Sunday, June 30, 2013

Rosemary's Baby

Mad Men, Season Six, Episode Twelve, "The Quality of Mercy"

Peggy ends this episode fabulously. With strength and insight into the character of Don--whom she knows so well--she confronts him after his betrayal of her and Ted in the meeting with the Johnson & Johnson exec. "You're a monster!" she lets him know, before walking out of his office. She doesn't buy his bullshit that he's "just looking out for the agency," and clearly Don doesn't either, since the last shot we see, he's curled up in a fetal position on the couch, about as miserable as we've ever seen him. All of this in an episode that centers around allusions to the popular film of that year, "Rosemary's Baby." So, is Don metaphorically Rosemary's baby--a monster conceived by the devil and a severely mistreated woman through hatred and deceit, born to serve the goals of--and be used by--others, hailed as something special, but living in a very dark place? Or is he Rosemary's husband--user and deceiver of a woman, participant in bizarre rituals? Or a bit of both?

The period in which this season takes place was prone to fears of chaos, violence, and loss of control--and not without reason. Mad Men has featured the Kennedy and King assassinations, the Democratic National Convention, and repeatedly alluded to the increased violence in the city. We see Don watching a Nixon campaign ad that plays to fears of urban violence and orders its viewers to "vote like your whole world depended on it." Ira Levin's 1967 novel and Roman Polanski's 1968 film use supernatural horror to play on and evoke readers'/viewers' fears of complete loss of conscious control over their lives and the terrifying and monstrous potential results. Megan deems it "really, really scary." Peggy and Ted use it as the basis for a children's aspirin commercial. The title character is unknowingly coerced into a sexual relationship with the devil and made to carry his baby to further the goals of a group of devil worshippers led by her next door neighbors. Along the way, she must face up to the fact that her husband is not who he seemed to be and has betrayed her--which is why I see its themes played out throughout the episode. Sally and Peggy have both figured out that Don is not to be trusted. And, with that, he loses two of the very important people in his life. You can see this as tragic; you can see this as just desserts for his horrendous behavior to those who love and admire him, but it does seem that Don is about as low as he's ever been--in the depths of the Inferno the season started out with. He's rejected by his daughter and his protege who understands him like no one else--save Anna Draper--ever has, because he is devoid of self-control, prone to just following his emotions and physical drives wherever they lead him: to a hurried and careless sexual encounter with Sylvia--that he couldn't have thought Sally would walk in on, but her son or husband easily could have--and to jealousy and bitterness over Peggy's and Ted's relationship that lead him to the typical abusive man idea that 'if I can't have her, no one can.' He's now a father whose child despises him; like his own father, whom he despised and didn't want to be like, he uses women, follows his most base instincts, and shows no regard for his children. He screws over his partner--the nice partner--and Peggy just out of spite and because he can. And he can because they trusted him. The self-righteous pedestal he puts himself on while talking to Ted after the meeting was truly despicable given who he is and what he's done: "Everybody sees it. Just ask your secretary. Your judgment is impaired. You're not thinking with your head." And--"we've all been there; well, not with Peggy..." Yet, it's Ted with Peggy that has brought out this monstrous behavior in Don. Is he really unable to recognize all that Peggy has done for and been to him? Does he deserve Peggy's charge of being a monster? I think so. What do you think?

Like in the last episode, Sally plays a prominent role here. She's smart, driven, and interested in worthy things like the Model UN, yet the poor kid is stuck with such shits for parents--stuck between Don, who's all id, and Betty, who's solely focused on the superficial aspects of what other affluent people think. She tells the woman at the prep school that it's so hard for a girl in that time period to navigate her way in the world. And that difficulty can only be exacerbated if Don Draper and Betty Francis are your parents. Those girls she meets at the school won't be any help to her either. I'd love to see a Mad Men sequel focused on Sally in the seventies, dealing with life as an adult having to cart around the baggage of her upbringing.

A few more quick thoughts:

--We finally got more info on Bob Benson. Pete is so slimy, but it will be interesting to see how this scenario plays out;

--Poor Ken Cosgrove. The last couple of episodes he's been featured in always start out with me thinking we have to be inside a nightmare of his, but it's just the crazy Chrysler guys. Jeez! "I hate cars. I hate guns." He gives up the account and is happy he's going to be a father. I love Ken Cosgrove.

--This episode didn't have a lot of humor in it, but watching Don act out the baby in Peggy's commercial was hysterical!

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Political Is Personal

Mad Men, Season Six, Episode Eleven, "Favors"

I've been out of the country for a few weeks, without access to the last three episodes of this season. I'd thought about watching all three--now that I'm back--and writing one entry on the last quarter of the season as a whole, but this was a rich episode, so I'd like to work through it a bit on its own, before I move on to watching the last two:

The feminist movement of the Sixties adopted the mantra "the personal is political." It captured the budding awareness of increasing numbers of women that many of the indignities, dissatisfactions, injustices, and thwarted aspirations of their personal lives weren't only a series of individual circumstances, but had as their source a political structure and ideology (patriarchy) and were shared by scores of other women with whom they could form a political community of resistance. On the flip side, many of the Mad Men characters of this episode--like some of their real-world, privileged counterparts--could have been chanting "The Political Is Personal," turning a political problem--an unjust war and the government's means of recruiting soldiers for it--into a crisis only when it threatens to touch one of their own. Of course, it is all complicated. War is both profoundly personal for those who fight it, and political for those who seek to achieve their goals through it and for countries whose citizens' fervor and nationalism are stoked by it. It can bind peoples and communities together while also tearing them apart--and the same for the units and soldiers on the ground. As a mother of two sons, I'm not unsympathetic to Sylvia's fears and tears. I get why even the GM men don't want their sons and grandsons sent to Vietnam, even though they also see draftees resisting and it makes them "sick." What's so frustrating is seeing these people, who possess--in Pierre Bourdieu's terms--much economic, social, and cultural capital, exhibit a willingness to use it only to save their own youth from being sent into harm's way.

I find this to be most frustrating when it comes to Don. He has shown anti-war sensibilities at various points in the show, presumably stemming from his own experiences in Korea. Years ago, he stopped his father-in-law from blithely sharing a WWI German soldier's helmet with Bobby, wanting Bobby to realize the gravity of that soldier's death. He's expressed his aversion to the war in Vietnam a few times this season and was insightful and spot-on in some of his comments in this episode--stressing to Arnold that 18-year olds' lack of awareness of their own and others' mortality is "why they make good soldiers" and, when Arnold goes on about the importance of "service," flatly stating that "The war is wrong." He's clearly doing as much as he does to help Mitchell because of his feelings for Sylvia. Yet, while the relationship of anti-war protesters to changes in policy was not one of easy correspondences, Don accepts his powerlessness way too easily. This is the man who got a full-page anti-tobacco companies letter published in the New York Times. Alright, that was for self-interested business motives, but still, he did it. This is the man who made people cry over a Kodak Carousel, who poignantly expressed existential angst in a travel ad. And I'm supposed to believe he couldn't do something to lend his creative voice to the attempts to persuade people that fighting this war is wrong? I know. I know. That would be a different Don Draper and a different television show, but still...

All of that said, Mad Men does typically opt for the personal over the political and this episode's best moments were closely-shot intimate exchanges: Peggy and Pete drunkenly laughing together in the diner when Ted's gone to call his wife; they share a look when Peggy admits that she does know him that was touching (but please don't go back to him, Peggy); Ted offering his back to his son as his put-upon wife sleeps on the bed, her book lying open on her chest; Bob Benson (Tom and Lorenzo were right about him being gay) and his earnest plea to Pete to recognize that "When there's true love, it doesn't matter who it is." (But, coming on to Pete? Why him? Mrs. Campbell is horrid to tell her son that he's "always been unloveable," but I feel the same way about him); Don on the phone with Sylvia, close to tears as he asks her, "You didn't feel anything?" Yet much of the vital relating of our main characters happened through barriers. Doors and the need for keys featured prominently in this episode. Characters choose blindness to political forces, but meaningful personal connections so frequently slip away from them too. Peggy's and Pete's intimacy is only facilitated by alcohol; Ted forges a small connection with his sons that his wife urges on him, but his back is turned to her and she sleeps through it; Bob gives a sad-to-watch look at Pete when Pete refers to Manolo as a "degenerate," but forges ahead with his advance despite this wall; Don and Sylvia have a genuine conversation only on the phone. When together, we only see them as Sally does--carelessly having a hurried, half-dressed sexual encounter with the door open.

Poor Sally. While Pete Campbell is completely grossed-out at merely the THOUGHT of his mother having a sexual relationship with someone and tells Peggy that he doesn't even want to think about her brushing her teeth, Sally has to see her father in the middle of sex with their neighbor, like she saw her step-grandmother and Roger together last year. She starts out the episode expressing her idealized version of Don to her mother (probably in part just to piss her mother off) and ends it realizing that--like the GM rep declares about draft-dodgers--he makes her "sick." Don's lame attempt to talk to her (admittedly a really difficult talk to have) occurs just through her closed bedroom door. Like I remember her doing once before with Don when he called her to explain something, she brushes him off with "okay." But, as she lies face down on her bed, crying, and Don stumbles down the hall to his own room, closing the door and closing himself off from everyone, things are clearly not okay. Not for the war in Vietnam and not for the war that Don keeps waging with and within himself.

Though, on the up side, Peggy got a cat instead of a boyfriend to deal with her rat problem. Good move on her part. Keep the cat; avoid thoughts of being with Pete and Ted--and Stan.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Whole World Is Watching

Mad Men, Season Six, Episode Ten, "A Tale of Two Cities"

I found this episode to be enjoyable, from the way it wove the Democratic convention protests throughout the script to its choice of one of my favorite '60s songs as its closer. Could there be a blunter music/image contrast than that of the uptight, constantly angry, suited Pete Campbell smoking a joint to Janis' wail? Is he finally going to learn to lighten up a bit? The imagery and music of the California party also contrasted starkly, from the upbeat "Harper Valley PTA" to drug-induced visions of death. The song offered a quick allusion to hypocrisy--hearkening back to Cutler's accusation of Ginsberg--as well as to a strong woman "socking it to" her critics and those who would hold her back (Go, Joan!), while Don's hash-powered hallucinations darkly lead us back to his season-opening Hawaiian trip and his death by water ad campaign. With the return of the Vietnam-bound soldier, offering Don's cigarette the lighter that haunted Don on his return from Hawaii, we see that Don still has a death wish. Yet the now-dead soldier tells him that even if Don were to achieve death, he wouldn't necessarily find the wholeness he seeks: when Don asks him why he didn't get his arm back upon dying, the soldier tells him, "Dying doesn't make you whole. You should see what you look like." While at the end of one of his previous trips to California, we see Don being "baptized" in the ocean, this time the trip ends with him face down in a swimming pool, miming (or seeking?) the death that he and the soldier discussed.

While Don is on his search for whatever it is he's desiring (a non-working, pregnant wife might be part of it, given the Megan vision at the party), others are--like the characters in the Dickens novel for which the episode is named--engaged in a struggle between authority-holders and revolutionaries. My favorite of these struggles is that between Pete and Joan--and for awhile Peggy--and the one between Ginsberg and Cutler (who completely affirmed my dislike of him; he's not only a dick, but apparently as useless a partner as Bert Cooper).

With the clashes between anti-war protesters and baton- and tear gas-wielding Chicago police setting the televised background of the episode, multiple sets of fighting sides were formed: the SCDP and CGC factions of the new firm with the peace-making Ted Chaough trying to bridge the divide; the younger people with their sympathy for the convention protesters against the older characters who tended to side with the police, with Don and Megan on different sides of this divide, though he did sympathize with her despair over her adopted country; the east coast and the west coast; and those who are primarily business focused against those who also worry about social justice. These were played out most forcefully in the cases of Pete v. Joan and Cutler v. Ginsberg.

I loved Joan's surprise and then delight to realize that what she at first thought was a date (why else does anyone ever set Joan up to have lunch with a businessman?) was actually a potential client meeting. Having never dealt directly with account gathering before--except having to sleep with Herb--she wasn't sure how to describe what she does; she comes up with the apt "I'm in charge of thinking of things before people know they need them." The disappointment she registers when Pete relegates her back to her typical role with the Avon man: "You'll show him around" was sad to see. She decides to go against company policy to pursue the account herself. It wasn't surprising that Pete can't abide the breaking of protocol--a "break of the fundamental rules of this business" as he pompously declares, but I was hoping for better from Peggy. She is shocked and starts arguing about how she worked her way into the role she's in, responding to Joan's taunt about Don that "I never slept with him." She deserves Joan's barb: "Congratulations. You really are just like them." She saves Joan at the end, though, with the fake phone message, prompting Ted to grant Joan the right to the account. "Possession is 9/10 of the law," he tells Pete, who whines, "only where there is no law." Pete sees his firm to be just like the streets of Chicago, but in this case, the one engaged in revolution won--for now. Yeay, Joan!

The other interesting revolt took place when Ginsberg let loose on Cutler for Cutler's lack of concern over the peace plank being voted down at the convention. His rhetoric got a bit overwrought with his charge of Cutler's "fascist boot" on his neck, but he expressed the differences between them. When Cutler, also rightly, points out the disparity between Ginsberg's politics and his acceptance of paychecks from Dow Chemical and GM, he sends Ginsberg into an angst-filled reflection on his complicity in what he sees as evil: "I'm a thug. I'm a pig. I'm part of the problem. Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds." Hearkening back to his initial episode admission to Peggy that he's from Mars, the outsider Holocaust orphan who feels himself from another world, says, "I can't turn off the transmissions to do harm. They're beaming them right into my head." I feel for him. He seems the best illustration of the culture's clashes at this point in time. And a genuinely well-meaning, questing character.