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April 12, 2013

Mad Men Blog—Season VI, episodes 1-2

Appreciation

First, a word of thanks to the good folks at CableFAX who’ve made it possible for this blog to return to cablefax.com, as we attempt to shed light on and provoke discussion about “Mad Men.” We plan to be here weekly—with a brief interruption late this month, but we promise to fill in missed episodes quickly.

As you may know, several seasons ago, AMC and Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner decided to forego sending episodes to critics in advance. The result is that these blog entries may appear as late as Monday afternoon, or as early as Monday morning. Sometimes we’re able, indeed compelled, to write directly after watching and re-watching the week’s episode. Other times not.
 
Last, a huge thank-you to you, the readers of this blog, for your loyalty, patience and insight. Your comments and enjoyment make writing these entries even more enjoyable than Don and Megan’s trip to Hawaii. So, let’s be like Don at Roger’s mother’s memorial and start vomiting about this season’s first two episodes.

Put on a Happy Face
    
Many show creators monitor press and social media comments about their work, and sometimes series change according to the desires of fans and critics. It doesn’t appear Matthew Weiner is one of those creators. Much popular opinion about this episode—and many episodes last season—was largely unfavorable. Some felt Sunday’s opening 2-hours were too morbid, too negative. Others complained the evening’s drama moved too slowly and lacked action. Fair enough, but this series largely eschews action. And it’s not about advertising or the 1960s. At its core, it’s a character study, looking closely at how people act in their homes and office. It also points out that deception plays a large role in some people’s lives. For that reason, it’s not a coincidence that Mad Men’s back drop is advertising, which at its grossest, urges people to buy things they don’t necessarily need, so they can be someone they are not.

For us, this sixth season’s first hours were strong and consistent with many of the underlying themes of last season, i.e, that despite their outward appearance of happiness, made possible by material success, Don/Dick, Roger, Peggy, Pete and (lord knows) Betty are relatively unhappy campers.

Amid a business success, they’re often asking, ‘Is this what happiness is supposed to feel like?’ or ‘What’s next?’ Recall that Megan sensed this and left Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. At its grossest level Mad Men is demonstrating the axiom that money doesn’t always buy happiness.

Now that it’s late 1967-early 1968, the material worlds of Don, Roger and Betty can be juxtaposed with the hippy philosophy, espoused by Sally Draper’s friend Sandy, who glorifies the bohemian life of the crew surviving hand-to-mouth at St. Mark’s Place. “They’re just living…and it’s beautiful,” she tells Betty.

After Betty goes looking for the wayward Sandy at St. Mark’s it’s clear Mrs. Francis is of a different age and philosophical school than the inhabitants of that most humble abode. Are those hippies happy there, living off scraps they can pick up when the establishment tosses them off? Clearly Betty doesn’t think so. Is Weiner saying only a naïve 15-year-old like Sandy would admire the inhabitants of St. Mark’s, a motley crew that is “just living…and it’s beautiful”? Just surviving might be more fitting.

Still, Don, in pitching the Sheraton ad, seems to be espousing dropping all your possession and your identity (as we know he’s done) and walking into the water on a Hawaiian beach. OK, sure, but you can only get to do that when you’ve got the dough to go to Hawaii in the first place.

On the other hand, Don and Meghan’s trip to paradise in Hawaii isn’t all that satisfying to Don is it? Megan is stressed about leaving behind her TV soap career and Don is up at 4am, unable to sleep, drinking and smoking at a bar, leaving his gorgeous, young bride alone in bed. Moreover Don is unable to gush to his co-workers about his trip to paradise, which he should have, since it was a business trip and his colleagues needed input to create a campaign for Sheraton. What a strange way to act about something that supposedly made Don happy, right? It was, as Don tells the Sheraton people, “an experience.” And from that experience, he comes up with a campaign about a man dropping his identity and walking into sea, which prompts the Sheraton people (and Stan, the now bearded artist) to think of suicide. Don doesn’t see it that way. 

Death and Dying

As Henry Francis’s acerbic mother Pauline said during the somewhat hectic car ride back from The Nutcracker, “this can’t get any darker.” Maybe, but this was a dark episode, replete with, as we said above, death and references to death and mortality. Death is a subject that many handle by not mentioning it, as Roger tells Don after the Sheraton presentation, “We sold real death for 25 years [he’s referring to Lucky Strike cigarettes]…and we did it by ignoring it.”

Clearly Don is looking into the abyss. He did so last season, literally looking down an empty elevator shaft in the office, not coincidentally when Megan packed her belongings and left SCDP. In the current episodes, Don is reminded of death by PFC Dinkins, who is dodging bullets in Vietnam. In addition, thinking about things military likely has Don remembering how he become Don in Korea. His cigarette lighter sparked flammable material, causing an explosion and the death of the real Don Draper. As we know, Dick Whitman took the departed Draper’s identity soon after.

Among the other references to and instances of death during these 2 hours: Sandy mentioning in Betty’s car that her mother has died (and then she and Sally Draper giggling, a strange reaction, no doubt); Don’s talking with his neighbor, Dr. Rosen, about holding life in his hands; of course, the episode begins with Rosen resuscitating an unknown patient, who turns out to be Jonesy, the building’s doorman; Don and Megan witnessing Jonesy’s heart attack/stroke (notice how Don, who’s always cool in stressful situations, is not here, he freezes, and Rosen has to tell him twice to get your jacket off); little Bobby Draper referring to Sandy’s violin case as a “coffin;” the proposed Sheraton ad for Hawaii; Don reading Dante’s “Inferno” in Hawaii; the Vietcong slaughter by GIs, who then wear the dead men’s ears as a necklace; the death of Roger’s mother; the death of Vito, Roger’s shoeshine man, which finally gets Roger to “feel something;” Roger shouting, “This is my funeral!” Finally, how many times did we see a horizontal Don in this episode? Sure, he was sleeping, but at least one camera angle made him appear to be dead.

It seems Weiner is telling us, somewhat subtly, that Roger and Don are thinking about their own end. And talk about art imitating life, the cast, crew and viewers of Mad Men are doing the same: the series’ final season already has been announced. OK, perhaps I’m being too dramatic here.

Still, if you think of these two hours as marking the end of Don and Roger, the end of an era and the beginning of a time when people starting to think seriously about what the American dream was all about, then you probably appreciated these episodes. Remember, 1968 was a pretty rough time in this country. My guess is Weiner is preparing us for a relatively serious season.

Random Thoughts
  • In contrast to last season’s opener, when the new SDCP offices were unveiled to us for the first time in a blast of upbeat music and bright light (one of Weiner’s trademarks; the SDCP office always is bright, the homes of the people who work there generally are dark), there was little positive about this episode, laden with near-death, death, thoughts of death and death-themed books and remarks: Don is reading Dante’s “Inferno,” a gift from Mrs. Sylvia Rosen, on the beach at Hawaii; and Little Bobby Draper remarks about Sandy’s violin case, “It reminds me of a coffin.” What’s more remarkable is that he’s not disciplined for this or for saying Betty “looks ugly” in her new dark hair color, which might have been sparked by one of the hippies commenting on her “from the bottle” blonde hair. But back to our original point about death, in keeping with this morbid theme, we learn via the background scenery that Lane-the-Brit, last season’s suicide (yet another reminder of death), remains alive on the nameplate—the firm’s name still is Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

  • And speaking of real estate, Dr. Rosen’s visit to SDCP reveals time has indeed passed, and that empty floor space from last season now is occupied with the desks, chairs, typewriters and employees of SCDP. And in spite of all that additional room, Burt Cooper still lacks an office. Look closely, you’ll see him, sans shoes, reading a newspaper on a couch outside reception (it’s in the scene when Ken Cosgrove dresses down the eager-to-rise Bob, from Accounts.

  • Loved the bit when Peggy and Burt Peterson (who used to work at SCDP) want to find out what the unnamed comedian on “Carson” the other night said about GI’s wearing the ears of dead Vietcong as necklaces and they have to bring in someone from their staff who had seen the show. We haven’t been able to get a copy or a transcript, Peterson tells Peggy. This is Weiner reminding us, especially those under 30, that DVRs and the Internet didn’t always exist. How many of you remember spending hours finding a copy of this or that for your bosses back in the day? Well played, Mr. Weiner; well played. (Also notice how Peggy is appalled by the tasteless jokes, while Peterson likes them, although he fears that his client, Koss headphones, will have to pull its campaign whose lead is ‘Lend Me Your Ears.’

  • And speaking of technology-related moments, notice that Megan was sensitive about taking a vacation to Hawaii for fear that her character wouldn’t get demoted on the soap opera she’s in. Again, a beautiful reference to soaps in those days, and pretty much everything else, being shown live. Ah, remember when the majority of television was live?

  • What the heck is going on in the Francis household? Sally (whom we can no longer call Little Sally) closes the door on her mother and there’s no reprisal? Little Bobby, who’s inherited from his sister the crown of the lone voice of truth on the series, declares that he hates his mother’s new hair color and that it makes her look “ugly.” Again, no adult seems to notice or care. Another mildly weird instance was 15-year-old Sandy smoking in front of Betty. No reprisal. While Betty was hardly a good parent, she never was an indifferent one either. And for that matter, what the heck is going on with Betty? Her monologue about offering to hold Sandy down while Henry rapes her? Has she come off her medication?

  • And speaking of things mental, this episode also shows how things have changed since the story began, nearly 8 years ago (the story itself began in 1960 and now we’re in 1968). Roger, who downplayed psychiatry as a fad in an earlier season, now finds himself visiting one.

  • Another example of change: Don, who swore he hadn’t hired a Jew in season I, when the presence of a Jew was thought to be a good touch to have in a meeting with Rachel Menkin, of Menkin’s Department Store, now socializes with one, Dr. Rosen. Still, Roger is ticked when Bob, the sycophant from Accounts, sends a deli platter to Roger’s mother’s memorial. Roger’s reaction just seemed too much. Was he mad that someone had sent immigrant (read Jewish) food to the memorial? (I admit I might be reaching a bit here.)

  • Another change, besides the clothes and hairstyles (more below), was Don introducing Dawn to Dr. Rosen as “Miss Chambers.” Hard to think Don, earlier in the series, introducing any of his secretaries, besides Miss Blankenship, so politely. Is this evidence of women’s higher standing? Yes, but note that the photographer in the episode speaks to Joan in a sexist way, in one example telling her, “Look this way, Gorgeous.”

  • PFC Dinkins asks Don if he’s an astronaut. Well, with his dapper clothes and short hair he looks the part, especially when you consider there’s not a neat haircut, clean shirt or necktie among Don’s staff. More than that, we see and hear complaints about his creative staff smoking pot in the office and there’s a guy sacked out on a couch in the lobby during one of the scenes and nobody seems to mind. This is the so-called Generation Gap rearing its head, folks. Another example of it was Sandy’s rejection of Betty’s attempt at consoling and counseling her about the future.

  • Another aspect of these episodes was nastiness, especially to people on lower rungs. Examples: Peggy being extremely nasty to her subordinates at work (just as Don had been to her—Peggy clearly has become the female Don); Ken Cosgrove berating Bob for sending the deli to the memorial when he sees him waiting in reception; and Don, although he asks Dawn to return PFC Dinkins’s lighter, he declines to send a note. “I just found it on a barstool,” he says. Of course, he had thrown it out earlier, and his maid found it in the trash, Megan tells us.

  • A hallmark of Mad Men is that people are not whom they appear to be. After all, Don Draper isn’t really Don Draper. An example is Betty changing her hair color. Sandy noting “how quickly people lie around here,” despite lying herself, about being accepted to Julliard’s high school division. Roger’s daughter Margaret Hargrove, pretending to care about her father, when really she sees him as a source of income.

  • Were you able to read the inscription on PFD Dinkins’s lighter? Friends of ours who watched the episodes, legally, online were. Many cable viewers were unable to see “In life, we often have to do things that are just not our bag.” Let us know how you fared.

  • Water and no water: Weiner gorgeously juxtaposes two ways of life when he cuts from the scene in St. Mark’s Place to a scene in Roger’s mother’s palatial apartments. At St. Mark’s, a young hippy tells Betty he’s from “all over.” He also tells her there’s no running water in the building and they have to grab snow from the roof to cook goulash. Then cut to the scene with Roger telling his daughter, Margaret, that her grandfather was “all over,” including the Middle East, and gives her a jar of water from “the River Jordan.” Clearly, the hippy’s “all over” and Granddad Sterling’s “all over” were two different kinds of experiences.

  • And, oh, Roger. He asks for Joan to make the arrangements for his mother’s memorial instead of calling his aunt to do it. “She’s a fruitcake,” he says of his aunt. But just when you’re feeling sorry for Roger he propositions his former first wife, Mona, just after the memorial. A female friend of mine told me, ‘Men Never Change.’ Certainly that’s it with Roger and, of course, Don, who is not receiving Megan’s undivided attention, decides it’s time to sleep with Dr. Rosen’s wife, Sylvia. This might be related to the fact that Don’s prostitute mother died giving birth to him, thus his need for constant attention from Megan. Certainly even thinking about his mother—when Ken asks him if his mother is still alive at Roger’s mother’s memorial—is enough to make an inebriated Don vomit.







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