Thursday, August 02, 2007

"It was ineptitude with insufficient cover.": Mad Men

(I promised David I would take on Rescue Me this week, but I want to look at the season as a whole, so the piece may have to wait until this weekend. -- TV)

In the ever-so-helpful "Inside Mad Men" featurette attached to the end of the episode by the good people at AMC (who seem to run the show with a minimum of commercial interruption -- I hope that's a deliberate choice at the programming level and not indicative of a problem selling ads for the show), creator Matthew Weiner says that he sees "Marriage of Figaro," the third episode of the first season, as being about how in high American society, marriage is treated as an object of frivolity when, in reality, it's the most important relationship most of us will ever stumble onto. It's not just that Don Draper cheats on his wife (taking a mistress and kissing a client on an account); it's that the whole suburban culture he belongs to treats marriage as something like one big joke, as though everyone at his child's birthday party is sort of regretful about hitching their lives to this one person before really figuring out if that was what they wanted (the "Take my wife! Please!" school of humor). Don comes across a couple kissing passionately at the party, just a little side moment that becomes more, and he stops short, filming them through his little camera a while, then standing, watching them, the frame expanding to contain the whole room. Don often seems shut off from the world he occupies, hermetically sealed in the one he's built for himself. He can't occupy the same room as the couple. He can only stand outside, watching.

The episode opened with a hint that Don is not who he says he is. He's greeted by a man on the train who insists that he's someone else. Don goes along with what the man is saying. While I don't think this is indicative that Don Draper is a made-up identity or anything (I certainly hope it isn't), I do think it speaks to a larger truth about Don: He doesn't really know who he is, and he'll be what you tell him he is. At work, he's the model employee, coming up with great ideas and saving campaigns. At home, he's a good husband and a good father, but really nothing more than that. We never get a sense of who DON thinks he is, outside of a few mentions of a burgeoning novel and the slight sounds of warfare on the soundtrack every so often.

The episode seems set up to contrast the hectic work life of Don (where he has to put up with the return of Pete -- pretending at knowing what marriage is all about, another indication of how we treat marriage as just another facade -- and various other pressures) with his rather boring weekends at home (where he gets drunk, does stuff for his kids, then passes out by the train tracks, rather than have to go back to the party -- not bringing the cake for the party in the process). Don's life in the city is full of excitement and complications (right down to his brief seduction of the woman from Menken's department store, who looks impossibly glamorous, before he tells her that he's married). He has to work closely with a bunch of young guys and supervise them and make sure that things don't fall apart. At home, he's rather out of his element, downing beer after beer, buying a dog for his kids to apologize for his screwup without having to admit what he has done. There's a dark, uncertain core to his actions, and I'm thrilled to see it teased out ever so slightly.

Meanwhile, Pete returned from his trip to Niagara Falls for his honeymoon and tried, awkwardly, to push Peggy out of his life as a romantic interest (she smiled and agreed when he told her he was married, but it was clear that she wasn't quite ready to let it go). His commiseration with his married friend about married life (and how he could only flirt and make innuendos, rather than acting on any impulses). Pete's attempts to play up his married state as a great thing and to talk about how funny his wife is made it painfully obvious how much Pete wants the aura of maturity Don projects but isn't quite to the point where he can make it happen.

But the bulk of the episode was taken up with that marvelous party sequence, where Don realized just how alien the very world he has built for his family is to him. He constructs a little playhouse (with a red door just like his real house) for his children, but he's forever on the outside, looking in, watching as others play at being responsible adults.

1 comment:

David Sims said...

I'm back, I can do Rescue Me--hear it's a doozy, too (I KNEW Sepinwall would review it again!)

RE: your post, this episode was terrific and this show has already seemingly established itself as something really, unusually special. I like your take on Pete's behavior, too.