goes in for the bite. "I feel bad for you," Ginsberg, the double blood donor of the evening, tells him. "I don't think about you at all," Don retorts. Like Roger, he is in a position of power, ready and able to suck what he needs from others to maintain his position. Dark shadows indeed.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

"Out of the Ash"

Mad Men, Season Five, Episode Eight, "Lady Lazarus"

Okay--perhaps I spend too much time puzzling out--and reading into--the titles of these episodes, but really--why would Matt Weiner name an episode "Lady Lazarus" and not have a closer reading of Sylvia Plath's 1962 poem in mind? The episode's title has got to infer more than just Megan being "reborn" (a la the subject of Jesus' raising-from-the-dead miracle) from the 'deadly' job of copy writer (ouch to Peggy) to the life-affirming job of actress. That's way too trite an interpretation (well, I hope, at least, that he's more knowledgeable about Plath than just reading titles). First, Megan is no corpse just lying around waiting for a savior to bring her back to life. Second, the title of this installment is the exact same as the title of Sylvia Plath's brilliant poem that ends with the stanza "Out of the ash/I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air." Take that, Ted Hughes--er Don Draper... So, my cynical question for the evening is: just how good an actress is Megan? It's not been much more than a year since the day she--Don's secretary--slid into his office, told him she thought she'd like to have a job like his or Peggy's someday, and seduced him, telling him "I just want you now," that she wouldn't go crying about this the next day. Over the course of that year, she became Don's wife, got the copywriting job she said she wanted, demonstrated some real talent at it, suffered an existential crisis about missing acting, and is now--voila--back in acting school, financially supported by Don. Now, I'm not necessarily suggesting that she's completely Machiavellian. She might really have fallen for Don (he is the charming Don Draper, after all) and care for him. AND she might have thought from early on--having watched him from her desk by his office as he struggled with the hell that was his post-divorce year--that she could snag him and get what she wants from him. She does move perfectly from her 'scene' in the bathroom with Peggy to acting out the potential Cool-Whip commercial with Don. The tears that spring to her eyes when she says 'good-bye' to her fellow-copywriters seemed a bit overdone to me. Joan certainly seems to see Megan from this un-romantic, practical (okay, cynical) perspective: "She's going to be a failing actress with a rich husband." For those of you who disagree, Peggy will offer support for your position: "No, I think she's just one of those girls who's good at everything." Joan and Peggy are probably the two smartest characters on the show, though Peggy can be more naive. Who's right here? Is it an either/or proposition? I'm not even certain, but I think the situation raises intriguing possibilities.

Whatever Megan's prime motivation for being with Don, though, she's making him a better man. While he--and Roger--don't quite get the follow-your-dream manifesto of the younger generation ("I was raised in the '30s. My dream was indoor plumbling," Don says.), he is expanding his perspective--particularly on women: "Why shouldn't she do what she wants? I don't want her to end up like Betty. Or her mother," he says to Roger, not aware of what went down with Roger and Megan's mother last week (pun intended). He is surely evolving, though he's not quite ready for the psychedelic Beatles. Before Megan gave him "Revolver," he couldn't even tell the difference between the old song the clients with the "Hard Day's Night" ad wanted to use and a song of the Beatles. He was, after all, the man who said he'd wear earplugs when accompanying his daughter to Shea Stadium the year before. But, he pours a drink and sits down to listen to "Tomorrow Never Knows": "Turn off your mind; relax and float down stream. It is not dying." He flips the music off and heads to his bedroom before too much of it plays, but he is not "dying." In some ways, he's been re-born into a new life--another Lazarus of the episode.

Meanwhile Pete Campbell seems to be trying to live Don's old life--and failing miserably at it. He's got all of the old Don's bad behavior, yet none of his charm and interesting inner conflicts. And none of Don's ability to pick interesting mistresses. The women Don slept with while married to Betty--and after his divorce--were always very different from her. He fled his bored and boring housewife to spend time with women who were professionals, creative-types, and usually had minds of their own. Pete leaves his own disappointing--and disappointed? she's got to be--housewife at home to go and woo someone else's disappointed housewife. But, mostly Pete's problem is that he sees male/female relationships as a zero-sum game: "Why do they get to decide what's going to happen?" he whines to Harry after Beth insists their liaison won't be repeated. "They just do," replies the equally dissatisfied Harry. Pete and Harry both feel that since they're not happy with how their relationships are going--since they're not winning what they want--that the women must be winning. There has to be a winner and a loser. Yet, the women in their lives aren't really happy either. They're not in places that are good for them. Don, to his credit, wants Megan to be in a place that's good for her. He really has grown--a lot. He's joined the second half of the sixties, while Pete--despite staying up-to-date with literature, reading the post-modern-ish "Crying of Lot 49" on the train--remains a 1950s man, through and through.

So, while it remains to be seen what will happen in and to Don's and Megan's marriage, Don is a better man and a better person now. Pete--as almost always--is just a creep. And, I'll be intrigued to see how Joan and Peggy's debate about Megan gets resolved. What do you think: Megan Draper, Sylvia Plath's Lady Lazarus or just someone who's rebirthing herself as an actress?

Monday, April 30, 2012

Parents and Children

Mad Men, Season Five, Episode Seven, "At the Codfish Ball"

I didn't know what "codfish ball" referred to. A Bing search revealed that it's the title of a song Shirley Temple sang in a movie about a poor orphan who finds out she's really a rich child; the identity she thought was hers turns out to be false. The lyrics are goofy, sort of Shel Silverstein-ish, about the large variety of fish who are dancing at the bottom of the sea. The song ends with the comment that "there won't be a hook in sight" at the codfish ball. Like the Mad Men characters, these fish are dancing away in their own worlds, unaware of what's above the surface where those fishing boats are lurking, ready to drop the hooks at any moment. The closing image of the Cancer Society dinner was fabulous and chilling with the line-up at the table of Megan's father, her mother, Megan, Don, and Sally: all of them having just had an encounter that challenges their identity and/or perception of their world, sitting so close together and yet each seeming an island to him or herself. The "hook" has struck; the psychic puncture wounds are clear on their faces. In these and in other challenging encounters of the episode, the "hook" comes from parent (or parent-type figure) to child. And, it's left to the quickly growing and maturing adolescent, Sally, to be able to articulate what's wrong with the sea in which these people swim: "it's dirty." Her closing line--and the last word of this installment--refers not just to the illicit sex scene she walks in on between Roger--her father's friend/partner--and her step-grandmother, but also to the manipulations, deceits, and layers of behind-one's-back maneuverings that make up this grown-up world she's entered for the evening. Don wanted to keep her from growing up too fast by making her remove the make-up she had on before the dinner. But, the very event itself caused an awareness and a growing up more profound than that represented by make-up. And, the only person she has with whom to process it all is the creepy Glenn: two kids trying to make meaning out of the crazy world their too-often neglectful, preoccupied parents and other adults have made for them. During the last episode in which Sally appeared, she was left on her own to try to figure out what a mass murder/sexual assault of eight women meant; this time, she has to figure out what the often-narcissistic misbehavior of the adults in her world means.

What I liked most about this episode was the shift in Don's and Megan's relationship. While last week, Don was the authoritarian, verging-on-violent, older husband to a very-young-in-some-scenes Megan, this week they became equals: both as creative copy-writers and as insecure children looking for the approval of her parents. I've been wondering if Megan has any talent or just had dreams and the ability to sleep/marry her way into the job opportunity she was granted. Turns out she not only has the seeds of good ideas in her head, but also the ability, timing, and political savvy to sell them. Don clearly didn't know if she had talent either, since he seemed pretty surprised when she expressed her concept of the beans campaign. When she offers an alternative tagline, he says, "That's actually better." Later on--after the dinner with Heinz--he tells her, with amazement in his voice, "You're good at all of it!" And, it's a turn-on to him. To his credit, he's not threatened by a wife who shows promise in his own field. It's clearly good for his business and good for their sex life. Yet, Megan is after not just Don's approval, but also that of her parents, particularly her father. And, her intellectually Marxist father doesn't like her husband, his money, or their chosen professions. So, Megan is a bit stuck. At the end, she's pushed by her father to shift her loyalty to his ideals: "This apartment, this wealth that someone gives you. This is what Karl Marx was talking about. And it's not because someone else deserves it. It's because it's bad for your soul." He claims to have hoped she'd follow her dreams and wonders if advertising is really her "passion." These are not unreasonable questions. And Megan clearly needs to figure out what SHE really wants to do, regardless of what these two important men in her life think. Yet, there are a lot of things that are bad for the soul and Megan's father is clearly not one who lives a life of proletarian struggle. Growing up with parents who fight, have affairs, drink to the point of passing out with a lit cigarette in hand, and engage in what appear to be petty sexual one-upmanship exercises to spite the other are not good for a child's soul. Sally and her step-mother apparently have something in common here. Megan's "soul," if you will, has been "hooked" at the end, torn between her father's vision for her, that of Don, and the question of what she herself really wants from life.

For Don, the "hook" comes from the authority figures that sit on the board of the American Cancer Society. They know that he wrote his letter about quitting tobacco for cynical reasons; he knows he wrote it for cynical reasons; yet, as ACS Board members, they give him an award--since on the surface his letter represents their ideals--while at the same time, as individual business people, they withhold their trust and their business from him since they can't trust someone who "bit the hand..." Don is stunned at this "hook." What he thought had saved his business is shown to have limited it. And, the approval that Archie Whitman's son is always searching for--even while Don Draper scorns it--is withheld. He has what turns out to be just another empty award, a talented wife who is questioning her role in his world, and a daughter deeply disillusioned by it all.

Then, there's Peggy--who has long struggled with issues of work and possible marriage/children. It was sad to see her get so excited about a possible marriage proposal. I didn't know how she'd react when Joan brought up that possibility. Likely, she didn't either. She was clearly disappointed, but partly because she, too, as independent as she is, looks for the approval of others like Joan--and of her mother. I ached for her while her mother was chastising her for her choice. Her posture and facial expression were so demoralized. Yet, as much as I dislike her mother, she made some good points in 1966--as Megan's father did to her. Like Megan, Peggy needs to figure out what she really wants to do--beyond what Abe and her mother want from and for her.

And, finally, there's Sally, who is, once again, left on her own to figure out things she shouldn't have to figure out by herself after she--for the second time this season--looks for a bathroom and instead finds grown-ups in a space that isn't for her to see. Don and Megan were at least in their own bedroom and not actually engaged in a sex act when Sally saw her naked step-mother there in the season's first episode. Hedonistic Roger and Megan's mother (who I'm assuming was largely out to spite her husband, but I don't know her character well enough to confidently assert motivation) co-opted what's really a public space for their indulgence. The authority figures here are not behaving like good authority figures and so she's left to turn to Glenn--who still creeps me out. It will be interesting to see how Sally negotiates through her growing up years.

And, finally, though on a somewhat different note, I just have to give a shout-out to Peggy for her congratulations to Megan. It was heartening to see a successful woman supportive of another when so often, on this show, they don't behave that way.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

"What a Short, Strange Trip It Was"

Mad Men, Season Five, Episode Six, "Far Away Places"

This second half of the '60s in which the Mad Men characters now dwell is taking them to some "far away places," but they're not places one needs to hop onto a plane or into a car to travel to; one need only delve deeply into the mind--or into the nature of important relationships. And if a little LSD might help to jumpstart the journey, well, they're lucky it's 1966. The entire episode felt surreal and had me questioning what was really happening. The broken chronology; the fact that everything happened in just one day, when it felt like the time span was much longer; the questioning of 'truth,' 'reality,' what's 'good' and 'bad' that occurs at the dinner party (and by Ginsberg, who feels a sense of unreality in his tragic birthplace and subsequent time in an orphanage)-- all of these made the entire episode feel rather trippy. But, as it turns out, the most perplexing problem of the episode is the prosaic issue that these characters have been challenged with before--that of gender. More precisely, we watch middle-aged men (and even the otherwise radical Abe), who are used to calling the shots, setting the terms for their relationships with women, and controlling their wives have to contend with things not going the way they wanted them to go. And these changes don't make for an easy trip.

Roger Sterling has always been cavalier in his approach to women. He maintained that his long-term affair with Joan was one of the heart, but then left his wife for the much-younger secretary Jane, assured in his sense of entitlement that this was the right thing for him to do and that it would lead to happiness. He was wrong. While in tonight's episode, he tells Jane, "I did [like you]. I really did." It's been a long time, though, since he did. She and he have nothing in common. It's Joan he repeatedly goes back to, on the last occasion making her pregnant. He's accepted the script of his time, though, that women are not his equals and so Joan would have been difficult for him. He likes the idea, though, that he and Jane are leaving each other. "It was so beautiful." He and she (who, surprising to me has been seeing a female psychiatrist who has helped her realize that life with Roger isn't working out) are accepting the 'truth' of their relationship and moving on.

At the same time that Roger and Jane take their acid trip, Don and Megan take a trip to Montreal to visit a Howard Johnson hotel/restaurant, a potential client. While with the Sterlings, Jane was pushing for both the trip to the dinner party and the taking of LSD, with the Drapers, Don pushed this trip on Megan. She was part of the team that put the Heinz campaign together (it's still hard to tell if she has any talent or not), yet Don pulls her away to visit the hotel with him: "There has to be some advantage to being my wife." He really believes that she wants what he wants and Megan seems to acquiesce at first, but the more time passes, the more she lets her resentment out: "You like to work, but I don't get to like to work." She sarcastically suggests that he set up a schedule and "let me know when I'm working and when I'm your wife." When he expresses his dislike of the fact that she always talks to her mother in French (putting him in a situation where he can't be the omnipotent male), she childishly retorts, "Why don't you call your mother?" But, then when Don orders her into the car, she comes out swinging: "Get in the car. Eat ice cream. Take off your dress. Yes, Master." I can't imagine Betty ever fighting back like that. Passive aggression was her mode. Megan might betray her youth at times, but she's direct and she knows that she wants to work and have a career at the agency, not just be Don's wife. And, she's willing to fight with him for that. It's hard to say how this will work itself out. The scene toward the end--after Don has chased Megan around the apartment (thankfully, that didn't end in some weird, ritualistic sex scene like after the party)--is partly shot from above, focusing on them lying next to each other on the floor, in the same pose, same style of shot that Roger and Jane were in when they discussed their break-up. Does this signal a similar ending to Don's second marriage? Or will the fact that Megan is very different from Jane allow this to work? It clearly seems to be working for Don. He has much more interest in Megan--the spunky, modern woman--than he did in Betty or than Roger did in Jane. But, will she be able to put up with him for long? Or will she get him to change?

With Megan calling Don on his controlling behavior as a husband and Bert calling Don on his shirking of responsibilities at the agency, Don had a difficult 24 hours. At this almost half-way point in the season, will it be a turning point for him?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

"Rock-Em, Sock-Em Robots"

Mad Men, Season Five, Episode Five, "Signal 30"

Last week's episode was about violence against women and the damage that can come to women through accepting traditional myths of femininity like "Cinderella." This week's show focused on the psychic violence inflicted upon men who strive to conform to the constructs of traditional masculinity--and the physical violence to which they subject each other as they're struggling to hold onto the damaging story. (And of course, they also use women as part of the quest to prove themselves still "real men"). But this quest doesn't provide happiness and a secure sense of self. Roger Sterling, Lane Pryce, and Pete Campbell are all like the robot in Ken Cosgrove's short story. They're programmed by outside forces--cultural norms that direct them to adopt behaviors and attitudes that are supposed to give them the power of being men: they should get a prestigious New York job, make lots of money, marry the 'right' woman, prey upon and use any other women who seem desirable to them, fight with fellow men to maintain dominance and 'honor.' They do these things, but, these men are not happy. They're "miserable," as Don describes Roger. And the dissatisfaction of always being what an external force determines is wearing on them, like the constant drip of water from the faucet in the Campbells' kitchen. And so, like the sci-fi robot, they lash out and cause havoc in the lives of others around them. It is only Ken, who is able to author these stories--and with them his own self and life--and Don, of all people, who's managed to figure some things out (except how to wear a decent sport coat) who are actually the creative drivers of their own lives. And, it's not a coincidence that they are the two men married to women who have their own careers and interests while also providing emotional support to their husbands. Pete and Trudy weren't only sitting physically far from each other at the dinner table when the Cosgroves and Drapers were over to eat. They live in their separate realities and share no interests. Pete even claims that he can take no credit for the baby when she's brought out.

Tonight's story of the false promises of masculinity centered on Pete more than on the others. He's shown to be an empty shell. A man who 'has nothing,' as he tells Don, despite Don's assertions to the contrary. He stood in the elevator at the end, with his battered face and battered soul staring out of his eyes--in sharp contrast to Kenny, sitting up in bed, writing his next story that references Beethoven, about a man living unhappily in the country that "was killing him with its silence and loneliness, making everything ordinary too beautiful to bear.” . As "Ode to Joy" played for Cosgrove with the drip drip of the water in the background for Pete, I knew I should feel sorry for him, but I don't really. Just like he's shown to be in need of driving lessons now that he lives 'out in the country,' he's shown to need 'driving lessons for life.' But, like the drivers in the "Signal 30" film the episode begins with, the film that graphically shows deadly car accidents to scare drivers into safe behavior, Pete has hurt so many people along his path--used and carelessly cast them aside as he acts on his incredible sense of entitlement: from Peggy, to the young au pair whom he raped, to his wife. He behaves disrespectfully to those around him in authority like he's a 1960s youth rebelling, except he has no cause and he's actually as repressive an authority figure as any of the older men in his firm. But, he's been nasty to Roger this season and tonight directs his rude energy to Lane: "He [Jaguar guy] didn't ask you because he thinks you're a homo. . . . Our need for you disappeared the day after you fired us." As ridiculous as I think these male boxing matches to defend the ego are, I was with Roger: "I know cooler heads should prevail, but am I the only one who wants to see this?" I did and could relate to Joan who told Lane, "Everyone in this office has wanted to do that to Pete Campbell." Pete's problem seems to be that he doesn't really have any core self or identity. Don's behavior in the first four seasons could be infuriating (and it's weird to see him now be the one to take the moral high ground), but Don's problem was that he had two identities with which he needed to contend and figure out how to resolve. This complexity has always made him interesting and a sympathetic character to me. But, who is Pete? I've never had a sense of who he really is or wants to be. He's always been a bad attitude walking around committing bad behavior. As the scene with the prostitute showed, he wants someone to see him as king, but he's really nothing. As he tells Don, "I have nothing." And, sadly for him, no one cares.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Cinderella Retold--or Dealing with the Darkness

Mad Men, Season Five, Episode Four, "Mystery Date"

"You really know women," the client tells Michael Ginsberg, after he successfully pitched an ad campaign for women's shoes, focused on secrets that women hold. Ginsberg protests that he's actually baffled by women and exhibits his excellent story-telling ability by launching into a narrative about the Cinderella campaign that the copywriters initially considered, but rejected as too cliche. The tale of Cinderella--as presented in this ad--is "too dark." The fairy tale protagonist is fleeing down a dark alley, hampered in her escape by her missing shoe. She is a "wounded prey," pursued by a handsome man holding the shoe she needs. Cinderella looks back in fear, but "we know in the end, she wants to be caught," Ginsberg tells his rapt listeners.....And, so we see throughout the episode: several manifestations of this cultural myth of Cinderella that many women have bought into, only to realize that it actually is a dark story. We are prey who want to be caught, not realizing until it's too late that the handsome man is a trap. There's Sally Draper, who's trying to figure out how to negotiate her way in a world that offers her the allure of a "mystery date" knocking on her door, in the ad for the popular girls' game (I remember that commercial and spent hours playing Mystery Date with my friends when I was her age) at the same time that its headlines scream the terror of a mystery man who knocked on the door of the home of eight student nurses in Chicago. There's Joan, who also bought into the fairy tale, but has been realizing for some time that there's something wrong with the story of the handsome man in uniform who knocks on her door after returning from Vietnam. And, in a fascinating twist, there's Don, who for years had been the handsome man knocking on many women's doors and now realizes he must contend with that past and finally 'kill' it off if he is to make his marriage with Megan a success.

The episode begins on July 14, 1966, when news of the brutal rape/murders of eight young Chicago women in their South Side home hit the headlines. The women of the show don't know how to receive this news. Peggy, Joyce, and Megan look at photos Joyce brought in from her magazine, speculating about what might have happened, giggling, and seeming to enjoy them. Michael is the one who is shocked and upset at their reaction. Pauline Francis--babysitting for Betty's kids while Henry and Betty are in Albany--talks on the phone with a friend about the murders and the woman who avoided the killer by hiding under the bed. Pauline, too, is titillated as well as shocked to imagine herself having to watch and listen to the horrors perpetrated upon her friends. When Sally finally retrieves a newspaper from the trash so she can find out what's going on, she's scared--of course--and goes to Pauline, whom she hates, for meaning. "I don't understand what happened," she says. Pauline tells Sally of all the "innocent nurses" who were likely watched for some time by the man who knocked on their door, watched "in their short uniforms" that stoked his desire. "For what?!" Sally wonders. She doesn't understand how desire can have anything to do with such a horrible crime. Rape and murder aren't supposed to be part of the fairy tale, but Ginsberg is right. This tale is dark. Pauline is not capable of helping Sally construct any meaning out of this event. To all of the women, these killings are an aberration--the story gone wrong. There is no frame for understanding them. She gives Sally a sleeping pill to help her avoid her insomnia, rendering her as helpless as Sleeping Beauty at figuring out how to deal with her world.

Joan, however, has been dealing with the fairy tale gone wrong for some time now. In the first season, we heard her talk about wanting the house in the suburbs, husband, and kids--what all women were supposed to want. Yet with Greg Harris it started going wrong early on. She went forward, though, despite his apparent belief that she was his to own, not the equal partner she came to realize she wanted to be in a marriage. Upon hearing that he will be returning to Vietnam, she yells, "You can't make a decision like that without me. You've never understood that." But, what Greg understood was the fairy tale as it was supposed to be: women prey who ultimately want to be caught. What Joan wants is a different story--a story she's actually been living for years, though she wanted to see herself in the other story. From Greg's rape of her before their marriage--to put her in her place as HIS sexual property--to his inability to be a good provider to her own decisions about her pregnancy and child, Joan has not been Cinderella. And, she finally realizes that she does not need a man. In trying to justify his decision to return to war, Greg tells her, "They need me." "Well, then, it works out because we don't," she retorts. "I'm glad the Army made you feel like a man because I'm tired of trying to do it." She gets him and what's motivating him so well. When he responds that the Army has made him feel like a good man, she asserts, "You're not a good man. You never were. Even before we were married and you know what I'm talking about." YES!! How long have I been waiting--have many fans of Joan been waiting--for this? She does realize that Greg has always just seen her as "prey." And, as he's buying into the traditional story about Vietnam, war, and manhood, she casts off the traditional story about womanhood. It's too bad that Sally doesn't have Joan to talk to about what to do with the specter of Richard Speck.

And, finally--Don. When an old lover of his gets on the elevator with Megan and him, Megan wonders how many times that is going to happen. She's realizing just how unfaithful a husband he was. And, she calls him on his story of justifiable predation: "I was unhappy." "Because you were married," she says. He wants to be seen as--and see himself as--a victim. As someone who's playing out a traditional, understandable story. But, she won't have it: "That kind of careless appetite--you can't blame that on Betty." While in the season opener, she set herself up to be the object of the male gaze, in this one, she forces Don to see out of a female gaze. And, in his feverish state, the former lover comes to him, making him see how in spite of the fact that he now claims happiness, he could still end up being unfaithful. To his credit, he resists--to the point of strangling the woman to death in a most disturbing "this has to be a dream, right?" scene. Though I still couldn't help but wonder if, as Megan walked away after bringing Don some juice, if we would see some sign on her clothing or somewhere that she had disposed of the body. A thriller movie from the era would have done so. But, no--what Megan Draper may have disposed of, though, is Don the Philanderer. That would be interesting.

And--one final time: GO JOAN!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

"Sixteen Going On Seventeen"--They Wish

"Mad Men," Season Five, Episode Three, "Tea Leaves"

I liked this episode much better than last week's: the theme of the business world and their advertising campaigns' commodification of the '60s culture continued--but in a much funnier way with Don and Harry trying to get the Rolling Stones to sell a song to Heinz for a baked beans commercial; the interesting focus on the generation gap took central stage this week; I could relate to Betty for the first time in ages--she spent this episode gaining weight and worrying about a cancer scare that fortunately turned out to be benign; and I appreciate the way the series' writers decided to adapt to January Jones' pregnant body and bring out some serious issues.

The generation gap played a significant role from the opening scene's juxtaposition of images--Sally and Bobby struggling to zip Betty into her formal dress and Don easily zipping Megan's dress as he walked by--to the singing of "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" at the episode's close. Betty feels the age difference between her and Don's new wife and exaggerates it to her friend who has cancer: "Don's girlfriend--well they're married. She's twenty years old. . ." Her doctor tells her that weight gain is a problem for "middle-aged women" and you can tell she does not like being called middle-aged (I heard it and thought 'she's not middle-aged yet,' but perhaps in the '60s, one was middle-aged upon getting close to forty). Yet suddenly Betty has to face the existential specter, death, and the possibility that it might come sooner than she could have had cause to imagine. And this possibility causes Don to focus his thoughts and worries on her--the ex-wife closer to his age--and away from Megan, who he thinks is too young to understand anything about this crisis. She bridles at that. When Don blurts out, "You're twenty-six years old," she retorts, "So, I don't understand death?" It's experience, more than age, that allows one to gain an understanding of death. Don's been confronted with death in a number of ways since he was an infant and a child, Betty not until her father died; we don't know about Megan. Megan did minimize the whole period of wait and worry; upon hearing that Betty doesn't have cancer, Megan tels Don, "She just needs to have something to call you about." I thought that was unfair, but it was also unfair for Betty to lean on Don after her initial doctor visit, but then not call him with the news the tumor was benign. Henry was clearly bothered that she had told the "nobody" on the phone, but Betty appeared to have forgotten she'd done so. Unlike her friend, Betty doesn't have to worry about saying 'good-bye' to her family too soon; and, I would think, with the tumor off her thyroid, she could start to lose weight again. Though, the added weight might be more than just a physical outcome of a thyroid issue. Her doctor also told her that when a housewife has a rapid weight gain, there is usually a psychological cause of it--unhappiness, boredom. Her looks and weight have always meant a lot to Betty. We've seen in a previous season how her mother pushed her to be thin and stressed attractiveness as central to a woman's main job of snaring and keeping a man. The weight gain is a blow to her identity and self-worth. Being fat, to her, is not as bad as having cancer, but it's still an unwanted diagnosis: "It's nice to be put through the wringer and find out that I'm just fat," she tells Henry after talking with the doctor toward the end. She has to face it that she's not the young, thin woman she was for so many years. This is hard for her when so much of her identity is wrapped up in her looks.

Don, Harry Crane and Roger are also pushed to recognize--in different ways--that they are not young anymore. The scenes in which Don and Harry are backstage waiting for the Stones to appear so they can try to sell them on an ad campaign for beans was fascinating. The episode kept flashing back and forth between the pre-rock concert scene and that of Betty's potential cancer crisis--between the carelessness of the new youth culture and the worries of impending death. The teenaged girls whom Harry and Don talk to illustrate the stark difference between the ad men and the young people of the decade. As cool as Harry tries to be--smoking their joint, dressing in a jacket but no tie, attempting to talk 'hip'--he's not young and cool. He's a dissatisfied husband and father, stuffing hamburger after hamburger into his face, lamenting that he can't be with the young girls, having fun. Don no longer even wants that. He tells Harry, "I need to get home." And when the one teen tells him, "None of you want any of us to have a good time because you never did," he responds, "No, we're worried about you." He's now being fatherly to someone whom in past seasons he would have bedded. And Roger--Roger is Laertes being murdered by Pete, who's passed him by on the road of successful client recruitment and managing. While last week, Pete was looking old, here he represents the 'young' upstart who's taking the increasingly irrelevant Roger's place--and happy to lord it over him. The tea leaves that read the future have less to show for these men and for Betty than for the Megans, the Petes,and the new guy Ginsberg (who seems interesting; I look forward to seeing more of him).

Monday, March 26, 2012


Mad Men, Season Five, Episode 1/2, "A Little Kiss"

Change was evident everywhere--from the opening moment in which Sally Draper went down the strange hallway, stacked with moving boxes, stopping at her father's bedroom door that she (at least claimed) thought belonged to the bathroom and peeked in to see the new stepmother, naked in bed. We SAW the civil rights protesters, moved up North to the very doorstep of Don Draper's ad agency, rather than just heard them as background 'noise' on the radio or television as in previous seasons. Sixties gender tensions were addressed in new ways. Almost all the main characters possess new domiciles: Pete, Trudy, and baby moved from Manhattan to the suburbs, with the commuter train flashing the countryside out the windows as the visible marker to Pete--and to us--of the difference in his life; Don made the reverse move from suburbs to city as he and Megan now reside in a spacious, modern, enviable Manhattan apartment; Joan, her new baby, and visiting mother are in too-close quarters in a new place that has to win the 'most hideous '60s mismatched colors decor' award with the orangey paint/turquoisy curtains combo, though the wall color brought out the red highlights in her hair so beautifully that when she was in the room, it didn't look so bad. I guess that can somewhat sum up my feelings about this long-awaited season opener: when Joany was in it, it wasn't so bad--it was actually good; other parts felt too disjointed, superficial, and uncomfortable though intriguing.

The episode hit the major 1960s themes of changes in gender and race relationships--changes the well-off and powerful white men of Madison Avenue don't want to face. It also obliquely and briefly touched on class differences, through repeated references to never-shown cleaning women (if one more mention was made of saving people's messes for "the girl," I was ready to throw my wine glass at the screen) and through Lane's interactions with the wallet owner and his "girl," Dolores. Yet, it did all of this by commodifying the women, the protesters, the '60s movements in ways I wasn't ready for, and--idealist that I am--don't like. That commodification didn't happen in the real-world outside Madison Avenue until the 1970s. I guess it makes sense that a show about advertising would represent and tackle commodification sooner, but I'm with Megan here, when she berated Peggy: "What's wrong with you people? You're all so cynical! You don't smile; you smirk."

While the show is taking racial issues on more directly, allowing us to actually see and hear the African-American protesters who had been 'water-bombed' from the window of the young, racist, white men of a rival ad firm, we are offered no means to a connection with these people. They are there and gone. The SCDP reception room full of African-American job applicants at the end of the show revealed something of the numbers of earnest job seekers to combat the taunts of the punks in the first scene ("Get a job!") but they did not realize they were the brunt of a joke and just filed silently and name-lessly out of the office after handing a resume to Lane. I miss Carla, whose presence and experience in the Draper home of past seasons offered a concrete narrative through which to craft meaning out of the snippets of civil rights movement stories. I got to know and care for her. Personal story was missing from this episode--as exemplified by the missing Carla and her peers--the "girls" who clean up after Don and Megan and even Joan. We see the beginning of the ad world's commodification of 60s movements when the baked bean clients reject Peggy's 'bean ballet' campaign with a complaint that beans have represented the Depression and the War; now the clients want them "to be cool." They ask for images of college students sitting-in, cooking baked beans on a hot plate. Or maybe protesters, carrying signs in favor of beans.

This episode's presentations of Joan and of Megan offer two different approaches to the sixties' problem of the public/private, work/home split that more middle-class, white women encountered as they began to hold jobs while mothering children (black women and poorer white women had always done so in much larger numbers). I can certainly relate more to Joan's dilemma. Her argument with her mother, who tells her that Greg's "not going to allow you to work," rang true to me: "Allow me!" "Whither thou goest, I will go," her mother argues, quoting the biblical book of Ruth. "And how did that work out for you?" the ever-practical and strong Joan retorts. The scene between Joan and Lane was sweet. She genuinely values her job and the opportunity to use her strong leadership and organizational skills. She knows she misses it, while she still cares for her baby. Lane seems to get it when he responds to her, "It's home, but it's not everything. I do understand." And, he's the only man who willingly holds the baby for a moment. Roger breezes on past this child he's spawned to plant a kiss on Joan's cheek (It must have made her hold her breath for a few seconds when he strode down the hall, calling out "Where's my baby?"); Pete is left with the buggy for half a minute and sneers, "Do I suddenly appear to be wearing a skirt?" (I don't think I'll have time to get to Pete in more depth, so will just say here that I never thought he could get more petulant and whiny than he was in past seasons. He certainly has a point about how much business he brings in, but sheesh! Though I did enjoy him sending Roger off to Staten Island at 6 a.m.)

Megan, on the other hand...I still don't like her, but I felt both sad and embarrassed when watching her last night. She rejects the cynicism of her co-workers, but I found her blend of naivete and exhibitionism troubling. One could write an extended, academic, Lacanian analysis of this episode and the way it utilizes "the gaze." Don't worry; I'm not going to do that here, but the scenes of her singing and dancing for Don/the guests and repercussions from that performance offered much to reflect on with regard to the commodification of women and objectifying gazes. In the process, she represents a very different take on the public/private, work/home split than that shown through Joan's story. From the beginning, all eyes are on 'Mr. and Mrs. Draper' as they walk into the office, often late. She's stylish, modern, with an Audrey Hepburn look about her. He's sharp, but looks to be from another era, still always in suit and tie, with hair slicked back. Don is aware and protective of others looking at Megan and what that might mean. She seems oblivious to the sexual politics and attitudes that will turn her into an object. They could be seen as the epitome of the modern, liberated couple, marrying the public and private, work and home worlds with their united presence at both office and home. But, that's shown not to work as the episode grinds on. She seeks to merge office and home life by throwing the party--much to Don's chagrin. With her singing and dancing routine, she demonstrates a complete lack of awareness of the sexual politics of her era. Harry Crane is only the most obvious of the men, but I expect he just expressed what was going on in the heads (and you can read that however you want) of the others as well. Harry's a pig, but she's incredibly clueless if she thought her blurring the lines of her private relationship with Don and the public relationships of the SCDP workers wouldn't evoke that sense of sexual entitlement. And let me be clear: I'm not saying in any way shape or form that her treatment by Harry is her fault or she's responsible. Just that a woman needs to be aware of reality to survive in a world like that. Or was she clueless? Did she know what she was doing? She seemed genuinely upset to hear Harry's lecherous fantasy. Yet she subjected herself before Don in such a calculated way: she looked sexy when she first took off her robe to reveal the black, lacy underwear, but then to crawl around on all fours, "cleaning," muttering her sense of distance between her and Don: "You don't like presents; you don't like nice things. You're just old. You probably couldn't do it anyway." "You don't get to have this. You only get to watch..." Look at me; don't look at me; let's be a modern couple; let me represent just subjected sex and housecleaning--provoking him to assert himself and put her back in her place. The scene was--all at the same time--twisted, smartly representative of the royally screwed-up gender relations on the cusp of the Second Wave, and full of lousily-written dialogue that sounds like it came from a bodice-ripper novel. Then, in their post-coital conversation, Megan says, "I love going to work with you because you love work and you love me." Don replies, "I don't care about work. I want you at work because I want you." I'm not quite sure how to unpack that, but it's in sharp contrast to Joan's clarity about work, child, and husband and to Megan's assertions from last season about wanting to do what Don does. Perhaps it's age, experience, and maturity that allows Joan the perspective she has.

I can't believe I'm saying this, but I'm looking forward to Betty being back next week.

Let me know what you think. I know there have to be a lot of different takes on this episode.