Friday, August 31, 2007

"Remind me to stop hiring young people.": Mad Men

After an episode I wasn't horribly taken with, Mad Men redeemed itself with an episode that was all about the codes of manners between husbands and wives, as filtered through Don's relationship to Betty, Pete's relationship to his wife and Roger's relationship to damn near everybody. In some ways, the series seemed to start off with most of its characters off in their own little orbits, independent of each other. Now, as the season draws nearer to its close, Mad Men is bringing them closer and closer together, seeing the interesting ways they all bounce off of each other. After putting Pete in Peggy's arms in the pilot, the show has kept them at arms length. Now, even as Pete finds that marriage isn't all he dreamed of, it slowly pushes them back together. But now, Peggy's got a sliver of confidence from being asked to write ad copy, while Pete has seemingly had his confidence beaten out of him.

For me, the best scene was the one between Don and Betty after he accused her of flirting with Roger (Roger certainly seemed to think she was too). The whole dinner scene (filled with war stories and small talk) was a slowly accumulating storm, building from a few clouds and eventually pouring out, quietly, in the scene where Roger came on to Betty. Mad Men has been good about showing all of the flaws in the Drapers marriage, but tonight, it showed why they still work as a couple. For as little as Don seems to respect Betty, she certainly knows him and knows how to defuse him when a situation threatens to turn nasty. There's a heavy suggestion that Betty's whole lifestyle is infantalizing, even as she seems to have dreams she hasn't admitted to herself. Don's rebuke of her is meant to sting, but she manages to sting him as well, suggesting just how powerless he is (because he wouldn't bounce her around, would he?). And she does seem intrigued by Roger, but, unlike Don, she doesn't pursue that to any sort of end. The whole scene plays out as a fascinating display of just how broken the Drapers marriage is but also just how well those pieces might fit back together.

But the Draper marriage isn't the only one to go under the microscope. Pete finds himself trying to return a wedding gift (a ridiculous looking chip-n-dip) to a department store. While trapped there in line, he's surrounded by women who subtly mock his masculinity for doing something for his wife. Even when he tries to turn the situation on its head and make it to his advantage, he bumbles, unable to charm the girl at the returns counter, largely because she knows he's a newlywed (and he's as lost in this world as the men presume the women are lost in theirs, unable to figure out what name his registry is under). Pete exchanges the platter for a gun, only to find himself berated by his wife and comically toting the gun around the office.

Roger and Don's relationship got the workout in the final act, as Don, marginally chagrined by the fact that his wife wasn't totally repulsed by Roger, tried to prove himself younger and more virile than the older man. At first, just drinking and having oysters seemed like the thing to do, but when the elevator was broken, Don and Roger had to climb 23 flights of stairs. Don made it to the top and was able to pull himself together, but the exertion caused him to throw up right by the guys from Richard Nixon's team. Smiling confidently, Don walked off, having won this minor struggle.

The Nixon campaign was the strand that tied these stories together, as everyone at Sterling Cooper (prompted by the great Robert Morse) tried to figure out a way to help out Nixon and dismissed Pete's idea that maybe the young people of America would want a man who doesn't wear a hat (like Elvis!). This was the only scene that directly expressed the series' central conflict of the future bearing down on these people like a train, but it was a strong one, potent with the knowledge we have that Nixon is doomed to lose, particularly because of the out-moded thinking he followed throughout his campaign.

But what I most liked about this episode was that it felt like three different short stories with some thin connective tissue between them. There was the story of the married couple and the husband's friend, whom the wife found fascinating. There was the story of the young married couple and the husband's attempts to find his place in the new world. And there was the story of the two old friends, who had what seemed like a minor indiscretion come between them. There were other stories dancing through this (namely Peggy and Pete's discussions and Betty's attempts to solidify support in the neighborhood after being accosted by Helen in the supermarket). But the central structure was of three very small stories playing out, one for each act. It's a sort of structure I haven't seen on TV a lot, and I'm interested to see if Mad Men employs it again.

And, hey, wasn't that scene between Pete and Peggy where they talked about hunting creepy? I love the way Elisabeth Moss just lets her face be absolutely blank for scenes like this, where you can tell that she's not sure what to think, whether to be excited or repulsed.

What say you?


Bianca Reagan said...

The elevator wasn't really broken. It was the old Bribe the elevator guy, Drink your boss under the table, Beat him up the stairs, and Make him vomit from too many oysters in front of the client trick. Don was mad about Roger hitting on his wife, but the kicker was Roger's blase attitude about his military service. Don took his tour of war seriously and seems to be containing his trauma, while Roger was just "bored" enough to shoot a plane down. So Don showed him who the real "man" was.

Todd said...

I pretty much hate myself now. I watch these episodes three times, and each time, I took note of Don bribing elevator guy, but I never made the leap to what actually happened.

I often miss the forest for the trees, in case you're wondering.

Bianca Reagan said...

Don't hate yourself, Todd. It took me two years to figure out that How I Met Your Mother was a rip-off of Friends, except with Bob Saget and one less twenty-something. I was distracted by Jason Segel/Alyson Hannigan combo, and subsequently by the amazing NPH. Maybe when watching Mad Men you were distracted by Peggy's urgent need for a danish.

Carrie said...

Bianca, you said the same thing about HIMYM in your blog once and just as I did then, I have to totally disagree with you. The only big similarity I see between Friends and HIMYM is that they both center around all-white, upper middle class twentysomethings who live in New York. I think the actual structure of the two shows is very different and their humor has a slightly different sensibility. Others might see it differently, though. Perhaps I'm just biased because I like HIMYM so much. When I'm in love with a show I tend to be blind to its faults.

Bianca Reagan said...

Good point, Carrie. The humor is slightly different. It's not the same patter as the NBC 90s style, with the little laugh-little laugh-big laugh-little laugh thing. I wonder if I'm biased about any shows I watch. I can't think of any at the moment.

I love that you actually read what I say in two places. It's not that surprising considering the first place was my blog, and the second place was your blog. But it's still really cool to me.