“This is the best place to be right now, Don.”
Another tightly focused episode of Mad Men this week, as David Iserson and Matthew Weiner’s script dealt with three plots. Unusually for the show, they didn’t particularly intersect or inform each other; less unusually, the one which, at first glance, seemed light and comedic took a very dark turn by the end.
Unsurprisingly, the ‘main’ plot dealt with Don Draper, his personal and professional lives as hard to balance as usual this week. In what seemed like an ominous callback to the past, he was called to California not by his wife, but by the now-deceased Anna Draper’s niece Stephanie. Stephanie, you may recall, tried to hit on Don last time we saw her, and was rebuffed – even Don has standards about girls young enough to be his daughter. Now she’d found herself destitute and pregnant in LA, and ‘Dick’ (she actually called him that, the first time we’d heard the name this season) was her only hope.
It’s hard to say where the show is going with Don and Megan’s marriage. After the scene a few weeks ago when it seemed definitively over (at Megan’s behest), things seemed tickety-boo in the Draper relationship again this week, with nary a word of explanation. This being an unlikely leap for a show which pays so much attention to detail, I suspect some discussion may have been had in the mean time as to redefining the terms of their ‘bi-coastal’ marriage. Later events may have hinted at that; certainly Megan seems a lot freer to… play around herself.
And as mentioned, Don’s behaviour was generally hard to fathom. He may have reconciled with Megan, but he wasn’t going to bother visiting her that weekend until he got the call from Stephanie; while she seemed all hippie sweetness and light, it’s notable that she is in a position to reveal the Big Lie underlying his entire identity. With that in mind, her use of the name ‘Dick’ seems a lot more calculating, guaranteed to put Don in a cold sweat. And it was also notable that it was her claim to know “all his secrets” that seemed to spur Megan to cut her a check for a thousand dollars, at which point she took off again.
Of course, ambiguity is a stock in trade of Mad Men – it may be that Stephanie’s behaviour, and the Drapers’ reaction to it, could be taken at face value. But knowing this show, I’d doubt that. The fact that ‘Don Draper’ is no more than a façade is central to the themes of the American Dream ringing hollow that recur throughout. Mind you, Bert Cooper knows Don’s secret, and while he didn’t care when Pete tried to use it against Don at the time, it’s surprising he’s not making capital out of it since his cold dismissal of Don last week.
This week showed many of the characters acting… out of character. Who’d have thought that Megan was so sexually adventurous? Or that Henry Francis actually wants a wife who won’t think about anything other than “toast crumbs in the butter”? In reality, of course, people don’t always act consistently, or may say things that seem strange in light of what we know about them. TV characters aren’t usually like that – anything unusual they do is always a key plot point. Mad Men is a much more subtle drama than most though, and has a habit of dropping dramatic red herrings all over the place. At least I think it does…
So any unusual behaviour this week might pay off later, or could be chalked up to dramatic stylisation (I’ve enough respect for Matthew Weiner not to assume it’s bad writing). Don is a harder character to pin down; he’s developed in all sorts of ways since his introduction, which would make sense if you think of him as an identity that Dick Whitman is always rebuilding, like a human Winchester Mystery House.
For instance, it’s instructive to cast your mind back to the Don we met when the show started, nearly ten years back in its own timeline. Back then, he was still mired in self-examination, but that constructed identity hadn’t started to slip into obsolescence. The Don of 1960 was perfectly at home hanging out and smoking weed with the countercultural likes of his beatnik mistress and her friends.
Fast forward to the 1969 of this episode, and he looked as uncomfortable and out of place as possible at Megan’s party, refusing a joint in favour of his beloved booze and looking positively relieved when Harry Crane unexpectedly turned up and he had an excuse to go to a more conventional bar. And who’d have thought legendary lothario Don would look so uncomfortable having a threesome with two women who also made out with each other?
With Harry and at the office, though, the more consistent aspect of Don cut in – genuine shrewdness motivated by self-interest. On the face of it, Harry’s suggestion – that he take over the LA office from the lackadaisical Ted, and move in with Megan – made perfect sense. But that’s not enough for Don Draper. We’ve seen him pull off audacious gambles before, never more so than persuading the partners to ditch the original Sterling Cooper and start a new one.
He was at it again this week, using Harry’s gossip about a potential Philip Morris cigarette account to pull off an astonishingly cheeky attempt to use his famed anti-smoking letter in his actual favour – “I know the opposition. And I know their strategy”. Not only was the audacity breathtaking, it was also a laugh out loud moment to see Lou Avery and Jim Cutler trying (and failing) to contain their astonishment and horror. Kudos to Allan Havey and Harry Hamlin there, for some brilliant face acting that worked on several levels.
With Don’s travails taking up the majority of the episode, the other two plots could have come off as peremptory. In fact, the Betty/Henry/Sally/Bobby one did seem rather slight, though it’s interesting to see Betty’s second marriage apparently falling apart and Bobby put in the position that Sally occupied last time around. Unfortunately, while there was some significance given to his idea of ‘running away’ to Sally’s school, Bobby still hasn’t been given anything approaching a personality – and that I will chalk up to bad writing, I’m afraid. There’s some mileage in plots involving him, but he’s been given no more depth than ‘little boy’. No wonder he’s so easy to recast – though Mason Vale Cotton, the fourth Bobby, has at least managed to last three seasons and will presumably see the part through to the end.
The Peggy/Ginsberg plot, despite initially seeming the slimmest of the three, actually turned out to be, for me, the most memorable. Ginsberg’s paranoia since the arrival of the computer was heightened, and at first played very broadly for laughs. There was another amusing 2001 reference as Ginsberg, his ears plugged to escape the monstrous machine’s persistent hum, lip read the sinister-seeming conversation between Cutler and Lou. Or seemed to – his conclusion, that they were both “homos”, seemed wide of the mark.
But telling nonetheless, as was his assertion to Peggy that “that machine makes men do unnatural things!”, shortly before rather desperately trying to have sex with her. Ginsberg’s always been an excitable character, and while Peggy was more than capable of fending him off, that was, in essence, almost a rape. What could have driven this likable nebbish to that kind of mania? Surely not a Luddite fear of technological progress?
Thing is though, the show has many times hinted that Ginsberg might be gay, and quite possibly unaware of it. It’s not just that he’s a virgin and a total failure with women; that whole scene with Bob Benson last season was freighted with homoerotic subtext. And now here he is, making a demented attempt to have sex with a woman while asserting that the computer, which makes men do “unnatural things”, is giving him erotic feelings for Stan Rizzo.
So it seemed to me to be a blackly comic depiction of the poor guy’s sanity-cracking inability to deal with who he is; not unlikely, given his 60s Brooklyn upbringing. It was surely significant that the only word he’s ever used for homosexuals was the derogatory “homos”, however liberal he is in other ways. The comedy was still there as this plot went on, but it turned blacker and blacker. At the point where a preternaturally calm Ginsberg was handing the horrified Peggy his own severed nipple in a box, the only reaction was a mood whiplash gasp of horrified laughter as she gingerly edged out of the office to call ‘the men in the white coats’.
That’s just my reading of course; Mad Men is so opaque that Ginsberg’s breakdown might have been attributable to several different causes. Whichever was the case, the whole thing was affectingly played by Ben Feldman and Elisabeth Moss, Peggy’s horror mingling with pity as he was stretchered out of the office. If this is Michael Ginsberg’s final appearance, then I shall miss him.
Nothing specific this week, but there were references to the culture of rebellious youth that was turning nastier and nastier as the Vietnam conflict continued to tear into American society. Betty’s ill-starred discussion at the dinner party about Nixon ending the war was a reminder of one of the new President’s campaign pledges; in the event it took until 1973 to finally withdraw US troops from the conflict.
Lou Avery, meanwhile, was in one breath admiring of Bob Dylan and in the next contemptuous of “flag burners”, while Henry Francis’ frightfully well-to-do constituents were concerned at their street lighting being vandalised – in Westchester, of all places! Lou also claimed to have worked with the creator of cartoon show Underdog, Chet Stover. Underdog was sponsored by breakfast cereal manufacturer General Mills. Also in pop culture, the Creatives’ contemptuous dismissal of Lou’s (actually quite well-drawn) cartoon compared him to Mort Drucker, one of my favourite cartoonists on Mad magazine.
Some nice late 60s autos to be seen behind Stephanie in the LA streets – not sure of the makes and models though, so suggestions gratefully accepted!
Dedicated Followers of Fashion
In an episode full of things that felt a bit… ‘off’, perhaps the most disturbing was that Harry Crane was one of the more sensibly dressed people to be seen this week. That’s all relative, of course – only in 1969 LA could an orange sport coat with cravat be considered ‘restrained’.
As if to underline his habitual obsolescence (and make him stand out like a sore thumb), Don was back to the old standby of the Eye-Burningly Hideous Checked Sport Coat for Megan’s party, though he did concede to the California weather with a pair of shorts the next morning.
Megan, meanwhile, looked as great as ever, even sporting a dress seemingly modelled after a lava lamp. She certainly looked better than her dance partner, the knight in shining denim.
But this week’s Bad Fashion Choice award must surely go to this conspicuous extra, clad in the most stereotypical of late 60s fashion you could possibly imagine.
A slightly jarring episode then, with characters often acting either out of character, or at least, in ways we couldn’t have anticipated given our prior knowledge, Of course it was all beautifully performed as ever, and I still assume the seeming oddness was a deliberate choice (though the vacuum of Bobby Draper’s personality can’t be anything other than perfunctory writing). Only two more eps to go of the first half of the final season – will the ever self-destructive Don Draper’s audacious schemes lead him to victory over his former colleagues, or will he meet his Waterloo?