Monday, June 03, 2013

Mad Men 6-10: A Tale of Two Cities

As someone who used to live in L.A., I'm always fascinated by "Mad Men"'s visits there without ever being quite satisfied with them. They generally center on Don and often presage, perhaps precipitate, some big change or epiphany in his life. Yet they have an air of gauzy unreality about them that can be a bit frustrating, at least to those who know California as a real place. To be fair, I think it's deliberate: inevitably, on these California trips, Don ends up detaching himself from his carefully constructed existence as Don Draper and assessing it with the eye of a dispassionate outsider - a feat that seems only made possible by the dreamlike strangeness of his surroundings.

So it was this time, except that Don seemed to exercise much less agency in the process than he has in the past. In an episode in which Megan advises him to "go for a swim," he ends up looking bemusedly on his own body floating face downwards in a pool in the Hollywood hills (or as an annoyingly smug Harry would put it, "THE Hills"). It's an image that evokes both "Sunset Boulevard" and The Great Gatsby, both tales of men who tried and failed to escape the sordid reality of their true identities. It's also a more passive (and more ominous) version of Don walking out into the Pacific Ocean, so many seasons ago, on a previous trip to Cali - an image that was also echoed (as the "previously on Mad Men" reel thoughtfully reminded us) more recently in Don's ad campaign for the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Like that ad, his latest immersion could signal a rebirth; it could also signal, simply, death. After all, and surely not by coincidence, it follows a sequence in which he imagines first Megan telling him she's pregnant (and, as if we needed the underlining, that this is a "second chance"!), then the ghost of the soldier-bridegroom he met in Hawaii, now maimed and somber, announcing he's dead and hinting that Don is, too. Now I don't think Don is literally going to die anytime soon, but there does seem to be something dead or dying inside him, and count me skeptical that he's getting a second chance to come alive again. For some time now he's appeared checked out of his own life, oblivious to what's going on around him, including the fact that a coup is brewing right under his nose at the Frankenfirm he helped create.

Meanwhile, back in New York, there are actually two separate coups brewing - even if Pete Campbell, with his usual odd blend of perceptiveness and self-centered paranoia, conflates them as all part of one and the same. One is the takeover from within by the Cutler/Chaough half of the merger. True, it's mostly being driven by Cutler (aka bizarro-Roger), but it's tacitly approved, if also reined in, by Chaough. Some of Cutler's specific machinations remain a tad murky - for example, did he set up Bob Benson to fail with Manichewitz? - but his ultimate goal is pretty clearly to render Sterling, Cooper, et al. as partners in (literally) name only. It's interesting to see Ted as, if not the more principled, certainly the more prudent of the two, unwilling to toss any Sterling Cooper-ites if they retain any value to the firm as a whole.

Then there's Joan's quest to be a partner more than in just name -i.e., a partner with actual clout. She sees her chance with Avon-man and takes a huge risk in bypassing the firm's hierarchy to bring him in as her client. We don't know yet whether this will turn out to be a brilliant or foolhardy move on her part, though I tend to share Peggy's more pessimistic view (not because I think she has better judgment than Joan but because this is "Mad Men," when bad things seem to happen more often than good things). Regardless of who turns out to be right, Peggy and Joan's argument over Joan's handling of the situation was, for my money, the best written exchange by any characters so far this season. The Joan-Peggy dynamic has always been one of the most intriguing yet under-explored on the show, and it was remarkable how much suppressed tension, how many years of accumulated, complex feelings about each other's rise were packed into those few minutes. Kudos to Peggy for coming to Joan's rescue in the end, despite her disapproval of the latter's methods.

But poor Joan! I'm not sure Peggy knows about the deal with the devil (Jaguar); I actually don't think she does, though I may be having a memory lapse. Nonetheless, her insistence that she, Peggy, worked her way up without sleeping with anyone clearly stung Joan in the same way it would have if she had known about Jaguar - as evidenced in the double meaning behind Joan's withering, yet wounded, response: "Congratulations. You really are just like them." Joan may or may not be privately regretting her decision to sleep with gross Jaguar guy, but it seems to be at least partly fueling a sense that her partnership hasn't proved to be worth the price she paid for it. Callous comments by resentful colleagues, whether it's Harry, bitter over not having a partnership, or Pete, outraged at being left out of the Avon meeting, surely don't help.

Of course Joan's not the only one of the "and Partners" who's feeling insecure about her status. Exhibit A: Pete Campbell, whose enraged, vicious subtext-laden comment about the Avon man ("oh, I bet you're making him very happy") elicits an equally cutting retort from Joan ("It's better than being screwed by you") but is really more reflective of his panic at the increasing tenuousness of his own position than lack of respect for Joan. While Pete's never been above doing weaselly underhanded things (like pimping out Joan) to get ahead, there is a part of him that's always believed that people should be rewarded for working hard and playing by certain rules, and been continually exasperated when following that course doesn't yield the expected results. "It's a revolt," he sputters impotently at Ted Chaough, unable to accept the latter's glib shrugging off of Joan's power-grab ("Possession is nine-tenths of the law"). Revolt, upheaval of the existing order, is indeed in the air, as the footage of the post-DNC Chiago riots pointedly remind us. In the end, at least nationally, it was more or less quashed - temporarily - by the election of Nixon. Whether it's similarly subdued within the world of SC&P remains to be seen.

Random observations:

-This episode was directed by John Slattery (aka Roger Sterling), who once again shows a great eye and sense of pacing, and isn't too vain to allow his character to get punched in the balls. Though not before getting in what had to be a record number of height jokes at poor little Danny.

-The title of the episode, "A Tale of Two Cities," appears to refer to New York and L.A. But one could make a pretty good argument for Chicago, in which events both mirror and trigger the unrest that afflicts our characters.

-This week's hallucinations and/or revelations brought to you by...hashish! "Mad Men" may be going a little too often to the drug-tripping well this season, but it does generally fit in with the hazy uncertainty, the search for escape that we associate with the late '60s. Still, when you've got Pete Campbell smoking a joint, you know shit is hitting the fan.

-Is it just me, or did Joan seem initially disappointed that Avon man was treating their first lunch as a business meeting rather than a date? But being Joan, she recovered almost instantaneously, enough to perceive it as something better than a date.

-Is Ginsberg having a total meltdown? He's been slowly unraveling this past season, but this was the first episode where he seemed really unhinged. He apparently has a similar political compass to Abe (Peggy's ex), but even less control over his feelings. Something about Bob Benson's attempt to calm him down was weirdly hilarious.

-Every week, a new mystery about Bob Benson. What on earth was that recording he was listening to? It sounded like something in the self-help genre. Also of note, he did not answer Ginsberg's question about his sexuality (though I personally think that's just the writers messing with us).

-Could Megan be having an affair? She seemed strangely distant in her interactions with Don this episode, even when Don was clearly making an effort to rekindle their marriage. I also found it telling that in trying to convince her to come to L.A. with him, he referred to Disneyland (trying to recapture the past, the "beginning of things," as Dr. Faye might have said), while she responded by joking that that was where she made the biggest mistake of her life. Maybe it wasn't a joke.

-Not much screen time for Stan, but that's because he was so adroit at making his exit from awkward situations - whether it was Ginsberg going off on someone ("This is my stop," "I can't watch this") or Pete stealing his joint.

-Line of the week: Cutler to Bob Benson - "Why are you always down here? Go back upstairs!"

-Runner-up: Roger on him and Don as conquistadors: "I'm Vasco de Gama, you're - some other Mexican guy."


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