Saturday, August 11, 2007

"Maybe I'm not as comfortable being powerless as you are.": Mad Men

Mad Men's fourth episode, "New Amsterdam," is probably the series' finest so far. It turns away from the heavily serialized aspects of the first two episodes and the suburban mundanity of episode three and treks off into a new world -- old money in New York -- and a new character -- the previously underwritten Pete Campbell. Campbell is a Dyckman, one of the old, wealthy families that dominated New York in the 19th century but found themselves falling on hard(er) times after the stock crash of 1929. Pete still has money, as does his family, but they're not who they once were, and the palpable sense of that loss hung over the scenes where Pete turned to his parents, hat in hand, to try to get the cash to put a down payment on the apartment his wife was crazy about.

Pete's entire life is dictated by his family name (even though it's not his name because his mother was a Dyckman). Though he longs to make a name for himself and shows the budding beginnings of an ability as a business man and an ad man, Pete is too tied to that old money. That name keeps popping up to haunt him, never letting him escape from it and make his own way in the world. Sure it's helpful when he wants to get the apartment his wife wants, but when he just wants to be Pete Campbell, self-made man, it's always there to show him that he can't expect to just get anywhere on his own. He's indebted to people he's never even met.

Pete's brashness and desperation to escape from having to beg his parents and in-laws for money leads him to pitch an untested idea to the people from Bethlehem Steel (and so interesting to see these bygone titans of American industry pop up in the show) without any prompting from his bosses. This, of course, sends Don and Roger into paroxysms of anger, and they go directly to the boss (Robert Morse, really making the most of what could be a stereotypical part), who tells them that Pete should stick around (before entering his office, Roger and Don must slip off their shoes, a subtle way of being re-informed that they are not the big guys around the office -- just yet). A bit chagrined, Roger goes to Pete and lets Don save face by telling Pete that Don saved his job. And then, in a remarkable scene, Roger and Don talk around but never quite land on their fears about the world at large (and Roger's claims that he just doesn't worry seem to conform with his WWII generation world view). The scene, which touches on why the two men drink and feelings of powerlessness, is one that seems to scream out everything the show does well, and it anchors the episode, even though it doesn't feature Pete Campbell, the episode's ostensible main character.

All of this was sort of clumsily intercut with Betty's adventures in the suburbs. I know the show's naysayers say that Betty and Don's whitebread suburban lifestyle is too cliched, ripped right from the John Cheever headlines. But I've enjoyed the episodes for taking that American legend and replaying it, straight. Since the days of Cheever, talking about the depressing sameness of the suburbs has become something you have to do with winking irony because the vast majority of people still live in the suburbs (or have moved on out to the exurbs). I mean I live in the suburbs, and I don't even LIKE the suburbs. Mad Men mostly plays all of this straight, so it's like viewing a mournful art film about The Way Things Were.

But I wasn't wild about Betty's encounter with the little boy who walked in on her in the bathroom and wanted a lock of her hair. I mean, yes, divorce is hard on kids and was even back then. But it felt sort of odd and out of place and psychosexual. Maybe I was supposed to take all of that away from the scene, but I wasn't buying it.

No matter. It was a very short scene in what was, overall, an exemplary episode. Now that we've learned more about the formerly stereotypical Pete Campbell, I have faith that Matthew Weiner and the rest of the crew of Mad Men know what they're doing and where they're going. The show is full of characters who are well-realized or on their way to being so. And every episode closes with an absolutely perfect song choice (so stop playing the "next week on" over it, AMC!).


Jim said...

The stuff with young Glen Bishop did feel a little out of place, but the last conversation between Don and Roger tied it into the rest of the episode. "Kids today, they've got no one to look up to," Don says. It's made clear that even before the divorce, Glen's father wasn't around much, and the boy's never had someone to show him proper boundaries. (Although, I couldn't help but note the hypocracy of Betty lecturing him about privacy after she snooped around and found Helen's birth control.) Weiner has said that setting the show in 1960 allows him to talk about the present day, when there are any number of web sites devoted to women going to the bathroom. (Most of whom, I'm sure, are decidedly less attractive than January Jones). And Betty had one of my favorite lines, after Helen thanked her for sitting and promised to return the favor. "Please, don't even think about," Betty said politely, but you know she really meant, "Seriously, don't even think about it -- I don't want my kids turning into perverts, too, you crazy Democrat."

I like that Weiner chose to make Sterling-Cooper a sort of old-guard firm, and Draper especially seems resistant to new trends like the Volkswagen ad. He stubbornly refuses to make any real changes to the Bethlehem Steel ads, and at least part of his anger with Pete goes beyond Pete's breaking protocal -- not only was Pete's pitch unauthorized, it was clearly better than anything Don came up with. Pete just might have some interesting ideas; after all, his "Backbone of America" phrase was used as recently as a May 2007 campaign by the American Iron and Steel Institute:

Bianca Reagan said...

That was Robert Morse? I had no idea. That's so funny. I love How to Succeed in Business.... Have you seen it? If so, you'll get the extra humor in his playing the boss of a nepotistic company. They should have played, "A Secretary is Not a Toy." I would have giggled and giggled.