Monday, September 20, 2010

"Mad Men" recap: Girls, Girls, Girls

Spoilers from this week's "Mad Men" below. Don't click through if you don't want to know.

This week's episode of "Mad Men" was titled "The Beautiful Girls" and, indeed, the hour focused quite a bit on the women -- beautiful and otherwise -- who work at or are tied to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Some faced turning points in new relationships (Faye, Peggy), some found themselves at an emotional crossroads (Joan) and at least one entered into the great beyond.
Ah, Ida Blankenship. Despite your buffoonery and occasional racist comments, you deserved better than dying at your desk and being unceremoniously carted out the door. Your Ray Charles glasses, inability to manage the intercom system and keen ability for crossword puzzles will be missed. May you reign in heaven, oh Queen of Perversions.
Anyway, as I was saying, this week's episode was very much about the women of "Mad Men." Indeed, in spite of the show's title, the women are such an important part of the show. Don's moods, in particular, are often affected by the temperature of his relationships with the ladies in his life. His downward spiral this season is mainly the result of Betty leaving. His depression only worsens with Anna's illness and eventual death. And his recent attempts to pull himself out of that tailspin come after Don realizes that his erstwhile gal Friday Peggy is as good, and as loyal, a friend as Anna.
In this episode, we see him feeling his way in two of the other key relationships in his life -- with new love interest Dr. Faye Miller and with daughter Sally.
When the episode opens, we see that Don has finally gone beyond the make-out stage with Faye, though she's still putting up barriers with Don, keeping her work duties secret and expressing surprise when Don trusts her alone in the apartment. Clearly, she likes Don but has a hard time letting go of her rules and boundaries. Understandable, particularly since Don's relationships aren't typically that successful (and since I assume that he still hasn't let poor Bethany off the hook completely).
 But, if Faye feels weird about sharing info on her other clients or showering in Don's absence, she's completely freaked out when Don asks to her watch -- then counsel -- little Sally after she briefly runs away from home. Faye, so natural with adults, is completely awkward with Sally. Turns out, she's not so great with kids. And she's pissed at Don for making her reveal that side of herself so soon. "I feel like this was a test, and I failed," she said. Don tells her it's not true, and I believe him. I don't think it was a test. I think Don, as dependent as he is on women, has a terrible time reading them. Also, he's sort of the perfect example of the metaphor Joyce uses later in the episode, about how men are merely ingredients, and they depend on women to be the cooking mechanism that turns them into food. Despite the example of his broken marriage, Don still doesn't realize that women also need nurturing and support to flourish. It simply doesn't occur to him that he's asking too much of Faye.
Don redeems himself (somewhat) at the end, telling Faye that he doesn't care about her relationships with children. Still, there's no misreading his abrupt "no" when Sally asks if he's going to marry Faye.
Oh, Sally. You just continue to be quite the little mischief-maker, don't you? As if her slumber party bean hijinks weren't enough, Don's little girl has taken to riding the rails like a common hobo. Yes, she was fleeing her oppressive mom, so we kind of understand. Still, you can't blame Random Judgmental Train Rider for being appalled by seeing Sally make her way into Manhattan alone. Don is mortified when RJTR gives him a dressing down, and is furious with Sally for running away (and with Betty for fostering an environment in which these things happen).
But, despite Don's anger, Sally is just happy to be away from her frigid scold of a mom. And this is the true tragedy of Sally's life: Don, with all his issues and distractions and inability to be present for his kids IS ACTUALLY THE BETTER PARENT! Unlike Betty, he is capable of having a fruitful conversation with his daughter. He knows what kind of activities she enjoys. He has a relationship with her. He's a much better father than Betty is a mother.
But, of course, Don is a TERRIBLE father. He's never around. He's all too eager to bounce the hard parenting responsibilities back onto his wife, whom he knows is incompetent at delivering them. And, while I understand why a man of that era would balk at the idea of being a single father, the harsh way he drags Sally out of the office near the episode's end is pretty horrifying. Let's just hope that Sally has someone like the sweet secretary Megan to help pick her up and brush her off when she falls later in life. Because her mom and dad probably won't be up to that task.
OK, I've spent a lot of time on Faye and Sally, and I have two more women to get to before the bullet points, so I'll try to be fast about it.
While Don was contending with two of the key ladies in his life, two of our other women were going through issues of their own. Peggy attempted to reconnect with Abe the Serious Journalist, the guy she kissed at the loft party Joyce took her to. But Abe is a little too political and principled, even for the fairly socially conscious Peggy. She's initially appalled when Abe informs her that one of her clients, Fillmore Auto Parts, has racist hiring practices, but then she starts rationalizing like crazy. First, she tells Abe that that bit of information isn't true, then she launches into a tirade about how she's been the victim of discrimination as well. While she has a point there, it doesn't totally excuse her for continuing to work for a client that she knows is racist. She's smart enough to know that, and feels somewhat guilty, particularly when Ken, Don and Stan confirm Fillmore's hiring practices. But she doesn't feel guilty enough to take a real stand. After her weak attempt to sell the guys on having Harry Belafonte sing Fillmore's jingle, she ultimately buys Don's logic that her job is to change the way people think about Fillmore, not to change the way Fillmore thinks about the world.
She also tears up Abe's article on Fillmore and scolds him mercilessly for jeopardizing her job. Yes, Abe was a little presumptuous to write the article. But he does have a point -- despite her assertions that she isn't political, Peggy has made a political choice by continuing to do business with Fillmore, and she needs to own that. Is it the wrong choice? Well, that's a tougher question than it seems. Clearly, the moral high road would be for Peggy to leave the firm if they continue to do business with companies like Fillmore. But is that practical? Particularly for a woman without a ton of clout and few other career options? And at a time when a lot of people still wouldn't have disagreed with Fillmore's practices? It's a tough question, and, for Peggy, the answer is to do as her bosses tell her. Still, by episode's end, it's clear that she's still kind of sweet on Abe, and that the idea of doing businesses without compromising principles appeals to her.
Meanwhile, poor Joan is upset because Worthless Greg has been sent up to Vietnam and, in spite of everything, she is worried for his safety. So who should step up and present himself as a friend and confidant? Why, Roger, of course. He splurges on a day of pampering for Joan, and buys her dinner at the fairly rundown place they used to meet at when they were having an affair. It all seems innocent and platonic -- until they get mugged. Roger gallantly places himself in front of Joan, tells her to look down and quickly turns over all his cash and jewelry (he's clearly hoping the mugger will forget about Joan and her cash and jewelry -- he doesn't). When the mugger leaves, Roger comforts the hysterical Joan and she responds by kissing him. Well, we knew that old spark would reignite eventually, right? The next morning, Joan acknowledges their trauma-induced makeout session, but reminds Roger that they're both married. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if this tryst continues -- particularly if something happens to Greg in Vietnam.
Anyway, here are the rest of my thoughts on "The Beautiful Girls":
* I like the way that Joan, Peggy and Faye sort of function as a Greek chorus near the end of the episode. These disparate women are there, together, when Sally greets Betty. I'm guessing part of the reason that Betty doesn't go more ballistic on Don is because of the presence of his various "girls." They're also all together in the elevator in the last scene. It's funny to group them together, because there's little linking them, aside from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and the way they're conflicted about the various men in their lives. Still, that's kind of enough, isn't it?
* The loss of Miss Blankenship dramatically lowers the show's comic relief quotient, but she got one last hilarious scene -- that purely slapstick moment I like to call "Weekend at Miss Blankenship's." I could not stop laughing as Joan, Megan and company attempted to cover up Miss Blankenship's body and wheel her out the door, all under the noses of the unsuspecting Fillmore folks. The dawning realization of Faye and Ken about what's going on outside their meeting was too funny. And I loved white-gloved Megan gingerly picking up Miss Blankenship's desk blotter with all the precision and delicacy of a crime scene investigator. It might have been the funniest scene since the aftermath of Guy's de-footing last season.
* Of course, there was some poignancy to old Miss B's death. Her former boss, Bert Cooper, seems truly broken up by her passing. And, for former paramour Roger, her death brings back memories of his own brush with death at the office. The two have a tough time figuring out how to memorialize her, until Bert comes up with that lovely statement about her having been an astronaut -- someone who came from humble beginnings and achieved a long career as a New York secretary. See, Bert, this kind of flash of genius is why people are willing to ignore how crazy you are.
* Though Don makes some bad choices in how to handle poor Sally, the two do share some touching father-daughter time. I loved Sally's attempt to make her dad French toast, and his discovery that his daughter accidentally topped their breakfast, not with Mrs. Butterworth, but with rum. "Is it bad?" she asks of her special ingredient. "Not really," quips Dad.
* One of the few women we saw little of this episode was Betty, but she's there long enough to remind us why Sally would want to run away. Sigh. Poor Sally. That kid is so going to be living in a commune by the time she's 16.


Lee Steele said...

I noticed at least twice that they had Joyce cross paths with different cast member. It was almost like characters from two different shows were nearly colliding, but of course, it's two different eras that are passing each other.

Lee Steele said...

I'm reminded of another at-work death with similar circumstances.

Bill Scurry said...

I loved that the opening shot was a recreation of the title silhouette, with Don in the chair, back to the camera. Not too many other shows could get away with that visually.

The Blankenship disposal was perhaps the most farcical moment of the series thus far, surpassing even the John Deere fracas. My favorite moment was after Joan suggested that a "man" come and take care of moving her, they found instead Pete, who bristled at the suggestion of lugging a dead body around the office. Credit Vincent Kartheiser with brilliant pantomime and body language, expressing his displeasure at a distance.

And I think that Joan and Roger did more than make out...