The times, they are a’changin’. For Mad Men as well as all the characters in it. I’m a huge apologist for all the shows I love, so it’s easier for me to say that the show’s just as good as it’s always been, it’s just telling different stories than we’re used to. I know there are a few people out there who wouldn’t agree, but whatever.
Don’s getting older, and if all the bright colors and loud music the kids are so into these days weren’t enough of a reminder of that, he’s got Megan in the kitchen cooking IN HER BARE FEET to really drive the message home. In a conversation about pop culture, Megan tells Don that everybody’s trying to catch up to it because it’s always changing. That’s probably something Don’s more likely to roll his eyes at and walk away from, like we see him do at the end of the episode while listening to The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Still, that knowledge — or fear, rather — that the world is beginning to move more quickly than Don’s able to keep up with is ever-present. That’s what that empty elevator shaft symbolized, in case you were wondering. Staring into the abyss. Into a world that has no place for him. All that good stuff.
Again, we find ourselves contrasting Don’s relationships with Betty and Megan. When he and Betty were still married, we saw that Don had kind of adopted a “there’s the door” policy any time Betty found that she was unhappy with her station in life. Regardless of whether or not Betty was justified in being upset, Don didn’t really care.** But now, with Megan, I really think Don’s recognizes there’s a possibility that she could leave him. So whenever she wakes him up in the middle of the night and says that she doesn’t really want to go into advertising, he says “mazel tov,” wishes her luck on the acting scene, and really swallows his feelings about the whole thing.
(**Although, to be honest, you have to know and understand what’s going on before you can choose to care about it or ignore it. I don’t think Don ever really took the time to understand the things Betty was going through.)
But Don’s anger follows the Law of Conservation of Mass. That is, it can neither be created nor destroyed. And if Don isn’t going to yell at Megan for leaving the biz, he’s sure as hell going to take it out on Peggy, because she never gave Megan a chance and everyone at the office is petty and blah blah blah. Peggy’s not having it, and when she tells Don to shut up, well, I did a little victory lap around my sofa. Peggy Olson, how far you’ve come.
Peggy’s come a long way with all of her relationships at SCDP. She yells at Don. A few weeks ago she wasn’t afraid to tell Bert that she was leaving the office in the middle of the day to go to the movies. This week, when Pete stumbled by her office with his arms full of skiing equipment, she needles him, asking if he’s a really good skier. Like, famous good. This doesn’t really have any huge relevance to the episode, but it’s a nice reminder of how much Peggy’s grown as a character.
Speaking of Pete, things really aren’t going well for him. Well, let’s qualify that. Professionally, things are looking up. People know his name and want to work with him. They’re sending him expensive skis. Roger seems happy with the whole things and is content to sit on the sidelines while Pete does the real work. At home, it’s a different story. But I don’t think the show has done as good a job as it did with Don showing the audience why Pete would be so unsatisfied with life with Trudy. What little we’ve seen points to him feeling emasculated for some reason. Don coming in life effing Superman and fixing his sink while Trudy, Megan, and Alex Mack jump up and down, dripping wet, and cheering. He’s been rebuffed by the girl from his driver’s ed class and, in tonight’s episode, by Rory Gilmore. This is a side of Pete’s life we’re only really starting to get into, so who knows where it’ll go. But right now, Pete looks like he’s ready to drive off a cliff.
What was I talking about? Right. Don and Megan. Their relationship is fundamentally different than his and Betty’s. Gabbing in the breakroom — as the fairer sex is wont to do — Joan talks Megan up as if she and Betty, and Don’s relationship to both of them, is the exact same thing. Megan’s leaving the company to pursue acting. Don met Betty at a photo shoot, etc. Peggy’s the one who says that isn’t the case, and that Megan is the woman Don’s always been looking for. And because of that, he’s willing to do a lot more for her than other women he’s shared a bed with. That includes trying to navigate the world Megan still travels in. Although that’s easier said than done. Halfway through “Tomorrow Never Knows,” (I wonder how much the show paid to use the song) Don shuts the record off and walks out of the room. I guess finding his way there is going to take Don some time.
Great episode, or greatest episode?
Look, I’m going to be honest. In my private, dark moments, I worry about Mad Men. I’ve been tainted by shows like Lost. I like to know that a show’s going somewhere. Shows like Lost you know are headed toward a definitive ending. An ending for a show like Mad Men is a little harder to define. Because the show could end in any one of a million ways, it’s a little easier to see it losing direction and floundering in its later seasons. But, for all those who’ve ever suffered a similar crisis of faith, know that there are episodes like “Signal 30.” Episodes that show up, stroke your hair like the mom from the Children’s Tylenol commercial, and let you know that Matthew Weiner is wise and good, and that all is right with the show. Also the world.
What do we love about Mad Men? We love the fact that Don is really Superman with a drinking problem. We love that Lane is British. We love watching Roger wax nostalgic. And we love hating on Pete. “Signal 30″ had all of that.
We’ll talk about Don and Pete first, since the show ended with the two of them in the elevator. Pete, his eyes puffy and his face swollen from his smackdown with Lane, and Don, wishing there was a window he could climb out of. It was an interesting role reversal these two had tonight. Almost since the show began, we’ve looked at Peggy as a sort of proto-Don, who, as a professional ad-(wo)man is slowly being made in his image. But tonight, we saw Pete as the new Don, with the real Don (also the old Don) watching him make the same mistakes he made all those years ago. When Don, Roger, and Pete take a Jaguar exec out for a bit of wining and dining and end up at a classy whorehouse, Pete gets his horndog on with an anonymous stranger while Don sits outside, nursing his drink. On the cab ride home, Pete acts incensed, coming right out and asking his boss where his balls have disappeared to, and accusing Don of judging him. Don tells Pete that he speaks from a lot of experience, and that if Pete plays fast and loose with his family like that then he really runs the risk of losing them. Don goes on to say that was a lesson he would have learned a lot sooner if he had married Megan before Betty.
Pete’s always been a small man trying to live in a big man’s world. And whenever you pull back, just to take a look around and seriously ask what it is that Pete doesn’t have, you see that it’s just that: he doesn’t feel like man. He’s got the wife and kid, the job, the house, which are all things you should feel good about. But all it takes is one dinner party, one leaky faucet, and one Don taking his short off and fixing everything with his bare man hands (not to mention being turned down by the 13-year old at drivers ed) to let all the air out of Pete’s balloon and make him feel like a loser. And when a guy like Pete feels like a loser, he has to make some grand gesture to recover his manhood.
That opportunity presented itself in the form of Lane Pryce, fresh off his own rejection, after discovering that the Jaguar deal had gone kaput after the exec’s wife found CHEWING GUM ON HIS PUBIS (something I imagine has ruined more than a few good days). Lane, who knew the exec and was trying to play the account man and close the deal for the agency, just wasn’t getting the job done. And now when he sees that Pete, Don, and Roger have turned everything all sixes and sevens (BRITISH!) he’s ready to come down on everyone with great vengeance and furious anger. Pete, little asshole that he is, chooses that moment to ask Lane what exactly it is he does at the agency anyway, and now Lane’s unbuttoning his short, ready to throw down. Our reaction is much like Don’s, Roger’s, and Bert’s: we know this shouldn’t be happening, that we should probably put a stop to it, but we just. Can’t. Turn. Away. So we close the curtain and let the two have at it.
Was there a single person watching the show who wasn’t rooting for Lane to hand Pete’s ass to him? I don’t think so. And luckily, we weren’t disappointed. With Pete laid out proper, Lane marches out of the room, bollocks hanging down to his knees. And he really deserved it. Life is treating him better than it was last season, but still, that guy doesn’t seem to have a whole lot to be happy about. And I know that knocking Pete out would make me happy, so it was nice to see Lane be able to mark that one up on the scoreboard.
With all the Pete/Lane/Don craziness, there was one nice moment in the show that kind of got glossed over. And that was Roger giving Lane pointers for his lunch with the Jaguar exec. I don’t think the show would ever get rid of John Slattery, but it isn’t hard to see him on his way out of the professional world. Roger is a guy who’s even having to say bye to his bad good days, where he’s not doing a ton of account work, but he’s still around, helping where he can with the agency’s bigger clients. He still does some of that. But it seems like he’s looked at more and more like a joke, and that Pete’s slowly taking all the real work he does away from him. And that’s not just how the show looks at him, but the audience as well. We don’t see him doing anything substantive, so it was nice to hear his talk with Lane. Giving him real advice on how to handle a meeting like this, and show that this was a business Roger really knew a lot about, and that his talents are kind of being wasted, just sitting in his office reading the newspaper. I also liked hearing him commiserate some with Ken, a “fellow unappreciated author.”
So, shame on me. I was wrong to think that Mad Men was a ship that could ever lose its way. We know that after this year, the show will most likely see another two seasons, and I take great comfort knowing that the show still has new things to show us about these characters, and new places to take them. Seriously great comfort, you guys.
Man. After seeing what Don did to Bobbie Barrett back in season 2, I’ve always had the feeling that this guy is a little crazy. Maybe not Dexter crazy, but definitely Tony Soprano crazy. He’s the kind of guy who does a reasonably good job of keeping his temper in check, but when he or his interests are very obviously threatened, he lashes out, grabbing a hold of your private parts and whispering menacing things in your ear. And after Bobbie, we saw that Don wasn’t above hitting a woman. And tonight, we saw that Don wasn’t above strangling a woman to death and kicking her lifeless body underneath his bed, snuggling up under his sheets and going back to sleep.
Now, if we’re those viewers who are so in love with Don Draper that we refuse to believe that any of the horrible things he does actually reflect on his character, then we can write this little episode off in a couple of different ways. One is that it was all a dream, and we do all sorts of cray things in our dreams, right? I mean, if I had a nickel for every person I’ve strangled in a dream, I’d be able to open a savings account or something. I’m not a violent person. All I’m saying is that it happens. If we’re looking at things a little deeper, and taking the fact that Matthew Weiner graduated from the David Chase School of Television Writing into account, then we’ll know that one of the things he learned there was how to use a dream sequence to illustrate some inner struggle a character is going through. We can view this as significant, or tell ourselves that even in his dream Don was delirious.
By now you should know that it’s significant.
Remember, all of this was happening against the backdrop of the Richard Speck murders in July of 1966. Speck was (obviously) a murderer who raped, tortured and killed eight student nurses who worked at the South Chicago Community Hospital. So I think it’s safe to say that’d it be FOOLISH for us to assume that the violence perpetrated against these women didn’t figure prominently in this episode for a reason. But what’s the connection? It can’t just be that Don’s a sadist and feels violently toward women. Remember that Bobbie was kind of blackmailing him when he had his Tony Soprano moment with her in “The Benefactor.” And he was kind of being blackmailed with this woman in tonight’s episode. And what was in jeopardy in this episode was his relationship with Megan. It’s looking for and more like Don is making a serious run at putting his cheating ways behind him for good. He really does seem to be more “in love” with Megan than he was with Betty. When they were still married and had one of those moments when it seemed like they were finally going to start treating each other right, their relationship snapped back to indifferent fairly quickly. But despite the fact that they’ve been married for months, Don is still complimenting Megan on the way she looks, and it seems like they’re still having a reasonable amount of trouble keeping their hands off each other while outside the apartment. They look like they’re in love. So, we can assume — at least for now because who knows that Weiner will throw at us as the season goes on — that Don’s gut reaction to what was happening in his dream was to protect his relationship with Megan at all costs. And Don really took that “at all costs” bit to heart, amirite?
But a final interpretation of this whole thing changes when you look at this as something that really happened (which we know it didn’t, but there’s no reason to believe Don knew that in the moment), and something that happened in Don’s head. If it’s something that really happened, then what Don was reacting to was just what I said: a threat to his marriage. But if we look at this as something that happened in Don’s head, then what he was reacting to is open to interpretation. This woman who Don used to work with and slept with on I’m assuming a couple of occasions caught him in a vulnerable position. He was sick and alone. Don told her that he wasn’t the guy she used to run around with and asked her to leave several times. And each time she came back at him, even coming back to his apartment after he had kicked her out. She gets him while he’s lying in bed, and finally Don succumbs and they do their thing. Whenever it’s all over, she tells Don that they’ll do this again, and brushes him off when he tells her it isn’t going to happen. And it’s only then that he snaps and strangles her. Here, if we take this women to be a representation of Don’s weaknesses, we could look at it as Don striking out at a part of himself. A weakness that he doesn’t like and wants to get rid of. I said that Don isn’t a sadist, but we know he’s a masochist (remember this little chestnut?).
Don’s got problems any way you look at it. He had a bad childhood. He stole someone’s identity while in Korea. And you couldn’t describe his marriage to Betty as healthy. But, he’s trying to be better. And if you look at the fact that this dream Don had was brought on by a fever, then you could even look at it as symbolic. Representative of Don getting better, and becoming a better person. It’s something to think about.
Perhaps less interesting, but more of a reason to pump our fists in the air, “Mystery Date” marked the return of the dreaded Greg Harris, Joan’s douchebag husband who I think most people were hoping would get killed in Vietnam. Greg’s only been home for a couple of hours when he tells Joan that, in ten days, he’s going to have to ship back out to Vietnam for another year. And when Joan thinks that these are his orders and that he never had a say in it, she finds a way to deal with it. But at dinner that night she discovers that Greg volunteered to go back, and that, obviously, is a bridge too far. She tells him that she’s tired of trying to make him feel like he’s a good man when she knows he isn’t.**And if there’s some need he’s got that the military’s fulfilling that she’s not, well, he can just get the hell out. And he does. Of course, not before he throws out a token, “If I walk out that door IT’S OVER!” But Joan’s not having any of that, so he goes.
(**Remember when Greg raped her before they got married? Well, Joan’s held onto that AND SO HAVE WE.)
Honestly, I was surprised to see the show get rid of Greg so quickly, and so cleanly (although I guess they could always bring him back). It’s too bad Joan’s relationship isn’t looking as good as Don’s right now, all things considered. But, it might help clear the way for Joan and Roger to get back together. You know you want it.
Come on. You knew Betty was going to finish Sally’s sundae.**
(**And can we take just a moment to appreciate Betty’s fat suit? Betty joins and elite group of actors who have donned a fat suit to better illustrate the rut their character has sunk into. Can you think of many more than Lee Adama from Battlestar Galactica and Mad Men’s own Peggy Olsen?)
Toward the end of the tonight’s episode, Roger asks Don, “When are things going to go back to normal?” I think Don’s probably asking himself the same thing. You get the sense that overall, his marriage to Megan is happier than his marriage to Betty was. And I don’t think that’s a superficial happiness. I think it’s genuine. There have been a few moments between the two of them where you see Don swallow his anger more quickly than he might have with Betty. He was right in saying however many seasons ago that living with Betty was like living with a little girl. And using that same comparison, living with Megan is like living with a 26 year old (they said she was 26, right?). She’s smart, mature, and becoming increasingly independent. Betty was high-maintenance. Megan isn’t.
Still, there’s a level of comfort in Don’s relationship with Betty that, even after the nastiness of their divorce, never really went away. Like ass-grooves worn in a couch after years of use, they’ll probably be there forever. And Betty calling Don up after her doctor found a lump in her throat that was possibly cancerous was a nice moment between the two of them.** Don telling Betty that everything was going to be alright actually made her feel like maybe things weren’t as bad as they seemed, that she’d actually be alright. I don’t know if that familiarity made Don feel better, but it definitely reminded him that this is a woman who he, on some level, still has feelings for.
(**Although Betty’s line about Don saying what he always says does kind of reinforce that little girl thing.)
Anyway. How does all this relate back to what Roger said about things getting back to normal? Well, even though Don has a good thing going with Megan, something healthier than his relationship with Betty was, I think there’s something in the back of Don’s head that wants to go back to that, even though there’s something else right beside that that knows how destructive their relationship had become.
That feeling’s only made stronger by the fact that there’s something about Don that can’t help but look at Megan like she’s his daughter. And it’s not an overt thing. It’s just something that’s there. Something that makes him more aware of the divide between him and young people. While he’s backstage, talking to the groupie who’ll just do anything to impress the Rolling Stones, you see how concerned he becomes whenever he finds out just how far she’d go to impress them. Whenever she tells Don that people like him just don’t want people like her having any fun, he tells her that actually it’s because people like him are concerned for people like her. So I think Don’s generally overcome by this feeling of nostalgia, and probably looking back on his life with Betty through rose-colored glasses. There’s a chance she’s really sick, so he can kind of only remember the good times the two of them had together.
What’s going on with Roger is much more self-pitying than Don’s thing. This thing between him and Pete has been brewing up for a while now and it’s finally worn him down. You saw before — last week’s premiere was a good example — that Roger was happy to play the game with Pete, showing up to client meetings uninvited, things like that. Pete sees what he’s doing, recognizes the fact that he’s trying to keep himself relevant to the company, and when Mohawk Air officially comes back to SCDP, very publicly makes a move to protect his flank. Don follows Roger when he stomps out of the room and tells him that, yes, it was disrespectful, and that’s about all he says. Almost like what he wasn’t saying was, “What the hell are you going to do about it?” People like Pete are the future, and will be there long after Roger’s in the cold, cold ground. And I think that attitude kind of informs his conversation with the groupie at the concert. When he told her that people like him were concerned for people like her, that’s all it was. It wasn’t angry. It was like he was telling her just so she’d know, because Don knows that in the end, people like her are going to do whatever they want. Kind of like Pete. And I think that may be the reason you don’t see Don getting mad and Megan the way he’d get mad at Betty.
But — and this is a big but — it’s early days, and there’s all sorts of time for Don to go back to his cheating ways, and be as big a dick to Megan and everyone else as he’s ever been. So, look out for that.
A few other things:
- All things considered, Henry’s a better husband than Don. But I still enjoy the thumb Betty sticks in his eye when she calls Don after finding out she might be sick.
- Why didn’t Henry’s mom every take diet pills? Betty says things other people only think!
- How long until Peggy and Michael Ginsburg are pushing all their work off the table and getting busy?
- Did anyone else catch the George Romney reference? He’s the clown Henry doesn’t want Nelson Rockefeller standing next to. Apparently, the show name-checking his grandfather was something Tagg Romney didn’t take very kindly to. Still trying to figure out how AMC is part of the liberal media.
- Again, you knew Betty was gonna get ALL UP IN Sally’s sundae.
“More people feel the way I do than feel the way you do.” – Don
At the start of Mad Men’s fourth season, we found ourselves in the swanky, space-age offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Everything was so shiny and new, it was like the start of a new age! Sure, Don had made some mistakes, but he had been baptized in a sea of new opportunity and chrome furniture, so the future was a blank slate. Sure, anything could happen. But we were sure that whatever it was, it was going to be good.
Well, an indeterminate amount of time has passed. And things, well, they don’t seem to have turned out the way we thought they would. “Well, how did you expect them to turn out?” you ask. Well… we’re not sure, exactly. But they weren’t supposed to turn out like this.
Since the show began, our characters have all been chasing different things. Women, of course, but also opportunity, money, and status. If you’re more of a romantic, you can wrap those things up in lame platitudes like “happiness” and the “American Dream.” And after years and years of hard work, a convincing case can be made that they’ve found those things. But now that they’ve got them, the novelty of the chase, the conquest, is gone, and well, what the hell was the point of it all?
And what struck me most about tonight’s opener (AFTER SEVENTEEN EFFING MONTHS), was that this seemed to be everyone’s affliction. Pete, Roger, Lane, and even Don (despite that smile he kept plastered to his face for most of the two hour) seem to be suffering from a kind of malaise. You’ve got Roger, who’s finally come to terms with the fact that he’s married a teenager. You can draw certain parallels between Don and Roger in the women they’ve remarried, but putting the two up side by side, you can at least argue that Megan’s got ambition. And although she’s still getting sorted out on the creative side of the advertising business, she’s still working at it. It seems like the only thing Jane ever wanted out of life was to marry rich. And while I imagine Don could carry on an intellectual discussion with Megan, Roger’s given up all hope of ever doing the same with Jane. He still loves her, and tells Don that she’s “a good girl,” but no one Roger could ever look at as an equal. And Jane’s feelings toward Roger seem to be equally ambivalent.
Down the hall you’ve got Pete, who’s moved up in the world. He’s bringing in a large chunk of the firm’s business. He and Trudy have a baby. But at the same time, he’s depressed that his wife isn’t taking care of herself like she used to, and did anyone else notice that he’s getting a bit of a paunch and losing his hair? Anyway, that smooth-as-a-baby’s-ass smile he’s worn for the past four years seemed to have dulled some these past SEVENTEEN EFFING MONTHS. Pete’s upset at the fact that, despite pulling in so much business, his office isn’t really equipped to accomodate it all. Or rather, that it wouldn’t make a good enough impression on the clients he’d potentially be bringing into the office. While you can sympathize with these guys on one level or another, the only one you really feel sorry for is Lane. After going through a wallet someone left behind in a cab, Lane finds a picture of Dolores, who he calls and works some of that British magic on on the phone. His story isn’t as big or as deep-rooted as our other characters, but it does serve to illustrate the man’s unhappiness in his current situation, which does more closely parallel the others. His wife’s come back to the States, and (on the surface) they seem to be happy with each other. At least he’s not chasing tail at the Playboy Club.
Pete’s not the only new parent on the show. Joan’s had her baby, and perhaps unsurprisingly, isn’t as enamored with the enterprise as she thought she’d be. That’s in part due to the fact that her asshole husband (see “The Mountain King”) is off in Vietnam and the only help she’s got at the moment is her mother, Gail. After watching them go back and forth for a few minutes, you can see why Joan’s so full of piss and vinegar.
But at the top of this totem pole built of tears and broken dreams is Don Draper. When Don proposed to Megan at the end of the last season, throwing the much smarter and much stronger Dr. Faye to curb in favor of this kid, I think the show’s collective audience let out a big WHAT THE HELL MANG??! For an entire season we thought that maybe, just maybe, Don was going to get his act together, fly straight. But this sort of destructive, impulsive decision seemed like it would rank toward the top of Don’s all-time bonehead moves. But here, seven or eight months since the events of last season, Don can’t seem to wipe that grin off his face. He and Megan wake up and from then on it’s twelve hours of pawing at each other and trying to get busy without anyone catching them. Don’s not supposed to be this happy. Well NEWSFLASH sports fans: He’s not. And the cracks in Don’s carefully constructed veneer begin to show themselves at the surprise birthday party Megan’s planned in his honor.
At the party, we see Megan laughing with a group of young 20-somethings who wear bright colors and are much more lithe than they have any business being. Don’s 40, and the scene he sees before him only drives home the fact that he and this woman really come from two different worlds. She hangs out with a different group and laughs at jokes he doesn’t get. She cleans the carpet in her sexy “underthings” with a boundless energy he just doesn’t possess anymore. Later that night, when all the guests have gone home, and Don’s free to let the grumpus come out, he tells Megan never to pull a stunt like that again. He couches it someone more diplomatic language, telling her not to waste money on such things. But Megan smiles and says she paid with everything out of her own pocket and Don doesn’t have any say over what she spends her money on. Huh? That’s not supposed to happen. And it only goes to further illustrate the fact that the American Dream means different things to different people. And that happiness for Don may not necessarily be happiness for Megan. The question is whether or not Don has grown enough as a person to accept that, and if he’ll let his selfishness overcome what might otherwise be a very good thing. Their relationship is still young, but nowhere near as strained as his marriage to Betty (although he hasn’t had as many opportunities to sleep around I imagine). And we see that when the Don, Megan, and the kids (we’re on what, Bobby #7 now?), they all work much better as family unit than they did with Betty toward the end there. I think that, on a base level, these are all things Don realizes. But, like so many things, it’s what he does with that knowledge that matters.
As a nightcap, let’s not forget that after four years, Mad Men has finally decided to add black people to its rich milieu. SCDP’s finger in Y&R’s eye has some unintended consequences, which I think sit alongside the episode’s larger points rather nicely. While lying in bed, Don tells Megan, “More people feel the way I do than feel the way you do.” Now, we know that’s probably not the case. It’s far more likely that this is coming from a piece of Don that feels more and more irrelevant every time he looks out the window and sees a world trending younger. And not only younger but more diverse. Obviously, the Civil Rights movement goes hand in hand with that. And while Don may be able to choose how he conducts his marriage, he really can’t control — or dictate the terms — the face SCDP will have to present to a world that’s rapidly changing.** That really could, of course. But in a world changing this quickly, that would mean being left behind. And Don and everyone else on the show would gladly trade a little happiness if it meant staving off irrelevancy.
(**And we know that, living in the 60s, Don and the rest of them have a lot of changes to make yet. But at the time, they would have thought the world was turning on its head.)