Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Mad Men: The Good News

What a great episode of Mad Men we had this week! Last week's episode was depressing as hell. In one moment at the Christmas party, Don's secretary tells the others that Don has forgotten his keys at the office. The new copywriter says, "He's such a disaster" and despite knowing so much about him for three full seasons, the viewer can't help but agree. Don is an alcoholic who sleeps with anything that moves, his wife has left him for another man, he sees his kids only occasionally, and he's a mess. In another scene, Roger comes into the office half-baked and Peggy rolls her eyes, saying, "I can't believe that's his job," referring to his booze-filled schmooze lunches. With Freddy Rumsen back in the office, it's clear the writers are pointing to Don's possible future -- he wants to believe he's above these other guys, but he's turning into the same mess they both were, and still are. When Don groped his secretary as she tried to help him into his apartment, I literally held my hands over my eyes, unable to watch the disaster unfolding on screen, and said out loud, "No, no, Don... don't do it..." but, he did it. And then acted like nothing happened, giving her her Christmas bonus in cash, like she was a paid hooker.

In this week's episode things are far more complex and interesting, with our sympathies moving back to Don again. I love Ann, and he's such a better person when he's around her (making moves on teenagers in cars notwithstanding... like, seriously Don, do you ever just keep those pants zipped?! In moments like this it really DOES seem more natural to call him DICK). Watching the torment on his face as he painted her walls this week, putting a temporary cover over a bigger problem on her wall in much the same way that he was sugar-coating his visit with her knowing it would probably be the last, was heartbreaking.

This episode also moved a focus over to Joanie, much to my delight. I loved her walking into Pryce's office and asking about his fried chicken preferences -- "Breast? Thigh?" -- while she swished her hips about. But back home, things aren't as easy. Her husband refuses to take her seriously, slamming his way out of the house, and then again I winced as, despite everything, she takes the high road and goes out of her way to make a dinner for him, one that begins with her almost slicing off her own finger.

It's in this scene, however, that contains a moment that's riddled with mixed feelings. He shows his sweet side, making jokes with her as he stitches her hand closed. At first he uses a trick on her that he admits he usually reserves only for his child patients, but then tells a dirty joke that makes her laugh and then cry. On the surface it seems sweet. But on the other hand, I simply cannot get that scene from the show's first season out of my head (or was it the second?) where he rapes Joan on the floor of Don's office. At the time, it certainly wouldn't have been seen as rape -- even though they weren't married, she was practically his wife, and therefore his "property" for him to do with what he wishes. I remember once when I was a teenager listening to this very odd conversation between two men about rape where one was arguing that one cannot possibly rape his own wife; that's simply ludicrous. The other was arguing that rape was about consent, and who's to say a wife is always consenting? But despite Joan looking uncomfortable in this scene, it's not clear if she identifies what he does to her as rape or just something that doesn't quite feel right.

Regardless, in this scene one could see his chat as being quite sweet, and that's what brings on the tears. But on the other hand, he treats her like a child and even an imbecile, only showing a modicum of caring to her when he's in charge, and she's completely helpless, and perhaps it's that treatment that Joan simply can't take. It's a very difficult scene to watch because it's hard to come up with just one emotion while doing so. It's this sort of complexity that makes me love the show so much.

Watching Don and Pryce on their wild afternoon was a lot of fun; the Godzilla movie in particular was hilarious, between Don whisper-screaming to Pryce, "You know what's going on here, don't you? HAND JOBS" to Pryce shouting fake Japanese at the woman sitting in front of them, the scene was a classic.

I also enjoyed the contrast between Ann and Betty that we can't help but make in our mind; Ann isn't drop-dead gorgeous, but she's smart, interesting, funny, and doesn't put any pressure on Don. Betty is stunning, but is boring, flat, has no personality, and expects too much from him. While Betty didn't feature in this week's episode at all, she's still one of the most difficult characters to gauge on this show -- one minute you feel sorry for her, the next you can't stand her (and last week I was SO freaking out when creepy Glenn was back!!!)

I know we're only three episodes in this season, but this was definitely my fave of the bunch. Only downside? No Roger! ;)


Loretta said...

Oh Nikki, I'm so glad you're writing about Mad Men again!

I thought this episode was fantastic--certainly the best of the season, and one that I see going down as a "Mad Men" classic.

With Anna, Don is certainly not the loathsome character we've come to know... he can be sweet, and funny, and almost kind of shy. You're right that it felt appropriate for him to be "Dick" in those scenes with her.

That being said, I was actually making grossed-out noises at my TV while he was hitting on Anna's niece.

The whole adventure Don went on with Lane was pretty spectacular. I found it interesting to note that Lane, with his impending divorce, could live one day of Don's lifestyle, and have that be enough to get him back on track and out of his depression. Don, however, seems to be on a downward spiral where nothing seems to be working.

And as for Greg, Joan's husband... ugh. I'll be honest, I'm waiting for him to be shipped off to Vietnam so Joan realizes how little she actually needs him in her life.

Also, interesting, but sad, note: Spousal rape only started becoming a crime in U.S. states in the mid-70s, a full decade after the current season of Mad Men (and Greg raped Joan in season 2, in 1962).

Anonymous said...

Re Joan's "procedures," it's interesting to note that her doctor did at least one of them, considering that abortion was illegal at that time, and doctors willing to break the law were few and far between (unless you were rich and connected, which Joan was not.) I wonder where she got the other?

When it happened to me in '63, my doctor, who was not so brave, told me to go to Puerto Rico with $500, so I was the one who had to be brave. Another woman I knew found a doctor in New Jersey who charged $700, but while she was waiting in his hotel room "office," it was raided by the police! Then she went to a "practitioner" at a motel in New York, where she almost died the next day from the "medicine" that was put into her at a cost of $300.

It was very scary to be a sexually active woman in those days. I'm proud to say that I was part of the Women's Movement that brought about abortion rights and so many other important changes to women's lives.

humanebean said...

Episodes such as this one really draw me in to the larger thematic world of Mad Men. Aside from the tragic news of Anna's illness, not much 'happens' during the episode ... but we are treated to an acting tour de force by Jon Hamm, our first real Joanie episode of the year and the dynamic duo of Don & Lane stumbling around Manhattan on their Boys' Night Out.

Given that so many people see Jon Hamm AS Don Draper, and little else, he continues to amaze with the subtlety and power of his transformation into the character of 'Dick' while on the West Coast. We've seen this from time to time before (most recently during those breathtaking scenes last season when he revealed his true identity to Betty when caught) but he really presents two very different personalities on the show and does so seamlessly. He even gets a moment to realize this when Anna's sister upbraids him, "You're just a man in a room with a checkbook" - and he looks stung as he realizes that, to her, he has just been acting like the imperious, arrogant Don Draper, trying to solve problems by throwing his weight around. Not so much, Dick.

Christina Hendrickson is such a strong actress, and Joanie such a fully realized character even in snippets of scenes, that we constantly yearn for more Joan in our weekly installments. The scene where she attempts to 'wrangle' Lane into giving her time off - brilliantly bookended with the scene where she scornfully tosses the flowers she believes he has sent her right back at him - are a testament to this. When I first saw Christina in on Joss Whedon's late, lamented Firefly, I immediately went to look up her bio. YES, I was struck by her stunning physique - but honest Injun I was equally impacted by her acting chops.

Finally, I have greatly enjoyed Jared Harris' performance as Lane Pryce over the last season plus but other than the Season 3 finale, we haven't really gotten to see why critics continue to delight in his presence on this show. Here is another example of the richness of Mad Men: in watching Lane snap at Joanie's attempts at manipulation and again later during his whiskey-soaked walkabout with Don, we can see all that we know about Lane's uncomfortable transition to the world of SCDP written on the mournful/joyous face of Harris' performance here. His buttoned-down Britishness, his lap-dog handling by his former bosses, his awkward relationship with his wife and his revealing delight in being afforded the opportunity in this new role to break away from all that previously defined his life.

One of the criticisms that dramatic shows face as they ride the wave of their popularity into multiple seasons is how they struggle to balance the core audience who made the initial show a hit with the bandwagon hoppers who catch on partway through. Often, even the best shows lose their way and wind up pleasing neither by trying to satisfy both. Thus far, Mad Men has done an incredible job of staying true to its bleakly entertaining vision of a group of characters adrift in their own lives, desperate for connection and approval yet again and again unable to overcome their tragic flaws and embrace the changes that will define their success or failure.

Don is heading down a dark road and we know that the catharsis that lies ahead may completely tear him apart before he can seize the opportunity for redemption ... in his own eyes and in those of all the others in his orbit. I, too, missed Roger this week. He would know just the right acerbic quip to toss off right before he downs the hemlock.