Friday, September 07, 2007

"Toothpaste doesn't solve anything.": Mad Men

I usually try to start these reviews with a little pseudo-intellectual babble about the various things I think about the show and the emotions it instills in me. But this week, I'm going to open with hobos. Because I like hobos. I like the whole culture of the rail-riding vagrant and the hobo signs and the bag over the shoulder and the whole hobo kit and caboodle. Part of this is my latent fascination with having a life with as few possessions as possible (which requires you either be very poor or very rich -- too scared of the former and finding the latter hard to pull off). So when the hobo (played by Father Phil from The Sopranos) showed up as Don's true father here, it was pretty great.

Let me back up there and qualify that statement. The hobo, of course, was not Don's ACTUAL father, but he did lay down the viewpoint that Don would adopt as his own for his life to come. When things get hairy, it's time to hit the road. Obviously, Don hasn't abandoned his wife and kids entirely, but when he finds himself in a situation that throws him off (as he did in episode three when that guy called him Dick Whitman), his inclination is to run from the ordinary and go on some sort of massive, escapist blender. Don's a modern-day suburban hobo, escaping the only way he can -- through hiding away or drinking himself into a stupor.

Hobo fascination aside, the flashbacks weren't as good as some of the other stuff in the episode. I found them better than the earlier flashbacks (which felt a little too weird and pleased with themselves for their weirdness), but they still traded in some weird cryptic moments that seemed to be there just for the sake of being cryptic (like when Dick described himself as the whore's son). Still, I liked how the flashbacks continued to fill in the story of how Dick Whitman became Don Draper, and for once, I'm invested in this storyline.

The rest of the present day storyline was really quite well done, particularly the story of poor Sal, who was simply unable to deal with his closeted homosexuality. It seemed as though the storyline might make Sal too forward, but, instead, his date was, and Sal couldn't even begin to comprehend acting on his urges. One of the central themes of Mad Men seems to be that dishonesty makes the world a lonely place. Don Draper is lying about himself just as much as Sal is (just as much as Pete is). And they're all unable to move in their world to some degree, even when they project the confidence that makes it seem as if they might.

Pete and Peggy made up much of the rest of the episode. I see why some are finding Elisabeth Moss offputting, but I find her virtually unreadable performance fascinating. I love that it feels like you have to watch an episode five or six times to even make a dent in what she's doing. ("Why's she getting a DANISH now? Is she TURNED ON?!") The scene where she and Pete finally re-consummated their simmering attraction was surprisingly sensual, and I liked the way it moved up to the point of what could be shown on basic cable and then cut to a surprisingly graceful sillouhette.

I'm also liking the way that Vincent Kartheiser is playing Pete's inner turmoil over his attraction to Peggy. At first, I thought he might have just used her for an easy lay in the pilot, but he seems genuinely interested in her and her dimly realized streaks of independence. Some of this just may be his realization that marriage is not what he had hoped it would be. Some of it may be that he likes that she's a capable woman who also has a bit of a submissive streak to her (I liked her reaction to having her hair tugged at). But he's also struggling with how he doesn't like things about her. It's a hard thing to watch, but Kartheiser and Moss are playing this strange dance in a way that's endlessly fascinating.

And Peggy's ad copy killed with the lipstick guys, but it took a while. It was good to see Draper finally land a big sale by manipulating the client in the room just as he wanted to. He's been undercut so much that it's good to be shown just how good he can be in the room. He may not be the most creative guy at the agency, but he's definitely good at working people.

The season has a sense that the storylines of this show are coming together toward a greater purpose. I'm hoping the resolution we're moving toward is worthy of everything that built toward it.

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