Monday, September 20, 2010

"Mad Men" Ep. 4.9: "The Beautiful Girls"

Death is no joke, but damned if "Mad Men" didn't come pretty close to proving the contrary. I can't remember the last time I laughed as hard as I did tonight at the entire sequence of Ms. Blankenship's, er, removal from the office - everything from Peggy's horrified yelp to poor tiny Pete in the distance, struggling with the dead body, to the transfixed expression on Ken's face to Harry's off-screen protest at the use of his afghan ("my mother made that!") as a shroud. Trust Blankenship to exit as she entered - as a source of unwitting hilarity.

But also a source of pathos. With her passing, death suddenly felt nearer for Roger, Joan, and perhaps most of all for Bert Cooper, though the episode focused more on the dual reaction of Roger and Joan to the thought that they, too might one day end up like Blankenship, dead long after her expiration date. (With Greg all but shipped off to Vietnam, Joanie must have had death especially on her mind already.) Fear and sadness drew those two old friends back together, and an added jolt of fear reunited them, however briefly, as lovers. As to that, while near-death experiences may be a great aphrodisiac and all, I frankly rolled my eyes at their back-alley, post-mugging tryst. But there was something quite poignant about their interaction the next day, and those parting looks of yearning. They're not done yet, those two, not by a long shot, especially if Dr. Donkey-dick bites it in 'Nam. Though frankly I wouldn't be surprised if the bugger just comes back maimed in some way, which would be the worst of possible worlds for poor Joan.

If Mrs. Blankenship in this, her final, episode embodied the fear of being dead and forgotten, she also represented the last of an earlier generation of working women. It was surely no coincidence that we had all the "Mad" women of the succeeding generations in such close proximity - Joan, Faye, Peggy, Meghan, even Joyce on the margins (of course) - and on the other side, Betty, still the antithesis and the throwback. The last shot of Joan, Peggy, and Faye in the elevator starkly framed three alternate paths: on one side, the woman for whom career was supposed to be only a precursor or, at best, an accessory, to marriage and family; on the other, the woman who chose career over marriage and family; and in the middle, the younger woman who still wants it all. (I also noticed that just moments before, we see Joyce entering an elevator by herself: alone and ahead of the rest.) It was also significant, I think, that all of these women, except Joyce, had to deal with both Don and runaway Sally. There's a suggestion of a choice, for both father and daughter, among these various types - in Sally's case, not just as a potential role model but as a potential new parent.

Sally's meltdown was painful to watch; sadly, it was also about due. It doesn't help that her mother continues to treat her as a pawn in her bitter power-struggle with Don. The friend I was watching the show with tonight practically cheered when Don barked, "You learn some responsibility!" at Betty over the phone. But I thought the comment was a bit rich coming from Don, who may be warmer and more affectionate towards Sally, but is still inclined to shuffle her off to whatever woman happens to be handy. Even if it's a woman who by her own admission is no good with children. Faye was right to call him on it. I'm glad Don listened and apologized, but I just don't see him staying with her for the long haul. He's going to want someone who can be a mother to his kids.

Random notes:

-Things don't look too auspicious for Abe and Peggy...or do they? Abe was blundering and tactless and full of that particularly annoying brand of high-mindedness that can only condescend and lecture, never listen and respond. And yet, despite himself, there was something oddly endearing about his passion: unlike, say, Paul Kinsey, he doesn't come across as a poseur. And he *did* make Peggy rethink her own agnosticism about her clients' racial politics; here's hoping she makes him rethink his dismissive attitude towards the discrimination *she* faces. That argument between them - about whether and to what extent you can really compare different forms of discrimination - still has a lot of resonance today.

-Interesting juxtaposition of the racism of Fillmore Autoparts with the mugging of Roger and Joan by a black man. It was probably intentional. Not sure it was necessary.

-I wish Matt Weiner et al. would stop making Betty so unsympathetic this season. I happen to be one of those few who didn't think she was a particularly horrible mother before - just typical of her class and time period, perhaps further crippled by her own particular misery in her marriage and unwanted third pregnancy. But now? She's losing me, and I *don't* think the change has been organic or consistent with the character I knew before. That utter fakeness of her soft touch and words to Sally at the end of this episode ("I was worried about you"), and the hardening of her face as she looked at the other women, sent chills down my spine. Great acting by January Jones, but I want to see Betty's human side, not Mommie Dearest.

-Next to Mrs. Blankenship's impromptu departure, the second funniest moment in the episode had to be Sally serving Don French toast with rum instead of Mrs. Butterworth's. The kicker being his final verdict. (Sally: "Is it bad?" Don: "Not really." Nyom nyom nyom.)

Best line:

Don: "I would have my secretary do it, but she's DEAD."

So wrong on so many levels, and yet so funny.


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