Sunday, September 30, 2007

"Catchy like it gets in your head and makes you want to blow your brains out.": Mad Men

(Sorry for the lateness of this. I really hoped the debut of the fall season wouldn't make me ignore my favorite show of the summer, but look what I've done! I promise to be better with the last four. -- ed.)

Don Draper, if nothing else, is the champion of compartmentalization. He's kept his Dick Whitman-ness tamped down for so long that he's able to keep everything in its right place at a moment's notice. He's ashamed when Roger can't do the same after his heart attack (giving him a hearty slap and saying, "Your wife's name is MONA!"), and his ability to keep his wife as the virgin queen and his mistress Midge as his good time girl was directly due to his knack for keeping things in little boxes. It's kind of scary, then, to see Don Draper lose it a little bit after Roger's heart attack. Earlier, he's the picture of cool (even when one of the twins tells him he kisses like a married man), but after Roger nearly dies, he calls his wife, then goes to Rachel's place and gives her the passionate kiss he's been wanting to. And then, then, his emotions in turmoil for the first time all season, Don tells her the complete story of his childhood, the events that prompted him to drop who he was and become who he is. It veers a little too closely to giving away too much for my tastes, but when some have complained that his confession to Rachel was unbelievable, I think it makes complete sense that he would say this at a moment when he's being his most reckless (though I'm still not sure why they cut it off so abruptly, as though they just ran out of time).

Mad Men is at its best when it is taking a look at the ways its characters try to keep themselves in the boxes they believe to be their proper ones. It's a comedy of manners in that it's all about the small ways that society elevates some of them above the others. The frequently ham-fisted allusions to sexism and racism of the period, therefore, become kind of necessary, though it's nice when they're defined somewhat subtly, as opposed to the show taking us by the hand and saying, "Hey, guess what? People could be pretty mean back in the early 60s! And forget about career advancement back then, ladies." It's when Mad Men drills its points home to the viewer that the show sort of loses it. Sadly, this episode wandered too much through making its point too forcefully, and that made it one of the season's weakest outings.

John Slattery's work as Roger saved a lot of these scenes, where the show reveled in its themes of how women were demeaned in the '60s. Slattery can make just about anything seem charming, even when he's trying to get unattractive twins he knows he can get naked to kiss each other (one of the twins sadly admits that everyone asks them to do that). I hope that the heart attack doesn't eventually prove fatal, because it will be interesting to see if Roger is genuinely ready to atone for his ways and be faithful to his wife (to be honest, I don't think he'd last very long doing this sort of thing). Slattery makes all of this work because he sort of plays Roger as deeply mournful (watch the scene where he talks to Mirabelle about how he misses his daughter). He's increasingly aware he's a relic (look at how snippy he gets in the scene where Pete and Don talk about different strategies for the Nixon campaign), that even Don Draper has a chance to reinvent himself in the face of all that's coming. Roger isn't completely reprehensible both because of Slattery's portrayal of him and because we, the audience, sense how he'll get swept away (he can't even clue in to Don's ideas of selling Nixon as a narrative, which presage things the Reagan campaign would do in the '80s).

The Joan and Carol subplot wasn't as compelling, and it felt like something that a lesser show would do when Joan and Carol brought back the creepy middle-aged men to the apartment after Carol made her declaration of love to Joan. Carol's declaration seemed as though it might not have actually happened, but the actress sold it so well that I was willing to go along with it. But the scene with the middle-aged men and Carol just telling her guy to do whatever he wanted was too much. Yes, Mad Men, we got it already. Fortunately, the scene where Joan went to the office and worked through her emotions while Cooper stood behind her and dictated a telegram about Roger's heart attack was pretty great, as was Cooper's reveal that he knew about the affair anyway and that Joan could do better.

All in all, though, this latest episode of Mad Men was a little too lackadaisical and a little too ready to hit the audience over the head with a hammer at a moment's notice. The Long Weekend wasn't as awful as some will claim, but it could have done with a little whack from the subtlety stick.

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