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.


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