Monday, August 23, 2010

"Mad Men" Ep. 4.5: "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword"

One problem with waiting to write about a "Mad Men" episode is that by the time everyone else on the internets posts his or her recap, there's really not much left to say except "It was awesome!" At least this week was extra-specially awesome, if for no other reason than our getting to see Peggy riding around in circles on a red motorcycle. Don's con on Ted Wannabe-Draper had much of the fun "Ocean's 11"-ish feel of last season's finale - jazzy '60s heist-movie music and all - and reaffirmed that whatever we might think about Don Draper's personal life, it's always a treat to watch him in full-on professional mode. (And even more of a treat to see him tripped up by the wonderful Mrs. Blankenship. May her ineptitude never cease.)

There was of course plenty of darkness to balance out the light, thanks primarily to two characters who probably couldn't have made themselves more unlikable if they'd tried: Roger with his cretinous rejection of the Honda delegation and Betty with her equally cringeworthy treatment of Sally. But it's important to keep in mind that neither of them committed these ugly acts in a vacuum. Each drew from a well of anger that, while not exactly deeply buried, had deep roots. And in the end, both Roger and Betty at least attempted to make amends and reconcile themselves to ideas they'd previously found intolerable.

I never thought I'd defend anyone - least of all Roger Sterling (whom I've always found charming but completely indefensible) - for what looks at first glance like the worst kind of bigotry. Certainly Roger's provided ample evidence of his racism and sexism in the past, though he's been more of a *casual* racist - the kind who doesn't seem to give much thought to minorities at all except to assume their social inferiority as a fact of life. But with the Japanese it's different, and intensely personal. That should come as no surprise. Anyone who fought in the Pacific in WWII saw firsthand a shockingly ruthless, brutal style of warfare by the Japanese, which, compounded with the racist anti-Japanese propaganda drilled into the heads of all Americans at the time, was enough to warp minds stronger and wiser than Roger's. (Not just the Americans either; to this day, there's still a good deal of intransigent anti-Japanese sentiment across parts of Asia, particularly in Korea and China.)

Which is not to excuse Roger's boorish conduct towards the Honda folks, only to emphasize that there's something more going on here than his garden-variety WASPy prejudices. For this reason, Pete's reading of his behavior as motivated by turf jealousy struck me as totally wrong-headed, even if Don agreed or pretended to agree with it. It may be true of Roger's attitude as a whole, but not, I think, in this particular instance. Still, the sting of the accusation was evidently enough to get him back in line, at least for now, and he did have a very lovely moment with Joan - as those two so often do - in which she was able to siphon off some of that long-festering bitterness. Dear Joan! I hope you learn from Roger not to go down his path, because it leads to a dead end.

As for Betty, it'll be a miracle if she has any sympathizers left after slapping poor Sally. That blow was inexcusable. It most likely reflected her pent-up rage, not against Sally for cutting her hair, but against Don for doing his Don thing and not being there (and, in Betty's head, off schtupping some other woman). I'm willing to cut her a little more slack for her response to Sally's masturbating (btw, did people really say the word outright like that back then?), because, sad to say, I imagine many, if not most, other mothers of that period would have reacted in a similar way. (The woman who discovered and reported Sally certainly wouldn't win any prizes over Betty for enlightened parenting.) But the fact remains that Betty's too handicapped by her own issues to understand what's going on with Sally. I do think, though, she was on to something when she linked Sally's "acting out" to the death of Grandpa Gene - even if she was primarily self-projecting. And no, I do NOT think Eugene ever molested either Betty or Sally. I believe Matt Weiner's denied it as well.

I feel like I'm always quoting Alan Sepinwall (who as always writes the best recap), but I really thought his take on Betty this week was spot-on:

It's easy to paint Betty as the villain in the family. She's cold and judgmental and quick to take out her frustrations on her kids. She's not charismatic or funny (at least never intentionally), and she doesn't get to dazzle us with her brilliance in some other field so we'll forgive her personal flaws. But she's also not the one who was cheating on her spouse for years (other than that quickie with Captain Awesome on the night when the world was possibly ending). She's not the one who disappeared for hours on her daughter's birthday because she didn't feel at home there. She's not the one who lied about who she was. And she's not the one who got her spouse's shrink to reveal all the secrets of therapy.

Don's betrayal with Dr. Wayne is easy to forget. It was a long time ago (in both show-time and real-time), and so many other things have happened to Don and Betty since then. But if ever there were a character on "Mad Men" in need of a little self-examination in a safe environment, it's Betty. (Don at least has the capacity for self-awareness, even if he usually pushes down what he understands about himself.) And Don took that option away from her. And Henry the gentle homewrecker may have given it back.

I'm in complete agreement, and I think "Dr. Edna" has the potential to do good for Betty as well as Sally. Ditto Henry, who seems able to create that soothing safe space that Betty never had with Don.

I found it interesting that an episode titled "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword" - the book that first advanced the idea of Japanese/Asian "shame culture" in contrast to Western "guilt culture" - should spend so much time showing Betty's world as its own kind of shame society. Just as interestingly, it ends with both Betty and Sally participating in something akin to confession, which is more commonly associated with the purging of guilt. Meanwhile, Don, who's like the one-man walking embodiment of guilt culture, is able to understand and capitalize on the Honda executives' sense of shame by turning it against them. At the same time he, too, engages in a kind of confession (to Faye), wherein he's able to admit that he isn't much better of a parent than Betty.

Maybe the idea here is the promise of confession free of guilt and shame. Otherwise known as therapy, heh. Lord knows both Don and Betty could use it, though I think I trust Dr. Edna more than I do Dr. Faye.

Other observations:

-Pete continues to come into his own. I think Don praised and/or sided with him at least three times this episode, which has got to be a first. But Pete is still Pete, and he still tries too hard, as evidenced in the gift-giving scene with Honda. Fine bit of physical comedy there, with the swapping of the melon and the whiskey.

-Rather ironically, I think Henry may end up being a better father-figure to Sally than Don, if she lets him. I'm not sure she'll let him.

-Loved the brief return of Smitty, and his boss's peeved reaction to his calling Don a genius: "Get out of here, go work for your boyfriend...Find me twenty different words for pimple!"

Best line/exchange:

HONDA GUY: (in Japanese) How does she not fall over?
JOAN: They're not very subtle, are they.
INTERPRETER (staring at her chest): No, they are not.

Runner-up: Pete's "Christ on a cracker, where do you get off?"

Also, not really a line, but my other favorite LOL moment was Pete and Ms. Blankenship going all tug-o'-war on the package.

In unrelated news, I finally got my reviews of SALT and AGORA up this past weekend. Enjoy!


Blogger EC said...

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1:53 PM  
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8:39 PM  

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