Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Mad Men 7-3: Field Trip

Well, that's now two episodes in a row where the very last moment, the very last line, has knocked me back on my heels.

Last week: "I love you, dad." This week, even simpler: "Okay."

Me: "WHAT?!"

I was so sure that Don Draper would never consent to the conditions attached to his return to SC&P. Never mind that they were specifically designed to keep him on the shortest leash possible and more than likely to stifle his creative mojo. Never mind that they hit him at the end of a long, supremely awkward day in which every employee of the firm other than Roger Sterling goggled at him like a museum exhibit and made him feel just how out of place he had become. No, the last straw was the demotion. The demand that he serve under Lou. Lou! No fucking way, I thought. Not with another offer in his back pocket.

On reflection, maybe I shouldn't have been so surprised. In a way, Don's acceptance was consistent with the other steps he's taken recently to change his life. He isn't the old Don Draper anymore, imperious and unwilling to admit fault, nor is he the self-hating Dick Whitman, ready to run at the slightest chance of having his shame revealed. He's a Don who's gradually learning to admit - and face up to - his errors, even if his timing isn't always right. He's learning to separate humility from humiliation, and perhaps coming back to Sterling Cooper with reduced stature is part of that process. A form of penance, if you will.

And yet, while he may be chastened, he isn't entirely humbled yet. He continues to treat Dawn like his secretary, despite the fact that he notices her station and duties have changed. And he persists in treating Megan more like his daughter than like his wife (er, apart from the sex thing), something she rightly calls him on and understandably resents. He didn't have much interaction with Peggy this week, but I imagine it will be hard for him to keep from lapsing into old patterns in the future; though judging from the way she burned him in their brief encounter, she's in no mood to be his protégé again. Above all, I just can't see Don deferring to Lou - Lou, the man who's clearly not even close to Don's level of talent. Perhaps Don's return isn't a gesture of humility at all; perhaps it's a reflex of arrogance, a conviction that he can prove himself again and earn back his position of respect. Perhaps it's simply a reflection of his attachment to Sterling Cooper as the institution that he helped build and that defined him for so much of his life, a pride of ownership that keeps him from cutting loose and joining Megan in California - or accepting an offer from a rival firm.

Whatever his motives, he's entering a strained arrangement that can't possibly end well. Still, it was nice to see Roger going to the mat for Don - far more effectively than I'd have expected from him given his inauspiciously late (and drunk) entrance, and with far more heat and animation than we've seen him from him in a while. It may be that Roger senses his own, eroding relevance at the firm is tied to Don's, and wants to shore up his allies at the firm; he may simply want to reassure himself that he still has the power to influence major firm decisions; or he may sincerely miss his old buddy, as he professes with characteristic Roger-esque nonchalance. Whatever his motives, it's clear Roger wants Don back. But does anyone else?

It was an interesting choice by the writers to juxtapose Don's efforts to reclaim his career with both Megan's efforts to save her career as an actress and Betty's efforts to justify hers - if only to herself - as a mother. Of these storylines, Betty's is, as always, the least sympathetic. As a longtime Betty defender, I can't say the writers have been making it easy for me. I cut her a lot of slack when she was still married to Don; she was nicer and more vulnerable then, and how could anyone not be messed up married to that man? Now that she's with someone who by all appearances loves her and treats her well, it's hard to understand why she's so mean and bitter. (No, folks, she wasn't always like that.) I think we're supposed to chalk it up to an irresolvable conflict between her inability to escape her conditioning, the way her mother raised her ("old-fashioned" indeed) and a dim, lurking awareness that she wasn't cut out to be a mother and only a mother. Going on her son's field trip, was - for Betty - nothing more than an attempt to vindicate her life's choice, and it all seemed to be going perfectly until Bobby unwittingly "ruined" it. By trading her sandwich for gumdrops! I'd admit I'd be cranky, too, if my kid gave away my lunch, but I cannot for the life of me fathom how any sane woman could jump from annoyance at an innocent mistake to feeling like an utter, unloved failure as a mother and taking it out on the poor kid. Then again, while Betty isn't insane, she's never been what I'd call well balanced. I do hate how the writers refuse to let her mature as a character; it's always one step forward, two steps back with Betty, whereas they've at least started to let Don take two steps forward and one step back.

As for Megan, it's ironic that she's the one who's painted as mentally or emotionally unbalanced, first by her agent and then by Don, who's insufferably paternalistic and patronizing in trying to give her advice. While we never see Megan's side of the story of her alleged meltdown, to her credit, she resoundingly rejects the "lunatic" labeling and Don's casting himself as her caretaker. And she is of course completely right to show him the door for lying to her about his own situation. Whether the split sticks remains to be seen. But Megan's tragic face as she avoids reciprocating Don's final "I love you" doesn't bode well for their future together. (Great work by Jessica Paré in that scene, and in the episode generally.)

Random observations:

-The film Don was watching at the beginning of the episode was apparently Jacques Demy's "Model Shop," about a Los Angeles man whose career is stalled and whose relationship with his girlfriend is falling apart. So, some obvious resonances there with Don's own life.

-I was really struck by the camera work in all the scenes of Don in the office - shot from his perspective in a way that accentuated just how much of an outsider he's become.

-Is Don the only character on the show who still wears a hat?

-Harry Crane's pity party continues - only this time, someone (Cutler) notices and does something about it. Even if he finds it distasteful. For a second there at that partners' meeting I couldn't tell whether Harry was going to be canned or get his computer. I guess neither, for the time being.

-Ginsberg tells Don he smells good. Never change, Ginsberg, you awesome little weirdo.

-Line of the week: Roger to Don - "I found you at the bottom of a fur box!"

-Best delivery: ditzy Meredith, openly ogling Don, in response to the query "What's he doing here?" - "Who cares?"

-Runner-up: Betty to Bobby: "Eat your candy." Never have such innocuous words been so spine-chilling.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Mad Men 7-2: A Day's Work

As I was watching this week's "Mad Men," I found myself thinking how characteristically Mad Men it was that an episode set on Valentine's Day would be all about missed messages and failed connections. Peggy misunderstands the significance of her secretary's flowers; Sally misses her train and then her father in the office; hell, half the plot outside of Don and Sally revolves around conference calls between Sterling Cooper's New York and L.A. offices that get cut off on one end or the other. No one seems to be able to get through to anyone else - until that last stretch of Sally's impromptu mini-road trip with Don, when Don finally heeds her admonition and tells her the truth. About telling the truth, no less. And she tells him she loves him.


It was as sweet as it was unexpected. But was it truly earned? Don's expression as Sally leaves the car indicates he's wondering just that. Still, regardless of how one feels about the payoff, the leadup - the shifting dynamic between him and his daughter - was undeniably effective, though like all things Mad Men, it felt just a tad too carefully constructed, every beat a shade too precisely calculated. The actors, however, made it work: I'm not as huge a fan of Kiernan Shipka as most, but she was pretty darn convincing as the outwardly disaffected, cynical teenager or teenager-in-training (how old is she, anyway? 13?) who still holds a simmering grudge against her once-adored father and rightly calls him out for his hypocrisy. And Jon Hamm, as always, is terrific, his imperious Don Draper façade (his line about Sally lying in wait, "like your mother," was particularly low) crumbling away in a single moment as Sally lands the blow that finally hits home - her disgust over the possibility of running into Sylvia, the neighbor-lady she saw him boning. You can see him turn into Dick Whitman on the spot, as deep shame floods his face and even his posture. It's no coincidence that that's when he finally cops to what actually happened to his job, and why, and you can see Sally's hostility melt away over that Formica tabletop. I'm not sure I buy that her resentment would disappear so fast, but then Sally at bottom has always loved her dad, despite the fact that he's been a pretty terrible dad. And his dine-and-dash joke was pretty endearing.

Back at the office of Sterling Cooper & Partners, there were so many internal maneuverings it was hard for anyone but Joan to keep them straight. The only one who seems to have a master plan is the interloper, Jim Cutler, who seems bent on taking over SC&P; his warning to Roger ("I'd hate to think of you as an adversary. I'd really hate that") was positively chilling. Though perhaps unnecessary, considering their clash over Chevy and Pete's car dealerships was hardly even that as Roger, who seems to have lost his mojo again, barely puts up a fight - much to Pete's disgruntlement. I knew it wouldn't be long before we saw disgruntled Pete again. And yet, hard as it is to sympathize with Pete Campbell, he kind of has a point: he's doing his job, and doing it well at that, but no one seems to care; or in his words (which again, are classic Mad Men speak), "No one feels my existence." Pete's problem has always been that he rarely, if ever, gets the validation he so desperately desires, and that perpetual lack of recognition is both cause and effect of his douchiness. It's hard to say which came first, the denial or the douchiness, but it's a vicious cycle he doesn't seem to be able to escape. Even in sunny California.

So much for the men of Sterling Cooper; in a lot of ways the most interesting action turned on the women. Peggy may be flailing - or maybe just reeling from smacking her head on that glass ceiling - but it was pleasant to see both Dawn and Joan come out of the mess with promotions; Joan literally goes up a level, while Dawn inherits both Joan's old office and her former duties (I think?) as head of personnel. Of course, we've learned that the latter is a thankless position, and Joan's ascendance may just be part of Cutler's plot to divide and conquer the firm, but small, temporary victories are still victories. And if there's anything we've learned through six seasons of Mad Men, it's that the moments of satisfaction are fleeting, so better savor them while we can.

Miscellaneous observations:

-Oh, Peggy. Her shenanigans with Shirley's roses (poor Shirley!) were painful to see. Also, was she drunk or high in the later part of the episode? Sure seemed like it.

-"Hello, Dawn." "Hello, Shirley." That exchange speaks for itself - and if you didn't get it, shame on you. Just kidding; but as someone who occasionally gets called by the name of another person in my office who doesn't resemble me in any way except ethnicity, I can relate.

-Pete's blonde realtor girl is an interesting study. I actually think she might be good for Pete, if he stops lusting for a minute and starts listening to what she has to say. And if *she* doesn't eat him alive and spit *him* out.

-Also love the odd couple pairing of irate Pete and sad, resigned straight man Ted. That "stay out of it" sign was a hoot, if also utterly futile. Pete wouldn't know when to stay out of it if a giant tar pit were right in front of him.

-Oh, Bert. Always the practical man, both in siding with Cutler over Roger on Chevy, and even - I'd argue - in ordering (er, "requesting") Joan to remove Dawn from reception. Racist? Yes, but a practical one. One senses that Bert doesn't care for himself whether the reception girl is black; he only cares because it might be bad for business. That is Bert Cooper to a T.

-Lou (aka Don's replacement) is an asshole. Was Joan's initial assignment of ditzy Meredith as Dawn's replacement her way of punishing him? Too bad that assignment didn't stick. Though at least Lou seemed to be getting along ok with Shirley at the end, and didn't appear to have tried to get Dawn fired for telling him off. So asshole (and probably sexist), yes; racist, no.

-Bob Benson, you are missed. Though not by Pete. Please come back! (Unfortunately, I think the actor who plays him is has a full time role on another show this season.)

-Line of the week: Roger at partners' meeting - "Pete caught him, let Pete mount him." Followed by Roger throwing his hands up in the air at his inability to avoid double entendres.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Mad Men Season 7 premiere

If there's anything I've learned to expect about "Mad Men," it's not to expect too much of the season premiere. The show never begins with a bang; invariably, it starts off in a muted register and at a slow, contemplative pace, then gradually ramps up over the course of the season, often hitting its high point in the last few episodes. It's a show that rewards patience as it asks the viewer to settle into the rhythms of the characters' arcs.

That's what I've been telling myself for the last seven years, and I haven't stopped believing it. But dare I admit that in my heart of hearts I'm feeling a little wearied of said arcs, and a little glad that "Mad Men" is drawing to an end? (Even if that end is being nonsensically dragged out into two separate "halves" of an already-short season over two years, for apparently no better reason than that "Breaking Bad" did it?) Because after spending the better part of a decade - both in the show's time and our own - with these characters, I feel I've witnessed enough of their making themselves miserable. For better or for worse, that's been the key note of the series - the malaise of the '60s, as reflected in the malaise of a group of (for the most part) privileged individuals who are (for the most part) only dimly aware of the tension and fragility underlying their existence. And it continues with the Season 7(a) premiere, which despite splitting its time fairly evenly between sunny Los Angeles and wintry NYC, feels mostly mired in that peculiarly "Mad Men"-ish brand of quiet desperation.

Don is still on leave, though working after a fashion by using Freddie Rumsen, of all people, as his mouthpiece, and still going through the motions with Megan even though the distance between them (both literal and figurative) has grown enormous. Peggy, still recovering from her shabby treatment by Ted Chaough, finds herself forced to serve as underling to an unsympathetic new creative director and as equally reluctant landlady to fractious tenants. Roger's regularly drugged out and engaging in orgies but doesn't seem to be enjoying it much. Even Ken Cosgrove, Accounts, is no longer sweetly upbeat Ken of yore but a bitter, choleric manager, still blind in one eye and suffering from something like PTSD from his unfortunate relationship with Chevy. Pretty much a downer all around. But curiously not in a way that I found very affecting; at least not yet.

For me, there were three lone bright spots in this characteristically glum episode:

1. That first, dreamlike, slo-mo shot of Megan emerging from her car at LAX, looking like a movie star in that gorgeous pale blue number.

2. California Pete Campbell in full douchey glory: sunglasses astride his receding hairline, plaid pants that hurt the eyes, sweater tied around his neck and a look of smug self-satisfaction - which is about as close as Pete generally gets to looking happy.

3. Joan schooling that little marketing guy at Butler Footwear (who looked about 15) and doing it beautifully. It is always a pleasure to watch Joan being competent - that is to say, being Joan.

It's telling that of those three moments, at least two of them were fleeting and ultimately false. Megan's not a movie star and most likely never will be; she and Don spend less of the weekend shagging than awkwardly failing to connect; and Pete probably (no, definitely) isn't as happy as he wants Don to think he is. Both Megan and Pete, in their different ways, were selling an image to Don - the image of an idyllic life that could be his in L.A., except Don knows perfectly well it's an illusion. No reason we should fall for it, either: after all, there's a long, fine tradition of noir that links that theme to Los Angeles, from Raymond Chandler to "Sunset Boulevard" to "L.A. Confidential," "Mulholland Drive" and beyond. Whether Don's able to find something resembling true peace behind all the facades and imitations remains to be seen. He does, after all, have a longstanding emotional connection to California via poor, saintly, dead Anna. But via SC&P West, or his increasingly tenuous bond to Megan? I wouldn't bet on it.

Random notes:

-Was the deli where Pete met Don supposed to be Canter's? Didn't look quite right, but then I can't remember the last time I was at Canter's during the day.

-At one point in their awkward weekend together, Megan asks Don "How much time do we have?" Seems like a question for their entire relationship. Answer: not long.

-That blond L.A. realtor lady Pete dangled in front of Don and then childishly snatched back ("no, you CAN'T have her!") bore an uncanny resemblance to Don's ex-wife Betty. Coincidence? Doubtful.

-The woman sitting next to Don on the plane bore an uncanny resemblance to one-time '90s It Girl Neve Campbell. Oh wait, it WAS Neve Campbell. Where you been, Neve?

-Disneyland seems like a peculiar place to scatter ashes, but if ya gonna do it, Tom Sawyer's Island is the place. Though personally I'd have chosen It's a Small World.

-More seriously, I can't help feeling the Disneyland reference was shoehorned in to remind us of Don's own connection to the place where his own marriage (to Megan) began. How full of hope he was back then; he really thought he could make it work this time. He knows better now.

-Line of the week: Tenant kid to Peggy - "Why are you working on a SATURDAY?" Why, indeed, kid.