Monday, September 13, 2010

'Mad Men:' The Summer Man (Otherwise Known as Don's Turning a Corner)

*Warning: Spoilers ahead from the recent episode of Mad Men.*

“People tell you who they are but we ignore it because we want them to be who we want them to be.”

“When a man walks into a room, he brings his whole life with him . . . If you listen, he’ll tell you how he got there.”

– Don Draper writing in his journal

Did you hear that? That was the sound of Don Draper bouncing off of rock bottom and starting to rebuild his shattered life. He’s finally coming up for air.

In “The Summer Man,” Don started to cut back on the drinking, began swimming (though he wheezes with smoker’s cough) and is dating as opposed to sleeping with escorts for whose sexual services he paid. He actually sent his secretary BACK to the store to RETURN liquor. When he was in a moment of stress, instead of reaching for the bottle as his instincts told him to do, he asked for coffee. He’s trying in earnest to, as he put it, “gain a modicum of control over the way I feel. I want to wake up. I don’t want to be that man.”

And Don is keeping a diary, something that requires him to have to examine his days, his thoughts, and actually survey what’s become of his life. He knows it’s not pretty. Through the beautifully lyrical voice-overs of Don reading aloud his journal entries – where we learned that Don didn’t finish high school and said if he had “everything could’ve been different” – we hear Don’s inner monologue for the first time, getting a glimpse into not just what he’s doing in his private moments, but what he’s thinking and feeling, something I think he never even really wanted to do before this because those feelings were just too scary.

As Don sat down to watch the news while eating Dinty Moore beef stew and drinking a can of Bud (NOT his preferred amber colored liquid), Don didn’t look like the sad sack who, in previous episodes this season, would come home from work, pointedly refuse to eat anything, grab a glass filled with liquor and eventually pass out on the couch. To see Don sitting at a table and eating is a sign that he cares about his physical health. While he chronicles his thoughts, he’s dealing with his mental and emotional health by working through issues like this one: “Sunday is Gene’s birthday party. I know I can’t go. I keep thinking about him. He was conceived in a moment of desperation and born into a mess.”

While Don obviously still aches to be part of his family again, I was pleased to see in this episode that though he had another date with Bethany, he realized she’s not a good match for him. (That crack from her about being in “different generations” and that she needed more from Don, and his response, “We are from different generations because I don’t remember women pushing this hard,” was a gigantic red flag.)

Bethany is simply a younger, naïve Betty, a replacement Betty, Don repeating past mistakes. Nothing made that clearer than to have the two of them, Betty and Bethany, in the same restaurant, wearing similarly colored dresses and blond hair in an updo, and to watch Don squirm as he was put into a corner about why he hasn’t called Bethany more often and about why he seems unknowable to Bethany, something Betty also complained about. “Don’t you want to be close with anyone?” Bethany asked, while desperately asking for more “intense, prolonged contact” with Don.

By contrast, Don’s behavior with Faye when they went on their date – after which he declined to physically go further than necking in the cab, unlike what he allowed Bethany to do to him in the cab – was starkly different. Faye reminds me of Rachel Mencken, a smart, educated businesswoman who exudes confidence and who is in control of her own life. With Rachel, Don opened up a bit, revealed himself to her, like sharing a story about his mother in a way he’d never done with Betty, at least not willingly. While speaking with Faye, he voluntarily “took off” his emotional coat and gave it to her by mentioning how he wasn’t welcome at Gene’s party, how Gene thinks Henry’s his father, again, something he would've never done with Bethany who remarked that every date with Don seemed like a first one because she didn’t know him at all.

The Joan-Joey-Peggy storyline was challenging to watch as Joan was mercilessly sexually harassed by Joey, aided and abetted by mooner Stan, as the impudent Joey reeled off these lines to and about Joan:

“The big Ragu . . . she’s an overblown secretary.” (Said to Peggy.)

“What do you do around here besides walking around like you’re trying to get raped?” (Said to Joan after she said his behavior won’t be “tolerated here.”)

“You’re not some young girl off the bus. I don’t need some madam from a Shanghai whorehouse to show me the ropes.” (To Joan.)

Joey targeting Joan for his barrage of insults and ongoing, unrepentant, sexually hostile disrespect, and Joan’s angry response toward Peggy served to illustrate the different places Joan and Peggy are in.

Joan is of old school thinking. She went to Don, then to Lane, hoping they'd just take care of the problem for her. She didn't say directly what happened to her and she veiled her issues under the weak heading of “there have been complaints” so that it didn’t appear as though she was the only one having problems with Joey. She thought her indirect methods were best, however they’re not getting the job done, not anymore.

Peggy’s way -- directness, no BS, taking on Stan’s baloney – is the one that is commanding respect in the workplace. With Don urging Peggy to seize the power (“I wouldn’t tolerate that if I were you . . . You want some respect, go out there and get it for yourself.”), Peggy did just that by firing the little pissant who posted the obscene cartoon of Joan on her office window and idiotically wised off to Peggy when she called him on it. To Joan -- who only feels empowered and comfortable in taking on other women and who clearly wanted Don to swoop in and rescue her from Joey’s nonsense -- found Peggy’s decisiveness extremely threatening, which is why I think she was so nasty to Peggy in the elevator, because Joan had lost her power while Peggy had gained it.

Oh . . . on the scenes of Betty -- who mistakenly believes Don is “living the life” -- where she fled to the restaurant bathroom after seeing Don on a date with her younger doppelganger and became very, very upset (smoking up a storm, sweating, dropping her purse), coupled with the longing gaze she directed at Don when he appeared at Gene’s birthday party (to which he was not invited courtesy of the increasingly angry Henry Francis, who intentionally crushed Don’s boxes in the garage and suggested to Betty that they’d rushed into their marriage . . . ya think?!), those were also big, stinkin’ red flags.

And hearing the Rolling Stones on Mad Men -- the show I associate with fedoras and women in big skirts – was jarring. But obviously, the times, styles and social mores were in a state of flux and folks could either get on board or let them, like that younger swimmer in the pool whom Don wanted to beat to the wall, pass people by.

What did you think of “The Summer Man?” Of Don’s dealings with Bethany and Faye? Of the Joan-Peggy-Joey situation? The “we have everything including pent-up anger” Francis family? Anyone hear echoes from the "Marriage of Figaro" episode in season one?

Image credit: Michael Yarish/AMC.

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