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).