Monday, August 2, 2010
“Mad Men, you've done it again.”
That’s all I could utter after last night’s episode (Season 4, Episode 2 “Christmas Comes But Once A Year”) of Mad Men. To be fair, I usually say that after every episode because I am an unabashed lover of the show. However, last night’s episode really deserved that comment. The episode had the perfect blend of all the elements of Mad Men that we love: darkness, style, office dynamics, surrealism, witty banter and quips, and multiple levels of themes that intertwine each character and relationship on the show. We got equal doses of Roger Sterling wit, Don Draper sadness and philosophy, Joan flexing her professional muscles, Peggy’s inner conflict, the strangeness of Glen, the curiosity of Sally Draper and more darkness of Don Draper.
In the first episode of this season, we saw Don Draper had fallen from the excitement, confidence and thrill of starting his own agency. We saw his alienation from his family, his unsure position as the figurehead of the company and as a presence within his own industry. We saw him hire a prostitute to slap him. Although that first episode seemed to have ended on a high note, here we are back on a low note. Instead of hiring a prostitue, in this episde Don makes an innocent girl, his secretary Allison, feel like a prostitute. While Don is engaging in this dynamic, Sterling is made into a prostitute by Lee Garner Jr. at the Christmas party when he has to dress up like Santa and have the staff sit on his lap. And finally, Peggy prostitues herself out to her lame duck boyfriend. She gives up the virginity she pretends to have, which as John Lennon once inferred is always present in the beginning of a new relationship, there is always a sense of virginity. Peggy gave that sense up, that virtue she seemed to be holding onto out of an uncertainty of her boyfriend’s strength or viability, she gave up a position of strength (withholding sex) because she was afraid of being alone. And we see her at the end of the episode, after having sex with her boyfriend who seems confident and happy in the ignorant thought that he took her virginity, looking incredibly disappointed and disillusioned. She has been used, except she has used herself for a cheap thrill, for the easy answer of being with someone, being with anyone. Obviously this episode predates the Stephen Stills song, “Love the One You’re With,” but that is where that logic takes you – to the look on Peggy Olsen’s face at the end of “Christmas Comes But Once A Year.”
On a strange and different note, Sally Draper is used in a way in this epsiode. The way that Glen befriends her as a means of testing to see if the Draper/Francis family is home in order to trash the house is a strange way of using her as a person. Now, there is definitely an element to Glen that can be seen as likable. He related to the pain that Sally is going through and he has been inserted into the show at various points (Season 1 and Season 2) as a sory of barometer and measuring stick for Betty Draper and her core personality and values. And at this point, Glen sees Betty Draper for the child she is and her inability to recognize that about herself. She calls his mother in Season 2 when he runs away from home and thus he sees her as betraying him and betraying herself. And now he resents her. He is acting as an older guide to Sally and perhaps he even does have a crush on her. Yet, the way he acted and used his phone calls to her as the way of knowing when to break into the house, suggests something more sinister. I don’t mean to talk about these child characters in light of some of the terms above, but it just shows the different levels and shades of a theme that this show incorporates within its various storylines.
Of course, the main act of prostitution comes between Don and his secretary Allison. Over the last season and a half, we have seen Allison become a more prominent character. She first appeared in the show when Cosgrove chased her around the office in “Nixon vs. Kennedy” in Season 1 and tried to guess what color her underwear was (it was blue). She is a reliable secretary for Don and towards the end of the last season you got a real sense of a certain professional chemistry between them that may have bordered on an actual attraction. It seemed to come more from her character as the actress gives off a terrific beam of a smile, a smile that showed a woman eager to please. The more they interacted, the more Don seemed to reciprocate, whether from a professional appreciation or because he couldn’t resist the cute, natural looking girl with long brown hair that sat at his desk (sort of how he described how he imagined Ms. Farrell as a young girl). However, you never thought that Don would sleep with her because it seemed like his policy to never do so. But this is not the same Don Draper. This Don Draper drinks too much, he doesn’t eat. He is trying to throw himself into something but nothing is sticking. The employees are talking behind his back not in a reverential or fearful way, but in the tone of pity. In this episode, Don does not sleep with his neighbor Phoebe who was clearly interested in him. He couldn’t because he was too drunk and too weak from working and not eating. He had no focus. All he could do was try to pull her in once she tried to take care of him. But all he did was remind Phoebe of her father who she told him was a drunk. I read a theory that Don has been attracted to woman who are motherly and intelligent. The intelligent side would hold true for Ms. Farrell, Rachel Mencken, Bobbi Barrett (businesswise), and Midge. However, only Ms. Farrell and Rachel Mencken (slightly) have been at all motherly. Obviously this is the first time this Phoebe character has been on the show so it is hard to tell, but she may fit that role.
We were also introduced to Faye Miller who works in marketing and is trying to teach SCDP about psychology in advertising. She seems to be that professional and intelligent foil when she confronts Don in his office for walking out on his presentation. Again, Don tries to finesse her into sleeping with him or at least going out with him, but he is not able to. Instead he gets to hear a bit of the philosophy of Mad Men spoken to him through the character of Faye Miller when she says, "In a nutshell, it all comes down to what I want versus what's expected of me." Don is slightly surprised at how poignant this statement is and you can see the thought to sleeping with her leave his face. He resigns that this is a different type of woman. Someone who may understand what it is all about.
With two options denied, Don finds himself, tired, drunk and locked out of his apartment. He has to rely on Allison to bring him his keys. And when she comes to deliver the keys, to let him in and “tuck him in” as Phoebe had done a night or so before, he makes a move on her. You can see Allison’s surprise and then the desire suddenly appear. I read a good analysis of this scene where Allison always wanted this to happen, but her initial denial is because not only did some part of her think it would end badly, but the way it was happening was not the way she imagined it would happen. But she gives in to what she wants and you can see the pleased and surprised look on her face afterward, while Don knows that he made a mistake. And the next day he has to face the conflict of what he wants, which would be to have closed the office door and told Allison that he was sorry for what had happened, that it was wrong and he shouldn’t have done it. Instead, he does what is expected of him, he acts like it never happened, speaks in code (“I have taken advantage of your kindess one too many times”) and then gives her the bonus money. The range of emotions on Allison’s face is remarkable and it is once of the pantheon scenes in all of Mad Men thus far. The shame and guilt on Don’s face and first the beaming happiness on Allison’s face, then the warmth, the care, the concern, then confusion, then resignation and hurt. While many think she was typing her resignation letter at the end, I think that she was doing what was expected of her – working – and giving up on perhaps what she actually wanted – Don in some capacity. She will be around on this show, especially this season where Don is not able to escape his actions and the darkness of the world that he has created.
And I’ve already used up this much space without mentioning the return of Freddy Rumsen and the conflicts he and Peggy are going to encounter. Not to mention how Pete is going to have an impact on this season with Peggy, with Freddy and otherwise. Or, how SCDP are going to have to get rid of Lucky Strike or take care of Lee Garner Jr. in some way in order to move forward as a company. Things are hitting on all cylinders already after only two episodes. Some characters have not gotten their moment to shine yet, but Mad Men always delivers.
I do not know if Don will sink deeper into this dark path or if the next episode will unveil a path to some kind of redemption or slightly higher ground, but I like where we are going so far. For Mad Men, this is as action packed as you can get – we are at a very high level of basketball here.