Monday, September 13, 2010
"Mad Men" recap: Can't get no satisfication
This week's episode of "Mad Men" saw several characters wrestling for some sense of control over their lives. Chief among these was Don, who, after seemingly bottoming out in the last two episodes, decides he has to do something to change his life. So, he pares back on the alcohol, starts swimming and begins keeping a journal. The journal provides the rest of the episode with a sort of voice-over narration -- a common device on other series, but little used on "Mad Men." Don is, admirably, trying to understand his grief and his self-destructive tendencies. He talks about wanting to get a "modicum of control" over how he feels (and, um, about wanting to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. OK.). He seems committed to starting a new page in his life.
But can he? We see him stare lustfully at the liquor being poured in the Mountain Dew meeting. We see that the swimming, though it does help him work out a lot of his frustrations, is more difficult for him than it should be. I like how the opening scene of Don swimming in the pool doesn't end with him emerging slowly from the pool like a golden matinee idol. Instead, he gasps and coughs like any other man attempting exercise after years of abusing his body with cigarettes, alcohol and secrets.
We also see him trying to start relationships with the two women who keep floating into his orbit this season -- Bethany and Dr. Faye. He likes them both, but obviously feels more of a kinship with Faye, who also has a complicated past, and who hides pain under a facade of glamor and competence. True to the episode's theme of control, we see Faye profoundly lose control in the phone booth at Don's offices, while talking to what I assume is a boyfriend on his way out the door. But, she's soon composed again, and does manage to be a charming dinner companion for Don. Yet, does Don really need someone as guarded as he is? Or would he be better off with someone open like Bethany? Clearly, there's more potential that he could hurt Bethany. But I do think it would be easier for him to be with someone who's honest about her emotions -- even when her honesty makes him uncomfortable. Yet who knows?
As Don is trying to gain control over his life, both Joan and Betty are fighting for control as well. Betty feels profoundly out of control when she sees Don with Bethany at the restaurant. Yes, Betty willingly left Don for another man. She's married to that other man now. Yet it makes her furious to see Don on a date. Why? Because she's a complete pain in the ass. Well, no. That's oversimplifying it.
I think her anger stems from the fact that Betty is still so hurt about what happened in her relationship with Don that she begrudges him any happiness. That's why she gets blotto at Henry's business meeting when she sees the happy scene between Don and Bethany, and why she tries to keep Don from Gene's birthday party. That's why she tells Francine that Don's "sad bastard" vibe is just an act. She hates him so much that he can never suffer enough for her taste. Thankfully, Henry and Francine both convince her that staying mad at Don won't hurt him -- it will only serve to unravel the new life she's trying to make for herself. That realization allows her to greet Don's appearance at Gene's birthday not with a typical Betty tantrum, but with the grandly magnanimous gesture of allowing Don to play with his son.
And then, there's Joan. Poor Joan, who values her own power and control in the office so dearly. That's probably because her personal life is so out of control. Not only is she married to a fairly worthless man who, despite the show's continued attempts to make him seem sympathetic, still comes of as a worthless shell of a man not even remotely deserving of Joan. But that man is about to go off to basic training, then to Vietnam, making it impossible for the Queen of Control to plan her future.
For a long time, it seemed like the office was the only place where Joan was still able to call the shots. But she's being undermined there as well -- by Joey, of all people. Yes, Peggy's seemingly sweet (if goofy) partner is giving Joan untold headaches and generally being a real jerk. He insults her, both publicly and in private (the comment about walking around "like you're trying to get raped" was particularly awful, though there's no way he could know about what Greg did to her). He defies her at every turn and, finally, degrades her with that ridiculous cartoon of her and Lane getting it on. Joan tries to chastise and scold him into obeying, but he keeps resisting. And then Peggy -- Peggy! Who used to WORK for Joan, for God's sake! -- intervenes, firing Joey. Instead of being grateful, Joan is furious. Why? Because Joan handles her own problems. It's bad enough that she was being disrespected at work, but Joan clearly feels that it was her job to settle the situation. She certainly didn't want Peggy to intervene. Now, Joan (in her view at last) looks helpless. She's been cut off at the knees. So, she lashes out at Peggy. Does Peggy deserve it? I don't think so.
Yes, Peggy does seem a little smug in the elevator -- proud of herself for exercising the power of her position. But I don't think for a second that Peggy was trying to prove anything. Joe simply wasn't being respectful. And not only was he being disrespectful to Joan, he was being disrespectful to Peggy, who is his superior, and who told him to leave Joan alone. Joan might be right about Peggy's actions only serving to lower the two of them in the esteem of the men in the office (as evidenced by Stan's "power of the poontang" comment), but that doesn't mean it was the wrong decision.
Anyway, here are some more of my thoughts on "The Summer Man":
* Overall, this episode was just OK -- not nearly as good as last week's excellent "The Suitcase." But it did have some great stylistic flourishes, not the least of which was that prolonged sequence of Don going about his day, accompanied by both the voiceover and the strains of The Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." Yes, it's an overused song, but it was used well here, particularly since the verse used is the one that talks about advertising: "When I'm watchin' my TV/and that man comes on to tell me/ how white my shirts can be/but he can't be a man/'cause he doesn't smoke/the same cigarettes as me." Kind of a fitting theme for Mr. Draper, no?
* In a season with so much sadness, Miss Blankenship can always be counted on for a laugh. This episode, the former hellcat even gets a prop -- a set of dark glasses that she's using as she recovers from cataract surgery. Not that she needs a prop to be hilarious, as evidenced by the moment when she and Don discuss Gene's upcoming birthday, and Ida asks if she can buy "him or her" a gift. Heh.
* Wow. Joey's a real jerk, huh? I kind of didn't see that coming. I thought he was a new breed of guy, as evidenced by the moment in the Christmas episode when he calls Don "pathetic." I thought that meant he believed drinking, philandering guys like Don to be on their way out. Nope. He's just a judgmental ass. His rape comment to Joan ranks right up there with Don's "you people" jab at Sal in the hierarchy of "Mad Men" douchebaggery. And he totally misinterprets Harry's friendly man crush as an advance (no, I don't think Harry's gay. I think he just saw Joey as one of the "cool kids" in the office and was trying to ingratiate himself). Clearly, Joey has some mommy issues, but that's no excuse to be such an a-hole.
* Going out on a limb, here, but I'm guessing firing Joey won't win Peggy any points with Stan. Oh well. I don't think she's too concerned about that.
* Like how Peggy quickly went from being unsure about firing Joey to diving into the job. When Joey threatens to undercut Peggy's decision by telling Don, she fires back "Don doesn't even know who you are." Not true, but, at any rate, ZING!
* The question of whether Don will show up at Gene's birthday party is sort of the elephant in the room. So, how fitting is it that, when Don does turn up at the party, his gift to Gene is a stuffed elephant! A little on the nose, but pretty funny.