Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Mad Men: Don't panic, all tragedies have been averted...

Joan Harris is the only one who did not seem to have a panic attack as characters are confronted with threats to their reimagined existence.
"We averted a tragedy. Life goes on."
And so Joan seemingly sums up the appearance of things in an episode that indicates the imminent collapse of the house of cards built on lies that is Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. With life closing in, Don Draper was feeling appropriate in this scene:

And we watched as life and his father continue to give Lane Pryce a beating and in response he leaves to put his home life in order telling the partners the finances of the company are fine and Joan can deal with anything that he thinks could come up. (Will this man come back?)

What could come up? Yes, Roger knows the company's core account is lost and has 30 days before he has to tell everyone - so he didn't tell them. Yes, Pete's dumping a huge account because Don isn't really Don and the FBI might not like that. What could go wrong in the final three episodes of the season?

Is Don still Dick as he's eying Megan freshening her lipstick in the final scene? Or is he just realizing how these women seem to be his undoing. Particularly as he opens up to Faye creating the possibility of a real relationship, what's going on with the Megan stare?

Many are wondering if Joan had the abortion. Roger isn't, but she never says she did, offering only that phrase: "A tragedy has been averted."

As Roger takes out his nitro pill, one can't help but wonder about his future. Particularly when he tries to network on the phone looking for a replacement account, or two, only to discover his old network is dying, literally.

Why did Pete seem to capitulate so easily? Given the time frame, I'm pretty sure he hasn't dumped that account yet. And while I know the FBI might discover the truth about Don, the 1965 FBI is so focused on the Communist thing instead of simply doing the job, I'm not sure that what will happen. The discrepancy in birth dates should have been discovered before any interviews.

Nonetheless, Don/Dick has reason to panic. He's looking at up to five years imprisonment any lying to the government. Betty probably didn't know the law would apply to her as she supports Don's lie. But then again, the lie has trapped her, also.

“Do You Want to Know a Secret?” the Beatles song at the end asks, though they used an elevator music version - couldn't afford the license for the original on an AMC budget? This is the episode that left so many questions to be answered.

But apparently Sally and Don have connected via the Beatles. That's nice, though their big 1965 hit was Help.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Mad Men: Can there be soup without a pot?

Before plunging forward, I need to thank my partner in life for offering much that makes up this and other "Mad Men" posts. Without her reactions to this show and discussion of the stories from her perspective which is based on having experienced the workplace in 1965, I would miss much.

Joyce explains it all to Peggy:
"Men are this vegeteble soup and you can't put em on a plate or eat em on the counter, so women are the pot. They heat em up, they hold em, contain em, who wants to be a pot? Who the hell said we're not soup?"
The as yet undeterred Peggy offers, "I don't think that's true."

In an otherwise excellent cover story on "Mad Men" in the current issue of Rolling Stone,  the writer says:
This season, Weiner has taken a step back from the broader themes, placing less attention on the world around Don Draper....
Well, not exactly. Both growing ferment around Vietnam and, most obviously, The Second Wave of the feminist movement underlie this whole season.

If you didn't get it before, this episode was in your face all about "the changing of the guard" in the feminist movement. (Read my review of episode 2 of this season for a short recap of the feminist movement which actually accomplished much, unlike the Vietnam thing. I also have a footnote at the end of my post on my thoughts expressed in previous posts on the feminist them of this season by episode.)

The sudden death of Ida Blankenship is the symbolic "fireworks, cannons, cymbals crashing, the loud 1812 Overture movement" announcing the handoff to the women of The Second Wave.

A great deal of comedy surrounded Don's problem that she died at her desk while a client was in the office. But if you carefully watched the women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, you knew this event impacted on them at the core.

That the men don't know how to write her obituary is not surprising, but the best description of her achievement was Burt Cooper's: "She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She was an astronaut." What a truly remarkable piece of TV writing.

The second more subtle, but still in your face, feminist element of this episode was Sally's revolt. This particular scene summarized the other end of the feminist story arc as both these women know that their choices will seriously affect the life of all the little girls out there in 1965.
Unlike many of this season's episodes, much "happened" in this one. But we still have the subtle undercurrent. For instance, Sally makes and serves french toast to her dad. What's that about, you ask? Well I'm glad you asked.

You see, it was Carla who taught Sally. Peggy let her clueless new love interest (clueless is the theme for her love interests) know in no uncertain terms that there is a parallel here. Women are servants of men, blacks are servants of whites. This was the social norm.

This structure enables SCDP and the depicted households to operate smoothly. Secretaries - women - took care of their bosses - men - emotionally. Megan-the-office-wife takes care of Don and Sally. Faye struggles because she fails with Sally, making her feel less of a woman. Joan and Roger are so co-dependent emotionally that they can't escape their relationship which thrives on it's illicit nature.  Yet Joan is also trying to take care of Greg and, though he's not worthy, she feels like she's failing somehow. Even Ida took care of Cooper in their time in her way.

Peggy hints that ignoring the black boycott of their client's stores may be hazardous. The undercurrent is that the men of SCDP ignoring the women of SCDP, as a symbol of the times, may be hazardous.

When Megan tells Sally everything will be alright, Sally says clearly: "No it's not."

And we know it's not.

More bluntly was the warning from Joan to Roger saying she's afraid of the change in the neighborhood their walking through. Roger, you've ignored the change and it's hazardous. This scene has further undercurrents. When you watch Roger and Joan curl into themselves out of fear (and a good tactic), you also sense that additional level of reality facing each that Ida's death pushed forward. Roger told Don he fears dying at the office. Joan fears Greg will die in Vietnam.

Naturally, after the trauma they turn to each other for familiar comfort. Was this a one time thing or a new beginning? Only Weiner knows.

Finally, the whole boycott issue deserves some historical context. S. H. Kress & Co. and the F. W. Woolworth Company did see some early 1960's boycotts. When they spread north, the issue became more corporate. Fillmore Auto Parts is taking a big risk. Don should be listening to Peggy and no one should be suggesting using Dean Martin because he was buddies with Sammy Davis Jr.

The general wakeup call for the corporate community will begin soon. In August 1965 the Watts Riots occurred. From Wikipedia:
Eventually, the California National Guard was called to active duty to assist in controlling the rioting. On Friday night [August 13, 1965], a battalion of the 160th Infantry and the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron of the 18th Armored Cavalry were sent into the riot area (about 2,000 men). Two days later, the remainder of the 40th Armored Division was sent into the riot zone. A day after that, units from northern California arrived (a total of around 15,000 troops). These National Guardsmen put a cordon around a vast region of South Central Los Angeles, and the rioting was largely over by Sunday. Due to the seriousness of the riots, martial law had been declared. Sergeant Ben Dunn said "The streets of Watts resembled an all-out war zone in some far-off foreign country, it bore no resemblance to the United States of America". The initial commander of National Guard troops was Colonel Bud Taylor, then a motorcycle patrolman with the Los Angeles Police Department, who in effect became superior to Chief of Police Parker. National Guard units from Northern California were also called in, including Major General Clarence H. Pease, former commanding general of the National Guard's 40th Infantry Division.
This wasn't just in the North, it was in Hollywood. Of course, it would take the much worse 1967 Detroit Riot for corporate America to realize that the race problem was not a quaint former Confederate States problem, but an American problem in general, a problem that still hasn't been fully resolved.

But if the Don Draper's were a little slow off the mark to see that this was bad for business, Peggy and the bra burners do have to realize that there were no women's lib riots resulting in the death of many, the injury of many more, and huge losses of property.

Still, without these women pushing their agenda, we would not have the very different workplaces we have today and the greater opportunities for women in our society, regardless of race. (Yes, I know there remains a glass ceiling.)

But someone still has to ask Joyce the philosophical question: "Can there be soup without a pot?"

Episode 1: "...The episode story arc about the Janzen swimming suit people offering a thematic reference to the 1960's battle over women openly embracing their sexuality...."
Episode 2: "The second wave of the American feminist movement had reached boiling temperature. Helen Gurley Brown's
Sex and the Single Girl sold 2 million copies in 3 weeks in 1962 warming the cauldron around working women. But Betty Friedan's 1963 book The Feminine Mystique ignited the fire."
Episode 3: "...What "Mad Men" is presenting is Joan as a real pioneer in the dilemma facing a career woman in the age of the pill (in 1964, an age that is barely 4, maybe, in New York City with a very sympathetic gynecologist) - how do you have it all? "
Episode 4: "The one thing we know about Peggy is she knows she has the talent and skills for the job and has already chosen to become "a suit" not a hippie nor a traditional wife and mother."
Episode 6: "So here we are at SCDP-creative this season. The mentor genius Don/Dick is losing it. Peggy is stepping up to keep things in order. These are two people who know each other - not yet equals, but almost family in the sense that you know which uncles have a drinking problem."
Episode 7: This is the one episode where Don and Peggy's relationship both personally and professionally grow in ways contrary to and well beyond the general men-women office relationship.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Mad Men: The Amazing Rolling Fables?

When I'm drivin' in my car
and a man comes on the radio
he's tellin' me more and more
about some useless information
supposed to fire my imagination.

When I'm watchin' my TV
and a man comes on to tell me
how white my shirts can be.
Well he can't be a man 'cause he doesn't smoke
the same cigarettes as me.
The above is the first two versus of the opening song in this weeks episode, "Mad Men: The Summer Man." Most recognize the chorus, few know the verses from (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, the June 1965 hit release from The Rolling Stones. That it's about advertising and about dissatisfaction certainly is appropriate to the show.

But it isn't the only material lifted from another source in this episode. We saw Faye relating the Aesop fable The North Wind and the Sun to Don:
The Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveler coming down the road, and the Sun said: “I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveler to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger. You begin.”

So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveler. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveler wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair.

Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveler, who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on.
Don asks what this means and Faye says that “kindness, gentleness, and persuasion win where force fails.”

While this had some relationship to the episode's story arcs, in my mind I juxtapose this to Don's watching with concern the Vietnam war news that American troops were taking a more aggressive strategy and we were escalating our troop presence. After an attack on a U.S. Marine barracks at Pleiku, a bombing campaign began that lasted for three years. Ho Chi Minh warned that if the Americans "want to make war for twenty years then we shall make war for twenty years. If they want to make peace, we shall make peace and invite them to afternoon tea." American policy makers chose to be the North Wind.

Dealing with post-cataract surgery glasses of that period, Miss Blankenship adds a third piece lifted from the song Amazing Grace: "I was blind but now I see." That was, of course, quite relevant in this episode as we hear Don Draper describe his process of gaining control of his life.

The "Recovering Don" story arc which picks up from the ending of the last episode was enjoyable to watch as creative TV - keeping a journal, swimming, and trying to control his drinking. I hope future episodes will continue this character.

But the more compelling "period piece" story arc is that of the women. It's now clear that we have four struggling characters that will continue. Joan and Peggy, of course. Betty. And Faye. Each is trying to cope with identity and role issues.

Betty is still struggling with a "what happened to me?" attitude and maybe she can live comfortably using Francine's suggested mantra: “We have everything.” But so far, it's not convincing.

Joan's confrontation with Joey makes it clear that she is operating out of the same rulebook his mother's generation used. In fact, he called her on it and also gave us a look into the source of his attitude which involved a disrespect of his mother. Joan began a manipulation process to get rid of him. But it didn't seem to me to be going anywhere.

Welcome to the new generation of women, Joey. Meet Peggy, bolstered by Don's "You want some respect? Go out there and get it for yourself." By the way, Joey, your fired.

Joan and Peggy. Joan is struggling with her soon to be military doctor husband, her perceptions of the workplace and women. Peggy is slowly, but surely, marching forward, one soldier in the feminist army that will ultimately find itself dominating the workplace in 2010. Except, of course, for the glass ceiling. Could Peggy ever become a Don?

Faye offered some news about her mafia family background in this episode. One can only wonder where she and Don will end up.As usual, there were many layers in this episode, and some pretty heavy psychological expressions. Whether it was Don in the waters of rebirth or Joan expression of hate attacking the macho pigs telling them death awaited their dumb asses in Vietnam, emotion pours out of this show.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Mad Men: What do a mouse and a cockroach have in common?

What do a mouse and a cockroach have in common? Answer: they both got a part in this episode of "Mad Men."

Together Peggy and Don cope with the vermin infecting their present and their pasts - you know those noxious, objectionable, or disgusting bits of reality that infect our memories, like mice and cockroaches.  In doing so, it appears Don's alcoholic binge may have bottomed out.

The show ends with Simon and Garfunkel singing Bleecker Street, an appropriate New York song with these words:
Voices leaking from a sad cafe
Smiling faces try to understand
I saw a shadow touch a shadow's hand...
During this episode Don and Peggy were
  • at a cafe,
  • were smiling at each other, and
  • their hands touched.
"The Suitcase" may have been the best episode of "Mad Men" yet. It was certainly the best episode in the show to date for Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss as Don and Peggy. If next August they don't get Emmy's for their performances in this one, that means that I have some excellent TV to look forward to.

The second Ali-Liston fight was the date identifier for "The Suitcase." (The Simon and Garfunkel song The Boxer also might have been appropriate at some point in this episode. But the duo released it several years later, unfortunately for Matthew Weiner who takes sole credit for writing this episode.)

The fight also allowed us to see Don picking the wrong player, again. He was sure Nixon would win, and he was so sure Liston would win he lost money on the fight. Predicting the future isn't always his forté. But the famous Neil Leifer photo may lead to a another Clio ad for Don:

The ad is for Samsonite luggage and Don's rejection of the efforts of the creative team led by Peggy was ostensibly the cause of a fight of their own, between Don and Peggy. But separately impacting events of that evening were the true reasons for each to lash out.

For Peggy, her self-described fiancé Mark made the biggest bone-headed move a guy could make. It's her birthday. He's taking her to a fancy restaurant, the Forum of the Twelve Caesars - romantic, right? Peggy sure thinks it is. But not Mark. He decides to make it a surprise event by including her family. You know, the judgmental family from hell for a woman like Peggy who we've already seen. Only Mark doesn't know this, because he doesn't know enough about Peggy to be her fiancé.

Don, of course, doesn't remember it's Peggy's birthday which hurts her and makes her mad. So after she and her team make the presentation, when he insists she stay late to work with him on it she's really furious. She thinks Don is going to the watch the fight at a closed circuit venue, so she tells Mark she'll be a little late thinking he's waiting at the table by himself. An hour later, a humiliated Mark calls her, a fight ensues leading to a breakup.

That breakup was inevitable, but naturally it leaves Peggy extremely upset. And it's only after all of this that she finally tells Don it was her birthday.

Don also is struggling with an inevitable crisis. About five minutes into the episode Miss Blankenship says to Don walking back to his office:
"You got a call while you were in the toilet to the direct line, Stephanie from California no last name, she says it's urgent. Would you like me to place the call?
A visibly shaken Don says: "I've got it." We already learned from Episode 3 of this season that Anna would die soon. From this point in this week's episode, Don/Dick visibly struggles with the inevitable - returning the phone call to learn when Anna died. This message successfully casts a pall over the remainder of the episode, until just before the end.

The series of scenes with Don and Peggy, exchanges of anger and understanding, all lead to Don falling asleep with his head on Peggy's lap, on the office couch, perhaps after drinking his last glass of sadness for awhile, we hope.

Then there was the incredibly effective use of other characters such as:

  • Don attempting to defend Peggy's honor by taking a swing at Duck, and his apparent acceptance of Peggy's involvement with Duck.
  • Peggy's restroom encounter with the pregnant Trudy Campbell who chirps: “Happy birthday! You know, 26 is still very young,” which was followed by a scene of Pete Campbell with a worried look observing the two of them leaving the restroom.
  • Don and Peggy listening to a tape of Roger's ramblings - Roger is writing a tell-all memoir - which includes secrets about Miss Blankenship and Burt Cooper.

Before discussing the ending, the obvious, and not so obvious, phantoms present have to be mentioned. Of course, we have the Ali-Frazer fight which was ended with what many observers called "the phantom punch." We have Anna's ghost looking in on Don. Those are the obvious ones. But we also have Peggy's baby and the dead Don Draper - the original one not Dick Whitman reborn.

Some hope for Don comes to us out of this episode. The model 1950's closed-off man broke down at the news of Anna's death with Peggy in the room. He sob's out Anna is "the only person in the world who really knew" him.

Peggy tells him that isn't true. And we know that she knows him better than anyone other than Anna. When he tentatively touched her hand, it was the hand of a true friend, and he was recognizing her value to him in a way that she needs. So much about this episode was both funny and poignant.

At the end, while leaving, at his office door, Peggy asks: "Open or closed."

"Open," Don replies, and in the final scene we see him sitting in his office from ten or more feet, through that open door, Don Draper looking sober, clean and fresh. And, as the closing music starts on this unusually high-caliber television, we're hopeful:
Fog's rollin' in off the East River bank
Like a shroud it covers Bleeker Street
Fills the alleys where men sleep
Hides the shepherd from the sheep

Voices leaking from a sad cafe
Smiling faces try to understand
I saw a shadow touch a shadow's hand....

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Mad Men: What happened to Saturday, Clio?

It seems almost as if a certain synergy is involved when you know that the main story arc of this Sunday's episode of "Mad Men" is about Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce - well, really Don Draper -  receiving a Clio award.

For on Sunday night, the show won its third consecutive Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series.

(One has to note that if you don't watch much cable - particularly "Mad Men" on AMC, "Breaking Bad" on AMC, along with the usual high quality mini-series and movie offerings on HBO - you can't really know what's going on at the Emmy's. Except for "Modern Family" on ABC.)

This week, Don wins a Clio for the Glo-Coat ad, then loses the statue and the entire day of Saturday. Some bender! The drinking forces him to hire Roger's wife's cousin Danny Siegel, a guy that Roger doesn't even particularly like. Things don't seem to bode well for Don.

But, hey, we learn that it was Roger's drinking that forced him to hire Don. We learn this in a series of flashbacks - flashbacks that had a peculiar style in that there was no fade or any break of any kind indicating we are going back in time. Don's confused about time. So was I for a moment or two.

This episode focused heavily on the alcholic "foibles" of 1965 Don Draper/Dick Whitman. How did the Dick Whitman identity get in the picture again when there was nothing about the West Coast?  Apparently he identified himself to Doris as Dick. Like we viewers, Don is puzzling over who is Doris?

In fact, he begins drinking heavily on Friday before the award ceremony, makes some stupid mistakes, takes one woman home from the ceremony, wakes up Sunday to an angry phone call from his ex-wife and notices another woman in his bed - that's Doris - apparently he lost Saturday altogether.

But did he earn the award? Peggy says that adding the kid in the ad was her idea, noting that Don added the western theme with a snide comment expressing a view that it wasn't so important an idea.

In fact, we've seen the commercial and the Clint Eastwood -Spaghetti Western theme was the creative touch that made it different. I don't know that the theme will sell Glo-Coat, but it's an ad I'd probably watch once while I was skipping through commercials - if I could have skipped through commercials back then.

Nonetheless the self-involved Don/Dick didn't acknowledge Peggy's contribution or Roger's role in his career. They were both miffed.

The funniest line of the night: “I only changed one little thing.” It came from Peggy who is getting stronger as she battles her way through the sexist male legions that controlled the business community. Drunk Don orders her to work the weekend locked in a hotel room with Stan, a new art director. Stan is everything you could possibly roll up into a sexist character. And Peggy successfully challenges him where it hurts most - his one little thing. But it results in what likely will be a successful Vicks cough drop campaign and a happy client.

At a personal level, Peggy also is starting to aggressively challenge Don's fumbling and stumbling that's risking the business. We had the pathetic scene of the Life cereal people not liking the catch phrase and "celebrating Don" throwing out phrases as Pete and Peggy try to caution him. But the Life folks love the phrase “The cure for the common ... cereal."

The only problem is that phrase “The cure for the common (fill in here)" came from Roger's cousin-in-law Danny Siegel who neither Don or Peggy wanted to hire and who they dismissed with a "you'll hear from us" interview ending. When confronted by Peggy, Don doesn't even remember saying it, but complies with her demand to fix things with Danny. Danny is played by Danny Strong ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer"and "Gilmore Girls") who Don towers over. But the Danny-of-questionable-creative-talent knows when he has Don by the "short hairs." Danny gets hired.

So here we are at SCDP-creative this season. The mentor genius Don/Dick is losing it. Peggy is stepping up to keep things in order. These are two people who know each other - not yet equals, but almost family in the sense that you know which uncles have a drinking problem.

Pete was also asserting himself this week as it appears that Ken Cosgrove may be coming back to the series and into SCDP. Pete isn't going to let Ken come into the new firm until Pete's primacy as a partner is acknowledged.

As usual there is far more than one can cover, as in all episodes. But about that missing Clio. It turns out Roger picked it up for Don. And after Don apologized for not acknowledging Roger's role in his success, Roger gave it to him. I guess Roger regain a little position this week.

As I noted two episodes ago, the show could end with Don dying of lung cancer from smoking. But right now Don's career success is in jeopardy because of drinking.

It was sad when he ruminated “You finish something and you find out everyone loves it, right around the time you feel someone else did it.” On the one hand, that reinforced the idea that Don isn't acknowledging the contributions of others. But it also let's us know that Don is beginning to understand the adage: "Be careful of what you wish for."

Who is this guy? He wins the only award given in his field in the year of the startup of the firm he created. The fledgling company is surviving financially. He has everything he told Roger he wanted. Except of course, a real identity. He is the guy who needs to learn that other adage, that no one on their deathbed laments "if only I had spent more time working." Don has lost his family. Dick is losing Anna. And Don/Dick is, or should it be "are," now losing days.

Matthew Weiner's award winning creation is a traditional Greek tragedy as this all-too-American human suffering gives us entertainment. Is it "Death of a Salesman" repackaged as a TV series and updated to "the death of an ad man?"