Mad Men: Season 6, Episode 3 – Collaborators

“Now I understand. You want to feel shitty – right up to the point where I take your dress off.”

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Never a show with a straightforward approach to dialogue or characterisation, Mad Men this week took its usual obfuscation of motive and events to new heights, in an episode directed by Don Draper himself, Jon Hamm. The ep was ostensibly another of those juxtapositions between Don and Don-wannabe Pete Campbell, showing their failings both professionally and socially. But, even more than usual, grasping what was truly going on relied on interpreting the Unsaid as much as the said.

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Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 8–Lady Lazarus

“It’s so simple when it’s someone else’s life, isn’t it?”

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In a week when I’ve failed to get an interview for a job I’ve actually done before, Mad Men’s existential angst, and particularly Don Draper’s increasingly obvious obsolescence, seemed particularly redolent for me. This week’s was a somewhat lighter affair than the sturm und drang of recent episodes, with a less compressed timescale and focus; more , in fact, like the high quality soap opera it really is. But even a comparatively frothy episode like this one, written by series creator Matthew Weiner, had plenty of moments of acute and often painful character observation.

We got to see more of the Don/Megan dynamic this week, a recurring motif this season as Don looks increasingly antediluvian next to his young, with-it new wife. Trying to find some music for a Chevalier Blanc ad campaign that would satisfy the clients, Don was baffled by the trendy stylings of the Beatles: “When did music get so important?” He had, in fact, no grasp of contemporary music at all, and it’s telling that for anything ‘new’ he has a default plan – “I’ll ask Megan, she’ll know.”

But Megan, it turned out, was less than happy with her new role as cultural zeitgeist barometer for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. She may be a talented copywriter, but she doesn’t like the job. She thinks, in fact, that it’s pretty worthless in the overall scheme of things, and has been secretly going back to her original ambition – acting. This became clear after she spun two separate lies to first Peggy then Don, to cover her attendance at an audition.

The tenacious Peggy was the first to find out the truth, in a scene where Elisabeth Moss made her seem terribly fierce. Dragging the facts out of Megan in the women’s bathroom, Peggy was shocked that Mrs Draper would want to do anything else than copywriting. It’s an interesting insight into Peggy’s character, and one that came up previously in her late night chat with Dawn; having struggled so hard to get where she is, she makes the erroneous assumption that every woman wants the same thing. It’s almost a distillation of some of feminism’s more tyrannical directives, that a woman can’t be happy unless she’s struggling to be where a man is. Thankfully, I think feminism has more or less moved on from that kind of assumption these days, but then, Peggy’s in 1966.

So naturally, Peggy was furious that Megan would so carelessly toss away a career that she herself has struggled to achieve for years. It made for an uncharacteristically bitchy relationship between the two, though in truth that’s been brewing since Megan so effortlessly snagged the Heinz account. It seems, basically, to be jealousy of someone who got such an easy break into the business and then has the affront to be genuinely good at it. Can it be that Peggy too is beginning to feel the bite of younger people snapping at her heels?

If we once thought Peggy might be a bright future for the agency, Pete Campbell always looked like the promise of a dark dystopia. Thankfully, his general ineptitude made him seem less of a threat. So it proved again this week, as he embarked on what, for most characters, would be a torrid and scandalous romance with the wife of his philandering morning train buddy.

But this is Pete, and Don Draper-style affairs never work out for him unless he pays for them. Hence, after one night of torrid passion, his incessant badgering of the oddly philosophical Beth seemed to totally put her off. She didn’t want to talk to him on the phone, she was totally freaked out when he turned up at her house with her husband on a totally contrived pretext, and she failed to show up at the illicit tryst Pete organised, leaving him once again fuming at his lack of success. But as the episode ended, with the two of them leaving the station in separate cars, she drew a little heart at him in the window mist. Might he not have failed as utterly as usual? One crumb of comfort – at least he’s finally passed his driving test, though he appears not to know what a Stop sign means.

Don, meanwhile, spent the first half of the episode in blissful ignorance of his wife’s impending career crisis. When she finally told him, he spent the rest of the episode in denial about it, pretending everything was fine. And yet it clearly wasn’t; Don’s never seemed so ill at ease than when discussing Megan’s departure with Joan, who seems to be becoming the office Wise Woman (if she wasn’t already). As if his discomfiture wasn’t enough, he had the misfortune to almost stumble into a massive Existential Metaphor, as his call to the elevator resulted in the doors opening on the yawning chasm of the empty shaft. Even Don seemed to recognise the enormous significance of… whatever this represented, looking as disturbed as a character in a particularly traumatic Twilight Zone.

Don being Don, all this pent up emotion had to result in an explosion at a not entirely appropriate moment. And so it proved, as Peggy, substituting for the now-absent Megan in a pitch to Cool Whip, flubbed the crucial line that was meant to be the big ad hook, and Don blew up in her face in front of several General Foods employees. But Peggy’s going from strength to strength these days, and she gave as good as she got, telling him that it wasn’t her he was angry with (as was obvious to everyone but Don). Don, in return, told Peggy a few hard truths – Megan left not because she disliked the job but because she disliked the kind of people that did it. People like Peggy. It was a heavy scene masterfully topped off with a genuine belly laugh, as the GF employee sternly told a visibly astonished Don something I don’t think he’s ever hear before: “I’m sorry, you can’t smoke in here.”

Actually there were quite a few laughs this week, reflecting a script that was as frothy (and yet tellingly artificial) as Cool Whip. Roger, often the source of much of the show’s humour, wasn’t around much this week, but his old rivalry with Pete surfaced as he presented the younger man with a complimentary set of skis from a client. “Are they going to explode?” Pete enquired nervously, making me laugh so hard I almost spilled my tea. Still, beware Roger bearing gifts; who knows what his motive is there? Later, bugged by Don’s incessant calls to the office where she was working late, Peggy made the unfathomable decision to pretend to be a wrong number: “Pizza house!” (yelped in an unidentifiable accent).

And to top things off, after a couple of weeks’ absence, the eye-burningly hideous checked sports coats were back in evidence, courtesy of Stan and Ginsberg, who seem to have affirmed their acceptability as office wear at SCDP:

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However, even they couldn’t compete with a new style of hideous sports coat, as worn by the flamingly gay member of the Chevalier Blanc group, which seemed to be made out of a deckchair:

MadMenRick

I guess the Summer of Love is almost upon the denizens of SCDP – as was made abundantly clear by a final montage of the gang’s angst, soundtracked by the Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. As with the recent use of ‘Time is on My Side’, a perfectly apposite choice, and one flecked with irony; earlier,  Don had been discussing how the Beatles never allowed ads (or TV shows) to use their work. Which used to be true. And this week’s episode of the TV show Mad Men ended with a Beatles song. For an episode so heavily freighted with philosophy and symbolism, that was so meta it was perfect.

Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 5 – Signal 30

“Things seem so… random, all of a sudden. And time feels like it’s speeding up.”

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Poor old Pete Campbell. It’s easy to dislike the obnoxious little toe rag – and kudos to the likeable Vincent Kartheiser for achieving that – but you can’t help feeling sorry for him. Maybe it’s karma, but nothing, absolutely nothing in his life ever works out the way he wants it to – chiefly, of course, his rather sad desire to be just like Don. Pete was front and centre in this episode – shamefacedly attending a stereotypically gruesome Driver’s Ed film at the opening, perhaps feeling like getting his drivers license would make him feel more of a man; and crying in a lift before crawling into bed with his unsatisfying wife at the end. In between, as usual, Pete’s life was a symphony of chaos as he tried and failed to be more of ‘a man’ than he is.

Not that it was all about Pete, though we’ll come back to his catalogue of disasters in a while. Like last week, the episode kept a focus on just a few of the characters, and what they had in common; their jobs and their seemingly empty marriages.If last week’s theme was The Long Dark Night Of The Soul, this week’s was Great Men (and Pete) And Their Wives. As Rod Serling might have put it, “Picture a series of hollow men… their lives unfulfilled at home, seeking empty solace in their work. Portraits of marriages on their way to Signal 30… in The Twilight Zone.”

The marriages in question were those of Pete, Don, Lane, Ken (nice to see him getting something to do again) and even, tangentially, Roger. Along the way, we learned some surprising things about a few of them, impressive for characters we thought we’d known for nearly five years. Ken, it turns out, has been quietly keeping up with his stories and making a bit of a (false) name for himself as a writer of pulp sci fi (hence the Twilight Zone reference). Now a publisher wants to collect twenty of his stories into an anthology, something he’d rather keep quiet.

Unfortunately for him, his proud but unthinking wife Cynthia had to go and blurt it out in front of Don and Pete at an uncomfortable soiree in Pete’s suburban home. And when Roger hears about it, he’s none too pleased about one of his best men moonlighting. After all, for Roger, the job is enough; but as Don tells Pete later, “Roger’s unhappy. You’re not.”

Still, Ken’s marriage to Cynthia seems pleasant enough compared to the hidden emptiness his coworkers are feeling. We know about Don, of course; yet again here, he seemed like yesterday’s man in his relationship with Megan. She wants to go out and have fun with their (read, “her”) friends; he wants, as he admits in a drunken moment of honesty, to “have babies”, something she’s plainly not ready for.

Lane, on the other hand, was finally letting his rather stereotypical English reserve slip to reveal the bottled up passion underneath. It started as he unwillingly let his wife drag him to a Manhattan ‘English pub’ to watch the 1966 World Cup Final (historical references abounded this week). Presently, we were subjected to the rather astonishing sight of Lane, roaringly drunk, cheering the winning England team and slurring his way through “God Save the Queen”.

Bizarre enough, but more was to come, as we saw Lane attempting to woo (in a business sense) the CEO of Jaguar US, who’d offered to bring his business to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. I must confess, as an Englishman used to seeing American TV misconceptions of my culture, I was watching all of these scenes like a hawk, just waiting for the usual slips in dialogue or setting. But no, all was pretty accurate, as you’d expect from a show as meticulous about its detail as Mad Men. The pie and mushy peas in the pub looked real enough, the English accents sounded real, and even Lane’s statement about Jaguar’s imminent merger with the British Motor Corporation was spot on. Well done, Mr Weiner!

Lane’s unexpected snagging of a major advertising account threaded through the episode, entwining the scripts’ examination of our heroes’ professional lives. Roger in particular got a great scene in which we were reminded that he’s far more than a boorish, drunken buffoon; he’s actually a master at his work. The scene in which he educated Lane about his technique of faking drunkenness and using psychological tactics to win over clients showed why he’s a partner in the agency, and revealed him to be far more clever and subtle than we’ve seen of late. Intriguing that this should come up in an episode directed by John Slattery, the man whose portrayal of Roger makes him quite my favourite character.

The other side of the story, our heroes’ marriages, was encapsulated in the centrepiece of the episode, a magnificently strained social evening at Pete and Trudi’s Cos Cob home as he tried vainly to demonstrate to Don and Ken (his former rival) that he was “the man with everything”.The infighting for the position of alpha male began almost immediately, with Pete vainly trying the tactic of showing off his giant radiogram: “It’s like having a miniature orchestra”. Then Don turned up, and it became a contest for who could wear the most eye-burningly hideous checked sport coat (another continuing theme this year):

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Plainly, Don won that one.

Amusingly, neither Don nor Megan could remember the name of Ken’s wife (causing a laugh out loud moment as she realised and involuntarily exclaimed “Cynthia!”). But Trudi was at her most charming, despite Pete’s drunkenly obnoxious ‘gracious host’ turn. Conversation at the dinner table took a gruesome turn as Pete took some relish in discussing Texas sniper Charles Whitman’s university tower shootings.

Then Ken unwillingly told a story that seemed (in a way that wasn’t entirely clear) to sum up the episode’s themes with a sci fi story: ‘The Punishment of X-4’, about a powerless robot whose only means of asserting himself was to remove a vital bolt in a bridge, killing everyone on it. The conversation turned wistful as all discussed what they’d wanted to be whn they grew up, a theme of missed opportunity that also suffused the episode. As Don said, “No one grows up wanting to be an advertiser”. It was a theme we’d return to later.

But the musing didn’t last long, as Pete’s first setback of the episode commenced. His surprising success at mending a leaky tap earlier turned inevitably to humiliation as it burst all over the kitchen, leaving (inevitably, again) the ever-manly Don to do the manly thing that Pete just couldn’t. Ken’s obviously not so worried; he just stood and smirked.

But it was the first in a long line of humiliations for Pete this week, as the script seemed determined to compress all his usual bad luck into a much shorter (and blackly funny) timeframe. His American Beauty-style fixation with a high school girl at his Driver’s Ed class seemed to be going so well… But things don’t go well for Pete, and he was left seething as she spurned him for a beefy high school jock with the all-too-accurate nickname ‘handsome’.

Later, as our heroes helped out with Lane’s recalcitrant Jaguar client, they found themselves in a high class brothel (typically, taken there by Roger), and we got an inkling of what’s really seething in Pete’s rancid little core. Humiliated once again by a prostitute’s faint praise of his biceps, he waited wearily while she tried various turn on techniques; the only one to which he eventually responded was, “you’re my king”.

There’s something desperately sad about Pete and his desire to be, basically, Don Draper; which was reiterated as he turned on a reproachful Don in the taxi home reminding Don of his own former infidelities. And unsurprisingly, given his growing guilt, Don was quick to agree, stating that he’d had everything (like Pete) and let it slip through his fingers. Together with his mellowing towards his ex-wife, this made it clear that he’s more than aware where he went wrong.

But fate (and the scriptwriter’s cruel word processor) hadn’t finished with Pete yet. It turned out that the brothel trip had cost them the Jaguar account; the CEO’s wife had found chewing gum “on his pubis”. Even Pete found that pretty funny, but Lane didn’t, leading to a slanging match (“all the hours I’ve spent on you to make you the monster you are”) and the surprising development of Lane challenging Pete to a fistfight.

Lane might be a steely businessman, but we’ve never had the impression that he was in any way physically tough. Clearly neither did Pete, who ended up on the floor with a bloody nose and a face full of bruises. It was an uncomfortable but irresistibly funny scene; I was with Roger when he commented, “I know cooler heads should prevail, but I really want to see this.”

While Lane celebrated his manliness with an embarrassing attempt to kiss Joan (and thank God she’s back at the office), Pete was reduced to sobbing in the lift. “I have nothing,” he wept at an embarrassed-looking Don. The irony being, of course, that it’s only true because he thinks so. He was summed up by Ken, off screen, narrating a story called ‘The Man with the Miniature Orchestra’, and sounding uncannily like Rod Serling.

This was a blackly brilliant episode. Less dark and intense than last week, it managed to interweave theme, character, and plot in some moments of desperate sadness and laugh-out-loud comedy. Particularly, it was nice to have some focus on Jared Harris as the prissy Lane, and Aaron Staton as the impossible to dislike Ken Cosgrove – the very antithesis of Pete Campbell.

If I have any complaints, it’s just that two episodes in a row with such a narrow character focus felt like the wider ensemble of the show was being neglected somewhat. Still, if Matthew Weiner keeps taking this approach, he could end up with, week by week, some acutely observed character pieces about everyone at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. My only request – please, more focus on Roger, and what’s happening with him and Joan.

Mad Men: Season 5, Episodes 1 & 2–A Little Kiss

“Something always happens. Things are different.”

Mad Men (Season 5)

 

Rejoice, for finally Mad Men is back! After 17 months of alleged behind the scenes wrangling at AMC TV, thankfully everything was settled in terms of writers, producers, cast and budget (that latter at the expense of The Walking Dead, reportedly). The men and women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce showed up for business on Sunday night in the US, and straight away we were immersed in the show’s trademark subtle vision of the 60s.

So subtle in fact that, as usual, I couldn’t immediately tell what year they’d moved on to this time. Mad Men is like that; it doesn’t do exposition. You have to work at it as a viewer, because none of the answers are spelled out in dialogue. This is never more true than in a season premiere, where the timescale between seasons can range from months to years, with the concomitant change in the characters’ circumstances. Part of the fun is working it out, and the show doesn’t give an inch. After all, why have a line of dialogue when meaning can be conveyed by Don Draper staring moodily into the middle distance through a haze of cigarette smoke?

Anyway, it’s 1966 (I eventually discovered), and I guess it’s about nine months after the end of the previous season. I know this because Joan has actually gone ahead and had the baby fathered by Roger after their illicit post-mugging liaison in an alley. As she was a couple of months pregnant last time, and her baby looks a couple of months old here, I think an intervening time of about 9 months is the right area.

Thankfully Don has moved on from the dark place in which he spent most of last season, when he lived in a tiny apartment and struggled with depression and alcoholism. Initially he seemed quite happy with new French-Canadian wife Megan, who seemed to have an inhuman level of tolerance with his grumpiness. Said grumpiness was brought on by her staging of a surprise birthday party for his fortieth in their swanky new pad, a surprise that was (typically) blown by Roger turning up with a bottle of champagne just as Don and Megan reached their door.

This season premiere was basically two episodes glued together, and the first concerned itself largely with the party. Don doesn’t like birthdays; he never celebrated them when he was Dick Whitman and he doesn’t want to now. Megan can’t grasp that, and Don ends up fidgeting uncomfortably through what looks like rather a good party.

As the centrepiece of the episode, the party was staged very well. All the major characters were there, together with a lot of young people who were presumably friends of Megan’s. Straight away, Don’s obvious discomfort pointed up what his problem was – he’s getting old. Or at least he feels he is, particularly when surrounded by modern, with-it people almost twenty years his junior, like his new wife. I think this is a theme we’re going to be returning to quite a bit this year.

Meanwhile, we got a flavour of the times as people at the party discussed current events, a good way of setting the scene. Vietnam is just getting into full swing, and already Bert Cooper and Peggy’s beatnik boyfriend Abe are discussing it as an unnecessary war run for profit which maims and kills young men (much to the discomfort of the young sailor standing next to them; “I thought there’d be women here,” he muttered).

Vietnam is presumably going to be a recurring theme this year. Joan’s abusive doctor husband is at Fort Dixie, presumably about to be transferred there. As a result, an unusually flustered Joan is being helped by her acid-tongued mother with caring for the baby. Their bitchy bickering is hugely entertaining, and hopefully we’ll see more of her.

Joan is actually stuck there with no certain knowledge she can go back to her job, as the limited women’s rights of the 60s didn’t include maternity leave. Indeed, the challenge for women’s rights was implicit throughout, catching up with the struggle Peggy’s had since the outset of the show. Don still expects his new young wife to be obedient and submissive, which she’s having none of. He’s plainly forgotten that attitude was instrumental in losing him his last wife (well, that and the constant infidelity and lying). And Joan’s mother is startled that Joan might defy her husband and return to work rather than care for her child full time. Peggy might have got in early, but by 1966 Women’s Lib was getting into full swing, and I imagine it’s a theme the show will return to frequently.

I suspect another driving theme of the times is going to be the Civil Rights movement. We were plunged into this straight away, as some foolish young execs from rival ad firm Y & R got into racial trouble by water bombing a protest march from their office window. This led to an amusing sniping war, as Roger took out a gloating ad for SCDP in the paper calling them an “equal opportunity” firm. The joke backfired towards the end of the episode, as it had been misinterpreted as a vacancy ad, and suddenly the all-white Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was besieged with eager black job applicants. “Why is the office full of Negroes?” enquired a flustered Roger.

Indeed, Roger’s racial attitude summed up the time period. When it was suggested they take one of the black girls on as a receptionist, he snapped, “we don’t want one of them out there!” The all-pervading racism of the 60s has been an ongoing subtle theme in the series, and it looks like this year it’s going to be pushed more to the front. It even hangs over little moments; why else would Lane, having discovered a lost wallet in a taxi, not trust the (black) driver to return it to its owner?

The wallet, in fact, led to another amusing subplot that may or may not be continued. Discovering a picture of a beautiful young lady in it, Lane called her to enquire about returning the wallet (which belonged to her boyfriend), and ended up flirting outrageously with her on the phone. It was a funny scene, well-played by Jared Harris. But it might spin out into something more serious. Plainly Lane’s marriage is not going that well; beneath their English reserve, you can tell that neither he nor his wife are happy. He was disappointed when it was the wallet’s owner who turned up at the office to collect it rather than the beautiful Dolores. But since the wallet’s owner had an Italian surname and was almost a stereotypical Mob hood, Lane may be getting himself into trouble if he goes after Dolores.

Elsewhere, the ever-uptight Pete is as unhappy as ever, and the script chose to emphasise that he has dandruff and is starting to go bald. I’m glad the dialogue spelled that one out, as actor Vincent Kartheiser seems to have a perfectly full head of hair. But he was as excellent as ever as the perpetually unsuccessful Pete, whose rivalry with Roger has been stepped up a notch for some more humorous scenes. Roger has taken to sneaking glances at his calendar to steal his leads; so Pete responds by setting up a fake meeting with a big client at 6am, which Roger gullibly goes off to.

Harry Crane is unhappy too, having expressed his lust for Don’s wife while the lady was actually standing right behind him. This led to one of the funniest scenes in the episode, as Harry was carpeted by Roger and immediately assumed he was being fired for the incident. But all Roger wanted to do was convince him to trade offices with Pete, whose tiny cupboard of an office had a big post in the middle of it that Pete managed to walk into hard enough to make his nose bleed. Pete had made a fuss about wanting a better office, but he was still furious; as Roger had correctly worked out, it was Roger’s office he really wanted.

All this, as usual, moved at a pretty leisurely pace. In terms of actual plot, not a great deal happened. But then, in Mad Men, plot has a way of creeping up on you incrementally. At the end of the day, even with a period setting, it’s basically a very classy soap opera, which depends on you being invested with the fates of its characters. This opening instalment set out its stall very well for the coming year in that regard. Interestingly, while watching I tried to imagine what it would be like if this was the first episode I’d seen, with no knowledge of the characters’ tortuous back stories. And I was surprised to decide that it was actually still just as accessible as a jumping in point. Only the business about Don’s former identity, knowledge of which he’s entrusted to his new wife, might have confused fresh viewers.

Again as usual, it looked great; it’s almost worth the frustration of The Walking Dead being stuck on a farm all year to justify the expense in bringing this to the screen. Don and Megan’s new apartment is the height of 60s chic (though its white carpet can’t stand up to an eventful birthday party). The clothes, too, are as well observed as ever. Don, Roger and the old guard remain as impeccably suited as ever, but the younger guys are wearing casual clothes in the office; and Pete turns up at Don’s party sporting a jacket that’s surely a crime against the eyes of humanity.

Pete's Jacket

So, the stage is set. We know where most of the characters are, and where they’re trying to go. No sign of Don’s cold ex-wife Betty yet, but I’m guessing she’ll show up next week. On the evidence of this opener, it was worth the 17 month wait to have the show back. Creator Matthew Weiner’s writing is as sharp, subtle and humorous as ever, and the top notch cast are still superb at the subtle acting style the show demands (though my absolute favourite is John Slattery as Roger, who’s often far from subtle). Over the next few months, I’m fully expecting Mad Men to be as compelling a drama as it always has been.