Monday, August 24, 2009

'Mad Men' Monday: Love Among the Ruins

*Warning, spoilers for the most recent episode of Mad Men ahead.*

Ruins, everywhere ruins. Betty's nuclear family has disintegrated and she's unexpectedly become her father's caretaker. Peggy's innocence, her once commented on earnestness is long gone, as is the Sterling Cooper of 1962, now that all the shots are being called long-distance by some Englishmen who don't understand New York or the American way of business. Then there are the ruins of Roger's life, which he faced with a couple amusing one-liners in this recent episode. All-in-all, a wonderfully complex smorgasbord of messages packed into 40-something minutes.

Betty's Family Changes

What I found notable about the Betty-Don storyline this week -- and the struggles with Betty's brother William over what to do with their mentally ailing father Gene -- was Don's behavior. First, we all know that he has no family of his own left, the one family member he's seen in the past three years, his half-brother Adam, killed himself, something about which he never told Betty. William even brought up the fact that Don had not invited anyone to his wedding to Betty. "Nobody at all," William said incredulously to his wife Judy. Last season, Gene, in a moment of lucidity, lashed out at Don and said that he couldn't trust Don because he had "no people."

And here Don is, with two kids and another on the way, seemingly willingly to be a doting (faithful?) husband and taking a difficult father-in-law who clearly doesn't like him, into his home, seemingly to please Betty and put worries that she's a terrible daughter out of her head. Betty could've taken the easy route, sold her childhood home and put her father in a nursing home, but she didn't want to do that, despite her brother's urging that they do so. "Those homes are for people who don't have families, William," she said.

Surely having Gene in Don's house, not to mention a new baby, will make things even more chaotic, given that Gene needs to be watched and last season groped his daughter after he mistook her for her mother. Don and Betty's marriage almost collapsed under the weight of Don's inability to stay faithful to his wife and to resist something shiny and new. With the added pressure of an ailing father and a third child, I'm expecting that the Draper household will be combustible for the remainder of the season.

Peggy's Lost Innocence

The Ann Margret/Bye Bye Birdie bit seemed to serve as a stark contrast to Peggy, who's young in age but no longer in spirit, given the hell that she's been through. She's no longer the doe-eyed Bambi she was the day she walked into Sterling Cooper for the first time. Peggy's inability to comprehend why men were drawn to Margret's warbling, and Peggy's insistence that an ad campaign which knocked off Margret's Bye Bye Birdie number wouldn't spark women's interest in drinking a terribly named diet cola (I agree with her on that point) further demonstrated that point.

"Don't you find her voice shrill?" Peggy asked Don after showing him the scene of Margret singing. (I found it shrill.)

Don, as is his uber-serious cerebral wont, responded, "She was throwing herself at the camera. It's pure. It makes your heart hurt." (It's worth noting that early on in season one, Don once quipped that he was blinded by Peggy's earnestness. How the times have changed.)

When Peggy said she didn't think that an ad campaign modeled on this would appeal to women, who are the intended customer for this product, that it was phony and disingenous, Don disagreed and said that the message he got from Margret's performance was, "'I'm young and excited' . . . Men want her and women want to be her."

Later that night, the jaded Peggy went into a crowded bar alone, tried out a line she'd heard from Joan, and picked up a horribly naive college boy and later had her way with him. It seemed like something Don would've done, definitely not Ann Margret/Bye Bye Birdie behavior.

What I couldn't get a firm handle on was the scene near the end of the episode when Don, Betty, Gene and Bobby were watching Sally perform a Maypole dance with her class. While Betty, very pregnant, sat next to Don in her bright yellow dress and severe-looking sunglasses still visibly tense from the situation at home, Don became fixated on Sally's teacher, a young woman with long, wavy brown hair which shone in the sunlight and was topped with a wreath of wildflowers. The beaming teacher wore a white dress that moved fluidly as she danced barefoot with her students in this colorful celebration. Don put down his drink and caressed, in a tender, longing way, the grass next to his seat, his eyes fixated on the teacher, who was smiling, the picture of innocence. Was this an indication that Don was longing for a touch of innocence? Lusting after the teacher? Wishing for a piece of her energy? Or was this scene designed to serve as the antithesis of Peggy's behavior the previous night?

Sterling Cooper in Chaos

Ostensibly, the Madison Square Garden project was the "ruins" alluded to in this episode's title, given that the pompous Kinsey likened the razing of Penn Station in order to build Madison Square Garden to the destruction of the Coliseum in order to erect outhouses. When the MSG guys stormed away from Sterling Cooper with smoke billowing from their ears, Lane Pryce called on Don and Roger to pull the account out of the embers, which they did, with the help of Don's golden violin of verbiage.

Don urged the MSG developer to forget about the squawking and the protests over taking down Penn Station because, legally, there was nothing they could do to prevent the project from moving forward. "Let's also say that change is neither good or bad," Don said. "It simply is. It can be greeted with terror or a joy. A tantrum that says, 'I want it the way it was.' Or a dance that says, 'Look, something new.'"

This, I thought, seemed like a multi-pronged analogy. It could be a reference to his reaction to his father-in-law's situation, or to the later scene with the Maypole dance. But it's also a reference to the multitude of changes which have occurred at Sterling Cooper since the British take-over because as soon as Don successfully wooed the Madison Square Garden account -- which Don thought was the key to possibly nabbing the World's Fair and "30 years of business" with MSG -- Pryce told him the head honchos at the London HQ didn't want the account after all. This is not Roger and Bert's Sterling Cooper.

Speaking of Roger . . .

The whole reason Sterling Cooper is no longer Roger's and Bert's is because of Roger and his inability to resist that something new, that something brimming with life in the person of Don's former 20-year-old secretary Jane.

Roger's life appears to be in ruins, despite the fact that he says he's sincerely happy. (For an ad man, he's not selling his message well.) His daughter Margaret told him in no uncertain terms that she didn't want Jane to attend the wedding. She's embarrassed by her father's choices. "She's young enough to be my sister," Margaret said. "How would it look?" Mona, who looked fabulous, was pure acid as she coolly informed Roger how their daughter's wedding thing going to play out. And didn't the wedding date just knock your socks off? November 23, 1963, the day after the Kennedy assassination.

Despite all of this, Roger got some of the best lines of the show:

-- "Oh look, Princess Grace just swallowed a basketball," to Betty.

-- "You ever get two sheets to the wind and try that thing on?" to Pryce about his suit of armor in the corner.

So, what are YOUR thoughts on the second installment of this season's Mad Men? Why do you think Don pushed so hard to get Gene live with him and Betty? Was it purely for Betty's benefit? Also, what'd you think of that last, hand-through-the-grass scene where Don was watching Sally's teacher so intently? About Peggy's night?

Image credit: Carin Baer/AMC.


Cooley Horner said...

It never ceases to amaze me how they come up with these clever ways to reveal a character's depth. The Ann Margaret/Peggy contrast was brilliant, and seeing our girl come out on her own and then go back into her shell after successfully testing the waters was evocative and fascinating. Was I the only one struck by how much Joe College looked like Pete, by the way?

Betty hast turned into a grade-A b****h, if you ask me. I'm sure hormones could be at fault, but she is becoming very shrill this season. I keep hoping we'll see some moment where she and Don moderately address how they were able to put all of what happened last season behind them. I'm sure there were lots of meaty scenes from the moment when she said she was pregnant to the early moments of this season.

Good recap. I can't wait to see what happens next!

Meredith said...

I concur that the writers haven't done much with Betty's character thus far, beyond having her be an uncomfortable, cranky pregnant woman. Hopefully she'll get something meatier. She's got to. She's about ready to have a baby AND have to also take care of her dad.

I also do think there was some similarities in the college kid and slimey Pete Campbell.

glonigro said...

Call me misguided, but I was happy for Peggy that she admitted she had fun. Don't want to see her start hooking up with men, but considering the rough breaks she's had, it was nice to see her enjoy herself for a change. Clearly the young guy is not relationship material, but maybe this might help Peggy meet someone in the future?

The scene near the end of the episode where Don Draper is feeling the grass and watching the Maypole dance made me wonder if it was foreshadowing for a brilliant idea he might have for an ad campaign for either the next episode or later in the season. Some of the best scenes in this show for me are when Don Draper presents his ideas for ad campaigns. It would be interesting to see his process, how he arrives at his ideas, and how to express them.

In one of the next scenes in the office, Peggy asks him if he wants to talk about the Pampers account. Maybe we'll see a Maypole motif for that next episode? We'll see!

Meredith said...

I wonder if that was an embodiment of Don in the process of coming up with an ad campaign, a woman, frolicking in the grass used to sell a product. That's distinctly possible. It makes him less of a cad than if he were purely lusting after Sally's teacher.