“You really want to help me? Show me how you think.”
I always know I’m in for a treat when Mad Men’s opening credits include the words “written by Semi Chellas”. Chellas, for my money is one of the best writers working on the show. She it was who (along with Weiner) wrote the storming season 5 ep The Other Woman, which showed us Joan’s heartbreaking decision to compromise her integrity for career advancement; I still rate that as one of the best single eps the show has ever done.
This week’s didn’t have quite the same stunning dramatic heft, but was still an excellent piece of drama, which could almost have worked as self-contained rather than part of a serial. It didn’t focus so heavily on one single plotline as The Other Woman did (though Joan certainly featured prominently), but did draw some interesting dramatic parallels between various of the characters who no longer live in New York and were returning for a visit. These were Megan Draper, Pete Campbell, and (finally!) SC&P’s rising star Bob Benson. All dropped into an office that was profoundly different from when they’d last seen it, and (this being Mad Men) none of them left happier for the experience.
After some weeks of the show focusing very heavily on Don, this week he was a more minor player; though he was vital in driving forward the arcs of the characters the ep did focus on. Megan’s return to New York, and her brief stop at the SC&P office, was actually one of the slighter plotlines this week. It was amusing to see her confusion at Don’s new, less impressive office, but the dilemma presented for her was primarily to do with missing NYC, and perhaps Don. This being Mad Men, she didn’t come out and say it, dithering instead about packing a mountain of clothes because “I miss my stuff”.
Don himself was more obviously pining for her, the sight of her on the penthouse balcony enough to make him deploy a wistful gaze into the middle distance. But he functioned more effectively as a driver for the other plots. Both Pete and Peggy were, in different ways, struggling with the new Burger Chef account, and for both, Don was a key factor in getting it right.
It was another demonstration of Pete’s general uselessness at office politics that he not only didn’t know about Don’s current precarious situation at the company, but also failed to notice the conspicuously awkward silences when he cheerily insisted that Don should do the pitch. But then, Pete has never been that good at picking up social signals. His profoundly awkward visit to his former home in Cos Cob was up there with Alan Partridge for the cringeworthy factor. Not only does his daughter barely remember him (and looked visibly afraid of him), but he didn’t even pick up on the none too subtle fact that Trudie was nowhere to be seen.
I was glad that Trudie did put in an appearance finally, as I think Alison Brie is fantastic in the part (plus with Community now cancelled, where else am I gonna get to see her?). Pete’s jaw-dropping hypocrisy in accusing her of promiscuity was one of the ep’s more blackly funny moments, along with his childishly petty gesture of ruining her freshly-baked cake. He’s got a long way to go to match up to Don if that’s the best he can come up with to hurt his nearest and dearest. Though neglect is a closer approximation, and the angry Bonnie’s retort, “you can’t fuck your way out of this one” sums up the Draper approach perfectly. I think it may be the first time I’ve ever heard the word “fuck” used in the show, interestingly.
Even though Pete is insufferably arrogant, his constant bad luck in life, and his bafflement at failing to realise much of it is his fault, make him one of the show’s more entertaining characters. While he’s been fun in the California sun, it was good to see Vincent Kartheiser back to working with the rest of the cast.
Presumably his return also triggered certain feelings in Peggy, who got a welcome leading role this week. As ever, much was left unsaid, but much of what she did say was freighted with a subtext clearly relating to her still-secret bearing of Pete’s child (as I recall, only Pete himself has been told, and he didn’t seem to accord it that much significance). The proposed Burger Chef strategy, focusing so heavily on the nuclear family in general and the mother in particular, proved fertile ground or this sort of thing. At one point Peggy told Don, “you’re surrounded by all kinds of mothers who work”; the significance may have been lost on him, but it was certainly clear to the viewer.
Pete’s insistence on Don pitching Peggy’s idea was obviously a blow to her professional confidence, which was further weakened by Don’s seemingly offhand remark that he’d been “noodling around” with some other ideas. Of course that was going to unsettle Peggy; no matter how much resentment she bears towards Don, his ability as an ad man has never been in doubt. He even hung a lampshade on the tropes of the show when asked about his method – “first I abuse the people whose help I need. Then I take a nap”.
The idea that there was a “better way” wormed its way into Peggy’s head and wouldn’t leave, which presumably was Don’s intention. The question is, was he doing it out of genuine altruism, to help his former protégé, or in the hope of rebuilding his own standing within SC&P? Or perhaps both? Mad Men episode titles usually have multiple meanings beyond the obvious; perhaps his was just another ‘strategy’ on display this week. Either way, Peggy seems reconciled with him, after another of their trademark soul-baring creative meetings ended with both gently dancing to Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ – surely a significant choice of music.
This week also gave us the opportunity to ask, perhaps for the last time:
Where’s Bob Benson?
Right back in NYC at last, descending from Detroit with some interesting execs from Chevy in tow. Bob’s such an interesting character because it’s been so hard to get a handle on him – so much of what he says about himself is fabrication, it’s hard to sort the lies from the truth. His encounters with both Pete and Ginsberg last season made it fairly clear he was gay, but I wouldn’t have wanted to definitively state even that about this slippery operator.
This week, though, left that in no doubt, though it’s to Chellas’ credit that it took a while before I was as certain as it turned out Joan had always been. Bailing out the beaten up Chevy exec who made the novice mistake of proposing fellatio to an undercover cop, Bob’s preference seemed known to him; until Bob curtly retorted, “I’m not of your stripe.” Even that could be interpreted in two ways though – did he mean “not gay” or “not stupid enough to go cottaging in Manhattan lavatories”.
It was doubly confusing when he virtually proposed to his old friend Joan – only to give the ep’s most dramatic reveal as she responded, “Bob, you shouldn’t be with a woman”. It was a reminder for those of us who are gay just how far we’ve come, from having to live a lie with an unhappy wife for appearances’ sake and being miserable. At least Joan wasn’t prepared to compromise, and her speech was one of the most moving of the ep: “I want love. And I’d rather die hoping that happens than make some … arrangement.” Doubly resonant after the events of The Other Woman, it was another ‘strategy’ on display, but Bob may have hope dawning though – with this ep set in June 1969, the Stonewall Riots are just around the corner.
Nothing specific again this week, but some nuggets of pop culture. The neglected Bonnie had tickets to see controversial off-Broadway revue Oh! Calcutta!, which shocked the theatrical establishment of the time with its frank discussions of sex and onstage nudity from the cast. Needless to say, it became wildly popular.
Don had also been catching up with sexual liberation in the arts; he’s been to see Swedish art movie I am Curious (Yellow). Filmed in 1967 but released in the US in 1969, this was an experimental piece that broke new grounds in cinematic depictions of nudity and sex, to the extent that the state of Massachusetts actually banned it. Needless to say, it became wildly popular.
At least Frank Sinatra steered clear of breaking sexual taboos in his art (in his personal life, though…). His version of hybrid French melody / English lyrics classic ’My Way’ was a massive hit that summer of 1969, and went on to become probably his most famous song. Old Blue Eyes was reportedly none too pleased about that.
Just one car on display this week – a 68/69 Buick Sport Wagon station wagon, with the distinctive skylight over the back seats it shared with the Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser. Perhaps it was a foreshadowing of Bob’s revelation that SC&P were about to lose the Chevy account but gain the Buick one. It also had the Burger Chef sign reflected in the windshield – just as Peggy specified later for the proposed TV spot.
Dedicated Followers of Fashion
Not too many sartorial horrors this week, not even from Harry Crane, who seems to have toned down his style a notch or two. Pete, however, still can’t give up the Eye-Burningly Hideous Checked Sport Coat. He wasn’t the only one; Don’s was thankfully more muted, but Bob Benson’s must win the ‘Most Hideously Garish’ award:
Megan Draper, meanwhile, was wearing a purple woollen thingy that had more than a passing resemblance to a string vest. As ever, Jessica Pare made it look fantastic:
And top marks to Roger Sterling, for still looking cool wearing nothing but a towel. I think I may be getting a bit of a thing for John Slattery:
Even by Mad Men standards, this was an excellent episode, as I expected from Semi Chellas. All the characters concerned got plots laden with subtext, but I particularly enjoyed Don’s subtle advantage-taking, Bob Benson’s wretched plight and Joan’s heartfelt response to it. Peggy’s final strategy for Burger Chef – “”What if there was a place you could go where there was not TV? Where you could sit, and break bread, and everyone around you was family?” – perfectly encapsulated the show’s ongoing theme of the end of a way of life that may never have existed outside the imagination of advertising copywriters.
The theme was summed up with a perfect conclusion as director Phil Abraham pulled off a magnificent slow reverse zoom from Pete, Peggy and Don in a Burger Chef – just like a family – to show the whole late 60s vista of the restaurant just as an advertisement might. An excellent visual touch to conclude another great script from Semi Chellas.