Monday, August 16, 2010

All American Rejects

Last week I wrote that “The Good News” was perhaps the most difficult Mad Men episode to digest in the show’s three plus seasons.  That statement has been quickly trumped by last night’s episode “The Rejected,” which contained a variety of symbols that could be read as extremely meaningful signifiers or which could have been red herrings meant to keep our brains turning.  It was also one of the most thematically challenging and deep episodes that the series has ever aired. After three episodes that explicitly dealt with Don’s continued fall from the grace he had constructed about himself, we move away from Don and focus on the trajectories of Pete Campbell and Peggy Olsen.  However, we still do get our fair share of Don Draper and his continued descent.

This episode takes place in February of 1965 and, as many of us students of history know, by 1965, the cultural vision the 1960’s that is sold and taught to us was beginning to take its palpable shape.  Many people have speculated who the ultimate vehicle for the counter-culture on the show would be.  Would it be someone who came of age in the late 1960’s like Sally Draper or Glenn?; would it be a character of the periphery like Stephanie from “The Good News”?; would it be a main character who decided to turn on, tune in and drop out?  There have always been hints that Peggy would jump on board with the younger generation as the 60’s progressed.  She goes to a Bob Dylan concert in Season 2; she adopts a new haircut; she embraces new cultural values in her writing and ad ideas; she tries weedis in Season 3.  However, there is always that old fashioned element to Peggy, whether it is her inability to connect completely with the sexual promiscuity of someone like Joan, who navigates the politics and power of sex (sometimes successfully, sometimes to her detriment) openly, or her reliance on being a Catholic as part of her identity even as she grapples with the fundamentals of that system of belief, that seemed to suggest otherwise.  After last night’s episode, we see that perhaps she will tread some middle ground – a confident career woman liberated by the ability for woman to move upward in the work place who crosses paths with the youth movement of the culture and participates, perhaps not fervently or directly, with some of the countercultural and drug culture qualities that defined the late-60’s.  Certainly “The Rejected” showed that Peggy has the temperment and the foresight to participate and hold her own in an environment like the art party she goes to downtown, as well as to hold off the advances of Joyce with razor sharp quips like “He’s renting it,” in reference to her boyfriend owning her vagina – a quip that she picked up from spending years with the likes of Roger Sterling, but that would also  hold up with the best quips from the 1965-1966 era Bob Dylan. Peggy is even open to the open romance and promiscuity that also defined the late-60’s as she is more than happy to kiss the stranger in the closet during the excitement of the cops breaking up the party.  In “The Rejected” the viewer was first given a look into the romantic and artistic visions of downtown New York in the 60’s, that misty time filled with late nights and slow burning lights that fit so well in Bob Dylan songs.

As much as Mad Men is a show about Don Draper, the Draper Family as well as the work place as a whole, it is also very much about the trials and tribulations of Pete Cambell and Peggy Olsen.  If Don is the center storyline, an arch full of pathos that drives the show, then Peggy and Pete are the dynamic wing storylines that always entertain, move and touch us on terrific and deep levels.  In “The Rejected,” all of the deep emotional themes between Pete and Peggy were dug up.  Not overtly at first as Pete is faced with the dilemma of telling his father in law that he has to drop his Clearasil account, as well as begrudgingly go to lunch with Harry Crane as well as Ken Cosgrove (which is a welcome return).  Pete and Ken tensely reunite as they discover Harry Crane has been spreading some rumors (maybe some truths) about Pete talking about Ken behind his back.  Ken has lost a lot of the lackadasical charm and confidence he had in the first three seasons of Mad Men as he has seen the depressing larger scale of the advertising world and feels himself very much as a cog in the machine.  Pete and Ken commiserate, but Pete takes in every word that Ken is saying and will later parlay that into a coup over his father-in-law.  But first,  Pete learns from his drunken father-in-law that after all the hard work, Trudy is finally pregnant.  It is charming to see the slow and true joy come over Pete, since we can’t help but be reminded of how crushed he was when Peggy told him that she gave their child away.  Pete is genuinely happy when Trudy tells him herself and it is fascinating to see how he has slowly grown to truly love her from the first season through this season and how their marriage, which was rocky at first as slowly become one of the healthiest relationships on the show. But Pete, being the account man he is, figures out that he can use the child as a way to bait his father-in-law and take the entire Vicks account rather than just giving up Clearasil.  When Pete finally confronts his father-in-law with this plan, all his father-in-law can say is “you son of a bitch,” to which Pete just shrugs in one of the top moments in the entire series.  Pete is perhaps the one character who accepts who he is purely and truly and as such requests a certain respect from us as the audience. If only we were so honest about our devotion and skill at perhaps not such an admirable trade.

Yet, what is most interesting is when Pete and Peggy interact.  There are all kinds of parallels in the episode (Pete banging head, Peggy banging head) but when the two intersect the drama and history is all present.  Peggy is taken aback when one of the secretaries brings the card for Pete and Trudy’s pregnancy around.  She goes to congratulate Pete who can only think of his coup with Vick’s but then mutters, “I suppose that is cause for congratulations.”  Peggy seems truly happy for him but has to go to her office to lay down.  This is one of the most true moments you can have in TV, film or literature.  How often are we happy for someone but can’t help but feel some ounce of jealousy or regret that has laid dormant rise up with force within us and overwhelm us, even if that isn’t our true emotion?  Peggy could have had that life with Pete as she said at the end of Season 2, but she decided to give it up for her pursuit of professional and personal freedom.  However, as confident as she was in that decision, it doesn’t mean there is some regret, some vision of that “other” self that could have been that lives within her.  But Peggy is brought back to the present when Joyce asks her to lunch with some friends.  And again Peggy crosses paths with Pete in the lobby. Pete is with Roger, Lane, Freddie Rumsen and some other “old fashioned” suits from Vicks, all in a cluster of blues and greys, while Peggy is on the other side of the glass with the colorful work attire of Joyce and her friends, the young professionals who are looking for the cutting edge of the 60’s.  Peggy and Pete catch eyes and submit an acknowledgement to one and other.  That there was a connection, some moment of the universe that was strong, that tormented them, drew them together and threw them apart and will always bind them, but it was not the way it was meant to be, there was some element lacking. So they smile and embrace their present.  There is something all very Tolstoyan about it.

And still there is Don.  Don scolds Faye Miller at the end of the episode that you can’t decide what someone is going to do based upon what they have done.  Peggy and Pete have managed to surprise despite what they have done, they have been able to change and Peggy especially has shown her ability to “move forward.”  Don tried to “move forward” after he slept with Allison, but she is unable to.  She has been traumatically effected by Don’s ability to compartmentalize his feelings and reactions to people and relationships.  She breaks down during Faye Miller’s control group session, which she manipulates by “sticking her finger” in the girls’ brains, as Don says to her.  Then, when Don goes to check on her (albeit after Peggy already scolds her for her presumptions) she confronts Don about them sleeping together. Allison takes the initiative, she closes the door.  This is a shocking moment for anyone who has watched Mad Men as no one, besides Betty last season and perhaps Cooper from time to time, has confronted Don so directly about his short comings.  Then, Don crushes her again when he says that she can write her own recommendation and that he’ll sign it.  Allison loses it and she throws the metal ball at Don, reminding us all of Roger Sterling’s line that Don, “doesn’t value relationships.”

There were plenty of red herrings in this episode (the artist’s rejected photos, the artist himself, Faye Miller’s name misspelling, Faye Miller’s wedding ring) but none more important than Don’s failed letter and the old couple with the pears.  Don’s failed letter brought to mind Leopold Bloom in the “Nausicaa” episode writing “I. AM. A” in the sand before scratching it out.  It is a moment of admission that is never finished, so we never truly know where the protagonist’s consciousness is going.  Don gets as far in his letter as apologizing to Allison and then right, “Right now my life is very…” before he rips it out of the typewriter and throws it out.  This shows that there is a remorse in Don for all of his actions, which we always knew was there, but it feels as though he is recognizing it through all his drinking and acknowledging the fact that he has to rise from it.

The final possible red herring is the old couple with the pears.  This was perhaps one of my favorite lines of all times. The repeated “Did you get pears?” followed by “We’ll discuss it inside.”  Don, who is not drunk, does not encounter any young girls. Instead he is presented of an image of an old couple who has presumably been together, perhaps in that same apartment for years. Maybe kids ran through the halls and grew in and out of the apartment and set up their own lives, leaving these two behind to grow old together, to bicker, to share their lives and secrets in discussions behind the closed door of their apartment.  Don watches this and the viewer can only assume that he acknowledges that he has none of those opportunities.  He has no one to argue with or to share and discussions behind closed doors with.  Or perhaps it  has something more to do with the door itself, with the notion of privacy that speaks to where Don’s character and psyche is at the moment. In any event, the old couple is an image that leaves us thinking about the show long after its over. Whether any of these seeds or images that are planted lead to any major development, remains to be seen, however they are images that are in play and meant for us to view and enjoy.

This was one of the funniest episodes of Mad Men as well and featured some of the best lines and scenes ever – especially the Lee Garner Jr. telephone call and Peggy peeking into Don’s office.  These three major storylines were only the tip of the iceberg as we didn’t truly touch on the depths of who “The Rejected” were or are.  All we know is that Don, Peggy and Pete have all been rejected at one point or another. Pete and Peggy in this episode have been able to seemingly reconcile those long standing feelings of rejection and move forward into futures that seem promising. It is Don that is still wallowing and feeling his rejection as well as the effects of his own rejection of Allison.  He will need to move forward in some way, which is hard when you are dragging two personas, both of which may be falling apart.  Again, we wait for the next chapter in Don Draper’s long process of turning himself around.  It never gets boring.

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