Monday, May 26, 2014

"The Best Things in Life Are Free"

Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Seven, "Waterloo"

This was an irony-rich episode. When the shade of Bert Cooper serenades Don--who had just voted for a $65 million deal making SC&P a subsidiary of McCann and all the partners millionaires--with a  Broadway version of "The Best Things in Life Are Free," complete with a dancing chorus of secretaries, it was more than just a fun send-off for Robert Morse, back to his musical roots and whatever version of an afterlife the writers believe appropriate for someone like Cooper. It offered commentary on several of the events and themes of not just this episode, but of this half-season, and posed some interesting, complicating questions.

After watching the awe-inspiring moon walk with his Black "help," who's all dressed-up in a TV character maid costume complete with white frilly apron, the not-yet-ready-for-a-Black-woman-in-the-reception-area founding partner sings "The moon belongs to everyone" (though they did stick an American flag in it; but then Neil Armstrong did say that it was a "giant step for mankind," not just Americans; so--a moment of "national pride" as Roger says to the gathered employees after the buy-out vote? a universal moment of connection, as Peggy tells the Burger Chef reps? Americans appropriating what belongs to everyone on behalf of everyone? a hugely expensive act of hubris, as the Francis' young house guest asserts and gets Sally to consider? some combination of the above?) At least in its depiction of characters raptly watching the event, the show seems to come down on the side of it being--like the Kennedy assassination--a defining American moment that brought disparate groups together in unusual community and family: Roger--who has spent the last few years drifting from family model to family model, through LSD-induced quests for meaning, landing most recently in the position of a city hotel suite commune dweller who criticizes his rural commune-dwelling daughter of being a bad parent--is sitting in a living room with his first wife, their abandoned son-in-law, and their space helmet clad grandson on his lap; Betty, Henry, and Betty's and Don's children are with another family (that of Betty's college friend who's visiting); and Don is in a hotel room with Peggy, Pete, and Harry Crane, sharing a seat on one of the beds with Peggy, whom he leans into as they both watch with wonder on their faces. Harry--master of TV advertising--nearly cries. Afterward, Don reaches out to his children via phone and chastises Sally for being cynical about the whole event. But, Sally is just trying on different viewpoints. She tries Sean's with her father, but after he calls her on it, she goes outside to the younger visiting son who prefers watching the sky through a telescope. He wants to avoid the mediated views of the families and of the news casters.  Yet even viewing through a telescope provides a frame for what one sees. And this ties in to one of the series' themes that I'll get back to.

To Don Draper, whose second marriage has just finally, and not surprisingly, been pronounced dead, Cooper sings "And love can come to everyone." This season has raised some intriguing possibilities around the question of Don and love. The compulsive womanizer has turned down the advances of a few women whom the old Don would have taken to bed: the airplane profferer of sleeping pills and forgetfulness, the woman in the restaurant when Don was with some other advertisers, and--in this episode--his new secretary. The only other woman besides his wife whom he's had sex with this season is the one his wife brought to him for the three-way and  Don didn't seem much into that. No, in this season, in this time after Dick Whitman was allowed to come out in front of his partners, his clients, and his children, Don/Dick has gone after the love he's never felt in more meaningful places than the beds of strangers and employees. And, he's found it: in the Valentine's Day drive and shared burgers with his daughter, in the platonic arms of a dance with his work daughter and soul mate Peggy, and over burgers and fries with his work family Peggy and Pete, after he and Peggy crafted an ad campaign for Burger Chef that urges viewers not just to buy fast-food sandwiches from their would-be client, but to buy the idea that families should gather around a table for food, fellowship, and connection and leave their TVs behind (one of the greater ironies for this firm that's just offered its TV guy a partnership).

These two points of focus on the moonwalk and on the Burger Chef campaign are intimately connected and indicative of the over-arching tension of Season Seven, Part One between those who are in advertising as a means to fuel and play out their creative energies and those who are in it for the business. Don tells Roger, "I just want to do my work. I don't want to deal with business anymore." And, as he tries to sell Ted on the deal with McCann, he shares with him how much, after his suspension, he missed his work. So much that he would "do anything to get back in. And I did..." He wrote tags and coupons, things he hadn't done since his early days. He believes that Ted also would love his work again if he too could do it without the stress of partners' meetings and worrying about business. Yet there is a tension in the creative people's vision of advertising, a tension that Peggy realizes after the moonwalk and before the pitch to the burger people: "I have to talk to people who've just touched the face of god about hamburgers." Their creative efforts are not spent on art for art's sake or art just for self-expression. It's spent on selling stuff in an increasingly consumerist culture. Yet it's a consumer culture that is also fraught with tension, a tension that Peggy again gets. She knows that Americans are not only hungry for fast food burgers, but are also hungry for human connection in a chaotic world: "We can have the connection we're hungry for. There may be chaos at home, but there's family supper at Burger Chef," she sells to the almost weepy-eyed Indiana businessmen. This is in stark contrast to Jim Cutler's vision for the firm as a business that can pinpoint media buys "with surgical accuracy." And hence, this final (for now) showdown between those in it for the technical precision and the money--Jim and Joan most notably--and those in it for the creativity and connection. Pete Campbell is straddling the line between the sides, sitting on the couch next to Joan at the final meeting, crowing over the millions he'll make and spitting out that Ted is being "selfish" as he thinks through his vote AND cheering on the return of "the Don Draper Show," "back from its unscheduled interruption."

Our world comes to us not directly, but mediated through frames--those created through stories ("every great ad is a story"), through computerized data sheets (though data always need to be interpreted), through songs, and through TV shows like "Mad Men." What will Don do with the song and the ironies that Bert Cooper shows him through it? At the end, after watching Bert with a sometimes puzzled, sometimes pained expression, he leans against a desk--thinking? And there, we'll have to leave him. Until next year.

Monday, May 19, 2014

"My Way"

Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Six, "The Strategy" (or "The Suitcase," Part Two?)

The "strategy" of the title is, on the surface, a reference to that which those characters on the Burger Chef team are trying to figure out: how to approach the would-be client to secure the account. But beyond that, it's what Don and Peggy are trying to accomplish: how can they establish a strategy to work well together again after Don's betrayal of Peggy and Ted the year before and their new turned-on-its-head working relationship of Don reporting to her and then Pete's insistence that Don pitch the campaign to the burger people? But even more deeply, it reflects that which a number of these characters need if they are to negotiate the world of changing family dynamics and women's roles: Pete and Trudy aren't sure how to relate to each other as they're divorcing (though Pete seems to think it should be the same way they had it set up when they were living together--Trudy is always there and chaste, while Pete gets to sleep around); Tammy doesn't seem even to be sure who her father is after his long absence. Peggy, having recently turned thirty while spending time in field research to determine why mothers turn to Burger Chef to feed their families, has looked into too many station wagons in Ohio and Pennsylvania and wonders what she's "done wrong." In the meantime, she can't get Stan to come in to work on the weekend because he has a lover with whom he has plans and she's feeling the lack of someone in her life. Don smiles fondly at Megan on his balcony and claims to be happy she's there, but later looks unsure as he watches her clean out a closet. The long-distance marriage doesn't seem to be working for them as much as they try to pretend. And, most sad of all, Bob Benson needs a strategy to appear the "certain kind of executive" that Buick requires, e.g. not gay; family structure and possibilities of roles for people to play hadn't expanded THAT much yet in 1969, though the Stonewall riots were just around the corner later that month in Manhattan.

The most interesting thing about this episode to me, though, is how it leads us back three seasons and four years of Mad Men time to "The Suitcase," the seventh episode of Season Four--one of the most poignant and beautifully written and acted hours of "Mad Men" they've produced. As it turns out, it was exactly at the center of this series: three and a half seasons had already aired and three and a half seasons were to come. But more, it was also central to the show conceptually. This has always been a show that is at its best when focusing on people's work lives and the office. "The Suitcase" brought Don's and Peggy's complicated personal lives into the workplace. It's a perfect episode to re-turn our thoughts to as they again struggle at work to make sense of the personal, and try to figure out what it means that they both lack meaningful connections with family. In "The Suitcase," Don and Peggy spend a night working together, honestly discussing their lives and regrets--including Peggy's baby--and Peggy helps Don through a difficult crisis, the death of Anna Draper. That night of Anna's death was on Peggy's birthday. This time around--a couple of weeks after Peggy's 30th birthday--Don has it a bit more together and he helps Peggy through an existential crisis--wondering if she will ever know what it's like to be a mom, while she also struggles to assert her authority at work. In both episodes, we see the process of them creating an ad campaign. Alone, they're not doing so well. Together, they come up with something inspired. When I wrote about "The Suitcase" at the time, I commented on how much I enjoyed seeing how their minds work. In this one, a frustrated Peggy, not sure if she can trust Don, says, "You really want to help me? Show me how you think!" And he does, and she smiles, and their connection is re-forged. At the end of both evenings, Don and Peggy share an intimate moment: in "The Suitcase," Don falls asleep on the office couch with his head in Peggy's lap. It is while he sleeps that the shade of Anna passes through, bestowing a last smiling glance on him. In this episode, they dance to Frank Sinatra's "My Way" as it plays on the radio. Peggy rests her head on Don's chest and he looks--what?--almost afraid, uncertain, confused, but then kisses the top of her head. From the time each woke up that morning and chose what to wear, they were apparently meant to have this moment of working out their differences and honoring the kindred spirit in the other because they were color-coordinated, the orange in Don's tie matching well Peggy's shirt. While Joan can't accept Bob's proposal and re-vision of marriage that he offers ("We could comfort each other through an uncertain world"), Don smiles on Peggy's redefinition of family: "What if there was a place you could go where there's no TV, you could break bread, and anyone near you is family?" With his one failed and second failing marriage, he too needs a new way to conceive of family. And who better than Peggy to suggest it, the one with whom he has so much in common? They both live for their work--with all the negatives and the positives that way of being brings to their lives, to their families and to themselves (it was in "The Suitcase" that Peggy said to Don, "I know what I'm supposed to want. It never seems as important as what's in that office.") Why not finally expand the view of family to include their work companions?

And so it is that at the end, we see Peggy with Don and Pete (the two people outside her circle of mother and sisters who know about the baby she had and gave up for adoption), breaking bread (or French fries to be more accurate) at the place where "every table is the family table." Leave aside for the time being that as the camera pulls back from their table to show us other families at Burger Chef and the bright, rather garish red and white building, we're also seeing the way the creativity of people like Peggy and Don helped persuade us Americans to become the 'fast food nation.' It's a complicated, ever-changing world and strategies pursued to resolve one problem can often lead to others. As Don tells Peggy, it's part of their job that they can never know which is the right approach. Don seems to be getting to a place where he's more okay with ambiguity.

Monday, May 12, 2014

"Walk the Line"

Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Five, "The Runaways"

As Waylon Jennings sings at the end of the episode, a number of characters feel like somebody's "been stepping on my toes and I'm getting pretty tired of it." Lou is fed up with his crew at the office whom he sees as a "bunch of flag-burning snots," who have "a thing to learn about patriotism and loyalty," as well as about taste in comic strips; Betty finally realizes--HELLO!--that a traditional 1960s marriage isn't supposed to include the wife thinking--even in Italian; Henry's put out by his wife's expression of her unpopular opinion on the war because it might cost him votes (who knew there were that many Westchester County residents opposed to the war, even in 1969?); Megan--I'm assuming--worries that Don has sent a woman pregnant with his child to her home for care and money; Sally KNOWS that her mother is out to stomp all over her toes and isn't shy about speaking out, while her poor little brother (weren't those two just a few years apart when the show started? now he seems to be about five or six years younger) fears having to go through another divorce. From the opening shot of Stan laughing at Lou's comic strip about Scout, who can "take anything but an order," this episode is about authority: those who desperately try to hold on to the bit they have left and those who want to defy the authorities weighing down upon them. Some are fiercely trying--like Waylon--to walk a line, but by the end of "The Runaways," Don looks like the only one who's succeeded (for now, at least), while the tragic Ginsberg has plunged headlong over it.

It's unusual to witness Betty as the character voicing the insight that grounds an episode, but this time she is. After Henry diagnoses "wildness in kids" as a "national disease" and their neighbor Mike opines that things aren't just bad in Vietnam, they're "falling apart here too," Betty says, "Well, I don't know that those things are unrelated. I mean first the kids start off protesting and the next thing you know every authority is up for grabs." While I disagree with Betty--I think most of the student protests in the '60s were a good thing--she is spot on that challenges to authority in the political realm are connected to those in the personal realm. Once people see it as okay to talk back, they'll do so whether it's to their parents, their teachers, the President, or the CEO of Dow Chemical. And not all of their protests will be important and meaningful; sometimes they'll just get angry, or aggressive, or bratty and throw some rocks at street lights in the affluent suburbs without leaving a note explaining why, if they know why. Was that just meaningless vandalism or--as the guests at the Francis' party seem to think--a big 'fuck you' to the pristine order the Westchester adults try desperately to impose upon the chaos of 1969?

With that scenario in the background, Betty is primed to see Sally's appearance at the house with black eyes and bandaged nose as an intentional affront to Betty's arduous preparations to marry Sally off to a suitable man who would never condescend to accept a trophy wife with a less-than-perfect nose. No "Come here, sweetheart. Does it hurt?" or even, "Seriously, you're fifteen and you're playing sword fights with golf clubs? But, I hope you're not in pain." No--all Betty can offer to her battered, self-confessed 'idiot' daughter is "That's your face, young lady!"

But, even as she's chastising her daughter for not following the traditional feminine script, and getting an earful from the non-conformist Sally, Betty is also starting to realize--finally--that there is something wrong with that script. Even someone as thick and as limited by self-imposed blinders as Betty is can't fail to be insulted when her husband, in multiple arguments over a couple of days, says things like "From now on, keep your conversation to how much you hate getting toast crumbs in the butter and leave the thinking to me." Betty's having a bit of a crisis. The woman who's always tried hard to walk the line between doing what society and her mother have told her she's supposed to do and what she might be interested in doing is talking back: "I'm tired of everyone telling me to shut up! I'm not stupid. . . . Guess what? I think all by myself!" She tells Henry that she doesn't know what she's going to do. I'm not going to hold out much hope that maybe this time she will do something outside the box; I've been disappointed before, but....

And in the meantime....While Don's first wife is expressing very conservative views about Vietnam, but also staging her own rebellion in the personal sphere, his second wife is nursing her sexual jealousy of Don--which is not unjustified in general, but is in the instance of Stephanie--when the pregnant niece of Anna Draper shows up at her house, and then jumping to the other extreme when she initiates the three-way with Don and her friend. What's up there? Okay she was, as Don pointed out, stoned, but I don't think it was just the drugs talking. Was this her way of trying to contain what she sees as Don's inability to be sexually faithful? If I can't have a faithful husband, I'm going to control the terms on which he has sex with someone else? It's going to be when I can participate too? Or is this Megan just trying to fit into what she thinks everyone hip is supposed to be doing? We first see her dancing provocatively with the young man at the party, but she's keeping an eye on Don while doing so. She then orders Don to "Kiss her. I know you want to." The next morning, she's trying to be cool about making coffee in the apartment where both Don and her friend are, but as soon as Don leaves, she starts to cry into her hands. She's not been real successful at walking the line between what she's "supposed" to do and what she wants to do.

Then, there's poor Ginsberg. He's exhibited scary signs of mental instability before. In the past, he told Peggy that Martians spoke to him. This time, he believes it's the computer that has a plan to "turn us all homo." "Am I Cassandra?" he asks, referring to the ancient Greek character cursed by Apollo with the gift of prophecy and the fate of never being believed. Since the computer first arrived at SC&P, he's seen it ominously. And he's right that it represents some of the partners' desire to stifle the creative team, replacing them with a completely rational, mechanized business model. And, his fears about computers replacing humans in some spheres and about technology's effects on human creativity have proven to be somewhat warranted. But, I don't want to reduce Ginsberg's psychotic break to a metaphor of the tragic components of the conflict between computers and humans. The young man who spent the first five years of his life in a Nazi concentration camp has oppression and control from horrible outside forces impressed into his very being. I couldn't help but think of HAL from "2001: A Space Odyssey" as Ginsberg developed his ideas about the office computer. Did he see that movie when it came out in 1968, relating too heavily to the fictional story of a computer that manipulates and then kills people before being brought down itself? Whatever the genesis of this iteration of his mental illness and breakdown, the image of him being rolled out on the gurney, yelling "Get out while you can!" as the tearful Peggy and somber other women watch is one of the saddest and most serious of the show. While Don may or may not have successfully walked the multiple lines drawn out in that meeting with Cutler, Lou, and the tobacco men (the image of him whistling for a cab at the end suggests he at least THINKS he did), this episode was dark and portends the season (or at least this half of it) ending more on an Altamont note than a Woodstock one.

Monday, May 5, 2014


Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Four, "The Monolith"

Jim Crane--with hard hat planted on head--can cheer on about how "this agency is entering the future" because construction is about to begin on 'the monolith' of a computer in a space that used to belong to the creative team, but the main story lines of this episode feature characters riding The Hollies' "Carousel," going "round and round and round and round and round and round." This includes Don and, even more so, Margaret Sterling and her parents.

Don was trying to live up to the stipulations the partners gave for his return: showing up to work every day, staying in his office, not drinking, but being made to work for Peggy on a campaign with no strategy is too much for him. Throwing his typewriter at the wall and storming out on a Friday, he comes back on Monday without his homework done and sits at his desk playing Solitaire. Lou told Cutler that he thought Don would "implode," but it's not until his confrontation with Bert that he almost does. Bert confirms for Don that the partners see him with no purpose to the firm. "We've been doing fine," he says. When Don asks why he's there, Bert throws back at him "Why are you here?" "Because I started this agency!" Bert's "along with a dead man whose office you now inhabit" sends Don into Roger's office to steal a bottle of liquor and drink himself silly back on his own couch. In his conversation with Lloyd, the computer man, Don snarkily asks him about how many people he's replaced that day, but Don is getting replaced not by a computer, but by other people. He's been put out to pasture in the office where people go to die. Fortunately for Don, though, he has his own AA sponsor without ever going through the 12 step program. After calling Freddy Rumsfeld about a Mets game, Freddy comes to rescue him and take him home to pass out. The next morning, with a cup of strong coffee, Freddy dishes it to Don straight and--because he's been there and Don knows it--Don listens. "Do the work, Don," Freddy presses and the next thing we see is a cleaned-up Don entering his office, pulling the cover off the typewriter and tapping out Peggy's twenty-five tags, which he tells her she'll have by noon. The Hollies' song in the background reminded me of another low point in Don's life--but not a low point in his career. He'd just pitched the brilliant Carousel campaign to Kodak. While his career was soaring then, he created the ad out of a false nostalgia for a family past that didn't really exist. This time, Don's career is in shambles and he's riding the carousel right around to his early days as a fledgling copywriter, but he's more honest. We'll see where this carousel ride takes him.

Meantime, there's Margaret Sterling and her parents, going round and round and round in the never-ending dysfunctional family blame game carousel. As funny as Roger is--and he was given some really good lines tonight (the computer's "going to do lots of magical things, like make Harry Crane seem important")--it cannot have been easy being his daughter. Margaret blames him for having his secretary order birthday presents for her when she was a child and blames her mother for regularly locking herself in the bathroom with a bottle of gin, but uses those reasonable complaints as justification for abandoning her own son. I have a lot of sympathy for the need to find oneself and for women who are "tired of accepting society's definitions of who [they] are." I've been there. But Margaret still seems like the same spoiled child who railed against Roger for not giving Brooks money to start a business. This time she's just railing against him for not accepting her choice to live in a filthy commune, but it still all seems designed to punish him for his bad parenting rather than figure out her own path--or maybe I'm just too biased against privileged spoiled rich kids. It's hard to say if Roger is just being a hypocrite, given his current situation living in a tawdry hotel room commune of his own, or if he really has figured out there's something wrong with the way both he and Margaret are trying to find meaning. He admits to her that he's not as open-minded as he'd thought and that while he can understand the temptation, she can't do this because she's a mother. Is that just sexism or has her message about his and Mona's parenting started to sink in? By the end of his time with her, the mud has been literally as well as figuratively slung and he leaves far from the dapper figure he cut when they pulled in.

A couple of final thoughts:

--interesting talk about the symbolism of the computer between Don and Lloyd. Lloyd says that the computer is frightening but it's made by people. "People aren't frightening?" Don tosses back. Don here is the older generation, wanting to focus on people and their experiences. The IBM 360, Lloyd tells Don, "can count more stars in a day than we can count in a lifetime." But, a man lying on his back counting stars isn't thinking of numbers, Don retorts. No, "he probably thought about going to the moon" (Lloyd's response) is just one foreshadowing of the upcoming moon walk in this episode (Margaret and Roger talked about astronauts and the moon too). Science that can send humans to the moon versus the science of human communication and advertising that Lloyd goes into Don's office to ask him about. The dance goes on between these generations and fields.

--it also continues to go on between the genders in the office. I loved Joan's response to Peggy's complaint about them giving her Don on her team so that one of them will fail:
"If it makes you feel better, Peggy, I don't think they thought about it at all."

Sunday, April 27, 2014


Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Three, "Field Trip"

Poor Bobby Draper. During last week's episode, his sister took a "field trip" with their father, learned a lot (as kids on field trips are supposed to do), and got back to school with a much improved image of, and relationship with, Don. This week, Bobby is so excited--and surprised--that Betty agrees to go on his class' field trip to the farm (after the housekeeper/babysitter nudges her toward it); while on the bus, he is actually getting his mother to listen to him talk about the different kinds of monsters he's aware of and tells his teacher, "We're having a conversation!" Yes, Mrs. "Maybe I'm old fashioned" dons her best farm-visiting peach suit, nylons, and mom heels so she what? Is she feeling inadequate after her lunch with Francine, now the successful travel agent? Does she need to prove that her kids really are the "reward" she needs, as she tells Francine, who had told Betty that she "needed the challenge" of work? Does Betty need the accolades of the teacher and to prove something to her about her parenting? Her "Bobby asked and I couldn't say no" seemed a bit too forced and cheerful. Yet once there at the farm, she proves that she's still just the child she's always been: standing outside the barn sharing a smoke and snarky comments about the teacher with another mom, understandably being annoyed with Bobby for trading away her sandwich for some candy, but then not being able to let it go. The number of times the boy repeated "I'm sorry, I'm sorry" to her is indicative that he habitually sees himself as inadequate in her eyes. The fact that she still holds a grudge about the damn sandwich that evening, ridiculously refusing to eat dinner to punish him ("I was hungry, but now I'm not." Really, Betty?!) reveals that she's not learned anything about how to be a grown-up or a parent. "It was a perfect day and he ruined it," she whines to Henry. I find the lack of development of her character over the years to be disappointing. It's okay if she doesn't end up having the "Feminine Mystique" type awakening of her "problem with no name," but it would be nice if she would evolve a bit as a wife and mother if that's what she's committed to being. Instead she's predictably infuriating in the ways that she is quite the crappy mother. I wish Henry would pick up some of Don's new-found honesty medicine and the next time she throws herself a pity party and whimpers, "Do you think I'm a good mother?" he'd let her have some truth.

Don takes a couple of "field trips" of his own this week: one to California, where he learns that his telling the story of why he lied about his job doesn't go over as well with Megan as it did with Sally, and one back to SC&P. Where his and Megan's marriage will end up after his revelations is unclear, but he was--it seems--attempting to be honest. And, even though I'm not crazy about Megan, I admire how she can stand up to him and express herself. When he tells her he hasn't been sleeping around and hasn't been drinking much, she spits out, "So with a clear head, you got up every day and decided you didn't want to be with me." Later, when he calls her from New York, he asks that she just listen to him (as he wanted Sally to do last week). She tells him to "stop pushing me away with both hands." She knows what he does with his emotional damage, but since he also seems willing to learn about himself now, who knows? Maybe things will change with them.

Peggy, on the other hand, seems genuinely stuck. She's in the office the whole episode (no field trips of any kind for her). She can't get past her resentment at Don for what he did with Johnson and Johnson and to Ted; she claims not to care about awards, but is clearly upset--and justifiably so--that Lou did not submit her and Ted's Rosemary's Baby ad for consideration for the award, while Ginsberg has been nominated; and she clearly is still stuck on Ted. It all just leads her to be mean again.

Then there's Don's last field trip of the episode, back to the office. While at the end of last season, the partners were in a tableaux of Roger, Bert, and Jim with Joan a little off to the side as they put Don on leave, this time Bert, Joan, and Jim are all arrayed on one side of the table, while Roger is with Don on the other. Each of the three opposed to Don direct a stipulation at him, the kinds of stipulations that the brilliant Don Draper should say 'no' to. But instead, he gives them a calculating stare, then pulls a face and shrugs "okay." He's called their bluff. It will be interesting to watch what he does as time goes on to try to "fix" things.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

"Happy Valentine's Day"

Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Two, "A Day's Work"

It's not often that an episode of "Mad Men" ends and someone with whom I live walks into the TV room to discover me on the couch actually smiling happily, but tonight that is what happened because our boy Don achieved an incredibly good "day's work." And was paid beautifully for it. Last week, I posited the work that Don kept telling people he had to get back to was the work of Purgatory--working off his sins--after he was able to crawl out of the Inferno at the end of last season, thanks to his truth-telling with his colleagues, Hershey clients, and his children. Tonight he told Sally that he "said the wrong things to the wrong people at the wrong time." But at least he knows enough to keep telling her the truth when she demands it. ("What's the note supposed to say?" Don asks her. "Just tell the truth," she suggests, knowing that he lied about being at his office that day.) After some of his old defensiveness in the car, with Howard Kaylan crooning "Elenore, can I take the time to ask you to speak your mind?" in the background, he hears some of Sally's truth: "Do you know how hard it is for me to go to your apartment?" she asks him. She's afraid she might run into "that woman" and get stuck in the elevator with Sylvia, having to smell her hairspray. She forces Don, again, to recognize that his shitty actions in the past continue to cause his daughter pain. But, instead of running away from it, he stops at a restaurant and, though he can't make her eat at first, does make her listen to his confession. He acknowledges several things that a Don of the past wouldn't have: he didn't want anyone to know he wasn't working, he was ashamed, and he doesn't know what he's going to do to try to "fix" things with his firm. I know this is only the second episode of the new season, so Don has plenty of time to screw things up again, but this is hopeful. After she comes back from calling her classmate and accepts a patty melt, they have a pretty genuine talk about her room mate's mother's funeral: "It was awful," she confesses. "Sarah's mom was yellow." While Don didn't like her going to a funeral, when she tells him she only went so she could go shopping, he says, "I doubt that." He knows her and when she's lying too. "Life goes on," he advises.

Meanwhile, back at the office, Don's soul mate, Peggy, is having a really lousy day's work. After being reminded in the elevator by Stan and Ginsberg that Valentine's Day is coming up and she's got nobody, she spends the day obsessing about Ted--whom she, sadly, has not been able to get over--and misinterprets her secretary's gift of roses from her fiancé as a Valentine from Ted. Like Don, she clearly has some work to do on her personal life, but isn't yet ready to do it. Instead, she is mean and spiteful to Shirley, whose engagement ring evokes Peggy's jealousy. I feel for her that her talents are unappreciated at the office and that she has the misfortune to be in love with a married man--perhaps the only "moral" (as Pete accusingly terms him) married man we've met on this show. Part of her might feel right now that an engaged secretary is really what she'd like to be since a married professional woman (what she really wants to be) still might seem impossible in 1969, but taking it out on those below her in the hierarchy is something I hope she figures out how to stop doing soon. Other working women are not the enemy. She's behaving like the worst of the men.

While Peggy's trying to figure out how to be a woman in love in a "man's job," Don is being feminized--but he oddly seems almost okay with it. Cutler refers to him as "our collective ex-wife who still receives alimony," Dave Wooster kids him about having time for lunch and tells him what he'd like to do on their "second date;" he spends the day watching TV and eating junk food, performs the job of primary parent to Sally, and focuses his energy on his personal relationships. Yet, it's working for him. While Pete Campbell is angry because he doesn't know how he can move up in his job--always wanting more--when Don finally drops Sally off at her school, he receives a much better 'paycheck' than any he ever received from the ad agency for dealing with all their squabbling over accounts: "Happy Valentines Day. I love you." And, as a stunned Don watches her climb the steps, the Zombies sing "The warmth of your love is like the warmth of the sun, and this will be our year, took a long time to come. . . And I won't forget the way you held me up when I was down . . . you gave me faith to go on." Maybe this will be Don's year. And maybe Sally really is his Beatrice. Or maybe he'll get back to messing things up again. But, he's making it part way up Dante's mountain.

A few other observations:

--Glad to see that Joan had a good day's work--and a new office up where she belongs.

--Yeay for Pete's new girlfriend! How's he going to deal with a working woman who won't just drop her work to go to a hotel with him because he's tired of his job at the moment? Her thrill at working a job, the success of which is not in her hands is in such stark contrast to his need to control every aspect of what goes on in his work. Either she'll be good for him or he won't be able to take her for too much longer.

--Bert Cooper's an asshole. 'Nuff said. Okay, just a bit more--such an asshole that he probably doesn't even realize what a bad day's work he's put in. The image at the end of the three women (Joan, Dawn, and Shirley) wandering around with their boxes of stuff, with only the Caucasian Joan "advancing," (Cooper's word) was quite telling.

--That Peggy caused part of that tableaux makes me sad. And Pete said that Ted just mopes around. Is he still pining for Peggy? There's unfinished business there but I wish Peggy would figure out that there's a sisterhood out there.

Oh, well. Happy Valentine's Day!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

"Set Me Free"

Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode One: "Time Zones"

"It's not a time piece; it's a conversation piece," the all-of-a-sudden brilliant--as in Don Draper brilliant--Freddy Rumsfeld pushes on Peggy at the beginning of this episode, which travels through the four time zones of the title and occurrences that are all over the place too; many seem pointless at this juncture, but might be laying groundwork that will make sense later on as the season progresses. What the episode didn't do for me is offer a lot in the way of "conversation pieces," save a few intriguing bits that struck me as more mythic and symbolic. At the end of last season, it seemed that Don Draper might have emerged from the depths of the "Inferno," ready for his journey through Purgatory--a holding pen for waiting, and for working off one's sins. An in-between place, neither there--the final punishment of Hell--nor the there of Heaven. In Dante's poem, Purgatorio is a mountain to be climbed. Less than two months since we last saw him--standing with his children outside the hell of the whorehouse where he spent his youth--Don is in this state of limbo: being paid by SC&P, but not REALLY working for them, yet working off his sins of failed ad campaigns of the year before by plying the "free lancing" Freddy Rumsfeld with his ideas to sell to Peggy Olsen and people at other ad firms.

He is tempted, as others attempt to lure him back to the Inferno: there is the mysterious woman on the plane, who--like Lethe, one of the goddesses of the Underworld, the representation of the River Lethe, river of forgetfulness--offers him a sleeping pill. In myth, Lethe lures souls to drink of her water to forget their earthly lives and selves and hence be forever residents of the Underworld. Don declines her offer of the pill. She tells him of her dead husband, whose remains she has been spreading at Disney Land, and offers to "make [him] feel better." Though tempted; though acknowledging to her that he is a "terrible husband," he declines her offer, saying that he has to get back to work.

There is also L.A., the land of sunshine, of slow motion wives in mini-skirts and sports cars, of new chances, of renewed youth (Pete Campbell with a rakish lock of hair hanging over his forehead has shed his stuffy suits and ties!) It is like the fabled Shangri-La of Frank Capra's "Lost Horizon," the 1937 movie that Don was starting to watch on the new TV that Megan didn't want: "In these days of wars, of rumors of wars, haven't you dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?" Yet, Shangri-La proved too good to be true, a place that kept people artificially and superficially young, but once they left, death came to claim them. Even though Don doesn't really have a job to get back to in New York, he declines to stay in California with Megan and her ridiculous, superficial agent, but goes back east to 'work.'

A further punishment for Don is his separation from his only soul-mate on the show, fellow sufferer Peggy. She is--or at least feels herself to be--the only defender of, and striver after, quality left at SC&P. Lou--Don's replacement--doesn't appreciate her; after she tells him, "I want to give you my best," he merely sneers, "I don't know, Peggy. I guess I'm just immune to your charms." Stan doesn't think it's worth the trouble to make Lou appreciate good campaign ideas; Peggy yells at him that "you're all a bunch of hacks," willing to go with 'shit.' Meanwhile on the home front, she repeatedly must contend with the literal shit clogging her tenant's toilet. She then must hear her brother-in-law say that he'll make the long trip back to Brooklyn late at night even though he must be back at Peggy's the next morning because "I don't like Anita there alone at the house," when she has no man to care if she is alone in her house (hear that Ted, who dares return from California without a tan!). All this drives her to sink to the floor of her apartment in anguished tears, while a few miles or so away, Don decides not to open a late night bottle of liquor; instead he goes to the broken sliding glass door of his apartment (things don't work in the apartments of purgatory apparently--toilet for Peggy, door for Don), and sits out in the cold January air of the patio in his underwear, shivering, looking like hell, but managing--for this episode at least--to avoid going back there. While some man sings Diana Ross' "set me free, why dontcha babe..."