Friday, October 12, 2007

"Look! They're doing math!": Mad Men

Man, what an episode!

Mad Men rewarded my faith in it with an episode that managed to wrap up most of the big plots from season one (the Draper marriage the one last real dangling thread) and drop kernels for where it might head in season two. This wasn't one of those episodes that clumsily dances around one theme and beats it over the head (like that long, rather boring episode where Roger had a heart attack). It was more about how the winds of change are sweeping through Sterling Cooper and the country at large and how those winds threaten to blow so many of these characters away.

Jon Hamm anchored this episode after spending a handful of episodes floating around the margins of the storyline, and he was rewarded with a script that gave him an acting challenge he was more than up to. Hamm's central challenge here is to play, essentially, two characters, both in the past and in the present. He's Dick Whitman, and then he's Don Draper after the brief moment in Korea that kills the real Don Draper. What I love is that both Hamm and the episode make clear that Don Draper is simply a character that Dick Whitman, a scared kid who never had a chance to grow up, plays. Don Draper's inscrutability comes simply from the fact that Don Draper is an affectation, not any sort of reality. It's to Rachel's credit that she's able to see through this, and in that moment, Maggie Simm makes up for a whole season where she was a little underused by puncturing as many holes as she can in the Draper mystique (even calling him out on his infidelity -- not necessarily to his wife but definitely to his children).

The Whitman flashbacks suffered from having some pretty crappy production values (it looked like AMC hauled everyone out to the MASH set and turned on the cameras), but the story of how Dick Whitman took on the identity of Donald Draper was pretty cold, especially in how he totally shunned his brother at the train station (likely leading to the depression that apparently stalked and killed the younger boy). It's as though Dick suddenly decided that the way to be Don was through complete and utter indifference.

The show's genius is in how it trusts Jon Hamm to carry all of this jerkiness without turning off the viewers. Really, the show doesn't work if you can't buy that Don is a cold bastard but capable, somehow, of being both better than his contemporaries and himself. A lesser show would have given Hamm a big monologue in that scene where Peggy is weeping about the injustice of the world, a monologue in which he would have told her that she was wrong and that everything would be OK. Instead, he just stares and gives her a drink. He's not going to tell her anything she's saying about the world (that it's a cold place where some men skate by, shifting the burden of the world to other men) is wrong. But he is going to give her something to take the edge off a little, to help her calm down and just make it through another lousy day.

I do love how the show is making Peggy more and more into the character that will obviously shift with the times (reportedly, the series will skip ahead in time in season two). Her burgeoning social conscience (reflected in how bad she felt about getting those two innocent guys fired) and her growing separation from the other young kids in the office (largely because of her relative success as a working woman) both point to a character who will seize her own destiny in future seasons and one who will probably sympathize with the younger generation that is coming up (of which Kennedy, newly elected in this episode, is emblematic).

Cooper also seems likely to shift with the times. His love for Ayn Rand (one would think) led him to seemingly dismiss Pete's accusations against Don outright (his line "Mr. Campbell, who cares?" was one of the funniest of the season). He's an old man, and he doesn't understand what the kids are down with at all, but he's certainly got the money to pull him through. He may not support John F. Kennedy, but he knows he can buy his way to having a seat at the table, and that's all that really matters to him.

I also loved how the episode spent so much time (15 minutes, according to Sepinwall) with the kids during the election party. The loose, free-and-easy feel of these scenes was a marked contrast to the other scenes at the office, where everyone can feel a little stiff. This was just a bunch of kids having a good time, even if Peggy and Pete, our two most reliable windows into this world were both ostracized from it for one reason or another. The desperate little flirtations between the young guys and the young girls spilled over into actual sex, and a happily married man cheated on his wife with Hildy, a woman who has been, so far, sort of distanced and aloof. Joan also kissed Sal, then gave one of the hardest to read expressions in the history of acting. Did she like it? Hate it? Realize he was gay? Who can tell?

All in all, this was a surprisingly packed episode for Mad Men. We could probably go on at length about other story points in the comments, but I'll cut the post short for now. I did miss having Betty in the episode, but it looks as though next week's episode will focus on the Draper marriage and make amends for that.


S. Tarzan said...

What's more, those two innocent black guys: the janitor who cleans Sterling Cooper in the mornings and the elevator operator that covers the floor are both characters that we've met, and both black. I thought that was a subtle touch in a show that doesn't normally go for subtle touches.

I found Pete's obsession with the photos of Dick Whitman a little fascinating; he's been envious of Don Draper for a long time, so I wonder how things will change now that he realizes that 'Don Draper' is a creation.

Bianca Reagan said...

I liked it! My favorite part as usual was Peggy. I also adored Joan's conversation with that guy who wrote the play. The whole interaction was about ten short sentences and a dance, yet it said sooo much. Compact writing + great acting = happy times for me.