Monday, August 9, 2010

A Steak and a Smile


A smile and a steak are two images that you wouldn’t immediately associate with last night’s episode of Mad Men, entitled “The Good News.”  In fact, the “good news” is so buried within the episode that it is actually hard to discern that it is good news. Last night’s episode was one of the most difficult and perhaps darkest episodes of Mad Men that the series has ever put on air. Even today I am still turning it over in my mind to find some sort of meaning, which may be a strange thing to say about a TV show – and a slight bit disconcerting – but this is the effect of Mad Men, this is the greatness.

“The Good News” gave us a prolonged look at both the Don Draper character and the Dick Whitman character.  A lot of people who watch Mad Men are not fans of Season 2’s “California Arc,” where Don travels to California to stay with Anna Draper, the real wife of the man who’s name he stole.  Many people saw the “California Arc” as moving too far away from the heart of the show, which lies in the office, in New York, and also at the Draper household.  However, Don’s trip to California allows us to see the real Dick Whitman, whether he is a wanderer among a pack of eccentric wanderers when he meets Joy and her “family”, or when he is vulnerable, innocent and confessional when he is with Anna Draper at her home by the ocean.  In “The Mountain King,” Anna Draper tells Don that the only thing that keeps him from being happy is “the belief that he [you] are alone.”  There are intimate moments between the two that are never evident in other parts of Don’s life.  When he is with Betty he is constantly afraid of being discovered; when he is with his mistresses he is wrapped up in the romance of escape and of their youth; when he is with his children there is a glimpse into some kind of unconditional love, some openness of emotion, but that is quickly eclipsed by the lie of his identity and his role as a father to them.  With Anna Draper none of these issues arise.  As she says in “The Good News” she knows everything about Don and loves him despite of it all.  She is the closest person to him – she straddles both of his identities.

However, in “The Good News,” Don/Dick learns that this intimate relationship will soon be taken away from him.  Anna’s niece, Stephanie, tells Don that Anna has cancer and that doctors and specialists haven’t given her very long to live.  Jon Hamm does some serious acting throughout this episode as you can see wave after wave of emotion come over his face as he and Stephanie sit in his car.  This news is revealed to Don after he once again unsuccessfully tries to pick up a girl.  Here, though, we get a very open admission from Don. As he tries to convince Stephanie to sleep with him he marvels at how young and beautiful she is (echoes of Roger Sterling in “Long Weekend” from Season 1) and tells her that he and Anna never had a romantic relationship, but that “he loves her for lots of reasons and in a very different way.”  Don/Dick is capable of breaking down the different forms of romance there are in the world. He admits to his unique love with Anna, but in Stephanie he is mistaking youth with some other kind of love.  He is attracted to Stephanie’s boldness when she asks if  he is married or divorced as well as her bold statement when mocking the dating process when she says, “But nobody knows what’s wrong with themselves and everyone else can see right away.”  Once again we are presented with one of the “types” that Don is attracted to, like a Faye Miller who can make a profound statement, or a Rachel Mencken, the intellect is present.  There is also that strange element of youth that seems necessary for Don, like Ms. Farrell had or Joy. It’s something tied to that want to run away and be free that is inherent in Dick Whitman, that very Gatsbyesque element that we all have.  However, lurking around that allure is a moment like the end of The Great Gatsby, or the end of The Graduate.  That solemn understanding of what is inevitable.  Don comes to grasp this after he fights with Anna’s sister about informing Anna that she has cancer. Dick/Don tries to insert himself into the situation with the confidence and command of the Don Draper character, only he is shot down by Anna’s sister and forced to face the fact that Anna is sick and is dying and it isn’t his role to tell her the truth.  He hasn’t committed to this identity, this world enough to make that kind of statement, no matter how much he may love Anna Draper in his own unique, platonic, and unconditional way. So, he has to run away again, he has to put back the Don Draper persona.

And what we get with the Don Draper persona is nothing short of depressing and dark.  When Don gives up his idea of a vacation to Acapulco after facing the dire circumstances of Anna Draper’s illness, he returns to New York, to his once place of solace – the office – where he encounters another lonely soul in Lane Pryce.  Lane reveals that his wife has chosen her love of Britain over him and will be seeking an attorney for a divorce.  Lane has come to love America despite the fact that no one has been warm to him, as Don admits.  Lane also admits that despite his tough stance on the company’s finances, the company has done terrific business in their first year. The two share the “good news,”  silence of the office and the smooth finish of Lane’s scotch before Don decides that they should make a night of it.  They fill a flask of scotch (Don sloppily spills the expensive scotch onto the floor of the office as he fills the flask) and go to the movies to watch a Japanese monster movie. Mad Men fans have been arguing about whether it is Godzilla or some other movie, but really, who cares?  The men talk loudly during the movie and share in the kind of “Lost Weekend” mentality that all men romanticize, getting rid of any and all shackles, drinking at will and not caring for any circumstances.  The two then sit down for a steak dinner before Don decides that they should get rid of the steak and go meet two “girlfriends” downtown.  Don offers to pay and Lane stands up with the piece of steak placed firmly in front of his  crotch and shouts, “I got a big Texas belt buckle…yee haw!.”  After they meet the women (Don’s go to prostitute and her friend), Don and Lane go back to Don’s apartment with the prostitutes.  As Lane’s girl takes him into the bedroom, it is a subtle piece of acting to see Lane take off his glasses, pull himself up in stature and then lean in to kiss the prostitue. It is a release for a man who loves to work and has in a sense given up his family for his job and for his love for America.  The next morning, Lane wakes up to find Don brewing coffee.  Lane thanks Don for the night out and leaves after drinking a glass of water.  There is a subtle recognition between the two, something close to the shame one feels waking up to a hookup the day after, which is also close to the alienation one feels after revelling with a friend or person they do not know incredibly well and letting them crash at their apartment only to wake and make pleasantries and give a mild slap on the back of good will. Those emotions are stirring in the scene but Hamm and Jared Harris give us more, they give us an appreciation between the two men, that they can share their circumstances and their loneliness, can share the thrill of their new company’s modest success and the toll that it has taken on their lives.

The third leg of this episode’s base was provided by Joan.  Who butted heads with Lane at the office but then reconciled.  They are both consummate professionals whose respect held out by a quiet acknowledgement of troubles at home. Lane’s flower mix-up reminded Joan of her own insecurities towards her husband, who treats her like a child as he fixes her cut finger.  Joan’s husband who is unable to get her pregnant after she has already had two abortions. Joan’s husband who may be going to Vietnam, but who doesn’t know if he will and he throws a fit about a weekend in the Poconos.  Joan is trying to organize her life, trying to have a baby and trying to treat her personal life with the same composed manner she carries in her professional life.  Yet, at home she faces a man who is broken, whose dreams are gone and who had to resort to entering the army as a means to support her. As Greg says about Joan’s wound: “I can’t fix everything, but I can fix this.”  Joan manages to get rid of her tears as she acknowledges and admits, perhaps in a very small way, that her husband is the failure that the viewers have always known him to be.

As the show comes to an end and all the partners (and Pete Cambell) of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce are gathered around the conference table, it is Joan who sits at the head.  Light falls into the office at a slant and Joan asks, “Alright, gentleman, shall we begin 1965?”  The viewer then sees Don, looking extremely uncertain and somewhat displeased at hearing the year being said.  The face is almost identical to the hopeless look on Don’s face as he lies facedown on his bed after stripping the sheets once Lane leaves his apartment.  Slowly but surely the vestiges of the Dick Whitman persona are fading away and now he is left with the identity he created, the identity that led to his success.  But that identity is imbalanced, it is out of order and perhaps the answer to straightening it out lies in the message that Faye Miller delivered in “Christmas Comes But Once A Year,” which is the difference between “what I want and what people expect of me.”  Everyone has to reconcile these items, but no one moreso than Don Draper in January 1965.

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