Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mad Men 5-6: Far Away Places

You know "Mad Men"'s heading full speed into the late '60s when each episode is progressively trippier than the last. This time, literally - three trips for the price of one!

The tripartite structure of "Far Away Places" was in some ways reminiscent of "Three Sundays" (one of my favorite episodes from season 2), but with a touch of Tarantino in its rewind-and-diverge time structure, and a bit of David Lynch in its casual dips into the surreal. "Mad Men" seems to be amping up the latter element this season - maybe to heighten the sense of cultural disorientation that was threatening to pull society apart circa 1966. If there's anything the show's made evident about that time, it's that you didn't need drugs to feel something was seriously off-kilter about your sense of reality.

And perhaps for that reason, Roger's acid trip was arguably not the most bizarre storyline of the week. That honor goes to Peggy, largely because her behavior was the most erratic and, at least at first blush, the least predictable. Without Don to back her up, her impulsive efforts to bully their annoying client into buying the pitch backfire spectacularly. And her response is...to get high, give a stranger a hand job during a showing ofa movie ("Born Free," for those of you wondering), and then nap on her office couch? (And what was Dawn still doing in the office at 8:30 pm, anyway?) But in some ways it made perfect sense. Peggy's character arc so far this season, rather like Pete's, has been focused on her subconsciously following in Don's footsteps - marginalizing her personal commitments, pushing clients to embrace her vision, even ditching work to go to the movies and hooking up with strangers - only to discover she can't be Don, no matter how hard she tries to imitate his power plays. She needs to find her own way, whatever that is, to "make it out there on her own"; whether she does remains to be seen.

As for Roger's trip, it may not have been the strangest but it was without question the most entertaining of the three. We'd expect no less of Roger, of course, even if he himself had no such expectations going into that evening. Still, neither he nor we could have anticipated that a walk on the psychedelic side would produce what may have been the first and last moment of real honesty - and liberation - in their marriage. Her therapist may have anticipated it, I guess But when was the last time we saw Roger so happy? And when was the last time Jane was so appealing? (That is, until she told Roger the divorce was going to cost him - and even that she said with an odd wistfulness, muting its impact.)

By contrast, Don embarked on his trip with the giddy excitement of a schoolboy, only to see his hopes of a romantic getaway transformed into his worst nightmare: losing Megan. (The audience got an early hint of this outcome with his desperate call to Peggy, at the end of *her* night: at that moment, I said to myself, "Megan's left him." I was partly right.) The debacle was mostly, if not entirely, his fault, and one he should have seen coming from the moment he peeled a clearly reluctant Megan off the Heinz pitch to go on a junket with him. This isn't the first time Megan's shown discomfort with her dual (and conflicting) role of wife/colleague, or even the first time she's argued about it with Don, but it's the first time we've seen the tension reach a true breaking point. Their fight quickly degenerated from angry to toxic, and from toxic to psychotic once Don got home and went berserk. This was no S&M role play, even if Don's demented pursuit of Megan around their bedroom had an eerie echo of both their post-"zou bisou bisou" sex and Don's fever-driven hallucinations of choking an unruly woman to death. It was damned scary.

So was Don's meltdown afterwards, because it revealed the damaged, unloved child in him who's well beyond Megan's powers - any woman's powers, really, I fear - to heal and make whole. Up till then, it was hard to say who had been acting more immaturely on that trip, Don with his foolish fantasies or Megan with her sulky petulance (her shoveling down that sherbet was exactly the kind of thing I'd have done as a kid), but in the end, it was Don, crying and clinging to her skirt like a lost boy. That dish of orange sherbet said it all, really: it's the treat he craved, the promise of bright sweetness and light and comfort, like the Megan he thought he'd married, like the image Howard Johnson's wants to sell to travelers. (It's surely no coincidence Megan's dress was almost the same color as the sherbet she rejected, as well as the iconic HoJo roof.) But as Megan observes, the place is a way-station, not a destination, and that line clearly applies to a lot more than the motel. It's an ill omen for their marriage, and perhaps for both their futures at Sterling Cooper.

Random observations:

-I used to love orange sherbet as a child, though I don't remember it being quite that traffic-cone shade of orange. But I had my sherbet at Friendly's, not HoJo's.

-I can't take credit for this one, but other critics have commented that the "sherbet scene" at Howard Johnson's mirrors - or rather, flips on its head - the idyllic "ice cream scene" on the Disneyland trip at the end of last season, which Don was at some level trying to recreate - or prolong. Nicely done, though "the pool's closed" (because someone pooped in it, no less) was a touch too much. Didn't really need the flashback to the post-Disneyland trip or Sally's plaintive "I don't want vacation to end," either. We get it, "Mad Men": you don't need to underscore the point.

-Fantastic final shot of Don in the conference room, watching everyone else pass him by. Again, a bit symbolically overloaded, but ambiguous enough not to be annoying.

-Ditto Roger's LSD trip, which was a hoot from start to finish despite being rather understated as these things go. I can't decide whether my favorite moment was the musical vodka bottle, the magical one-drag cigarette, or the (entirely logical) sight of Bert Cooper's face on a $50 dollar bill.

-Speaking of whom, yay for the return of Yoda-Bert! I didn't like his calling Peggy a "little girl," but I DID like his calling Don back from "love leave" and reminding him it's Bert's business, too. Now will that reality check be enough to snap Don back into form, or will Megan's presence continue to impede him?

-As some have surmised, Sterling Cooper's latest hire does turn out to have a Holocaust connection...and how! I can't imagine how a baby could possibly have born in - or survived - a concentration camp, but apparently it did happen. Prepared to see more of its impact on Ginsberg as we get to know him better.

-And also as some have surmised, Jane Sterling (née and soon to be again Siegel) is definitely Jewish. You'd think someone in Roger's white-shoe clan would have made an issue out of this, but I suppose Roger wouldn't have cared where love was concerned. In his own screwed-up, selfish way, he's a romantic.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Mad Men 5-5: Signal 30

"I know cooler heads should prevail, but does anybody else want to see how this plays out?"
-Roger Sterling

That sentence pretty much sums up how I feel about "Mad Men," now more than ever. The show has a habit of dangling out the possibility of redemption or fulfillment or, dammit, something resembling happiness for its characters, only to yank it back, and nothing about this season so far has suggested that pattern will change. In fact, this week's episode dug the trench a bit deeper as it mercilessly plumbed the endless depths of the misery of Pete Campbell. And yet I can't stop watching.

The tragedy of Pete Campbell just may be that his misery is largely - though not entirely - self-created. By most objective measures the man should be happy: he's a rising partner at an up-and-coming ad agency, with a lovely wife who's also his most effective agent and ally, a baby and a nice house in the suburbs, hell, even the latest in 1960's sound systems! Of course a good deal of this could have been said of Don Draper circa six years ago, who wasn't any happier than Pete and ended up ditching the whole prefab package. Yet Pete's angst goes beyond mere suburban ennui, though there's plenty of that; it's rooted in his persistent sense of feeling overlooked and unappreciated, no matter how much he's achieved. That attitude, fueled by a toxic mix of false entitlement and pathological insecurity, ends up being self-fulfilling. In this it's the obverse of Don's cool (if manufactured) self-possession, as we've seen time and again, though never, perhaps as acutely as in this very Pete-centric episode. I found it almost painful to watch our favorite "grimy little pimp" repeatedly try to play a part - plumber, deal-closer, ladies' man (his hitting on that teenage girl was especially queasy-making) - only to be shown up every time. And not just by Don and "Handsome" Hanson but by Roger and Lane, two men he thought he'd climbed over in the SCDP pecking order. No wonder he ended up having to pay to play "king" for a night - even if he paid as much in guilt and self-loathing, which again was painful to see, as in money.

(Let me pause to note that there was nothing painful about watching the Fight, which gave me much joy despite, or rather because of, its utter absurdity. I need a gif of Lane's boxing pose, stat.)

What Pete, fixated on his own woes, doesn't quite register is that the other guys are hardly any more secure in their masculine self-worth than he is. Roger may show that there's still a spark of life - and utility - in the silver fox, but at the end of the day *he* lost the Jaguar account and spent most of his time reminiscing about the days when the job, as he put it, met all his needs. Lane well-advisedly KO'd Pete - and ill-advisedly kissed Joan - only because Pete touched a nerve in implying he was dead weight at the firm. (Joan, bless her, handled the situation with aplomb and perfect Joan-like discretion.) And even Don, who seemed to resume his post as reigning alpha male, still got outmaneuvered by cunning Trudy (their phone conversation, btw, was a beautiful thing) and his own wife (who doesn't seem to want to make little Don-babies, which could spell trouble down the road).

As always, the only dude with any real hope of being happy appears to be Ken, easily the most well-adjusted and least tortured of our mad men. (Which might be why we only see him intermittently - if that changes, I will start to fear for his well-being.) Yet even his writing - whether it's about robots or the world's tiniest orchestra - reflects their collective feeling of powerlessness and limited free agency. They're all trapped by what they're conditioned to believe are their roles in society, and a growing sense that, like that robot, their only alternative is to blow up the world. Maybe that gun of Pete's will end up going off after all. Or maybe Ken will just go off to become a full-time writer.

Random observations:

-This week's episode was directed by John Slattery, who's helmed before to fine effect. Here's where I should say something smart about his use of dissolves and transitions, but I got nothin' other than: they wuz cool.

-Best moment that was not part of The Fight: Pete considering the prostitute's menu of options ("Nope...Nope...Ok, that'll do.") Perfect deadpan by Vincent Kartheiser, who was quite strong in this episode...even if his character was anything but.

-Favorite line - close call between Roger's wisecracks and Lane's outraged declamations, but I have to give the prize to the latter: "As soon as I raise my hands, I warn you, it shall be too late to run." I gotta start saying that whenever anyone pisses me off.

-Runner-up: "He had chewing gum on his pubis!"

-Least favorite: "This is an office - we're supposed to be friends!" Even if Pete's just hit bottom, I still can't buy his blubbering that line to Don in the elevator.

-It wasn't until after I finished watching the episode that I realized this was the first time this season we've seen Joan working at the office. That's how seamlessly she fits into the world of SCDP! Welcome back, Miss Holloway.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Mad Men 5-4: Mystery Date

He hit me
And it felt like a kiss.
He hit me
But it didn't hurt me.

He couldn't stand to hear me say
That I'd been with someone new,
And when I told him I had been untrue

He hit me
And it felt like a kiss.
He hit me
And I knew he loved me.

If he didn't care for me
I could have never made him mad
But he hit me,
And I was glad.

Yes, that song - released in 1962 - is for real, although it didn't get much radio play (gee, I wonder why) despite being written by Carole King(!), performed by the Crystals (who hated it) and commissioned by Phil Spector (this is when you say "aha!"). The lyrics were apparently based on what a female singer told King and lyricist Gerry Goffin when they asked her why she stayed with her abusive boyfriend. As such, they're an obviously ironic counterpoint to the last shot of this week's "Mad Men," which shows a contemplative Joan lying next to her baby and her mother after giving her husband the heave-ho. But as a disturbing sadomasochistic vision of male-female relationships, the song also made a fittingly creepy capper for what has got to be the creepiest MM episode yet.

Aptly titled "Mystery Date" (it certainly featured all kinds of peculiar "dates"), the ep could also have been called "My Beautiful Dark Twisted 'Cinderella' Fantasy." I bet as a kid Matt Weiner loved the original Grimm fairy tales - in their telling of Cinderella, the evil stepsisters cut off their big toes so the shoe would fit - and his version is, if anything, even darker. Introduced in a shoe sales pitch that plays off the fantasy of woman as prey that wants to be caught, later echoed in the sight of a single reddish shoe peeking out from under Don's bed, the Cinderella motif becomes inextricably intertwined with the grisly real-life rape and murder of eight nurses by Richard Speck, which had women all over the country on edge in the summer of 1966. That sense of unease - heightened by the seemingly-ubiquitous race riots occurring at about the same time - permeates the entire episode, from the horror movie-like sequence of Peggy moving gingerly through the office at night, to Don's fevered nightmare of seduction and murder, to Sally's impromptu slumber party with her menacing step(grand)mother, which ends with Sally, like Speck's only surviving victim and Don's imaginary one, hidden under a piece of furniture.

I'm still not sure if I actually liked the episode. It seemed a bit overworked. "Mad Men" always has layers and nuances, but it doesn't always have subtlety or, shall we say, believability, as this week demonstrated in spades. For example, Michael Ginsberg's shoe pitch was way too damn weird and twisted to be such a hit with the client; it was plainly scripted less to convince us that Ginsberg's a "genius" than to set up the theme(s) of the week. Similarly, Don's storyline was almost laughably heavy-handed in telegraphing that the intrusion of "Andrea" was (1) a dream (I called it the minute she turned up so improbably at his door) (2) the embodiment of Don's deepest sexual fears - the prey turned predator, the inability to control his illicit desires or to preserve his marriage, the desire for violence - which he literally had to "kill" to overcome.

Still, the episode did get under my skin, so in that sense it worked. And in the less melodramatic plot lines, Peggy and Joan both had some great moments: Peggy blithely skimming $400 off Roger, later awkwardly trying to "bond" with Dawn - only to undermine her good intentions with one fatal moment of hesitation; Joan telling Dr. Greg in a tone that could cut steel that she's tired of propping up his insecurities, before dropping the final bombshell - "You're not a good man. You never were ... and you know what I'm talking about." Yes, Joan, we all do, and we've waited a long time for you to say it.

Random observations:

-What the hell was Stan wearing over his head in that first scene in the office?

-Interesting that Ginsberg, the guy behind the creepy Cinderella pitch, was also the only one to be revolted by his co-workers' ghoulish fascination with Joyce's photos of the Speck murders. Some have speculated his parents or other relatives might be Holocaust survivors (or victims), but I'm not sure that explains his visceral reaction to the photos.

-The sight of mama Francis wielding by turns a butcher knife and a tube of Seconal reminded me of no one so much as Kathy Bates' character in "Misery." It also made me laugh, even though poor Sally's mental health isn't really a laughing matter. Step-grandma's scary enough to make Betty look positively inviting by comparison.

-Speaking of Betty, is it just me or did she look a lot slimmer in her brief appearance than she did last week? She must have started popping those diet pills after all.

-I may be the only person I know who harbors a little bit - a very little bit - of sympathy for Greg, aka "Dr. Rapey," who's probably the only character on "Mad Men" more despised than Betty. Like Betty, he's clearly not intended to be a totally one-dimensional villain - he's shown tenderness to Joan before (albeit interspersed with plenty of dickishness and whininess), and in this episode we see signs that his service has done his character some good (although not, it appears, in the department of consideration for his wife). But also like Betty, he's colossally ill-matched with the person he married, and like Don (though for totally different reasons), he won't give his wife the respect that a true partnership requires. Unlike Betty, Joan's able to end the marriage before it drains all the life out of her. Where there's Joan, there's hope. So far.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Mad Men 5-3: Tea Leaves

Maybe it's just that the glow of "Mad Men"'s long-awaited return has faded, but this week's episode, in my opinion, fell a notch below the premiere in quality.

I suspect other viewers might blame the (literally) larger-than-life return of Betty, who after being conspicuously absent last week, occupied center stage for a good part of this episode. Although I'm no Betty hater, I have to agree that she's become something of a drag on the show's momentum. The problem is she's alienated so much of the audience that it's painful to watch her continue to struggle to connect - with us and with those on screen with her. And I say this as someone who was her staunch defender until last season, when the writers decided to turn her into an irredeemable witch (one of the reasons I became so disillusioned with the show as a whole).

So it was with growing gloom that I watched "Mad Men"'s most reviled character slip into an even deeper funk than we've ever seen before. I shudder to think of the schadenfreude pouring out of who knows how many viewers gleeful at the sight of an older, fatter, more miserable Betty who might even be killed off by cancer! Unfortunately for those folks, early death for Betty is apparently not to be. As it is, the writers made sure to twist the knife one more time in her character with her extremely unsympathetic reaction to the good news - instead of being happy, she frets about being fat and insults her husband's mother! Oh, Betty...you make it so difficult for those of us who want to stick up for you.

On the plus side, I thought January Jones did a great job under all that fat makeup (I think she was pregnant during the filming, but I don't think she put on that much weight), from her flinching when the doctor called her "middle-aged" to her terrified plea for reassurance from Don, to the conflicting emotions - surprise, relief, slight disappointment - washing over her face when she learns the tumor is benign. People rag on Jones' acting ability, but at least in the role of Betty Draper she's been consistently excellent, and this episode was no exception.

Despite my mixed feelings about the "Betty aging" storyline, it tied in pretty neatly - perhaps a little too neatly - with a theme the show's always been interested in and clearly intends to explore even more deeply this season - namely, the growing divide between old and young and the increasingly tenuous position of those characters who are starting to be, if not quite old, then at least no longer young. We see this in the friction between "square" Don and mod Megan; established but not completely secure Peggy and striving would-be up-and-comer Michael Ginsberg (more on him in a minute); ever-ambitious, reliably petty Pete and an increasingly irrelevant (and not happy about it) Roger; and, of course, Don/Harry (and by extension, the old dudes at Heinz) and the teenage Rolling Stones fans.

That RS backstage sequence - which I liked, even if the writing was sometimes, as is "Mad Men"'s wont, a little too heavily underscored - crystallized the tensions that threaten to pull apart not just Don but SCDP, and society, as a whole. Without quite realizing it, Don has become the Man, his perspective as alien to the aspiring groupies as theirs is to him. And yet - something about his deliberate detachment and maddening paternalism ("we worry about you") still makes him a million times cooler than that goober Harry, who's a textbook example of Trying Too Hard (and failing) to be cool. You can see it in the slightly squicky moment when the young girl chatting up Don messes with his tie and he puts her off with a condescending remark. He hasn't entirely lost his ability to charm and connect with the young, but he's on track to losing it - which doesn't bode well for SCDP. Will the younger Pete and Peggy - or lord forbid, Michael Ginsberg - save that connection? One thing's for sure: Harry Crane certainly won't.

Miscellaneous observations:

-I'm conflicted on the character of Michael Ginsberg. I think I like the idea of him better than the reality, which from what we've seen so far is too much of a walking "New York Jew" stereotype for me to take seriously. But perhaps that's deliberate? His last scene with his dad, where the schtick is nowhere to be seen, suggests as much. (Too bad the dad seems to take up the stereotype-slack from him.) Still, I'll reserve judgment, for now, especially since I think his interactions with Peggy could be interesting.

-Henry Francis' sideswipe at George Romney (father of Mitt): gratuitous dig by the writers or just more period detail? I think the former. Seemed unnatural coming out of the mouth of a Rockefeller Republican, but then I'm no expert on the political run-up to 1968.

-Favorite scene, hands down: Harry with the munchies, scarfing burgers in the car, as Don looks on in incredulous disdain. I would totally watch "Don and Harry Go to White Castle" any day.