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?