Monday, August 9, 2010
"Mad Men" recap: Rediscovering Godzilla
Spoilers for this week's episode of "Mad Men" below. Don't click through if you don't want know.
Last week's episode brought us a particularly unflattering version of one Donald Draper. Laid low by the prospect of spending Christmas without his family, he crawls into a bottle, drunkenly beds his secretary, then cruelly acts as if nothing has happened (shortly before giving her an envelope stuffed with cash). It's no wonder that Peggy's new writing partner dubs Don "pathetic."
But this week, we saw a far more sympathetic Don, courtesy of the one person he can be himself around -- Anna Draper. Don's trip to Acapulco includes a side trip to L.A., where he can drop the mantle of Don Draper and return to being Dick Whitman, if only for a day. The second he walks through Anna's door, he seems more relaxed. He doesn't have to be brave with Anna; doesn't have to lie. He can speak about how the secret of Dick Whitman destroyed his marriage, and she can offer him true counsel and sympathy -- not the platitudes that his New York friends are forced to dole out in lieu of more meaningful responses.
Anna is Don/Dick's best friend -- which makes it all the more tragic when he learns that she's dying from a cancer she's might not be aware that she has. His impulse upon learning of Anna's sickness is to tell her, and to do all he can to help save her. But Anna's sister admonishes him not to say a word. It's too late to do anything meaningful, after all. All Don/Dick would be doing is ruining the life she has left. In a way, it would be a little like his attempted paint job on Anna's stained wall: despite his best efforts, the stain is still there and -- as Anna observes -- the new paint looks just as bad as the stain.
Sending Anna to the best doctors probably won't make her cancer go away at this point (especially not if, as Stephanie says, the cancer is "everywhere"). It, like the stain, will remain. Don will still lose Anna. He won't make that truth go away -- all he'll be doing is covering it up with a lot of tests and treatments. So Don keeps the secret. I guess it's debatable whether he behaves nobly or cowardly. I, personally, think he does the right thing in not telling her. But I wish he was brave enough to stay with her -- to keep the secret while looking her in the eye. She deserves his company at the end. But, hey, it's more noble than what he did to that poor secretary last week.
Meanwhile, as Don wrestles with the truth about Anna, two other main characters are facing crises in their key relationships. Lane seems to be delaying his trip to see his family in London. We eventually learn why -- his marriage is crumbling, and the mislabeled flowers sent by the inept secretary put the final nail in that relationship's coffin. It's not a surprise. Lane's wife has never seemed to approve of America, while he seems to genuinely love it here (hence his glorious night of debauchery with Don, which I'll discuss in fuller detail in the bullet points).
But Lane's frustration is causing him to lash out at others, including -- Gasp! -- my beloved Joan. He denies her those extra two days of vacation so she can spend time with her husband, and then tells her that, unlike everyone else at the office, he is immune to her charms. Joan is befuddled. Plus, she has her own problems. She wants (unwisely, in my view) to start a family with Worthless Greg. Yet, given that she never knows when, or even if, he'll be sent to Vietnam, she's hesitant. Greg, as usually, is completely incapable of smoothing over the situation and only makes it worse -- until Joan cuts her finger.
On a show with so many morally ambiguous characters, Greg was the only one I would have felt comfortable labeling a true villain. He did, after all, rape Joan and seems completely incapable of appreciating her and treating her with respect. But last night's episode finally showed a different side to this seemingly loathsome man. In addition to his other failings, it seemed obvious that Greg was a lousy doctor. That's probably why Joan is reluctant to let him stitch up her cut finger. Yet, as it turns out, Greg isn't totally incompetent at his job. He casually distracts Joan as he delivers the anesthetic, then continues the distraction with his inappropriate (but effective) joke about the hillbillies. He stitches her up with little fanfare and almost total professionalism. In that moment, we see that Joan might be staying with Greg for reasons other than fear or shame. He's still not a good man, but he's not completely without moments of kindness or decency.
Anyway, here are some more of my thoughts on "The Good News."
* For the second week in a row, we see a woman who's completely blind to Don's charms. Last week it was the market research woman and this week, it's Anna's sister, who seems to completely disapprove of this Dick Whitman character. I wonder how much she knows about Dick. Does she know he stole Don's identity? I imagine so. How else would Anna explain him giving her money? At any rate, she doesn't like him and is completely flummoxed at the idea of him sleeping at her sister's house, however platonically.
* As tragic as the news of Anna's cancer is, it does prevent Don from making another horrible mistake with a woman. Just before Stephanie drops the bomb about Anna's health, Don seems all set to seduce the charming young college student. Who knows what effect that would have had on his friendship with Anna? Yes, Anna is almost superhumanly forgiving, but I still think she would have been mightily ticked at him seducing her beloved niece. At any rate, that pitfall is avoided, which might be the only bright side to Anna's illness.
* The episode gets its title from young Stephanie's roommate, who has found religion. When she tells the story of being awoken by the creepily smiling girl informing her of "the good news," Anna says there are worse things she could have to put up with. Don disagrees.
* So do you think Anna knows about the cancer? I'm not sure. As someone who lived through polio, she'd be use to recognizing signs of a dangerous illness. Yet she doesn't seem to let on that she knows anything. Perhaps her perky, seemingly oblivious demeanor is just a front that she uses to cope with the truth. Anna is, after all, a survivor. This is a woman who took the problem of her husband's death, coupled with the theft of his identity by another man, and turned it to her advantage. She's a resourceful woman for sure. Still, I don't know if she's aware of the truth or not. Thoughts?
* Yes, Anna's illness is sad, but the saddest moment in the episode comes when Joan gets Lane's flowers. Thinking they're from Greg, a well-meaning Peggy gushes "It's encouraging to see someone happily married around here." Oh, Peggy. If you only knew.
*OK, moving on to the less depressing part of the episode -- how much fun was the show's final act, in which Don blows off Acapulco, returns to New York and spends the night on the town with Lane? Jared Harris is nothing less than delightful in these scenes, from his drunken joy at seeing Godzilla to his business with the steak belt buckle, to his ecstatic heckling of the obnoxious comedian who teases that he and Don are a couple ("We're not homosexuals! We're divorced!"). His excitement at casting aside his prim exterior is so contagious that Don doesn't even seem annoyed with him, as he might have been with Roger. Indeed, he prolongs their evening, hiring Lane a "date" and even making him some coffee the next morning. Even before he learns that Lane's marriage is crumbling, he's started to develop affection for this lost guy, and so do we.
Lane is a character who seldom gets center stage but, thanks to Harris and the show's writers, he's become one of "Mad Men's" most interesting characters.