Monday, September 13, 2010

"Mad Men" Ep. 4.8: "The Summer Man"

Well, that was different. But mostly in a good way.

This felt like a California episode of "Mad Men," and it wasn't just the quality of the summer light or the abundance of swimming imagery. It was the sight of Don essentially importing his California self into his New York self. California Don - thanks largely, but not entirely, to the presence of Anna - has always been more open and honest about his own emotions, more willing to admit his own errors, and more at ease with his inner Dick Whitman than New York Don, by turns impassive and imperious, ever was. The boundaries between these two selves have been increasingly blurred this season, but only now, having hit rock-bottom, does Don seem to be actively embracing his other, better half in an effort to pull himself out of the abyss.

That may be why the introduction of his voice-over narration didn't grate, though it was certainly unexpected. It's not a device I want to see continue, but for this particular moment in Don's life, it felt right. If there were ever a time for self-assessment, this would be it. In a sense, he's conducting therapy on himself.

In that vein, Don's swimming is of a piece with his soul-searching. And though it may call to mind another "Swimmer" of the same period, in Don's case it suggests a deliberate self-immersion in his unconscious emotions rather than a futile attempt to escape from them. Even the images of him lying alone in his bed are swimmer-like. They reminded me of a passage from one of my favorite books, A.S. Byatt's Possession:

He disposed himself for sleep. The sheets were white and felt slightly starched; he imagined that they smelled of fresh air and even the sea-salt. He moved down into their clean whiteness, scissoring his legs like a swimmer, abandoning himself to them, floating free. His unaccustomed muscles relaxed. He slept.

The character here, Roland, has little in common with Don; but like Don, his life's messy and he's in desperate need of a period of clean, unencumbered solitude. In another passage, slightly later in the book, Roland tells a woman who's plainly his soulmate - though neither of them recognizes this yet - that at that point in his life (he's trying to extricate himself from a long-dead, rotting relationship), what he really craves is "a clean empty bed in a clean empty room." Don seems to have come to the same realization, judging from his restrained response to both young Bethany and the older, warier Dr. Miller, who finally succumbs to Don's charms. He's clearly done with the former; why he doesn't press his advantage with the latter is a more interesting question. Maybe he's taken Aesop's fable to heart and prefers to play a subtler game. Maybe he really sees potential for something long-term with Faye. But at some level it's got to be because he knows it's best for himself, at this juncture, to be able to stretch out alone in a clean bed.

If Don's turned a corner, there are signs that Betty may be doing the same. This is the second episode in which Mrs. Francis starts off terribly but seems to collect herself, and even redeem herself a little, by the end - even if her last look conveyed an undefinable regret. Meanwhile, Henry, for all his talk of being the adult in that marriage, acted no less childishly towards Don than his wife, from his charade with the boxes to his silly lawn-mowing he-man routine. The punchline to that wholse showdown, of course, was an unfazed Don coolly pitching the boxes into a dumpster. He's moved on in a way that Betty, and by extension, Henry, haven't, and they both envy him that. At least Betty now seems more willing to act the part of an adult; here's hoping the reality will follow.

Of course, for every upward character arc on "Mad Men," there has to be a downward one to balance it out, and unfortunately the latter appears to have fallen to Joan. Not that we haven't seen signs of this all along - in her marriage, of course, but also, lately, in the office. As I commented last week, with the evolution of the new Sterling Cooper there's been an erosion of Joan's power, though it's difficult to separate from her growing unhappiness and anxiety over her husband's imminent departure for Vietnam. Still, even apart from that it's become increasingly clear that she no longer exercises the same influence over the younger staff that she once did. I hate to put her in the same category as Roger, but she, like him, is seeming more and more like a relic of a past era, a point underscored with remarkable brutality by young Joey. (Speaking of whom - oedipal issues, much?)

If Joan literally embodies the old era of female power in the workplace, then Peggy represents the new. Joan, understandably, is hostile to that shift and was unfair and ungracious to Peggy as a consequence. Peggy was right to fire Joey; it was one of the most satisfying moments of the night. And yet Joan, too, is right about its likely impact on perceptions of both of them. It's a problem that persists today.

Random notes:

-"I was blind, but now I see." Indeed. As I've said before, "Mad Men"'s use of symbolism is *not* subtle. But that's ok, subtlety isn't everything.

-How cool did Don look during the "Satisfaction" sequence, from the white shirt to the shades to the cigarette? It was a little cheesy, but it *worked*. Papa's got a brand new bag. And no hat, which might be significant.

-I found the juxtaposition of Bethany and Betty, in addition to being awkward, a bit creepy. Talk about doubling - names, hairstyles, even superficial physical type. Bethany's reaction was priceless, however; you could see the wheels turning in her head as soon as she looked from Betty to Don. Far from being squicked out, she found, er, encouragement, I guess, in the resemblance. But she miscalculated.

-Dr. Faye's loud, semi-public phone breakup seemed very forced to me. But of course it gave Don the opening he needed, and revealed some new dimensions to Faye's character. Her less-than-patrician background may also appeal to the new Don that's emerging, the one that's learning to accept his own shady past.

-Harry is such a poser. Go open the LA office already, Harry.

Best line:

Peggy, on Mountain Dew and whiskey: "That's not a cocktail, that's an emergency."


Blogger ToastyKen said...

Yeah my main thought at the end of this episode was: Wow, did Betty actually learn something?! :P

4:04 AM  

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