Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Mad Men | 4x08 | The Summer Man

While last week’s powerhouse was always going to be a tough act to follow, this was as close to a filler episode as Mad Men gets. Not to say that nothing happened: on the contrary, Don’s turning over a new leaf, Betty’s issues begin to grate on Henry, and Joan’s tension with Joey from last week comes to an unpleasant head, just as her hubby’s finally shipping out to basic training. Oh, and Joan? Still capable of being an unnecessarily heinous bitch when she wants to be.

After weeks on end of rock bottom, it’s good to see Don getting some perspective, discovering exercise (all that booze can’t be helping the blood pressure situation), and finally bringing his endless flirting with Dr Faye to some sort of resolution. The fact that he spurned her advances in the car indicates he, like Bethany in the first episode, is looking for something long-term rather than a one night stand. Who knows whether he’s capable of sustaining it, but the fact that he’s trying is huge, and I’d say Faye has the best chance of any woman on the show because she – unlike poor, uncomplicated Bethany, who Don “already knows” too well – might just be complex enough to keep him interested.

Betty’s seething, though not unjustified, resentment towards Don rears its ugly head again after she and Henry run into Don and Bethany during a political dinner in the city. She’s visibly very upset by this and doesn’t handle it particularly well, prompting an argument with Henry in which he admits “maybe they rushed into this” (no shit, Sherlock) and she rants childishly until he sends her back into sullen silence with the immortal line: “Shut up, Betty, you’re drunk.”

Following sage advice from old BFF Francine (good to see Anne Dudek back), who tells her not to let Don get to her because “he has nothing to lose, and you have everything”, Betty pulls herself together and invites Don to baby Gene’s second birthday party. Though this serves mostly as a means of placating Henry by demonstrating that she’s unaffected by Don, there’s definitely something beyond indifference in the way she watches him play with Gene. It’s hard not to feel bad for Betty, much though she’s brought her situation on herself – being told what she’s "allowed" to say is clearly not what she had in mind when she remarried.

In contrast to Don and Peggy’s bonding last week, relations in the office are at an ugly low: following another telling off for his lack of respect, Joey asks Joan what she even does in the office, “besides walking around like [she’s] trying to get raped”. Christ. He even stubs out his cigarette on her desk as he leaves in a horrible, machismo full-stop, more male posturing to assert his dominance. I really, really hate Joey.

One pornographic drawing later, Joan tells the douche crew she can’t wait until they’re all in Vietnam and pining for the kind of treatment they get now. But razor-sharp though her putdowns are, there’s no getting away from the fact that she’s essentially powerless. The only way she knows how to operate is the softly-softly approach – in this case, going quietly to Don and Lane to report “complaints” about Joey – and it’s not enough to get the job done. So Peggy, fortified by Don’s encouragement, pulls Joey into her office and straight out fires him. And the viewing world rejoices.

Joan, however, does not. It’s literally like watching a puppy get kicked in the face as a proud, eager Peggy gets the harshest possible “thanks for nothing” from Joan. As far as Joan’s concerned, Peggy fired Joey to assert herself as a big shot, and has succeeded only in reinforcing the status quo, proving Joan powerless and herself frigid and humourless. “No matter how powerful we get around here, they can still just draw a cartoon” she tells a dispirited Peggy, and while she’s sadly right, there’s absolutely no justification for how callous she is here.

Joan’s most unattractive trait has always been her treatment of other women, which is cavalier at best and borders on sadistic at worst, and Peggy has long been her number one punching bag. There might be an element of the same fear of youth that’s driven Roger’s resentment of Pete this season – Joan is feeling her age, and Joey’s reactions to her do emphasise the point that this is a younger, more savvy generation who see her not-so-subtle sexuality as outdated and risible, rather than irresistible. Peggy, meanwhile, has found her place within this new order, and so however well-intentioned her actions are, Joan can’t see her as anything other than a threat.

Other thoughts:
- It’s not clear whether Don’s keeping a journal, or writing a series of never-to-be-sent letters (to Anna?) but either way it’s almost jarring to hear him lay things out so openly. Is this the first instance of true voiceover on the show? There were Betty’s letters to Henry last season, and Don reading Frank O’Hara earlier than that, but I’m pretty sure this is the first time it’s been used recurrently through an episode to underpin a character’s thoughts.
- Loved the way the iconic, painfully stylish shot of Don leaning against the wall smoking was undercut by the fact that we’d just seen him hacking up a lung in the pool. He seems to be substituting drinks for cigarettes, which isn’t the greatest long-term approach.
- Interesting that Betty said she’d never been with anyone before Don. That puts their relationship into a somewhat different light, especially her speech about not being able to concentrate all day because she wants him so badly – she was naïve in so many respects when she married him.
- I couldn’t figure out Bethany’s “What? Her?” reaction to Don explaining that Betty was his wife – was she upset because she found Betty intimidatingly beautiful, or pleased because Betty looks quite a bit like her? All I know is my mind went straight to Arrested Development. Her?

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Mad Men | 4x07 | The Suitcase

My favourite episode of AMC’s other Emmy-scooper Breaking Bad this season was Fly, a claustrophobic, emotionally fraught hour in which the show’s two leads were locked together in a room and did essentially nothing but talk. They talked, moreover, about things that had long gone unspoken between them, which is what led me to the comparison with this episode. Like Fly, Suitcase is essentially a two-hander, albeit with substantial turns from supporting players. Like Fly, it used its narrow scope to allow a long-established character relationship to develop very quickly over a very short space of time. And, like Fly, it’s absolutely brilliant.

The conceit here is that Don, attempting to distract himself from the knowledge that Anna has likely died in California, hounds Peggy to produce a winning idea for luggage brand Samsonite, dismissing every pitch she and the boys make – “I’m glad this is an environment where you feel free to fail” – and eventually pressuring her into staying late to brainstorm despite the fact it’s her birthday.

What’s interesting is that this is about more than Don merely wanting to avoid reality, or about him not wanting to be alone. He had the opportunity to go out with Roger and the entirety of the office staff to watch the Ali v. Liston fight, but he chose not to (much to Roger’s chagrin, who’s forced to spend the evening with teetotallers Freddy and his friend from Palm’s). He wanted specifically to be with Peggy at this moment, for reasons which don’t quite become clear until much later.

Before any of this begins, though, we get two scenes which lay the groundwork for Peggy’s state of mind this episode. First up, Duck calls her with a business proposition, which swiftly descends into desperate begging to see her once she surmises he’s drunk, he’s been fired from Gray, and he’s probably not to be taken very seriously.

Having hung up on one uncomfortable conversation, Peggy later encounters a heavily pregnant Trudy in the ladies’ room. This is, I think, the first time the two have shared actual screen time together, and it’s a painful, understated moment as they make small talk about the pregnancy, and Trudy’s father’s penchant for blood sports (heh). After wishing her a happy birthday Trudy assures Peggy that “twenty six is still very young”, which I think was genuinely well intentioned but came out terribly cutting, especially in contrast to Megan’s impressed remark just prior that Peggy’s “doing all right”.

Pete’s face upon seeing Peggy and Trudy walk out together, incidentally, was a classic. I hate to use anything resembling a smiley, but his expression really is best summed up thusly: O_O

So Peggy stays, and stays, and stays some more, and really doesn’t put up as much resistance to Don’s coercion as she might have, only telling Mark that she was “drawn into [Don’s] web” and she’ll be late for her birthday dinner with him at the Four Seasons. Unfortunately, Mark’s chosen tonight to throw her a surprise party, and invite her mother, sister, and roommate along, and by the time he lets Peggy in on this she’s way too deep into Don’s web to untangle herself. She tells him she’s not coming, they fight, and he breaks up with her over the phone in front of her entire family.

I can’t say I’m heartbroken about this – what does it say about Peggy and Mark’s relationship that he doesn’t appear to know how she feels about her family by this point?

Now that she, like Don, “has nowhere else to go”, Peggy’s all set to throw herself back into the work with renewed zeal, but ends up instead having an all out, no-holds-barred blowout with Don, long-stewing tensions finally surfacing for both of them. Don tells her she should stop counting her ideas, that this is not a byline system and her salary is her reward; Peggy calls him on his drunkenness and ingratitude and the Glo Coat business, and it’s generally an epic, raw, bloody battle that ends with Peggy bursting into tears and excusing herself to sob in the bathroom. Come on Peggy, there’s a place to do that, like your apartment. How quickly Joan’s teachings are forgotten.

Miraculously considering how ugly he's been to her ("get over birthdays", really?), Don manages to lure Peggy back into his office and get her smiling with one of Roger’s memoir recordings, which reveals amongst other things that Miss Blankenship was quite the vixen in her day, that Roger's naming his book 'Sterling's Gold' (hee hee hee), and that Cooper had his balls unnecessarily removed by a surgeon named Dr Lyle Evans. And the mystery is solved!

Don’s practically rolling on the floor at this and even Peggy can’t suppress a snigger. This is the point at which they begin to open up to each other – there’s nothing like a good ball gag at the expense of a colleague to break the ice – and after a brief skirmish with a mouse, they head out for a somewhat more modest birthday dinner at the lowest of lower-rent diners. Very Dick Whitman, rather than Don Draper, it seems to me.

Peggy admits to Don that although she knows what she’s supposed to want in life, the kind of things Trudy Campbell values, it “just never feels right, or as important as anything in that office.” This was definitely a moment where the supposedly outmoded attitudes Mad Men highlights still feel very current – for a woman to admit she has little interest in settling down at all and would rather focus on her career than her biological clock is still taboo in a lot of circles, though eyebrows wouldn’t start to raise until said woman was in her thirties or so nowadays.

Despite Peggy’s pointing out to Don that they don’t have personal conversations, she seemed to get very comfortable very quickly with revealing things to him, and so when they end up in a darkened bar the conversation turns first to her insecurities about dating (Don reassures her she’s both attractive and “cute as hell”) and later to that ultimate elephant in the room where Peggy’s concerned, her baby.

It’s nice to see Don really, truly listening to Peggy for once, and reacting to what she’s saying. His wrecked expression after her shaky “Playgrounds” was really sort of devastating – nobody knows better than him the difficulty of trying not to think about traumatic past events.

Back at the office, Peggy half-carries Don into the gents’ just in time for him to vomit up what must be a metric ton of alcohol. His stomach and liver must be pure steel by now, so lord only knows how much he's put away to get to this point. Just when Peggy’s thinking her night can’t get any better, Duck shows up, tries and fails to take a dump on Don’s floor, calls Peggy a whore and ends up in a vaguely embarrassing drunken tussle with Don. Aw, Don. At least he tried to defend Peggy’s honour, even if he was too far gone to actually get his fist anywhere near Duck’s face. Peggy, who honestly deserves some sort of medal between this and her dealing with Stan last week, manages to get rid of Duck, and returns to Don’s office in time for him to pass out in her lap. He’s sweating, his shirt is vomit-stained and I can’t even imagine what he smells like at this point, yet she stays. And that, ladies, is the power of Don Draper.

Don wakes up at some point in the night, Peggy having fallen asleep, and sees a ghostly, smiling Anna in the office holding a Samsonite case. In the morning, he finally takes the plunge and phones Stephanie, who confirms that Anna’s gone and that no arrangements needs to be made – she’s donated her body to science. Don’s already starting to lose it during this conversation, but holds it together until he looks up to see Peggy, who’s been listening in silence. He stares at her for a moment, quivers, and breaks down completely into sobs. It’s really, really devastating. Sterling work from Jon Hamm, though that almost goes without saying at this point. Moss isn’t exactly slacking, either. Can two actors submit the same episode for Emmy consideration, though?

Don tells Peggy that the only person who really knew him has died, and Peggy rubs his back saying “that’s not true.” It is, for now, but after this monumental turning point in their relationship, I can absolutely see her becoming his new Anna in a few years’ time. I think the moment will come for him to tell her everything, and when it does, she’ll still love him.

Later that morning Peggy returns to Don’s office, to find him looking unreasonably clean and bright-eyed considering the night he had.  People like him sicken me.  He shows her a concept for Samsonite based on Clay’s surprise win against Liston, before taking her hand and giving her a look that both acknowledges what passed between them and says “thank you” in the most overt way Don can.

Other thoughts:
- Is it me, or is Joey is a little bit...off? He’s gone from reasonably affable to flat out rude and creepy in the space of seven episodes – the “jam a pen into your neck” line was just baffling, as was his response to Joan.
- Megan seems to be getting more substantial scenes now, to the point where I wonder if they’re leading up to something bigger with her. Another secretarial fling for someone? I’m hoping not, she seems too savvy for that.
- Speaking of which, the “You never say thank you”, “That’s what the money is for” exchange had to be an intentional call back to poor Allison.
- I loved Peggy eyeballing the urinals while Don vomited – for anyone who’s ever done this for a SO or male friend (yep, I’ve been there), that is such a true moment. Ew.
- Interesting that Don doesn’t know Pete was the father of Peggy’s baby, I’ve often wondered about that.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Mad Men | 4x06 | Waldorf Stories

Dr Faye, once again rejecting an overly friendly and drunk Don, this week tells him “You’re confusing a lot of things at once right now”. It’s a great summary of him this episode – he confuses Sunday for Saturday and forgets to pick up his children, confuses drunken hubris with artistic inspiration and nearly scuppers the Life account as a result, and confuses the less-than-talented Danny’s idea with his own, forcing him to give the kid a job he probably doesn’t deserve. Don’s been slipping for a while now, but this just might be the beginning of his true descent. The only question is whether or not he’s going to bring the company down with him.

What’s really scary about this, drunken day-long blackout aside, is that Don seems to be losing the one thing that’s always been a constant in his life – his professionalism, and his ability to work no matter what else was going on. The Life cereal meeting was a painful mockery of the legendary Kodak pitch from season one, with Don slurring about nostalgia and stumbling through a series of increasingly desperate slogan ideas while Pete and Peggy looked on in embarrassment. It was pure luck that the clients were almost as hammered as Don, and so failed to notice how completely out of control he was. And he’s just such an unpleasant drunk here, the way he barks orders at Peggy and doesn’t even pretend to listen to what she’s saying. I’m still amazed she didn’t punch him in the face following the reveal that she’d been stuck in a hotel room with “that pig” all weekend and he didn’t even remember sending her there.

The idea of Don confusing things continues with the Peggy plotline, with that quote used in the “Previously on…” which suggests he’s hard on her because he sees her as an extension of himself rather than an individual. I still think he could afford to be a little easier on her and a little harder on himself, but whatever. It’s interesting that Don’s made a point of verbally congratulating Pete for good work recently (I can recall Vicks and Honda off-hand), but evidently has not done the same for Peggy despite the humble pie he ate to persuade her to come to SCDP in the first place.

Between Don’s antics and the singularly prickish new art director Stan, Peggy had a rough time of it this week. She’s angry that Don not only gave her no credit for her part in the Glo Coat campaign, but that she now doesn’t even get to attend the Clio awards where it’s nominated (understandable, although a part of me thinks she needs to manage her expectations). To add insult to injury, Joan gets to go to the awards because she’s hot and therefore great bait for potential clients, while Peggy’s stuck behind with Stan who does nothing but belittle and insult her, even outright telling her she should be ashamed of her body. I’ll say it again: PRICK. She does get to exact some fairly sweet revenge, calling his faux-liberal “I’d be a nudist if society allowed it” bluff by suggesting they work in the nude, thereby effortlessly tormenting him right into a cold shower. Nicely done, Miss Olson.

Elsewhere, we get our first flashback of the season with the story of how Don and Roger met. It’s roughly what we’ve heard before – Roger discovered Don at the fur company (there’s even a glimpse of Betty modelling on the shoot where she and Don met), recognised his talent and brought him in – but with the crucial new revelation that Roger never actually offered him the job. Rather, Don lied his way into Sterling Cooper and was only able to do so because Roger was too drunk to remember what he’d said. There’s an obvious parallel to Don being forced to give Danny a job because of his own drunken mistake, and while you could read this as a sign that Don’s “becoming” Roger, I don’t think the two are capable of being wholly similar. Don, although he’s now apparently telling random waitresses his real name, is defined by his inability to tell the truth about himself, while Roger’s so desperate to tell the story of his own past he’s writing a memoir. Chalk and cheese, even if they do both suffer occasional alcohol-related blackouts.

The demeaned, pitiable Roger we glimpsed last week continues here, too – Lane calls him “a child” to Pete, and it’s hard to argue. Though he downplayed it, there was something genuinely tragic in Roger refusing to give Don back his award until he admitted he couldn’t have done it without Roger. Like Peggy, he feels diminished and unappreciated, but she’s young and insecure and it’s understandable, whereas from him it’s just sort of pathetic. And just like last week, he unburdens himself to Joan who has absolutely zero tolerance for his self-pity parade, coolly telling him he’s “crossed the border from lubricated to morose.” Oh, Joan. Never change. She and Dr Faye could write a manual on how to classily turn down the advances of drunken philanderers. Maybe they could send Allison a copy?

The other major plot was Pete’s discovering that Lane’s offering Ken a job, which unsurprisingly brings all of his lingering resentment from last year back in full force. The thing is, he’s absolutely in the right – he is a partner, and Lane should have consulted him, especially since he knew only too well what the history was. But despite his mini-tantrum, Pete doesn’t regress or lose any of the maturity he’s gained this season. Instead, he pulls it together and asks Ken into the board room, where he lets him know in calm but very definite terms that he is now his superior and things are going to be different, which seems to come as a genuine shock to Ken.

I found myself really enjoying the Lane/Pete dynamic, which has been semi-developing for a while but really came into play here with Lane pointing out that pragmatism is something they share, and something that, say, Roger lacks. While there was a definite element of ego-stroking alongside the genuine sentiment (much like Don and Roger’s pitch for him to join SCDP originally), it is true that Pete’s been essentially pulling the accounts wagon by himself – excluding Palms, which Freddy dropped in his lap, has Roger actually brought in any accounts? There was also something quite unexpected and sweet about Lane’s “I’m quite fond of you”, which seems plausible after his comment to Don that Pete specifically had been friendly to him. Aw. You know, maybe Don and Roger should just get the hell out and leave the agency in Pete, Lane and Peggy’s more than capable hands. Campbell Olson Harris Pryce, anyone?

- So Roger IS writing a book, I’d been wondering since his comment in the premiere. And it is, from the sounds of it, quite dull. His mother made them eat vanilla ice cream because it didn’t stain, y’know.
- Admittedly “Judas Priest!” isn’t quite up there with last week’s “Christ on a cracker”, but I do think somebody should keep a collection of Pete’s incredibly square yet borderline blasphemous exclamations.
- I’m not sure what to make of the Don/Joan/Roger sandwich, nor the overly lingering kiss on the lips from Don. There’s an inexplicable part of me that’s always wanted to see what Don and Joan would be like together, and I sort of think they’d be amazing, but if anything would send Roger over the edge into that third heart attack…
- My favourite thing to come out of that scene, actually, was my flatmate’s comment following the Don-Roger-Joan hand holding under the table: “So, are Don and Pete holding hands too?”
- This week’s Big Return turned out to be Duck, who’s very much off the wagon and then some. Oh dear. I want to make some kind of booze-related “water off a duck’s back” pun, but it’s just not coming.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Mad Men | 4x05 | The Chrysanthemum and the Sword

This was one episode where the two main plot strands felt totally separate, with not a whole lot tying them together either thematically or plot-wise. The one undercurrent that does seem to run throughout is the idea of blame being wrongfully assigned or projected – Roger dismisses a potential Japanese client on principal despite Pete’s protestation that “these are not the same people” he went to war with; Betty lashes out at Sally with what is really her unresolved (and borderline irrational) rage towards Don; Don’s anger at Phoebe after Sally cuts her own hair was less about her than it was about the earful he knew he’d get from Betty for leaving his children with her at all.

Speaking of Phoebe, she seems to have made a pretty swift transition from potential love interest to platonic babysitter, though it’s not clear whether she and Don made any less platonic stops along the way. Sally definitely has her suspicions, though, and I’m still undecided on how much of her behaviour here (both the haircut and the semi-public act of self love) comes out of a genuinely developing sexual awareness, and how much is purely down to wanting Don’s attention. The two things are sort of intertwined, in fact, as evidenced by her slightly sad, slightly creepy “You have short hair and Daddy likes it” to Phoebe.

Betty and Don played an interesting round of pass-the-buck with regard to the origins of Sally’s untimely sexual habits (how interesting is it that Betty had to euphemistically hint around it to Henry, but came right out and said “masturbating” to Don?), and both made completely valid points. Don’s “doing it” with various women clearly isn’t lost on Sally, but neither is the fact that Betty swapped one husband for another in the time it takes most people to even file for divorce, and we’ve heard from Sally herself that the fact they’re living in the same house is one of the hardest parts of the whole thing. She’s just being bombarded with a lot of confusing and quite contradictory messages at once, right around the age where she’s starting to become aware of this stuff in any case, and the introduction of a therapist to give her some stability is probably no bad thing.

That said, and however much Sally may benefit from therapy, good lord if Betty doesn’t need it about seven times as badly. Her whole line about “fast little girls” was just…wow. Wow. She has some seriously strange ideas, most of which were probably drilled in by her own nightmare of a mother. Slapping a contrite Sally was so hideously uncalled for, and the yelling up the stairs after her just made Betty seem, more than ever, like a child herself. Let’s hope Dr Edna, under the guise of “keeping up with Sally", can do more good with Betty than the unethical quack she saw in season one.

A quick aside: myself and a friend were agreeing earlier that we would pay good, good money to see a season of HBO’s In Treatment done in crossover with Mad Men. Dr Paul would have an absolute field day with this crew.

Meanwhile in the office, that pesky forward-thinking mind of Pete’s is at work again, and it’s nice to see this ongoing arc finally come to something of a head. Pete’s landed a meeting with Honda, which pleases everybody but Roger who refuses, point blank, to contemplate doing business with Pete’s “new yellow buddies.” It all goes sort of downhill from there for Roger – I often wonder how Slattery must feel to deliver these often great, yet hideously un-PC lines, but then I remember he’s already done blackface, and after that everything else must seem sort of tame by comparison. Anyway, so he’s obviously nursing one hell of a war grudge, which is understandable but also entirely selfish and shows a total lack of business sense – as he said to Don in last season’s finale, he inherited Sterling Cooper and never really had to learn any, and he certainly never had to learn how to put his own opinions aside for pragmatism's sake.

Everybody’s in agreement that the meeting will go ahead, but Cooper stresses the need to keep it on the down low from Roger. This I had some trouble with – would he honestly think it was possible for them to meet with Honda without Roger finding out? Thinking about it, that is a really sad indictment of Roger’s position within the company at this point. Anyway, he predictably crashes the meeting, says some really unfortunate things and seems to absolutely scupper SCDP's chances of landing the account.

This all leads up to a fantastic, electric confrontation between Don, Pete and Roger, in which the latter’s informed in no uncertain terms that this is bigger than him, that the world has moved on since the war, and he’s not going to be allowed to kill the account. Pete delivers a killer line where he essentially accuses Roger of “wrapping himself in the flag” as an excuse to kill the account because he wants the company to remain dependant on Lucky Strike, and therefore on him. My first instinct was that Pete was being unfair here, and I do think Roger’s psychological war wounds are genuine, but on reflection there’s probably a lot of truth in this. Roger’s repeated line “You weren’t there” does smack of something beyond military pride, there’s a definite fear of youth in him, and of Pete, “the boy wonder” who’s threatening his comfortable position of power. Don, in any case, thinks Pete’s right and tells Roger so, which probably had to hurt even more than the comment itself.

This scene, and the later one with Joan where she brilliantly undercuts his self-pity, are easily the most vulnerable Roger’s been since his first heart attack – his expression when he tells Don to “get [Pete] out of here” was so reminiscent of how he looked in the hospital scene back then, as though he was about to cry and vomit and possibly faint all at once. Sad, but also a sign that times are changing and Roger’s starting to feel the weight of being left behind. Meanwhile Don is nothing if not adaptable and able to move with the tides; hence his siding with Pete who is basically the embodiment of the bell tolling for Roger.

On a lighter note, there’s a really enjoyable, caper-esque air to the whole business of Don't plot to turn CGC's competitive edge against them, which recalls the raid of the old office in Shut The Door, Have A Seat – the highlight, clearly, being Peggy continuing her winning physical comedy streak this season as she rides a Honda round and round an empty studio. Don then turns Honda’s own rules back on them in the meeting, which wins him enough respect to guarantee that SCDP are first in line for their pending automobile account.  Fun, clever, and a great moment of triumph for the struggling firm.

Other thoughts:
- I’m sure others have already picked up on this, but how is it possible that Secor are only now producing their first TV ads, when Pete and Harry hatched that plan in season one to buy up all Kennedy’s airtime and fill it with their laxative ads?
- “You don’t do those things in private, and you certainly don’t do them in public.” Oh Betty, how quickly you forget the manifold joys of the spin cycle.
- Miss Blankenship refusing to give the package to Pete because “it says Don on it” was funny, but also a powerful call back to the first season plot where Pete was wrongly given Don’s mail and used it to blackmail him. How insanely far they’ve come since then, to the point of actually being allies against Roger.
- Speaking of which - Christ on a cracker, that confrontation scene was great. I especially liked the physicality of the wide shot where Roger makes a lunge for Pete, who literally scuttles backwards about five metres (haha) as Don sweeps in, and it's all very fast but really precisely staged.
- Much as Betty seems to be going speedily off the rails, she has a point about Don’s neglect of the kids. Much though his date with Bethany (who I really, really could live without ever seeing again) was only a ruse to eye up the competition for the Honda account, leaving his children with a babysitter on one of the few nights he gets with them is pretty terrible.
- So we had Freddy back in week two, Ken last week, now Smitty – who’s next? I’m hoping for Sal. I’m expecting Kinsey. And his beard.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Mad Men | 4x04 | The Rejected

Despite the title, this episode is less about rejection than it is about separation, and walls being drawn between people. In the episode’s central set piece, market research consultant Dr Faye assembles a group of unsuspecting secretaries and manipulates them into discussing their deepest insecurities (which revolve, by and large, around rejection from men), whilst being clinically observed through a one-way glass wall by Don, Freddie and Peggy.

There’s a voyeuristic element to this entire setup, recalling the Basket Of Kisses sequence from the first season, but it serves largely as a means for Don, finally, to be forcibly confronted with the consequences of his behaviour, and the fact that “this actually happened."  In contrast to the second episode where he was letting Allison read Sally’s letter out loud to him, he’s now slamming those walls right back up between them, snapping at her when she inquires about his letter from California (though we know there’s a good reason why he’d want to keep that to himself).

So Allison, meek and diminished, is pushed to breaking point by another secretary’s agonised musing on an ex; “I feel like I gave him everything”, and ends up bursting into tears mid-market research. She later resigns her position, but not before throwing a heavy object at Don’s head after his horrifically callous suggestion that she write her own letter of recommendation for him to sign. Even at this moment of crux, he’s totally unable (or unwilling) to articulate her value to him. While I totally agree with her sobbing declaration that Don is “not a good person”, I’m sort of surprised by her naivety. Especially given what we’ve seen of her in the past – cavorting around with Ken in Nixon vs Kennedy and so on – it seems as though she should have more nous than to expect anything more from Don.

The most intriguing reaction to the whole incident, though, was Peggy’s. Though initially kind to Allison, she turns on her viciously after her (quite innocent) suggestion that Peggy must have experienced the same thing with Don. This has always seemed like a real raw nerve with Peggy, who’s understandably frustrated by the assumption that she must have slept her way through the glass ceiling, but here it resonated doubly because of Pete’s situation. Much though she probably wishes to deny that she was ever in the same category as the male-dependant, emotionally vulnerable secretaries, Allison’s dead right when she says Peggy “must have gone through everything I’m going through”. The difference is she went through it with Pete, the sex, the ambiguity afterwards, the hopeless pining, and crucially came out of it far worse off than the presumably birth control-savvy Allison.

Peggy’s reaction to Trudy’s pregnancy – clearly profound, but underplayed to perfection – gave rise to the episode’s other great “glass dividing wall” image. Peggy heads out to lunch with her new, liberated crowd of beatnik pals, Pete remains in the office with the old boys’ crowd, and they share a look acknowledging everything that still binds them, as well as the things that overwhelmingly separate them. Gorgeous. That’s probably as close as they’ll ever get to closure, though such a thing probably doesn’t exist in situations like theirs.

I’ve talked a lot about how Pete seems to have matured this season, but really. My God. I was totally blindsided by his response to the pregnancy news – especially given that he had to hear it from Trudy’s father, it’s hard to imagine the Pete of yesteryear reacting so calmly or with such sincerity. But after a patented “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” he’s overwhelmed with joy at the prospect of fatherhood and goes home to share a really lovely scene with Trudy wherein he tells her he doesn’t care how he found out, and they’re both a bit teary, and she’s happy he’s happy, and it’s literally just really so adorable.

Who’d ever have guessed these two would grow into such a functional, emotionally healthy couple? They feel so much like partners, too, on equal footing – she understands how business works, and has no problem with Pete’s news that the company has to ditch her father’s Clearasil account: “You needed him, and now you don’t. He’ll be fine.” Trudy’s awesome. And so, it turns out, is Pete. Buoyed by the news and by Trudy’s support, he turns a horrendously awkward and potentially upsetting situation into a massive $6m coup for SCDP. Even Don’s impressed. Sure, there’s something a bit Machiavellian about it, but then his father in law had no qualms about basically blackmailing him into getting Trudy pregnant, so whatevs.

- It’s noticeable how much more balanced this season has been in terms of rounding out everybody in the office. The focus on Betty’s story, and the Ossining stuff in general, really overwhelmed last season to the point where it felt as though we learned barely anything about, say, Peggy or Joan all year. Now, everyone gets to take centre stage on a semi-regular basis, albeit at the expense of January Jones these past couple of weeks.
- Although Lee wasn’t in this episode, his noxious presence was felt in that hilarious tag-team phone call. The Lucky Strike situation is surely going to come to a head before the season’s end – in my personal dreams, Pete (and maybe a newly recruited Ken?) will eventually bring in enough new accounts that they can tell Lee Garner where to get off, and then hire Sal back. Is that too much to ask? Yeah, okay.
- Speaking of Cosgrove, he was looking a lot less chipper and bright-eyed than I remember him from Sterling Cooper, and definitely didn’t seem like his old so-laid-back-he’s-horizontal self. Clearly he’s not at all happy in his current position, which is what’s making me wonder if Lane won’t see an opportunity to bring in more accounts by taking him on. I think Pete might have an actual, legitimate nervous breakdown. Much though he’s matured, I think that’s one grudge that runs pretty deep.
- How, oh how, is Vincent Kartheiser the ONE major player not to have received an Emmy nomination? Ever? This episode alone makes a great case for him.
- This is probably just the paranoid, Joss Whedon-influenced doomsayer in me, but I have this weird inkling that something is going to go wrong with Trudy's pregnancy. Surely a couple can't be happy and functional on this show for long? Plus since she's had so much difficulty conceiving, problems with carrying to term would be very plausible. Hopefully, I am way off base with this.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Mad Men | 4x03 | The Good News

Quick notes on this one, as a trip to Dublin threw off my scheduling last week.  And I don’t even like Guinness.

As with Don’s second season sojourn to California, this episode felt a little disjointed, as though being out of New York throws the show’s entire rhythm out of whack.  But where his previous trip felt overlong and underdeveloped, this was brief, lively and quite gut-wrenching, as Don pays another visit to Anna Draper and visibly relaxes in her presence, only to discover she has months to live.  It’s a soapy premise, but subtly written as always and played to perfection by Jon Hamm, who runs the full gambit of emotions this week as he effectively becomes Dick Whitman for a day.   The scene where he says goodbye to Anna for what’s likely the last time, the one person who “knows everything about him and still loves him”, is truly devastating, especially following the scene in which he admits how much Betty’s rejection wounded him.  But, as he admits, he had it coming.

It’s ironic too that Don’s real struggle here is with how much to tell Anna, as it turns out that her doctors and her family have concealed her prognosis from her.  There are hints that she knows, but he’s nonetheless burdened with the decision and ultimately lies to her, though she is the one person he’s hidden nothing from up to this point.  Maybe he’s just forever doomed to keep enormous secrets from people he loves?

Back in Manhattan, Don and Lane run into one another in the empty SCDP office, both struggling with the loss of family and the reality of New Year’s alone, and Don – uncharacteristically reaching out – suggests a movie.  Thus begins a drunken night of low-level debauchery, tentative male bonding and a series of really hilarious outbursts from the generally reserved Lane, my personal favourite being his pseudo-Japanese squawk at an unsuspecting audience member.  All this sat a little oddly with the earlier half of the episode, and I struggled to see quite how the two acts led on from one another, but it was hugely enjoyable to watch both these guys let loose.  Don definitely needs more friends, especially as Roger has for some inexplicable reason still not got rid of Jane. 

It was surprising in a way to see Lane agree to Don’s generous call girl offer, and even more surprising that he was so smooth about the encounter where some stiff-upper-lip fumbling might have been expected.  The scene where he gives Don money to pay the girl, actually laying down bills on the counter, was an interesting parallel to last week’s ending scene with poor Allison, the implication being almost that Lane was paying Don for his time and his companionship.  That said, this seemed like it could be the start of a beautiful friendship, depending on what develops with Lane’s wife.  Much though I’m always eager to see Embeth Davidtz in anything, I have a feeling she may not be back. 

The other main story thread here was Joan’s, and hers was the only plot that even vaguely fulfilled the title’s promise of Good News.  Even here, it’s pretty thin on the ground – a visit to the gynaecologist from the pilot tells us that Joan’s had a couple of “procedures” in the past and is now concerned about her chances of getting pregnant with Greg.  The doctor assures her that everything’s fine physically, which qualifies as good news except that Greg is likely shipping out to Vietnam fairly soon.  He’s refusing to accept this as a certainty, Joan’s frustrated by the ambiguity about their future and the fact that her biological clock is definitely ticking at this point, and this all comes to a head in a surprising scene where she cuts herself on a cooking knife.  Between this moment and her awesomely uninhibited fight with Lane, this is by far the most exposed and emotional we’ve ever seen Joan, and after her relatively small role last season it’s great to see Christina Hendricks given some stretching room. 

 What’s really striking about the knife scene, though, is how well Greg comes off.  Considering he’s been portrayed thus far as an incompetent doctor and insensitive husband at best, and at worst a flat-out rapist, it was almost odd to see him take control of the situation so smoothly and with so much sensitivity.  And who doesn’t love a good hillbilly joke?   Joan’s clearly scared by the idea of his going to Vietnam, and her mini-breakdown here seemed more to do with that than the actual injury, as though she was happy to relinquish control for once and let him take care of her while he still can.  She still deserves a million times better, and I almost wonder if this wasn’t an attempt to inject some sympathy into his character and their relationship before he’s swiftly dispatched to an off-screen death. 

Other thoughts:
-      -  Wow.  I think Don has officially lost his mojo.  Especially in comparison to his beatnik conquest last time he was in California, his coming onto the hot niece (who looked to me like a slightly stoned Blake Lively) was so, so desperate and not remotely sexy.  “You’re so young and beautiful”?  Ugg.  Don, you’re turning into that lecherous old guy we try desperately to avoid at the bar.  Stop it.
-       - Did I mention how awesome Joan and Lane’s fight was?  It was a lovely continuation of a theme with Joan from way back in season one, where she’s angry with Roger after watching The Apartment.  Much though she courts male attention, there is a deep anger in her with regards to the way she’s treated in the workplace, and that really came to fruition here with her “helpless, stupid little girl” remark.  It was also great because Joan and Lane are, weird though it sounds, very alike in that they’re both incredibly controlled and put a lot of stock in appearing unruffled, but have a huge amount going on beneath the surface.  Poor Sandy didn’t stand a chance.
-       - The reintroduction of Dick Whitman started me thinking: would anybody in the office really care all that much if his identity were revealed?  Would they lose their respect for him, not even want to look at him anymore like Betty?  I guess it depends whether we’re talking about the fact that he’s not who he says he is, or the fact that he stole the dogtags and took credit for the war honours of a man who had his face blown off in Korea.  The latter, I can see people struggling with.  But it’s easy to forget that Pete already knows Don is “a deserter at the very least”, and still hero-worships him.  Cooper didn’t care, so would Roger?  Peggy’s already benefited from Don’s teaching on how to forget things, so equally it’s hard to imagine her judging him.  I hope we get to see some of these revelations play out, given how seamlessly Don slips into being Dick here.  

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Mad Men | 4x02 | Christmas Comes But Once A Year

If last week’s premiere was like reuniting with an old friend, this episode was more like the point where you start to remember all the things you don’t like about them.  The honeymoon period’s over, and the reality of Christmas at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is altogether more downbeat than their triumphant previous holiday season.  It is fitting, though, that Mad Men’s first true Christmas episode is really more of a Christmas party episode.

We began with the Francises (which looks wrong, much like the marriage itself) buying a Christmas tree, and the return of creepy, creepy, creepy Glen Bishop, who seems to have transferred his obsessive affections from mother to daughter.  Sally, like Betty before her, seems a lot less disturbed by his advances than many might be, and later opens up to Glen by describing how much she hates living in their old house without Don.  Sad.  And Glen, who we know has a bit of a knight-in-shining-armour complex, helps out by initiating a one-sided food fight with the Francis house, presumably in hopes of making Betty finally want to move out.  Whether or not he’ll succeed, only time will tell.  But, like a true serial killer in the making, he leaves a piece of severed twine on her bed.  Run, Sally.  RUN.

Much though Glen's resurfacing was an unexpected little twist, the Ossining-Manhattan divide felt really pronounced in this episode.  I hope they can find a way to make these strands feel less extraneous, because otherwise I can see them getting very tiresome, no matter how good Kiernan Shipka is (and she is).

Freddy Rumsen also makes a return, and in a much less disturbing and more useful way than Glen – not only is he clean and sober, in AA no less, but he’s bringing a $2m account with him.  Roger naturally takes him back with open arms though he is, I think, working for them only on a freelance basis.  This could actually be a great way for them to sporadically reintroduce old characters (like Ken, who we know from the credits will be back) as and when they want to use them, without having to commit to their being in the office full time.  That said, I don’t know why Ken would want to freelance for SCDP unless he leaves McCann for some reason, but he strikes me as the type who wouldn’t mind being a cog in a corporate machine.

While Freddy and Peggy are happily reunited at first they clash over strategy, with Peggy accusing Freddy of being old fashioned after he suggests the promise of marriage is the best way to market cold cream to women.  Great to see Peggy asserting herself against a dismissive Freddy, not least because she is right.  His ideas are dated, and out of step with the new agency which is specifically trying to keep “looking forward” – it's significant that he voiced his dislike for Pete, who has previously been singled out as forward-thinking.

Moving onto Peggy, we finally meet her “fiancée” properly and their relationship already seems pretty doomed.  Having been warned by Joan back in the first season that “there’s no money in virginity”, and responding with some pride that she wasn’t one, Peggy’s ironically now pretending to be a virgin and the episode culminates with what is, to Mark’s mind, her first time.  I’m no form of shipper, but I did think it was interesting that her boyfriend bore a certain physical resemblance to Pete – is she in some way trying to recreate her actual first time, but to re-do it “right” and within the context of a relationship?  Or maybe she just has a type, though I don't know where Duck fits into that...

Meanwhile at the office, Lane’s plans for a penny-pinching Christmas party get a last minute do-over, as everybody’s favourite walking sexual harassment lawsuit Lee Garner Jr calls and gets himself an invite.  With Lucky Strike now 70% of SCDP’s billings, it’s more imperative than ever for them to keep him happy – and that, kids, is how we end up with Roger Sterling in a Santa Claus outfit, taking photographs with staff members on his lap. Hee. Hee. Hee. A totally dick move on Lee’s part, but to Roger’s credit he swallowed the humiliation well and went along with it, despite the fact that Lee was clearly just asserting his power for its own sake. Better than hitting on Roger and getting him fired, I suppose.

It was nice to see Joan in her element this week, handling the party situation like the level-headed pro she is, keeping Lee in check, and working that conga line like nobody’s business.  And sharing a lovely, quiet scene with Roger…I’ll never quite stop holding out hope for those two.  Still no conclusive word on where Greg is, though, only that he’s “saving lives”.  It seems weird that Roger would ask where he was if he had been posted somewhere, unless Joan had kept it quiet for whatever reason.

Don, on the other hand, was a complete mess.  I almost want to say he’s hit rock bottom, but something tells me he can still go lower.  He’s getting sloppy, crossing boundaries he used to hold sacred (nib, meet office ink), and at this rate is it only a matter of time before he slips and reveals something about his past?  He used to be so meticulous and careful, but between the loss of his family and the seemingly constant boozing, things are definitely slipping.

Interestingly though, he also seems to have softened and become a little bit more fun – his “Merry Christmas, sweetheart” to Peggy was sweet, and he seemed to be having a better time at the party than he has before at office shindigs, even putting a playful arm around Joan at one point.  Not to mention my favourite exchange of the episode, his “Did you enjoy ze Fuhrer’s birthday?” bit with Roger which seemed almost out of character in its levity.  Again, maybe it’s the constant booze talking.

What Don actually seems to want, in this episode at least, is a caretaker or mother more than a partner.  The women around him vacillate from maternal figures to sexual figures (or, if you like, from madonnas to whores) almost seamlessly.  I mentioned last week the idea that Don getting slapped by the prostitute might be a reaction to his mother.  Here, Phoebe the nurse (played by Brick’s Laura Zehetner) came on very strong in their initial scene together, but later rejected his drunken advances, opting instead to take off his shoes and put him to bed.  Allison, who completely embodies Joan’s view of a secretary’s role as “something between a mother and a waitress”, takes a drunken Don his keys, gets him aspirin and offers to make him food, only for him to seduce her and later make her feel like a hooker.

Sexual economy plays a big role in this episode overall – most notably in that awful ending with Don and Allison, where he (unintentionally, I think) gives her the bonus he’d promised in a way that makes it seem like payment for sex.  But it emerges with Peggy and Mark, too.  When he comes over to see her, he's impatient about her reluctance to sleep with him, and she indignantly says she’s sorry if he feels he’s put in enough time – the implication being that he has paid his dues, and now expects something in return.  He then says “I brought you cookies” in a mock-accusatory tone, and while he’s joking the implication is still there, offering something in exchange for something else.  But of course, he’s not actually getting what he thinks he is, and Peggy's false advertising will surely come back to bite her in one way or another.

Other thoughts:
- I’m enjoying Lane enormously this season – not a huge presence, but he’s always ready with a dry riposte at the most opportune moment, like his pained “Yes, we did” in response to Lee Garner’s entirely false “Oh, you didn’t have to do this.”
- Much though he is creepifying and I don’t enjoy the Ossining stuff really, Glen’s “My mom said that would happen” was hilarious.  Can we have Helen Bishop back, please?
- Peggy saying she didn’t want to worry Freddy would start drinking every time she hurt his feelings was very, very true to life with an alcoholic.  Horrible cycle to get into, and she’s right to try and avoid it.
- Pete was again showing a lot of newfound maturity, I was especially surprised he didn’t make any kind of fuss when Roger said he’d be handling the Palm’s account.  Boy is growing.  Though not into his Santa suit, alas.
- On the subject of the Campbells – I can’t fault their conga skills, but what the heck were they thinking outfit wise?  Pete’s burgundy velvet thing was bad enough, but Trudy then wore pale pink?  Clashy clashy.  And those two always seem so coordinated.